The Chess Project: Installment #7: The Back Rank Mate

Chess is all about seeing the threats and possibilities that each new position affords.  That, it turns out, is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do.  Positions change constantly, and once you’re through the ‘opening’ stage of the game odds are you’ll find yourself in a position you’ve never seen before.  Seeing what to do–and what might be done to you–is only possible at all, I guess, because there are patterns: piece configurations that arise often and which signal certain threats and possibilities.  The better players recognize these patterns and so immediately know what to look for in terms of attack and defense.  This simple insight (not my own) suggests a plan of study: identify the most important patterns in chess and learn them.  Make them second nature, so that whenever the patterns arise you immediately look for the associated tactical possibilities.

I think this is really sound pedagogical advice when it comes to chess.  I say this partly because I know my chess has improved in the past 6 months, and when I try to put my finger on a concrete difference between my play then and now, I find that I keep coming back to my increased sensitivity to ‘patterns’ in my games.

For example, a very well-known ‘pattern’ is illustrated in the following diagram:

As soon as I look at a position like this–simplified considerably because I’m lazy–I think: Back rank checkmate!!!!  That is, I notice immediately that Black’s King has no escape square, which means that if I can give check without capture or effective interposition, the game is over.  You do this once or twice–or even better have it done to you–and next thing you know the following position is burned in your memory:

The king has castled, is safely tucked away behind his pawns, but he has no escape route. I played a game tonight in which this ‘pattern’ plays a prominent role.  For the better part of the game I was outplayed by my opponent, but then I saw his King’s vulnerability to the back rank mate.  Evidently he did not.  The game concludes with an exchange that I’m particularly proud of (click on 1.e4 and the board will pop up):

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