Endgame Principles, and Learning Chess
Recently, my best friend asked me to teach him chess. I’m no expert, but I decided to try it anyway. So I had to decide; what do I teach him first?
In my brief stint with coaching as a child, I was taught the same way as everyone else; openings. The first thing I learnt was 1.e4, and everything went on from there. But I was dissatisfied, because it gave me enough to hack through my games, but I wasn’t really understanding chess. It took me a long, long time and a lot of un-learning to understand how pieces really work, their positional strengths and weaknesses, etc. Instead, I found a much better approach in Josh Waitzkin’s brilliant book The Art of Learning, that I found it worthwhile to reproduce in full:
So let’s say that now, instead of launching from the standard starting position, we begin on an empty board with just a king and a pawn against a king. These are relatively simple pieces. I learn how they both move, and then I play around with them for a while until I feel comfortable. Then, over time, I learn about bishops in isolation, then knights, rooks, and queens. Soon enough, the movements and values of the chess pieces are natural to me. I don’t have to think about them consciously, but see their potential simultaneously with the figurine itself. Chess pieces stop being hunks of wood or plastic, and begin to take on an energetic dimension. Where the piece currently sits on a chessboard pales in comparison to the countless vectors of potential flying off in the mind. I see how each piece affects those around it. Because the basic movements are natural to me, I can take in more information and have a broader perspective of the board. Now when I look at a chess position, I can see all the pieces at once. The network is coming together.
Next I have to learn the principles of coordinating the pieces. I learn how to place my arsenal most efficiently on the chessboard and I learn to read the road signs that determine how to maximize a given soldier’s effectiveness in a particular setting. These road signs are principles. Just as I initially had to think about each chess piece individually, now I have to plod through the principles in my brain to figure out which apply to the current position and how. Over time, that process becomes increasingly natural to me, until I eventually see the pieces and the appropriate principles in a blink. While an intermediate player will learn how a bishop’s strength in the middlegame depends on the central pawn structure, a slightly more advanced player will just flash his or her mind across the board and take in the bishop and the critical structural components. The structure and the bishop are one. Neither has any intrinsic value outside of its relation to the other, and they are chunked together in the mind.
This new integration of knowledge has a peculiar effect, because I begin to realize that the initial maxims of piece value are far from ironclad. The pieces gradually lose absolute identity. I learn that rooks and bishops work more efficiently together than rooks and knights, but queens and knights tend to have an edge over queens and bishops. Each piece’s power is purely relational, depending upon such variables as pawn structure and surrounding forces. So now when you look at a knight, you see its potential in the context of the bishop a few squares away. Over time each chess principle loses rigidity, and you get better and better at reading the subtle signs of qualitative relativity. Soon enough, learning becomes unlearning.
The principle he outlines is staggering; “learning the macro from the micro” as he calls it. By understanding how pieces work on an intuitive level, and how they work together, you train your mind to see their potentiality, and that helps you see how to improve their placement, how to use them in tactical combinations, everything.
Inspired by Waitzkin, I took that as my starting point as well. I researched king-pawn endings, discovered the principle of opposition for the first time, and really understood the king’s power on the board for the first time. I hadn’t understood any of this myself before, and I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t decided to teach my friend chess.
The interesting thing is, the day after our lesson, I played two games where I escaped with a draw because of the principles I had taught the day before.