True Freedom

Novice chess players often consider a piece to have complete freedom if it has some mobility. Mobility is a piece’s ability to move to or control an optimal number of squares. Obviously, a piece does have some form of freedom if it can control a large number of squares from its position on the board. The piece is free to move to those squares if need be. However, this freedom is only partial if the piece in question is tied down to the defense of another piece (or pawn). True freedom means not being tied down to a defensive role but rather, being able to move around without weakening the position.

To determine how much true freedom a piece has, we have to ask ourselves two questions. First, how many squares does that piece control? The greater the number, the more freedom it has. We examine this freedom in terms of mobility. A Bishop that can move to ten squares has greater mobility than a Bishop that can only move to two squares. The next question, a critical one that beginners often fail to ask, is whether or not the piece in question is defending another piece or pawn? If a piece has to play a defensive role, it isn’t truly free because moving it might allow the opposition to capture the previously defended piece. This could lead to a weakened position and eventually a lost game.

The Bishop that controls ten squares has far less freedom if it’s tied down defending another piece that is helping to maintain a position’s strength. If our Bishop moves, the defended piece might no longer be defended which means it can be captured. If it’s captured the position might be severely weakened to the point of no return. On the other hand, our Bishop that has far less mobility (two squares) can freely move to either of those squares without incurring a weakness on the position. Eventually, it can become more active. This is where pawns come into play so to speak!

One of the reasons pawns make great defenders for our pieces is because they have the lowest relative value so most players won’t trade a minor piece for a pawn unless doing so strengthens their position. By strengthening the position, I mean that the player trading down (minor piece for pawn) will either open up the position for an attack or deliver checkmate. Using pawns for defense duties allows your pieces true freedom since they’re not tied down to the defense of their fellow pieces. True freedom means having the ability to move around with no strings attached.

Of course, we have to assign some of our pieces defensive duties. You can’t get through a game of chess without a bit of defensive play. Even the most aggressive players find themselves in positions that require defensive measures. However, we need to carefully consider how we set up our defenses. This is where good pawn play comes into the mix. My students will often ask me why one player in a game made, what looks like to the beginner, a random pawn move. In actuality, that seemingly strange looking pawn move is made to defend a specific square from opposition occupation. The pawn defends a specific square so a piece doesn’t have to. Defending a square with pawn will make your opponent think twice before trading down. Again, employing the pawn as a defender leaves your pieces truly free. Mobility is unhampered!

We should always think of our pieces in terms of being passive and active. Passive pieces have little mobility, are tied down to defensive duties or both. Active pieces have unbridled mobility, free of any defensive duties. As we play through the opening, middle and endgame, we should always consider these two ideas when contemplating a move.

Gaining true freedom for our pieces is a strategic goal. When I teach strategic ideas, I teach them as long term goals, goals that we achieve over time. Beginners often think that once they get a piece to an active square, one that gives that piece decent mobility, the piece’s position cannot be improved upon. They fail to continue that piece’s development. A piece’s ability to increase in activity or mobility can always be improved upon. Just because you move your four minor pieces to active squares during the opening doesn’t mean they’re on their most active squares. From move to move, the game’s position changes and with those positional changes come opportunities to further increase a piece’s activity. However, if you suddenly have to employ that piece in the defense of another, you’re decreasing it’s activity.

If you have to suddenly use an active piece for the defense of another piece, see if you can move a pawn to take over that piece’s guard duties. Pieces that are truly free can become fierce attackers when the opportunity arises. As I mentioned earlier, positions change from one move to the next. A seemingly strong position can quickly fall apart. The player with the more mobile pieces and well placed pawns has a much greater chance of equalizing the suddenly weakened position than the player whose pieces are tied down to defensive duties. Strategy means always thinking ahead. Strategic thinking means playing your opening to set up your middle game and playing your middle game with an eye towards the endgame.

When you consider a move that gives a piece freedom, ask yourself if that piece is truly free or is it actually tied down. Pieces that are truly free have unhampered mobility which allows them to go on the offensive (attacking the opposition) rather than the defensive, babysitting fellow pieces. Make moves that develop pieces actively or increase mobility and always look to increase activity with subsequent moves. Strong activity and true freedom are created over time, not instantly. 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).