Lessons In Playing Better Chess

I was one of those chess geeks in high school that people like to make jokes about. We would meet once a week as a team for a little instruction and to scrimmage for an hour or two, and we went to half a dozen tournaments a year to compare brains with other chess enthusiasts. Those were some of the best times from my junior high and high school years.

My highest rating was only ever in the mid-900s, though there may have been a point (I can’t quite remember) where I broke 1000 for a single game. For the sake of reference, the first place player usually ran in the range or 1400-1500, so I had a ways to go in order to really compete with those guys.

Now, I’m thrilled that I’m running a range of 1300-1450 on the chess.com application on Facebook. I’ve squared off with players from all over the world, and there isn’t a game played where I don’t learn something new, either a new move or formation I’ve never seen before or about a flaw in my own style of play. I’d like to think I’m becoming a stronger player, but I also have weeks like the last one where I just can’t seem to get my head in the game and play like a strategist.

Below are a handful of things I’ve learned or been reminded of as I’ve played chess over the last few weeks:

# Chess really _is_ less about knowing formations and openings than it is about recognizing patterns. Openings and formations are valuable, certainly, but know what each one looks like will only get you so far. Every game is different and every player responds to threats differently, so you always have to be on your toes looking for the ways in which they respond that will be a threat to _you_. It requires the ability to see *patterns* in the other player’s movements, to see what his objectives are well before he achieves them and to respond in time to cut those objectives off before they can become threats. Some people are naturally able to recognize patterns from the get-go (see Bobby Fischer, for example), but most of us have to learn the skill. Pattern recognition was something that I was able to do only on a very small scale during my high school days. I could only really visualize one or two fronts of attack, and only two or three moves maximum on either of those fronts. As a result I got drawn into a lot of traps and into making serious blunders in my games. Now, though, I see patterns much more readily – three, four, or sometimes even five fronts and several moves along each. I wouldn’t say that I’m so comfortable with pattern recognition that I don’t still get drawn into serious errors, but I’ve improved in this skill well enough to have acquired and maintain a higher rating than I was able to in high school.
# In addition to pattern recognition, a player has to know when to sacrifice or trade a piece and when not to. This is not necessarily easy to learn, as not all trades or sacrifices are created equal. Again, this ties into pattern recognition, knowing when sacrificing a piece might lure your opponent into a strategically weaker position or open a powerful avenue of attack for another of your pieces. If you’re not careful, though, such a sacrifice or trade could just as easily open _you_ up to the same sort of weakness and expose your ranks to attack.
# One of the first lessons I was taught when learning to play chess was to always have a good reason for every move you make. Don’t just push a pawn or move a knight without having a strategic purpose in mind for doing so. It is especially important to make every move count in your opening, as board control in the beginning of the game has a strong determining factor in the game’s outcome. It should be noted, however, that making every move in the middle and end games should _also_ be developing moves, where possible. Make a point of trying to control key areas of the board and keep your opponent on the defensive as much as you can. Get your key pieces – bishops, knights, and rooks, especially – out into play and make them work together to lock down the board. This is sometimes easier said than done, of course, but it should be your goal to focus these six pieces into a continually developing pattern.
# Inevitably, your opponent will put pressure on your own pieces, introducing threats to capture a key position you’re trying to hold. Your first reaction may be to respond by reinforcing your position with another piece, possibly locking several of your major pieces into a small part of the board in order to hold that position. That is a good time, however, to take a step back, metaphorically (and possibly even physically) speaking, and examine the board again. Can you develop another of your pieces somewhere else on the board that, while not necessarily reinforcing your threatened position, will place pressure and threat on a key position your _opponent_ is trying to hold? Basically, consider how you can place a counter-threat such that, if your opponent attacks your key position, you promise to strike back and weaken their own. This is an especially useful tactic if it means you can further develop your major pieces while weakening your opponent’s control of the board.
# Generally speaking, a move is better if you can use one piece to place pressure on multiple of your opponent’s pieces. Make them think about how they want to reinforce and defend. You may find that he will make a tactical error that you can exploit or that you can further develop your own pieces to strengthen your threat on that position.

Chess really is a great game, and I have found that playing chess helps keep my mind sharp. I’m always looking for skilled opponents to match wits with, so if you’re on Facebook, add the chess.com application and challenge me to a game!

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