Threatening Moves

Once the beginner has learned how to develop their pieces correctly by moving them to active squares that control the greatest amount of space, it’s time to make those moves more dangerous for their opponents. How does the beginner do this? By creating threats! However, before we consider the concept of threatening moves we need to take a brief look at piece activity and active squares.

Beginners have a hard time determining just where to place their pawns and pieces on the board. While the opening principles provide a set of guidelines for early development, they can only take the novice chess player so far. The beginner learns the three key opening principles, control of the board’s center with a pawn, minor piece (Knight and Bishop) development and early castling but often becomes lost when further development is required (which it always is). My newer students will follow these three primary principles but their development ends there. These students become lost because they’re looking for big moves as opposed to small, quiet moves. Big moves are those that capture material or start a series of checks that lead to mate. When showing demonstration games during my lectures, these (big moves) are the moves that beginners remember. However, those big moves often come about because of the small quiet moves. A small move is one that doesn’t win material or mate the opposition King. What these small moves do is increase the activity of pawns and pieces. Let me explain.

When the game starts, the minor and major pieces are locked behind a wall of pawns. They can be thought of as being in a state of suspended animation. The key to activating these dormant pieces is to get them out on the board. This means that specific pawns, such as the d and e pawns, must be pushed toward the board’s center, allowing the pieces to become active (with the exception of the Knight who can jump over the pawns). Simply moving a piece randomly doesn’t mean it’s actively placed on the board. We need to move our pieces to active squares. An active square is one that allows a piece to control key squares on the board such as those on the opposition’s side or attack opposition pieces. The more squares under your control the more active the piece. The more opposition pieces your piece attacks the more active that piece is. However, we can’t always move a piece to its most active square in a single move and this is where beginners start to become lost. It can take a few moves to get a piece to its most active square.

Because positions constantly change during a game, a piece that was initially active may suddenly be far less active due to a new position. Pieces also don’t always end up on the squares you want them on because doing so would cost you that piece because of the opposition’s position. This means you have to reactivate that piece. What does the beginner do when there is more than one active piece? Determine which piece is the least active and improve its position. What do we do when our pieces are all activated and we need to turn up the heat? Meet the chess player’s good friend, the threat!

One of the most forcing moves you can make is a check against your opponent’s King. Of course, it needs to be a strong check as opposed to a weak check. A weak check is one that can easily be blocked by a pawn or terminated by the capture of your piece. A strong check is one that forces the King to move out of safety or forces a block of the check which leaves the blocking piece pinned to the King. While a good check is considered a very forceful move, the threat of check is even better. What do I mean? A threat of check means that on a subsequent move you could check your opponent’s King. You’re not actually carrying out the check but you opponent knows you could do so on the following move and has to deal with your threat. That is the beauty of the threat. You do have to follow through on the check but your opponent has to prepare for a possible check which can cost them time or tempo.

This same idea holds true for captures as well as pawn promotion. If you have a pawn one square away from promotion and that pawn is protected by a Rook (of any other piece), your opponent will have to engage a piece to deal with that pawn. This means that an opposition piece will be taken out of action to deal with your threat. A good threat is just that. Your about to promote pawn and that pawn can simply sit in front of its promotion square holding the opposition’s piece hostage. The same holds true for the threat of capture. If your opponent sees that you can capture one of his or her pieces on a subsequent move, they have to prepare for your potential attack whether or not you decide to follow through with it.

A piece on an active square increases its activity if a threat is created. The hard part for beginners is to acknowledge that threats are often better if they simply remain threats. If there is a potential threat of mate because of your position on the board, your opponent has to position his pawns and pieces according to deal with the threat. You make the threat and the opposition has to deal with that threat. In dealing with your threat, your opponent may weaken their position which allows you to strengthen yours. The threat of capturing a piece also can have the same effect since your opponent has to deal with your threat.

The best threats are those that loom darkly on the horizon, forcing your opponent to keep a watchful eye on it. A good threat doesn’t have to follow through with a check, capture or promotion. Just knowing that the threat is there can be enough to throw an opponent’s game into turmoil. Here’s a game to play through. See if you can find any threats!

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).