How to Beat Your Friends at Tall Chess

May 30, 2013
Posted by mark
The good folks at Friends of the Web just released a beautiful chess app for iPhone: Tall Chess. The interaction in the app is really subtle and it’s a well-crafted digital product. Clever details like swiping through time to view previous moves make Tall Chess a joy to use. Get it now. For the past few months, I have been lucky enough to test the app by playing against several very talented designers. Unlike many other chess apps, Tall Chess does not have a single-player mode. At first I was surprised by this decision, but I came to appreciate that the game is a lot more fun when you play against another person. Tall Chess inspired me to pick up chess again by reminding me that the most rewarding part of chess is playing with other people who have totally distinct approaches and styles. That, and destroying your opponent.

Strategies from an Unseasoned Intermediate-Level Chess Player

What started as a review of the app turned into a post about the game itself and strategy. I never played chess competitively, but I do have some experience. While in high school I taught chess to 5–13 year olds at a summer arts camp. The focus was on basic to intermediate-level strategy and a tournament at the end of the summer. My favorite moments were when students, especially the younger ones, beat me in games. Losing to a 7-year-old is a humbling and amazing experience. Some kids just have a natural intuition for the strategy of the game. I am not an expert by any means but there are a few basic strategies that I used to teach that I’d like to share. Note: from here on out I’m going to assume you know chess basics, like the names of the pieces and how they move. I hope you pick up a few new tricks to beat your friends at Tall Chess.

Control the Center of the Board Early

Controlling the center of the board in the early stage of the game means moving pieces towards the center in a way that maximizes their potential impact. It also enables other more powerful pieces on the home row to move later. In this example, it’s three moves into the game and White’s position is already much stronger. Why? The image above (right) illustrates the potential moves and captures White has available. Let’s break this down a bit: the White Knight at c3 is protecting the pawn at e4 and has three forward moves available, while the Black Knight at h6 only has one safe move forward. Since White advanced pawns to d4 and e4, the White Bishops at c1 and f1 are free to move on the diagonals (with c1 threatening h6). Black’s move of g7 to g6 didn’t help the Bishop at f8 do anything other than protect the Knight at this stage.

When Your Opponent Moves, Pay Attention to These 3 Things

If you don’t do this already, paying attention to these three things is one of the easiest ways to dramatically improve your game. When your opponent moves, always ask yourself:
  1. What is directly threatened?
  2. What is indirectly threatened?
  3. What is the nastiest thing your opponent can do on their next move?
Let’s say Black just moved their Knight ♞f5 (above). What piece(s) are being directly threatened? Well, the Knight is now threatening to take White’s unprotected Bishop at h4. Got it. What piece(s) are being indirectly threatened? Moving the Knight didn’t open up any other obvious lines of attack for Black so it’s safe to say there’s not an indirect plan here. (We’ll get into indirect attacks in a minute). White’s first impulse might be to protect or move the bishop that’s being threatened. By itself, this is not a good idea. For example, if White protects the Bishop by moving the pawn from g2 to g3, Black can move ♞e3 to fork the King and the Rook (below). If White remembers to ask “what’s the nastiest thing that my opponent can do on their next turn?” White can easily keep the Bishop safe *and* block the fork by moving the Bishop ♗f2 (below): This is a fairly straightforward example, so let’s look at a sneaky indirect attack. Below it’s Black’s turn. White has a slight advantage, up one Bishop. But if Black advances the pawn from e5 to e4, and White isn’t paying attention, that advantage can be lost in an instant. The pawn at e4 obviously is threatening the White Queen and the pawn at f3 (see below left). However, by advancing the pawn, Black has opened up an indirect attack with the Queen at f6 threatening White’s Rook at a1 (below right). If White missed the indirect attack, White might take the pawn at e4 with the pawn at f3 thinking there is a White advantage in the following pawn trades and that the White Queen will be safe. If White sees the indirect attack, the available moves are limited: White can’t move the Rook (♖a2) or Knight (♘c3) to avoid or block the indirect attack without sacrificing the queen. In this example, a good approach is to move the Queen ♕c3 (above). Protected by the Knight at b1, this move blocks the indirect attack by threatening a trade with Black’s Queen. Always ask yourself what is indirectly threatened when your opponent moves.


Conventional wisdom is that chess is about “thinking ahead.” I found that it’s easier to remember to ask yourself three questions. This might be the Getting Things Done approach to basic chess strategy. Thinking through the answers to the three questions *every time* it’s your turn helps inform your next best move by breaking your thought process into more discreet steps. For beginners and some intermediate-level players, this is a good way to immediately improve your game. If this thought process is routine, you can challenge yourself to anticipate indirect attacks one or two moves in the future. Still with me? Cool.

What’s Next?

Next time I’ll look at the pinning, exploiting double protects, forcing trades to your advantage, and the subtle art of sacrificing pieces. As always, I’m curious to hear what you think: I’m @garbnzgh on Twitter.