Every chess position is coded by four elementary contacts representing functional relationships between pieces. These are four letters of the chess alphabet: attack, protection, restriction and interposition.

But seeing individual letters during the initial analysis of the position doesn’t mean an understanding of the whole. In very much the same way seeing and recognizing 26 individual letters of the English alphabet in a sentence doesn’t help decode its meaning.

Yet, ability to read is required underlying processing skill for you to understand the context of a written sentence or a chess position.

Her Majesty’s arrival on D8. Chess cards, published by R. Schmidt Schiks library Homburg v. d. Höhe,1909

A sentence normally has S-V-O structure, Subject, Verb, Object. Verb indicates an action or a state. Nouns show who performs (subject) and receives the action (object). In order to understand the meaning of the sentence one must consciously or unconsciously identify its parts and establish their relationships.

The same goes in chess. Like nouns in a sentence, chess pieces carry the action (attack, protect, restrict, block) and can also be objects of action. Any disciplined approach to thinking more effectively and creatively must include reading of these elements.

Let’s take a look at an example:

Smyslov-Taimanov 19 USSR ch, Moscow, 1951, after 29…Rxd6

When facing any chess position, the first order of business is to break things down and examine the contacts (A, P, R, B) for all pieces on the board. The contacts examination reads the individual piece relationships as the first stage of the thinking pattern in chess. It’s sort of check list that helps the beginner become aware of what’s going on on the board and avoid oversights. Later things become routine, but  they need to work methodically on what will become automatic one day.

All this doesn’t restrict you creativity and originality. On the contrary, it’s the basis for it.

The contacts examination takes a close look at connections each piece on the board has established:

  • whether a piece is attacking, or is itself under attack,
  • is it protected or unprotected; maybe its current duty is to protect a friendly piece – is it perhaps overloaded  if protecting more than one?
  • how restricted it is in its movements, due to physical interference of other pieces, or hostile enemy fire,
  • is it pinned against a friendly piece behind it, and therefore restricted,
  • or it is perhaps lined up with another friendly or enemy piece (this typically may trigger some tactics),
  • how the status of this piece relates to other interconnected pieces,
  • what would be the status of this piece if it moves to a new square and how that would change the status of other pieces
Stalemate is a type of draw

Stalemate on h1. Black king doesn’t look happy about it

So, what we see in the Smyslov – Taimanov position? Two pairs of the minor pieces has just been traded as black wanted a position with opposite-color bishops to reduce pressure due to Raf1 and Bh5 threat. However, he missed a tactical subtlety.

When we evaluate a chess position the first thing we should look at is the position of Kings. As they are the number one target we check not only the king’s current post out, but also squares around it. In this position the kings don’t seem to be under immediate threat for the moment. We can spot that the white king shares the same diagonal with its rook. Luckily, the e3-pawn does a good defensive job closing the diagonal and controlling the d4-square from which the black bishop may potentially strike. On the other hand, the f7-square in the black king’s vicinity may be put under more pressure along the open f-file (Raf1 and Bh5). However, the defensive resources seem to be adequate to repel this threat.

Next, we may take a look at the queens. We see them forming a pin set-up. The black one is unprotected while the white counterpart is protecting b2-pawn being pinned by the g7-bishop against the white a1-rook  – many of these relationships may be quite irrelevant for assessing the situation.

We also see that the black queen is lined up on the long diagonal with her a8-rook. We may continue on examining the status of other pieces, like the black d6-rook is unprotected etc., but for an experienced eye the mere fact that black queen and rook are sharing the same diagonal (a common precondition for a pin or skewer)  may be a signal to stop further analyzing the position and start creative synthetic thinking process by looking for possible tactics.

What white piece may possibly be used to exploit this situation? The e2-bishop is a natural candidate to carry out the role by launching attack from f3-square. Good thing is it would be protected there by f2-rook.  Unfortunately, the long diagonal is closed. But wait, how about line opening, e4-e5? The d6-rook is already within the reach and under threat of attack by the e-pawn. Yes, the diagonal can be opened forcefully with a tempo — e4-e5! The idea was born! Now the white player wants to make sure this is going to work and checks possible replies on the e5 thrust, like Black closing the big diagonal with the d6-rook etc.  If it doesn’t work for some reason after position evaluation, the player may resume the contacts examination…

30.  e4-e5! Bg7xe5

31. d3-d4 In place of a simple 31.Bf3, Smyslov wanted to get rid of  his weak d3-pawn and he in his turn became victim of tactics…

31. …Rd6xd4!

32. e3xd4 Be5xd4

and White eventually won at move 58 (seeing players of this caliber miss things may bring some comfort to the rest of us while discussing contacts examination and chess vision issues)

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Is there a way to find out which interactions in the current position are the most relevant? Sometimes we simply don’t have time to delve into a full examination. What do we look for then to pinpoint the most significant relationships? Well, that is something that comes with experience. It’s like telegraphic reading. We need to identify the most important words of the message that convey the meaning.

Without these shortcuts, selecting a move in chess from so many possibilities would seem an impossible task. Another approach to economize with time is to look at what changes in the position have been created by the last opponent’s move and narrow down the examination to affected pieces only. And you may just quickly refresh the status of the remaining pieces based on previous examinations. Again, all these processes go pretty much automatic.

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The contacts examination helps learn how to read the chess code quickly and efficiently. It is a solid foundation that will enable the student to continue developing still greater chess fluency in the future and an essential part of developing a strong chess vision if taught appropriately and brought to an automatic level.

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