Weak Squares

If you ever have a desire to create an instantaneous atmosphere of depression in a room full of eager chess students, say the following: “No matter how good a move seems, there is always a negative side to that move that has the potential to undermine your position.” That will instantly wipe the smiles off their collective faces, leaving you with a room full of students demanding to know how this could be possible. My students tend to groan after hearing such a statement but give it careful thought because they’ve seen a few of my lecture games in which this very idea occurs. If I was new to chess, I might wring my hands in despair upon hearing such a statement and consider a career in checkers, but you should read further.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all moves will lead to dreadful positional problems. What it does mean is that you should examine the square you’re moving a pawn or piece off of before examining the square that pawn or piece is about to occupy.

A chess move can be likened to a coin, which obviously has two sides. When we pick up a coin, we examine both sides if for no other reason than to see what is etched on either face. If beginners would only take this approach when considering a move! The beginner tends to look only at the square the pawn or piece is moving to which can lead to positional problems. Even if the beginner carefully examines the square a piece is about to move to, taking into consideration possible opposition attacks against that piece, noting if the piece will increase it’s activity or seeing a potential capture or increase of attacking possibilities, they still ignore a key factor. That key factor is the weakness created upon moving that piece from the square it was on, the square you leave behind. This applies to both pawns and pieces.

One idea I teach my students early on is that you shouldn’t capture material if doing so weakens your position. The employment of this concept alone will go a long way towards improving your game. By capturing not for the sake of capturing but to increase the strength of your position, you avoid creating weaknesses within that position, but it isn’t enough. You have to take another step and that step is to carefully examine the square you leave behind when making any move.

I first became aware of “the square you leave behind” concept while watching a DVD by Grandmaster Maurice Ashley. When he discussed this concept I was honestly shocked because I realized that I was paying more attention to the square I was moving to and almost no attention to the square I moved from. The square you leave behind is the square vacated by a pawn or piece when you make a move. Even though I’m a full time chess teacher and coach, I’ll forever be a student of the game and this astounding idea of the square you leave behind left me feeling as if I’d been punched in the stomach. How could I miss this concept in my own training? Needless to say, I took note and started employing Grandmaster Maurice Ashley’s method of looking at a potential move. Here’s how you can employ this method: When considering a move, you obviously want to look at your opponent’s pawns and pieces to see if they control the square you want to occupy. If the square is controlled by opposition pawns and/or pieces, do you have a greater number of pawns and/or pieces also controlling that square? If you have a larger number of forces controlling the target square, next consider how moving to that square will affect your position. This is where it is absolutely critical to look at the square you’re leaving behind, the square that will be vacated by you pawn or piece when it moves. Take a look at the example below.

After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Nd4, Black has moved the same piece twice during the opening phase of the game. This is something beginners are taught not to do, moving the same piece twice before developing the majority of their material during the opening. Remember, the opening is a race to see who gets control of the board’s center first. The beginner playing the White pieces sees that the pawn on e5 is hanging and his Knight on f3 is under attack by Black’s d5 Knight. The beginner weighs his or her options and decides to preserve the King-side Knight by capturing the undefended e5 pawn. Not once, did the beginner consider the square the White Knight gives up, f3. After White plays 4. Nxe5, Black plays 4…Qg5, forking the Knight on e5 and the pawn on g2. By moving the Knight off of the f3 square, White has weakened the position greatly. The person playing White should have considered the square left behind, f3, and the squares defended by the Knight on f3, the h4 and g5 squares. Always consider the square you leave behind before considering the square you’re moving to. Take a look at the next example from a student game (both beginners).

Here, White plays the King’s Gambit, 1. e4…e5, 2. f4. Rather than accepting the gambit with 2…exf4 (followed by 3. Nf3), Black plays 2…Bc5. White plays 3. d3 (allowing the Bishop on c1 to defend the pawn on f4 – dreadful business), failing to notice the weakness on f2. When discussing this weakness with my beginning students, they often comment that there are no pawns or pieces on f2 so what is the weakness? A pawn on f2 forms a wall with the pawns on g2 and h2 that help protect the White King when castling on the King-side. That pawn, once on f2, is now on f4. Furthermore, the Bishop on c5 is controlling the f2 square and more importantly, the g1 square. White will not be able to castle on the King-side, since you cannot castle into check, as long as the Black Bishop remains on c5. Again, we must look at the square we leave behind when considering a move. Of course, that Bishop can be dislodged from c5 but that requires additional work on the part of the person playing White which means expending additional moves to do so (a loss in tempo). This example is extremely simplified but the idea behind it still remains true, examine the square you leave behind before making a move.

Of course, there are times when you have to move a pawn or piece and doing so will weaken your position to varying degrees. You will find a downside to any move you make. However, you can minimize that downside by weighing the positive and negative aspects of that move and determining whether the positive outweighs the negative. Just carefully examining the square left behind will go a long way towards helping you avoid the positional nightmare that comes from only looking at one side of the coin. Yes, a chess move is like a coin in that it has two sides. You must look at both. In chess, looking at the square you abandon with a critical eye will before examining the square you’re going to will help you avoid heartache and checkmate! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. See if you can find any weak squares left behind!

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).