Losing Chess Games To People You Should Beat? Read Your Chernev


Irving Chernev’s Logical Chess Move By Move is one of the better annotated games approach to teaching chess I’ve seen.  He explains, to varying degrees, the rational behind every move.  This causes the explanations of some of the more common opening moves to grow a bit tedious or even redundant, but overall I enjoyed at least being given the option to learn the reasoning behind a move, even if I tended to start skipping more and more of them as the book went on.

Chernev’s big advice is this…

1)  Get your pieces off the back row… now.  He drills this home time and time again.  (For those of you who don’t know, “pieces” refers to bishops, knights, and rooks… depending on the context, someone may call the Queen a “piece,” but she’s really her own category… the King is also mos-def his own category).

This primary rule about unleashing pieces quickly leads, in turn, to a couple of secondary rules…

2) Don’t move pawns in the opening when you should be getting your pieces out.  Chernev says you usually need move no more than two pawns during the first several moves of a game.  In those early moves, every time you move a pawn, you are NOT moving a piece, which you should be doing.

3)  Move each piece only once in the opening play.  The rationale here is similar as for the multiple pawn prohibition.  You don’t want to be moving, say, a bishop back and forth when you could and should be using each of your valuable moves to be bringing out all your pieces.


Chernev seems pretty lenient or open-minded about where you place the pieces (within certain commonsensical boundaries), just as long as you get the muthas out.  There are legitimate reasons for a variety of different opening positional scenarios.

4) On the other hand, though Chernev is open to different opening styles, he does believe in the concept of the typically “most suitable square” for a piece.  For instance, assuming a kingside castle (which is usually recommended), the most suitable square for the Knight is usually (if you’re White) is F3, so that it can protect the H2 pawn (by the way, if not the Knight, some “piece” must in almost all cases be over with the king and his pawns for defensive purposes… someone guarding the goal, so to speak).  For a bishop, the most suitable square will often be one that either controls a long diagonal or pins a knight.

5)  Chernev is also adamant that you want those three far-right pawns to stay put.  They are the king’s palisade.  They are a row of protection for him after he castles.   In fact, Chernev states that it’s not unusual, in offensive maneuvers, to sacrifice one of your pieces for one of these valuable pawns in order “to uproot a King.”

6) A less firm rule is the old, “Knights before Bishops” advice.  Only, Chernev gives the best rationale for this old nugget that I’ve ever heard… He points-out that you, the player, will probably know where a knight belongs before you will know where a bishop does.  Upon reflection, I found this to be largely true.  Furthermore, he explains that knights take shorter steps, so it helps to have them already moving.  Bishops can sweep the whole length of the board.

7) If you achieve POSITIONAL superiority, the offensive opportunities will naturally present themselves.  In other words, he advises prioritizing positional play over isolated sorties.  If you play for mobility, territory, and cramping your opponent, says Chernev, then “when the time is ripe, the attack will play itself.”

8) Develop a threat whenever possible.  Attack, attack, attack!  Seize and keep the initiative.  Don’t play timidly or defensively.  Do not simply sit back and allow your opponent to develop his plan.

So, here’s a good point to talk briefly about what is perhaps the biggest idea of chess… TEMPO.  A chess game between two well-matched opponents will almost always boil down to who had the least forced moves.  Every time you move where you want, and you force your opponent, in response, to make a defensive move, you have gained a “tempo.”  Gaining tempos (sometimes called “tempi,” but I’m disinclined to use that term) is basically THE way you win a chess game against a worthy opponent.  If, say, you’ve forced you’re opponent to make three moves which do not help him, and he’s only done the same to you once, than you have, in effect, been granted two extra moves.  In a competitive game, two extra moves can make all the difference.  The idea of gaining or losing tempo is also a reason for not moving the same piece multiple times early in a game.

9) Develop with view to control the center (but you knew that already).  The center is so important, that Chernev says that he will happily sometimes trade a knight if it means he can weaken his opponent’s grip on the center.

10) If you see a weakness in your opponent’s position… exploit it!  As Chernev says, in chess, it’s not just okay to kick a man when he’s down– it’s advisable.

11) Typically, you’ll want to develop the c-pawn before your Knight blocks it.

12)  In the endgame, White wants to post rooks on seventh rank, all up in Black’s bizness.

Other Comments:

*  An exchange of pieces favors the player with the most pieces still on the board.

*  Open lanes favor he who is most developed.

* The square F2 (from White’s perspective) is your King’s weak spot.  Often, the King winds-up being the only piece which can defend it, which makes it a dicey locale.

*  Remember, that this game is not just about pieces, but also about places.  Just as you would attack or defend against your opponent’s pieces, you should attack or defend vital squares on the board (which squares are vital, of course, change throughout the game).  While you’re attempting to put your pieces on the most effective squares, also work to keep your opponent form putting HIS pieces on the most effective squares.

*  Pay attention to your pawn formation.  Have a sturdy one, yourself, while also attempting to dis-stablize your opponent’s array of pawns.  Don’t discount pawn structure when analyzing a position– either yours or your opponent’s.  Personally, I feel that the overall pawn array can be viewed as an additional “piece” upon the board… one with potentially strong powers.  It is also the pawn structure which determines whether bishops are “good” or “bad.”  Bad Bishops are those whose own pawns stand in his way (on his own color of square), thus reducing its mobility.

* In an evenly matched game Black simply will NOT wrest initiative from white early in game.  So if you’re playing Black, don’t try to force things.  Eventually, the Chess God willing, you’ll gain a tempo at some point, and the initiative will start to swing over to you.

*  “The best openings to play are the ones you are most at home in,” says Chernev.  For “careful” players, he advises considering the openings of the Ruy Lopez, the Queen’s Pawn, the Reti, and the English.  For “daring” players, he suggests exploring the Evans, the Danish, the King’s, and other gambits.

*  The Nutshell Mobilization-Plan…  Establish a pawn in the center, develop the minor pieces, castle to get rooks to center files, and finally bring out queen… but not too far from home (“premature development of the queen is dangerous, as it is subject to annoying attacks by pawns and minor pieces”).

* Moving a pawn forward to support the center can also provide the secondary benefit of providing a “refuge square” behind it which can be used for pieces under attack to retreat to safety.

*  Yeah, you don’t want your Knight on the edge of the board.  It saps away half his power.

*  If you’re unsure about a move (for instance, it goes against common chess wisdom), consider this… “it’s not a weak move if your opponent can’t exploit it.”

*  Rooks won’t do much early, but they must be made ready.  Seizing open files is premium.

* You don’t typically want to exchange a center pawn for a side pawn.  It’s usually better to capture toward the center.

* Example of PASSIVE play (early pawn moves for White):  1. d4…  followed by  2. e3

* Developing rook by moving the rook-pawn forward is a “peculiar” way to go about it.  In other words, don’t do it.

*  In the endgame, king begins to move toward middle.  With every exchange of pieces, the power of the King increaseth.

*  If struggling to come up with your next best target, Chernev suggests looking for one of your opponent’s pieces which is needed where it is… and displace it.

*  Chernev agrees with Staunton that one should not advance, voluntarily, two pawns already ideally stationed (for White) at d4 & e4

*  Chernev stresses more than once that Black’s response to White’s Queen’s Pawn Opening at some point must be C5.

*  Learn to recognize what Steinitz called a “hole.”  Holes are squares from which a pawn— for the entire remainder of the game– will never be able to drive you off.  This occurs because the pawns, which cannot move backwards, have advanced (or disappeared) in such a way that none of them can now defend the “hole” square.

* And last but not least… follow no rule, guideline, or piece of advice slavishly.  Sometimes, the rules really are made to be broken (just realize, after many centuries of chess play and lessons learned and passed down, you better have a pretty damn good reason for going against the advice the masters).

P.S.  I loved Chernev’s dismissive term for a classic, amateurish chess move… ” coffee-house move!”


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