The Beginner's Back Rank
One of the most plaguing problems for those still trying to get to grips with the game of chess is that of the traitorous back rank. It's happened to all of us at some point is our chess career, great or small, master of patzer. You know the story: The queen zooms forward, ready to mate next turn, this game is finished! How could this guy miss such an obvious tactic? (Rubs hands together) No way out for him now, I'm amazing, I'm superior, I'm the... What!!! *&%$#$!Where did that evil, disgusting rook come from?
It's obvious that back rank mates are treacherous, especially to those who are ahead in material. Beginners such as me tend to focus at immediate threats and attacks, and tend to ignore the subtle counters, frequently falling for such tactics as discovered checks. Beginners with strong attacks are especially susceptible, as they develop acute cases of "board blindness", searching only for the next big threat.With such a mindset, the possibility of a back rank mate becomes very appealing to the other player. The idea is simple; draw the opponent's pieces out, and zoom in for the kill. It's that easy. No small wonder that so many critical games are decided in this manner.
For many, the problem they see is castling. Typical thoughts often run along this line: "If my king stays put, he can't trap me!" Well, bravo for them. They've virtually cancelled all chances of an easy back rank mate. But what else have they done? They've left their king standing in the middle of the board, with all of the opponent's pieces boring down on him! There's got to be some other way, but what?
Well, another strategy is the called the luft, named for the german word for "air". Here the castled player pushes up one of the pawns above the castled king forward, and viola! Threat stopped. This strategy can be especially useful when applied with tempo, such as forcing an opponent's piece to move from a key square. However, some argue that the luft creates pawn weaknesses in the castled position, and go to lengths to avoid it. So are there any further options?
Of course! One easy strategy is to avoid castling kingside, and instead make a queenside castle. This move alone can eliminate many one piece mates, and develops a rook with tempo. However, this move often leaves the a or h pawn undefended, and the opponent can easily exploit this with a well placed piece.
So it seems that there are many options available for protecting your back rank, even as a beginner. None are foolproof, and each have problems to address. The biggest key is to always look for hidden threats the opponent is trying to throw at you, and do the best you can to deal with them. Soon you will be able to recognize back rank threats in seconds. Thank you all, and rememeber... Watch your backs!