Beginner Chess Tips To Level Up Your Game From Amateur Hour With IM Danny Rensch

Beginner Chess Tips To Level Up Your Game From Amateur Hour With IM Danny Rensch

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May 20, 2017, 2:15 PM |
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I've just completed my first Amateur Hour Chess TV show with IM Danny Rensch, and I feel like a wet sponge. Danny is as talented a teacher as he is a player, and although I learned more during that show than I had in my entire life preceding our discussion, there was no way that I, in one 90-minute session, could have absorbed the sheer volume of chess knowledge that oozes out of Danny's pores. So I've decided to write this blog post for the benefit of myself and other amateurs as a recap of the fundamental concepts we discussed.

What Makes This Post Different?

The difference between this blog post and almost any other you'll read in the Chess world is that it's written by someone who stinks — but that doesn't mean you shouldn't listen, because the source material for this article comes directly from an international master.

On the contrary, I have a unique perspective that can only come from an utter lack of skill, and that may be valuable to my brethren in the triple-digit rating club as I attempt to translate the sage words of IM Danny Rensch into language that we plebeians can understand.

And so I invite you to enjoy these Amateur Hour d'oeuvres: tasty morsels to chew on before you go into your next match.

Before You Begin, Make Sure You've Read My Article About Openings

Before we go on, it's important to understand the basic, fundamental patterns that all good chess openings have in common. I've published an article called Chess Opening Moves: A Master's Top 3 Strategies For Beginners on my website that includes Danny's thoughts on how to play good openings — make sure you check it out to learn them before you go on!

After You Know Basic Opening Strategy And How The Pieces Move, What's Next?

If you're like me, you know where all of the pieces can go on the next move when you look at the board. In other words, I can see where the knight can go if I want to move it. That's easy. I asked Danny, "If you're teaching a kid to play chess, what's the next visualization step?"

He said the next visualization step isn't where you can attack next — it's being aware of the squares that your opponent has controlled and guarded. 

The ebb and flow in chess is this: Gain as much as you can while losing as little as possible. It's like a war. Battle. Risk. World domination. 

Maximum Power, Minimum Loss

After you teach how the basic pieces can move, the goal is to give each piece as much power as possible without losing them and limiting your opponents pieces as much as possible along the way.

You need to know how the opponent can move their pieces so you can realize when your pieces would be in danger if you move to a certain square.

Your goal is this: Control as much of the critical area of the board (the center) as you can, while losing as little as possible. 

Overcontrolling Is Good

"Next, I try to overcontrol what my opponent is guarding. In this case my opponent is guarding d4.

play c3 to defend d4

So I play c3, with one purpose: No matter what black does, if I have my way, I will next play a move like d4.

no matter what black does playing d4

That way, I'm getting the control I wanted. I haven't lost anything. I haven't lost any material. We've traded pawns, but that's not a loss for me."

ive gotten control i want

Make Sure You've Read My Article About The Keys To Getting Good Positions In Chess

Now that we've talked about the center and the basic concept of controlling as much while losing as little as possible, you need to understand how to get good positions in chess.

If you haven't already, check out my article called 3 Keys To Getting Good Positions In Chess: How To Win For Beginners! to learn what all good plans have in common and what beginners need to know to win more games.

Revisiting The Goal Of The Game

If we make the goal of the chess game a pyramid:

  • At the top of the pyramid is checkmate. You want to checkmate the king.
  • The second tier is material. If you're up large amounts of material (like a rook or a queen), or even small amounts. Material is the best way for us to outnumber the enemy king and eventually to get checkmate.
  • The next level in the pyramid is piece activity and square control. Typically pieces that are more active, that control center squares, are the ones with the best chance to take other pieces and just win pieces right.
  • You're fighting for control of the center, for those things, because a knight on d5 is a lot more capable is a lot more capable of catching you sleeping. 

It isn't about Chess.com's Opening Explorer — it's about giving ourselves the best chance to make power chess moves. Note: If you've tried to use Opening Explorer in the past but you're confused, check out my article with Danny's tips for using Opening Explorer the right way

What Are Power Chess Moves?

Power chess moves are chess move that:

  • Make threats
  • Threaten to win material
  • Control the middle area of the board

So then, I said, "If we're in the middle area of the board, we have more pieces and more squares that we're attacking and our pieces are more mobile so we can catch people sleeping."

And that's when Danny's mind exploded because I finally said something that made sense.

danny rensch mind blown

Danny's Promise: With These Things In Mind, GM Games Will Start To Make A Little Bit Of Sense To You

Then Danny made me a promise that I didn't believe.

"You're not going to be able to comprehend all of these moves. You're not going to be able calculate as fast as these moves are being played. But with the tips I'm about to give you, you are going to have a good feel for where the game is headed and even though you won't be able to keep up with everything, if you keep these things in mind then some of these moves are going to start making a little more sense.

Here are the big three things to watch for as you begin to analyze a game:

  • Fighting for control of the center
    • If not directly occupying those squares, they'll be attacking those squares
    • Whenever you see a bishop on the diagonal, you know that's a move that fights for the center
    • Look at every move as it is fighting for control over a critical area of the board
    • Why is it critical? Because we know that if they win that area — if they win that territory, then the piece on that square is a better piece than a piece that's not in the center
    • The goal stays 100% focused here for the first 20 moves
  • Fighting for the king
    • The only time that might switch is if someone castles, you'll see the pieces start to shift to that side of the board, away from the center
    • That's usually because the King has committed to a side of the board
      • Now I want to bring all my pieces over there, where the king is
      • If my pieces are near the king, their chances of doing damage if my opponent goes to sleep or misses something is higher
  • Tempo moves in chess
    • Tempo moves are checks, captures, or attacking of a piece that is more valuable than your own piece

Analyzing Any Position: Where To Start

At the beginning of the show, Danny told me that the first thing you have to do when analyzing a position in Chess is to take account of material.

Material is another word for the pieces on the board. When chess pros talk about a material advantage or disadvantage, they're asking, "Who has an advantage in terms of how many pieces are left on the board?" When counting material, a queen is worth 9 points, rooks are worth 5 points, bishops and knights are worth 3 points, and pawns are worth 1 point.

Apparently, I didn't hear him: When Danny and I went back to analyze a game, the first thing I looked at was the position of the pieces and where white was trying to checkmate black's king. But that wasn't the first thing Danny saw.

The first thing Danny saw was that Black was up material, meaning they had more valuable pieces on the board. Black had two rooks whereas white had a rook and a bishop. It's amazing that he instantly looked at the board and noticed that. I'm not at a level where that subtle of a difference (at least to me) would mean anything of a difference.

You want to recognize material advantages because you want to recognize where the game might be headed.

What black would like to do if he has a material advantage is to get the queens off the board. That means that white chances of checkmating go down and the rooks have more ability to do damage. 

Next Level Concepts: Light Squares, Dark Squares, And Pawns

I did, however, ask about why strong players talk about attacking the light squares or attacking the dark squares — and I assured Danny that I had never purposefully begun a game with that in mind. 

The reason why strong players think of squares and pawns is because they're the only thing that really can't be undone. Once made weak, there's no real going back for that square because it's weak and pawns can't move backwards.

People tend to develop plans at high levels around these positional things because it allows them to dictate where the game is going; where your opponent can't just change the script.

Get Introspective Before You Move A Pawn

Whenever you make a move, it's important to ask yourself, "If I make a move, will I want that move back?"

You have to be careful about making moves that you can't take back, especially with pawns, because pawns can never go back.

If you push a pawn to attack a piece, you are giving up permanent control over the squares it is attacking — and you can never get that control back.

The issue with pawn moves is you have to balance making threats with whether it's a concrete threat. If you're playing moves just for the thrill of one attack and there's no follow-up, then you could be making weaknesses and you'll wish you had that move to do over again.

A good frame of reference for whether you should make a pawn move: Only attack when your opponent can make the best move in return and it doesn't make a difference. 

That's why we talk about weak squares and weak pawns. We're attacking things where the best move could come from our opponent and the attack you just made didn't matter.

In other words, don't attack with a pawn if your opponent can make the best move in response that makes the pawn move you just made pointless.

Goals At My Level

At my level, Danny reiterated some basic goals beginners should focus on:

  • Don't blunder pieces
  • Control the center
    • If you have your pieces occupying the center, your chance of getting those power moves increases

Pro Tip: Assume Your Opponent Will Always Make The Best Move In Response To Yours

Before you make a move, you have to consider that they're going to make the best move in reply and stop your threat. A tempo move that is just a one move plan is hope chess; you're playing one-move chess.

In other words, if you make a tempo move that is a singularity — if you're making a move hoping your opponent doesn't see your threat, that's oven very, very bad.

"Checks Are For 'Posters" (short for "imposters," to avoid confusion)

If you're making a tempo move — a check, capture, or queen attack (or an attack of a more valuable piece by a less valuable piece), with no plan beyond just a single move, then you're not actually thinking ahead at all, beyond that one move. 

Instead, you want to create a net to create dangerous situations to trap the king and checkmate your opponent. But Danny wouldn't go further than that — I'm not ready.

Tempo moves are fine, if you can make moves with threats and they're doing something bigger picture for your plan, that's chess — that's called playing chess.

Danny mentioned that Magnus Carlsen plays for plans and sets a lot of tricks along the way. If his opponents blunder the trick, he'll take it (of course), but he's not looking for a one-move trick. He happens to set a few, but only as part of a better positional plan.  

Danny's Mantra

"When you're winning, the game is only beginning." And he said it over, and over, and doing laundry, and it helped to change his perspective when he was playing. It could be helpful for all of us to create a mantra. 

"Control the center, develop your pieces, get the king to safety."

The Day Was Mine

Danny and I decided to have some fun to wrap up the show. I challenged a random opponent and invited Danny to talk smack. I'm not sure whether it was the cheap Amazon.com movie lights I set up in my apartment or the sheer intensity of playing my first opponent in front of an international audience, but my pulse was racing. I felt the heat.



After lulling my opponent into a false sense of security with a weak opening (actually, I just played a terrible opening), I proceeded to stumble my way into a victory that catapulted my rating to within two points of the elite quadruple-digit club.

In Closing

If you've made it this far in the article, you know that when I say I'm bad at chess, I'm not just being modest. Danny and I talked about a lot, and I've tried to distill our Amateur Hour video down into a few key concepts that any amateur can keep in mind to "level up" their chess game.

And I will close with this message to my amateur brethren: There is no shame in being a member of the triple-digit rating club. Yes, we may be in the bottom half of the Chess.com world, but we have enthusiasm, verve, and a natural resilience that comes only from losing over and over and over again. And if any of us do ever ascend beyond triple digits, never forget us — the people you climbed over to get there. 

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