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Chess tactics explained in plain English
June 19, 2007 9:53 PM   Subscribe

A Field Guide to Chess Tactics. Chess tactics explained in plain English, with hundreds of examples. A great site for beginning to mid-level players. Includes a large library of positional problems, organized thematically, with the solutions explained and discussed. For example, learn about knight forks, then quiz yourself on the same topic.
posted by Rumple (76 comments total) 239 users marked this as a favorite

I'm tired of my roommates kicking my ass at chess. Thanks for this.
posted by thecaddy at 10:08 PM on June 19, 2007

when asked about the advantage of playing the white pieces, efim bogolyubov, a prominent master of the 1920s, replied "when i'm white, i win because i'm white. when i'm black, i win because i'm bogolyubov."
posted by bruce at 10:36 PM on June 19, 2007 [7 favorites]

Unless he's getting his ass kicked by Alekhine.
posted by RavinDave at 11:10 PM on June 19, 2007

I've tried learning to play chess by playing against computer software, but I just can't do it. Computers have a sort of psychological advantage because of the sheer speed at which they play. I spend 5 minutes trying as best as I can to think of a move, I make my move, and 0.2 seconds later the computer has countered with it's move, which I find endlessly frustrating. I don't know - I feel the need to keep up with it or something.

Does anyone have any suggestions for chess software that's deliberately slow? Maybe even software where the computer throws in a few obvious mistakes now and again to you can feel you're making progress against it?
posted by Jimbob at 11:47 PM on June 19, 2007

i second jimbob's request!

i like chess, but have never progressed beyond a rudimentary understanding of the game. it's probably just because i'm an idiot, but i've never really been able to think the 3 to 5 moves ahead of the move you're making. i'm always playing on the present move and reacting to that.
posted by snwod at 12:11 AM on June 20, 2007

i like chess, but have never progressed beyond a rudimentary understanding of the game. it's probably just because i'm an idiot

Nah, I doubt you're an idiot. Have you studied? Unfortunately, to be decent in chess, you have to study. This is coming from someone who used to be almost decent about ten years ago. But it's a forbidding game. If you study openings and the kind of tactical problems that Rumple's posted, your game can't help but improve. But let me again emphasize, to be good at chess, you need to study and read a bit.
posted by Edgewise at 12:16 AM on June 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

I'm pretty crap myself, but chess is an oddity for me in that it's about the only game I can think of where I can consistently lose and still enjoy it.
posted by juv3nal at 12:26 AM on June 20, 2007

Dig it.
posted by meh at 12:28 AM on June 20, 2007

"But let me again emphasize, to be good at chess, you need to study and read a bit."

Understatement of the year. In my late teens I scraped myself up to strong-A/weak-Master level. It is a life-consuming task of study and intense play.

I haven't played against a strong opponent in years, but I probably wouldn't fare well now. You retain a lot of understanding of the game of course, but a large part of being *good* is highly technical and subject to being forgotten quickly when you stop applying it.
posted by cj_ at 1:25 AM on June 20, 2007

But let me again emphasize, to be good at chess, you need to study and read a bit.

But you also have to have the talent.

I used to be, what I thought, was a pretty decent chess player. I easily beat most people I played and could defeat most of those hand-held computers that were coming out in the 1980s.

Then, one day, a friend invited me over for a smoke and a drink. Seeing that he had a chess table set-up, I asked him if he fancied a game. He beat me quickly. Twice.

So I figured I would see how good he was. During the third game, we're about 30 moves into the game, and he steps out of the room, so I moved one of his pieces to my advantage. My friend Mark comes back in, sits down, and immediately moves the piece back. Somewhat surprised, I ask if he saw me move it.

Mark looked at me curiously, wiped all the pieces off the board, set them up from the beginning, and says to me "In Chess, you either see it or you do not." He then makes my opening move, explaining "The standard opening for white," pausing for effect and then adding "and also the opening move Spasky used in his third match against Fisher in the game I was studying last night." "Boris is a ham and egger," he tells me.

"I countered with Fischer's move," he says moving his piece. "Also very standard."

"And then you did something very interesting. A very unconventional move, but I've seen it used a few times. When I was 13 someone did this to me and it really threw me off my tempo since it was not like any standard opening. I lost that game in 25 moves."

Mark was 35 and he was telling me about a game he played when he was 13. At this point I began to understand that I was out of my league.

So he looks at me, and says, "I countered your move with the same move I used against the Israeli national champion at the Philadelphia Open when I was 15. He tried your same trick on me too, but by then I had figured out several defenses."

He moves his piece, turning a gimlet eye to me, he says "And then you made a really stupid move so I knew you didn't know what you were doing."

And he goes on the explain each move up to where he left the room. "This was the position of the board when I left, you moved this pawn here while I was out."

I was gobsmacked.

It is not enough to study the game, you have to have a photographic memory and a massive intellect to really be any good at it. Turns out my friend Mark Coles - who was one of the smartest people I have ever met - was a ranked Chess Master with a long list of merits and trophies. We were both playing chess, but he was playing another game. I never played much chess after that. I'll play a game or two with a couple of ex-cons I know who learned to play in the joint, but I don't really consider it as playing chess. I don't know anything about the game.
posted by three blind mice at 1:33 AM on June 20, 2007 [339 favorites]

Wow, cool anecdote.
posted by meh at 1:41 AM on June 20, 2007

I love the old days, when complex positional play yielded brilliant combos and exhilarating attacks. Alas, NO ONE plays open positions anymore. This is one of the reasons I politely disagree with Edgewise -- openings are important and must be treated appropriately, but the style of play has changed. Players have gotten tremendously conservative. (I'd like to blame computers, but it started long before that, though they no doubt coaxed the trend along). Thus, I suggest you put in a lot of time studying endgames. Know what you can and cannot do. (Quick: Can you force check with a bishop?) The trend is to trade down as early as possible and reduce the number of pieces; players are conservative and hate to be caught off-guard. The trick (of course) is to come out on top at the end of the exchange. The problem -- the thing that makes recent chess boring to me -- is that it is pretty hard to refuse to trade down against an opponent determined to do so.
posted by RavinDave at 1:55 AM on June 20, 2007

I second meh.
posted by flippant at 1:56 AM on June 20, 2007

Thanks muchly.
posted by chuckdarwin at 3:06 AM on June 20, 2007

posted by felix betachat at 3:29 AM on June 20, 2007

I reminded of the main character in The Yiddish Policeman's Union. I gave up chess a long time ago. I was way, way out of my league. Same thing with Go. Now I jump around and virtually shoot 13 year-old shitheads on my Xbox360. It's very compatible with having a family, job and keeping my sanity
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 3:42 AM on June 20, 2007 [5 favorites]

I don't know much about chess, but I know in competitive scrabble that pattern recognition rather than intelligence seems to be the most important factor regarding overall success.

Most scrabble players always put their tiles in alphabetical order on their rack. I'm sure some of the other (better) scrabble players on this site could speak more at length about this, but often when I look at my rack, I know the words that can be formed just because I've seen that combination of letters before. Particularly when it's a high-probability group of letters that I've reviewed countless times, e.g. adeirsu is residua...I don't have to look for it; I just know.

And I've got a good feeling that the same holds true for chess.

So if I really wanted improve my chess game, the first thing I'd do is go to a website with a lot of chess puzzles ( and do these again and again (as many times as it took) until those patterns became internalized and could immediately be "seen."
posted by FunGus at 3:55 AM on June 20, 2007

The single most important thing you can do to become a decent player is to learn the tactics that this site teaches. People who know tactics will always beat people who don't know tactics. If you learn these tools, you will play a respectable game. You will look at the board differently. (Pattern recognition- you will be looking for forks and skewers)

Jimbob, this program (previously) was designed to be at a 1950's level of computer programming. Modern programs are so far above an average player that it's not funny. I'm pretty sure you can set up Fritz and others to play at a slower level, and also there may be a mode where it does make misktakes on purpose.
posted by MtDewd at 4:52 AM on June 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

You will still get your butt kicked by better players, but there are always better players somewhere. At least you'll understand why.
posted by MtDewd at 4:55 AM on June 20, 2007

Thanks MtDewd. Playing that was actually a lot more fun. I still got beaten, but in about 20 moves instead of 7, and I think I had the upper hand at one point...
posted by Jimbob at 5:12 AM on June 20, 2007

To be good at chess, all you need to do is play a lot of chess. Don't expect to be a chess master any time soon though. Get a chess clock and play speed chess. Don't fret over stupid moves or losses, just learn from them and play some more. Note in three blind mice's story that Mark, when first confronted with the unusual move at 13, lost that game because he never saw it before. 13 year old Mark had the talent, the memory, and the intellect, but he lost due to lack of experience.

Strategy is cool if you're into that sort of thing or want to become a chess master but if you just want to be good at chess all you need to do is play more. No need to take it so seriously. Have fun.
posted by effwerd at 5:19 AM on June 20, 2007

posted by DU at 5:20 AM on June 20, 2007

Strategy is cool if you're into that sort of thing

Should've been "Studying strategy..." Strategy is obviously essential.
posted by effwerd at 5:21 AM on June 20, 2007

I want to say this without sounding whiny or smug, but I can't manage to do it so I'm just going to say it, and please don't think I mean to criticize this particular site.

I found it very helpful to separate tactical motif from idea. That is, the motif is the geometric feature that you want to use, and the idea is how you use the potential of your pieces to enable it to work. A pin or a fork is a motif, whereas a deflection or interference move is not. One wins the game. The other moves inhibits or forces pieces' movement. It's the difference between how the pieces can move and why you want them to move to particular squares.

A lot of american and english teaching resources treat both as simply types of tactical themes. I found that russian material is better, especially Lev Alburt's translated book (Chess Tactics for Tournament Players) which explains the motif and idea distinction quite clearly.

It's important because after you reach the intermediate level, your opponents will not simply give you a winning tactical motif for free. They'll see it too and won't "walk into it". Forcing it to work is the hard part.

For me, my combinative skill increased a lot when I started to spend more time doing problems that simultaneously worked both pattern recognition and ideas. The russian problems spend a lot more time on decoys, sacrifices to open lines, and deflections -- seeing where the pieces can move and how their movements are restricted, and thereby focusing on the potential and role of each piece. My problem with the English method is that it's more or less an exercise in classifying the N different kinds of double attacks. It's useful, perhaps the most useful instruction for beginners, but it can only help up you up to the intermediate level. I wonder if that's why a lot of players get stuck at classes B and C.

For a concrete example of what I'm talking about, there's this puzzle from a little dumpy soviet paperback called Shakhmaty Praktikum. It's very pretty, very simple (once you see it), and there are very obvious tactical motifs involved. But how it works! I tell you, the russian puzzles are full of these, and I can't help but think that english language books, with their chapter on "pins" and chapter on "skewers", are just missing something. Here it is:

Bagirov-Kholmov 1961: Black to move after White played 24. Rfe1
posted by cotterpin at 5:23 AM on June 20, 2007 [10 favorites]

Grrr, ok. I am trying to phase myself out of Metafilter but this is what I get for nosing around the old neighbourhood.

You can learn from a computer whether it responds quickly or slowly -- that's not the issue. What you need is a computer that tells you why it's preferring certain moves. Old computers were useless to learn from (to me) because they were thinking far too many moves ahead to benefit. The moves would seem almost random. But a good program -- Chessmaster and Fritz, for examples -- will let you see the software use its heuristics, filing away decent moves, moving those down as better ones come along, and finally settling on the best move within its turn restrictions. (I'm currently using Chessmaster 10th ed.)

Also, in terms of it making "mistakes" so it isn't so punishing to play, Chessmaster gives you a few dozen "personalities" to play against -- each has its own face pic, ranking, and style of play complete with flaws. "This is Sarah. She is 11. She tends to overvalue her rooks." and so on.

No, you don't have to know the name for a given series of moves from some game in 1976. Yes, you'd better know the significance of a move when it happens. Those that know vast numbers of patterns have one major advantage over a competent novice and that is: time. As long as your opponent continues to play within your pattern base, you can respond almost instantly and run down his clock, forcing him to eventually make stupid moves because he no longer has the time to think them out.

But yeah, the masters have memorized a hell of a lot. I visited my local uni chess club for the first time and found their top players no challenge, only to visit a tournament in Toronto a few months later and lose every game. Still fun, though.
posted by dreamsign at 5:33 AM on June 20, 2007

Jimbob- now you got a reasonable playing partner. Go back to the Farnsworth site and learn about tactics. By the time you get through the course, you will know enough to beat it.
This book is another good source. I went from being a chess idiot to a tournament player by reading this one.

effwerd- yes practice, practice, practice, but you have to know the tactics first. Otherwise you're just thrashing in the dark.

cotterpin- agreed, for intermediate players. But you have to 'get' tactics first. Then chess becomes fun and you want to learn the rest.
posted by MtDewd at 5:36 AM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

"When I'm black, I win because I'm Bogolyubov." I need to work that into a conversation.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:51 AM on June 20, 2007

I have lost every single chess game that I have ever played against an adult. I've been at "I know how to move the pieces" skill level for 23 years. This radical "study it to get better at it" tactic that Edgewise suggests seems like a lot of work. What I need to do is start a league of crappy chess players who do not care to hone their skills but enjoy moving the pieces. Anyone else in?
posted by Cookiebastard at 5:52 AM on June 20, 2007 [12 favorites]

I agree with MtDewd's recommendation of Winning Chess by Irving Chernev, Fred Reinfeld. It's the best book on chess tactics every published, in my opinion. It's out of print, but it isn't hard to find used copies online.
posted by buriedpaul at 5:53 AM on June 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

I like Chernev's books, but his best one is the giant "Best Short Games of Chess" (or something close to that). Each one is a jewel that elucidates some some important tactic or pitfall.

Note to Cookiebastard ... get a book on Paul Morphy and study his games. Very few people could whip up an attack faster, or pull a dazzling strategy out of a mundane position. You WON'T be able to pull off what he did (every one else has read Morphy too! And, as I said earlier, the game has changed. Gambiteers are all but gone.) Nonetheless, he will illustrate fundamental principles that are still sound and the lively tone of his games will sear them into your memory.
posted by RavinDave at 6:06 AM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Congratulations on discovering the most popular chess tutorial site on the internets. ( makes a great meta search engine)
posted by spock at 6:15 AM on June 20, 2007

Was it not the great Reuben Fine who said he'd rather have a pawn than a finger? That's why modern chess is so complex, because players can swap body parts for extra pieces.

I remember seeing Viswanathan Anand play a game where he was down two minor pieces in the middle - he lept on the table, cut off his own nutsack and threw it at Gary Kasparov. "What'll you give me for THAT, Kasparov, you bastard?" he shouted. But Gary just threw him a pinned knight and laughed.

Sure, it was stingy, but - much later - when IBM's Deep Blue toppled over and crushed him to death during the cyborg olympics, we all realised what a great player the Lion of Baku really was.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 6:20 AM on June 20, 2007 [19 favorites]

effwerd- yes practice, practice, practice, but you have to know the tactics first. Otherwise you're just thrashing in the dark.

I dunno. Don't get me wrong, I totally understand how knowing tactics will help, I just don't think it's essential to becoming good or to avoid thrashing around in the dark. And I should emphasize, good is significantly different than mastery.

The thing I don't like about emphasizing study is that it's intimidating to most people. It makes it seem like chess is much too difficult for mere mortals. And like I said, if you're into that sort of thing, and you really want to get better at chess sooner than later, study is great. It will definitely help.

I just think about how the most fun I've had playing chess has been while drinking with a bunch of friends and playing very fast. A lot of (good natured) yelling and screaming, lots of laughter, and lots of pieces flying across the room upon surrender. Good times.
posted by effwerd at 6:23 AM on June 20, 2007

effwerd Tread the middle path. Instead of trying to become, for example, an encyclopedia of chess openings, just concentrate on a few. (That doesn't mean ignore the others). As black, I'm partial to the Pirc or the Pirc-Robatsch. Let's me fortify my position while hoping that White gets too antsy and attacks early. And, if he does, the Pirc rapidly transposes into several other hardy lines.
posted by RavinDave at 6:31 AM on June 20, 2007

True story: This Alpha-dog guy I know who plays in local tournaments regularly had been after me to play him forever. (Why, I don't know. Probably because he's an Alpha-dog type). I hadn't played people since High School and computers hardly at all. Finally, at this kid's graduation party, I didn't have an excuse to ignore him so I sat down expecting to get my butt handed to me in short order. He ticked me off by having me play Black without even asking (as if I didn't know about White's advantage). I figured, let's get this over quickly and so I threw a variation of the Scholar's Mate at him (Q-R5) and he acted like he had never seen it before. Beat him in less than 20 moves. Now he wants a rematch, but I tell him that I need to play someone that provides some competition. heh (I said it was a true story. I didn't say it was a great story.)

If you haven't yet seen it, do yourself a favor and see Searching for Bobby Fischer — one of the most overlooked movies of the 90s. (Ben Kingsley, Laurence Fishburne, Joan Allen)
posted by spock at 6:35 AM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh boy, chess! That's where I'm a viking!
posted by kirkaracha at 6:41 AM on June 20, 2007 [6 favorites]

I may as well slip a related-AskMeFi in here: how to go about teaching chess to a child (seven years old)?

I've been playing chess with my daughter for a few years now, and she understands how the pieces move, and some basic strategy, but actually playing a game with her is incredibly frustrating as I have to 'play to lose'. Suggestions?
posted by stinkycheese at 6:45 AM on June 20, 2007

stinkycheese: My grandfather played chess with me a lot when I was young. He didn't so much "play to lose" as "play to teach". Standard openings and lots of discussion about position and advantage. Then he'd usually make one or two errors in the course of the game. If I caught them, I'd win. If I didn't, he'd set about taking me apart. The older I got, the fewer errors he'd make.

He's in his 90's now and in very poor health. Although I'm an adult and those years are very much behind us, I'd give a lot to be able to play with him again. When you're old and senile, your daughter will probably feel the same about you. Taking time to teach a child chess is a wonderful gift.
posted by felix betachat at 7:00 AM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

stinkycheese: Are there any chess clubs or groups associated with your daughter's school? It might be good to get her playing with kids her own age, so she can both win and lose. Often there's a lot of support in the chess community for getting kids playing and learning.
posted by cotterpin at 7:03 AM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Stinkycheese, I am in no way a great player, but, having taught a number of people the basics I find the twin axioms:

Pawns are the soul of chess (I think it's the title of a book - basically, use them rather than lose them), tied with...

Look to control the middle board (limit your opponent's moves by placing defended pieces rather than assault your opponent directly with loose pieces)

will often help a beginner provide at least a modicum of resistance without forcing them into study which they might find dull.

Apologies if that's too basic for what you're after.
posted by Sparx at 7:17 AM on June 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

I sincerely believe that chess should be taught beginning in Kindergarten. I believe it teaches a great many skills and rewards patience and problem-solving. I also think it is particularly helpful for kids with A.D.D. (like me). I really hate to think how disorganized my thinking could be, if I hadn't learned at a very early age. You don't have to play in tournaments. You just have to have a desire to win. Like many things in life, if you care, it will reward you. I don't think enough kids are given a chance to care (particularly because the game is put on some intellectual pedestal).
posted by spock at 7:21 AM on June 20, 2007

I agree with Sparx. I've never studied/memorized openings and defenses. I hate the idea of playing by rote (although I admire those who have the ability to memorize all that stuff). You can play quite competently against your garden-variety opponents by simply learning what it means to "develop your pieces" and "control the middle". It also helps to understand the different phases of the game: Openings, middle, and end games. Frankly, you'll probably rarely get into true end game, as somebody will lose before you get that far.

I think it is more important to understand the principles behind the various openings and defenses, than it is to memorize said openings and defenses. However, if you are going to seriously compete in a club or something, you will probably need to do the studying/learning/memorizing. I just don't want that to be a "requirement" that keeps more people from enjoying the game.
posted by spock at 7:29 AM on June 20, 2007

I sincerely believe that chess should be taught beginning in Kindergarten. I believe it teaches a great many skills and rewards patience and problem-solving.

Not really. Chess is a boring, pointless game that should never, ever be forced on children. It requires a deep technical understanding but completely lacks the intuitive and social dimension that makes any game interesting and worthwhile. As a former victim of a chess I think it's a shame that the game garners so much prestige. It's only really fun for nerds.
posted by nixerman at 7:49 AM on June 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

It is not enough to study the game, you have to have a photographic memory and a massive intellect to really be any good at it.

I am reminded of some work where it was found that highly skilled chess players had better-than-normal recall of board position only for actual game positions, and not for random arrangements of pieces. Pattern recognition.
posted by exogenous at 7:59 AM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I just want to point out that "I don't know anything about the game" is the single best ending to any metafilter story I've ever read.
posted by shmegegge at 8:13 AM on June 20, 2007

Thanks everybody. I'll have to look into whether her school has a chess program or not.
posted by stinkycheese at 8:59 AM on June 20, 2007

On a side note, the Immortal Game (prev)is really worth watching.

Book wise, 'The Right Way to Play Chess' by Pritchard is a pretty good book for beginners, and 'simple winning chess' by Baker is pretty good for a little more advanced. Quality pre-sleep reading, because then you can dream chess.
posted by rider at 9:01 AM on June 20, 2007

Chess too boring for you? Try Knightmare Chess
posted by get off of my cloud at 9:40 AM on June 20, 2007

I loves me some knightmare chess. Great handicapping system too if you have one player who is significantly better than the other, just give the worse player more/higher point-value cards.
posted by juv3nal at 10:03 AM on June 20, 2007

Stinkycheese: I think one of the coolest things my father did for me is never let me win a game of chess. He would spot, or remove one or more of his pieces, as many as I chose, and then duke it out tooth and nail. Fairly early on I realized that this was a hollow and unsatisfying victory and opted for real games. Which I lost. Over and over again. We played regularly for years, and still have a match now and again at family get-togethers. I did eke out a nominal win a couple years back, but only by siccing a gaggle of "helpful" grandchildren on him. He is blind, and does hold the image of the board in his head, but a constant chorus of "move here!", "no here!" was too much. I don't count that one.

The fundamental lesson he was trying to instill is that, while the winner gets the accolade, it is the hard-fought loser that really earns the prize, in the form of learning from the encounter and furthering their skill. This is something that has served me well, along with the lifelong love of logic and competition that the games instilled. I've learned to always seek out the most experienced foe in any competitive endeavour and learn their game by losing to them.

It is a simpler shift of perspective for most kids than people think. After all, the videogames they are hooked on always end in defeat, and progress is measured by how far they made it before going down.
posted by Manjusri at 10:13 AM on June 20, 2007 [12 favorites]

FWIW Manjusri, I agree with you 100%.

My daughter however, particularly at the age of 4 or 5 when I first started playing chess with her, didn't/doesn't quite share that viewpoint. If she never wins, she'll simply give up and declare that she's never playing chess again. And let's face it, it's incredibly easy to destroy a newbie at chess anyways; not much fun there. Finally, and most importantly, my wife got really mad at me when I started off playing as your father did.

I've tried making dumb moves, and then trying to draw her attention to my faux pas, but it's not always easy. Her endgame is also sorely lacking; our games often conclude with me simply submitting (because I have a king and two pawns, or something like that).

She's definitely getting better, and I'm sure at some point I'll take the gloves off. I'd really rather take the approach that she play me for years and finally beat me fair and square, as your father did. Maybe I'll take that approach with her little brother when he's old enough to give it a go - he's only three right now, and at this point he just knocks your king down with his hand and says, "I win".
posted by stinkycheese at 10:27 AM on June 20, 2007

I played against a chess against a Candidate Master in college once. Or rather, dozens upon dozens of times in a single night in his dorm.

We used a clock. It's faster to be in checkmate when he doesn't have to wait five minutes for me to make the same mistake I'd make in one. He gave himself two minutes to my ten, and like three blind mice's opponent, knew all the names of all my moves. It's intimidating to spend 45 second on a move, hit the switch, and then have it immediately countered within one motion to start another 'thinking session'.

I eventually resigned myself that I was bound to lose -and lose swiftly and convincingly. So I renegotiated victory in my mind as twenty moves. If I could prevent checkmate for twenty moves, I'd consider that a win.

A few games on -may the 40th or 50th of the evening- I noticed something advantageous. His king was castled behind his three pawns sitting in front of my helpfully useless queen, while his rook and whole god-darn army were occupied at my end. I had nearly an open path to pass my rook to the 8th row and, as long as he didn't pin me by placing me in check, I'd have a shot.

So he moved. And I wasn't in check. I slid my bishop out of way and he saw it immediately. It was like he had sipped a poisoned wine and was still holding the cup to his lips. For the first time all night (and I mean all freaking night) I was the one waiting for him to make a move.

But he didn't make it. The clocked kept ticking as he stared in disbelief. I stood up, offered my hand to leave. Suddenly he snapped awake. "Hold on. Where are you going? We're playing again."

Sorry my friend. I've accomplished all that I'm able. The bell rang, and his time expired.
posted by yeti at 11:04 AM on June 20, 2007 [11 favorites]

Stinkycheese: use alternate starting positions. That is, start playing with a handicap -- you start "a queen down" or without a rook and bishop, etc.) As your young opponent gets better, add pieces back to your starting lineup. (Though, my pop still remembers with some sadness when he stop being the handicapper, and become the, er, handicappee.)

on preview, the opposite of what Manjusri said.
posted by bodega at 12:18 PM on June 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Pawns are the soul of chess (I think it's the title of a book - basically, use them rather than lose them),

Yes! You know, it's funny how you never hear actual chessplayers use "pawn" in the common metaphorical sense of "someone/something you control, nearly worthless, and to be casually thrown away."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:48 PM on June 20, 2007

What Bodega describes is not the opposite, but is exactly what spotting pieces in chess means. It is conventional practice when teaching beginners. What my Dad did that was original (I think) is to place in my hands the the choice of how many pieces he would spot me, and never deliberately making mistakes.

When I was younger, I could always choose to win by allowing him only a few pieces. An extreme example would be to allow you only a king. It is still worthwhile practice as she can learn the techniques for trapping the king, and how to avoid stalemates. When she's ready for the challenge, she'll let you know by letting you have more pieces.
posted by Manjusri at 3:50 PM on June 20, 2007

Stinkycheese: I used to play chess to a fairly high standard, and when I was learning one game I played a lot was simple 'kingless' games of pieces against pawns - i.e. white queen aganst 8 black pawns, from normal starting positions, if a pawn gets to the 8th rank you win. This is a great beginner's game as it's simple in concept but actually teaches you about pawn structure, endgames and the relative weight of pieces.
posted by simcd at 3:59 PM on June 20, 2007

But let me again emphasize, to be good at chess, you need to study and read a bit.

It probably also helps to have a strong Oedipal Complex, backed up with at least a smidgin of autism.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:39 PM on June 20, 2007

Stinkycheese (I think I've seen that word enough for today):
Now that I think about it, this Farnsworth site (1st link) might be an interesting thing to do with your daughter. Start at section 2 and set up the pieces on an actual board matching what's on the screen. Go through maybe a section a night.

I suppose some people can learn from just watching or playing over famous games, but this definately did not do it for me. I had no idea that there were these tactical motifs. Learning about them made me see the board in a whole new way.

A normal seven year old certainly has the ability to see these things if they are demonstrated. I ran an after-school program at the local elementary school and had 1st graders doing some of this stuff.

Warning- if she likes it, she'll soon be kicking your ass.

Yeah, there's lots to learn to be 'good', but this is the fun stuff right here.
posted by MtDewd at 4:50 PM on June 20, 2007

stinkycheese writes "I've been playing chess with my daughter for a few years now, and she understands how the pieces move, and some basic strategy, but actually playing a game with her is incredibly frustrating as I have to 'play to lose'. Suggestions?"

Second bodega, play handicap chess. You can make it as crazy as king and bishop only (plus the pawns) on your side. Also play endings. Play king against king plus a couple pawns or a pawn and a piece or two.
posted by Mitheral at 5:46 PM on June 20, 2007

Sorry for the thread-jack Rumple, and again thanks everybody for all the enthusiam and input. I've bookmarked the Farnsworth site and I think I will try out MtDewd's suggestions, as well as possibly trying (on my own, likely) the playing over of famous games. I also really like the idea of handicapping myself, and going into battle with reduced forces, as it were.

I noticed after a few months of playing chess with my daughter that she was reluctant to use her back-line; her reasoning was that, because these pieces were more valuable, they should come out last. We did play a few games after that with pawns and King only, but I'd forgotten how effective and educational a technique that was, really.
posted by stinkycheese at 5:47 PM on June 20, 2007

Bleah. Me no write good.
posted by stinkycheese at 6:19 PM on June 20, 2007

Great story, yeti.
posted by cotterpin at 7:01 PM on June 20, 2007

I am lousy at chess. But I have mastered other games enough to know about this. What's going on here is NOT that these advanced players have photographic memories. It's a question of board syntax and parsing.

If you don't know a language, memorizing a short sentence or poem or a line from a movie is a lot of work! But if you have a solid grasp of the underlying structures, and a good vocabulary, it will be hundreds of times easier. And if it makes sense semantically or aesthetically, then you might even remember it word for word without even trying.

I believe that studying chess games is only partially about learning the specific scenarios. The real value is more analogous to studying a language. By learning a variety of sensible board positions and moves, you're forcing your brain to create a framework for understanding those positions, and you're learning a vocabulary of piece interactions, all of which makes memorization much much easier. But the ease of memorization is only a side-effect; the real benefit of having this "board vision" is the ability to rapidly and efficiently process events during the game.
posted by aubilenon at 3:56 AM on June 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is a superlative post/thread.

The one thing I have noticed in all the talk about tactics though is the abscence of any advice on the strategic uses of yogurt .
posted by From Bklyn at 3:56 AM on June 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yogurt is for advanced players.
I think the sunglasses idea came from Pal Benko using them in 1959 to ward off Tal's evil stare.
posted by MtDewd at 6:14 AM on June 21, 2007

As a weak college player I made our weak team and traveled to play in tournaments. My person goal was to win one out of five, two out of five and I felt heroic.

I spent a lot of time perfecting my little psyche gambit, and it worked more than once. I practiced and practiced until I could thrust both of my hands into the pile of pieces to be set up. I would pull my hands out with pieces clustered between all my fingers, I would then give my wrists a nonchalant flurry of twists, resulting in all my pieces being set up correctly, in one quick fluid gesture.

In post game analysis with my opponents, i would hear things like "I was really surprised when you just left your queen hanging, until I worked out the five move devastating sacrifice."

Weak players would over-think their moves until they made a stupid blunder.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:38 AM on June 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yeah, well -- I taught my children chess, and I have never let them beat me at anything, on principle. They've been winning against me fair and square since they were five. I always play to win, and every once in a while I do. They're smarter than me -- what can I do?

The other day, I beat my son (now 15). I was elated! I was the rock star of the world! Yay me! Except for days afterward, my daughter was beating him over the head with it, which became kind of a buzzkill.

P: (giving S a hard time about something)
S: Don't even talk to me, you retard. Mom beat you at chess. Mom.
S: Mom, P.
P: (grumble, grumble) [exeunt]
posted by Methylviolet at 9:50 AM on June 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

Stinkycheese (And anyone else interested): Susan Polgar has developed and is making available a curriculum for teaching kids chess. It's free. You can request a copy here.
posted by cotterpin at 7:57 PM on June 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

I came across this post accidentally, and now am all fired up to play chess again. My problem is that I seem to have become an absolute half-wit, and (not that I was ever really a force to be recknoned with) have lost whatever I had years ago when I first learned and was absolutely obsessed with the game.

I've started playing online a little, but I often make the most hideously embarrassing moves that make me positively cringe. I feel as if I've lost several IQ points in that area, or something.

I'm terrified that some of the er... stuff I did in the intervening years caused a wee bit of brain damage ~ aarrghhh ~ or if it is just lack of practice. I will try some of the suggestions listed above, but I was just wondering if anyone else had experienced anything similar, and if so what they did about it.

I do know that you can create new pathways in the brain, and that using them regularly helps - it's just HOW to use them (chess-wise speaking) the best way to remove the "Jesus I'm an idiot" feeling, that I'd like some input on.
posted by imkathjarq at 5:11 PM on June 22, 2007

Hey there imkathjarq. In case you missed it, a few of us are over on redhotpawn.
posted by juv3nal at 3:41 AM on June 23, 2007

This is waaay after the time, but for anyone reading this, I'd suggest Go as a much better game to teach your kids.

Simple reasons: Go...

1. has fewer rules.
2. is playable on several different sizes of board.
3. has an excellent handicapping system.
4. is arguably more aesthetic.

Deeper reason:

The lessons you learn from chess strategy are not as useful in your life as the spirit of Go. In Go, you *develop* a position -- you keep adding stones and their meanings change later.

In chess, if you always make a good move, you won't lose. In Go, if you only make good moves, you will lose. In Go, there are often many good moves -- the challenge is picking the best move from many good moves.

Chess is very linear. There is only one story going on at any time. A Go game has many stories in it, some of which split, some of which merge.

Past a certain point you need to do a lot of memorization to play serious chess, particularly the openings.

Go has lists of patterns for a single corners only, called josekis, but these do not have anywhere near the same significance that openings in chess do. Serious books on the game all seem warn you away from learning josekis, pointing out that it's much more important to understand the theory behind the operning and understand the whole board.

To me (and I have loved chess!), chess seems like a child's game -- "We hit each other until one of us dies!" -- whereas Go seems much more adult -- "We construct structures around each other until we run out of space."
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:40 PM on June 28, 2007 [3 favorites]

Cases can be made for most of your pro-Go arguments, but this:

In chess, if you always make a good move, you won't lose. In Go, if you only make good moves, you will lose.

Is garbage. You're shifting the target. If there is a board state which contains a possible move which will lead to you winning, any move which leads to you drawing or losing was not a good move. Period.
posted by juv3nal at 9:33 PM on June 28, 2007

Someone quoted me: "In chess, if you always make a good move, you won't lose. In Go, if you only make good moves, you will lose."

and wrote:
Is garbage. You're shifting the target. If there is a board state which contains a possible move which will lead to you winning, any move which leads to you drawing or losing was not a good move. Period.

"is garbage," eh? Let's keep it polite!

What you say is theoretically true for any game of complete information like chess or go -- in any given position there is a small set of optimal moves *if* you knew what they were and playing those is a guaranteed win.

However, what you say is false in practice because we of course do *not* know what the optimal moves are in any arbitrary board position -- if we did, why would we bother playing?

In the real world, we cannot know that one move is optimal and the other is sub-optimal. We have to judge our moves heuristically, based on rules of thumb. We call moves that improve the strength of our position "good" and moves that decrease its strength "bad".

Sure, if we were Gods and could see all ~~10^100 possible board positions for chess or Go, there would be no mystery, but as it is, we have to rank things like this using our experience and playing strength.

Therefore, it's perfectly reasonable to say, "In Go there are a lot of good moves but you can lose making just good moves" -- it means, simply, that in most Go positions there are a lot of moves that strengthen you, the trouble is picking the move that *most* strengthens you!

Chess has a different structure -- often there's only one good move, sometimes even there are NO good moves and you have to move anyway.

To summarize, you're blurring the distinction between a theoretically optimal move, something that's impossible for humans to determine in the general case, and a "good move", which is a practical, human estimation, what people really do when they play games.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:59 AM on June 29, 2007

Chess has a different structure -- often there's only one good move, sometimes even there are NO good moves and you have to move anyway.

You're just talking about degrees of complexity here. Even if we go with heuristically evaluated notion of "good" moves, the only difference is that because Go has a way higher branching factor, application of simple heuristics tends to be less effective. The very notion that one can, in Go, pick the move that *most* strengthens one's position implies that higher level players of Go, at least, have access to more complex heuristics which are effective despite the greater complexity. In other words: for someone who can look at a Go board and pick the move that most strengthens their position, all other so-called "good" moves which merely strengthen position instead of most strengthening position, fail their heuristic test for goodness.
posted by juv3nal at 2:51 AM on July 1, 2007

"You're just talking about degrees of complexity here."
Well there's also the fact that the degree of complexity in some ways makes Go act like a game with incomplete information (because there are too many reasonable paths to consider them all in detail, and you do not know which set of paths the opponent had in mind when making the play). And as any poker player knows, the key to winning/losing in a game of incomplete information often lies in how and when you deviate from optimal play.
posted by lastobelus at 6:02 AM on July 1, 2007

"It is not enough to study the game, you have to have a photographic memory and a massive intellect to really be any good at it."

As fantastic as this comment is I hope it doesn't put people off trying or playing chess, as it is a fun, beneficial experience for players of all abilities. You can be good at chess without having described above, good in respect of purely recreational play, that is. There was a bit of a "well if I'm not gonna be the best there's no point trying" vibe about that comment which to me is the antithesis of chess. Playing chess against people better than you is a fascinating, rewarding and educational experience.
posted by nthdegx at 3:43 AM on July 13, 2007

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