“The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix often has chess games that remind us of the importance of defending in chess.
What stands out in the game between Beth Harmon and Beltik is how exposed the two kings are.
Conducting an attack with your king this vulnerable isn’t pleasant.
Learning how to attack is necessary for chess. So is learning to defend.
If you know how to keep your king safe, you have much better winning chances. At the very least, you will reduce the number of games you lose.
Defending in Chess is a Mind Game
Chess will remind you there is always an ebb and flow between attacking and defending.
You might beat beginners by attacking from start to finish. When your opponents become better players, you will find yourself under pressure and forced to defend.
For chess players who are fortunate to start with a string of easy victories, this can come as a shock.
Don’t be like Beth or Beltik in “The Queen’s Gambit” (Netflix) and neglect your king’s safety. Take time to defend against your opponent’s threats.
There are two crucial elements to defending well
- staying calm
- keeping your guard up until the end of the game.
Since even the chess world champion makes mistakes, you can expect to make some in your games. After you blunder, it’s crucial to stay calm.
By remaining calm, you don’t let your opponent know you have blundered, and you minimize the chance of making a second mistake.
In chess, it’s well-known that one mistake is often followed by another.
Nobody enjoys playing a lost position, so if your opponent hasn’t yet resigned, he at least has hopes of achieving a draw.
No matter how much material you are ahead in the game, it counts for nothing if your opponent forces a stalemate or gets a perpetual check.
Never assume you’ve won the game until your opponent resigns. Keep your levels of concentration the same from the first until the last move.
Prophylaxis Makes Defending in Chess Much Easier
Avoiding positions where you need to defend against a vicious attack helps you stay calm.
If you maintain relaxed alertness while stopping your opponent’s plans, you will be able to take advantage of his mistakes. The more frustrated he gets, the more likely he is to make a mistake.
There are two questions you must continuously ask during the game. After your opponent makes a move, ask yourself, “What does my opponent want? What is his threat?”
Before you advance your plans, always take time to stop your opponent’s plans. Always make sure you keep your king well-protected before you think about exposing his king.
One of the best ways to keep your king safe is to stop his plans early.
Instead of waiting until his pieces are in a position to attack, make it difficult or impossible for them to get into an attacking position.
Don’t wait until your king is completely exposed, as so often happens in “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix, before taking preventative measures.
By striking out in another area of the board, you keep his pieces from joining the attack on your king. The fewer attackers he has, the easier your defensive task will be.
The center is the most valuable part of the board. That’s why it’s good to strike in the center when your opponent attacks on the flank.
Make it a habit to meet a flank attack with a counter-strike in the center. If the center is closed, then respond to a flank attack with one on the other flank.
The better you get at using prophylaxis, the easier your defensive tasks will become.
And you will have the satisfaction of playing longer games than most of the chess players in “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix.
Defending the King
Staying calm is more challenging when your king is under attack. If it’s a pawn you are defending, you know it’s not as critical.
Nobody likes to lose any material, but losing a pawn is usually not the end of the game. Losing your king always loses the game.
There are five essential elements in successfully defending your king:
- Stay calm – the importance of staying calm can’t be stressed enough.
- Detect and rank the threats – first, answer the question “What does my opponent want?” if there are multiple threats, decide which is the biggest threat.
- Counter-attack – always look for the opportunity to meet a threat with a larger threat by attacking a more valuable piece or forcing a draw with perpetual check.
- Candidate moves – if you are unable to counter-attack, then consider all possible candidate moves no matter how ugly they seem.
- Calculate each candidate move – you might not be able to calculate the full variation but if the position doesn’t feel right, look at other possible moves.
Applying the Five Elements of Chess Defense
After taking some deep breaths to calm down you must assess the position to see what threats you are under and which are the most dangerous.
The most difficult positions to defend are the ones where your opponent creates multiple threats with one move. He might play Qd4 threatening mate on h7 and attacking your undefended rook on a8.
There can be no doubt the threat of mate on h7 ranks higher than the loss of a rook. Defending against checkmate takes priority over moving your rook to safety.
An immediate checkmate threat usually means you won’t have time to counter-attack. Unless you can checkmate him first, you will need to defend against it.
This is the time to consider every candidate move no matter how much you might dislike playing it.
Placing a knight on the edge of the board isn’t pleasant, but if it protects your king then it’s the right move.
Advancing your g-pawn could be the only way to create an escape square for your king, even if it leaves your king exposed.
No matter how bad your position looks if you calculate that it’s safe then play the move. Being in a bad position will always limit your options.
Use calculation to keep your king safe and to continue fighting.
Calculation is Crucial to Defending in Chess
Intuition plays a larger role in attacking than in defense. When you find yourself hard-pressed, it’s time to rely on cold calculation.
This is the time when you must be certain you aren’t overlooking something. Improving your calculation skills will make you a much better defender.
Begin your calculation by evaluating the position. Ask yourself, “What does my move need to achieve?”
When considering what strategy to adopt, take into account the following factors
- material imbalance,
- pawn structure,
- king safety or king activity in the endgame,
- piece activity,
- and the reason for your opponent’s last move.
After you have evaluated the position, it’s time to consider your candidate moves. In general, you want 3 candidate moves.
If none of these three are likely to achieve what you desire, then consider more. Of course, there’s no need to consider all 3 candidate moves if your first candidate wins the game.
Once you have decided on your candidate moves, consider the most forcing moves first. Start with checks, then captures and threats.
When you are struggling to decide on a move, and your opponent has no immediate threats, see if you can improve the placement of your most poorly placed piece.
Sometimes you will have two candidate moves that both seem to achieve your goal. Then it’s best to go with the one that offers greater protection for your king or other major pieces.
For example, playing king to h8 offers more protection than h7, if your opponent has a light-squared bishop or an active queen, that could later attack your king from e4 or f5.
Here is the original game, used in this episode of “The Queen’s Gambit” (Netflix), played back in 1955 between Nezhmetdinov and Kasparian.
Final Thoughts on Exposed Kings in “The Queen’s Gambit” (Netflix)
A master at defending in chess was Tigran Petrosian, the ninth world chess champion. Petrosian was nicknamed “Iron Tigran” because he prioritized safety above all else.
Yes, you can win games with your king exposed just as Beth did against Beltik. However, you are likely to lose more points than you gain if you make exposing your king a habit.
Attacking and tactics are crucial to winning a chess game but so is keeping your king safe.
Make prophylaxis your first line of defense. Then all your other defensive tasks will be much easier.
When it comes to chess, as in life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
The games we see in “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix often teach us more about what not to do than what we ought to do.
How the message is delivered isn’t nearly as important as getting the message. Keep your king covered as much as you can and your games will be more enjoyable.
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