Two out, with runners on first and second. Full count. You’re the runner on second base. The pitcher starts his delivery… what do you do?
If you’re a baseball fan, you know that a full count with two outs is a special situation — the runners should immediately start running as soon as the pitch is thrown. That’s because if the batter strikes out or flies out, the inning is over anyway. If the pitch is a ball, it’s a walk anyway. If it’s a foul ball out of play, the runners must retreat back to their bases anyway. Finally if the batter hits a grounder or line drive, then having a head start can make all the difference between reaching home safely and scoring or not. Young players early on learn the importance of good base running skills, and these skills are just as important in the majors as in Little League.
I call this “situational awareness.” Given that I’m in this situation, what is the correct strategy? This happens in chess a lot more often than most players realize.
Some situations are easy and we learn to respond appropriately. For example don’t get checkmated on the back rank; make luft for your king.
White to move simply plays 1. h3 to give his king an escape square, and White can confidently look forward to winning the endgame a pawn ahead.
Masters constantly have this situational awareness. The rest of us mortals who aspire to chess mastery should try to learn as many of these situations as possible so that we will know ahead of time exactly what script we should follow for maximum results. That’s why study is important to becoming a strong chess player, just like base-running practice is a key to becoming a better baseball player.
Pawn endgames are rich in situational themes. Consider the following situation:
Both kings are stuck guarding the enemy pawns. White can’t play 1. Kxf4?? because of 1. … g2 and the g-pawn queens. Same thing for Black, the b-pawn is taboo for the same reason. Without help, connected passed pawns mutually protect each other in a pawn endgame. All the players can do is shuffle their kings around f3 and b6 and call it a draw.
File that away in your brain’s situational awareness database!
But one little change and the result is different. If Black’s king can approach close enough to help his pawns, he can queen first and win. Move the black king and the blockaded white pawns 2 ranks closer to white’s side of the board:
Situational awareness of this pattern helped me save a half point at the 2012 World Open.
One final note — when I reached the position at move 66, I had under ten minutes remaining on my clock, but I was able to play all my remaining moves quickly and with complete confidence because I knew this pattern.
Study endgame patterns to improve your situational awareness!
I recently moved to Traverse City from North Carolina, where I had been active as a chessplayer and a USCF tournament director. A longtime tournament veteran, I've been chasing the Expert title which I finally achieved in mid-2014.