Thoughts on Chess


Chess is an iconic game of the western intellectual. It is simple to learn the rules but very hard to master. Since most people know how to play it but don’t understand the game on a deeper level I thought I would try to explain it. I am a decent player (1580 on I haven’t gotten an official rating though), my interest in chess has been off and on since elementary school. I am not planning on improving at it anytime soon but I still enjoy the occasional game.  I am assuming you know the rules and how the pieces move already.

Then you need to understand the value of pieces. Knight and bishops are worth 3 pawn, rooks are worth 5 and a queen is worth 9. Trading a rook and a pawn for a knight and a bishop is an equal trade for example. Evaluation of positions is a crucial skill in chess and this is the most basic way to determine who has the advantage. As you get better in chess you will develop a more nuanced evaluation that takes into account the position. A knight in the center of the board is better than a knight in the corner for example. Evaluating positions is the most important element of chess skill imo. You can’t play for an advantage if you don’t know what an advantage is. 

Next you need to understand tactics and strategy and the difference between the two. The terms are often conflated. 

Tactics use your pieces in a coordinated matter to accomplish short term goals. Tactical devices in chess include fork (attack 2 pieces at once), pin (make it so if a piece moves the piece behind it will be taken), discovered attacks (move a piece so a piece behind it is now attacking) among others. If you know and can spot tactics in a game while preventing your opponent from using tactics you’ll be better than most people. Tactical thinking involves “If I move here, he can do this or that, in which case I will…” and is typically what people think what chess is all about. Tactical positions are characterized by openness and mobility on the board with chances of check mate or to win material. I like tactically oriented games myself and will play openings like King’s Gambit to get them. A lot of time is needed to consider variations in tactical positions since one wrong move can cost you the game. 

The other element of chess is strategy. Strategy is long term, big picture thinking. It is about improving your position slowly and surely, lacing your pieces in a coordinated manner. Good strategy allows for good tactics to happen. General tenets of strategy are control the center, develop your pieces, castle your king and promote harmony of your forces. Being able to tell who is winning even though both sides are tied in material shows strategic understanding. Strategic positions are closed and opportunities to attack are scarce. Some games no pieces or pawns may be exchanged for a long time cramping both sides forces. A good strategist is able to place his pieces for when the position does open up he will be ready to attack. Strategy is about gaining small, seemingly insignificant advantages, until they add up into a decisive advantage. The end game is also strategically oriented since there are not enough pieces to launch an effective attack. In strategic positions little calculation is needed allowing for a player who grasps strategy to make moves quickly. A player uncertain on strategic advantages will have difficulty deciding on what move is best from a number of seemingly equally good options.

To improve in chess you will need to study material typically. Playing tons of games will only take you so far and the way you think about the game needs to be refined with effort and reflection.

Pursuing chess to a high level should only be undertaken if you genuinely enjoy improving at the game. Logical and reasoning abilities can be gained from other more productive pursuits like math and sciences. Much of the skill acquired is limited to chess, although some of the concepts can be applied to other areas. Just because smart people typically enjoy chess doesn’t mean you are going to become smarter by playing it. I find chess’s reputation is over inflated a bit. Some fighters like to compare fighting to a chess match, which I disagree with, although I see why they say it. Fighting takes place on a tactical level with minimum strategic thinking that characterizes chess. The logic used in chess is a very slow process (minutes to make a move is not unusual) while fighting requires decisions in milliseconds. 

Chess a beautiful game that is often referenced so I recommend learning how to play it at a basic level at least. It has remained popular even with video games being an alternative.  I think chess is a great game to teach children, it teaches them to think in an abstract way and trains them to make judgments that have quick feed back in a competitive atmosphere. I feel like it should have more of an emphasis in schools. Its a classic game, simple to learn, and is suitable for all ages.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s