Your Opponent’s Move

I’ve written about this subject before, but feel it’s so important that we must revisit it in greater detail! When I coach a group of students, I go from board to board, watching each individual game. I make notes regarding problems I see within each game such as poor development in the opening, poorly thought out exchanges in the middle-game and the bane of the beginning player, one sided plans. What’s a one sided plan, you may be wondering? An affliction that everyone who has ever learned the game of chess has suffer from. Let’s first briefly review the concept of planning:

Chess is a game in which the plans of both players clash. They clash because the immediate plan of one player is often thwarted because of a specific move made by their opponent, a move that stops that plan. Of course, the game’s constant clash of plans is what makes the game so spectacular. Most beginners think the plan is to checkmate their opponent’s King. That is the game’s goal. That goal is achieved by employing a number of immediate plans rather than a single long term plan meant to work for the entire game. It’s unrealistic for beginners or advanced players to create a single plan that takes them from the opening to the endgame because a position can drastically change from one move to the next. This means that, if you had a single long term plan, one or two moves by the opposition could destroy that plan, leaving you in the dark regarding just what to do.

Plans must be flexible, able to adjust to the ever changing position on the chessboard. Flexibility is the key to good planning in chess. Your plan should always take into account a number of possible opposition moves, not just one move. However, there’s something even worse than an inflexible plan that depends on your opponent making a single anticipated move. This dreadful mindset is one sided thinking!

What do I mean by one sided thinking. Many of us have heard beginning players state that “I’m thinking four moves ahead of my opponent right now” going into or during the middle-game. The top chess players in the world have a little trouble realistically thinking this many moves ahead, with absolute accuracy during the middle-game, because there are so many possible positions to be considered (I’m talking about a staggering number that only a computer could fathom). What is the beginner really saying then?

The beginner isn’t lying about seeing four moves ahead. They are seeing four move ahead in their mind. Unfortunately, one sided thinking is clouding their judgment and derailing their plan without them even knowing it. One sided thinking is making a move and expecting your opponent to make the move you want them to make, which allows you to make your next move in the plan followed by your opponent making another move you want them to make. You plan only works if your opponent makes the moves you want them to make. However, your opponent has his or her own plan and you can be sure that they’re going to make moves that go against your plan. After all, your opponent is also trying to win the game. The beginner’s thoughts might sound like this: “I’m going to put my Queen here and my opponent is going to move a pawn there. Next, I’ll move my Bishop here and my opponent will his Knight there and I’ll checkmate on the next move. If this sounds familiar to beginners reading this, it should because it’s The Scholar’s Mate (four move checkmate). Take a look at the example below.

We’ll look at one siding thinking first, our beginner’s thought process from the above paragraph where the opposition makes the moves our beginner wants them to make, and then see what happens when our beginner (playing white) plays against an opponent that has his or her own ideas as to what to do!

In the above example, both players start out making extremely reasonable moves, 1 e4…1e5. Both players control the board’s center with a pawn and allow both the Queens and King-side Bishops access to the board. Our one sided thinker knew that black would play 1…e5. Now, he (white) decides to do something your should never do, which is bringing your Queen out early with 2. Qh5. This move loudly announces (white might as well jump up and down screaming “Scholar’s Mate!”) that white is going to try and checkmate black in four moves! Because our beginner commanding the white pieces is employing one sided thinking, he simply knows that his opponent will play 2…d6 (wow really?). Our beginner smiles as he sees his perfect plan playing out before his eyes and plays 3. Bc4. White obviously has the ability to control his opponent’s mind, because that would be the only explanation for black’s pitiful response, 3…Nc6. White grins from ear to ear as he makes move four, 4. Qf7#. Now let’s look at what actually happens when our beginner tries to employ his one sided thinking against an opponent playing realistically.

White starts off with 1. e4 while black counters with 1…e5. Our brave beginner now brings his Queen to h6 once again, 2. Qh6. “So far, so good” thinks the beginner. “My Queen is lined up for the attack. Now all black has to do is move their d pawn and wait! This isn’t the move black is supposed to play!” Black, instead of playing 2…d6, plays 2…Nf6 and white’s hopes of a fast checkmate are crushed. White retreats the Queen to f3 (3. Qf3) in the hope that the f6 Knight will magically disappear. Black develops his Queen-side Knight with 3…Nc6. Remember, every time you have to move a piece more than once during the opening, you’re essentially giving your opponent a free game turn. Black takes advantage of this fact by developing a new piece. White, determined to somehow salvage the situation, plays 4. Bc4, thinking somehow the chess gods will look down on him with positional pity and grant him his wish! Black counters with 4…Nd4, attacking the Queen who has to move again. In this example, white faced an opponent who didn’t make the moves our beginner wanted them to make but rather made his own, well thought out moves. Beginners will never face an opponent who makes exactly the moves the beginner wants them to make. Thus, one sided thinking is a sure fire way to lose every game of chess you play.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t address how to you can anticipate your opponent’s moves. Of course, you can’t anticipate every possible move your opponent makes. However, you can use a logical system to at least prepare for the opposition’s best possible responses. This is accomplished by simply trading places with your opponent, not literally of course, but in your mind. In other words, you have to look at the board from the opposition’s point of view, looking for the best response to the move you’re planning on making, as opposed to thinking about your opponent’s best response after you’ve made your move. Think first before making any move, otherwise you’ll pay a steep price.

The secret really is putting yourself into your opponent’s shoes, pretending to be in charge of the opposition’s forces. Of course, to find the best and most likely opposition move, you’ll need to examine each pawn and piece. This doesn’t mean looking at them as if you were in a museum looking at a piece of art. You have to look at each pawn and piece and determine whether or not that pawn or piece can be moved to a square that disrupts your plan. During the opening phase, the opposition moves you’ll be looking for are those that gain greater control of the center. Use the opening principles to guide you. If you see that an opposition piece can gain a strong foothold in the center, ask yourself if there’s a move you can make, with a pawn for example, that will deter the opposition from making that move. Take your time and examine everything , material-wise, on the board (board vision).

During the middle-game, tactics are the name of the game for more advanced beginners and improvers. Look at the opposition’s pawns and pieces (yes pawns, because they can fork pieces) and see if there’s a tactical play to be had, such as a fork. Chances are that if you saw it and your opponent is a stronger player, he or she will have seen it as well. Can you use a pawn to keep the forking piece off of its target square? Can you use a piece of lesser value to stop a piece of greater value from making a tactical play? Look for ways to keep your opponent’s pieces away from your side of the board. This can be accomplished by further activating your pawns and pieces.

Again, think about your opponent’s best move as if it was his or her turn, before considering making your move. All you have to do is put yourself in your opponent’s place. If you insist on employing one sided thinking, you’ll be doomed to live out your days in the land of lost chess games. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week. There two players didn’t use one sided thinking when planning their moves.

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).