The Line of Scrimmage

I received an email a while back from a gentleman who is a professional football player. He decided to take up chess as a way to relax and exercise his mind while on the road. He carefully explained that he was have trouble with fully grasping the reasons for control of board’s center during the beginning of the game. He asked if I could explain the idea in simple terms. I thought about and decided to use an analogy he’d understand. The key to both good teaching and meaningful learning is to find explanations that allow one to understand a concept comfortably. Thus, the line of scrimmage.

In American football, the line of scrimmage is an imaginary line that runs across the width of the football field. Players of either team cannot cross this line until play has started. When you watch a football game, you’ll see both teams facing each other on either side of this line and when the play starts, one team tries to push across the line of scrimmage while the other team tries to hold the line, keeping the opposition from getting across.

During the opening phase of a chess game, the line of scrimmage can be thought of as the line between the fourth and fifth ranks. This line divides the field of battle, with the fifth through eighth ranks being black’s territory and the first through fourth ranks being white’s territory. In football, it’s the quarterback’s job to get the ball over the line of scrimmage either into the hands of a receiver or carry it himself to the opposition’s goal line for a touchdown. While the quarterback is trying to accomplish this task, his teammates are trying to keep the other side from attacking and tackling the quarterback (or the poor receiver running for his life down the field). His team mates are defending the line of scrimmage. Attack and defense, two concepts football and chess players need to be familiar with.

During the opening, you’re trying to hold down your side of the board while pushing across the line of scrimmage to gain space on your opponent’s side of the board. In football, it’s a lot easier to score a goal if you’re closer to the opponent’s goal line. The closer you get, the better your chances of scoring. The line of scrimmage in a football game moves back and forth and the closer your team gets to the opposition’s goal line, the easier it will be to score a touchdown.

The same idea holds true in chess, especially early in the game. If you’re playing the white pieces, you’ll want to gain a foothold in the center immediately. You’ll want to strengthen your control of the line of scrimmage as quickly as possible. Why is the center of the board so crucial? First of all, pieces have greater power and thus greater control when centrally located. Secondly, the opposition King sits on a central file and he’s the guy you want to get at. In football, the quarterback starts behind his teammates near the center of the line of scrimmage. This is why you’ll see the opposition rush across the center of the scrimmage line. When the play starts, you don’t see everyone running towards the line’s flanks. Because of this, the quarterback’s teammates will build up a heavy presence at the line’s center, defending it. The team that owns the line line of scrimmage usually owns the game (provided they can get the ball to the opposition’s goal). In chess, you build up a strong presence at the board’s center. You defend your territory, keep the opposition tied down and only then consider an attack. However, you have to use the right players for the job.

You can consider the Queen as the quarterback. This means that if you bring her into the game early, she might get taken out before she has a chance to score the game winning touchdown or checkmate (Queen based checkmates are the beginner’s mate of choice)! Therefore, you have to use the right players, or pieces in this case, for the job, and in a specific order. Start with your defensive linemen, the pawns. Pawns have great power against pieces because of their relative value. Your opponent isn’t going to trade a piece for a pawn early in the game (yes, there are exceptions to this idea but we’re just going over the basics for now). It would be like trading your best football player for one with a permanent injury, unable to run. Because of their value, pawns can stand in the center and keep the opposition’s pieces at bay, as long as they are protected. In chess teammates must protect teammates. Next bring in the linebackers, the Knights and Bishops. They have more agility or power than the pawns and work well at controlling the center right away. Again, it’s about the center during the opening so you have to move them towards the center. In football, linebackers are the guys that stop the passes, push forward and sometimes sack the opposition’s quarterback. Like the linebackers, your Knights and Bishops have an extremely important job during the opening and if you leave them on the sidelines (their starting squares), you’ll pay the price.

In football, you keep your quarterback safe because if he can’t play, you’re going to have a hard time scoring a goal. This is why we don’t bring the Queen into the game early. In chess, we also have to keep our King safe because when the King goes down the game ends. The easiest way to do this is to castle your King early on. This special move has the added bonus of bringing a heavy hitter into the game, the Rook. When castling King-side for white, the Rook ends up on the f1 square. From there, it’s only a one square move to e1 where our Rook will be opposite the black King. In football, this would be the equivalent of having a fast moving 350 pound tackling expert aimed at the opponent’s quarterback.

During the opening, you bring the right team members out onto the field, in this case the board, in a strategic order. You play for the center and control of your opponent’s side of the board while holding down the line of scrimmage, keeping your opponent from gaining a foothold on your side of the board.

Then there’s the Hail Mary play in football or the fast checkmate attempt in chess. In football, when things get desperate, the team coach will often try a play that has little chance of succeeding. Sometimes it does and that play goes down in history (look up the Hail Mary football play). In chess, this kind of play fails when employed against an opponent who knows even a little about the game. You have to avoid all or nothing attacks. You build up an attack the same way you would push the line of scrimmage towards the opposition’s goal line to ensure a touchdown. Slow and steady wins the race. Of course, opportunities may present themselves, allowing you to deliver a deadly blow in the form of checkmate. However, this rarely happens when playing skilled opponents, so play the long game not the short game. To win a football game, you have to play all four quarters.

So that is a little of the analogy I gave my football playing friend. Once he applied the game he knows so well to the game he’s just learning, he started to make better decisions during the opening. If you’re learning the game of chess, try to take concepts you know from other endeavors and see if you can use them to create a useful analogy of your own. Here’s a game until next week. Watch the line of scrimmage in this one!

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).