The Sinking Ship

Every chess player has found themselves in a position so seemingly bad that it’s as if they were on a sinking ship. I say seemingly because often appearances can be deceiving. Beginners, who lack playing experience, tend to give up hope when hitting the smallest bump in the positional road. Of course, there are positions where one should simply resign, but there are also many positions that look worse than they actually are. I have seen countless student games in which one player will resign even though they have a completely playable position. They resign because not only can’t they find a way to improve things but they have no way in which to accurately measure the position’s true nature. Can it be saved or is resignation in order? To answer this question, one must look at a position objectively, questioning that position by using principled elements to arrive at an answer.

For beginners, it’s best to start with the simplest questions, such as do I have more or less material than my opponent? Taking stock of material balance issues can be a good first step in determining just how much trouble you’re in. With beginners, an early deficit in material, being down a pawn or two or perhaps a minor piece, can be overcome. However, being down a Queen can have devastating consequences. Beginners love to bring their Queens out early, often losing them in the process. Therefore, I have a training rule to prevent this. If you bring your Queen out early and lose it during a practice game, you have to resign. Needless to say, this curbs early Queen play! You should always try to maintain a material balance. If you do find yourself with less material, consider the material you’re missing and how that affects the position. In the opening and middle game, minor pieces are critical. If you’re down a minor piece or two, you’ll have play more defensively because you don’t have key pieces that can aid in potential attacks. When in this kind of trouble, hang on to your material and play to reestablish material balance. Your opponent may try to trade material which means they will have a greater advantage in the endgame. Avoid trades if possible, when down material, and aim for equalization.

Development is another principled consideration. Beginners have trouble with good development when they first start playing. They often move the same piece again and again while their opponent follows principled play, bringing a new piece into the game with each move. Development is critical during the game’s opening phase and going into the middle game. You should examine whether or not your opponent has better development, pieces being on their most active squares, when determining how much trouble you might be in. If your opponent has better development, they have greater control of the board which makes it difficult for you to launch successful attacks. Beginners often panic when faced with an opposition position in which their opponent controls the board. However, before throwing in the towel and simply resigning, remember that position’s are fluid, they sometimes change drastically within a few moves. Look to improve your own position by challenging your opponent’s control of board space. Use pieces of lesser value to challenge pieces of greater value. Doing so will force your opponent to give up some control, allowing you to gain it!

Potential attacks against your pawns and pieces is another consideration when trying to work your way out of a bad position. Beginners hang pieces or lose a series of exchanges because they don’t carefully consider the number of attackers versus the number of defenders. If you have a pawn or piece under attack and your opponent has three attackers to your one defender, you’ll more than likely have to give up that pawn or piece. It’s a lost cause and trying to defend a lost cause will only make the position worse. Look for a counter attack elsewhere. If you can attack an opposition piece of greater value, your opponent will first have to deal with your threat. This could change the dynamic of the position, giving you room to regroup. Know when to give up material to an overwhelming opposition attack. You can’t hope to put out a raging fire with a thimble full of water!

Timing is everything. For example, since White moves first, White has a free turn. White starts off one move ahead of Black. If you move the same piece over and over again while your opponent brings a new piece into play with each move, you’re essentially giving your opponent a free turn with each move of the same piece. How far behind are you in tempo? If your opponent is ahead by five tempi, you have a lot of catching up to do. If behind, try to catch up but don’t try to catch up by launching an all or nothing attack. Think pawn and piece activity.

Determine the safety of your King. Beginners learn the reason for King safety the hard way by not Castling and getting checkmated. You’ll want to see if your King is facing a mating attack and determine what kind of damage will result when having to avoid such an attack. Questions one should ask are will my position be irreversibly weakened or damaged defending against an attack and will I lose so much material in avoiding mate that winning is no longer an option? Of course, one should ask if checkmate is unavoidable? Beginners often have trouble with this last question because they are still learning mating patterns and sometimes can’t see a mate in three or four.

Are your Rooks activated? I see so many junior level games in which both players Rooks are sitting on their starting squares gathering dust! Beginners will wring their hands in despair, thinking a position is lost because they can’t move a pawn from its starting square because it will be captured upon doing so. Why not use a Rook that is still on its starting Rank to protect that pawn?

These basics ideas are all interrelated, one being intimately tied to the others. Each move you make should have purpose. If someone asked you why you made a specific move, you should be able to provide a sound explanation. Just this idea alone will go a long way towards keeping your positional ship afloat! When you find yourself in a troublesome position, determine why you’re in that undesirable situation. Determine the basic cause of the problem and see of you can work your way out of it. Not every position can be fixed but panicking and giving up before looking for a solution will not help you improve your game. Trying to think your way out of a bad position will help improve your game, even if you don’t end up winning the game after working your way through the problem at hand. We learn from our losses. However, don’t assume a position is hopeless until you ask a few questions. Sometimes a sinking ship can remain afloat long enough for a rescue to ensue! 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).