Learning to play chess … again

On two or three previous occasions I have tried to get into chess but it has never clicked with me. The most recent, a few years ago, was when we had one of those ‘chess for kids’ books in the house (I have two daughters who are now aged 11 and 13). I tried to use that to get me and us all interested, but without luck. Other than a couple of generic tips like ‘try to control the centre’ or ‘get your pieces out quickly’, the book left me with no knowledge that seemed clever, applicable and accessible to me at my noob level.

Recently we watched the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit and I felt inspired to try again. But this time it seems to be working …

So what is different?

Well this time, only a few days in, I already feel like the approach I am taking has given me a chance to experience that pleasant feeling of grokking chess a little bit. It is very early days still, but the exercises I have been working on are small but complex enough that there was actually a progression of understanding within the problem and I got a sense of what it means to ‘see a plan’ on the Chess board, albeit for a very small fraction of all the elements in a whole game. But that’s more than I ever had before! 😁

I am so positive that I want to keep a blog of my progress, a diary of how things develop from here.

In the next section you can find my thoughts, in these early moments, around the checkmate exercises that have made chess so much more interesting this time.

You can find the first in my diary series here.

The difference this time: checkmate drills

Did you know that you can carry out a checkmate with just a king and rook? Or with both Bishops. Do you know which is more tricky? Do you always need to involve the king?

Working through the collection of checkmate exercises has been the first real chess pleasure that I have felt. I tackled each one quite a few times until the logic of it became clear to me and it was very pleasing when it did.

On chess.com I am able to practice these checkmate drills. Here they are in the order I find them there now (but I actually did the queen drill first):

  • Two rooks
  • Queen
  • Rook
  • Two bishops (<— I am here at pixel time)
  • Bishop and knight: the edge
  • Bishop and knight
  • Queen vs bishop
  • Queen vs knight
  • Two knights vs pawn
  • Two knights vs pawn (advanced)

What I have learned so far

I started writing this when I was just getting to grips with the ‘two bishops’ exercise, so bear in mind that I had not yet done all the exercises and was really still only on the basic stuff.

  • I grokked the Queen exercise pretty quicky.
  • I used the same idea for the two rooks exercise, effectively using one rook to protect the other rook from an approach along the diagonal (which the queen prevents, obviously).
  • I then got into the one rook exercise and afterwards realised that the idea of pushing the king to be trapped along one side was really the key. With this idea clearer in my head I was able to do the two rooks exercise differently and it felt good.
  • The one rook exercise exposed me to the problem of when your moves are not at the correct ‘phase offset’ with your opponent: you move your king to the crucial position but they can immediately step away. Resolving this problem was my first real ‘eureka’ moment: when I find myself one step ahead of where I want to be, I effectively switch the direction 180º and now find myself in the trailing position I need!
  • The two bishops exercise took a few days until I was entirely comfortable with it. I got the plan early on but did not get really fluent with it until a few days later.
  • Most of these checkmate exercises require you to push the opponent king to the edge. After getting comfortable with the plan it was useful to try pushing the king to any of the sides I chose — sort of tests your ability to apply the plan in all different orientations.

I will continue to share my thoughts in my diary series and you can find the first post here.

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