Training Exercises

Once you’ve learned the rules of the game, you can immediately start playing against human opponents. However, the results are going to be negative at first if you’re playing a more experienced player. Even playing a slightly more advanced beginner might be a losing proposition. What’s the beginner to do? Play a specific training game that will teach the beginner how to move all the pawns and pieces in a coordinated manner. Isn’t that simply playing regular chess? No. The training game I’m writing about uses only pawns, at first, introducing a new piece into the mix when a pawn reaches it’s promotion square and promotes. The name of the game is pawn wars.

GM Susan Polgar stated that her father had her playing pawn wars extensively after she learned the rules of the game and look where she ended up! I use pawn wars to train my beginning students just after they’ve learned the rules but before they start playing normal games of chess. When I first starting teaching, I felt that pawn wars wasn’t a good substitute for simply playing actual chess. However, I took a second look at it and realized that this simple pawn game prepares beginners for more advanced concepts such as pawn and piece coordination and pawn structure. The benefits won out and I started extensively using it in my curriculum.

To play pawn wars, you set up only the pawns on their starting squares, the White pawns being set up along the second rank and the Black pawns along the seventh rank. Players take turns as both Black and White. The key to winning is getting a pawn to it’s promotion square, promoting that pawn and using the piece the pawn promoted into to capture your opponent’s pawns. The beautiful thing about this game is that it forces players to intuitively develop good pawn structure and avoid weak pawns. You can introduce the passed, isolated and backwards pawn to students immediately via this game. It also helps students practice moving the pieces legally as well as teaching them to think ahead.

As for what each player should promote their pawns into? Many teachers allow their students to promote their pawns into only Queens. The problem with this is that students will often favor the Queen, thinking it the only piece that’s good for attacking and capturing. This can lead to them bringing their Queen out early in regular games which leads to disaster. I have my students go through the other pieces first before promoting a pawn into a Queen, starting with the Knight, then Bishop, Rook, King and lastly, the Queen.

Most beginners have trouble with the Knight, which is why that’s the first piece allowed into the game. By starting with the Knight, beginners get a better feel for it’s movement and feel more confident with it when they sit down and play normal games of chess. They get a better feel for it’s “L” shaped movement because they’re forced to practice with it. Many beginners tend to favor one piece because it’s easier to move than the others. This version of pawn wars forces them to become adept at moving all the pieces. It also allows them to start seeing positions tactically. They naturally discover that when placed on certain squares, the Knight can attack two or more pawns at once. When they eventually learn about forks, the concept will seem less foreign to them because they’ve already learned it.

Next comes the Bishop. The Bishop, being a long distance piece, can attack from a great distance. However, it needs mobility which is learned through this pawn game.
The idea of good and bad Bishops can be introduced as well. I teach my students to destroy a pawn chain, which beginners seem to figure out without knowing what it’s called, by attacking the chain’s base. A lot of the learning when playing pawn wars is intuitive and lays a solid foundation for more advanced techniques. It’s important to let students figure things out on their own when playing this game. We learn from our mistakes!

The Rook comes next. The great thing about Rooks versus pawns is that the player with only pawns will learn how to use pawns to protect one another. The player with the Rook will learn how to spot weak pawns and take advantage of them. Again, I let my students discover more advanced concepts intuitively, only teaching them about those concepts after they’ve discovered them.

Then there’s the King. I introduce the King into the game before the Queen because the King can be checked. This means that the player with the King learns how to move it through hostile territory safely. Students intuitively discover the King’s value as an attacker and defender. Using the King prepares students for endgame pawn and King play.

Lastly, I have them promote a pawn into a Queen. However, I remind them that the Queen shouldn’t be introduced early in a normal game. While my students get a taste of the Queen’s intoxicating power, they’re using it in a position that’s closer to an endgame. While many find it easy to win the pawn war with the Queen, a few end up losing their Queen which plants a good principled seed into their brain; be very very careful with your Queen!

Each student will play a cycle of ten games, five games as White and five as Black. Each pair of games sees either player promoting a pawn into one of the five pieces in the following order: Knight, Bishop, Rook, King and lastly, Queen. If you want to hone you basic skills prior to playing a normal game of chess, this is a great way to do it. You’ll learn about advanced concepts early on and understand them much better when you study them in depth. Here’s a short 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).