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Back to school: Chess 101

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 30, 2011 - As schools across the area resume classes, it's time for a refresher to relearn what many of us already know, but all too often forget. Even strong Grandmasters can forget the basics and make silly mistakes.

A few simple tips like king safety, maintaining active pieces and practicing patience can really help improve your play.

King safety is an oft-overlooked concept. Back in the 1800s, all the top players played for checkmate from the first move. Sacrificing a pawn, a piece or more was quite common, all in an attempt to get at the opponent's king. Aggressive play was often rewarded with inaccurate defense, and many wins were what chess players call "brilliancies." As players became stronger and defense improved, many of the top players disdained aggressive play for more positional ideas (good pawn structure, control of the center, opening theory) and forgot about attacking the king! Keeping in mind king safety (for you and your opponent) is quite important, as checkmate ends the game, and having a safer king is the key to winning chess.

Another important idea is piece activity. One of the reasons we are taught to control and occupy the center is simply that the pieces have more options when they are placed in, or controlling, the center of the board. Go get a chessboard and put a knight in the middle. Count the number of squares the knight has available, and then put the knight in the corner or side and count again! Where is the knight more active? The center, of course! Controlling more squares than the opponent due to greater piece activity is another key to victory. Keeping your knights and bishops on the back row is equivalent to leaving your guys on the bench in football -- no touchdowns for those guys.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the best way to improve your game is to think more and to be patient! If you play each move in just a few seconds (like a lot of young scholastic players), it is likely you will make errors. When I observe two students immersed in a game, and I notice one is taking more time to consider his or her next move, I know immediately who has the upper hand. Chess is a thinking game. You must think about what you want to do (in general), what your opponent wants to do and then think about specific moves that will accomplish your goal. The better one gets at chess, the more time one needs to think about the moves!

What is the best way to improve your game? Well, as the old saying goes, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!" The more you play, the more experienced you get, and the better your results. The Chess Club in the Central West End has plenty of opportunities for kids and adults to get some free classes to get you started, and a number of tournament opportunities to further sharpen your game.

So come on out, and learn something new! Your brain will thank you.

Ben Finegold is the GM in residence at the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center.

Ben Finegold
Grandmaster Ben Finegold learned the rules of chess at age 5 and was dubbed “The 40-year-old GM” after receiving the title in 2009. In between, Finegold was a U.S. Junior champion in 1989, a recipient of the prestigious Samford Chess Fellowship in 1993 and a competitor in nine U.S. Championships. He is a popular scholastic coach and commentator for elite events.

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