Patterns, Patterns Everywhere!

Patterns, Patterns Everywhere!

| 110 | Strategy

I have no doubt that you've heard the saying, "Chess is 90% tactics" many times. It is so overused that it is impossible to trace who said it first. While in general I agree with this statement, I would still slightly modify it. So, channeling my inner Yogi Berra, I would say: "Chess is 90% tactics. The other half is pattern recognition."

As we start our journey into the beautiful world of chess, we learn thousands of different patterns. If I remember correctly, the very first pattern I learned was the "staircase checkmate." It is simple and beautiful in its geometry:

Notice that there was a much faster checkmate available, but beginners practically never do it because once they learn this method, they are happy to execute the familiar pattern. By the way, what was the first chess pattern that you learned? Please share it in the comments.

As we get stronger, we learn more and more patterns and they become more sophisticated than the "staircase checkmate" above. The more patterns you know, the easier it is for you to find good moves in your games.

Here is a good example. When I was 15 years old, I was lucky enough to be a student of the famous Botvinnik-Kasparov school and therefore had an opportunity to appreciate GM Mikhail Botvinnik's chess wisdom on many different occasions. Usually, it went like this: we showed the patriarch our games and somewhere in the middlegame, when the position was getting extremely complicated, GM Garry Kasparov would start shooting variations with machine-gun speed. Then, after a moment of silence when everyone was still filled with awe, Botvinnik would say softly that a similar position actually happened in some forgotten game from a Moscow Championship before WWII, between so and so, and this is what should be done here.

Composite image of GM Garry Kasparov and GM Mikhail Botvinnik.
GMs Botvinnik (L) and Kasparov (R).

It was much easier to appreciate Botvinnik's recommendation, which was purely based on his pattern recognition, compared to the ultra-complicated Kasparov variations. To be fair, Kasparov's method is more precise, and that's why chess is 90% tactics!

In some positions, you cannot play a move just because this is what should be played in similar situations because in this particular case, the move would lose due to some tactics. But in order to learn how to play good chess in general, pattern recognition is invaluable. At some point, when you get experienced in chess, every single position reminds you of something! Let's take a look at a very recent brilliancy by GM Viswanathan Anand.

Many chess players would be surprised by Anand's last two moves. First he gave up his center with 9.dxc5 and then he played 10.a3 which doesn't help development. In general, moves like these shouldn't be played, so what's going on there? Well, this interesting pattern has been known for over 100 years and became quite famous after the following iconic game:

This is probably Pillsbury's most famous game. As you can see, the mysterious 7.a3 move takes away the b4 square from Black's pieces, and prepares the b2-b4 push which would significantly cramp Black's position. But let's get back to our main game:

Wait a second, wasn't White's idea to play b2-b4? Why did Anand castle on the queenside then? What's going on there? Well, let me explain. First of all, the b2-b4 idea is still valid here, and as a matter of fact, was played in this position by another world champion:

Nevertheless, I am not surprised by Anand's move at all since this is his favorite way to attack. It goes way back. When I was preparing for my first World Junior Championship in 1987, it was clear that Anand was one of the main contenders (which turned out to be true, since he won the tournament). When I analyzed his games before the tournament, I noticed that he loved to castle on the queenside and go straight for a checkmate. When the tournament started, the very first game where I actually saw Anand in action, confirmed my finding:

As you can see, even though judging by Anand's comment the position was new to him, he still found the most aggressive way to attack which of course involved castling on the queenside. In this tournament, I was lucky enough to play Anand as White and the game was a relatively boring draw, but later in our games Anand played White, castled on the queenside two times, and won both games! Now you can understand why I wasn't surprised by the move 12.0-0-0 played by Anand in our earlier example.

This pattern is also well-known and usually leads to a crushing attack. In the following game, world champion Emanuel Lasker used this pattern as early as he possibly could, before he even finished his development or castled!

The final cute little pattern would make an excellent Puzzle Rush problem. Can you solve it?

This pattern where you sacrifice a queen in order to get a new queen and checkmate an opponent is quite common. Yet, I find it funny that the very same day this pattern was played in another high-profile game. The only difference is that this time it was an American super grandmaster who beat a former world champion, and not vice versa as in the Anand-So game! 

I hope I managed to convince you that knowledge of chess patterns is extremely important for any chess player. These patterns are everywhere, and the more you know, the easier it will be for you to win your own games!

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