When Trouble Comes Knocking

Inevitably, there comes point in every chess player’s career, be they beginner or professional, when they find themselves in trouble on the chessboard. Beginners find themselves in continual trouble as they learn the game but that trouble eventually becomes less frequent as they improve. I’ve had students remark that they get into trouble because they’re still learning the nuances of the game. I remind them that even the world’s top players can fall victim to problems during their games. It’s how you handle those problems that counts. The more playing experience you have, the more likely you are to avoid trouble before it happens and if you do find yourself in trouble, the more likely you are to deal with it successfully.

As you improve, you make better moves based on sound planning and avoid the problems that come with making bad moves based on poor planning. However, you can still fall victim to a troublesome position in which you are at a disadvantage that could cost you the game. Maybe you miscalculated, missing a potential opposition move that sends your position into turmoil. The beginner will panic while becoming overwhelmed by the dark cloud of defeat, often giving up before trying to fight back. Always try to find a solution when faced with a problem.

I have my beginning students finish their games no matter how bad the position. With more advanced students, I teach the fine art of resignation, but only if the position is hopeless. Beginners tend to get into trouble very early on due to a lack of opening and middle game skills. Most beginner’s games conclude before the endgame starts.

It’s easy enough to get my students to apply the opening principles, having a pawn control a central square, the development of minor pieces towards the center and early castling. However, when it comes to exchanging material, things go south quickly! To avoid being on the losing end of an exchange, we assign dollar figures to the pieces rather than a relative point value. My students have a fondness for money and when they’re thinking about exchanges of material in financial terms then tend to make better decisions. You wouldn’t trade a $9.00 Queen for a $3.00 Knight or Bishop or worse yet, a $1.00 pawn. It’s simple Chessonomics! Don’t trade down unless doing so wins the game!

Let’s say that you, our intrepid beginner, make a bad trade in the opening. Rather than panic, examine the position. Look at the opposition pawns and pieces, then look at yours. Make sure your opponent’s pawns and pieces are not in a position to do further damage, such as capturing any hanging or unprotected material belonging to you. Then look at the activity of your minor pieces. Are they well placed, aimed towards the board’s center. Look to see if your opponent’s damaging capture on their last move left them vulnerable to a potential tactic such as a fork, pin or skewer. The point here is that you should look to see if that last opposition move left any weaknesses. Many times, a beginner will grab a valuable piece of material from their opponent only to have that opponent come back with an even deadlier attack. Always look before panicking. When you panic your brain tends to focus on the emotional aspects of the problem at hand rather than the practical issues, such as how to get out of trouble.

With beginners, the loss of the Queen (which is why you don’t bring her out early) extinguishes any thoughts of winning the game. However, this isn’t always the case! A beginner who snatches his or her opponent’s Queen from the board often becomes a bit relaxed in their strategic thinking. After all, they just took your most powerful weapon away from you. This can give you a needed opportunity to strike back but you have to carefully assess the situation. The key again, is to not panic and look for ways to equalize. Look to see if you can reduce the dollar amount you just lost! If your opponent uses a Rook ($5.00) to capture your Queen ($9.00) and you can capture that Rook with a pawn or piece (assuming you won’t lose that pawn or piece as well), capture the Rook. Then the loss becomes less. Instead of losing an entire $9.00, you reduce your loss to $4.00. I’d rather lose $4.00 than $9.00.

When beginners attack they often do so in a haphazard manner, leaving weaknesses in their position. In the case above, look at the position and see if there are any weak spots in the opposition’s defenses. If you can’t find any and you’re down in material, build up your own defenses around your King. Position pawns and pieces in a way that makes it extremely difficult for your opponent to launch an attack. Beginners will often give up a great deal of material trying to break through to your King which could restore the balance from a dollar and cents standpoint.

Play for the draw if you opponent has the material advantage, especially when playing beginners. All too often, I see one student with a lone King and the other student with an overwhelming number of pieces left on the board. Beginners don’t understand the dangers of stalemate when they have too much material. They carefully arrange their major and minor pieces around the enemy King and when it’s the Kings turn to move, he has no place to go and the game ends in stalemate. Again, rather than panic when faced with an overwhelming force, try to keep your King away from the edges of the board and force a stalemate. Drawing a game is better than losing it. Of course, you should always play to win but sometimes a draw is the best you can do.

Endgame play is the hardest phase for the beginner because they simply don’t play enough of them early on in their chess careers. If you’re the player with a lone King against an opposition King and pawn, rather than submitting to defeat, play for a possible draw. Of course, if you’re playing an experienced opponent, that opponent will know how to promote the pawn properly. If your opponent moves the pawn first, so their King is behind the pawn as it works its way towards the promotion square, you can end up with a stalemate. Most beginners don’t know about King opposition and keeping his majesty in front of the pawn attempting to promote.

The idea of this article is to force you to look at troubled positions logically before throwing in the towel and giving up. When beginners play beginners, seemingly devastating attacks are too often flawed. By examining a position closely and logically, you sometimes find that things aren’t as dark as they seem. You will learn a lot more about this great game if you at least attempt to work through your positional troubles. By looking at a bad position and trying to determine a good course of action, you’ll become a much better player, even if you lose. Have faith in yourself and don’t simply give up without a fight! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

This entry was posted in Articles, Hugh Patterson on by .

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).