How to Train Your Brain!
I was going to do Part 2 of Target Consciousness, but three reader questions (from Part 1) have convinced me to hold off on Part 2 for next week and instead revisit a painful subject for chess hopefuls.
THREE READER QUESTIONS
Mottsauce said: “It’s all well and good to go after a weakness once it’s there – that I have no problem with. It’s getting the weakness to show up in the first place that’s the hard part. Tying this to one of the problems: how do you find moves like a4! (in the first problem), and see moves like that more than a move or two in advance?”
PAMetalBoss said: “I have a question... at what point exactly, are we to look for a target weakness? For the first example, you point out the e5-square is weak but you don’t tell us how you know this or at what point you begin your plan.”
DrFrank124c said: “…these problems and examples are a little too difficult for me, an intermediate player. Perhaps you could give some easier examples.”
These are very good questions, but I suspect the general answer isn’t what most people want to hear. So I’ll give two answers.
A Nonthreatening Answer
Chess.com has an enormous amount of players that cover the whole spectrum of ratings. For the most part, I write for players in the 1200 to 1900 range, but still stick in some stuff for players weaker and stronger too.
Though I do give some very basic puzzles, I’m very much aware that many of my puzzles are too difficult to solve for the vast majority of players. But, though I know puzzles are fun and challenging, their real point is to give the reader pain-free added instruction. Insidious, isn’t it? Under the guise of “fun” I am tricking you to study and learn. Does my evil know no bounds? This is why I implore everyone to always look at the hidden stuff after doing a puzzle, since I often have instructive variations and prose there. Now, with the newly designed puzzles, all you have to do (after trying to solve them) is to click the question mark in the bottom left hand corner of the puzzle and everything will appear. If you don’t do this, you’re missing out on the real experience I’m trying to share.
So, when you find that a puzzle is too complicated to solve, don’t give up and move on to the next puzzle! No, no, no! Click on that little question mark icon (whether or not you managed to solve it) and learn something.
The Cold, Hard Truth
Chess is an easy game to learn, but a very hard one to master. To do so, you need to put in some hard work if you wish to excel (as is the case for any endeavor). In my old Q&A column, I said (more than once) that chess is all about patterns; the more patterns you absorb, the better you’ll be. The old way to pick up patterns was to play through tens of thousands of master games. Titled players will go through at least 200,000 games (in most cases, tons more!). You play through them quickly and your subconscious slowly absorbs opening patterns, middlegame structures/patterns, tactical patterns, and then endgame patterns. At first it doesn’t have a big effect, but over time (by sheer mass of numbers) your mind secretly sifts through the material and one day you wake up “strong like bull.” (When Bobby Fischer was asked how he made an enormous, seemingly overnight, leap in strength at age 13, he replied, “I just got good.”) At that point you often (from a recent book cover) “move first and think later” cause your fingers know what to do in most situations thanks to the enormous amount of patterns you’ve swallowed up.
Many readers didn’t (and still don’t) want to hear this. They got angry and wrote, “You’re wrong!” (I left out less kind reactions!) Apparently their dream of looking at one book and being world class was being threatened. But that IS just a dream. As I mentioned in something I wrote a short time ago, in Norway it’s said that to be world class in any field, you need to put in at least 10,000 hours.
Of course, most people have lives and can’t manage to put that much time into anything. That’s why instructive books (and articles like mine) were/are created: to give you spoon-fed patterns in any easy-to-digest manner. They give you a tiny bit of power and a dim sense of what could be known if you leave your job/wife/kids/pet and home so you can travel the path of chess enlightenment.
I’ve lectured in Los Angeles for decades. Each time I see lots of familiar faces. And I often repeat a subject (using different examples) if I find that it’s a crowd pleaser. But I discovered something: the familiar faces are as excited by the lecture (though they have heard its topic many, many times) as the first time they saw it. And to them, it IS the first time they saw it cause they forgot about the earlier times! How does this happen?
The answer is that books and articles and lectures can’t really teach you anything that’s lasting UNLESS you continue to study that subject. Thus all these mediums of wisdom are merely samples of something tasty and fun and deep that will eventually fade away if you don’t grasp it and study it in depth. And as you study it, you have to try and use it in your own games. Yes, you’ll fall on your face at first (everyone does), but the mix of study and experience will eventually leave you with serious skills in that particular area of the game. Thus the study progression goes something like this:
- First Glance: Infatuation
- Getting to Know You Better: appreciation and even love
- Experience: divorce
Oh, sorry, let’s do that again!
- First Glance: Infatuation
- Getting to Know You Better: appreciation and even love
- Experience: clarity
- Further Study: mastery
As you can see, learning something takes time and energy, but in chess, the journey really is everything.
As for the harder question about how to create targets, I’ll say this:
The first thing you have to do is train your mind so that you see (the goal is to immediately see!) all weak pawns and squares. It takes time and practice, but eventually you’ll see these things at a glance. Once your mind becomes a Target Consciousness mind, then you’ll also start looking for ways to create these targets. It will become second nature (you’ll look for them, notice there aren’t any, and get a bit mad. Then you’ll say to yourself, “Well, if there aren’t any targets to make use of, how can I create some?”) BUT baby steps first, please. Instant recognition of targets first, creating them second.
So, before going into next week’s Train Your Brain (part 2), let’s give those new to chess a break and show them what a weak pawn and a weak square is.
What is a weak pawn?
In general, a weak pawn is vulnerable to attack and can’t be protected by another pawn.
Material is even, but it’s clear that Black is under the gun due to his vulnerable pawn on e6. Note that none of his other pawns can protect the e6 weakling, so babysitting duties are in the hands of Black’s pieces (which is suboptimal since such powerful pieces would prefer to do something other than babysit). White is attacking it with everything he can muster: his bishop, his queen, and both rooks. Black is holding on tight, but his game is extremely unpleasant.
After 1.Nf4 Black is permanently tied down to the defense of e6 while White, at the right time, can even entertain sacrifices like Nxh5. Here’s a fun variation:
Now let’s make some “small” changes to our initial position:
Black’s f-pawn is now firmly defending e6. In other words, Black’s e-pawn is no longer a weak pawn. White is still better due to his obvious space advantage, but Black is solid.
Here is a common structure that shows weak pawns. I’ll give a pawn structure only version and then a pieces’ version that shows how one might attack them.
Next we'll add black pieces that are eyeing a4, c4, and c3.
As you can see, when an opponent has a weak pawn, it’s your job to get your pieces to positions where they can attack it.
And now another puzzle:
Here's another puzzle:
If you want to master this stuff, look at 5,000 examples of weak pawns and you’ll walk away wondering why you ever thought it was hard. But if you don't intend to do that, looking at a few dozen games and thinking about it during play will give you a useful tool for a lifetime.
What is a weak square?
A weak square, sometimes called a “hole,” is a square that has fallen into enemy hands and is used as a home (called a support point) for enemy pieces.
A true weak square/hole, support point/target on d4
Note how nothing can chase the knight away from its powerful perch.
Not a hole
White can take control over the d4-square and chase the knight away by c2-c3.
d4 is once again a hole
Why is it a hole? Because the only way to challenge it is c2-c3 but then ...bxc3 once again makes the d4-square Black territory.
At times you will see a whole complex of potentially weak squares:
The whole square complex on the a1-h8 diagonal is loose, though that doesn’t mean much if there aren’t any pieces that can take advantage of it.
Now, when we add some pieces Black’s prognosis quickly becomes critical!
This kind of thing teaches you to avoid leaving all the squares on a diagonal open unless you’re the one that owns it! The following position is an improvement, but it’s still bad:
It’s clear that ...h6 didn’t work for Black. But what if he tries to prepare the diagonal-closing ...f6 by 1...Qe7? Here’s another puzzle:
Once you look at tons of games featuring this kind of diagonal/square disaster, such positions become very easy to play.
Here we have a weak square on d5 (note White’s d4-square isn’t weak since it’s protected by the c3-pawn). But since there aren’t any pieces (except the kings) to make use of it, Black can draw the game without any trouble:
However, things aren’t so rosy for Black if we add some pieces:
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