External Pattern Recognition Exercises

Parents often enroll their kindergarten aged students in a chess class with the idea of introducing their children to logic and reasoning skills early on. When teaching children of such a young age, conventional chess teaching approaches have to be reconsidered. I have one class that is made up of both Kindergarten and First Grade students only. I’ve had this class for roughly nine months and we’ve made some remarkable progress in the development of their chess skills. One technique I’ve used to help develop their chess playing is external pattern recognition exercises. These exercise have worked so well that I’m recommended them to older students as well.

Let me start by explaining the difference between internal and external pattern recognition in terms of my curriculum. Internal pattern recognition is finding or seeing patterns on the chessboard during a game. While this is a goal all chess players strive for, it should and is strengthened by external pattern recognition exercises. External pattern recognition exercises take place far from the chessboard, often in within our daily lives. External pattern recognition exercises lay a solid foundation for recognizing patterns on the chessboard. By employing these external exercises, your ability to recognize specific patterns on the chessboard (internal) will increase at a faster rate.

Because I teach students of all ages, I have to create external pattern recognition exercises appropriate to specific age groups. While all the exercises work well for older students, very young students require exercises that they can comprehend. If they can’t comprehend an exercise, they won’t get anything useful out of it. Therefore, I’ll start with exercises for the youngest of my students.

The idea of pattern recognition can be completely foreign to a Kindergarten or First Grade student. Thus, the definition I give them is “things that match.” I have my young students create a simple list of things they see in their daily lives that match, such as a pair of socks or four tires on a car. This is external pattern recognition (away from the chessboard), Each week, my young students give me their list of things that match. We then look at a chessboard, set up to play a game. I ask them to show me everything that matches on the chessboard, such all the White pawns, all the Black pawns and so on. At this point, I ask them to create a new list, this time looking specifically at nature for examples. When looking at a grouping of similar trees, is there one that has more branches than the others or is leaning in the opposite direction than the others? We increase the scope of their pattern recognition with each passing week. We always go back to the chessboard where I ask them to further explore patterns such as the diagonals, ranks and files. This continues throughout their chess classes for at least six months (no matter how good their chess playing gets).

For older students, I use card games to help build their pattern recognition skills. We start with Solitaire, namely the computer program version of the game. The student plays a three card draw version of Solitaire rather than the single card at a time version. The reason for this is simple. While trying to match the appropriate cards, they have to keep track cards they need within the three card set they’re trying to play. I recommend playing this card game for ten minutes each day because it helps to focus the mind towards recognizing specific patterns. If you want to try this, set the game options so it isn’t timed. Then, once you get used to playing it on a regular basis, use the timer. Solitaire can be an excellent way to enhance pattern recognition.

For adult students, I recommend playing draw poker, specifically the apps designed for tablets. Draw poker has some useful advantages for the novice adult chess player. First, it teaches pattern recognition in a very visual way. You essentially have five cards on the screen and are given the choice to hold those cards or to exchange them for new cards from the deck (exchanging one to five cards per hand). The app always gives you the odds of specific hands such as a pair, three of a kind, four of a kind, etc. Another advantage to using this draw poker game for training is that it forces you to play more scientifically, ultimately (if you’re playing correctly) taking less chances. How does draw poker playing apply to chess?

I spoke of wishful thinking in my last article. Wishful thinking is hoping your opponent will make the move you want them to make as opposed to the best move they can make independent of your ideas. In draw poker, for example, novice players will play a pair of twos rather than hold onto a Ace. If you look at the odds chart that comes with the game, you’ll see that it’s better to hold the Ace. While it is tempting to play the pair, hoping the computer program behind the app will bend to your will, it’s wishful thinking!

Speaking of programming, I introduce my older students to the idea of playing the program’s algorithm, the mathematical instructions that tells the computer how to respond to the card hand you play. Because this version of poker is based on a mathematical formula, it will respond to specific situations in a calculated way (it’s programming), not just responding to your card hand based on odds. You play the algorithm by noting patterns in the hands being played. For instance, if you win two hands, one with a pair of Queens, the next with three Queens, holding a Queen in the next or third hand dealt might not work. The computer program behind the app is designed to respond in a specific way to the cards you play. I have been researching the algorithm behind a specific draw poker app with a group of students and we have been able to win quite a bit by playing the program not just the odds.

The point to all this is to use external methods to improve your pattern recognition because you can literally find patterns everywhere you go and the more you study patterns off of the chessboard, the better your pattern recognition becomes on the chessboard. Games such as Scrabble are also wonderful for pattern recognition. Try some of these exercises and you’ll not only improve your chessboard pattern recognition but see life in a more interesting way. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson


Manoeuvering the London System

When I lost in my first experience of the London System it was extremely unpleasant. It was like being in the grip of a slow squeezing octopus, one schooled in the ocean ruled by Petrosian and other Gods residing in Positional Parnassus.

Used to a fighting K-Indian middle game, here I was in a rather mild and boring middle game going nowhere, with no real plan. The cause of all this anxiety is that in  the London System White seeks to avoid the usual pawn structures and levers; instead plays simple chess; developing without worry over a possible outpost for black on his weak black squares, and playing for incremental stalking into the center, with a pawn structure similar to the Colle System. (White Pawns on c3,d4,e3, with the added benefit of getting his QB out from behind the pawn wall, and tucked in at h2).

Anyone who has played a weak black player using the Colle System understands the ease of obtaining a middle game with a plan for attack on the King Side. I think the analogy holds.

So this week I wanted to present two London system games in which Black found ways to counter. I was particularly interested in Black attempts early in the use of the London System vs. later games. It turned out, their plans are quite similar, and hope you find them instructive in playing against this quiet but dangerous system for White, when you are a K-Indian proponent.

The search for these games was conducted using Chess King, and the analysis is through the Hiarcs Chess Engine.

It’s always interesting to see how the engine will find alternative moves and note errors humans make. Even games fraught with errors has instructive moments, as these games attest.

Ed Rosenthal


USCF Life Master Brian Douglas Wall turns 60

Colorado chess fixture USCF Life Master Brian Douglas Wall turns 60 on March 26, 2015.

He was Colorado Junior Champion 6-0 in 1972. He has been 7 times Colorado State Champion and 6 times Denver Champion. He won the Kansas Open in 2007 and the 2010 29th Annual FIDE North American Open in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Brian appears among the backgammon players in Washington Square (1994) towards the end of “Bobby Fischer vs. the World”. He watched games 4 & 6 of the Fischer-Taimanov Candidates’ Quarterfinal played in 1971 in Denver.

Brian is a chess clown. In 2012, he went 50 games in a row without a loss while opening every White with the Trompowsky/Levitsky (except after 1. d4 e6) and every Black with 1 … a6.  He opened every Black in 2014 with 1 … Na6 with much success. He once won the Colorado Closed Championship (2006?) opening both colors every game with Knight to Queen Bishop Three. He has also won the Colorado Closed while playing simultaneously in the Colorado Senior Open, an irregularity smiled upon by organizers and participants alike in tribute to the hometown hero.

During his 2012 no-loss streak, someone asked him how he did it, and in response he tilted his head back and howled, “I’m Brian ****ing Wall !!!”

Brian is an epigrammatist. Some of his sayings:

  • “Never study an opening until you have played it.”
  • “Chess is a contest between the pain of thinking versus the pain of losing.”
  • “90% of tactical problems can be solved by removing the obstacles between the White Queen and Black King.”
  • “Retreating an active piece is often the culprit in the post-mortem.”
  • “The only purpose to placing pieces on good squares is to sacrifice them.”
  • “Move your Rooks, not your Rook pawns.”
  • “I start every game thinking, if my opponent makes 200 perfect moves, I might give him a draw.”

Brian is at least IM strength, though he’ll probably never get the title, for lack of suitable FIDE tournaments within range in the vast American West. He’s had one coronary already, is chronically overweight and short of breath, yet still travels hundreds of miles to out-of-state tournaments every year. He has two children, Devon, a teenager, and Phyllis, a civil engineer. He lives at home with his mother. When he wins a considerable prize in a tournament, he stands around afterwards in order to be accessible to his many patient and friendly creditors, he himself having quickly forgotten who they are and how much they are owed.

Brian has done some splendid research on the Fraser Defense to the Ponziani, summarized on his Yahoo group.

Here are some more Brian Wall delights, including wins over FIDE master Jorge Renteria and then-IM John Donaldson.

Jacques Delaguerre


Teaching Kids Through Classical Games (3)

Here’s another game that’s useful for teaching kids through classical games. This game demonstrates some very instructive play based on a basic queen and bishop checkmate pattern.

As with the last time please note that I am presenting this game just to show its value in teaching kids. But anybody who would like to play d4, must study this game.

Capablanca – J-Jaffe

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.e3

By playing e3, White is temporarily shutting in his dark square bishop.

Q: How would you bring that piece into the game?
A: Usually I got answers like via b2, d2 or a3. But perhaps best way is to move timely e3-e4 after which you can decide where to place the bishop.

3…c6 4.c4 e6 5.Nc3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 Bd6

Here Black should play 6…dxc4 which is a kind of tempo gaining move. But on the other hand White would then have a central majority. If White succeeds in playing e3-e4-e5, deflecting the key defender and gaining space on kingside, he would have good chances to launch a king side attack. This kind of plan is something to watch out for in similar positions.

7.0–0 0–0 8.e4 dxe4

It was good to take on c4 first and then to play e5.

9.Nxe4 Nxe4 10.Bxe4 Nf6

Q: Where would you place your Bishop and why?
A: Bc2, in order to create a queen and bishop battery on b1–h7 diagonal.

Q: Then Why not on b1?
A: On b1 it blocks the queen’s rook in.

11.Bc2 h6

White plan is very simple, remove the key defender and checkmate black along b1–h7 diagonal.

12.b3 b6 13.Bb2 Bb7 14.Qd3 g6

Look closely at the pawn structure around Black’s king. It is very weak. In order to access Black’s king you need to sacrifice on e6 or g6.

15.Rae1 Nh5

Defending tactically against Rxe6.


Not only attacking h6, but also preventing Nf4 which makes Rxe6 a threat. 16.Rxe6 immediately would have been met by Nf4.

16…Kg7 17.Rxe6

This rook is untouchable because of mate in 2.

17…Nf6 18.Ne5 c5

The rook still can’t be taken because 19.Qxg6+ gives White a winning attack.

19.Bxh6+ Kxh6 20.Nxf7+


Mate will follow.

Ashvin Chauhan


Too Many Cooks

One of the lost arts of the chess board is that of adjournment analysis. In the days before computers we used to adjourn games after the first session (normally 40 moves and 4 or 5 hours) and then continue them after dinner or on a separate day. And between the sessions it was customary to analyse the adjourned position as well as possible, recruiting what help was available.

There is an interesting chapter on adjournment analysis in The Art of the Middle Game by Paul Keres and Alexander Kotov, with this particular chapter being written by Keres. Alexander Kotov also discusses is in Think Like a Grandmaster and here there are some wonderful insights.

Kotov suggests that collective analysis tends to be inaccurate, something that was confirmed by my own experience. He suggests that an initial examination with friends can be a good thing, but after that you should work out everything on your own.

These days everything would be checked by a computer of course, but the idea that collective analysis tends to be inaccurate is interesting. I think that a lot of different voices will necessarily create an atmosphere in which participants want to outdo each other, and without their own game being at risk. It’s a classic case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, with one highly motivated cook being far more effective.

How can this help the improvement process? Essentially in immunising us against believing the unknowing collective and seeking instead to be independent. Your own ideas may not be right but thinking them through yourself and putting them on the line you learn something if they are refuted.

Here meanwhile is a funny video about receiving advice:

Nigel Davies


Keep It Simple, Stupid

Try not to let your opponent get unneeded counterplay. Try to keep things under control if you can.

For example, in the following position, the very strong grandmaster playing Black, played Kxb3. This allowed Qb5+ and this led to a very messy position where White was able to get a draw eventually. Certainly, after Qb5+ the position becomes very difficult to analyse, and very hard for Black to find the win.

Kxb3 is the right idea for Black, but first he must find a move that stops White’s counterplay. What is that move?

The solution to last Monday’s problem is that f4 wins for Black as he can eventually queen the h-pawn.

Steven Carr


C is for Chess

I’ve just been reading H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s multiple award-winning and beautifully written account of how, suffused with grief as a result of her father’s sudden death, she decides to buy and train a goshawk.

It got me thinking, as I often do, about the whole concept of training, about the difference between being a teacher and being a tutor.

“To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so gain the ability to predict what it will do next. Eventually you don’t see the hawk’s body language at all. You seem to feel what it feels. The hawk’s apprehension becomes your own.”

Just as when training a hawk you have to ‘become’ the hawk, so, when training a child to play chess you have to ‘become’ the child, which, I dare say, is a lot easier than ‘becoming’ a hawk. You have to enter the child’s world, tune into his wavelength, understand the way he thinks, the way he behaves, the way he reacts, why he plays chess and what he’s expecting from chess.

So I try to find out as much as I can about my pupils. I ask what their favourite subject is at school (usually maths) and which subjects they don’t like. I ask what books they like reading, and sometimes read their favourite books myself. If they like Harry Potter, for instance, I can talk to them about Wizard Chess. I ask them which sports they play, and, if they like football, which team they support. I also ask them why I support Croatia, but they are never able to guess. I can then make comparisons between chess and football. The king is the goal, the rook the goalie, the pawns in front of the castled king the defenders, the minor pieces the midfield players and the queen the striker.

Likewise, if they’re interested in music I can use that. I explain that they have to practise chess just as they have to practise the piano. Practising chess does not just mean playing games any more than practising the piano means just playing tunes. If you’re learning the piano you have to practise your scales and arpeggios, which many students find boring, but they still have to do it. So when you’re practising chess you have to spend time solving puzzles as well as playing games. You have to develop chessboard vision: the ability to see at a glance where every piece is, what it’s attacking and what it’s defending. In the same way you have to learn to sight read when you play the piano.

At the same time I’m looking at my student’s personality. Is he quiet or loud? Does he have a sense of humour? This will affect the way I talk to him and also, indirectly, the way he plays chess. Does he want to learn to play aggressive, attacking chess or would he prefer something more peaceful? Is he someone who will prefer orthodox openings or someone who’ll prefer something more unusual?

Another question I ask my students is whether they think in words or pictures. I think very much in words rather than pictures. I can’t visualise the position in my head but can only see what’s on the board in front of me, which is why I can’t play blindfold chess and find it hard to calculate long variations. This will have implications for both the way I teach and the nature of the resources I recommend for them. A word thinker will probably prefer books while a picture thinker would work better with DVDs. I suspect, given the extent of screen-based entertainment and resources out there, children these days are more likely to be picture thinkers.

It all comes down to the difference between sympathy and empathy. It’s very easy to say, as many coaches do, “I (don’t) like this book so you should (not) read it” or “I (don’t) like this opening so you should (not) play it”. Beware of chess teachers who get all their pupils to play the same openings or read the same books. When I teach a child on a one to one basis I to try to become that child, to experience life as he or she experiences it, in the same way that Helen Macdonald had to become Mabel the goshawk and experience life the way a goshawk does.

In mediaeval times both falconry and chess were considered appropriate activities for young noblemen. If H is for Hawk, then C is for Chess, but don’t forget that C is also for Child.

Richard James


Wishful Thinking

The beginner makes a move with high hopes that his or her opponent will make the counter-move the beginner has anticipated. Of course, their opponent makes a move but it isn’t the move our beginner anticipated. Our beginner is now faced with a weak position that degrades further and further with each subsequent move. Where did our intrepid beginner go wrong? Our beginner employed the same idea many desperate gamblers use, wishful thinking. My Uncle, who was quite a good gambler, used to say “scared money never wins.” Employing wishful thinking nets the same result, a journey on the road to ruin. What is wishful thinking in chess?

Wishful thinking is making a move that only works if your opponent makes the exact move you want them to make and that opposition move is a poor one! Good chess means both players are making the best moves in an effort to execute their individual plans. Wishful thinking chess means playing one sided chess. One sided chess is only considering what you can do, not what your opponent can do. This is a huge hurdle for the novice player.

Beginners are generally overwhelmed by the large number of game principles and theory thrown at them through instructional material in the form of books, DVDs and software. They often halfheartedly learn these principles and try to bend or break them before they have a true understanding of those principles. A general life principle might tell you it is dangerous to walk on the edge of a cliff because you could slip, fall off and meet a dreadful end. Our beginning chess student certainly wouldn’t walk next to the edge of a cliff because it’s dangerous. However, that same student would take a chance by bending a game principle. Our student would exercise logic and reason when faced with a physically dangerous situation but wouldn’t employ the same logic and reason on the chess board. He might consider taking a chance on the chessboard. Chance has no place in chess because it’s akin to wishful thinking!

Logic should be the driving force behind the moves a beginner makes. Logic is the science of the formal principles of reasoning. Thus, to employ logic you employ specific principles when making a decision. Of course, this is an extremely simplified definition but one that will serve to guide the beginning chess player. Chess principles are ideas that have been tested and retested over time, always found to be sound in nature. If you’re a beginner you should seriously consider the idea that these principles work and they should be learned and employed by you from day one. When you play thought a game by a Grandmaster who breaks or bends a game principle successfully, remember that the Grandmaster first had to master those principles. Mastering game principles means completely understanding them and employing them. When you learn how to play a musical instrument, you spend many years mastering basic musical principles. Only after you gained a fair amount of knowledge, can you start to explore the idea of breaking protocol or principle. You have to learn how to walk before you run!

Two sets of principles, opening and endgame principles, are the most maligned by beginners. When I teach beginner’s classes, I teach basic principles for both these phases of the game. I keep it simple. For the opening phase, I teach the three primary principles, moving a pawn that controls the board’s center on move one, development of minor pieces towards the center and castling. For the endgame phase, I teach basic mating combinations and pawn promotion. My classes spend a great deal of time working on these principles, yet there are always a handful of students who insist on employing wishful thinking, doing things their way rather than the principled way.

There is something to be said about trail and error learning. Sometimes, we need to fail repeatedly to truly learn a lesson. However, this method of thinking can discourage the novice chess player. Therefore, when teaching the game’s principles, the chess teacher must carefully and thoroughly explain each principle in great detail! One of the best ways to teach a principle is to demonstrate what happens when that principle isn’t employed, namely the dire consequences that result. If I have a student who is having trouble embracing game principles, we sit down and play a few games. As I make principled moves and my student makes unprincipled moves, I explain the consequences carefully as we play. The student sees the consequences of not using correct principles on the board as he or she plays.

This easiest way to get students to employ principled play is to teach them to use simple logic as a guide when determining the correct move. I teach my students that logical thinking in chess is weighing the good against the bad. For example, we’re all taught that moving the e pawn to e4 is the best move for an absolute beginner. If a student simply moves the e pawn because everyone says it’s the best move, then they’re not really learning anything in the way of logical thinking. If the student is taught that control of the center is key in the opening, then they have a logical reason for playing 1. e4. However, you have to provide more information such as saying “this moves allows the Queen and King-side Bishop instant access to the board.” You can also further expand on this idea by saying that the opposition’s King is on a central file and he is the ultimate target. Additionally, pieces are more powerful when centrally located. The more information provided, the greater the logical reinforcement. The more information a teacher provides regarding why a principle is sound, the more likely a student will apply that principle. A student should always think about what makes a principled move sound rather than blindly making that move.

Once the principles have been ingrained in the student’s mind, it’s time to stamp out wishful thinking once and for all. This happens when you carefully consider your opponent’s best response to your potential move. Often, a beginner will try to chase a long range piece (Bishop, Rook or Queen) with a short range piece (Pawn, Knight or King). Of course, the long range piece simply races away. If you consider your opponent’s best response to such an idea, you’d never make that move in the first place! To think about your opponent’s best response to your move, put yourself in your opponent’s shoes. Pretend your playing you opponent’s pieces when considering a move. What would you do to stop the move your considering. One exercise I have my student’s do it is switching sides during a game on every move. You start making a move for White and when your opponent makes Black’s move, you switch sides. This is very effective in destroying wishful thinking.

You have to play both sides of the board not just your side of the board. You have to use the principles and basic logic to guide your moves. If you don’t you’re not playing a game of thinking but a game of chance. Remember, when playing a game of chance, the house always wins and sadly you’re not the house. Here’s game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


English Counties and District CC Championships

I have just finished, with some relief, both my games in the English Counties and District Correspondence Chess Championships for 2014/15 which started in November 2014. I am relieved not to have lost either and to have held my own against a strong IM graded 152 points above me on Board One.  My two games were played in Division One (Ward-Higgs) on the ICCF server.  The top few boards in Division One attract some strong players from both CC and OTB.  Essex B are currently leading with 8/13, with Warwickshire A on 6/11 and Yorkshire B on 5/9. My own team, Hertfordshire A, have 4/9. It is interesting that some of B teams are leading their A teams at the moment, but it is early days yet!

My own games were a matching pair of Sicilian Najdorfs as far as move 7 and follow theory for some distance. Of course, these games were played simultaneously rather than one after the other.  You can watch all the games in progress from the following link www.iccf.com/event?id=45571

John Rhodes

John Rhodes


Midgame Combinations

I’ve always been a bit slack about midgames.

In the 1980’s I experienced rapid rating rise. It was largely due, I now realize, to the gift of memory juxtaposed with the narrowness of 20th-century opening lines as played by American amateurs. I had an intuitive feel for choosing lines to memorize. My midgames were pre-planned, concealing a lack of tactical finesse and inferior endgame technique.

Returning to chess competition in 2011 after two decades of club play, it quickly became clear that computers have empirically demonstrated two classical hypotheses:

  1. There are nearly infinite defensive resources in chess.
  2. Almost any conceivable opening scheme is playable.

I spent the past four years rethinking my entire approach to openings, with good results. My endgame play has improved over the 20-year hiatus, club play consisting largely of stumbling into inferior blitz positions and buffaloing my way out via endgame technique.

But repeatedly I’ve had to confront my lackluster midgame play.

This weekend playing a tournament in Boulder, Colorado, I got an insight into what the problem is.  I am habituated to deep calculation in endgame play, but somehow expect to brazen my way through midgame combinations. It’s not a lack of tactical skill: I regularly solve, and that rather rapidly. It’s a matter of game-time will and patience at the board.

This is my final frontier in chess!

Jacques Delaguerre