A Good Lesson

by admin on December 12, 2012

Today’s post is a grab bag of topics…

1) The Aptos Library Chess Club has been a hopping place lately. Two weeks ago we had 23 kids, which forced us for the first time to use every single board and set in our collection. This week we had 16, I think.

I don’t know if it was because of the numbers, but my weekly lesson yesterday was one of the best ever. I was surprised because I thought the position was going to be a hard one for the kids to solve.

White to play.

This is position 217 from John Emms’ The Ultimate Chess Puzzle Book. Because I expected the kids to have trouble finding the best move, and I didn’t want the lesson to degenerate into mere guessing, I told them I wanted to study the features of the position first. What Black piece is pinned?

Pins are pretty hard for most of the kids to recognize, but after one not quite correct guess (the queen) they figured out that the rook on g7 is pinned. If it weren’t there, White would win Black’s queen with 1. Qxh8+. Not only that, it would be checkmate! This points out another very important feature of the position: Black’s king is in an awkward position, if we can just get at him. But how?

Now, I said, let’s look at another “what if” scenario. What if the pawns at h4 and h5 weren’t there? How could we get at the Black king? They found 1. Rh1 checkmate right away. So, I pointed out, checks from the front are also very dangerous for Black.

Still they were stuck. After all, you can’t just take those two pawns off the board. And when I asked them how we might get them off the board, no one could come up with the right idea. One kid suggested 1. Qe2, but the group agreed that Qxh5+ would not be mate, and so it’s not a big threat at all. Not only that, I pointed out, our queen at b2 is beautifully posted, striking deep into Black’s position. There’s no reason we should move it again.

I tried one more clue. The queen is a great piece, but which White pieces are not living up to their full potential? The kids figured out pretty quickly that it was the rooks. But this led to suggestions like 1. Re2, which again didn’t seem to get anywhere.

At this point it wasn’t clear we were making any progress, but what’s important is that there was no sign that the kids were impatient or frustrated. You can sense these things — they were still raising their hands, coming up with suggestions, talking over one another, all suggesting that they were very engaged in the problem.

At this point an accident happened, something unplanned that broke the impasse. One of the kids thought it was Black to move and said that Black should take the pawn on g3. Okay, I asked, what would White do then? Another kid immediately said 2. Qf6+. And all of a sudden everything clicked! If the rook on g7 interposes, we win the queen with checkmate. If the rook on g3 interposes, we take it and checkmate it in short order. If the king goes to h7, we get the f-pawn with check.

Never mind that 1. … Rxg3?? would also be refuted by the simple 2. Rxg3 — what mattered to me was that we now had the key to unlock the puzzle. If we could just pass and invite Black to take on g3, we would win. But the rules of chess don’t allow you to pass. So, I asked, is there some move that we could play that would tempt Black to take the pawn with his rook?

That turned out to be the clue they needed to find 1. g4!! I love this sort of move, a move that appears completely impossible at first. One of my principles of chess is that if your opponent tries really, really hard to prevent a move, you should look for a way to play it anyway. But it’s also a move that ties together all these threads we had mentioned earlier — activating the rooks, levering open the h-file, exploiting the pin on g7.

We quickly worked out that 1. … Rxg4? fails for Black, for the same reasons we just saw. But what about 1. … hg? I thought this might be hard for them, too. I was wrong. Immediately the answer came: 2. h5! And what if Black plays 2. … Kxh5? Again there were no wrong guesses. They found 3. Rh1 mate right away. So all of my earlier “what if” questions had prepared the ground successfully!

Okay, now what if Black answers 2. h5 by moving the rook? Again there were no hesitations. 2. … Rg5 was answered by 3. fg+. And 2. … Rf6 was answered by 3. Qxf6+. I was blown away by the fact that they found these answers right away.

Now here, technically speaking, we should have gone over what happens if Black plays 1. … fg and what happens if Black doesn’t take on g4 at all (in fact, 1. … Kh7 is the best move). But I decided it was best to stop here, because the main points had been made. I also was very satisfied — more than satisfied, amazed — with the way the kids had come up with the right moves (after the first one) right away, and I wanted the lesson to end on this positive note.

In a previous entry I wrote that I don’t do enough lessons with gray answers — I usually go over puzzles where the answers are a clear black or white. That’s a difference between me and Elizabeth Spiegel, who talked in “Brooklyn Castle” about how valuable it is for kids to see that the teacher doesn’t always know the answers. But it’s psychologically hard for me. A lesson like today’s, where there is a clear learning target and the kids hit it, makes me feel so good. A gray-zone lesson, where I’m not sure of the answer and the kids aren’t either, would be much less satisfying. So I’m not sure what to do!

2) Did anyone else notice that the December 2012 issue of Chess Life did not have any ratings on the label? Is this an intentional change, or a one-time accident? Of course I know that I can look my rating up online any time and it will be more up-to-date than the rating shown on the cover of the magazine. But still… Back in the pre-Internet days, those four little digits were one of my favorite things about the magazine. The mailman comes and brings you a personal update on your rating progress. Is this now a thing of the past?

3) Michael Goeller over at the Kenilworthian has followed up on my Elephant Gambit (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 d5!?) post with his usual over-the-top thoroughness, giving a complete bibliography of online and offline resources on the Elephant Gambit. Please go and check it out.

Alas, it would appear that my proposal to rename it has not gained any traction. Michael says that people like playing openings named after animals. Go figure.

For readers who missed the original post… I noted that there is no essential difference between the Elephant Gambit and the colors-reversed gambit 1. e4 e5 2. c3?! Nf6 3. d4, which was played by Paul Morphy in 1858. So I suggested that we should call it the Morphy Gambit, because this might make the opening sound more respectable. I was expecting some reader to say that the Elephant Gambit should actually be called the Morphy Gambit Reversed, but nobody came up with that idea.

Oh well, in principle I think that once an opening has a well-established name there is no point in giving it another — it just adds confusion. But here’s another thing to think about. In Russian the name “Elephant Gambit” is totally confusing because “elephant” is the Russian word for “bishop.” So a Russian will think you are talking about the Bishop’s Gambit.

So here’s my proposal… For all my Russian readers out there (Hello? Hello? Anyone?) you can call this the Morphy Gambit Reversed, in honor of the first American world champion. Meanwhile, here in America we will still call it the Elephant Gambit, in honor of… well… elephants.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ashish December 12, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Should be: “Again there were no hesitations. 2. … Rg5 was answered by 3. fg+.” Not hg+.


admin December 12, 2012 at 3:23 pm

Hi Ashish,
Fixed it! Thanks for spotting the typo.


Praveen December 13, 2012 at 1:07 am

Beautiful problem. Actually, there isn’t much that white can do here other than moving the pawn. Somehow, when you spot 1. g4!, all these complicated ideas mentioned in the post just get absorbed instantaneously.

As for animal openings, my friends at FICS have a whole team on that theme (see the ArchBishops_MateLikeAnAnimal entry in http://teamleague.org/standings.php). Also, there’s a very time-sinky wiki page on that (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_chess_openings_named_after_animals).

There are several fascinating specimens – the halibut gambit (1. c4 b5), the giraffe attack of the vienna, the clam (1. e4 e5 2. d3), etc. It seems to me that we can map the names of these openings with their character.


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