Paul Morphy, arguably the most accurate player in history and a hero of mine, famously said “help your pieces so they can help you.” This idea has been mirrored or paraphrased in most chess books and is one my coach often reminds me of. These eight words frequently run through my head when I’m deciding which move to make next and I often ask myself if I’m helping or hindering my pieces when I analyze a game. This may seem to be an obvious concept, but executing this theme is not always easy and to the uninitiated it can be a major barrier. The challenge is that your opponent is trying to do the same thing and there are only so many squares. So how do you balance attacking, defending, and keeping your pieces happy? Let’s look at each member of the royal court and discuss:
Pawn – the foot soldier of our kingdom. Often overlooked or seen as a piece for trade and protection, you must bear in mind that it can capture en passant, promote to a stronger piece, and create a great barrier on your opponents diagonals. That being said, the pawn is also very susceptible to attack in the following examples:
An isolated or backwards piece is always a liability. Hanging or isolated pawns are usually easy targets and the cost of protecting them isn’t always worth the price spent in terms of tempo or opportunities brushed aside for an easy piece. An isolated pawn can sometimes be a trap to draw your opponents attention from another area of the board. Double pawns are often a liability and are often calculated as one piece. Both pieces are up for grabs if not properly supported and block diagonals and spaces that can be desirable for your other pieces. An essential element to consider with your pawns is the act of creating a chain. Think of this as a series of pieces that “have each others back” and support their fellow pawns and other members of the party. Let’s look at the example below and see this in action:
Now in this example which side would you rather be playing on? See how white has channels and escape squares for it’s Bishop meanwhile black has bottled theirs in? When constructing your pawn chain keep piece activity in mind and look to improve their mobility, not hinder it. This brings us to the Bishop…
Bishop – unlike other pieces, a Bishop can only be on one colored square its whole life. When constructing your pawn chain or developing an attack keep this in mind. If you lost a Bishop of one color, it is often a good practice to open paths for the remaining one. The Bishop can be a powerful tool on its own, but if used in tandem with another piece, particularly on a diagonal as backup to the Queen, the Bishop is a major force to be reckoned with. Fianchettoing not only give the Bishop a perfect diagonal, it puts pressure on the Rook and depending on which side your opponent chooses to castle on, can threaten mate with another piece as we can see in the below example. Note the beautiful diagonal the Bishop has across the board and, with the Queen ready to strike, ensures a victory.
Knight – I have never shied away from admitting this is my favorite piece. The Knights unique movement and capabilities make it a dangerous piece. A Knight can fork and elude pieces like no other and is an absolute ninja when the opponent has to guess which square you’re eyeing up. Keeping in mind that it has to alternate colored squares every move, planning ahead is key in using this piece to its fully potential. Look at the example below and identify the “good” Knights:
Notice how Black has given its Knights nowhere to go while white has ample opportunities? Another point to keep in mind is available squares for these Knights, particularly how blacks Knight on b4 has nowhere to move. Remember, much planning and forethought is necessary to get the most out of your Knights and without a plan they will likely impede your development or become easy targets.
Rook – the battering ram of the King’s army, the Rook is most lethal when it can achieve an open file and go behind enemy lines, especially on the 7th rank. A doubled Rook is also an incredibly dangerous weapon. The Rook requires some forethought and clearing out space to do things such as a Rook lift or to load “Alekhine’s Gun” but, in my opinion, it is an easier piece to master than some others. Most endgame books and lessons I’ve seen start with mastering Rook endgames as this mighty piece often survives until the end due to it’s starting location and lateral mobility. Alekhine’s Gun, named after a 1930 game between masters Alexander Alekhine and Aaron Nimzowitsch showcases the raw power of the Rook and is a game I highly recommend everyone studies. Below is the final position where you can see the gun, an unstoppable battering ram!
Queen – it is in any Kings good interest to keep his Queen happy. Indeed the safety and mobility of the Queen give the army much power and her loss often cripples the assault and morale. To keep the Queen happy, consider what makes the Bishop and Rook happy as she has the same needs as they do; open files, diagonals, and escape squares. I will refer to the example above used under the Bishop section to drive home the sheer power of this piece. It can be an easy trap to fall into to build your attack around the Queen, so always consider your other pieces before banking on the Queen to do all the work.
King – the irony that the King, the target that must be eliminated to gain victory, is the least powerful piece. Defense is the name of the game here, period. King safety is one of the cardinal virtues of the game in all phases and can never be forgotten. Balancing King safety and mounting an attack is a difficult task, but it is an essential skill to master. Castling early, maintaining a strong pawn structure around the King, and ensuring minor or major pieces can come to the rescue are things to keep in mind as you move through the game. Many masters and I too believe that three pawns on the second rank defending the King is the strongest formation. While I often play the Kings Indian Defense against a d5 opening, I stay towards a traditional three pawn defense otherwise.
So let’s go over some key points to keep each piece happy:
Pawn – pawn structure sets barriers and traps for your opponent. Passed pawns are powerful and underdeveloped or backwards pawns are a major liability. In short, let pawns assist your forces deeper and, if the opportunity arises, promote and fulfill their destiny.
Bishop – do not block your Bishops diagonals! I repeat, DO NOT BLOCK YOUR BISHOPS DIAGONALS! Give the Bishop a powerful diagonal that covers ground and supports a major attack and you have a strong opportunity ahead!
Knight – remember the Knight must alternate colors with each move. The Knight requires a great deal of forethought and planning to utilize wisely and can be trapped or lost if moved without a plan. Give the Knight open squares of the opposite color and keep it towards the center of the board and you have a powerful weapon.
Rook – the Rook is powerful in controlling an open rank or file. Doubling Rooks or mobilizing them to the 7th rank will give you a major advantage and opportunity to mow down the enemy. And again, study Alekhine v. Nimzowitsch 1930 and the use of “Alekhine’s Gun.”
Queen – give her what she wants and get out of her way, but don’t rely on her to win the day by herself. Protect her, don’t use her too early in the game, and keep in mind the rules for the Rook and Bishop when planning her attack.
King – it seems silly to say, but just don’t let him die! Don’t give your opponent opportunities to attack and with every move, assure your King is not under threat of a mate, whether it be direct or discovered. Also keep in mind that having a piece pinned to the King is a dangerous idea.
Now that we know some essential principles to keep the King and his court happy, keep them in mind in your next encounters. Remember to keep your King safe and give your pieces opportunities for activity and advancement.