I can never predict how well my lessons are going to go at the Aptos Library chess club. It seems to depend completely on which kids show up that day, what kind of mood they’re in, and other unknowable random factors.
Last Tuesday was a really good day. We had eleven kids total, and a good gender balance — five girls, six boys. Most importantly, they seemed to be in a receptive frame of mind.
I put up the following position. I won’t tell you how we got here, because I’m also planning to give a ChessLecture on this game and I don’t want to spoil the surprise. So, no PGN. Anyway, the game was between a friend of mine, Paulo SantAnna, and the California high-school champion, Joshua Cao, from the last round of the Best of the West Open two weeks ago. By winning the game, Paulo clinched first place in the Expert section.
Here is the position that I gave to the kids.
(FEN: r1bq2k1/pp1p1r1p/6n1/1P1Npp1Q/2P5/6R1/1PBB1PPP/6K1 b – - 0 25)
I asked them first what White’s biggest threat is in this position. I had expected that they would say Bxf5. But they surprised me! The very first answer was Rxg6+. Actually, now that I think about it, somebody actually said Qxg6+ but we quickly saw that it didn’t work, and the next suggestion was Rxg6+.
I was pleased because this is in fact the right answer, but I wasn’t really sure that the kids had looked at the position deep enough to understand why. So I asked what the second-biggest threat was for White, and I think someone eventually pointed out Bxf5. Then I changed gears and asked what Black’s biggest strategic problems were. I added, “This might be a question for the older kids here, because I haven’t talked about strategy so much with the younger kids.”
Well, this may or may not have been a mistake, but it provoked an immediate reaction! Xarius, one of the younger kids, raised his hand and said, “Why can’t we do it?” I immediately backtracked and said of course he could answer if he wanted. And in fact, he gave quite a good answer! He said that White’s pieces were about to munch Black’s king.
That’s absolutely correct, I said, and what is Black’s other main strategic problem? This time one of the older kids pointed out the lack of development of Black’s queenside.
So, I said, let’s take a look at a move that addresses two of these problems — the specific threat of Bxf5, plus the bigger strategic problem of Black’s lagging development. Let’s see what happens after 25. … d6. Now what does White do?
Of course, they all said 26. Rxg6+. And we went through the variations one by one: 26. … hg 27. Qxg6+ and:
(A) 27. … Kh8 28. Qxf7. This was easy.
(B) 27. … Kf8 28. Bh6+! Ke8 29. Qg8+! winning the rook. This was also one of my favorite moments of the lesson, because the person who suggested both of these checks was a quiet-as-a-mouse girl name Alaina who usually doesn’t speak up. Not only are the checks right, they are hard for kids to see (especially the first one) because they are long-distance moves and they involve a piece (the bishop on d2) that we hadn’t really mentioned before.
But we didn’t stop there. We played 29. … Kd7 30. Qxf7+ and I asked if Black had any way out of check. They found 30. … Qe7, the only move. Then I asked what White does next. Now there was a split between the younger kids. Half of them wanted to play 31. Nxe7, the other half wanted to play 31. Qxe7 (mate).
This is an EXTREMELY typical difficulty for younger kids, who typically win by amassing material and not by looking for checkmate. They also are very reluctant to put their queen right next to the opponent’s king, even though that is by far the most common checkmate pattern. My friend Gjon Feinstein, also a chess teacher, taught me the term “in-your-face checkmate,” which seems to be a great way to get across the idea to kids. They love to say, “In Your FACE!” So I reminded them of that here, and they all got why 31. Qxe7 mate is better than 31. Nxe7 (not mate).
C) 27. … Rg7 28. Nf6+ and again there is a bifurcation.
C1) 27. … Kh8 28. Qh6+ Rh7 29. Qxh7 mate. “What kind of mate?” I asked. “In your FACE!” they said.
C2) 27. … Kf8 28. Bh6 (Alaina got this one again) 28. … Qe7 29. Bxg7+ Qxg7 30. Qe8 mate. “What kind of mate?” “In your FACE!”
So now I was convinced that the kids understood why 26. Rxg6+ is White’s biggest threat and why 25. … d6 doesn’t work for Black. In the game, Cao actually played 25. … Rg7, which is about the only way of stopping the exchange sac, but of course White now played 26. Bxf5, winning the pawn for free.
If it were just a matter of losing a pawn, Black could still play on. But it’s much worse than that. Because time was getting low, I suggested the move 26. … d6 again. Then we played through 27. Bxg6 Rxg6 28. Rxg6+ hg 29. Qxg6+. What next?
(A) 29. … Kh8 and now they surprised me. The move I wanted was, of course, 30. Nf6 forcing mate. They first tried Alaina’s 30. Bh6, which doesn’t work here because of 30. … Qg8, but then someone found 30. Bg5! And I had to admit that this is completely winning for White, because Black’s only way to prevent Bf6 mate is to give up his queen. Nevertheless, this shows the preference kids have for longer-distance checkmates. So just to drive home my point, I told them that 30. Nf6 is also winning because it threatens mates on g8 and h7 and Black can’t defend both. “What kind of mate?” “In your FACE!”
B) 29. … Kf8 and now 30. Bh6 is mate. Not in your face, but a pretty mate nevertheless. Here I pointed out how the material is equal, but White’s pieces are cooperating and attacking, while all of Black’s pieces are on their original squares. An object lesson in the importance of development and the fact that material is worthless if you don’t do anything with it.
All in all, I thought it was a very satisfying lesson. What made this a good teaching position, I think, is that the variations were very clear cut. There weren’t too many of them, but there also weren’t too few. It was just right for a 15-20 minute lesson.
By the way, I’d like to mention that it was the last time in the Aptos club for Daniel. He is one of the politest and most mature boys of his age that I’ve met, who never complained when I took time to explain things to the younger kids that were probably obvious to him. I’ve enjoyed having him come to the Aptos Library club for the last few months. His parents were here in Santa Cruz for just a year, and they are now moving to Mexico City. I hope he has fun there and finds lots of people to play chess with!