It is common for my students to want to sneak in a game of chess before school. This morning I’m playing a beginner. The student has pushed four pawns forward. I instruct them to, “Develop your pieces. Those are the ones that are not pawns.” Once again, a pawn is advanced. I inquire, “Why are you only moving your pawns?” as I capture one with a Knight.
“If I get them (pawns) to the other side, I can turn it into a queen.” Now, I understand. This student has learned the exciting idea of promotion. When a pawn, the lowliest of chess pieces, is able to traverse the entire length of the board and achieve the final rank (the row farthest from its starting point), it can be exchanged for Rook, Knight, Bishop, or Queen. The idea of having more than one Queen can make a novice chess player possessed with potential.
When I am introducing chess to students for the first time, I have them take what I have taught them and try out the concepts in an online app called “ChessKid.” This app is totally awesome! While a paid-for membership will open up a world of resources, students can access some basics for free. The main thing I have students use is the “Play vs Bot.” Students can play the first 3 robots for free. The beauty of using this app is that it won’t let students make illegal moves. Also, there is a feature that allows students to see potential moves when they press on a piece. Circles will appear on the squares that a piece can move to.
Admittedly, the first 3 (free) robots are pretty easy. They will give up their queens early in the game. Students will need to know what they are doing to beat the third, but it is very doable. I end up challenging the students to win their games with as few moves as possible to up the challenge. This teaches them “tempo.”
Something students discover while playing the robots on the Chesskid app, even before I teach it to them, is that their pawns can transform! The first couple of robots hand over piece after piece, so that beginner players can easily push pawns past pieces to acquire multiple Queens. Some of my students have bragged about having 5 queens parading around the board. I point out that they ought to have won the game before accumulating all of those Queens. Really, though, it is fun to explore this feeling of power. (That is an idea to be explored in a future blog.)
Back to the game I’m playing that began this blog. I point out that my Knight just captured one of their pawns, and more captures are sure to follow. “What makes you think I’m going to let your pawns reach the last rank?” I probe.
The student ponders this a second before advancing one more pawn. I’m incredulous. Should I sweep the board, capturing every pawn? They are sitting ducks! Should I allow the student to push a pawn all the way to promotion, so that they feel vindicated? They weren’t theoretically wrong.
“I don’t have to study in school; When I grow up, I’m going to be a professional baseball player.” Have you ever had a student say something like this?
“Even successful, rich baseball players have to know how to read, write, and do math,” the teacher retorts.
“I don’t need to save money. I’m making it hand over fist right now.”
“What do I have to worry about? I’m the healthiest person I know!” Or, “I’m perfectly happy without exercising. What do I have to be fit for?”
Do not count on potential. Plan for a challenging future. Play life like there are threats around every corner, but enjoy the game.
“You already have a Queen, right there,” I suggest to the opponent sitting across from me. Even as I say it, I know the feelings the student is experiencing. They don’t want to jeopardize their only Queen. If they had a back up, then they could feel comfortable with the possibility of losing one. I know this feeling. Once a piece is in use and moving around the board, it becomes vulnerable.
“The smart thing to do is to protect your potential pawn promotions by holding back a little.” From player to coach, I transition roles throughout my play with this pupil. I instruct my student to “Position your pawns so that they are backing up a more valuable piece. In this way, if your opponent captures your piece, you can retaliate by capturing the offending piece with your pawn.” I show the student how pawns can even back up one another by staggering mine in a large V. “Bishops can slip through on the diagonal, but Knights are waiting to snatch them up!”
There have been times I’ve thrown away my pawns in order to clear a file for my Rook. Recently, I’ve preferred to position a Rook behind an advancing pawn. Go ahead and take it, Queeny! I’m even more keen on this strategy when I’ve saved other potential pawn promotions for the future. Sometimes, I’ll slide my Rook up the side and start cleaning out my opponent’s pawns from behind. Then mine can easily advance, straight toward the last rank.
Have you ever known someone who walks through life like a bull in a china shop? Every tiny bad look or perceived insult is grounds for war. They blow up over the smallest thing. A pawn is not a Queen until it actually makes it to the last rank. Don’t assume more power than you have. Some people go through life proudly proclaiming their importance before actually earning it.
As it turns out, the bell rings before my game ends this morning. No one wins. All of my blabbing about protecting promotional material has slowed down our game. An observer looking at the board might conjure a picture of the Red Coats marching in a straight line, being picked off by Revolutionary Rebels hiding behind trees during the war for Independence. I have pieces attacking the center of the board, and my opponent has a wall of pawns waiting for the picking. Saved by the bell, or unused potential, this game will end with this blog. I hope someone finds the metaphors useful. Pawns can be powerful; They can be a pain for an opponent; But they have loads of potential. [Insert closing sentence, here.] <–I plan to have the Polite Pirates help me come up with a classy closing to wrap this up.