Pin to Win

Fred Reinfeld, that great chess writer, once said “the pin is mightier than the sword.” As it turns out, the pin is a mighty weapon to have in one’s tactical bag of tricks. One of the first things I teach beginners, after they’ve masters the game’s basic rules, are basic tactics. I start with a tactic called the pin because it teaches the novice player coordinated linear attacks and board vision. In a pin, one piece attacks another piece along a rank, file or diagonal. This sounds like just another attacking position on the chessboard except there is an added bonus to this attack. Along the rank, file or diagonal, behind the attacked piece, is a piece of greater value. If the piece under attack moves, the more valuable piece behind it will be captured. Pins come in two forms, absolute and relative.

In an absolute pin, the piece behind the attacked piece is the King. The rules of chess state that the King can never be exposed to check. Therefore, the pinned piece is stuck in front of the King until the attacking piece is driven off its attacking square, captured or the pin is broken. In a relative pin, the piece behind the pinned piece (the piece being attacked) is of greater value but not the King. With a relative pin, the pinned piece can move but the more valuable piece behind it will be captured.

The pin involves three pieces, the pinned piece, the more valuable piece it is pinned to and the attacker. To make sense of this, take a look at the following diagram:

In the above diagram, the black Knight is pinned to the black King. This is an absolute pin which means the Knight may not move as long as the attacker, the white Bishop remains along the diagonal that connects the three pieces. Black doesn’t have to sit by idly. In this position, black can push the c pawn to c5, attacking the Bishop and forcing it to move. Of course, black can also move the King to e8 or f7, which eliminates the pin while still defending the formally pinned piece. Often pins are employed to keep a piece from taking part in the action, as is the case in the above diagram. Both the pinned piece and the attacker are of equal value. When we pin a piece of equal value, we are usually doing so to keep that piece from participating in the game. Now let’s trade the black Knight for a Rook:

Now the pinned piece is of greater value that the attacker. This means that white could exchange the Bishop for the Rook, winning material in the process if it was white’s turn to move. This pin works because the attacker cannot be counter-attacked by the pinned piece. If the pinned piece was a Bishop, black could simple capture the attacking Bishop with his own Bishop. Beginners often make this mistake when first trying out the pin. Always make sure the pinned piece cannot fight back!

In the next diagram, we’re going to look at an absolute pin in which black loses the Queen. This happens in many junior level games and it usually spells disaster for the player who loses their Queen:

Here, the black Queen is pinned to the black King. The attacker is the white Rook who is protected by the white King. Since this is an absolute pin, the Queen cannot move and will be lost. Note that this pin would not work for white if the white King wasn’t protecting the Rook. When pinning a piece that can attack on the same lines as the attacker, always have a bodyguard to protect the attacker. Always attack with a piece of lesser value. If white had used a Queen rather than a Rook, it would have been an even exchange. By attacking with the Rook, white will come out ahead in this exchange.

Now let’s look at a relative pin. With a relative pin, the player with the pinned piece has the option of moving the pinned piece but at a material loss. Take a look at the diagram below:

Here, the black Bishop on g4 is pinning the white Knight to the Queen. If the Knight moves, the white Queen is lost. However, there is a big difference in this position! White has viable options to deal with the attacker. White can simply move the Queen to e1, break the pin by interposing the light squared Bishop (moving it to e2), attack the piece doing the pinning by moving the h pawn to h3 or ignoring the pin for the moment. Why ignore the pin? In this position, the Knight on f3 isn’t needed to take part in any action and if Bishop captures Knight, the Queen can simply capture back. We wouldn’t use the pawn on g2 to capture back because it would leave an opening on the g file, making castling King-side unsound.

While this is a very basic introduction to the pin, it provides enough information to start young beginners on their tactical quest. To become good at finding pins requires examining the entire chessboard which develops board vision. Learning how to successfully use pins also develops harmonious coordination between pieces. Here’s one last example:

In the above example, both the attacking Bishop and the pinned Queen operate on diagonal lines. However, the Bishop is protected by the pawn on a3. Therefore, the Queen cannot simply capture the attacking Bishop. What about the Knight on f5? When you pin a piece, you can often intensify the pin by adding more pressure to the pinned piece. Adding additional attackers helps to ensure a strong pin. In this example, there are two attackers against one defender, the black King. This means that white can capture the Queen and not lose the attacker to the black king since it will be defended. Therefore, if the white bishop captures the black Queen, the King cannot recapture the Bishop (reducing the loss of material) because the white Knight protects it. Start keeping a record of all the pins you and your opponent create during a game. In the games of young beginners, the player who executes the greatest number of pins often controls (and wins) the game!

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).