Simple Solutions

Beginners have an uncanny way of complicating a position rather than simplifying it. While chess can be a difficult game that leads to complex board positions, the solutions to these positions are often quite simple. I was going through some annotated master level games and was surprised at how often the simplest solution was the correct way in which to resolve the problem. This got me thinking about the games of my more advanced beginners (those who know the rules and understand basic tactics) who make moves that can over-complicate the situation rather than simplify it. Why do beginners over-complicate matters on the chessboard?

When we perform an everyday task, such as driving to the store, we take the route that gets us there in an efficient manner. We don’t turn a five minute drive into five hour misadventure. We take the most logical route (hopefully) which is usually the simplest route. The same holds true for the majority of things we do in our lives. If we are preconditioned to find simple solutions to our day to day problems, why don’t we (especially as beginning chess players) employ this way of thinking to our chess? I overheard a conversation between parents recently that may help answer this question. One parent said proudly to the other parent “my daughter is taking Hugh’s chess class. It seems like such a complicated game but my daughter seems to understand it.” The other parent replied, “I know what you mean. I tried to play but it’s so difficult. If you make the wrong move you end up losing the game. It’s too complicated for me.”

The young child who takes one of my classes probably hears various versions of this conversation at home. This kind of conversation can lead to a subconscious mental conditioning that plants the seeds of complexity within a child’s mind. Those seeds can blossom into the idea that complex problems require complex solutions. Children gain a lot of early insight into life by listening to adult conversations. To most children, labeling something as complicated often (but not always) directs the child to look for complicated solutions. To many people, the words “chess” and “complexity” seem to go hand in hand. Of course, my example is generalized and simplistic. However, I think it at least touches on the root of this problem.

It is important to teach beginners to use reasoning and logic properly. When faced with a positional problem on the chessboard, we should use a simple system to help determine our next move. This “system” has to address the key problems the beginning player faces in the “here and now” of current the board position. I have students ask themselves the following questions: Are any of my pieces under attack? If so can I easily defend them or do I need to move the piece? If I have to move the piece, can I move it to a more active square? Are there any potential threats of a strong check against my King? Can I capture any of my opponent’s pieces? Does capturing my opponent’s piece lead to a positional advantage (I teach my students to avoid capturing pieces unless they get something other than material back – such as a stronger position)? Can I move one step closer to launching a strong attack by moving a piece? The idea is to get my students to look at all the possibilities and potential outcomes of their actions on the chessboard. However, we still have the hurdle of over-complication to contend with.

When we look at certain games by the great masters we often see a move that make no sense to us at the moment it’s made. However, a few moves later, we see the true intentions of that move and suddenly we understand the reason behind it. Children have less disciplined attention spans and will often miss the steps in between that first move (that made no sense to them) and later decisive moves that built upon that initial move. This means having to use positional game examples that are clear, concise and simple. In going through a large number of master games, I was surprised at how often a simple move was the solution to the complex problem at hand. Often these were quiet developmental moves that were more strategic than tactical in nature.

Children love to attack, going for quick mating attempts and dramatic tactical strikes. Often, when presented with a master game, the child will remember the dramatic moves that won material or mated the opposing King. However, they tend to forget about those quiet moves made to set up the exciting capture of material or the stunning checkmate. It is too early in their chess careers for them to fully understand the great value of positional play. However, this is exactly the right time to start introducing the concept. I use a goal system to teach the merits of positional thinking and simple problem solving.

In the “goal system” we break down a master game into positional blocks made up of four moves per block. The last move in a four move block is the goal or position we want to reach. We look at the prior three moves that led up to our goal or position. Each of these three moves is gone over to see how it builds up to the final “goal” position on move four. Using this method, the three moves leading up to the block’s “goal” start to make sense because we are breaking the game down into smaller units, each of which represents a key position in the game. These units are easier to understand because the “goal” of the specific block is already defined. We just have to figure out how to get there! However, it is a lot easier for beginning students to find the correct solution for each move knowing the “goal” in advance. In many cases the solutions are extremely simple, such as moving a single pawn to create a protected pawn chain. Again, I choose games that demonstrate simple solutions.

One example of employing a simple solution to a potentially complex problem for young beginners comes up after the following moves 1.e4…e5  2.Nf3…Nc6  3.Bc4…Nf6  4.Ng5. Two pieces are attacking black’s f7 square. The beginner playing black often starts to panic once he or she realizes that either the Knight on g5 is going to fork black’s Queen and Rook (winning the Rook) or the Bishop on c4 is going to attack the black King leading to a King that will no longer be able to castle to safety. Beginners will often overlook the simplest solution to the problem, blocking with the black d pawn. Panic has set in and surely, the beginner thinks, a solution can’t possibly be so simple. Boris Spassky is a great example of a chess player who used very simple solutions to deal with an array of positional problems. Take a look at the following game and watch a true master employ simple solutions to tackle the toughest of positional problems!

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).