Assassins and Bodyguards

The art of attack in chess is truly a fine art! Like any fine art, painting or drawing for example, you have to learn the fundamentals before creating a masterpiece. The same holds true for chess and a strong attack can be a masterpiece in itself. Both beginners and seasoned players love to attack their opponent’s pieces. However, beginner’s attacks often fall apart before they build up any steam which can be discouraging. What starts as a promising assault on the enemy can turn into a disaster in a single move. Why does this happen? It’s caused by L.P.S. or Lone Piece Syndrome.

L.P.S. occurs when a beginner uses a lone piece to attack an opposition piece which leads to an exchange of material with the attacker usually ending up on the losing side of the transaction. Again, beginners love to attack their opponent’s pieces any time the opportunity arises. However, an experienced chess player knows how to set up a successful attack. I say “experienced chess player” rather than strong chess player because what separates a strong chess player from a novice chess player is experience and it’s important for beginners to understand that chess success comes with gaining experience. Using words like bad or weak to describe a chess player can discourage beginners and I never want to do that. What is a successful attack for the beginner?

A successful attack is a coordinated effort involving two or more pieces. In fact, the more pieces involved the better the attack (within reason). For beginners, the first step in learning how to launch a successful attack is to understand the importance of pieces working together. It’s at this point in my lectures that I give the following analogy:

You and three other chess students attempt to leave the classroom but you find that the exit is blocked by a large crate weighing 200 pounds. Trying to push the crate out of the way alone will not suffice since a single youngster doesn’t have the strength to move it. However, if your classmates lend a hand, all working together, then the crate can be moved. The same holds true for attacks in chess. A lone piece might not be able to launch a successful attack but when that lone piece has some co-conspirators (bodyguards), the Attack Success Rate or A.S.R. increases sharply.

A.S.R. is a method we use to keep track of successful and unsuccessful attacks during a game of chess. We take a single sheet of paper and divide it into two columns, one for successful attacks and one for unsuccessful attacks. Every time a student launches an attack, the results are written down on our attack ledger. A “+” equals a successful attack and a “-“ an unsuccessful attack. The results are gone over after the game has finished. By keep track of attacks results, students can see whether or not they’re getting positive results (successful attacks).

While tactics such as forks pins and skewers allow for lone piece attacks that work, beginners still have problems with straight forward attacks or mating attempts because they send their attacking piece in to do the job without any backup or protection. To curb this problem, we start out by going over the relative value of the pieces again, replacing a point value with a monetary value. Therefore, a pawn is worth a $1.00, the Knight and Bishops are worth $3.00, the Rooks are worth $5.00 and the Queen is worth $9.00 (the King is considered priceless). I ask my students if they’d trade $9.00 for $1.00 and even the youngest child will tell me it’s a bad deal. I ask a second question, if given the choice, would you attack a Knight, knowing your attacking piece will be recaptured, with a pawn or a Queen. Knowing the attacking piece will be lost my students conclude it is better to lose a pawn than the Queen! This mindset helps students prepare their attacks.

There is something to be said about strength in numbers in chess. Good attacks will have two or more pieces on the attacking side. The piece that does the attacking is the assassin (a student coined term). The remaining pieces are the bodyguards. There can be more than one bodyguard but there has to be at least one for the attack to be successful. The bodyguard is just as important as the assassin because the bodyguard protects the assassin and without protection, the assassin could simply be captured by the piece under attack. When launching an attack, your pieces must work together in teams made up of two or more pawns and/or pieces. Teamwork is critical in chess and nowhere is this more apparent than in launching successful attacks.

Students now have two pieces of critical information needed for launch their attacks, piece value and the concept of teamwork. Now we can look at the mechanics that underlie a good attack. Too often, students memorize a series of moves that lead up to a successful attack without understanding the underlying mechanics that make the attack successful. Because I primarily work with beginners, I choose very simple examples to demonstrate the underlying mechanics of an attack. Grab a chessboard and pieces and set up the following position:

The white King is on d1, the white Queen is on f3, white’s two Rooks are on b4 and f6, and the white Bishops are on c6 and d4. There are white pawns on a6 and c7. Black’s King is on g7. There is a black Rook on h8 and Black’s Queen is on a8. While this is an overly simplified position, it serves to make a point. Black’s Queen is trapped on a8. When I show this position to my beginning students, many will look at the board and find the assassin, the Bishop on c6. Then I ask them who the bodyguard is and they respond “the Queen of course!” We see that a $3.00 Bishop is attacking a $9.00 Queen who is trapped. Then I ask them to change the pieces around so the white Queen is on c6 and the Bishop on f3. I ask them if the attack still works. The answer is no! Why doesn’t this new attack work? It doesn’t work because you’re trading a $9.00 Queen for a $9.00 Queen rather than a $3.00 Bishop for a $9.00 Queen. The attack is only successful provided you attack the Queen with a piece of lesser value (the $3.00 Bishop) and have a bodyguard to protect the assassin, the Queen.

In this extremely simple example we see that our attack works only because we’ve coordinated our pieces so they work together harmoniously and we’ve chosen the correct piece to lead the attack and defend the attacker. Here’s a game with some great coordinated attacks that lead to victory. Create your own A.R.S. ledger and write down successful and unsuccessful attacks within this game. You’ll find that the player with the more successful attacks goes on to win the game. Try this with your own casual games as well.

Hugh Patterson


Author: 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).