Today’s blog is about the point of the game: Checkmate! You may be surprised to hear that our Step 1 beginner chess course doesn’t talk about checkmate in the beginning. In fact, we teach six different topics before the first checkmate lesson! Experience shows that it works perfectly. Why is that?
Young children move through a variety of phases when they are learning chess. In the beginning, they are fixated on capturing. What could be better than taking the other person’s piece? After learning a little bit more, they start the material phase. At this point, kids are preoccupied with the pieces themselves and the way they move around the board. During the material phase, they lack total control of the board: They do not automatically recognize which squares are being controlled by individual pieces.
Checkmate belongs partly to the next stage in a child’s chess development: The spatial phase. During this period, the child is more cognizant of the way the board is subdivided into individual squares. They develop automatic recognition of which squares are under control and which are not. In order to be able to become fluent at delivering checkmate, you have to have a strong sense of whether you are controlling all the squares around the enemy king!
All of this explains why we don’t teach our students about checkmate immediately. First, they need to fully master how the pieces move. When a student is trying to checkmate, their working memory shouldn’t be busy trying to remember how the knight moves! Then, they have to improve their spatial awareness on the chess board. Once that happens, they are ready to truly learn the skill of giving checkmate and gradually master it.
Our Step 1 checkmate lessons introduce the helper checkmate and the chaser and guard checkmate, among others. In the helper checkmate, one piece checks the king and controls escape squares. Another piece (the helper) protects it. Here is the first example:
The queen checks the king and controls the escape squares, the white king (the helper) protects the queen.
A bit later, we introduce the chaser and guard checkmate: One piece checks the king. We call this piece the chaser. Another piece guards the escape squares around the king. Do you see how White can give this type of checkmate below?
Moving the queen to a6, 1.Qa6# in chess notation, is the solution. Moving the queen to b8 wouldn’t work because the knight could capture the queen! While teaching the basic checkmate patterns, we remind students to pay careful attention to the opponent’s pieces.
Our Step 1+ course introduces some additional ideas to help students give checkmate: X-Ray protection (when a piece protects a square through another piece), the indirect guard (when the checking piece moves away to open up a line for the guard to control an escape square) and discovered check. In a discovered check, the check does not come from the piece that moved. Instead, it moves out of the way to discover (uncover) a check from the piece behind it. Very often, the piece that moves has to do a job in addition to making way. Do you see how Black can checkmate White in one move here?
Moving the knight to b5, 1...Nb5#, is correct! If the knight moved somewhere else, White would have been able to move their rook to a5, 2.Ra5, to block the check. On b5, the knight not only clears the a-file for the Black rook, it also blocks the White rook from coming across the fifth rank.
Tomorrow, we will be sharing an interview with National Master Nolan Hendrickson, one of our coaches! I did a double take when I realized how quickly he improved as a young player, so I’m very excited to offer you his perspective.