The Great Move

Ask a beginner what they consider to be a great chess move and they’re most likely to tell you that it’s a move that either garners a large material advantage or delivers checkmate. Moves that are tactical in nature, such as forks or skewers, are also considered great moves by the novice player. The beginner thinks in terms of all or nothing moves. Let me give you an analogy: The difference between the professional gambler and the amateur gambler comes down to carefully playing the odds. In blackjack, the professional will not bet his or her entire bank on a single hand because they know there is always a chance the dealer will have a higher count (barring the professional having 21 in his or her hand). Professionals play for the long haul. The amateur, on the other hand, will have 17 in hand and bet the bank. The dealer’s cards add up to 19 and our amateur now has no money. The same idea holds true in beginner’s chess. The novice player will go in for fast all or nothing attacks while the experienced player will build up an attack slowly, garnering small positional advantages that add up to a large advantage later on.

Believe it or not, beginners get this idea from chess teachers and instructional material. It’s not that the chess teacher or DVD is telling students to launch a fast all or nothing attack. Quite the opposite. The problem arises because the student, who is often new to the game, remembers the end result and not the careful positional buildup that produced that end result. The beginner sees the brilliant checkmate, but is too new to the game to understand the moves made to set up that checkmate. To the beginner, the move that delivered mate is remembered as the great move.

When teaching young beginners the game of chess, I have to provide lesson examples that are entertaining. Specific concepts, such as gambits, can best be explained by showing games from the romantic era of chess. These games were often violent clashes that wouldn’t hold sway in today’s modern era of play but they serve as great teaching examples of specific ideas. The problem arises when students start thinking that this is the only way they should play. When a beginner tries to play like Paul Morphy, they fail because they haven’t developed advanced chess skills (yet). They also only see the end result. In Morphy’s Opera House Massacre, beginners see the sacrifice of Morphy’s Queen, which leads to mate on Morphy’s next move, and think, “I’ll sacrifice my Queen at the right moment and win the game.” Well, they sacrifice their Queen and end up losing the Queen and the game. They don’t understand the way in which Morphy got to that point in the game by building up his position. They see the great move, the Queen sacrifice and ignore all the other moves leading up to that point because they weren’t as exciting.

To combat this problem of thinking that great moves are those that are earth shattering, I write a few things down on the blackboard (or dry erase boards as they’re called these days – remember, I went to school at the same time dinosaurs roamed the earth) in large letters right next to my demonstration board. The first thing written is “Small advantages added together create a large advantage.” Under this sentence is written “Spacial advantages win games.”

Of course we all know there’s more to it than just spacial advantages. However, you can’t overwhelm beginners with too much information all at once. Therefore, I decided the best way to steer beginners away from thinking that only big moves win games was to tackle one of the most important concepts regarding gaining an advantage, gaining space. If you gain a spacial advantage, you have more opportunities to control the game and thus win it. First though I redefine the define what a great move is.

I tell my students that a great move is simply one that accomplishes something, such as controlling an important square. Many of my students look at me with disbelief. Because they think of great moves as the single move that turns the tide or wins the game, they can’t fathom the notion of moves accomplishing something other than checkmate as being of any value. Therefore, we look closely at gaining a spacial advantage early in the game. A spacial advantage is absolutely critical in the game’s opening phase.

We’ve all played beginners who move their army towards the edge of the board while we develop soundly towards the center during the opening. Our novice opponent, quickly learns that we have greater control of the board. Control of space, the spacial advantage, is paramount to winning. If you control more of the board, especially the center during the opening, your opponent has fewer options regarding the placement of pawns and pieces. If you controlled every square on the second, third, fourth and fifth ranks, your opponent would have no safe squares on which to place his or her pawns and pieces. You can’t launch an attack if you can’t get your army onto the battlefield.

I teach students the basic opening principles, first controlling the board’s center with a pawn or two. Then they’re taught to move their minor pieces to squares that control the center. I teach beginners to castling their King as soon as possible. However, if their King is in no immediate danger, we hold off on castling and continue gaining a spacial advantage. In the opening, the more squares you control, the more difficult it is for your opponent to bring their own material into the game. To gain an early spacial advantage, you must activate your pawns and pieces. Get all of your minor pieces into the action. Too often, beginners will develop two of their four minor pieces, leaving their undeveloped minor pieces sitting on their starting squares. Move you minors to more active squares, those that control space on the board. After getting your minor pieces out, consider a flank pawn push of one square to keep your opponent from using a bishop to pin your Knight on f3 to your Queen. Use your Rooks. A Rook on f1 or f8, after castling King-side is nowhere near as effective as a Rook on e1 or e8 (especially when there’s an un-castled King on the opposite side of the file.

Slowly move pieces to more active squares. Doing so will strangle the life out of your opponent’s position, again making an attack by them difficult. Students always tell me they can’t find a good move. I look at their board and see a lot of inactive pieces. If you don’t see a move look again because I’m sure you can improve the activity your pawns and pieces. Those stunning or great moves will come to light but only if you set them up and that means building up small advantages. Here’s the Paul Morphy game mentioned earlier in this article to enjoy until next week.

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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).