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Chess As a Game of Space, not Pieces

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This article was written by Erik Czerwin for Wholesale Chess.

As a coach and author, I’ve struggled with teaching chess to students of all ages and backgrounds. Over the years, however, I’ve decided on a singular approach that I believe leads to a greater understanding and passion for the game in the long run.

Whenever someone says that checkmate is “when the King can be taken on the next turn and there’s nothing he can do about it,” I cringe a little bit inside; not too much because I was taught the same way. However, I’ve broken out of that understanding, and I’ve been teaching a very different concept from the very beginning. The idea has had a great effect both on my own game and on the game of my students.

Chess is about space, not pieces. The entire goal of the game is to capture all of the enemy King’s space, not to capture the piece itself. Think about it, a lone King on an empty board can have up to 9 squares of space. Try a Black King on e4; the King has the space d5, e5, f5, d4, f4, d3, e3, f3, and of course, the square he occupies: e4. Now place a White Rook on d1; this Rook has taken away d3, d4, and d5 from the enemy King. Place another White Rook on f1; this Rook has taken away f3, f4, and f5. Now place a White Knight on c4; this Knight has taken away e3 and e5 from the enemy King. If Black has no other pieces and it’s his turn to move, the game is stalemated because White has left Black holding a single square, e4. Now place a White Bishop on h1; this Bishop has taken away the last square that Black held. Black’s King has no space left; checkmate.

Why is this understanding so wonderful, you ask? So what? Well, I’ve found that students who grow from this point forward have more fun playing and are more creative in their games. They are free to do as they wish with their pieces as long as their goal is always aimed at taking away the enemy King’s space. They stop seeing the game as a series of moves (I move here, he moves there, then I move here, etc.), and they start seeing the game as a push-and-pull of two armies vying for position. One army pushes for a foothold in one area of the board in order to wrest control of another area of the board. These students no longer give up when they make a blunder on the board; instead, they forge ahead looking for ways to steal space. Sometimes, when they’ve blundered too badly, they start looking for ways to give up their own King’s space in an attempt to stalemate themselves.

Sure, this leads to some awful losses in the beginning as they experiment with new methods of grabbing space, but once ideas start clicking together in their minds, though… They become unstoppable. Every chess idea they learn becomes a new way to steal more space instead of a memorized principle or opening line. Every tactic they learn is another method of grabbing control of the board instead of a way to trade material. Effective sacrifices become obvious because they are in pursuit of the enemy King’s space. The reasons why principles are principles become obvious because the aim is always the same.

Of course, there are those who will disagree with me. However, seeing space as the primary objective of the game has helped me to enjoy the game in a way I never could before. It’s no longer about capturing the enemy King, it’s about strangling him in a net of despair.

Erik Czerwin, author of Chess Progress: From Beginner to Winner, is a self-taught chess player and chess coach. He began coaching scholastic chess in 2005, won the Illinois Chess Coaches Association 2012 Coach of the Year award, and continues to play USCF chess while coaching. In his spare time, he's also a full-time high school teacher, ICCA Secretary, USCF club-level TD, part-time tutor, father of two, and husband to a very understanding wife.

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