Mike Basman’s Nightmare

Many years ago maverick IM and chess teacher Mike Basman wrote about a nightmare he’d had.

A pupil’s game started 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Bxc6 and now his pupil refused to recapture because he’d been taught to avoid doubled pawns.

I’ve seen this several times myself. Sometimes, but not always, when they’ve castled king-side and are afraid that the doubled f-pawns will make their king harder to defend.

Sometimes, but not always, this is the case, but if you’re a piece down for nothing against a proficient player you’re going to lose anyway. Unless you can calculate a win for your opponent you have to take part.

Something similar happened to me the other day. I was playing a young man who had played on and off since primary school, and had got interested during lockdown. As it happened, his father had a grandmaster friend who agreed to give him some lessons. He seemed to know a lot about chess, but had a three-figure rating on lichess. After a few moves I made an exchange, but he wouldn’t take the piece back because it would open the d-file, allowing me to trade queens and stop him castling.

Well, yes, sometimes loss of castling rights does indeed lead to a quick defeat, but in most (not all, though) positions with queens off the board, losing castling rights doesn’t matter too much. Just ask any devotee of the Berlin Endgame.

There are three ways we might do things better.

Firstly, we might want to teach, when we’re discussing positional concepts such as doubled pawns and loss of castling rights (in the absence of queens), that these, by and large, might be worth round about half a pawn. Sometimes, it’s true, they could be worth a lot more, but learning about that comes with experience.

Secondly, we should be less dogmatic about how we teach positional concepts. More often than not, doubled pawns are a disadvantage, but there are also many reasons why, in certain positions they might be an advantage (opening a file, controlling important central squares) and other positions where they’re neutral. Likewise, after an early queen trade, you might prefer to have your king near the centre of the board rather than tucked away in the corner after you’ve castled.

Thirdly, we should ensure that our students are very efficient at winning endings with a material advantage. Then they will come to realise that Superior Force (usually) Wins and that very often you have to recapture and hope for the best rather than going a piece down.

At one level this is a prioritisation error, a thinking error which happens very often in many domains, not only chess. We react instinctively to ‘x’ and therefore fail to consider ‘y’, which is actually much more important than ‘x’. Once you understand the concept, you’ll spot prioritisation errors in discussions on all sorts of subjects wherever you look.

Richard James

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Richard James

Author: Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966. Richard is a published author and his books can be found at Amazon. Richard is currently promoting minichess (games and puzzles using subsets of chess) for younger children through his website www.minichess.uk, and writing coaching materials for children (and adults) who want to start playing serious competitive chess, through www.chessheroes.uk. View all posts by Richard James

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