Monday, December 7, 2009

Playing Serious Chess

When I got to high school, I looked forward to joining the chess club. I had grown up playing against my older brothers and I thought that I was a pretty decent player. In my first couple visits, however, I was crushed in every game I played. I didn’t go back for the rest of my freshman year.

During the summer before my sophomore year, America’s Bobby Fischer beat Russia’s Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship. For one brief shining moment, chess was cool and hip. A friend of mine got interested in the game and we spent the summer playing chess and following the match. In the fall, we both joined the chess club and eventually worked our way up to 3rd and 4th boards.

I think a lot of the players who come to Prospect High School's chess club are like I was. They have played the game casually for a few years and they have a decent eye for tactics, but they have never thought about most of the things that serious players need to think about. They don’t think about controlling the center developing all their pieces or getting their king to safety. Other than obvious direct threats, they don’t worry about what their opponent is trying to do to them. Perhaps more importantly, they only think hard about some of their moves. Most of the time, they just make the first move that comes into their heads.

I want to say up front that there is absolutely no reason that anyone should take chess more seriously. As far as I am concerned, all chess is good chess. If someone just wants to push the pieces around, that’s fine. That’s the kind of attitude I have towards golf. However, like me, some of these players might find that they might enjoy chess more if they took it a little more seriously and they enjoy out thinking their opponents.

I wanted to get that all out in the open before I take a look at a couple of the games from the lower boards in Prospect’s match against Rolling Meadows because I cannot help but point out a lot of poor moves. I hope the players won’t take anything I say as a character judgment. I just want to point out the kind of things that they might want to think about if they would like to improve their play.

One of the most important things that the serious player does is to work hard on every move. In many games and sports, it is possible to come back after a lapse in concentration because every point is independent, however, in chess a single oversight can so ruin a position, that chances of recovery are almost non-existent. I often find that casual players are capable of solving a complicated problem when they think it through, but too often they play the first move that occurs to them only to be surprised by their opponent’s response. Serious players think about their opponent’s threats and potential responses on every move.

Respecting Pawns.

One thing I have been noticing a lot this year is a lack of respect for pawns. Most high school games are decided by one of the players overlooking a tactic and dropping a piece so it may be natural to think that pawns don’t matter much. However, in addition to having the potential to become queens, pawns control space, protect the king, and restrict the movements of an opponent’s pieces. They should always be treated with respect.

Neither Prospect’s Tom Hanley nor Meadows’ Daniel Rabbotini showed much respect for pawns in their game on 6th board. It was Tom’s first game in a match and he can feel good about the 3.5 points he got for a draw that provided Prospect’s margin of victory. On the other hand, had he been a little more parsimonious with his pawns, he could have brought home the full point. On the other hand, had Daniel realized the potential of his pawns he might have scored the win.

King Safety.

Another thing that distinguishes the serious player from the casual player is attention to king safety. The serious player takes precautions to protect his king from attack. This usually involves castling; however, castling alone is not enough. The serious player takes care to maintain the pawn cover for his castled king and brings pieces to help in the defense when necessary.

On 7th board, Prospect’s Alex Esau dropped a knight when he overlooked a tactic that many stronger players have missed. After that he castled, however, he castled to the side of the board where his opponent had more space and more pieces. This might not have been fatal though if he hadn’t invited in his opponent’s major pieces by opening the pawn cover in front of his king.

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