The Order of Battle

In chess, as in warfare, there’s an order in which you send your forces onto the battlefield. Modern battles tend to start with ground troops, otherwise known as the infantry. Thankfully, you don’t see armies starting battles with their biggest weapons, nuclear missiles. If they did, I wouldn’t be writing this article and you wouldn’t be reading it because our lives would have been ended with the first nuclear strike. While war usually ends up being an exercise in chaos and carnage, it tends to start with a methodical plan. First into battle, the foot soldiers, followed by artillery, followed by armored vehicles, then bombs and so on. The same should hold true in chess. Yet beginners tend to think “why waste all those resources when I can drop a bomb, in the form of bringing their Queen out early, and end the war with a quick victory.” It may sound great in theory (to the beginning player), but in reality, the battle typically ends with the beginner no longer having his or her most powerful attacking piece in the game. To teach my students thew correct order in which to bring out their forces on the chessboard, I simply point out a few things regarding the placement of the pawns and pieces.

The starting position of the pawns and pieces dictates the order in which members of the army enter the battle. Also contributing to this order is the relative value of the pawns and pieces. With the exception of the Knights, which can enter the game immediately due to their ability to jump over any material in their way, pawns have to be moved in order to get the majority of the pieces into the action. Pawns have the lowest relative value and therefore can keep an opposition piece off of a specific square because of higher value of the pieces. Fortunately, beginners quickly learn to move pawns first in order to get their pieces into the game. However, they often make too many pawn moves, either thinking that it’s safer to use the least valuable members of their army which are also more plentiful or they’re not comfortable with the movement of the pieces so they resort to pawns. I tell my students that bringing too many pawns into the game when your opponent is moving stronger pieces onto the board is akin to sending out foot soldiers with sticks to fight off armored tanks. It simply won’t work. You have to have some force behind your foot soldiers. So who do we use for this force?

Young beginners are infatuated with the Rooks and the Queen. They tend to think of both as super powered weapons. The problem with trying to bring out the Rooks early is that the beginner will move the “a” or “h” pawns two squares forward, then move the Rook two squares forward, planning to aim the Rook at the enemy King along the “e” file after moving the Rook again towards this central file. Sadly, either the opposition ignores the flank activity and builds up a strong center, capturing the Rook soon after, or they capture the Rook with a Bishop after developing a centralized pawn. Either way the power hungry beginner loses a Rook, a lot of tempo and the right to castle on one side of the board. Then there’s the Queen. Since the Queen combines the power of the Rook and Bishop, she’s a nuclear missile in the eyes of the beginner. Why fight a long war, muses the beginner, when I can aim a missile at my opponent and end it quickly? The problem with bringing the Queen out early is twofold. First, your opponent can nicely develop their forces while chasing your Queen around the board. All you have to show for your troubles is a running Queen while your opponent has complete control of the board’s center. The second problem is that you King is unsafe because you haven’t been able to castle due to the attacks on your Queen.

I point out to my students that it makes much more sense to develop the Knights and Bishops before the Rooks and Queen. When the Knights are developed initially to the “c” and “f” files they’re controlling the board’s center squares and bringing you one step closer to castling. Developing the Bishops towards the central squares helps lock down your control of this key area as well as bringing you closer to castling. Think of the Knights and Bishops as support artillery for your ground troops, the pawns. In battle, artillery is used to both gain greater control of the battlefield, repel the enemy and support the soldiers on the ground (the pawns). The minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) are well suited to this task.

Of course, when you develop your minor pieces on the King-side, for example, you can then castle. While castling is designed to place your King in a safety net of pawns and pieces, it does something equally important, getting one of your Rooks out of the corner. While I advised against bringing the Rook into the game early, you don’t want to leave it stuck in the corner where it does absolutely nothing. After castling, a Rook can then move over to the “e” file and stare down the un-castled enemy King at the other end of the “e” file. Rooks like to sit on open and half open files during the game. Think of them as a battleship that can hurl huge shells at the enemy from a long distance.

Lastly, there’s the Queen. She’s best left alone until later in the game when there are fewer Knights and Bishops around to go after her. Of course, one early move you can make with the Queen is to move her up (or down in the case of black) one rank so your Rooks are connected. This isn’t bringing your Queen out early and will give your Rooks more freedom.

The easiest way to remember the order in which pawns and pieces enter the game is by considering the relative value of the pieces, starting from low to high. Pawns have the least relative value (one) so they’re first into the fray. Knights and Bishops, both having a relative value of three come next. Rooks have a relative value of five so they come after the Knights and Bishops. However, this means making them more active not throwing them into the actual battle (save that for the endgame). Lastly comes the Queen who have a relative value of nine. Try to keep her around for a checkmating attempt when you head towards the endgame. Moving her up a rank is fine, just don’t drag her out onto the board during the opening. When in doubt, use the relative value of the pawns and pieces as your deployment guide. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

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).