Learning the principles of chess

A couple of days ago I mentioned that I was starting to play chess again after a very long break. In trying to understand better I did a deep dive on the basic principles of the game on Youtube. Just like every other skill on this planet, Youtube has a good number of videos that will help beginners. I've probably learned more about the game in the past two days than I have in a lifetime of playing with friends and family. I would play my dad as a child, and he would win every single game we played. His advice to me were always vague platitudes like, see the whole board, or, do not bring your queen out early. Meanwhile he was withholding the most important aspects of the game from me. That sneaky bastard!

From what I've been able to discern so far, here are the three keys to playing good chess in the early game:

  1. Control the center squares!

    This may be obvious to people who have played a fair bit of chess, but it is absolutely pivotal to control the center of the board. If you can control the central four squares, your pieces will have more mobility, and, obviously, your opponent will will be forced to make plays on the edges of the board. Most openings in chess center around establishing a foothold in the center of board.

  2. Develop all of your minor pieces early. 

    A solid opening should both of your bishops, knights, as well your rooks involved in the game. I can't tell you how many games of chess I've lost because I went on the attack before I had my army fully developed. There is nothing more discouraging then looking at your board after a loss and noticing that you never played the rook and knight on your queenside. In the name of getting all of your pieces developed early it is also a pretty solid rule that you never move a minor piece twice before you have full development. There are certain exceptions to this rule, but they are few and far between. You should almost never move a pawn or knight twice in the early game. This has been a big change to the way I approach the game, I was definitely guilty of paying a lot of two piece, Queen/Bishop games, which are great when you are playing people who have no clue what is going on, but once you start playing people with talent this style of play will get you crushed.

  3. Get your king to safety!

    Here's another piece of advice that you probably didn't think you needed to hear, but how many games have you lost because you either didn't castle, or castled too late in the game? Generally, if you are getting your pieces in play on schedule, you will usually have a nice castle setup in the first five-seven moves. Castling as early as possible is a good idea for a couple of reasons: it allows is almost always the safest possible structure you can put your King in, and it allows you to have both rooks in play, which is called connecting your rooks. Having both rooks in play in the mid game is extremely important to controlling the board. For new players, the rooks are always the hardest pieces to get into play, and they are absolutely essential.

These are pretty simple concepts that make the foundation of all good chess players. Just getting a decent handle on these concepts has made me a much better player in the course of a single day. There are a lot of other concepts that I am trying to get my head around. I'm still having a hard time with knowing when it is a good time to trade and/or sacrifice pieces. I know that trading minor pieces for a queen is a no brainer, but there are other situations in which I'm not sure if I should be trading my weak bishop for knight, or vice versa. I'm also trying to get a handle on how to play the late game. I've been getting into situations where I should have been able to put a game away far faster than I am now. I'm also struggling to deal with extreme pressure in the early game, especially when I'm playing as black.

The faster way I learn games like chess is to play a lot of games, and adapt to situations as they occur. Once I see a certain pattern emerging in a set of games I am able to learn what the correct course of action is in each stage of the game. The difficult thing about applying this learning style to chess is that every game is different. Once a match gets into the midgame, the sheer multitude of move combinations makes it hard for certain patterns to emerge. This is all a way to say that I fully expect to take my lumps for awhile before I see any real signs of improvement in my game. It helps that I have a couple of similarly skilled friends to play with on a regular basis. It's fun watching each other learn from our mistakes, and make the baby steps that will lead to us being better players.