The Importance of Tactics Eight: Removing the Defender

Often, a beginner will see checkmate close at hand except for one small problem, there’s an opposition pawn or piece standing between the beginner and victory. “If only that pawn or piece wasn’t on that square”, muses our intrepid beginning player. “I’d win this game if my opponent would just move that darn pawn (or piece)!” His opponent also sees it as the one member of his army stopping checkmate, so he’s not going to move that pawn or piece unless he’s forced to. What is our poor beginner to do? After all, if that opposition pawn or piece isn’t going to move then how’s he going to win?

The beginner facing this dilemma, refers back to his limited chess training and thinks “maybe I can somehow trade a piece of lesser or equal value for the piece standing in the way of my mating plan, but I’ll have to move that piece of lesser or equal value into position to do so.” Of course, following this plan means spending extra time to do so and extra time might give the opposition an opportunity to stop the attempted checkmate! While experienced players might laugh at this notion of only trading pieces of lesser or equal value to clear a path to checkmate, all the beginner has to go on, regarding the exchange of material, is what they’ve learned so far in their chess education, namely that you should always try to exchange material in a manner that is profitable for you or at least equal. In other words, trade or exchange material of lesser value for pieces of higher value or trade material of equal value for material of equal value.

The beginner, thinking in these terms is thinking mechanically which is part of the learning process. When a beginner starts playing chess, they tend to make terrible trades, such as giving up a Rook or Queen for a minor piece (with no great positional gain or compensation for their loss) because they don’t understand the relative value of the pieces. Chess teachers and coaches, such as myself, spend countless hours teaching our beginning students the value of the pieces and how to make profitable exchanges. Thus, when the beginner is faced with a position in which an opposition pawn or minor piece is standing in the way of their mating attack, they don’t consider the idea of trading a piece of greater value for one of lesser value, even if it allows checkmate to occur (remember, beginners haven’t developed their pattern recognition skills and often don’t see a potential checkmate).

We call this tactical idea removing the defender. The defender is any pawn or piece that protects a key square near it’s King. Typically, Knights on f6 for Black or f3 for White are key defenders when castling has occurred on the King-side. Take a look at the example below:

In the above example, it’s White to move. The White Queen on e4, backed up or protected by the White Bishop (the Queen’s bodyguard) on d3, would be able to deliver checkmate with Qxh7 if it were not for one huge problem, the Knight on f6 which is guarding h7 (along with the King) while also attacking the White Queen. The beginner would look at Black’s Knight of f6 and his Queen on e4 and think, “I had better move my Queen so the Knight doesn’t capture it!” Our beginner might have glanced at his Rook on f3, then at the Knight on f6, but thought “this goes against the principles of making good trades. I’d be crazy to trade a five point Rook for a Three point Knight!” This is mechanical thinking at it’s worst. Certainly, it wouldn’t be a good trade based solely on the relative value of the pieces. However, the Knight on f6 is standing in the way of White delivering checkmate (as well as attacking the White Queen). The Knight on f6 is a crucial defender of the mating square h7. Therefore, to deliver checkmate, White must remove this defender even though, from a relative piece value point of view, the trade is not advantageous for White. The more experienced player wouldn’t think twice about trading Rook for Knight since doing so removes one critical defender of h7 and subsequently allows checkmate. Remember, beginners have a limited chess knowledge base and will often consider specific game principles as rules rather than principles, which can be bent or broken at times. Let’s return to our example.

White sees that the Knight on f6 is both attacking the White Queen on e4 and defending the h7 pawn, along with the Black King (who is also defending h7). The h7 square has two defenders and two attackers. In order to deliver checkmate on h7, White need to remove one of those defenders, the Black Knight on f6. White therefore plays 1. Rxf6, leaving the Black King as the sole defender of the h7 pawn. Now there are two attackers going after this pawn (h7) and only one defender. It’s important to note that the King isn’t really in any position to defend when there are two or more attackers! Now it’s Black to move. Here, black breaks a principled idea, never capture pawns and pieces unless it helps your game. While White has bent a principle regarding the exchange of material, Black’s bending of our principled idea of never capturing pawns and pieces unless it helps your position will have dire consequences.

The beginner commanding the Black pieces in this example thinks mechanically, grabbing material to come out ahead in this exchange rather than asking the critical question, why would White trade a Rook for a Knight?” He should have visually seen the answer within the position on the chessboard, the answer being “to remove a crucial defender that allows checkmate!” Had Black deduced, by looking at the position careful rather than grabbing material, he might have played 1…g6 (a miserable move to have to make) rather than 1…Bxf6 which leads to White’s second move 2. Qxh7#.

The idea I want you to remember is this: Avoid mechanical thinking. Playing mechanically often means that you mistake game principles for rock solid rules. The numerous and sound principles that guide us towards making good moves during our games can also lead to our downfall. The best chess players in the world know when to employ sound game principles and more importantly, when to bend those principles. Principles are guidelines not rules written in stone. In the case of removing the defender of a key square, especially when doing so leads to checkmate, would you rather stick to the principles or bend them a little and win the game? I thought so! We’ll look at some further examples of removing the defender next week. However, between now and then, let’s have a look at an extremely famous game in which a Queen is traded for a Knight leading to checkmate. Paul Morphy was extremely successful at removing the defender. If there’s any beginner’s topic you’d like to see here, please feel free to email me and I’ll write an article about that topic. Enjoy this classic battle on the chessboard!

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).