Hello! Welcome back to the third lesson in my chess blog series where I teaching beginners how to improve their game with minimal theory required. If you are new to the series, you can see the previous posts here. In this post we will cover some more complicated tactics and calculations as well as some crucial concepts for the endgame.
How to calculate: throughout the game, pawns or pieces will often be available for trading. Calculating who comes out on top can be tricky if you try to calculate each move in your head. Thankfully, there is a shortcut: simply count how many pieces are attacking and how may are defending, ties go to the defender. You need an extra attacker when attacking. When on defence, you just need an equal amount. Also keep in mind the order in which you can trade. If you will have to make a bad trade in the process, then your opponent can stop trading once they have the material advantage.
Here's an example of a position where black has placed their pawn on d5. Both players have three pieces attacking or defending this square. Black can use our shortcut to know that their pawn is adequately defended because a tie goes to the defender.
People ask me, once pieces are developed... now what? If you are not sure what to do, then try to look at the game from your opponents perspective. If you can see what they might be planning, then make a move to prevent them from executing that plan.
Winning a tempo: in the opening, it is essential to develop pieces quickly to capture the centre, prepare attacks etc. so we need make every move count. Conversely, if you can make your opponent waste a move, while you gain development, it is said that you have "won a tempo". For example, forcing them to make a bad move with their king. In this example, white has developed a bishop placing the black king in check, black will have to waste a turn moving their king (to a bad square), and now it's white's turn again!
Fianchetto bishops: this is an alternative - perhaps someone counter-intuitive - way to develop your bishop. Instead of moving them closer to the centre, instead we move them to a corner on b2, g2, b7, and g7 with the pawns forming a triangle around them (see below). While this may seem like passive play, it positions your bishop with a long diagonal crossing through the centre, with a solid defensive fortress for you to castle into. A fianchetto bishop can simply stay there for a while, applying pressure to the centre, and can become deadly in the endgame. It's also okay to temporarily block these bishops with your knights, assuming you will eventually move them.
Even if you choose to focus your opening study on another opening, I would still recommend everyone learns the knight attack variation of the Italian Opening. The reason to learn this is that it is a very deadly attack for white and is easy to learn (which attracts a lot of players at this level) and unless black defends carefully, they can get into a lot of trouble. Here's a link explaining this dangerous attack, and the different ways it can be countered:
The variation I recommend playing (as black) can be found in the video at time stamp 1:35. It's good to watch the rest of the video, but that should probably be the focus.
Discovery attack: this is a tactic where you have three pieces involved: the attacker, the blocker for one player and the target for the other. You can recognize the opportunity for this tactic when the attacker would be able to attack the target, except the blocker is in the way (see below). When the blocker is moved, it is said that the attacker is making a "discovery attack" on the target. This can be especially strong when the blocker moves to attack another piece. Now the opponent is forced to choose which of the two pieces to lose.
You can think of this kind of like a pin, but with your own piece in the way... and you get to move it!
Here's an example where the white bishop is the attacker, the white rook is the blocker and the black pawn on c7 is the target.
When the blocker (rook) is moved, the bishop has a discovery attack on the pawn. The effect is even stronger because the rook is also making an attack on the bishop and black can only save one of them.
Two common ways of getting your bishop trapped:
Getting stuck in the corner: when there are three pawns in their starting positions on either edge of the board, they often look like easy prey for a bishop. The problem is that if you take the pawn on the edge, and then the adjacent pawn moves forward one space, then your bishop will be stuck there. Your opponent will try to attack your bishop, forcing you to lose your bishop for a pawn.
Getting stuck when you go out to attack a knight: remember that in general, we do not want to trade bishops for knights, as bishops are slightly better. Sometimes it might be tempting to use your bishop to pin a knight, but we have to determine whether we can become trapped. If the opponent chases your bishop such as blacks turn: a6, Ba4, b5, Bb3, c4 then the bishop gets stuck.
Defining the endgame: there is no formal definition of when the endgame begins, but in general it will be when one player has less than three pieces (excluding pawns and king). Because there are fewer pieces on the board, kings and pawns become significantly more relevant. Recall from the last post that the game will often revolve around a single pawn trying to reach promotion. Let's discuss some positional tactics to gain an edge in these scenarios.
Activating your king: because there are few pieces on the board, the king is much less afraid of checkmate and therefore becomes a strong attacking and defending piece. It's important to use him properly. Generally speaking, if you're winning, you want your king on attack; if you're losing, you need him on defense. This is because it is difficult for pawns to pass their opposing pawns, often requiring the help of the king.
When activating your king, it's usually better to move him toward the centre because it allows him to respond to threats on either side. Your opponent will attack on the side where they have a pawn advantage (more pawns). If both sides are equal in pawns, the will attack on the side where their king is. The goal is to create a solid defending pawn structure on that side so that their attack is nullified and you can counter-attack on the other side.
While there could be countless ways of demonstrating this, here's an example where black has the material advantage but white is clearly winning because good positioning. Observe that the white pawns are blocking the black king and pawns from advancing any farther on the left hand side (shown by green circles). This means white has secured the left side and can use the king to counter on the right.
Here's a two-move sample continuation:
Observe that now the black king is totally cut off and will have difficulty advancing, allowing white to focus on promoting on the right hand side. A more advanced move for white could be to play Kf5 so that black's king is forced to waste a turn moving in the wrong direction, and only then white goes after the pawn on h6.
Using your king to attack is relatively intuitive. Firstly, it's easier to create a breakthrough where there are no defenders.
Secondly, it's easier to attack on the side where there are fewer pawns. This is because if there are two or more pawns, if placed correctly, can create a wall to block the king. See below.
But white can play b4 to buy time and focus on promotion of the h pawn.
If you are unsure of which way to activate your king, choose the side where you have a pawn advantage. If neither side has a pawn advantage, choose the side where you have more pawns. If the opponent successfully creates a pawn wall, you should try to get your king "behind enemy lines".
Remember that even an "attacking king" can simultaneously perform defending tasks such as blocking the opposing king from getting to important areas (just like in the defending section above).
Hopefully you are starting to see some of the more subtle elements of the game and being a stronger calculator in general. We have covered pretty much all I intended for the most basic principles. I personally believe that true mastery of these principles can take you to much higher ratings than 1000 - perhaps 1500 even. But mastery comes with time and besides playing more, there isn't much we can do to speed that up. This however, does not mean there is nothing left to learn! In fact, the part of the blog I am most excited about is still yet to come. In the upcoming posts I will explain how I think about learning opening to optimize my time as well as some tips for using computers or grandmaster games to help you learn.
Thank you for reading,