The Hunter Becomes the Hunted?

Walking around a classroom full of beginning chess players, I was surprised at how many of my students had brought their Queens out onto the board during the opening. In previous weeks we had gone over each chess piece in detail, covering movement and relative value. At the end of our discussion about the Queen, I said (three times) “do not bring your Queen out early because she’ll become a target for your opponent’s pieces and most likely be lost” I even gave a lesson using the game shown below which highlights the perils of early Queen deployment. However, the power of the Queen is so intoxicating to beginning students (especially children) that they ignore my warning and bring her out early. More often than not, students have to learn to restrain the Queen the hard way, by losing her!

When seeing the beginner bring their Queen out early against an opponent who pays close attention to positional details, I warn them again of the folly of pushing their most powerful piece into the game prematurely. This is usually met with the blanket statement “don’t worry its all part of my plan.” Rather than give an additional lengthy explanation regarding the peril of such a position, I let the game play out. Why? Because the lessons that stay with us the most are the ones we learn the hard way, the lessons we learn from our losses. In the overwhelming majority of beginner’s games, the Queen is lost early if it is brought out during the first few moves. Is bringing the Queen out early always a mistake? No, because many junior level games have been won by doing so. However, a slightly stronger beginner can develop pieces while attacking the exposed Queen, gaining both positional and time advantages in the process. What is it about the Queen that drives young beginners to chessboard madness?

The Queen is a dangerous hunter, combining the power of the Bishop and Rook. The Queen is equivalent to nine pawns or a Rook, a Bishop and a pawn. The Queen personifies power, especially to children. The Queen is a frightening piece to face when your opponent uses her skillfully. Therefore, beginners want to harness the Queen’s power in an effort win their games quickly. Making matters worse is the young beginner who wins a game or two using their Queen early on. The beginner will then use their wins to justify this bad habit. How do we break this bad habit of early Queen deployment? By discussing piece value as if we were talking about money and providing a strong example on the chessboard.

When talking about the relative value of the pieces, I replace the idea of a “point value” with a monetary value (which has the added bonus of helping children with their arithmetical skills). A pawn is worth one dollar while the Queen is worth nine dollars. The minor pieces are worth three dollars each while the Rook is worth five dollars. As for the King, he’s priceless. I ask my young students, “would you trade nine dollars for five dollars?” I get a resounded “no.” “Would you trade nine dollars for three dollars?” Lastly, I ask them “would you trade nine dollars for a single dollar?” I will do the arithmetic on the chalkboard to prove my point, underlining the losses incurred by bad trades. I remind my students that they might be forced into one of this profitless exchanges should their Queen become trapped on the board.

However, you have to take it one step further. This is where our example game comes into play. It should be noted that I try to pick games that clearly illustrate the lesson being taught on a specific day. When choosing a candidate game for a lesson or lecture, I try to find games that illustrate more than one point in a very visual manner. In the game you’re about to see, the Queen gets into serious trouble after coming out early, going from being the hunter to being the hunted very quickly. However, there is an additional lesson here and that lesson is one of teamwork. Paul Morphy (playing white) uses his pieces as a team to attack the lone Queen which emphasizes the idea of using pieces in combination with one another. As I walk my students through the game, I point out how the pieces of lesser value than the Queen can work together (gang up) to attack the mighty “nine dollar” Queen. We add up the value of the combined pieces involved in the attack and they are always less than the Queen. We learn that working together (in combination), the pawns and pieces can do great things including going after the most powerful piece on the board. After my students see this game, the majority of them start thinking about holding back on bringing their Queen out too early. For those that don’t, they learn their lesson the hard way (on the chessboard) from either a more advanced student or their chess teacher, who puts on his black undertaker’s hat before sitting down at the board and going after their Queen – yes I go that far to prove a point (and amuse my students).

Chess lessons for children need to be designed like a well written song. A good song is catchy and is retained in one’s memory. It also tells a story in an entertaining way. Therefore, I’ll use props such as my hat and games that have an element of drama or comedy to them. I have used no annotation for the game below. I ask only that the reader watch white’s pieces work together as a team to repel the black Queen. Some games speak for themselves.

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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).