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Learning to Play Chess: A Guided Journey From Novice to Ever-So-Slightly-More-Than-Novice

About three weeks ago, I knew nothing about the game of chess other than how the pieces were moved. Then my friend Greg randomly suggested we start playing chess, since he used to play a lot in college and missed it. So, I figured I needed to a.) brush-up on the game and b.) learn some strategy very quickly so that I didn't get my rear-end handed to me in my first game. This, therefore, is an account of what I've learned in about 21 days of study and practice of the game of chess. 

The first two things I had to do were:
  • Learn the rules. This one was easy. I already knew the rules, because my grandfather taught me the rudiments as a child and I've played here and there over the years. If you're really a chess neophyte, like, you don't even know what the board looks like, click here then come back and continue reading.
  • Learn strategy. This one can take anywhere from 10 minutes to 100 years. I did not have 100 years. I had to learn the basics quickly and I had no one to sit with me for hours and hours going over moves. So, I did what we all do when we want to know stuff these days: I Googled "chess strategy"

My Quick Notes on Chess Strategy:

In about 20 minutes of diligent internet searching and YouTube video watching, I increased my knowledge and understanding of chess strategy by 1,000%. For real. It's absolutely amazing what you can learn under the tutelage of a master, even in a 5 minute video. Most of the experts seemed to agree that basic strategy is built upon three main ideas:

1.) Control the middle. The middle four squares on the board are the most important squares on the board for a number of reasons. Suffice it to say, if you control the middle of the board, you make it much more difficult for your opponent to mount a successful attack, at least in the beginning. 

2.) Develop your pieces. By "pieces" we're talking about the value pieces like Knights, Bishops, Rooks, Queen. Not pawns. And "develop" really just means "move them up into play, don't leave the them sitting where they started." In order to win a game of chess against anything more than the most novice opponent (and certainly vs. a computer) you need to get your big pieces into play early. Common knowledge suggests you develop your Knights first. Some schools of thought say develop your Bishops first. To me, what's become important is just getting the pieces out there on the board, working for me. In some cases it can actually be suicide to leave them in their starting positions. 

3.) Protect the King. Basically, you need to get the King out of harm's way as early as possible. This usually means "castling" as soon as you can, to get the King in the corner of the board. Putting the King in or near the corner means, quite simply, that he's already defended on two sides by the edges of the board. No brainer, right? Well, just make sure you put him there early and keep some defending pawns in front of him, or else a wily opponent will put you in Check Mate before you can even get comfortable in your chair. 

These above are the most widely accepted fundamentals of chess strategy. Let me add a few:

4.) Protect all your pieces for as long as possible. You may think this is counter-intuitive to #2 up there, but it's not. When you play the computer over and over, what you realize is the computer is really, REALLY good at keeping its pieces protected at all times. What does "protected" mean? Basically, it just means making sure that if your opponent captures one of your pieces, you can attack right back and capture. It means planning your moves carefully so that your opponent can't just capture one of your pieces with no consequences; if he's going to capture one of your pieces, you're going to make him pay by capturing one of his, too. This is really important at the beginning of the game when you're establishing yourself and building-out the initial bulwark of your attack. But eventually, you will have to abandon this careful strategy for the sake of mounting an aggressive attack and finishing your opponent. In chess, as in life, it really doesn't pay to play defense all the time. 

5.) Start thinking about your attack early. One of the biggest problems I have when playing the computer is getting too bogged-down in a defensive strategy and then losing pieces early and finding myself on my back foot the rest of the game. There's a point in most chess games in which the "tide" sort of turns. It may turn a few times, actually. But you want to be on the right side of that tide. This means thinking about how you're going to attack as early into the game as you can. When you attack, and certainly when you put your opponent in "check" you force him to abandon his plan and deal with the threat you've just placed in front of him. This means, he loses at least one move on which to advance his own attack and his mind is now geared toward defense. This also likely means now you've set yourself up to be attacked as well, so watch out. Things to think about when setting up a long-range attack plan:

a.) Look at what's around the opponent's King. If the opponent's King is badly protected, you may be able to get him in check mate with one swift move. This is a big mistake novices make a lot: leaving the King open to check mate by one swift, smart attacking move. It's easier to do than you think.

b.) Consider what color square the King is on, and consider your light and dark square Bishops. Bishops are the only pieces on the board that are bound to one color square, since they move diagonally. This makes the Bishop a huge attacking threat. Personally, I've found the Bishop to be the most dangerous piece on the board (save the Queen). Other than the Queen, the Bishops can move the farthest of any other piece. Also, the chess board plays a funny trick on the eyes whereby it encourages us to look at it in terms of rows (ranks) and columns (files), instead of diagonals. Thereby very often leaving diagonals open that the Bishop can use to his advantage. It pays to always be aware of what square the King is on and where your light and dark square Bishops are. You may be able to get a surprising "check" here and there that your opponent missed.

c.) Learn to use two pieces in conjunction. In order to actually win (check mate) you'll have to learn how to use two pieces together to form an attack. A simple way to do this is (if you have a physical chess board) clear out all the pieces except the opponent's King and, say, your own Bishop and Rook (Castle). Then, just try and get the King into check mate in as few moves as possible. It's trickier than you think, and it will give you an idea of how to use pieces together to squeeze the King (or whatever piece you're trying to attack) into an inescapable situation. Once you've got an understanding of this, you'll find ways to use it in actual play.


Probably just as important as anything I've written above are the things you DO NOT want to do when trying to learn this game. See below:

Chess can be frustrating, even for Bobby Fischer. But hang in there.
1.) DO NOT play the computer on the most difficult setting just because you "like a challenge" and think the stiff competition will make you better faster. This would be like sending a Little Leaguer to bat against Madison Baumgarner in order to learn how to hit; it will be frustrating and little better than a complete waste of time. Even if you put the computer on the lowest setting, the computer is most likely going to DESTROY YOU at first. It took me about 20 games before I check-mated the computer on Level 1 of 12. I still can only beat it once out of every 7 or 10 games, and that's because I think the computer is being nice sometimes.

2.) DO NOT play this game without first studying a bit about strategy from the internet, an advanced player, or a book, whatever. You might as well try to bake a cake without a recipe or an ingredients list. Yes, it is possible to learn most skills on your own without instruction and some people need the "trial and error" method in order to learn. But trust me, there will be plenty of time for trial and error even after you've taken 30 minutes to watch a handful of YouTube videos. Spending just a tiny bit of time learning the basic principles of strategy will save you a huge amount of time and frustration and help you understand the nuances of the game you're playing instead of just moving pieces around a board. And even after you've mastered the "basics" keep digging; there is chess literature dating back to the 14th century. A LOT OF PEOPLE have written about how to play this game and you can be the beneficiary.

3.) DO NOT play only one opponent or type of opponent all the time. Play the computer. Play your niece. Play your neighbor. Play your local chess wizard. Play yourself. Hell, try and teach someone to play! In any type of game, particularly mano-y-mano type games, you'll learn more from playing a variety of opponents and understanding their styles.

4.) DO NOT get frustrated and quit. If you're like me, you're going to lose. A LOT. AND FREQUENTLY. AND BADLY. But keep going. Keep brushing up on your strategy. Keep trying new techniques. Keep playing. Because when you get that first hard-earned check mate against your opponent, all the other losses get washed away in a tidal wave of sheer bliss and you'll be addicted. 

Chess is at once a fairly simple yet infinitely complex and fascinating game. Once you get over your initial fear of it and start learning the principles behind it, and get over your fear of losing, you'll discover an intellectual challenge with lessons and intricacies that you can apply to almost any endeavor in life. There are chess principles you can apply to building a good argument, or negotiating a situation at work, or dealing with people in your life, or playing other sports and games. Chess teaches you strategy, calculation, judgement, foresight, patience, pragmatism, how to be aggressive, how to play defense, how to read people and their intentions, etc. etc. etc. When you break it down, EVERYTHING IN LIFE IS A GAME OF CHESS


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