Thinking Moves Through

The novice chess player often moves a pawn or a piece out onto the board simply hoping for the best. Younger beginners tend to make moves very quickly in an effort to impress their opponent. Hoping for the best or trying to impress one’s opponent with quickly made moves tends to lead to disaster. To be fair, it is very difficult for players new to chess to be able to come up with good moves let alone short and long range plans. Making good moves takes some practical experience at the board. However, to be able to come up with the most basic plan, the beginner has to consider each move carefully. So how do we consider each move we make?

It all starts with a close look at our opponent’s position on the board. Before even thinking about a move, take a long hard look at the squares controlled by your opponent. I suggest to my students that they look at every single pawn and piece belonging to the opposition. While this seems tedious, especially when those opposition pieces are still on their starting squares, it forces you to see the entire board, the big picture. Often, we’ll see that a piece still on its starting square can enter the game on the opposition’s next move and create problems. Just because a pawn or piece hasn’t come into the game doesn’t mean it can’t come roaring in with devastating consequences. A visual inventory of the opposition’s pieces helps avoid losing material. Beginners should get into the habit of inspecting the opposition’s pawns and pieces from opening to endgame.

Develop your pawns and pieces before considering any captures (unless doing so results in material loss or checkmate). Too many novice players tend to start capturing pawns and pieces as soon as they can. While it is sometimes necessary to capture a piece, you should never capture simply for the sake of capturing. Now, if you’re about to lose an important piece and the only way to save it is by capturing, by all means capture. When capturing, try to capture towards the center of the board. As I’ve mentioned before, pieces tend to be more powerful when centrally developed. In general, when given the choice between capturing towards the edges of the board or towards the board’s center, capture towards the center. Good chess players capture to improve their position. You want to get your pawns and pieces to their most active squares before you start exchanging off pieces. The player with the more active pawns and pieces tends to have greater control of the board which leads (in most cases) to a victorious outcome.

Many beginners will start the game off using the opening principles, gaining a good position early on. However, once they’ve developed their minor pieces, castled and connected their Rooks, they suddenly can’t seem to find a decent move. This problem arises because many beginners are looking for spectacular moves that will drastically change the game in their favor. Some of the deadliest moves are the quiet ones. An example of a quiet move is a move that increases a piece’s activity or sets ups a tactical strike later on. This type of move is subtle and, while is doesn’t bring any immediately noticeable results, it prepares that piece for a future move that may be explosive and deciding. You have to build up a winning position. Many beginners think that good chess means fast checkmates. Just the opposite is true. Fast checkmates are easily rebuffed by a player with a little experience. Good chess players build up a position and then go in for the kill!

One simple technique I highly recommend to beginners is to come up with a choice of three possible moves to make in their current position. This simple idea does a few things. First off, it forces the beginner to give the position a closer examination. Often, the beginner sees a pawn or piece that can be captured easily. They become fixated on this potential capture and quickly decide that it is the best course of action. However, upon closer examination of this position, the beginner might find a better move. Many junior players, still in school, are taught that solutions to problems are very black and white. In chess, this kind of thinking can cost you the game. Sometimes, there are two or three moves which all have merit. However, there is often one move that is slightly better than the others. You’ll only discover this if you contemplate a number of possible moves rather than fixating a single move.

We often see an immediate move that eliminates a potential problem, such as the capture of one of our pieces. However, upon closer examination we often find a better move. What would be better than moving or protecting our attacked piece? How about a counter threat? We might be in a position in which an important minor piece is under attack. Removing the threat is certainly a good idea! Before dealing with that threat, see if there isn’t a bigger threat to the opposition, such as a counter attack on a more valuable piece or piece of equal value whose capture might seriously undermine the opposition’s position. Avoid simply making the first move that appears in your line of sight, instead looking calmly at the entire board for an alternative.

Another technique I teach my students is finding their opponent’s best response to the move being considered. This simple technique lays the foundation for thinking multiple moves ahead. For example, if we see a Bishop move that checks the opposition’s King, we have to ask ourselves a simple question; what is the opposition’s best response to our check? Often, we discover that the check can be simply blocked by a pawn or a piece that attacks back. Using this idea helps to eliminate pointless moves that loses tempo in favor of the opposition.

Making good moves comes down to taking your time and really examining the position, putting it under the microscope. Careful examination of a position, no matter how innocuous it may seem, greatly helps the beginner make better moves. One last point I’d like to make regards traps. Many junior level players memorize traps and spring them on their unknowing opponents. If you’re playing someone who knows how to play basic chess and has been making good moves, then suddenly makes a move that looks like a blunder, don’t assume it’s simply a mistake. Use what you’ve just learned and examine the position under the microscope. If you’re opponent suddenly allows their Queen to be taken, proceed cautiously. There’s a chance that capturing the Queen is part of the trap. Apply the above mentioned techniques before grabbing her majesty. If it sounds too good to be true then it usually is. Be skeptical when looking at any potential blunder by the opposition. 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).