Expert Witness:
FMF on Chess

Expert Witness — By on September 9, 2005 at 10:10 am

[Note: The Expert Witness series is a regular Friday feature that allows guest bloggers to write about a topic in which they have a particular interest or expertise. This week's entry is by the pseudonymous blogger FMF.]
While personal finance is my main hobby, chess is a “fun” passion. And while it’s said that chess takes “a moment to learn; a lifetime to master,” I’m going to at least try and give you an overview of the Royal Game.
Why Play Chess
I started playing chess four years ago when I read how chess exercises your mind. The article noted that people who keep their minds active have less of a chance of developing Alzheimer’s. So I decided that just as I exercise my body to stay healthy, I should also do the same with my mind. And since chess provides an on-going challenge and I could pay it alone if need be (with a computer), it seemed to be a perfect choice.
You Know the Basics
One assumption I’m going to make in writing this post is that you know the basics of the game — how to set up the board, how to move the pieces, how they capture, and the like. Just in case you don’t and would like a little primer, here are some links:

What I will cover is basic chess strategy. I’m using the U.S. Chess Federation’s “10 Tips to Winning Chess” as my framework for this piece. My plan is to give you enough information to show how cultured and smart you are in case you get put into a social situation involving chess. ;-)
Basic Chess Strategy
Here are ten tips to help you learn some simple ways to win more chess games:
1. Look at your opponent’s move. Once your opponent moves, determine why he made that specific move. Then you will know how better to move your pieces to thwart his plans!
2. Make the best possible move. Emanuel Lasker, a former world champion, said: “When you see a good move, wait—look for a better one!” In other words, look over the position and find a good move. Once you do, re-evaluate the situation to see if you can find a better one. Many times you will be able to do so.
3. Have a plan. Don’t move your pieces at random. Or worse yet, don’t move them to make a useless threat. Have a plan, and think about the repercussions of moving a particular piece. Very rarely will a piece do anything by itself — always think of your pieces as being part of your team.
4. Know what the pieces are worth. When you are considering giving up some of your pieces for some of your opponent’s, you should think about the relative values of the pieces. (Note: Here’s how to usually tell who’s winning at any given time: Add up the value of the pieces on each side and whoever has the most is usually ahead. I say “usually” because one side may have 10 pieces, but if the other side has its opponent’s king in check with two pieces, it’s all over.)
Here’s what Staunton’s Handbook says is the approximate mathematical value of each piece (after calculations by some scientists):
Pawn = 1 pawn
Knight = 3.05 pawns
Bishop = 3.50 pawns
Rook = 5.48 pawns
Queen = 9.94 pawns
King = invaluable
A few miscellaneous notes about the value of the pieces:
*The Bishop and Knight are known collectively as the minor pieces; the Queen and Rook are the major pieces. Winning a Rook for a minor piece is known as winning “the exchange”.
*Knights and bishops are approximately equal, with most people (as shown above) giving the bishop a slight edge. This is because bishops are much faster and can cover the whole board in one move (though they are limited to one color of the squares each). However, the knight is the only piece that can jump over other men, and as such, the knight is often more valuable than a bishop when there are a lot of pieces on the board (which tend to block bishops’ movements).
*A combination of two minor pieces (knights and bishops) can often subdue a rook.
*A queen is worth almost as much as two rooks. It can move to the greatest number of squares in most positions.
5. Move your pieces out quickly and to good squares. Time is a very important element of chess. The player whose men are ready for action sooner will be able to control the course of the game.
Because knights can jump over pieces, they make for good attackers. So don’t be shy about bringing them out early. The general rule is “knights before bishops”.
Be sure not to expose your major pieces too early. You don’t want to risk losing a queen or rook early on, they’re too valuable. So take your time in bringing them out.
6. Control the center. The middle four squares on the board (d4, d5, e4, and e5 in chess notation) are the most important squares on the board because they let you control everything that’s going on. So grab control of these squares.
7. Keep your king safe. Everyone knows this, but sometimes in the heat of the battle, you can forget. Make it a general policy to castle early in the game to protect your king. Then be very careful about advancing the pawns near your king — the farther away they move, the less protection they provide.
8. Know when to trade pieces. The best time to trade pieces is when you can capture pieces worth more than the ones you will be giving up, which is called “winning material”.
Since you will probably have many chances to exchange pieces on an “even” basis (i.e. trade a bishop for a bishop), it’s useful to know when you should or shouldn’t do this. Here are some general guidelines:
*If you have the initiative (your pieces are better developed, and you’re controlling the game), try not to exchange men unless it increases your advantage in some clear way. The fewer men each player has, the weaker the attacking player’s threats become, and the easier it is for the defending side to meet these threats.
*Do not trade pieces when your opponent has a cramped position with little space for the pieces to maneuver. It’s tough to move a lot of pieces around in a cramped position, but easier to move just a few.
*Trade pieces when it weakens your opponent’s pawn structure. If, for example, you can capture with a piece that your opponent can only recapture in a way that will give him “doubled pawns”, it will often be to your advantage to make that trade.
*The player who is ahead in material will usually benefit from trades. It’s sort of like basketball or soccer; five players will sometimes have trouble scoring against four opposing players, but take away three from each side and the stronger team will find it easier to score with two players against one.
Every move you make may affect your chances in the endgame. For example, a knight might be more valuable in the beginning of the game when there are a lot of pieces on the board, but a bishop is usually more valuable in the endgame when there are fewer pieces left. As such, you may want to reconsider trading a bishop for a knight. Everything you do in the game impacts the endgame, and you need to be thinking of this throughout the game.
10. Always be alert. Never relax — even if you are way ahead. Even world champions have lost from winning positions because they relaxed too early. Chess can be complicated and a person with a seemingly insurmountable lead can find his game lost in a few moves if he doesn’t pay attention.
Just like the topic of personal finances, this is a hard one to cover in just one post. Hopefully I’ve given you some insights into becoming a better chess player that you can use to crush whatever enemies might dare to stand in your way. ;-)
When FMF isn’t playing chess, he blogs about personal finances at Free Money Finance.



  • Doug

    If you want to learn about Chess strategy, another comprehensive website is http://www.chesstactics.org/.

  • http://www.fireandknowledge.org Josh Sowin

    Very helpful! You might want to fix where it says “(underline),” unless I am misunderstanding what is meant by that!

  • Chris Lutz

    I like Jeremy Silman’s books on improving your chess. He speaks at the amateur level and gives you solid rules of thumb to guide you.
    Actually, I’m playing in a tournament this weekend. The death of my king on the board will be swift and often.

  • George

    Good luck with your chess game. Study is critically important, as is simply playing a lot with the best players you can find.
    Herbert Simon (e.g., Simon and Barenfeld, 1969) essentially showed that top-class chess players rely heavily on pattern recognition (as opposed to “thinking several moves ahead”). You can find a nice summary in Chase and Simon’s chapter in Visual Information Processing (Chase, W.D., Ed.).

  • tommythecat

    who cares?

  • Terence Moeller

    I presently teach chess in the public schools in Hawaii and after years of research on the benefits of chess in education, there is no doubt in my mind that chess significantly improves critical thinking, memory, creativity, math, reading, and social skills. Part of my personal testimony is this . . . I was a total high school flunky from a broken home, who was destined for trouble. Shortly after I recieved Christ as a teen, I got started in chess. I read in the Bible that I could do “all things through Christ who strengthens me.” And I believed it. I studied hard, and within a few years I had defeated the US Open Champion (in a simo) and drew a former World Champion contender (Reshevsky) in a correspondence game. These were the first two professionals that I ever played! I went on to recieve a Masters degree in college with a 3.8 GPA.
    This may seem insignificant to some, but both of these influences were a lifeline to me that enabled me to navigate through impossible odds with little, or no help, from the outside.
    I also believe that if more Christians studied chess, it would help in their ability to navigate through the complexities that they are faced with in their witnessing.

  • William Tanksley

    Thank you — good article. I’m a Go player myself, but if Chess is all you have, it’s better than nothing.
    ;-)

  • Terence Moeller

    William,
    My two older brothers, who are both Go tournament compediters, assure me that Go is light years ahead of chess in its complexity. Do you think that the fact that a computer can defeat a world chess champion like Kasparov, but can not (to date) defeat a Go master is proof of this? I dunno? I have played and defeated the world champion chess program, “Fritz” literally hundreds of times in blitz games. Of course, that is after losing tens of thousands of times to it. If a program under the same circumstances can not ever defeat a Go master, it seems that it may be the inadaquecy of the program itself — not the superiority of the game per say. I dunno.
    But certainly chess is not “all that I have” in my corner.

  • http://theEverwiseBoonton.blogspot.com Boonton

    One of the few things the USSR did right was to make chess a part of national life (or maybe it was just part of Russian culture anyway). Exercise for the mind is a great way to describe it. I think teaching chess in the schools and having chess teams and clubs is a great way to develop thinking skills.
    On another note, a NY Times column recently had a professor give his unique method of teaching English composition. He require his class to invent a totally made up language with its own made up grammer. Doing so teaches his students the nuts and bolts of how language works which makes it easier to apply to their own writing…it also makes it easier to asorb English’s grammer rules.

  • George

    Having played both chess and Go, Go is much harder for me. However, comparing the two is difficult, because they are utterly different games. I’m sure someone has thought a lot harder than I have about this, but at a paper-napkin-theoretical level it seems to me that Go, having been born from an Eastern cultural perspective, is “alien” in its strategy. Chess strategy, chess being a Western game (I think…?), seems less “alien” to me.