by Steve Lopez

Life is full of interesting convergences and coincidences.

The other night I was sitting in a local pub, perusing my copy of Chess Master vs. Chess Amateur by Euwe and Meiden (Dover, ISBN 0-486-27947-2). In case you're not familiar with it, it's a pretty good book. The primary theme is to instruct you on how to spot your opponent's mistakes and take advantage of them. The book is a series of twenty-five games between unnamed "masters" and anonymous "amateurs", with nearly every move annotated. There's also a really good instructional introduction with some nice nuggets of chess wisdom.

I was playing through one of the games when a friend of mine approached my table and asked if she might play a game. As she is uncommonly attractive and was wearing an unusually tight dress, (along with the fact that I'm no fool), I immediately agreed to a game.

She needed a quick review of how the pieces move and capture, after which the game commenced. I decided that this would be a good chance to study how an adult beginner looks at and learns the game.

She took the White pieces and we ended up in a transposed/modified Budapest Defense (technically it was a Trompowsky, but I was playing it like a Budapest). After 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nc3 e5 3.dxe5, I made the usual Knight move to g4. She paused and studied the board for a few minutes. I decided to help her out a bit and told her that her e-pawn was in jeopardy. "Oh!" she exclaimed and instantly played Nf3 to cover the pawn. I played ...Nc6, which was followed by another few minutes' contemplation. "I'm attacking the pawn again," I prodded. Instantly she snapped off Bf4. The young lady was playing instantaneous book moves once she understood the threats!

I slid the Bishop over to c5 to double up on the f2-pawn. Again there was a pause. So I gave another gentle prod, and she again responded with a book move: e3.

I was immediately struck by an important point about beginning players: they have trouble spotting threats, but once they realize where a threat exists, they have no trouble reacting to it. And I also made a connection with the Euwe book I'd been reading. The first stage in becoming proficient at chess involves spotting your opponent's threats and reacting to them. The second stage consists of spotting your opponent's weaknesses and making your own threats against them. The third stage (one which many of us are still working on) is creating weaknesses in your opponent's position.

This may not sound like a big deal to you, but it was a revelation to me. I realized why a lot of players get stuck at the first stage -- they don't see the threats.

All of this goes hand-in-glove with last week's ETN dealing with the "spy" function in Fritz5.32. The spy feature is an electronic version of what I was doing the other night: gently prodding my opponent/student to recognize and react to the threats.

This started me thinking about the "beginner" features in Fritz. There are a lot of handy tools available in the program to help novice players progress more rapidly from Stage One (spotting and reacting to threats) to Stage Two (creating threats of one's own).

First, of course, is the spy feature we talked about last week. This will automatically show you the threat each time Fritz makes a move. Another feature is "Threat". Once you no longer need "spy" on all the time (because you're getting pretty good at spotting the threats), you might still want occasional help in determining why Fritz made a particular move. You just use "Threat" (in the Coach menu) or hit [SHIFT-T] and Fritz will show you what it's threatening to do. A red arrow will appear on the board to show where the threat lies.

Let's assume now that you've had Fritz show you the threat but you're stuck as to what to do next. There are a couple of different ways to make Fritz clue you in on what action you should take. The first (and simplest) is "Suggestion" (again in the Coach menu or hit [?]). Fritz will do a quick search on the position and show you what move to make. A green arrow will appear on the screen, pointing from the piece you should move to the square it should wind up on.

A second, more elaborate way to do this is to use "Hint" from the Coach menu (or hit [F2]). This will give you a great deal of information about the position:

We see here that I have a pawn in danger and that I need to cover it somehow. (By the way, I really like the picture of the drill instructor screaming in my face. If we learned chess this way, we'd all be better players, though we might also wind up with a nervous condition worse than Akiba Rubinstein's). If more information is required, there are a number of buttons to click to get it.

"Attackers" highlights the piece or pieces that are creating the threat. "Attacked" highlights every one of your pieces that is in danger of being captured. (Note, though, that this doesn't take into account recaptures, so a pawn that's menaced by an enemy Knight but is adequately guarded by a Rook will also be highlighted). "Undefended" shows every piece on the board that's not defended by another piece or pawn. I've noticed that "Attackers" is the most useful of these three buttons; the other two will sometimes show information that's not relevant to the immediate problem.

"Fritz' plan" will show you the same information as what you'd get by using "Threat": a red arrow will show Fritz' next move, but with the bonus of a text description of where the threat lies ("Bc5xf2 is unpleasant, you must do something about it, Steve").

Finally, the "Suggestion" button shows you how to respond to the threat. It shows a green arrow on the board to display the move and gives a bit of text to describe the move.

By the way, all of these Coach functions are tweakable. Go to the Setup menu and select General config. In the Coach box, you see a place to set the Coach's calculation time. The highre you set this value (in seconds) the better the analysis and suggestions will tend to be. Be aware that this obviously affects the amount of time it takes to get a response from the Coach, so don't set it too high if you don't feel like waiting around for some help.

Another neat thing to try is the "Explain all moves" feature. Click on this (or hit [CTRL-SHIFT-Z]) and Fritz will display all the possible moves in the position and give a brief text description of what happens if that move is played. The moves will be listed in order of best to worst and, as the program looks deeper into the position, you'll see the order change as Fritz reevaluates the consequences of each move. An interesting way to use this is to first check the threat (using the "Threat" feature), decide on what move you'd make, and then use "Explain all moves" to see where your move ranks in the list (to see if you're making the best moves in the position).

All of these features combine to act like a human player who is helping you out while you play, pointing out mistakes and helping you to improve your game (and don't foget the "Coach is watching" feature, which automatically alerts you when you make a mistake).

So what happened in my game at the pub? I set the lady a trap that allowed me to force a mate. But chivalry is not dead, so I explained the trap and let her take the move back. Silly me. I ended up with an isolated d-pawn. She instinctively recognized the weakness (without prompting -- egad!) and piled pieces up on it. I wound up in a zugzwang position. I had one free piece that could accomplish nothing useful, so I gave up and decided to order some barbecue -- only to be informed that the kitchen was closed. Very embittering all the way around.

On the one hand, it was really interesting to see this charming lady's instinctive flair for the game (I do think she has a natural talent for chess). On the other hand, it wasn't a ton of fun to become her first chess victim. Oh, well...at least I learned something new about how novice players approach the game (not to mention that I got to spend an extended period of time admiring her tight dress). Not a bad way to spend an evening.

Until next week, have fun!

You can e-mail me with your comments, suggestions, and analysis for Electronic T-Notes. If you love gambits, stop by the Chess Kamikaze Home Page and the Yahoo Chess Kamikazes Club.