One of the surest ways to identify one who doesn’t know chess is when they ask you or a group to evaluate a move or idea without supplying a position on the board.
Because there’s only one answer to any such question, and it’s: “It depends.”
It’s not possible to assess a pawn or piece, square or complex, move or combination, plan or position, strategy or tactic, without seeing the state of the board, because “it depends”. Each position has its own set of things to evaluate, and those things change with every move. In order to learn chess, we’re introduced to the things in the broadest terms. As we improve, we see them in increasingly granular fashion.
US champion Evans said the broadest terms are time, force, and space.
A chess game is punctuated by moves, with each move representing one unit of time. The only aspect of chess that never varies is that the players get an equal number of moves, but how they use that time is a primary distinction between winning players and losing players.
The players begin with an equal amount of Force, eight pawns plus eight pieces.
I think force — the material on the board — is the most-misunderstood part of chess. Partly because it’s least-discussed in literature (and partly because people equate material on the board with the cars, boats, and home furnishings in their lives). Thousands of books have been written about chess, but I can’t think of any other one that explains material value like Grandmaster Soltis’ Rethinking the Chess Pieces. Even the title suggests that we’ve been thinking about material in one way before his book came along to help us reconsider it.
Space is the confines of the chessboard, what the pieces move around in. Players begin with an equal amount of space, too. Unlike force and time, space is altered with each move. One of Fischer’s best-remembered lines was “You gotta give squares to get squares.”
Average players love that saying, because they don’t really understand it. Grandmaster Evans gave space an equal consideration (it is at his level!, and even though his readers won’t understand it until they’re very good, that’s no reason to omit something vitally important from a book), it’s least critical to average players, who routinely create wild swings in time and force.
Time. Force. Space. The three most general characteristics of a chess position. Look at how much fuzzier it gets when we listen to grandmaster Fine, who made the subjects just a wee bit narrower.
Fine gave us five aspects: material, piece mobility, pawn structure, king safety, and threats.
Material (force) is useless if lacking time, space, and safety. One reason chessplayers are so bad at the game is because they usually overvalue the material on the board (again: cars, boats, furniture).
Force moves in space and on lines, defined by pawn structures. Pawn structure often determines the pawns’ own mobility, while conferring piece mobility, and restricting piece mobility. Poor pawn structure typically means lessened pawn mobility, which affects your efforts to move your pieces and confine theirs.
The relationship between force and time is most volatile when it comes to pawns. Pawns are the smallest unit of force, so paying too much time for pawns is dumb. Pawns create space, but investing too much time in creating space is dumb. Then chess totally screws with you, because games can completely change character, when pawns convert space into time, and then time into force (promotion).
Little kids overvalue pawns because they see eight pawns as queens #2-8. Bad chessplayers overvalue pawns because they know that one pawn can swing the game like one dollar can be the difference between busted and not. The time when one pawn becomes decisive is later than bad chessplayers think. So they gather pawns, like it’s life insurance.
The better the player, the more important the pawns. Bad players also overvalue pawns because they want to be like the players for whom pawns are larger factors.
Piece mobility is like the weather. A pleasant sunny day is nice, until the sun sets (time), and then it’s dark for both players (in other words, advantages in time and mobility aren’t lasting). This is another reason bad players overvalue material, because they think having more wood to burn will help them get through the night.
Piece mobility is life, but life has no meaning unless you direct it usefully. Chessplayers hardly notice a light breeze of piece mobility, but they run for cover when the tornado arrives.
King safety is the concern that takes precedence over the others. If you misjudge king safety — whether yours or the opponent’s — the game goes the wrong way. King safety is another consideration that undergoes dramatic shifts. When the force is reduced, the king must be as mobile and swift as the other pieces.
Threats change everything. While king safety can take precedence over time, force, and space, threats affect all those things. You acquire that nice stuff with threats. You threaten to gain time, to gather force, to claim space, to checkmate the king.
This is the nature of chess. As earth, air, fire, and water are to our lives off the board; time, force, space, safety, and threats are to our lives on the board.
The force, time, and space begin in balance. White’s first move upsets the balance in some way, then Black’s first move can restore the balance, or create an additional imbalance. Then we have a chess game!
Evans said there were three states in flux, Fine said there were five, IM Silman said it doesn’t matter how you label them, it’s your evaluation of them that drives you. Silman wrote three books and a flock of magazine articles about just that: recognizing the positional imbalances, and acting upon them.
Here’s where Cecil Purdy comes in. Purdy was the best chess teacher ever, but he doesn’t make sense to many chessplayers because — unlike the three teachers I talked about above: Evans, Fine, and Silman — Purdy didn’t provide a formula (and had a un-American way with words).
The other teachers say: Examine and evaluate the elements, then ask yourself “what am I going to do about it?”. Purdy said: “Whatever you do, do it using inactive force.”
He gave his readers credit for awareness of the common formula of imbalance, while providing pithy bits of advice for its implementation. So chessplayers think Purdy’s teachings are beneath them, because his advice is simple enough for beginners. But the truth is that while he was writing maxims for lesser players, he gave better players credit for knowing those things already.
The outstanding players make better use of imbalances in force, time, and space, so it’s riskier for them to upset it. Club players want to play like outstanding players, so they also move as if they don’t want to risk any material imbalance.
And this is where my chess teacher comes in. My chess teacher recommends upsetting the balance in force, even though this is, technically speaking, incorrect. But he knows through experience that that two units of time aren’t technically equal to one unit of force where good players are concerned, but average players tilt the scales wildly through their tactical deficiencies. He says if his students generate enough threats to compensate for a little less force, they’ll win, and have more fun while doing it. And by the way, did we use enough inactive force.
This is where I come in. I have more fun than others do. I don’t often say this out loud, because who will believe that. We are all playing chess, which is a fun game, and we are all having fun, so there. I have much more fun because I operate solely on the artistic side of chess than the sporting players, who play to put points on the wallchart (that’s where the money is; there’s no money in playing chess or doing anything for the sake of art).
I quote David Bronstein heavily when it comes to playing bad chess well. Bronstein was at the top of the game in the early ’50s, and he got there with a love for chess that was crazy romantic.
The scientists in chess — like Botvinnik, who shared the top with Bronstein — say you cannot succeed with a romantic heart like Bronstein’s. Bronstein writes poetically about his love for the King’s Gambit, the risky love affair against all odds, like in bad movies with too many strings in the soundtrack. He was a foolish romantic, and I just adore that guy.
Here on friscodelrosario.net, I’m serializing a book I wrote about a King’s Gambit variation I discovered myself. I’m so proud of this creation because it came about through chess logic (science!), what I learned from a Morphy game (my teacher’s students have to know Morphy), and willingness to play bad chess with abandon.
I’m not a chessplayer. I’m not even a chess teacher when you get right down to it. I’m a writer who plays chess, working long enough as a teacher to put on paper what Purdy, Fine, and my teacher said.
The funny thing is how little Fine has to do with it, though he gets equal billing with Purdy in the PurdyFine way of thinking. I wrote Evans said there were three elements, and Fine broke it down to five? In fact, Fine broke it down further into 30. and the first thing a PurdyFine student does is learn those 30. Then we’re done with Fine (except for students who take the elective Advanced Reuben Fine 102: Chess the Easy Way Made Hard, for people who are smart enough to buy just one book).
People don’t hear my chess teacher when he says this: You learn Fine’s 30 things so you can forget them. Purdy said those things don’t help us play good moves, they help us avoid bad moves. Every chess teacher might agree — in one string of words or another — that winning at chess can be boiled down to:
Your task with each move is to: address the most pressing positional imbalance with a threatening move that uses inactive force.
Though that’s not the move that does kills them. The move that kills them is the one that causes them to want to make two moves in a row. The killing moves are double threats; they want to make two moves to answer two threats, but the rules won’t allow that.
I swear to you that when I sat down today to write, I planned to write about grandmaster J. Polgar doing as Bronstein did: playing the King’s Gambit, sacrificing a bit of force in exchange for a bit of time and space. Then playing as Capablanca did against Lasker in a famous 1921 world championship game: sacrificing a rook for knight in the endgame to win the race by crossing the board in the shortest amount of time.
That’s all I planned to do, but then I got into the whole time-space-force triangle — on which the whole of positional chess is based — and that took a while, really just the introduction to a Judit Polgar game. Since I had to write pretty much everything I know (which you’d think would’ve taken more than seven hours, but I’ve learned that I don’t know very much), you see how much I admired the Polgar game. I’ll try to finish that tomorrow.