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The Chess Project: 12 Months With the Most Beautiful Game

The goal: To learn how to play a decent game of chess.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

I’ve star­ted to learn chess.

After hav­ing watched The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix in 2020, chess caught my interest. Since I had just fin­ished my Sudoku Project, I was open to a new challenge.

The Queen's Gambit - The Chess Project - Doctor Spin
The phe­nomen­on that brought chess into the main­stream spotlight.

The pop­u­lar tv show coin­cided with the pro­lif­er­a­tion of stream­ing genres bey­ond gam­ing. Turns out that stream­ing and chess are a match made in heaven.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one who dis­covered chess after The Queen’s Gambit — just as I wasn’t the only one who dis­covered Sudoku after find­ing the YouTube chan­nel Cracking the Cryptic.

Read also: The Sudoku Project: 18 Months of Amazement

Still, I decided to teach myself more about chess.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

The Three Parts of Chess

There are three parts to a game of chess. The open­ing, the middle game, and the end game. I didn’t know this. The say­ing goes that you should play the open­ing like a book, the middle game like a magi­cian, and the end game like a machine. I didn’t know any of that, either.

Still, I found these three parts to be good start­ing points. 1I had the same approach when learn­ing pho­to­graphy as I star­ted my jour­ney by focus­ing (pun inten­ded!) on aper­ture, shut­ter speed, and ISO.

The Opening Like a Book

Computers have cal­cu­lated all pos­sible chess open­ings. So, you can play a par­tic­u­lar open­ing to give your­self a favour­able pos­i­tion on the board. If white plays a spe­cif­ic open­ing per­fectly, you must counter it per­fectly to min­im­ise white’s advantage.

You could play an open­ing without know­ing any open­ings by find­ing good moves. However, your oppon­ent will likely gain a sub­stan­tial advant­age from know­ing their open­ing the­ory by heart. There are too many vari­ations for a human brain to cal­cu­late over the board.

So, if you want to play a decent chess game, you must study open­ings. Simple as that.

The Middle Game Like a Magician

Both sides will soon run out of pre­pared moves with all pos­sible vari­ations. It typ­ic­ally hap­pens when most pieces are developed. So, when you enter the middle game, you’re left with only your stra­tegic bril­liance, your cre­at­ive ideas, and your abil­ity to do cal­cu­la­tions. And so is your opponent.

And in the middle game, lots of pieces are still left on the board. And lots of pieces on the board mean — complexity.

Is there a way to invoke magic? Well, hav­ing played thou­sands and thou­sands of chess games will help. Being a bon­afide geni­us doesn’t hurt, either. If you haven’t had time to play that many games and weren’t blessed with men­tal super­powers at birth, a sol­id under­stand­ing of chess prin­ciples will go a long way.

The End Game Like a Machine

Most end games have already been solved. So, if you’ve man­aged to sur­vive until most pieces are off the board and you’ve got the advant­age in terms of mater­i­al or pos­i­tion, the game is yours to lose. It’s like an equa­tion wait­ing to be solved. You need to enter the cor­rect answer — and the win is yours.

Mess up, and you’re hand­ing a draw or a loss over to your oppon­ent on a sil­ver platter.

You either con­vert a win­ning pos­i­tion into a win or defend ideally to increase the odds of hav­ing your oppon­ent make a mis­take. Alas, it would help if you prac­tised how to solve end games, prefer­ably under time pressure.

Chess and Time

Here’s anoth­er crit­ic­al aspect of the game I had nev­er con­sidered before watch­ing The Queens Gambit:

Chess is a timed game.

I had seen chess clocks in movies before, of course. But it had nev­er occurred to me that time was a huge factor to con­sider in play­ing the game.

In clas­sic­al chess, play­ers typ­ic­ally get lots of time to think. Players do run out of time. For some reas­on, I thought all chess matches ended with a check­mate or a draw.

Instead, I dis­covered the fant­ast­ic world of bul­let, rap­id, and blitz games. 

And I learned that the clock decides lots of games. You could have a win­ning pos­i­tion, but that doesn’t mat­ter if your clock runs out. 

So, how did I go about improv­ing my game?

Chess Openings

I’m pas­sion­ate about learn­ing new things, but my motiv­a­tion has lim­its. To put it mildly, study­ing chess open­ings en masse isn’t my idea of a good time.

So, I learned about open­ings involving mov­ing the pawn in front of my white king first. I’ve only just scratched the sur­face here. But I prefer to know more about one spe­cif­ic type of open­ing than too little about too many openings.

As for open­ings with black? I’ve picked up a few fam­ous lines, but only a small num­ber of turns deep. Work in progress.

Still, a little know­ledge about open­ings goes a long way, espe­cially if you’re play­ing against people without the slight­est idea about openings.

General Chess Knowledge

But the most sig­ni­fic­ant improve­ment in my chess game was learn­ing a few basic chess prin­ciples. Such prin­ciples won’t apply to every scen­ario, but they’re still good to know.

Here’s a quick run­down of some basic chess prin­ciples that have served me well dur­ing my first twelve months of play:

  • Make sure your king is safe.
  • Don’t get suck­er-punched by unpleas­ant pins and forks.
  • Minimise your blun­ders by mak­ing it a habit to scan the board prop­erly before every move.
  • If you’re up on mater­i­al, trade pieces to simplify.
  • You might also want to trade pieces if it gives you a clear pos­i­tion­al advantage.
  • Early on, fight a little extra to gain con­trol of those four centre squares.
  • Getting a check­mate by your oppon­ent in three moves is noth­ing to fear — not if you can check­mate your oppon­ent in two.
  • Bishops are more potent in pos­i­tions with long open lines, and horses are more valu­able in closed-off positions.
  • One of your bish­ops is typ­ic­ally much bet­ter than the oth­er. And the same can be said about your opponent’s bish­ops. It all depends on the rest of your pieces; do they form a more robust dark or light square com­plex? You might be able to make an intel­li­gent trade here!
  • Having more pieces left on the board is often less favour­able than hav­ing your pieces be more active.
  • Never under­es­tim­ate the import­ance of your pawn structure.
  • There are oth­er ways to defend a piece under attack than mov­ing the piece out of harm’s way.
  • Giving your rook an open file is often a good idea if there’s no obvi­ous bet­ter move.
  • Chess experts find cer­tain moves to be ugly. It’s not a bad idea to think twice before mak­ing such moves.
  • Some moves are con­sidered slow because some moves are pre­par­ing for pos­sible ideas without pos­ing any imme­di­ate threats. Slow play can be wise, but you could get in trouble if your oppon­ent plays more aggressively.

Watching Chess Streamers

I should also men­tion that I’ve learned most of what I know from watch­ing chess stream­ers play and ana­lyse games. It’s not just about the know­ledge they share, but to hear them think out loud through­out games has helped me devel­op an inner chess voice that speaks to me dur­ing play.

Weird, I know. 2My inner chess voice sounds like Levy “GothamChess” Rozman!
But it helps me find bet­ter moves and blun­der less.

And it’s great entertainment!

Read also: “For Content!”

How My Chess Game Is Doing

I don’t know what my chess rat­ing is yet. I can com­fort­ably beat the 1300 – 1500 chess bots on Chess​.com. Twelve months ago, I lost three times against a bot ranked at 700. That’s pro­gress, indeed.

My idea for the next 12 months is to begin play­ing online against people I don’t know — and get a rat­ing. At this point, I should men­tion that I’m unsure how the chess rank­ing sys­tem works.

Still, my over­all goal for this pro­ject is to be able to play a decent game of chess. If I could get a rat­ing of 1000+ in the next twelve months, I’d con­sider this whole effort a success.

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

More Creative Projects

1 I had the same approach when learn­ing pho­to­graphy as I star­ted my jour­ney by focus­ing (pun inten­ded!) on aper­ture, shut­ter speed, and ISO.
2 My inner chess voice sounds like Levy “GothamChess” Rozman!
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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