What We Know That Just Ain't So
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What We Know That Just Ain't So

GM Illingworth

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” (misattributed to Mark Twain)

I've just finished coaching at the Australian Junior Chess Championship - training national title winners from the age of 6 to 17, and everything in between. But this post isn't about me.

It's about Harry the H-Pawn, and Albert the A-Pawn! Remember Harry from this post? 

But this time, we won't see the brave warrior leading the charge, giving his life to clear the way for the big guns. 

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Today, Harry and Alfred have lost all their old bluster. Today, they are the shy kids hiding away in the back of the hall, ducking and weaving out of the danger looming around them. How can the little guy take on the whole rabble of Rome at once?

In chess, the pawn is the least valuable, most dispensable piece. And he sure knows how to use that to his advantage.

'Run away, insidious queen! You wouldn't dare take me down with you!' 

'Look at you, you pesky knight. We both know you wouldn't dare to return home with your tail between your legs, knowing you were beaten by a lowly pawn. Sure, you might regenerate for next time, but your mates would never let you live THAT down.' 

Image result for the black knight

As you probably figured, the pawn is the best attacker, and the best defender, precisely because it is the least valuable. That's why, when there are several captures in a row on one square, it's often better to take with the pawn first, so that a more valuable piece is not captured next in the sequence.

Back to the 2019 Australian Juniors. Among my numerous students was a young girl, who would often face the Scotch Gambit in her games:

Those of you who remember the earliest stages of your chess journey (or, indeed, are at that stage right now) probably remember how annoying this opening was! Whether it was falling for 4...Bc5 5.c3 dxc3 6.Bxf7! Kxf7 7.Qd5 and 8.Qxc5, regaining the piece with a strong attack, or resigning after 4...Be7 5.c3 dxc3 6.Qd5 (not realising that 6...Nh6 7.Bxh6 0-0 keeps Black in the game), you understand that, at the low club and junior level, this opening is a dangerous weapon!

In my coaching, I often ask my students what the opponent's idea is, or, in simpler terms, do they have a real threat? Many very young players are quite fixated on attacking the f7/f2 pawn early, with moves like Bc4 and Ng5 (once they graduated from the Four Move Checkmate). 
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In any case, this girl was absolutely terrified of Ng5, attacking the f7-pawn. She would rather lose material than allow this immediate attack. I showed her how to play 4...Bc5 5.c3 Nf6 before her game. But in the game, she got scared, and played the 'prophylactic move' 4...h6, going on to lose (though,  not because of the opening). At least Harry got an early cameo!
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Now, after 4...Bc5, what if White plays 5.Ng5? Then you may refer to the following model game for Black: 
I have made very detailed notes to this game, which I will happily share with you (on request) if you join the ranks of my wonderful, passionate students  

In this way, chess and life are quite similar - our mind has a tendency to worry about many things, acting as our 'sentry' constantly looking out for danger. But most of the time, the danger is not real - we can solve the challenge before us in a relatively simple way. If we can ignore the opponent's threat and play our idea first - more power to us.

Indeed, the way we establish and assert our control of the game (the 'initiative') is by having a flow of threats that the opponent cannot ignore (usually, by making threats of their own in reply). 
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We should not assume that moving the rook's pawns too early, due to fear of Ng5 attacks or Bg5/Bb5 pins, is only a schoolboy/schoolgirl mistake that one quickly 'grows out of'. Let me tell you about the first adult chess club that I joined, back when I was nine years old. It was called 'Manly-Warringah Chess Club' back then, and I still have very fond memories of the club.
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The adults there were very supportive of my attendance at the club (this is before juniors playing in adult chess clubs was commonplace in Sydney), encouraging me, having 'handicap' prizes and 'lucky door prizes' I could win and fun rapid, blitz and even a 'Canadian Pairs' tournament. Indeed, I now encourage all my students to join a chess club and practice face-to-face - it is different from moving the pieces around with a mouse on Chess.com! 

Anyhow, the playing strength of the other members ranged from about 900 to 1900, with most of them rated around 1200-1500. And they loved to push their rook's pawns early! So, a typical game between two of the club's players would go something like this:
Maybe you are laughing at these guys, who are just enjoying a fun game, and not caring too much about the result. You're probably laughing because you know someone who also loves moving the rook's pawns early, or maybe you are among the large percentage who do it (or used to do it) yourself.
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Losing time with rook's pawns...
The problem with moves like h3 and a3 at an early stage is that these moves don't help you develop your pieces in any way, and the opponent can use the tempi offered by these moves to develop faster, set up threats and take the early initiative. You remember what the initiative is, right? 

Answer: Control of the game! Having a flow of threats which cannot be ignored!

I still remember that afternoon at the Australian Junior Championship, where all the coaches were gathered around this little girl at her chessboard, trying to stop her from playing ...h6 so early in the game. And then I developed a solution, which can be seen in the diagram below:
'Stop trolling me Max, it's just the initial pos...oh wait, where's Black's h-pawn?' 

After that, the girl was quite worried, as she was down a pawn, and couldn't stop Ng5. So, I told her, 'Don't worry! When your opponent plays their 10th move, I will place the pawn back on h7 for you, and you will have a better position.' 

This is how the girl's game against a team of hungry, tired coaches went. 
Indeed, after ten moves, Black already had a winning position - and that's without me even putting the pawn back on h7! Step aside, Derren Brown! (I am just kidding)
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So, that's the end of our lesson, right? Take the rook's pawns off the board at first, and we can't waste those tempi anymore! 

However, in chess, we don't have 'rules', only 'principles'. Sure, you generally don't want to let the opponent take your queen with a lesser piece, but you would do it for checkmate, no? (It's not as rhetorical as you think - many young kids are so happy to win the queen, they celebrate too early and allow a back-rank mate). 
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As it happens, moves like h3/a3/...h6/...a6 can also be quite useful, at the right time. For example:
White played 6.a3, to avoid the ...Na5 idea, winning White's bishop pair. Astute readers will have noticed that White could have preferred 6.Na4 to grab the bishop pair advantage, and that's indeed how most strong players play this 'Pianissimo' variation these days. In turn, Black plays 6...a6, preventing Na4. Now, 7.h3 may not be the very best move, but it does stop ...Bg4, so we can't criticise it too much. Then 7...0-0 8.Bg5 can be an awkward pin. True, 8...h6 9.Bh4 g5 breaks the pin, but only at the price of weakening the pawn shelter around Black's king. 

So, Black also waits, with 7...h6, and in most cases, the players keep watching the paint dry on the wall until a draw is offered or someone hangs material - whichever happens first. 
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A minority meet 8.0-0 with the hack attack 8...g5 and ...g4, using the h3-pawn as a 'hook' against the Black king. They usually win, leaving Stockfish to console the opponent that they had a +1 advantage on move 9 and, therefore, they were the deserving winner of their bout...

After you read this article, many of you may watch a Magnus Carlsen game, be it in the currently running Tata Steel tournament, or on a video (hopefully on Chess.com ). In that case, you may have seen his latest Tata Steel game:
I know, ...a6 and ...h6 together at such an early stage looks a bit ridiculous. But it's really not that bad, and in the game, Carlsen achieved near-equality out of the opening.
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Let's go back to my first chess club, which is now named 'Harbord Diggers'. For the non-Australians reading, that isn't in reference to Digg, gold diggers or dirt shovellers, but rather, it is a slang term for soldiers from Australia and New Zealand. And if you still don't believe that these club members are brave, let me share this anecdote with you.

I was talking to one of the old Harbord Diggers players yesterday, who just plays for fun. I showed him the position after 5...h6 in Carlsen's game. His words were priceless.

'He played my opening! The World Champion played my opening! And those Doubting Thomases told me to stop pushing my rook's pawns...'
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Thanks for reading the article! What's the best or funniest game you've seen where the rook's pawns played an important role? 

Article by Max Illingworth, 

Grandmaster, FIDE Trainer, 2018-19 Australian Champion

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