If there is one thing that beginning students love to do its capturing material! Children who are new to the game can often develop the bad habit of greediness in chess and that’s a hard habit to break. This habit’s roots can be traced to the concept of relative piece value. It’s not the fault of the relative value system but the way in which a child interprets the information. You have to carefully explain how the point system works and its true meaning.
We assign a number from one to nine to each of the pawns and pieces, except the King (who is considered priceless). We call this number the piece’s relative value. The base of this system is the pawn which is worth one point. The Knights and Bishops are worth 3 points each, the Rooks five points each and the Queen nine points. The higher a piece’s numeric value, the more powerful the piece. A Queen can be thought of as worth a Rook plus Bishop and a pawn (or three minor pieces). The reason we have this system of valuation is to help us in situations such as capturing. If we have a pawn and a Rook both attacking a Knight (defended by a pawn), do we use the pawn or Rook for the capture? To experienced players the answer is simple (depending on the position and other factors, but that is a discussion for a later article). However, to the young beginner, the question can be confusing. If we do a little simple arithmetic we see that capturing a three point Knight with a one point pawn makes more sense especially if you’re going to lose the pawn you’re using for the capture. On the classroom chalkboard I’ll write it out in arithmetical terms. The relative value of the pieces makes it easier for beginners to make wise attacking and capturing decisions. It is crucial to explain the point system using examples that stress its use in attacking calculations as opposed to score keeping (which tends to reinforce the “he who has more points wins” way of thinking). However, the problem of “winning by points” still surfaces within the thoughts of many children. “I’m winning because I have more points” will still be heard from young beginners early in their chess careers!
I have heard these words many times from young beginners. It makes sense from their point of view. After all, we’ve assigned a point value to the pawns and pieces. Many children’s games are based on winning as many points as they can so it is understandable that this transfers over to chess. It’s here that I go over the goal of the game, checkmate. You must patiently explain that having more material (more points) does no good if you haven’t checkmated your opponent. You have to go over this a few times with beginners. The point system is there to define pawn and piece value, aiding in the decision making process. This helps players determine the outcome of attacks. You have to keep it simple when teaching beginners and even with a sound explanation of relative pawn and piece value you’ll have to face one more hurdle, material greed.
Even after carefully explaining the reasons for the point system and that checkmate is the game’s goal rather than who has the most points, you still have to address the issue of material greed. Simply put, material greed is the grabbing of material simply because you can. By this point in our lessons we’ve talked about hanging pieces or pieces that can be captured en prise. Before a student captures a seemingly “free” piece, I have them look at the surrounding pawns and pieces to see if there is a possible trap. Traps are very popular at junior level and I try to get my students to be good trap spotters early on. I try to discourage students from using traps because they tend to backfire on students when employed against a stronger player who is “trap smart.” If a piece is hung, I ask my students to answer some further questions. Does taking the piece stop a potential threat? Does capturing that piece improve their attacking or defending position? Finally, will taking that piece cause the capturing piece to stray towards the outer edges of the board? While these questions might seem a bit advanced for young beginners, I’m a firm believer in the development of good chess habits. These questions also have the added effect of developing better board vision since the answers requires looking at the entire board.
When teaching the “downside of greediness,” I provide a few solid game examples including the game shown at the end of this article. We carefully look at what the greedy player gets in return for material gains. One attack extremely popular with young beginners is the white Knight and Bishop attack on the f7. This attack demonstrates one downside of grabbing material. In the simplest version of the attack, white has a pawn on e4, a Knight on f3 and a Bishop on c4. This is the start of the Italian game. This specific opening is often taught to children because it demonstrates the concept of piece coordination, it is easy to learn and flexible in the directions it can take (you can on move four, switch to an Evan’s gambit, etc). Let’s say on move three, the black moves the Kingside Knight to f6 (after 1.e4…e5 2.Nf3…Nc6 3.Bc4). This prevents the black Queen from controlling the g5 square. Often white will play 4.Ng5 because this which creates a two piece attack on the f7 square. The beginner, playing as white, will start to entertain the idea of grabbing the h8 Rook with a Knight fork (attacking black’s Queen and Rook simultaneously) on f7. However, a simple pawn push by black will neutralize the threat (d7-d5). Now white’s Knight is poorly positioned rather than strongly positioned on f3 (within the context of this simple example). Let’s say that black didn’t block the attack with the d pawn, moving it to d6 instead of d5. White might be tempted to move the g5 Knight for a third time to f7. While this will win the h8 Rook, the Knight will have moved four times in order to win the five point piece. The Knight is also now stuck in the corner, away from the center often never to be heard from again! Even with the gain of black’s Kingside Rook, white can fall into trouble quickly as we’re about to see.
Capturing pieces is very enjoyable and exciting. My students always call me over to their boards after a particularly good capture (in their opinion). The first thing I do is look to see if they have correctly answered the questions I asked them to consider earlier. I can usually tell from the position whether or not they have. If they haven’t answered those questions, we’ll watch the drama unfold on the chessboard. Greediness on the chessboard is a tough habit to break for younger students (and a few adults I know). However, with some patient guidance this bad habit can be brought under control. And now let’s look at what happens when a skilled player decides to get greedy!