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Better Chess for Average Players

Better Chess for Average Players

by Tim Harding, T. D. Harding

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Designed for the typical amateur player who wants to improve his or her chess skills, this clear, straightforward guide provides the extra knowledge and technique that turns a losing player into a winner.
The author, a well-known chess teacher and author of a dozen books on openings, coaches the reader through all the fundamentals of attacking, sacrifices,


Designed for the typical amateur player who wants to improve his or her chess skills, this clear, straightforward guide provides the extra knowledge and technique that turns a losing player into a winner.
The author, a well-known chess teacher and author of a dozen books on openings, coaches the reader through all the fundamentals of attacking, sacrifices, defense, positional play and choosing a move, as well as how to approach the endgame. The crucial processes of assessing the position and choosing a move are examined in depth, and there are helpful sections on how to cope with difficult positions and time-trouble. Several illustrative games, from the annals of the imaginary Midlington Chess Club, add a light touch to this expert practical guide to better chess.
Tim Harding is a well-known chess author and captain of the Irish Correspondence Chess Team. He represented Ireland in the 1984 FIDE chess Olympiad in Thessaloniki.

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By Tim Harding

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1996 Tim Harding
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13369-0





The ultimate aim in a chess game is to checkmate your opponent, but only a beginner will allow you to achieve this without a hard struggle. Winning enemy pawns or pieces is an important step towards checkmate. Just as the larger army usually has the advantage in a battle, so in chess the player with extra material is more likely than his opponent to win the game. Although much of the fun of chess lies in finding the exceptions to this rule, the concept of material advantage is fundamental to any understanding of the logic of the chess-board.

You are probably already familiar with the numerical scale of the average values of the pieces. Taking a pawn as the unit, one often says that knights and bishops (the 'minor pieces') are worth three pawns each, a rook five, and the queen nine. The king can't be given a value on this scale, because you can't exchange him for other pieces.

No mechanical system can be of much help to you in evaluating the subtler aspects of your position (much less, even, than point-count systems for bidding in bridge). We'll see some of the exceptions in Unit 30; maybe it would be more precise to call a rook 4 ½. and a queen 8 ½.

Nevertheless this 1, 3, 5, 9 rule of thumb should help you avoid elementary errors when exchanging pieces, and at any time the material count will give you some idea of how well or badly you stand. We shall see that many other factors, especially the safety of your king, must be taken into account, but other things being equal an advantage of two or three material points means you should win with correct play. An advantage of one usually means that your opponent has something to worry about, particularly as the endgame draws near.

Why do the pieces have those values? The strength of a piece is a function of its mobility — its speed in crossing the board to the scene of battle, or the number of squares it controls from a good central post. The bishop and knight are considered to be about equal in value because the knight can attack squares of either colour, and this often makes up for its relative sluggishness — especially in blocked positions. However, the two bishops in concert can usually dominate the opponent's two knights — or often bishop and knight; even sometimes rook and knight!

We shall see later on which types of position favour which pieces. For the moment, the main point to bear in mind is that you should not exchange one of your pieces for an opponent's man of lesser value, unless you have a good specific reason for doing so.


By developing your minor pieces before your rooks and queen, you greatly decrease the risk that your opponent may force an unfavourable exchange upon you, and increase your chances of winning material if he is too bold with his major pieces.

Thus a familiar beginners' error is to try to develop the rook first: 1 h4? d5 (see diagram 1.1). Now

1.1 White to move

White cannot proceed with his intended 2 Rh3, for Black would reply 2 ... Bxh3 winning rook for bishop (a gain of two points) and retaining a superior position. If you are patient, good opportunities for using the rook will arise later in the game, when pawn exchanges have opened a file or two and when some of the minor pieces (the rooks' natural enemies) may also be off the board. By the way, taking a rook for bishop or knight is called 'winning the exchange'. See Unit 13.

Early forays with the queen can be still more hazardous. After 1 e4 e5 2 Bc4 Bc5 3 Qh5 is a very old-fashioned move, hoping for 3 ... Nc6?? 4 Qxf7 mate. Black has a much better reply in 3 ... Qe7 defending the threatened pawns at f7 and e5), perhaps continuing 4 Nf3 d6 5 Ng5 Nf6 to reach diagram 1.2.

1.2 White to move

Now 6 Qxf7+ Qxf7 7 Bxf7+ is best, although after 7 ... Ke7 8 Bc4 h6 9 Nf3 Nxe4 Black regains his pawn with a good position in the centre.

However, from diagram 1.2, White might choose instead the apparently more aggressive move 6 Bxf7+, keeping the queen for an attack that will never be born. This is met by 6 ... Kd8 7 Qh4 Rf8 8 Bc4 Ng4! 9 0-0 and now White is pole-axed by 9 ... Rxf2. If 10 Rxf2 Bxf2+ and White loses his queen.

A common error by novices is to exchange bishop and knight for the opponent's rook and pawn by a sequence such as this: 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nc6 3 Bc4 Be7 4 0-0 Nf6 5 Ng5? 0-0 6 Nxf7 Rxf7 7 Bxf7+ Kxf7.

1.3 White to move

Nominally the game is level, since six points have been exchanged for six, but this is one of the cases which suggests that R=4 ½ rather than 5. In reality, Black has the advantage because he has three pieces in play, whereas all White's developed pieces have disappeared from the board. The black king is not insecure because White has no pieces to attack him with, and after the king has retired to g8 Black can think about bringing out his Q-side pieces and going over to an attack, starting perhaps with ... d5.

White's extra pawn in such a middle-game situation means much less than the fact that Black has two independent attacking forces (bishop and knight) against White's one — the king's rook. White should go in for this sort of transaction only in desperation, or if there are definite chances of exploiting the temporarily exposed state of the enemy king.


One attacked piece can usually be moved or defended, but a double attack may cost you material. Try, so far as possible, to keep all your pieces and pawns defended by one another. Undefended or 'loose' pieces, even when they are not directly threatened, provide chances for your opponent to find a hidden coup that wins material or inaugurates an attack.

Thus after 1 e4 e5 2 f4 exf4 3 Nf3 Ne7 4 Bc4 d6? 5 0-0 Bg4? the black bishop on g4 is not guarded.

1.4 White to move

This factor enables White to win a pawn by 6 Bxf7+! Kxf7 7 Ng5+ and 8 Qxg4, after which Black's homeless king will soon be the source of further agony to him.

White's trick in that example worked because after 7 Ng5+ Black found himself under two simultaneous attacks — the king by White's knight, and the bishop by the white queen — which could not both be parried. Most cases where material is won and lost exemplify this same principle of double attack. We shall look at some special kinds of double attack in units 2 and 3, but here are two more examples:

(a) 1 e4 c5 2 d4 cxd4 3 Nf3 e5 4 Nxe5?? Qa5+ (diagram 1.5), and 5 ... Qxe5.

1.5 White to move

(b) 1 e4 e5 2 Nf3 Nf6 3 Nxe5 Nxe4? 4 Qe2 Nd6?? 5 Nc6+ (diagram 1.6) 5 ... Qe7 6 Nxe7 or 5 ... Be7 6 Nxd8.

1.6 Black to move

You can see from these that double attacks are very hard to get out of, especially where the king is involved. But in each case, the attack was possible only because Black made a mistake, a blunder, which gave the winner his opportunity.


Blunders occur most often as a result of over-confidence – or its opposite, nervousness, when you are faced with a particularly formidable adversary — or when it is necessary to play very quickly. There is no gilt-edged formula for eliminating blunders from your games; even grandmasters blunder occasionally. But your results will improve, and your enjoyment of the game will grow, if you can cut oversights down to a minimum and so avoid those disheartening days when you spoil a good struggle or have to suffer the cat-and-mouse tactics of an opponent who is two pawns or a piece up.

As you develop your technical grasp and imagination (what strong players call 'sight of the board') you will find you become less prone to fall into double attacks or to leave pieces unprotected. With these beginner's blunders eliminated, you should start thinking about the psychological origins of the real howlers.

It is always advisable to go through a mental checking procedure between deciding on your move and actually making it. 'Sit on your hands!' is an ancient piece of advice, but still wise. We go into greater detail about organizing your thinking in Unit 22.

You have to be particularly conscientious about the last look round the board when you think you are doing well, for that is when over-confidence strikes and error creeps in.

If you do make a blunder, don't play your next move quickly. Rushing will not fool your opponent into thinking that you had expected his move, and you are likely to make the situation worse.


If you think that your opponent has made a mistake, and that you can win something for nothing — don't be too hasty! Your eagerness to get ahead on material may be your undoing.

Some players are adept at setting traps, playing apparently weak moves that conceal a sting in the tail.

1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 a6 6 Bg5 e6 7 f4 Qb6 (attacking the white b-pawn) 8 a3!?

1.7 Black to move

This is not very constructive if Black continues quietly, but if his suspicions are not aroused and he goes 8 ... Qxb2? then with 9 Na4 the jaws of the trap close around his queen. The lesson here is that when a threat to take material is apparently ignored by your opponent, you should pay special attention to the meaning of his last move. Here the unprepossessing 8 a3 took away the retreat squares a3 and b4 from Black's queen.

Some players take a delight in preparing surprising tactical traps to win material. The danger in this is that they may lose sight of the overall plan of the game, or even make an oversight or miscalculation, and throw away a perfectly good position. The following example of a tactician being hoist with his own petard actually occurred in the 1974 East German Championship.

This position was reached by the apparently innocuous sequence 1 d4 d5 2 c4 c6 3 Nf3 Nf6 4 cd cd 5 Nc3 Nc6 6 Bf4 g6 7 e3 Bg7 8 h3 0-0 9 Be2 Bf5 10 0-0 Ne4 11 Na4 Qa5 12 Rc2 Rac8 13 a3.

1.8 Black to move

Now Black apparently thought: 'If my knight were not on c6, I could win material by ... Rxc1; Qxc1 Qxa4'.

The unfortunate man therefore hit on the idea of 13 ... Nxd4, meeting 14 Nxd4 by 14 ... Rxc1 15 Qxc1 Qxa4 (gaining a pawn) and answering 14 Rxc8 by 14 ... Nxe2+ 15 Qxe2 Rxc8 again with the win of a pawn. Can you see the flaw in his reasoning? (The answer is in the solutions at the back of the book.)


The final thing to be said at this stage about material advantage is that its benefits are often like those of an insurance policy — only to be felt in the long-term, or in indirect ways. An extra Q-side pawn is rarely of use in an attack on the opponent's king, until late in the ending when it can be turned into a queen. But its existence can draw enemy pieces back into passive defensive posts, or cause the opponent to expend valuable time in capturing it — time which can be turned into an attack or other advantage for you elsewhere on the board. On the other hand, there will be times when you have an attack that is not strong enough to force checkmate, but can be cashed in for an extra pawn or the exchange (rook against minor piece). Sometimes this correct timing of the transformation of a dynamic advantage into a material one (or vice versa) can make all the difference between a draw and a win.


Try to solve these puzzles before you go on to the next unit. The solutions are at the back of the book.

1.9 White to move: How can White win a piece here?

1.10 White to move: The same idea in a more complex setting. White soon wins a piece.



There are a number of basic tactical devices which win games again and again. To know them, and to recognize when you can use them in both standard and novel settings, is to be armed and ready for the chess battle. To be ignorant of them is to court disaster.

2.1 (a) (b)

In a fork a piece or pawn attacks two or more enemy pieces so that one of them is lost. In 2.1 (a) the white pawn forks rook and knight.

Knight forks are the most common kind, probably because the knight's agility tends to be underestimated, even by the strongest players at times. 2.1 (b) is a 'family fork' — a particularly nasty affair, where king, queen, and rook are all attacked at once (even two of them would be bad enough).

The following little game, culminating in a fork, has been played many times; even a grandmaster once lost this way. After 1 e4 c5 2 Nf3 d6 3 d4 cxd4 4 Nxd4 Nf6 5 Nc3 a6 6 f4 Qc7 7 Nf3 g6 8 Bd3 Bg7 9 0-0 Nbd7 10 Qe1 e5 11 Qh4 0-0 12 fxe5 dxe5 13 Bh6 b5 14 Ng5 Nh5?? (14 ... Bb7 is correct.) 15 Bxg7 Kxg7 (not 15 ... Nxg7? 16 Qxh7 mate)

2.2 Position after 15 ... Kxg7

Now White plays 16 Rxf7+! Rxf7 (16 ... Kg8 17 Rg7+! comes to the same) 17 Ne6+ forking king and queen, and so obtains a decisive material advantage.

2.3 Black to move

Forks by all the other pieces are also possible.

Diagram 2.4(a) shows a rook forking knight and pawn; (b) has a king forking two pawns; and (c) shows a bishop forking king and rook. Queen forks are also common, but as the queen is the most valuable piece, it can normally only be used to capture unprotected pieces. So we only speak of a queen fork when it actually leads to a gain of material.


This variety of chessic cutlery is also designed for winning enemy pieces. One piece (often the king) is attacked on a diagonal, rank, or file, and is obliged to move out of the way; another piece standing behind is captured instead.


2.6 Black to move

In 2.5(a) the queen skewers king and rook; in (b) the rook's skewer wins the white knight. In 2.6, White can win rook for bishop by the skewer 1 Bb2; e.g. 1 ... Qg4 (1 ... Qd2? 2 Qxd2 Rxd2 3 Bxh8) 2 Bxh8 etc.

2.7 Black to move

In this position White thought his b-pawn was safe, but he had not seen that Black was ready with a skewer. After 1 ... Nxb2 2 Rdb1 the knight looked to be lost — but 2 ... Nd3! 3 Bxd3 Red8 and the skewer of the bishops regained the piece, leaving Black a pawn ahead.

2.8 White to move

Skewers are more common in endgames, especially where pawns are about to be promoted. Diagram 2.8 is a study by Troitzky. White wants to win, but 1 b7 c2 2 b8=Q c1=Q is not good enough, while if here 2 Bxd4+ Kd3! draws. The point of this is seen in the main variation.

White should play 1 Bxd4+!, forcing 1 ... Kxd4, and after 2 b7 he will win. Whichever pawn Black queens will be lost rapidly to a skewer.

2.9 Position after 2 b7

Now 2 ... g2 3 b8=Q g1=Q fails to 4 Qa7+ and 5 Qxg1.

2 ... c2 is more complicated. White again wins after 3 b8=Q c1=Q 4 Qd8+ Ke4 (4 ... Kc4 5 Qc8+ is another skewer) 5 Qd5+ Kf4 6 Qf5+ Ke3 7 Qg5+ etc.


The pin is probably the most important of the three types of hardware we are examining in this unit. Every pin (see 2.10) involves three essential pieces: the pinning agent, the pinned piece and the 'target', for the sake of which the pinned piece cannot move. In 2.10(a) the pinning agent is the white bishop; the target is the king. The black knight is pinned; it cannot move without exposing the king to check. In 2.10(b) the bishop is pinned by the rook; it can only move at the cost of losing the queen.


Pins and skewers both involve three pieces on a line. The difference is that in a skewer the one in the middle has to move, whereas in a pin the one in the middle can't.

Pins win material immediately only when the pinned piece is worth more than the pinning agent — as when a bishop pins rook on to king. Many pins (like the common pin of a knight by a bishop) never lead directly to a win of material, but the threat to win something and the immobilization can often be equally valuable.

This is because a pinned piece is extremely vulnerable. It can become the focus for the piling up of attacks to breaking point.

2.11 White to move

White can attack the Nf6 for a third time by 1 Nd5 and so win at least a pawn. Even if it is Black's move, he cannot avoid material and positional losses, because 1 ... h6 (to break the pin after 2 Bh4 g5) can be met by 2 Bxf6 gxf6 3 Nd5 Kg7 4 Qg4+.

That this debacle was due almost entirely to the pin on the knight can be shown quite simply. In diagram 2.11 place the black queen on d7 instead of d8. Now the knight is free, and after 1 ... Ne8 White (though he retains a spatial advantage) has no obvious way to break through on the K-side.

This game of Bronstein's shows how deadly pins can be: 1 e4 e5 2 d4 exd4 3 Qxd4 Nc6 4 Qa4 Nf6 5 Nc3 d5 (imprudent, as it creates a self-pin on the Nc6) 6 Bg5 (pins the other knight, and threatens to win it by 7 e5 and 8 exf6) 6 ... dxe4 See diagram 2.12.

Now came the first fruits of White's pins: 7 Nxe4! After 7 ... Nxe4 8 Bxd8 Black would soon lose. So 7 Nxe4 was met by the counter-pin 7 ... Qe7, and then came 8 0-0-0! Qxe4.


Excerpted from BETTER CHESS FOR AVERAGE PLAYERS by Tim Harding. Copyright © 1996 Tim Harding. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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