Order in The Court: Keeping Your Pieces Happy

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:

pawns

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:

iagonals

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.

diang

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:

k1

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!

alekhine

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.

A Good First Impression – Opening Strong

The amount of articles, books, apps, and video content devoted to the topic of openings is absolutely staggering and a bit intimidating. Indeed the opening sets the mood for a game and can determine long term success or failure. There is great pressure to make a strong opening as seen in any game from a casual pick up to the world championship. The good news is that a strong opening rooted in some basic fundamentals can help you determine the  path of your game.

As stated before there are tons and tons of sources on openings, but all share some of the same root principles. For demonstration sake, we will examine the Ruy Lopez or “Spanish Game”. This opening is named after a 16th century Spanish Priest and is still used at all levels of play today for very good reason, it works and follows some basic principles. So to begin, the first principle of a strong opening is also one that remains throughout the game – control the center.

a

If you can control the center of the board, in most cases you can control tempo and make your opponent play YOUR game. d4, e4, d5, and e5 aren’t just the heart of the board but the heart of many tactical and strategic elements. Controlling or possessing these squares can help ensure a favorable pawn structure and help to defend pieces on adjoining squares. So to control the center let’s play e4, arguably the best move on the board.

b

1.e4 does many things as you can see from the example above. First, it occupies a strong square in the center. It also allows for easy development of the Kingside minor pieces and opens a nice diagonal for the Queen to develop, part of the second major principle we will touch on – develop your pieces quickly. This brings more weapons into the fray and helps control the games tempo as discussed in my previous article “Tempo, Tempo, Tempo”. So let’s move to phase two…

c

2. Nf3 quickly brings the Knight into action and is the perfect compliment to a Kings Pawn opening. This move puts pressure on the e5 pawn and clears out space for you to castle very soon, another principle of a strong opening and one that remains throughout all games – protect your King. a Knight at f3 is a great defender of it’s King, can combat enemies in the center and the right side of the board, and can also really open up the Kingside and facilitate some great counter play as the game unfolds.

d

The next move in the Ruy Lopez line is Bb5. This prepares white to castle Kingside, threatens the Knight at c6, develops a minor piece, and controls the tempo all in one move. Once in this position white can determine many factors, set up some long term strategies, and leave many threats for your opponent to consider. From here there are tons of different lines and options for an interesting game.

To recap, let’s go over the key principles of a strong opening:

  1. Control the center – many say that whoever has the center has the game. As discussed earlier, controlling or owning these key squares in the center gives you a major advantage as the game unfolds. This ties in with the second point…
  2. Develop quickly – the more weapons you bring to the fight the better. If your pieces are bottled up or not developed with purpose you will find yourself at a big disadvantage at all phases of the game. When developing, do so with the intention to control the center. Remember – the sooner you have developed your pieces, the sooner you can castle.
  3. Get the King to safety – the ultimate purpose of the game is checkmate, period. The sooner you ensure your King is protected the sooner you can begin your assault on the enemy. Many games are different, so deciding how soon to do this will be dependent on many factors. As you develop as a player you will learn when better to delay this act in favor of attacking or developing other minor pieces.
  4. Move each piece once – as discussed in one my previous articles, “Tempo, Tempo, Tempo”, unless you can gain a major advantage such as a fork, do not move a piece more than once in the opening. Doing so will cripple your development and give tempi to your opponent. This allows your opponent to unleash their weapons earlier and put gross amounts of pressure on you.

The litany of opening theory is absolutely immense, but these guiding principles are the heart of a strong opening. Keep these in mind as your game starts and you are sure to have better battles with more victories. While there are many books and videos out there, in my opinion too many, the best content I have found is free on chess.com. From the landing page, the entire world of openings is readily accessible. https://www.chess.com/openings

e

I hope this article has helped to streamline one of the most daunting elements of the game and boosted your confidence. What my coach has always told me rings true, “follow the basic principles and put your pieces on their best square, they will know what to do.” While this is the briefest of introductions on the topic, this established a foundation that will make grasping opening theory and building a repertoire much easier. Remember to walk before you run, another piece of wisdom from my coach is to “know the rules before you break them.”