Three Good Moves

When we first start playing chess, we often make the first move we see, good, bad or indifferent (usually the move falls under the heading of bad when you first start you chess career). Of course, we’re still learning the basics of the game so this is a natural part of the learning process. More astute beginners might stare at the board for a few minutes, examine the position from both sides and only then making a move. Thinking they’ve spent enough time to have found a good move, they’re often shocked when that supposedly well thought out move turns out to be a bad choice. Chess is about decision making and there’s an art or skill to this process. The first step in the decision making process is taking the time to properly make a good decision.

Last week at our Yearly Academic Chess Summer Camp, I noticed that our beginner’s group was playing extremely fast as if it were a game of Blitz. I looked on in horror as hanging pieces (those that can be captured free of charge) were not only there for the taking but remained there for many moves. Had these beginners taken more time to consider their moves, they might have seen and captured those hanging pieces. However, there’s more to making good moves than simply taking your time. You have to employ a logical system that allows you to find good moves and that’s what this article examines.

While it’s true that patience is an absolutely crucial skill in chess, simply staring at the board for a long time, with your thoughts scattered about, does a player little good. You have to employ a logical system with which to examine the position at hand in order to determine the best move. This is the toughest challenge beginner’s face when learning the game. Therefore, we have to assess the position in a sequential, logical order, starting with threats.

Threats, either yours or your opponents, are the first order of business. You must identify threats. Too often, beginners will blindly consider their potential threats which blinds them to those of their opponent. Therefore, every time your opponent makes a move, look for a threat by that opposition pawn or piece. This means looking at every square that pawn or piece is attacking and determining whether or not one of your pawns or pieces is on one of those squares under attack. If one of your pawns or pieces is under attack, determine whether or not to move that pawn or piece or defend it. In assessing this idea of moving or defending, the beginner should first determine the value of the attacking piece versus the value of the piece being attacked. If a three point Knight is attacking a five point Rook, then the Rook should be moved. If the pieces are of equal value, ask yourself, can I move the attacked piece to a more active square? If you can, then your opponent may be doing you a positional favor! You never want to make moves that help your opponent and if your opponent does so, take advantage of them. Good moves serve to strengthen your position.

If the pieces are of equal value and you cannot move the attacked piece to a more active square, then defend it. Again, consider the value of potential defenders. Obviously, if you defend a piece with a pawn then your opponent may reconsider capturing it, especially if doing so does nothing to help their position. However, make sure to look at the position to see if capturing your piece will create an opening in your defenses that allows for a strong opposition attack. If so, you may have to build up your defenses around the attacked piece and potential positional opening. Don’t worry my novice chess playing friends, most beginner’s games will not have such calculated attacks, so you probably will not face this issue until later in your chess careers. However, be aware that more experienced players will sacrifice material to open up the position for an attack.

Now look for potential threats you can create. With beginner’s games, those threats often revolve around hanging pieces. Look to see if any of your opponent’s pawns or pieces are hanging. If there are no hanging pawns or pieces, see if there are any threats you can make. When you first start playing you don’t think in terms of threats. Threats come in varying degrees of severity, a potential checkmate being the strongest threat. We’ve already looked for hanging pieces so next we see if there are any threats you can make that force your opponent to respond with a move he or she doesn’t want to make. What kind of move is this? One that slows down their development or one that weakens their position. If you can further activate your pawns and pieces while threatening your opponent’s material, while weakening their position or forcing them to make moves they don’t want to make, you traveling along the correct road to mastery! Good threats include attacking a piece of greater value with a piece of lesser value, moves that check the opposition King and force him to move (prior to Castling) or moves that set up tactical plays (forks, pins, skewers, etc). Then there’s the counter threat.

If your opponent threatens one of your pieces, see if you can make a bigger threat. If you opponent attacks one of your minor pieces with a pawn, look to see if you can threaten an opposition piece of greater value with either a pawn or a piece of lesser value. You opponent will have to deal with the bigger threat, yours, which may lead to them having to make a positional concession which could give you an advantage!

Always look to further activate your pawns and pieces, especially during the early phases of the game. Before starting to play for Middle-game exchanges, develop your pawns and pieces to their most active squares, especially those that allow pieces to control more of the board. As I stated in earlier articles, the more control of the board you have (especially on your opponent’s side of the board), the greater your options. The greater your options, the fewer options your opponent has. This leads to winning games.

Once we’ve done this, we must look for at least three good moves. I tell my students that the difference between a good move and a great move is this: A good move is just that, a good move. A great move is one that wins the game (or creates an overwhelming advantage). To find that great move, you have to consider a few good candidate moves (moves we’re thinking about making). Just jumping on the first move you see might cause you to miss that great move. Therefore, you should try to think of at least three good moves. When you think of each move, make a mental note to yourself as to why that move is good. Have sound/good reasons for that move! If you can’t come up with a good reason for the move in question then it’s not a good move! Then compare the three moves and decide which of them is the best. If you do this every time you’re considering a move, you’ll win more games than you lose (eventually). Speaking of moves, here’s a game to enjoy until next week that has more than a few good moves in it. Enjoy!

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).