Teach Yourself Better Chess

By Bill Wall


In 1997, International Master Bill Hartston published a book called Teach Yourself Better Chess.  Its goal was to delve a little more deeply into the principles of good chess.  He explained the ideas behind the elementary rules of chess and introduced the reader to what makes up good judgment and intuition in chess.  Here are some of Hartston’s principles and advice.


First, try to calculate the calculable.  One must calculate the technique to calculate forced moves such as captures and heavy threats through the end, even if it is 10 or 20 moves deep.  He points out that there are two types of thinking going on: precise thinking (tactics) and fuzzy thinking (strategy).  Only when you have calculated the calculable and no clearly advantageous continuation emerges, it is time to move into the fuzzy thought of looking for the most promising path through the forest of incalculable possibilities. 


Always look one move deeper than seems to be necessary.  Just when the forcing moves appear to have come to an end, there may be a subtle move that puts a completely different complexion on the position.  The tactics do not always end when the captures and checks run out.  You also must train yourself to look for winning combinations for your opponent also.   Sometimes we stop analyzing because there is no more forcing moves such as check or capture.  If your opponent has no important threats, you may have a spare move that would help your position, which may force a winning position.


Control of the center is the key to flexibility.  In the early stages of the game, the center is the most important part of the board.  A piece, especially a knight, can influence play on both wings from a central outpost.  The side that controls the center can easily switch his forces from one wing to another.  Try to occupy the center with pawns.  Advance them systematically to enable pieces to occupy the squares behind them.


Know when to exchange pieces.  In general, it is likely to be advantageous to exchange pieces when you have more pawns than your opponent, everything else being equal.  An extra pawn increases in value the fewer pieces are on the board.  If you have a cramped position, swapping off one piece can create much-needed maneuvering space.  The most important thing, however, is to think about the pieces that will remain on the board before you exchange any pieces.  You want to make sure you are not losing a crucial piece that is needed in the game.  Weak players usually assess a position by counting the captured men.  Strong players consider only the men remaining on the chess board.  Before exchanging, ask yourself, “Will he miss his piece more that I’ll miss mine?”   Many games have been lost because the loser permitted the exchange of a vital defensive piece, or allowed the attacker to simplify into a winning endgame.


When it comes to a bishop and pawns, put your pawns on the same color as your bishop on the flank where you are defending, but on the opposite color on the side where you plan to attack.  A bad bishop and be a good defender.


If there is active play happening on both wings and no pawns are blocking the center, then a bishop is stronger than a knight.  If the central pawns are blocked and look like they will stay that way, exchange your bishops for knights.  If you are playing with a bishop against a knight, try to exchange central pawns, and create something to think about on both wings.  A bishop may simultaneously influence play on both sides of the board.  A knight is too slow to influence both sides of the board.  The bishop is much stronger than the knight in an endgame where the players have passed pawns on opposite sides of the board.  The knight has to choose whether to attack or defend.


There are two good reasons for castling.  You don’t want the king caught in the center, and you want to connect the rooks and bring one ready to occupy a central file.  However, castling is not just a king move.  If your rook is doing a good job on its original square, such as supporting an advance of a rook pawn or occupying an open file that can attack the enemy king, then it may make more sense to leave it where it is and not castle at all.  When the center of the board is safe, it can be a good strategy to leave the king there until the moment comes for the cornered rook to get in the game. 


Your aim in the opening should be to get your pieces into play as soon as possible, so that they can cooperate with one another rather than stepping over each other.  If a piece takes more than one move to reach its most effective square, then that is OK.  What is important is to avoid wasting time and tempo.  Don’t move a piece to one square, then change your mind and move it to another square on the next move.   Don’t spend two moves doing something that could have been done in one move, while your opponent has made two useful moves in reply. 


Bishops are best played when they are on the long diagonals, the ones from corner to corner.   When a player plays g3 (or b3), then Bg2 (or Bb2), we refer that as the bishop in fianchetto (some say fianchettoed bishop).  Fianchetto is an Italian word meaning wing or flank.   When not in the corner, every bishop has one major diagonal and one minor diagonal.  It is best that the major diagonal is as long as possible.  The bishop looks forward in attack while glancing backwards in defense.


In most positions, there is no such thing as a correct plan.  There is only a flexible set of options ready to put into operation according to the options selected by the opponent.  You have to satisfy yourself that there is nothing you can do to win the game immediately, nor any defensive task that demands immediate attention.  After that, you then ask yourself “Where would I like my pieces to be in a few moves time?”  That’s your goal or planning in chess.


When you have found a good move, play it!  Just make sure it is as good as you think.  Strong players always think a good deal before playing an “obvious’ winning move.  If it is really a winning move, you can even spare the time to look at every legal replay you opponent has at his disposal. 


Think strategies when it is your opponent’s move; think tactics when it is your move.  The constant interplay between strategy and tactics is an essential part of good thinking.  After your opponent makes a move, ask yourself “Has my opponent’s last move left him open to a killer punch?  If not, does it threaten anything that demands immediate action?”  After that, look at the static features of the position – the pawn formation, the weak squares, the safety of the kings, the potential endgame advantages, and other such elements that lead to the formation of a general strategy.


Most of the time, a rook placed on an open file is the best place for a rook.  That is true when the file offers the rook a chance to advance and attack enemy weaknesses, or when conceding the file to the opponent’s rooks would let him do the same thing.  Sometimes a rook does better behind a not-yet-open file, in preparation for a predictable opening of the position.  Also, a rook is very good behind an advancing pawn.  The rook supports the pawn’s advance and the advancing pawn creates more space for the rook.


Most decisions you take in a chess game are not crucial.  Such decisions such as exchanging or not or blocking or not may lead to small advantages and disadvantages.  But once in awhile, it really matters what you play.  The ability to recognize a crisis and sport a critical moment only comes with experience.  This is most common when a player who has had the initiative for some time begins to lose it.  Strong players stop to think when a crisis arrives; weak players think when they don’t know what to do.  That is why a long think by a strong player is usually followed by a very precise move, while a long think by a weak player is followed by an error.


The first thing to sort out when it is your turn to move is the immediate tactics.  Has your opponent overlooked something and left himself open.  When you have looked at all the possible tactics, you then look at general strategy.  A good policy is to look at all your pieces and ask yourself what useful functions each is performing.  Then improve the effectiveness of your weakest piece.  Finding a useful function for one piece can lead to a better understanding of what the other pieces and pawns should be doing as well.  When you have run out of ideas and don’t know what to do, try moving a piece that you haven’t moved for a long time. 


Perhaps the most consistent of all errors by weaker players is to overestimate the value of the initiative.  The art of good defense is patience.  Everyone likes to attack, but it is just as easy to win games by good defense as by attacking well.   You may have a slightly passive or cramped position, but as long as it contains no structural weaknesses, your position should be defensible.  When the attacking forces eventually have to retreat, the attacker may have created his own weaknesses because he overextended himself.  The greatest vulnerability is after an initial attack that has been beaten back.  The defender will then breathe a sigh of relief and make a fatal mistake instantly.  The attacker may continue playing aggressively and leave himself open to a decisive counterattack.  Keeping calm under pressure is the essence of a good defensive play.


A common error happens when a player becomes so fixated on one move or variation that it produces an inhibiting effect on all other thoughts.  You start thing about a tempting rook move down a file, overlooking a more powerful move sideways of the same rook.  You think so long about moving a knight forward trying to attack that you never consider a powerful retreat of the rook.  You see that you can put a piece powerfully established on a strong square but miss the chance to force a simple win with a simple exchange.   Sometimes good ideas interfere with better ideas.  The only solution is to train yourself to look again at each move of a variation in a fresh manner.  You need to put your previous thoughts aside and clear a path in your mind to led radically new ideas to come through.


Choose  what openings to play by looking at grandmaster games and picking those systems in which you find it natural to identify with the moves of one side.  When you have found a opening you like, look through chess magazines, newspaper columns, book, on the Internet, YouTube, chess databases, chess engines, etc for as many complete games in that opening as you can find.  Then play them all quickly.  Ideally, you want to look at about 100 games with the opening you wish to study.  Some of the games will have unnatural moves, such as a knight on the rim, or castling queenside instead of the expected kingside, etc.  But, after a dozen or so games, you will find that similar maneuvers crop up again and again.   Just learning variations will never enable you to develop a proper feel for a particular opening.  Try to avoid the more complex and fashionable systems unless you have lots of time and can keep up with the latest theoretical developments.


More half-points are thrown away by the inability to recognize a technically won endgame than through any other single cause.  A great part of good endgame play lies in recognizing when “better position” turns into ‘winning position’ and when ‘difficult position’ turns to ‘lost game.’  You have to build up your endgame knowledge through experience.  You need to work out for yourself many king and pawn endgames, most opposite-colored bishop endgames, and lots of rook and pawn endings.


The easiest time to blunder is the move after you have solved all the difficult problems.  In chess, every move and every position has to be viewed with mistrust.  When you start to think that ‘nothing can go wrong now’ that’s about the time that something can go wrong.  When you feel the pressure is off, you start to switch your brain to automatic pilot and that often leads to a fatal blunder.


Learn from your losses.  When you have lost a chess game, your job is not just to identify the losing move, but to discover what it was about the position that led to your making the error.  You have to ask yourself if you were too bold in a position that demanded caution.  Perhaps you had a lack of courage to play what you intuitively felt was the right move because you didn’t analyze the position through the end.  Maybe you created too many weak squares by poorly timed pawn advances.  Successful players avoid positions they do not understand.  However, true strength is acquired only by studying such positions until you do understand them. 


You don’t win games by playing good moves; you lose them by playing bad moves.  A good move may be needed to punish an opponent for a mistake or tempt the opponent to make a mistake.  But good moves do not themselves win games or even create advantages.  The best they can do is put the finger on mistakes already made or set the sort of problems that lead to errors.


Weak players think harder and longer than strong players.  There are more things for them to work out.  A strong player can find potentially good moves easy enough and eliminate the bad ones without having to analyze them.  Strong players can rely far more on judgment to tell them what moves are worth considering.  A strong player can reject a move on instinct that a weaker player will need to analyze in depth. 


The most difficult moves to find are the ones that do nothing.  You must have flexibility in chess.  When direct attacks do nothing, one must look for a move that will come in useful whatever direction the game turns.  The move appears to accomplish nothing immediately, but will become useful later – if only to deter the enemy from an otherwise promising continuation.  You want to hold the tension  until it can be released with the maximum effect, or until one’s opponent is forced to release it himself in unfavorable circumstances.


If you can’t see clearly through complications, in all probability your opponent can’t see through them either.  One of the most common ways for strong players to defeat weaker players is simply to create complications.  The weaker player, feeling unsure of himself and a lack of confidence, will try to resolve the complications and accept a disadvantage.  Uncertainty is always the biggest enemy of the player with a winning position.