Defending: Look at ALL Your Options!

Today, I want to explore an essential part of our chess lessons for beginners: The skill of defending. Many kids don’t want to defend! Part of it is simple: It’s more fun for them to attack. Who wants to put their own plans on hold and think about what the other person can do? But it’s also developmental. Very young children are not used to the give and take of a chess game, where preventing the other person from winning your pieces or checkmating is just as important as doing these things yourself.

There are different types of defending kids learn about in Step 1 and 1+: Defending your pieces, getting out of check, defending against a checkmate threat, and defending against a passed pawn. The Step 1+ defending lesson deals with the first three. When we say “defending”, we don’t only mean “protecting”. There are different ways to defend, depending on what type of defending you are doing.

To defend a piece, you can

  1. Move it away
  2. Protect it
  3. Capture the attacker
  4. Block the attack

To defend against a checkmate threat, you can

  1. Protect the checkmate square
  2. Capture an attacker
  3. Block an attacker
  4. Move away, or prepare to move away

To get out of check, you can move your king, capture the checking piece, or block the attack, but you can’t protect your king - that would be against the rules. Regardless of what type of defending you have to do, there is something you must remember:

Look at ALL your Options! Don’t make the first move that jumps into your head!

Although getting out of check doesn’t sound very exciting, it’s a critical part of every chess game. Kids who are in check often bang out an instinctive move, only to immediately regret it. By thinking about well-chosen positions and discussing them with a coach, they begin to develop the habit of looking around rather than just looking forward: Thinking about all their options in order to figure out the best one. This position is one of my favorite examples:

I ask students how White should get out of check here. At first they often think there is no difference between the different options: Black will capture the White queen on the next move no matter what. White has to think a little bit deeper, about what will happen AFTER Black captures the queen. Eventually it becomes clear: Three of the four legal moves lead to a losing endgame, down a piece. But moving the king to f5, 1.Kf5 in chess notation, leads to 1...Bxa8 (capturing the queen) delivering stalemate! White is not in check and has no legal move. So the position was not hopeless after all: Carefully considering ALL the options, one by one, leads to a draw.

The next time you have to do any sort of defending, remember: Look at ALL your options! Tomorrow we will look at how beginners can improve their checkmating skills.