Monday, February 26, 2007

If You Read Nothing Else, Read This

At the time I'm writing this, my only "Recommended Chess Link" on this site is to, and specifically to Dan Heisman's "Novice Nook" column there. Eventually I'll add more links, but I intend to limit the list to those sights that will most help the average player improve.

I strongly recommend to anyone trying to improve their game to dig through the archives and read everything Heisman has written. However, before you check out the archives, let me explain why I endorse his articles so strongly.

Some people will have the same initial reaction that I had when I first glanced at his columns: "This is basic stuff. I'm beyond this." For quite a while, I would glance at the topic of the month, see what topic was being discussed without actually reading it, and then move on.

I'm not sure which of his articles I first read where I realized just how wrong I was, but it was probably one of the following:

1. One of his series of articles on "real chess". His original article for is in text-only format, but he has elaborated on the theme in several articles. In a nutshell: "real" chess is where you consider your opponents threats, come up with a list of possible moves, consider your opponent's responses to those moves, and only then make your move...all while practicing good time management (which is in itself another topic, and one Heisman addresses in several articles). If you skip a step, you're playing "hope" chess (where you hope you'll be able to deal with whatever your opponent's next move is) or, worse yet, "flip-coin" chess (where you pick a move almost randomly because it's your turn and you have to do something).

I'm possibly mangling his message, so I suggest you go straight to the source. This may seem like a simple or obvious concept, but the trick is to do this consistently on each and every move. This is like a basketball player being able to consistently make 3-point freethrows, or a golfer being able to consistently chip a ball onto the green and close to the hole. It only takes one "hope" move to blunder and lose a game. I'll likely be returning to this topic in the near future. To quote from one of Heisman's articles:

Ask yourself the following question, “Of all the games I have lost recently,what percent were lost because of something I did not know, and what percent were lost due to something I already knew, but were not careful to look for?” If you are like most non-advanced players many, if not most, of your losses are due to a tactical oversight on a pattern that you already knew: putting a piece en prise, miscounting the safety of a piece, missing a simple double attack or fork, allowing a back-rank mate, etc. Since you already are familiar with those tactics, that means either that
you played carelessly, did not practice “Real Chess”, or have no
consistent thinking pattern.

2. A Counting Primer. Up until I read this article, I had more or less been using the "Reinfeld" values for chess pieces (bishops and knights are worth 3 pawns or a bit more; rooks are worth 5 pawns; the queen is worth 9 pawns; the bishop pair is an advantage worth about half a pawn). That's a fine place to start, and really any "point count" system is inherently flawed and can only provide a "guesstimate" of the relative power of your pieces compared to your opponent. However, Heisman presents a more refined system based on an article by Larry Kaufman. With several caveats, the values are:

  • bishops and knights are worth 3 1/4 pawns
  • rooks are worth 5 pawns
  • the queen is worth 9 3/4 pawns
  • the bishop pair is worth 1/2 pawn

Not that different, except for the evaluation of the queen. However, the articles give examples of evaluating unequal exchanges using this system, and this had several revelations for me. For example, it's common for a beginner to sacrifice a B and N on f7 to gain the opponent's R and f7 pawn, while "weakening" their kingside:

However, if you do the math, this means that White sacrificed 6.5 pawns of material to gain 6, and usually the king's position isn't significantly weakened. If the exchange cost White the bishop pair, they are now down a full pawn's worth of material for and exchange they may have thought was slightly better for them. Also, if this exchange occurs early in the game (which seems to be the rule), the minor pieces are often more powerful than the rooks because the latter don't have open lines yet.

This counting system also makes sacrificing the exchange (rook for bishop or knight) more attractive, and these articles completely changed how I viewed these transactions. For example, if you sacrifice the rook for a bishop and get a pawn in compensation, you're only sacrificing about 3/4 of a pawn. If that exchange cost your opponent the bishop pair, your sacrifice is a measly 1/4 of a pawn, so other positional factors can easily outweigh this disadvantage. Kaufman's original article isn't quite this simple, but you get the point.

3. A Guide to P-R3. To someone new to chess, this might seem like an awfully specific topic, but this is such a common move that it deserves its own article. It is very common to push a rook's pawn to either challenge a bishop that's pinning a knight, or to prevent a bishop from creating that pin in the first place:

The rook's pawn can be used to deny other pieces a key square as well. For example, in the Sicilian defense a pawn on a6 often keeps the white pieces out of b5, or a pawn on h3 keeps black from playing ...Ng4 and chopping off a bishop on e3:

The push of the rook's pawn can be a fine move, a waste of time, or a stinker, depending on circumstance. Often your opponent will waste time with a move like ...a6 or ...h6 when they should be bringing their pieces out. Another consideration is that the move ...h6 weakens the king's position (e.g. allowing a piece sacrifice on h6 to open up the kingside). Heisman presents a series of rules to guide you in deciding whether moving your rook's pawn is a good or bad move in a particular instance.

As soon as I realized how wrong I was about Heisman's column being "beginner stuff", I devoured his other articles. Other recurring themes include counting errors, time management, and the importance of studying basic "winning material" tactics (i.e. not mating combinations).

Heisman's target readership is about the same as my own, and I agree with most of what he says. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I want to direct people to his articles right off the bat. I will be posting on topics that he and others have covered, but with my own spin and personal experience thrown in.

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