Lesson #2: Extra Queens

With great power comes great electric bills.
—Internet

Let’s dive right in with some “You might be a chess coach if…” scenarios. These are compiled from first-hand events.

You might be a chess coach if…

1. You have tripped over a bag of extra Queens in your living room.
2. instead of rummaging for superglue, you apologize to the broken Queen right before tossing its lead into the back of your truck.
3. 80% of your pre-game inquiries involve one side “missing” their extra Queen. (After all, their opponent has one.)
4. only a glimpse, even from the other side of the room, is required to diagnose the probable cause of sidelined Kings.

Number three is easy to handle and number four (which by the way, refers to students’ determination that starting the game with two queens is more efficient than a King and one Queen) can be interpreted positively—indication of logical-thinking development. The first two cases are largely symbolic—intended to convince you that life with extra Queens is not all fun and games for a coach.

‘Extra’
Quick background: If you go to any credible chess sales website (my favorite is wholesalechess.com) and order a basic standard tournament chess set, it will include one extra Queen for each color. A game begins with each side having 8 pieces and 8 pawns on their respective home ranks. (Note: Formal chess semantics do not consider pawns to be “pieces”; they are simply “pawns.” Hence, the 8 pieces fill the back row while the 8 pawns line the second.) The two Royals of each army, King and Queen, are the most important—the Queen is the most powerful of all; in contrast, the King is one of the weakest, but his survival from checkmate is essential.

Poor pawns—are we belittling, judging them unworthy of real piecehood? They are the cadets of chess. As they move up the ranks (rows are literally called ranks in chess) they become ever more relevant. Upon reaching the opponent’s back rank they become extremely relevant, as they are awarded a promotion. Each promotion always has 4 options: Knight, Bishop, Rook or Queen, at the player’s discretion. Therefore, you can absolutely end up with more of a piece than you began with, i.e. 2 Queens, 3 Knights, 4 Queens with 5 Rooks, etc. We mentioned the Queen is most powerful, so wouldn’t she usually make the most sense? Especially with all that pawn had to go through. Analysis of nearly 48,000 instances of promotion from ChessBase indicated this was the choice of masters 97% of the time. So strengthens the case for manufacturers to go ‘extra.’

Yes, the events listed in the open are first world problem level trivial and yes, I am grateful for every extra piece I can get. My biggest concern is during the actual game. While inviting more pieces to the party should be a happy occasion, the new promotions can bring a true threat—too much power.

Growing Pains
It pains me to see it. A student is having another monster game in a monster tournament. He or she is in the zone. The position may not look much different than this:

My mind flies back to sitting across this student, personally testing their King and Queen vs. King technique, which was completed flawlessly in under a minute. I should be checking the wall chart, calculating the effect this victory will have on individual and team standings. Instead the famous movie line “I have seen enough to know I have seen too much,” echoes in my head and I stay put. (league of their own) Granted, that second Queen they want makes the win even easier (maybe faster is the more appropriate word), but coach over here is anything but at ease.

The moment another pawn is touched, it’s time to prepare my speech. Calmly keeping a distant eye on the game, it’s not unusual to get a look and a smile from my player right before the end. The outcome may be different than they hoped. Some lessons I cannot teach and if today is the day for them to be on the receiving end, there is little I can do. Except give my speech, which I should have ready by now.

With Black to move, White’s mate suddenly goes stale. Stalemate. The game is drawn.

Keeping such disasters in mind, let’s pivot to something more upbeat. To clarify: We want promotion!! Promotion is good…responsible promotion.

The record for number of Queens in a major tournament game is six(!)—three per side.

An International Master (IM) and a future Women’s Grandmaster (WGM) show there is plenty of fun to be had with some serious power. Keep in mind these are professionals, the game was balanced and ended in a draw, and occurrence of these scenarios are the exception rather than the rule.

Saavedra Solution
Speaking of exceptions, here is a famous one.

“They [Rook and Pawn endgames] are often of a very difficult nature, and sometimes while apparently very simple they are in reality extremely intricate.” —Jose Raul Capablanca, 3rd World Champion
Note: This is not a theory series. Basically, just know to always treat a Rook with both suspicion and respect in an endgame.


Nuances (a.k.a., opportunities for both sides to mess up) exist but eventually dissolve into a draw. So it sat comfortably with experts for 20 years.

Underpromotion
Only days after its local publication in 1895, the doors of the author’s chess club were opened with a purpose. Rev. Fernando Saavedra, as the story goes, carried out a mission to enlighten the crowd.

The first 5 moves remained unchanged. And move 6 couldn’t be any different—White had to promote the pawn or lose it via Rc4+ and Rxc7.

Final Thought
Extra Queens didn’t become the standard in new sets until the early 2000s. Could one game, played in 1993 by then-World Champion Garry Kasparov against former World Champion Anatoly Karpov, have been the catalyst?

Kasparov explains:

“At move 24, I promoted a pawn, saying “Queen” and looked to the arbiter, for him hand me the Queen, that should already been on the table. But before I received an answer, Karpov made his move, an illegal move. He alleged that, since I did not put another Queen on the board, he could choose any piece, and did choose the bishop…This comic fact was soon resolved. I got my new Queen and Karpov resigned three moves later, although he demanded and received some more minutes on his clock, to compensate the alleged confusion.”

Are the Queens we now see beside every board, at even the smallest tournaments, the result of a trickle-down effect from the highest level? Your thoughts?

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