Chess Improver of the Week of February 16 #1


Greetings, chess improvers. This is Coach Conn with the first of what I hope will become a weekly member game analysis lesson.

Our Improver of the Week is ziya-7, and this week's lesson is directed towards Beginners and Improving Beginners. (I have my own system for defining the level of my chess students, since rating is completely useless for the task. I will explain in detail in a future blog post.)

Before we investigate ziya-7's game, I'd like to set down what I expect from my beginner and improving beginner students.


The primary goal for my beginner students is to learn all of the rules of chess and how to read & write chess notation - mainly algebraic notation, but also descriptive.

That's it, nothing else. Once you have learned the rules and chess notation, you are no longer a beginner!

Some choose never to advance beyond this level. They are content to play chess casually, as they would any other game, and that is perfectly fine.

Improving Beginner

After having learned the rules and chess notation, I recommend to my students that they play at least two hundred or so games, just for fun, being sure to record them using chess notation, of course.

I don't fill their minds with principles or "rules" or any notion of piece values; I believe that learning is best done organically in the beginning. I want them to play and begin to think and recognize patterns for themselves. The more games the better, but I find that two hundred games for a student who is eager to play is a good number, with my preferred absolute minimum being at least one hundred.

As a coach, I will look over their games, and save appropriate ones for later lessons. Lessons from our own games are always the ones that most impact us.

Once having spent time experiencing chess just for fun, as an improving beginner, you can begin the serious - but fun - work of improving.

  1. Continue to play and record games. This is an ongoing activity to support improvement.
  2. First on the agenda are Mate in One problems - lots of them. Take time to set each position up on a real, physical chessboard, especially if you normally play chess in person, over the board. Don't move the chessman/chessmen, but solve the problem by visualizing the position after this or that move. This may take you a lot of time at first. Don't worry, remember: quality over quantity. With practice, you will eventually be able to solve these problems in under a second! Again, this is an ongoing improvement activity.
  3. After you've solved about 50 Mate in One problems, you can introduce a Mate in Two problem or two each time you sit down to solve problems, which should be daily, for from ten to thirty minutes, if possible.

    Don't stop solving Mate in One problems, though, and be sure to try the ones you've already done, as well. Repetition helps you learn the patterns.

    Along with improving your visualization skills and building a solid set of patterns, you'll also be making your first steps into calculating. Mate in One requires that you calculate one whole move (one for your side, and one for your opponent - to make sure he hasn't a legal one). Visualization and calculation are two of the five fundamental chess skills. You'll be improving these as long as you're still improving your chess, and vice versa.
  4. Learn how to checkmate your opponent's bare king with your own king, queen, and rook. Learn to accomplish this task by first deciding what position (exact position or type of position) you need to aim for, then working out a series of moves that lead to that position. This teaches you planning, another of the five fundamental chess skills. It's also important to know, because all players should be able to checkmate their opponent with such overwhelming force! Have fun with this, but drill the exercise repeatedly and frequently, until it is so easy that you almost do not need to think about it. You may have passed the Improving Beginner level before you get to that point, but that's fine.
  5. Once you're able to accomplish the above checkmating procedure, learn king and two rooks versus king. Again, be sure to exercise your planning skills.
  6. Once you can handle two rooks, graduate to king and queen versus king....
  7. Then to king and rook versus king.
  8. Now that you've seen so many examples where a larger force of chessmen defeats a smaller force, and since you've played enough games to gain a feel for the strength of each individual chessman, you're ready to learn the first and most important of the fundamental principles of chess strategy: the Principle of Material: with rare exceptions, the side with an advantage in material has a winning advantage (in other words, should win, with best play by both sides).
  9. You should also understand that the relative values of the chessmen can be defined - approximately - by the following "point" value assignments: the pawn is the weakest man, value = 1; the knight and bishop are more or less similar in strength, value = 3; the rook is stronger than a knight or a bishop, value = 5; the queen is the strongest chess piece, value = 9. This gives you an idea of what you can safely trade for what. Keep in mind that each position's unique features change these values somewhat; it is possible to construct a position in which a knight is stronger than a queen. But the point values given are an excellent general guide, and define the exchange rates. For instance, by these valuations, it is ok to trade a knight (3) for three pawns (1 + 1 + 1 = 3), but trading a rook (5) for three pawns (3) would mean losing 2 "points". This is a very simplistic system, but you must master this before you can move on to learn deeper truths. Hang in there, it will all come together in the end, and rest assured that you're not learning anything that isn't practical.

    In fact, knowing the relative values of the chessmen allows you to use and develop the remaining two fundamental skills of chess: analysis and evaluation. Analysis means breaking a position down into its parts, and examining those parts. Right now, you know of one positional factor: material. You can evaluate the position by adding up the values of each of the chessmen for each side, and then comparing the two totals. This will allow you to determine whether White probably has a winning advantage, Black probably is winning, or the game is equal.
  10. This then, is the overall goal of the Improving Beginner: to follow the Principle of Material dogmatically to the best of your ability. This means that you should never leave any chessman where it could be taken for free (called leaving it "en prise"), but also you should never neglect to capture an enemy chessman when your opponent leaves it en prise. In your games, aside from the goal of checkmating your opponent, your primary goal should be to adhere to the Principle of Material by always doing those two things (never leaving your chessmen en prise, and always taking your opponent's chessmen left en prise). As you improve, you will deepen your understanding of material, and add to your collection of positional factors, so that you can thereby increase the accuracy and precision of your evaluations, but for now, concentrate on material. In my experience, simply following the Principle of Material as I've prescribed will result in massive improvement in your results. And it's good practice for later, because we will be building on this.
  11. Don't forget to keep playing and recording games, solving problems, and drilling those elementary endgame checkmates!
Chess Improver of the Week

Now let's see ziya-7's game (I am presenting this game for the benefit of Improving Beginners, so don't be surprised when I fail to label some strategically unsound moves as errors; remember, the only goal at this level, aside from checkmate, is don't lose material - or the chance to gain it.):

Now our improver, ziya7, probably saw that White's next move would be 11.Qf7#. Maybe he knows more advanced tactics than other Improving Beginners, and also saw that after 10...fxg5, 11.Bxg5+ skewers Black's king to his queen. In any case, ziya-7 resigned.

Could ziya-7 have played any other 10th move (besides 10...fxg5) to avoid being checkmated by 11.Qf7#?

See Coach Conn's Resignation Rule. If you can understand that, you'll conclude that I don't think an Improving Beginner should ever resign, except maybe when the opponent can force checkmate in one move.

By that rule alone, ziya-7 should not have resigned. But if you look back at his game, by adhering to the Principle of Material, ziya-7 could have played 10...fxg5, winning a knight for a pawn (gain of 3 points), when 11.Bxg5+ wins a pawn (Black is now up by a total of 2 points) with check, but Black could defend with 11...Nf6.

Remember, in general, there are three ways to meet a check:

  • 1. the checked king may move out of check, if possible
  • 2. the checking man may be captured, if possible
  • 3. a friendly man may interpose itself between the checking man and the checked king, if possible

Players sometimes forget that third possibility. Be sure to remember it!

So instead of resigning, after 10...fxg5 11.Bxg5+ Nf6, ziya-7 would have been winning against his much higher-rated opponent!

Lessons from the Game

  • 1. Never resign, always follow Coach Conn's Resignation Rule
  • 2. As an Improving Beginner, you have one mission in your chess games other than checkmating your opponent: follow the Principle of Material