Your Opponent’s Best Move

As a chess instructor and coach, I spend a great deal of time studying the mistakes of my students, especially beginners, in an effort to help future students avoid making those same mistakes. Not surprisingly, these mistakes are common to all novice players and can easily be identified. However, merely identifying the problem does nothing to resolve it. We’ll look at one of the most common mistakes beginners make, making bad moves based on one sided thinking, and employ some simple methods for dealing with this problem.

The definition of a bad move is broad in scope. It can be a move that allows our opponent to capture an unprotected pawn or piece of ours or it can be a move that weakens our position or even leads to our King being checkmated. A move can be considered bad if it gives our opponent the opportunity to improve their position and subsequently win the game. Good moves help us execute our plans, both short and long term.

Planning is the key to successful chess for without the simplest of plans, you’re cast adrift in an ever changing sea of positional turmoil. Even the most rudimentary plan is better than no plan at all. I teach my students to always have a plan, even a simple one that may not extend past a few moves. Unfortunately, it is the very idea of planning that gets many beginning students into trouble. How can the formulation of a plan get you into trouble? Because beginners create extremely one sided plans, not taking into account their opponent’s plans! Here’s what I mean.

During a practice game between my students, one student looked up at me and said “I have a brilliant plan over the next six moves.” I replied, “so you’re seeing six moves into the future?” My student assured me he was indeed calculating well into the game’s future. He went on to explain that when his opponent did this, then he’d do that. If his opponent then did this, he’d then do that and so on through the six moves. While this might sound good, the calculations were one sided, based only on what my student wanted his opponent to do, not what his opponent might actually do. Your opponent has a mind of his or her own and will do everything in their power to execute their own plans.

What makes chess fascinating is when the plans of two players violently clash on the board. This can be intellectual drama at its best! A plan that seemed sound and potentially victorious on move ten might be completely ripped apart by move thirteen. While the game’s overall goal (checkmate) remains the same, plans, on the other hand, change with with the positional landscape. Because beginners are new to the game, they tend to create rigid, one sided plans that solely depend on their opponent making moves that fit that specific plan. When their opponent makes a move that is unexpected, our beginner’s already shaky plan begins to unravel. So how does the beginner create a realistic plan?

Step one is to keep your plans simple and flexible! During the opening, for example, use the opening principles to guide your moves. Ask yourself, have I put a pawn on a square that controls the board’s center? Am I developing my minor pieces to active, centralized squares? Is my King safe? These are three principles you can use to create an opening plan. What do I mean by Flexible? Take Scholar’s Mate for example. After 1.e4…e5, 2.Qh5…Nc6, 3.Bc4…g6, 4.Qf3…Nf6, White’s rigid, one sided plan has fallen apart. White was counting on Black playing a specific sequence of moves which would allow White to checkmate on move four. There was no flexibility in White’s plan. Black was able to develop his Knights to active squares and has a broader selection of future moves while White has to catch up. Black has a more flexible position and thus more opportunities as far as planning is concerned.

Stay away from opening traps. In fact, traps are an excellent example of one sided thinking. When you set a trap, you have to move pawns and pieces to specific squares that may not be the strongest squares for those pawns and pieces. Then your opponent has to make the moves you want them to make in order for the trap to work. If your opponent moves elsewhere, you’re stuck with a weak position. While I have nothing against traps, I prefer to teach my students the concept that strong piece activity and flexible planning trumps tricks and traps, Now to OSTS or One Sided Thinking Syndrome.

This is a topic that I first came across in Power Chess For Kids (an excellent book by Charles Hertan). In fact, the author spoke highly of Richard James in regards to this subject. With OSTS, plans are truly one sided, as if there was no opponent on the other side of the chessboard. It would be like saying to your opponent, “listen, I’m going to make this move and then I want you to make this move so I can then make that move.” Sound ridiculous? Of course it does, but many beginners think like this. If you remember just one idea from this article, let it be the following: Your opponent is not going to make the move you want them to make so be prepared!

So what should the beginner do? How are they supposed to figure out what their opponent’s plan might be? Obviously, I don’t expect my beginning students to be good enough at positional calculation to see many moves ahead. However, they can see at least one move ahead, their opponent’s move, by asking themselves one simple question, what is best move my opponent can make when it is his or her turn?

This question should be asked prior to making your own move I might add! Look at every single pawn and piece belonging to your opponent and ask yourself if there is anything (attacks, etc) that the pawn or piece can do if it is moved. Look at pawns and pieces even if they’re on their starting squares. Can any of those pawns and pieces suddenly be in a position to attack your pawns and pieces if moved? Follow the path each of those opposition pawns and pieces travels on and see if any of your pawns and pieces are in the line of fire. By thoroughly examining your opponent’s forces in relation to your forces, you’ll see both sides of the coin and be less likely to employ one sided thinking.

Power Chess for Kids uses a method I recommend which is seeing 1.5 moves ahead which is your move, your opponent’s move and finally your subsequent response or move. While seeing 1.5 moves ahead isn’t as glamorous as seeing ten moves ahead, its a number the beginner can grasp and successfully employ in their games. Keep it simple, employ the game’s principles and stay away from traps (at least until you know the difference between a good trap and a bad trap). Speaking of games, here’s one 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).