“Every gentleman should be able to do these three things: converse on any subject without losing your cool, play at least one instrument well, and provide good competition at chess…”
These were my grandfather’s words to me on my fifth birthday, as he presented me with my first chess set
, and sat down to teach me how to play. His advice has served me well to this day, and now I feel it is perhaps time to pass it on to others. I am not a grand master
, nor am I on the tournament circuit; neither of those interest me. I am, however, the man to beat
among coffee shops, friends, and acquaintances. For most people, this is all they really desire: to be good enough at something they can beat who they know personally (and to have fun as well, of course!)
I believe one of the reasons there are far more “bad” chess players
out there than “average” ones is because most chess strategy books read like technical manuals. Additionally, few people want to bother with the effort of reading a book on chess. They don’t want to be a Chess Player, they just want to be decent at chess. This is my purpose: to explain enough of the mentality, rules, and strategy, that your chess game improves. Experienced players may gain nothing from this
, and may feel compelled to add their own strategies
as well. I welcome those future additions.
- SPECIAL RULES: As a player, it is your responsibility to be acquainted with the rules of chess. If you don’t even know how the pieces move, this node will do you little good. It is a very good idea to learn both types of notation (traditional and algebraic) Three rules, however, that are most frequently misunderstood are en passant, castling, and stalemate. These three rules are what I have seen the least number of people know about.
- en passant - As you already know, your pawn has the option, on its first move, to move 2 squares. To understand en passant, you must realize that your pawn is considered to be in both squares until the end of your opponent’s next move. This is why the pawn may be taken from the “skipped” square. Only a pawn is capable of taking another pawn en passant, and the rule does not apply to any other piece. The mentality, however, does.
- castling - A very similar effect to en passant applies to castling, but first, the easy way to remember how to castle: Your king moves to the left or the right, to the next square of his starting color (two squares). The rook on the side he moved to is placed on the other side of the king, beside him. You can not castle under the following conditions: if your king has moved, if the rook who’s side you are castling to has moved, if any of the squares between and including the king and rook are directly threatened by an enemy piece. For instance, if an enemy bishop could, on his move, place himself between your king and rook, you could not castle.
- stalemate - Simply put, when one player cannot move without placing his king in check, though he is not currently in check. This results in a draw.
- KNOW YOUR BOARD: Chess is sometimes a game of psychology when played between two humans. When playing against a computer, strategy is always the winning factor. But if your opponent has to tell you how to set up your own pieces, or starts correcting you on the name of your pieces, you will quickly find your game faltering, and others laughing at you.
- It’s not a “horsey”. It’s a knight. - This is not some elitist chess lingo, it is the standard term for the piece with a horse-head on it. If you still insist on calling it a horsey, stop, or you deserve to be laughed at and ridiculed. The only piece that technically has two names is the rook. It is also known as a castle, but most refer to it as a rook.
- Setting the board. - The orientation of the board should always place a white square at your lower right. The queen always goes on her own color. “Monarchy needs Church support” is a good way of remembering to put your bishops in the correct place on either side of the king and queen. White always goes first. If you want to go first, you must play white, you don’t just say “I want to go first this time, but I’ll still play black.” For your own house rules, that’s fine, but suggesting it to another chess player is liable to get the same response as the “horsey” comment.
- Default attacks. - I made this term up to describe the attack pattern of any piece from it’s starting position. Examine each piece at some point, and look where it could move in one turn, without the pawns being in the way. Now set up your pawns and note how your line of pawns blocks the ability of another piece to move along this path. This is the secret to good positioning in the early game. Sometimes you want it blocked, and sometimes you don’t. Knowing when to do which comes later, but first you need to understand the potential of each piece on their first move. Later, you should try to know at least the potential first two moves for both bishops and knights (not first move of the game, but first move of that piece).
- KEEP YOUR PRIORITIES STRAIGHT: - Your first priority is always capturing the king. Skilled players will lure their opponent with even their queen if they thought it would keep you from checkmating them. However, it’s not always feasible to go after the king. This is when you must decide what is most important. Capturing, advancing, defense, traps, and so forth, will all compete for your attention and change every single turn. Here are a list of possible priorities to consider besides taking the king.
- Material Battle: If you are fighting a battle of material, it means you are trying to capture more points worth of pieces than your opponent. This is one of the most basic strategies, and can provide a sound structure for learning new ones. The point value of each captured piece is as follows: King=200, Queen=9, Rook=5, Bishop=3, Knight=3 (though some place it at 2.5), and a Pawn=1. The point value is based off of pawns, and the value of a tradeoff is one way to determine the value of a move. For instance, if it only cost you a knight and a bishop to take your opponent’s queen (lose 6 points, gain 9), you have netted 3 points. This priority has its limitations though; you certainly wouldn’t want to lose 6 pawns and a bishop just to take the enemy queen. The sheer loss of numbers would be staggering, and pawns are very useful in the endgame. Position also plays a large role in the relative value of a piece. There have been games where I have gladly sacrificed a knight to take out two very troublesome pawns. So, while Material Battle is a good foundation for a strategy, it is not the ultimate one.
- Positional Play - Position is everything in chess. The placement of a particular pawn or knight can turn the tide of an entire game. If your defensive placement is poor, your forces will crumble once the gaps are apparent. Positional thinking takes time to learn, and involves breaking the stigma of losing the Material Battle. Positional play is primarily defensive in nature. Every piece should be guarded by at least another piece, or be able to be immediately protected if something threatens it. You must also anticipate future moves. Use your pawns in just the right way, and you can lock in such pieces as the knight and bishop. Use your knights the right way, and you can fork several unfortunate pieces, and force your opponent to decide which he wishes to lose. Using positional play, you must keep in mind future moves constantly. While this is an excellent strategy, and can defeat the material game, it is not recommended until the more basic concepts are mastered.
- Impossible Win Combinations – This is my current favored strategy. There are certain combinations of pieces, or positions, with which it is impossible to win. A king and one minor piece is never enough to force a win and thus the game will be a draw. A king with two knights against a king is also insufficient to force a win; however, since this inability is partly a result of poor timing inherent in the knight's awkward moves there are circumstances where a win can be forced if the opponent also has a pawn. If, in the endgame, you can leave yourself with any of the following, and prevent your opponent from the same, you are virtually assured a win:
- King and queen vs. king
- King and rook vs. king
- King and two bishops vs. king
- King, bishop and knight vs. king
- WEAK VS. STRONG DEFENSES: Beginner players often fall for the old wive’s tale of an impossible-to-beat defense. There is no such defense. Perhaps if an opponent could opt to pass in lieu of moving a piece, this would be possible, but there is an offense for every defense, the key is finding either the gap, or the keystone piece.
- Gaps. - A gap occurs most often in the diagonals, as bishops can slip between a solid pawn defense and often find safe harbor behind the pawns. This is death for your defense, as pawns have no rear defense other than the pieces set to protect them. Knights are also an effective fence-jumper. To prevent gaps, remember your “default attacks”. Each player has a black-square travelling bishop, and a white-square travelling bishop. If your pieces are arranged in such a way that they threaten the respective travelling color of the bishop, along the places he threatens, you limit his ability to travel. If you threaten key squares that your opponent’s knights can move to within the next two turns, you force him to choose to use another piece or waste several turns trying to reposition.
- Gridlock. - If you gridlock yourself, you have positioned your pieces in such a way that their potential moves are extremely limited. In other words, if your own pieces are in the way of moving, they will either get captured, or prove useless until much later in the game. The difference between a strong defense and gridlocked defense is the amount of freedom your pieces have in which to move, while still protecting the king.
The best way to avoid gridlock is to never focus too much on one of your pieces, and use your bishop gaps as “murder holes”. Knights rarely suffer from gridlock, but when it happens, disaster can result.
- Don’t waste your pawns. - That’s your opponent’s job. If at all possible, I try not to lose pawns unless it results in a significant material or positional advantage. Though the pawn is the least valuable piece, this makes it one of the most effective for endgame attack strategies. Since the pawn can later become a queen, block other pawns, commit small forks, and block travel routes of other pieces, two “passed” pawns in the endgame can be a serious force to reckon with. A passed pawn is a pawn that has passed the fourth rank, placing it on the opponent’s half of the board. At this point, the pawn is no longer a defensive structure, it is a very real threat, and your opponent will be forced to decide whether to continue on offense, chase the pawn, or attack another piece. Pawns can also provide a protected square with which to bring down your queen and mate the enemy king, or at least cause serious havoc.
- The center four squares. - The four squares in the very center of the board are often considered the most valuable positions in the early game. Most combat ensues around these squares, and the controller of this area forces his opponent to either take serious losses to break through, or creep along the sides, risking exposure for minimal threat. If you intend to play a defensive strategy, try focusing on guarding and threatening the center squares in the first 10 moves. This is not absolute, and more advanced strategies eschew the center squares at times, but for the purposes of the average player, this will help.
- WEAK VS. STRONG OFFENSE: Just as there are no ultimate defenses, there are no ultimate offenses. However, a firm understanding of attack fundamentals can help. If you know the rules of chess, you already have the knowledge to win, it is a simple matter of realizing it. If you play multiple strategy games, there is a universal concept that must be realized and understood before you can regularly win. I call this concept, “The Move”.
- Initiative - In Go, there is a term called “sente”, and it took a while of playing Go before I realized the same applies to chess. What sente means can fill entire books, but summarized it is this: making a threatening move that your opponent is forced to respond to, while at the same time increasing the strength of your position, defense, and retaining the initiative for your next move. In chess this is referred to as "initiative". Putting your opponent in check from a distance is an excellent example of initiative, but it goes much deeper than that. As you advance and realize more of the potential of combined pieces, you will begin to find moves which, if your opponent does not respond to them, will end in their checkmate a few turns later. This is an excellent way to start learning how to think ahead several moves. If you have initiative, then you have the the upper hand against your opponent, and the ability to force him to move a certain way or risk losing.
- Forking - This is one of the most (and least) effective manuevers. Against less skilled players, it is devastating, against experienced players, simply threatening a fork can grant you initiative. A fork is what happens when one piece threatens more than once piece, almost guarenteeing a kill. The most favored fork is to move your knight to the the third or sixth rank, on your opponent’s second file, thus forking either the Queen and Rook, or the King and Rook. Forks are only effective if the piece forking is either unthreatened during the fork, or if it would cost more to take than it would to lose a forked piece. Pawns, bishops, queens, and rooks can also fork, but are, more often than not, better employed on other missions. Using bishops to support forking knights is a standard combination.
- Double-up - If two pieces are moving along the same rank, file, or diagonal, and support each other, they are “doubled-up.” Rooks are generally considered to be the most powerful doubling pieces, but I often find a bishop and queen perform quite nicely together, though it takes advanced planning to be effective. The reason doubled-up pieces are so much more effective is because of the fact that they protect each other, while monopolizing a particular rank, file, or diagonal. A queen and two rooks may “triple-up,” though this can lead to a lack of material resources in other areas of the board. Doubling up your pawns on the same file is a bad idea, however, because they cannot guard each other.
- Tease the shark - Don’t give your strategy away. Ever. Tabletalk is fine, but saying “your queen is SO dead next round” is liable to taste nasty when you have to eat those words. Words are traditionally served with a side of queen, so save yourself the embaressment and hunt silently.
- Pinning - Pinning happens when you have arranged the pieces in such a way that if the opponent moves a critical piece, his king can be taken. Ergo, the piece cannot move (otherwise the game would be over), and it is pinned down until the king moves. Pinning can also be directed against queens, though often with less pleasing results. To picture pinning, imagine a king at the top of a naked file, with a rook at the other end of the file, and a knight between the two. Should the knight move, the rook can take the king and win, so the night is not allowed to move. Which in turn means that any squares the knight was guarding or threatening are now free to be occupied without fear of retaliation by the knight.
- Stack your battles - When attacking a keystone piece in your opponent’s defenses, it’s almost always in your better interests to count and stack your battles. Simply put, this means that at the end of the battle, yours should be the remaining piece in that spot. This most often occurs in the center four squares, where it is neccesary for a pawn to be eliminated from it’s position. If said pawn were defended by 3 pieces, you want to make sure and attack it with 4.
- CARE AND FEEDING OF YOUR PIECES: One of the most common downfalls of a good defense is forgetting that the piece you just moved was guarding a critical spot for your defense. When you start stacking your battles on a regular basis, you will get more and more efficient, learning how to free up more pieces and defending just as effectively with less. This does you no good, however, if you don’t do proper maintenance on your positions. Before making a move, you should do all of the following:
- Check every single piece you have to see if there is a better move. - Why bother sacrificing your knight for a bishop when another piece can take a rook for free? Your strategy should be dynamic enough to accompany changes in plans.
- Check every single piece your opponent has, to see how they can respond. - Once you’ve decided on two or three possible moves, check every piece of your opponent’s to make sure they can’t spoil your fun. There’s nothing quite so frustrating as pulling off a grand move with your queen, only to find there was a bishop across the board threatening that square.
- Cover your Ass - If your king is left vulnerable, your opponent will more than likely take advantage of the situation. If a guarded knight stands between an enemy rook and your queen, don’t move the knight! Make sure the piece you finally decide to move isn’t opening the way for more valuable pieces to get slaughtered (unless you are setting a trap, which I do not recommend at this stage). If you move that queen, and she was protecting a checkmate square, make sure it gets covered quickly, before the opponent has time to respond.
- ALWAYS assume the unexpected. - Prepare for what you can, but have enough “fast” pieces to respond to an unplanned threat, and keep your defensive/offensive channels unclogged.
- Keep watch on the casualties. - Even if you aren’t playing a material game, you still need to pay close attention to what has been taken. With this information, you should be able to get a rough idea of what needs to be done to balance out the game, or shift it more heavily in your favor. At any given time, you should know exactly which of you is down, and by how much. If nothing else, it impresses people who ask “Who’s winning?”
Becoming better at chess boils down to the realization of the potential
of each piece in combination with the others. Books on chess are helpful guides and study tools if you really want to go deeper into this fascinating art
. Not all of them are about chess, either. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War
applies quite well to chess. However, books can only tell you what others have long ago figured out. If you ever want to truly master the game, you will need an understanding of nearly every possible combination of pieces. The rest is just maintenance and biding your time.