Double Bishops’ Gambit 2: This Will Be on the Test

My uncle can beat everyone with the secret 4-move checkmate, even you. — A different kid every semester

      When I began work on this project, I knew it would have limited appeal, because it’s grounded in my teacher’s philosophy that inexpert players should learn to “play bad chess well” before learning to “play good chess”.

      “Good chess” is positionally pertinent and tactically accurate, with a short-term view toward getting the pieces out, plus a long-term sense for the prospects in an endgame.

      Students and club players want to play “good chess”, but in almost every case, their tactics are lacking. The main difference between players rated 2400 and players rated 1400 is that the masters make fewer — and less costly — tactical errors.

      Also, the strong players are mostly interested in getting the pieces out. While I shared an apartment with an FM in the ’80s, I’d observe him playing through games, and when he paused for thought, I’d ask him what he was thinking about. Invariably, he’d comment on one player’s commitment to getting the pieces out.

      In the ’90s, I assisted world champion Kosteniuk with the English edition of her book, and took some lessons. When she had something to say about my weak moves, it was: “You must play actively with your pieces!”. I’d heard that before from inexpensive sources, so I ended those lessons.

      In the 2000s, I worked in the same afterschool program as US champion Grefe. Before he began examining a student’s game, he’d ask: “Did you get all your pieces out?”. Then he’d walk through the game, and at the end, he’d say: “Next time, get all your pieces out.” In some instances, that was all he said.

      As a teacher, I’ve listened to students explain their thousands of reasons for millions of moves, but the result hinged on tactical merit and mobilization of the pieces. If you take those two things, and combine them with some technical endgame knowledge, that’s where good players are coming from.

      Until the student is tactically adept, my teacher recommends opening play that is scientifically flawed in material terms — that is, “bad” — with the intent of practicing tactics and piece mobilization to create favorable imbalances in non-material measures.

      People freak out about being instructed to play “bad chess”; they forget that it’s not forever, merely long enough to command tactics and piece mobilization.

      These are some aspects of playing bad chess well:

      Willingness to dig oneself into a hole in the opening, on purpose. Many players are hardwired against taking any chess risk at all; they won’t care for this book.

      Tactical alertness, from move 2. After you’ve dug yourself a hole, it’s tactics that’ll get you out. Players who take early risks have to engage in early tactics; timid players won’t care for this book.

      Knowledge of old games. Grandmaster Pal Benko said: “According to such great attacking players as Bronstein and Tal, most combinations are inspired by the player’s memories of earlier games.” The opening novelty that gave this book life was inspired by a Morphy game from 1857. Most players shun old games, mostly because they’re not new games, and those players won’t be crazy about this work, either.

      Fondness for endgames. This is global advice: Whether you’re trying to play bad chess, good chess, red chess, or blue chess, you have to play endgames better than your opponents do. Most players find the study of endgame technique dull, but after it sinks in that a little bit of endgame knowledge goes a very long way, they’ll more than appreciate it.

      Mindreading. That is, understanding how average players think, and allowing them to manifest their bad ideas. A most important book in our library is “Chess Master vs. Chess Amateur”, which shows how to recognize and defeat weak opposition. Studying games between masters doesn’t teach that skill, but people want to think that their opponents are masters, which makes winning a greater accomplishment, and losing more palatable.

      Recognizing the unreality of unreal threats. Cecil Purdy said we cannot play passably well until we learn to recognize all the threatening moves on the board — all of ours, all of theirs — and to recognize the unreality of unreal threats.

      Purdy was the best chess teacher ever, but he didn’t jive with American readers who couldn’t comprehend an Australian’s common sense language.

      Simply put, if you judge that you won’t be hurt if your opponent carries out his “threat”, it frees you to do whatever you want. Grandmaster David Bronstein, whose love for the King’s Gambit is all over this book, said: “The most powerful weapon in chess is to have the next move.” Your opponent’s unreal threats give you that weapon.

      US champion Shankland describes his thinking about unreal threats as: “What if I just let them do it?”. My teacher says: “When they make a threat, the first thing you’re looking for is a way to do nothing.” This is wholly contrary to the bad teachings of grim defense, recommended because that makes an impression of paying attention.

      It’s never too early to teach the lesson of ‘doing nothing’.

      This will be on the test.