The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I like to ask my students if they know the difference between a good move and a great move. The correct answer is; good moves are good but great moves win games. Of course, bad moves are those moves that cost you the game. How about ugly moves? Ugly moves can either be bad moves that are really bad but, on occasion, are moves that produce surprising results (traps and tricks). The point here is that each move you make within a game of chess can determine the outcome of the game early on, even before the first attack is launched. Therefore, you should consider each move very carefully and never dismiss a bad or ugly move as bad or ugly) until you’ve examined it.

Carefully considering your moves isn’t rocket science and doing so will likely do more for your game than anything else. Of course, the beginner might say “with all the possible moves you can make in any given position and the fact that I am a beginner, how can I possibly find a great move let alone a good one?” Fortunately, the beginner has a weapon at his or her disposal, one employed by the world’s top players. That weapon is principled play.

Principled play envolves employment of the game’s proven principles when considering any move. When the beginner seriously studies chess, they learn specific principles for each phase of the game (opening, middle and endgame). These principles have been tested over hundreds of years of play and have been proven to be sound. Take the opening principles, for example. Beginners should always consider the “big three” as I call them, controlling the center of the board with a pawn or two from the start, developing one’s minor pieces towards the central squares and castling. I’ve seen so many beginners move their pawns and pieces in a very random or disconnected way at the start of the game. I say disconnected, because your pawns and pieces should be coordinated from move one. Pawns and pieces must work together, in positional harmony from the game’s start, otherwise you’ll never achieve control of the board.

Principles are the beginners lighthouse, providing a guiding light when the seas of an unknown position become dark and dangerous. When faced with a given position in which the opposition’s plan isn’t clear, it is difficult to know how to react. However, in the case of the opening, you can’t go wrong (in most cases) with the active development of your pawns and pieces. Remember, the name of the game during the opening is to control the center of the board. Only after you gain a foothold in the center should you think about possible attacks.

During the opening, a beginner following sound opening principles will be making decent if not good moves. He or she should aim for great moves later on in their chess careers, when they develop some skills, unless the opportunity for checkmate suddenly appears which would qualify the move delivering mate as great. For now, and I ‘m speaking of the opening still, the beginner should be happy with making good moves that activate the pieces. The beginner should also be on the lookout for ugly opposition moves that might reek havoc for them. Ugly moves can hide a devilish underlying intent. By this, I mean moves that set up opening traps. I’ve mentioned three things you definitely should do during the opening. However, there are things you shouldn’t do and it’s these things that often signal a potential trap being laid. For example, moving the same piece twice or bringing the Queen out early can signal a possible trap. The beginner should look at these moves, especially when made by a player who has some obvious skill at the chessboard and ask the question “why would a good chess player break a principle proven to be sound?” Traps can easily be spotted because the moves required to set the trap sometimes go against principled play. This is what I mean by ugly moves appearing to be seemingly bad but having the potential to produce a brilliant result. It should be noted that you don’t often see highly skill chess players making ugly moves, but when they do, expect some exciting fireworks on the board, fireworks apt to blow your position out of the water!

Great moves take time to spot. I have my beginning students always try to come up with three possible or candidate moves before committing to one. We do this because beginners have a tendency to jump on the first seemingly reasonable move they see. While they might find a good move, they’ll miss out on finding a better move without further inspection and contemplation of the position. Finding anything in the way of decent moves is difficult when you first learn them game because you haven’t developed your pattern recognition skills yet. This is why it’s so important to use the games principles as a guide. Great moves are often the result of a combination of moves and beginners have trouble creating combinations when they first start playing. Beginners should aim for finding good moves first.

This is why trying to come up with three candidate moves before committing to one is crucial. When looking for multiple moves, you’re forced to really examine the entire board, considering not only your pawns and pieces but those of your opponent. Board vision, seeing everything on the board, assessing opposition threat values, etc., is a skill you need to develop over time. Beginners tend to look at a position and focus on the immediately noticeable action, such as the pieces surrounding the central squares going into the middle-game. They miss opposition pieces sitting out of their centered line of sight and it’s those pieces that can end up doing a great deal of damage.

An important idea that every beginner should embrace is the idea that even a slightly bad move (as opposed to an absolutely bad move) can start the downward spiral of a losing game. It’s the snowball effect. If you roll a small snowball from the top of a mountain, it picks up additional snow and speed, becoming bigger and faster until it’s knocking over houses at the mountain’s base. Bad moves have the same effect, making your position become worse and worse. Bad moves have a cumulative effect that leads to loss and should be avoided. Think small advantages rather than big advantages if you cannot seem to find a solid move right away. Never just go for broke. One must think about the repercussions of every move they make in terms of the snowball effect. All it takes is one bad move to ruin a game!

Can beginner’s find great moves? Yes they can but it’s extremely difficult. The way to make finding great moves less difficult is to employ the hardest skill the beginner must learn, patience. Patience means being able to methodically look at a position and consider all the possibilities for both you and your opponent’s pawns and pieces. Patience means taking your time. Fortunately, as your skills on the chessboard grow so does your ability to thoroughly examine a position in less time (while still exercising patience). Use principled play or game principles as your guide. It’s a lot easier to determine a good move when you have a mental checklist (game principles) that defines what a good move idea is for a particular phase of the game. You never see a top player carelessly thrust a pawn or piece into the game, hoping they get lucky. No, they carefully think about potential moves and use principled play to guide them.

Beginner’s shouldn’t worry about finding great moves right away because that comes later with experience at the chessboard. Just look for good moves. As for ugly moves, such as those that set up traps, don’t try to employ them, making chess traps a way of life. See an ugly move for what it may be and refrain from making them yourself. Principled play will always trump the trap, but you should always be on the look out for a trick or trap. To prove my point about principled play, I present a game between two Grandmasters, one of whom ignores using sound principles. You don’t have to think long and hard about who gets punished! Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).