Building Blocks

What would you do if the only light bulb that illuminates your living room suddenly went out, leaving you in the dark? You would change the bulb! What if you didn’t have a ladder but instead had a bunch of two foot square wooden cubes and those cubes provided the only way to reach the broken bulb? You would have to carefully arrange the cubes in a way that allowed you to reach the bulb and change it! Simply scattering them around under the bulb wouldn’t help you achieve your goal. Instead, you’d have to arrange them in a way (a logical sequence) that allowed you to stand on top of them and reach the bulb. If arranged correctly, you would end up with something that looks like a small staircase. What do wooden cubes and a broken light bulb have to do with chess?

To change the broken light bulb using wooden cubes to gain the necessary height to reach it, you have to arrange the cubes in a specific way. The first layer of cubes creates a foundation for the next layer of cubes and so on, leaving you with a staircase built from the cubes. If that first layer (the foundation) isn’t correctly laid out, the next layer will be weak, unable to support your weight as you climb up it. In chess, each move we make creates a foundation for the next move as well as subsequent moves. If we make a weak move early on, we’re creating a poor foundation for the rest of our game. Moves are like building blocks. They have to be carefully put together, one move at a time, with each move supporting the next move.

Beginners have a problem with this way of thinking, one move creating a foundation for the next, because they live only in the moment. While they consider the distant future, delivering checkmate and winning the game, their moves are disjointed with no connection between one move and the next. They make a move without considering how that move effects their following moves. This is a very natural way of thinking for beginners because they haven’t yet developed the ability to calculate.

Beginners think of calculation in mathematical terms. What calculation means to the chess player is contemplating a candidate move (a move you’re considering making), considering your opponent’s best response to that move, then your best response to your opponent’s move and so on. They key to calculation for the beginner is coming up with the best response by their opponent to a candidate move. A candidate move is simply a move your considering making.

It’s always best to find three possible positive candidate moves you can make. I tell my students that there are two kinds of positive moves, good moves and great moves. A good move is just that, a move that does something positive. An example of a good move would be the development of a minor piece during the opening that allows you to gain more control of the board’s center (d4, d5, e4 and e5). A great move is one that creates a decisive advantage. A move that leads to a tactic that gives you a material advantage is an example of a great move. By simply making the first principled move you see, you might miss a better move. This is why you look for three possible moves. Searching further allows you to look at the position of pawns and pieces on the board in greater detail. While that first move might be the best move you can make, you might miss a better move (or even a great move) if you don’t really dig in mentally and examine the position thoroughly.

Once you find the move you’re going to make, it’s time to determine your opponent’s best response to that move. Here, you’ll want to pretend your playing as your opponent. If your playing as White, you now want to pretend your playing as Black. See if you can make a move that stops your initial candidate move. Look for the best move that can be made rather than the move you want your opponent to make. Once you find the best move your opponent can make, next determine how you’ll respond to that move. It takes a lot of practice to become proficient at calculation. However, it’s a skill you’ll need to develop if you want to become a strong chess player.

Now you have to consider how the move you’ve finally chosen effects your future moves. During the opening, for example, developing your King-side Knight and Bishop towards the center brings you closer to being able to castle. Developing the Knight first, then the Bishop and finally castling is an example of a sequence of moves in which one move works harmoniously with the next. These moves are harmonious because they are part of a plan. When you create a plan, your moves are tied together, being made with a purpose in mind. You need to have a plan, even if it’s only for the next two moves you’re going to make. The plan helps to organize your moves in a logical order. Beginners should keep their plans short and flexible. What do I mean by flexible?

We’ve all fallen victim to opening traps. I’ve seen plenty of junior players who win their games early on by springing traps on unsuspecting opponents. However, traps are not flexible. Traps usually involve making unprincipled moves that are bad from a principled perspective. If the traps fails, the person who laid the trap is left with a bad position. An example of a flexible plan would be developing your minor pieces during the opening or further activating your pawns and pieces during the middle game. You’re simply improving your position. Only when you have the opportunity for a real attack against the enemy King should your plan tighten up. Being flexible also allows you to deal with moves you didn’t expect your opponent to make.

In closing, remember that moves should be connected to one another like building blocks. One move creates the foundation for the next move and so on. Always play with a plan in mind and keep that plan flexible. Always look for three possible moves and consider you opponent’s response to any move you make. Doing this will make you a much better chess player. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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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).