Chess and Thinking Correctly

When playing Hold’em poker or Craps, I learned there are good times to play, and there are good times not to play. It took years to understand when and why this happened. The idea was first presented in a poker conversation some years ago and I missed it completely. One player said in passing, “…if you are not winning in the first forty-five minutes of sitting down, it is time to go home for the day.”

The comment was made by a middle aged player with some years of experience behind their comment. At the time, I attributed the comment to personal superstition. I thought they were referring to luck, and deduced the comment to mean: if your day is not lucky, your luck won’t change by sitting down in a poker game.

Starting to play chess again brought clarity to their comment. At the time however, I we all went down a side path with what the comment really meant. Playing Chess brings clarity to their comment. Applying their comment to Chess is easy. Having position in Chess to discover a Knight Fork, the meaning of the comment becomes obvious.

Pretend you are playing a game against an equal or better opponent. By good planning you discover you have the opportunity to trade your Knight for a Bishop. You get excited to trade up, and make the exchange. Your opponent counters and takes your Knight and it is your turn again.

While pondering how you can reclaim the space taken by your opponent, you realize you had not only the trade of your Knight for a Bishop, but you missed the move where you could have traded the same Knight for a Queen!

These misses happen in my situation due to inexperience and being in a hurry. Other times I am not looking for better moves. I have found a verifiable third reason. These mistakes happen because for reasons unclear to me, my thinking is muddled and not as clear as it normally is. I do not see the second Knight Fork even though I am looking for other moves before taking the bishop.

Lately, I remembered the great chess matches of the “Cold War” era that never happened. There were chess matches that never took place because one of the Masters refused to play that day. I thought (in my youth) they refused to play because they did not want to suffer defeat with the world watching. They knew their opponent was going to outplay them, and they wanted to avoid the embarrassment of defeat.

Now that I am working to improve my level of chess play, I have learned more of the story about those sixties era Chess Masters. The Masters of the day being around middle age, knew their thinking was not top notch on that particular day.

The Master’s chess thinking may have only changed by a few points, perhaps one small mistake in a practice game was missed. They knew however that one small mistake would cost them the match because their opponent was their equal and most likely would not be making a game changing mistake.

For myself, mistakes I make during these times are a lot more apparent. I lose games against the computer I should have one, or at least made a better showing. My tactics solving ability takes a steep downturn. Simple ten second tactical puzzles now take me thirty seconds and I get too many wrong.

My frustration level goes up. In these poor thinking periods, I play some of my worst games. Through experience I have learned to find something else not thought intensive to do. You can guess what has happened on the Hold’em or Craps tables during these times.

Earlier or later my thinking may be as it should be, but it is too late by that time, the damage is done. This may not be an age thing, and may happen throughout all stages of our life. Perhaps it takes many years of living with ourselves before we realize it is happening.

My best advice before playing any game, money involved or not,  you are serious about winning is to make sure your thinking is as it should before hand. If you are not thinking clearly at the moment, and your frustration level is lower than normal, find something else to do.

With Chess there is generally no money on the table, and the most that is damaged is one’s ego. In other activities, there may be money or the safety of yourself or another. Carpenter’s of old seem to have been the first to implement a check or stop point for times when cloudy thinking is a possibility of incomplete thinking.

I think it is a good saying, and while not foolproof helps save me from some serious mistakes. The old Carpenters adage we all need to keep in mind, “Measure three times, cut once”.


Chess Dance, beginning Chess is learned in small steps

When learning to play chess, it is difficult to know who to play chess against. After friends and family, I started playing on FICS the Free Internet Chess Server, but I found I play well below almost everyone who played on FICS on a regular basis.

Playing the people I normally would play was no fun for them because they lose. There is little luck in chess, you are either the better player or you are not. There are not too many people who are willing to play you and lose most of the time. Neither are there people who want to play you and win with little effort.

This left me with built in chess games on my desktop. On both Windows and IOS, I found the lowest levels played to low. The computer made really stupid moves. The higher levels of course played to brutal. I never finished the opening as the computer was into the end game. Setting above the lower levels play ok for my skill level.

There is a general agreement that to improve one should play someone at a slightly higher skill level than themselves. While this is true for someone wanting to improve, I am not sure this is good beginner advice. I found for myself that playing computer chess at about the same level I am at was appropriate for me.

I also my play chess against someone better than myself part of the time. Whether that opponent is human or computer chess does not yet seem to matter too much, although computer and human players seem to play differently.

I think the level we play at is determined by our understanding, our ability, and the number of mistakes we make per game. I think in humans we make different and more creative mistakes, where the computer players make more or less the same mistakes every game.

When I started only playing opponents who play better than myself, I found was, I was learning how to get beat, or block a move or two, but I was rarely given the opportunity to explore using how my pawns and pieces function.

Playing a computer opponent at slightly worse play than my own level of play, allowes me to make moves, set up combinations with two or more pieces, and learn how to manage so many pieces on one small board without struggling to maintain a crumbling defense.

I wonder if perhaps chess coaches were available or affordable this would not be the case. I thought it important to learn how to walk on the chess board before I started to  run. Fortunately there are a lot of chess resources on the net to help me improve.

How well this plan of action works is hard to tell as I am my own student. For now however it seems effective. One are I do find I am weak in is tactics, as I am sure every beginning player has problems with. If I were tactically proficient I would be playing speed chess, and not clumsy beginners chess.

Chess is a dance of sorts, and like dance, one has to learn the basic steps and become competent with the basics before moving on to more intricate learnings. How well we do and how long that takes depends on time, circumstance, and want.



Is that Pawn or Piece poisoned?

Grandmaster Igor Smirnov created a great video aimed at players who want to improve their play. The video is named: “Chess Lesson: The most common mistake“. While the video is aimed at better player trying to get over a hurdle in their game, the video opened my thinking in a new direction, and has lead to improvements in my own game.

For a beginning chess player any improvement we make or learn is a big step up the ladder. What I took away from the video was two major thoughts. Both thoughts center around a big mistake I think most beginning player make. Grandmaster Smirnov emphasized, or at least for me he did, one major thought about playing chess. That thought he branded is, “To take is a mistake”.

When we start learning to play chess we watch better player trade off pieces, and they are successful in their games. We get the idea we should be trading or taking pieces ourselves whenever the opportunity presents itself. Grandmaster Smirnov shows in his video, many examples where taking a pawn or a piece is a mistake and whenever we are presented with the opportunity, to pause and consider what taking the pawn or piece does for our game, and our opponents game.

Occasionally the opportunity to take a pawn or piece does much more harm to our game, or helps our opponent than the pice is worth. I learned some apparent are ‘poisoned’. Poisoned is a chess term that means about what the word says only in the context of chess rather than the act of being poisoned in the regular sense.

Taking a pawn or piece at the wrong time can destroy the placement of our army by weakening them with the movement of a pawn or piece which was until the moment we moved it, doing a very important job. By moving that one pice to take a pawn or piece that appears to be easy picking, cost us the game by giving our opponent an advantage by a weakness we created. At times this weakness is so great we lose the game.

If we do not create an unrecoverable weakness in our game, taking a piece could allow our opponent to bring a rook or bishop into the game where previously it was trapped on the back row doing nothing.

A final help this video was for me was understanding there are times when moving my pawns it is a better move to move my pawn forward rather than trade it off. For example my pawn has made it five rows down the board, and it is chilled by a pawn moved up from the other side. If taking the enemy pawn means losing it, and simply moving it forward one more time means there is a possibility it will move forward and be promoted, a better choice is to move the pawn forward.

It is well worth your time to watch this video and understand the points  Grandmaster Smirnov makes in his video. The link once again is: “Chess Lesson: The most common mistake“. I hope this video helps you in your game too.

What is a Chess Opening?

Understanding pawns and their usefulness helped me discover openings. Openings in chess are a strange concept until you understand them. A Chess opening is primarily the way to start moving your army out onto the field, or center of the board.

I found there are good ways to start moving my pawns and pieces, and poor ways of moving my pawns and pieces. I was using a rather poor method until now. Searching the net, I found there are many openings. Each opening has one or more variations and purpose. Many of the openings can also morph or transform into other openings.

There were so many openings and variations it all became confusing. The confusion was made worse because an opening for the white pieces was not necessarily a good or even ok opening sequence of moves for black pieces. The moment where understand an opening attack or defense is learning to play a better game of chess, the fact white gets the first move makes a difference. It is thought that because the armies are evenly matched and white moves first, white has the advantage.

Whether this is true or not, depends on your offensive or defensive type of opening. There are special openings created for the black pieces which are meant to offset the advantage white has of the first move. As I have chess games on youtube, the advantage white has by having the first move can mean little to a player who is very comfortable playing black.

What kind of opening to use is a problem. With too many choices and not enough knowledge to make a good decision, I went to the net and looked for beginner openings. Some openings are very conservative. some are simple, and different openings lead to different types of games.

Matching my personality and skill level with an opening helped me decide what opening to use. The first problem I found with openings is the sequence of moves. Most openings list a sequence of moves in algebraic notation.  After I learned what algebraic notation was and how to use it, I found my opponent did not always move their pawns and pieces in a manner that let me complete the sequence correctly. This is an important learning.

Trying similar openings had the same result. Trying more complex openings led to frustration as I do not have the skill level to take advantage of the complex openings. What I decided I needed to do was decide on some general opening principals, and follow them.

This plan almost works. I found I sometimes need to modify the sequence of opening moves, and or change them completely, depending on what my opponent is doing. I found it does no good to move my King to safety as my rook, bishop, and knight disappeared on the other side of the board. Having a safe King, and no way to threaten the other side does not work very well.

This is where I made another ah ha moment. I made the connection that chess is about balance. The opening moves must be balanced, or the game will be a short one. There must be balance between getting the King to safety, protecting the center, protecting the side opposite of where the king is castled, and threatening an attack on my opponents King.

It was a great moment realizing these conditions or rules . It is another thing to make it all work. I think at this point this is what separates beginning chess players from good and expert chess players.  How well we can keep a balance going during the game. For beginning players, losing a rook or maybe even a queen is not the end of the world, or at least the end of the game. For master class players, losing a pawn is a reason to resign.

All this starts with the opening moves. Finish the opening moves well, and we survive to see the middle game. If the opening sequence of moves does not go well for whatever reason, our opponent forces us straight into the end game. When this happens, the end is near because we are overpowered. Our pieces are slaughtered or ignored, and checkmate follows shortly.

Pawn’s worth on the Chessboard

My first ah ha! moment was realizing Pawns as part of my chess army, are useful for a lot more than canon fodder. In the past, I would simply march my pawns off to their death when I thought I had no real move worth making. May as well push a pawn forward and see what happens I would think.

After watching master and famous chess games on youtube, I realized that pawns are very important in the game of Chess. Pawns in these games were not shoved into battle like some rag-tag group of foot soldiers. Instead I observed pawns are used to maintain control of the front line, and provide anchor positions for Knights and occasionally Bishops. Also pawns are used to push the enemy off certain squares, generally in the center of the board, though at times down at the enemy camp.

When I tried to imitate the moves I had watched, they did not work, yet the games on youtube made it look so simple. Still, I started treating my pawns with more respect, although at first not a lot changed. I managed to stay alive for a few more moves, but the inevitable end came as predicted. I would be checkmated, more of my own pawns or not didn’t seem to matter.

There was a bright side however. With continued watching of youtube chess games, observing live games as I could, reading and trying to understand what purpose there was to the pawn placement, my chess abilities started to change.

Instead of losing at fifteen to twenty moves, I would be alive to see the twenty-second move. Instead of watching Genghis Khan rolling across the wasteland to wipe out my army, I managed to slow the thundering herd, and reduce the speed of my casualty rate.

I knew I was on to something. Then I played a game against and opponent who was the “Pawn Master”! No back row was needed in their game. My chess army was decimated mostly by a few pawns, as I watched in horror wondering how it was done! I wasn’t sure how it was done, but that game drove home the power of the lowly Pawn in the hands of a competent player!

After a lot of watching, reading, and thinking, I started to understand the real purpose of pawns. I learned employing pawns wisely can make the difference between losing outright, having a fighting chance, and maybe even winning.

Pawns can be used as islands in the center of the board. Blocking the enemy, and protecting the center of the board from direct attack. If your pawns are protecting any of the four center squares, it becomes more difficult for your opponent to mount a direct attack. Instead they are forced to attack from one of the ends of the board as the center is blocked.

Pawns are also used in diagonal chains from near the side of the board to the center. You may have seen them in one of your games. The pawn at b2 or g2 is the anchor and the middle pawns are positioned on the same color diagonals towards the center?

Doing this with pawns serves two purposes of which I am aware, perhaps there are more reasons I have yet to learn. These diagonal pawn chains cut off part of the board from your opponent. They also give you more space to move around in safely.

There is a third pawn deployment that I have seen, but it is not as common. The pawns are structured in a w shape or series of w’s across the center of the board. This is a very hard defense to break through. It makes for a very tough game.

Learning about and practicing how to deploy pawns is probably one of the big game changers for me. If I do nothing else well, good pawn structure frustrates and slows down my opponent(s). Slowing my opponent down allows me to watch for mistakes he/she is making in their game. I still get beat, but not as easily I do as with no pawn structure. I hope this post help you in your game.