Going Back to the Basics (2)

“Everything in life goes back to the basics”
Kron Gracie

Last week I wrote about material balance in response to a call for help from my online student C:
“Recently I’ve been noticing that when I’m in a game, sometimes I don’t find an attack, or a really good move right away, and I start to focus on dumb, and pointless things in the game like taking a side pawn, and I forget about what is happening around me. This is mainly why I blunder and then lose. If you could give me some advice before the tournament I would appreciate it.”

The second aspect one should always keep an eye on is the kings’ position at all times. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense; capturing either king ends the game on the spot. We should all strive to keep our king out of danger, while attacking the other one whenever the opportunity arises. Beginners in general face a real challenge to follow this. The number of pieces on the board at the beginning is overwhelming and the number of possible moves is plain and simple scary. Who has time to look at the king when we know it is not useful? Another challenge comes from the rules in place for castling. I have seen countless times total confusion when club players stumbled over castling, wanted to do it and did not know how. It starts as simple as to know how many squares the king moves (it happens often to see a Queen side castle with Kb1+Rc1) and it continues quite often with castling through check or castling while in check and getting away with it (the opponent accepts it!).

I can hear you saying “I can castle. I am not a beginner anymore”. Moving on to more entertaining situations, I wonder how many times do you really watch the kings’ position? Do you do it constantly throughout the game? If you do, it is highly unlikely to be in the same shoes as C. Their position gives you most of the times enough information to figure out what to do. Of course this is not enough; you also need to find the right idea and put together the most appropriate plan to use to your advantage the kings’ position. That requires more advanced positional and tactical knowledge, as well as a lot of practice. C has offered me the perfect opportunity to expand on it based on one of his games from that tournament. Here is the position in question, the way he played it and the way he should have played it:

The good (White):

  • he realized he should attack the opposing king
  • his pieces were positioned almost perfectly (this ties into the third aspect) and beginning the attack was the right thing to do
  • eventually he clued in to bring Rf1 into the attack

The bad (White):

  • he could not make up his mind what to do with Bc4
  • trying to create a battery with 19. Qf5 and 20. Bd3 was an unfortunate waste of time
  • he got scared of a potential one move threat Rg8-g5

The ugly (White):

  • he should have realized from the beginning Qe2 and Bc4 were already in attacking positions, so the correct way to play would have been 18. Rf3 to bring another attacker
  • the fact there were semi-open files on g- and h-, an isolated h6-pawn and no piece outside Qe7 defending the king, should have pointed to the need to bring a rook into the action

Conclusion: the play was dictated exclusively by the weakened position in front of the Black king. The first needed step was to recognize it and that meant White was on the right track. It did not mean he reached the destination yet and he also had to choose the most appropriate plan to attack it. It is striking how Black could survive and save a draw when his position was completely lost at move 18. Do not allow such anomalies to happen in your games!

Valer Eugen Demian

Complications

Here’s a complicated game I played this last weekend. It also took almost 4 hours, which is one of my longest games so far.

I think I kept my position alive by finding tactical resources, though my Dad says I was lost at various points and should have advanced my queenside pawns. In any case I was happy to draw:

Sam Davies

Black Belt Chess

You will be aware that, if you’re a practitioner of martial arts, you will be able to earn different coloured belts depending on your level of skill. If you’re learning a musical instrument you’ll be able to take grade exams at various levels. I’ve spoken to children who take part in other activities such as gymnastics and drama, who have told me about similar systems. Yet there’s nothing comparable in chess. Why not?

Yes, we have both national and international rating systems. We have titles for strong players: Grandmaster, International Master, FIDE Master and so on. But there’s an enormous gap between social players and serious competitive players. I believe such a scheme would provide encouragement for more people, adults as well as children, to take chess seriously. It wouldn’t be very stressful because you’d only take the test when you were ready to do so: in fact it would be a lot less stressful than playing, and would ensure that no one took part in competitions before they were ready.

Here in the UK we have two competing national systems, but not many people, to the best of my knowledge, take either of them. I’ve encountered parents, though, whose children have passed with merit or distinction but are still not sure of the castling rules. It’s not surprising they’re deluded as to how well their children play chess. Such schemes need to be serious and rigorous – and there has to be a significant reason and a significant reward for following them.

I’ve seen other local schemes as well but haven’t been impressed. If you’re devising an examination you have to be clear exactly what you want to test and ensure that you’re not actually testing something different. If you can pass the exam by memorising the course book, your exam is testing memory rather than knowledge or skill. If you expect examinees to write an essay you’re, to a certain extent, testing English and essay writing skills, which may cause problems for students with dyslexia, or those whose first language is not English, as well as favouring older rather than younger children.

My view is that the most significant indicator and predictor of chess skills is the ability to solve tactical/calculation puzzles, and that the puzzles should be a mixture: not all of the ‘sac sac mate’ type. At the lowest level the puzzles will just test chessboard vision, but higher levels will expect students to look further and further ahead and solve more complicated positions. The test should be serious and rigorous, using pencil and paper rather than screen, with exam conditions enforced. You’d provide sample papers with answers and perhaps also a screen-based version for practice, to ensure that students are fully prepared and ready to take the test.

There are other aspects of chess, though, which are best tested one to one, rather than through a written test. So I’d include, if it was logistically possible, a short viva voce session. At the lowest level this might include checking that the students are familiar with the en passant rule, that they can checkmate with a king and queen against a king, and so on. At higher levels you might want to test opening understanding in this way, by getting them to play and explain the first few moves of the Queen’s Gambit, the Sicilian Najdorf or whatever, as well as ensuring they can win more difficult endings.

In my view we need to get away from purely competitive chess and encourage skills development, with players only taking part in competitions when they have the appropriate knowledge and skills. Within a club like Richmond Juniors we can do this to a certain extent, but it’s not easy within school chess clubs. The nature of chess requires that skills children learn within a chess club are reinforced at home, but if parents just see the school chess club as a childminding service which might also ‘make kids smarter’ they won’t remember very much of what we teach them.

How can we change the perception of how junior chess should be run so that we improve standards and ensure that more children continue their interest in chess beyond primary school? That is the million dollar question, and I think perhaps setting up a scheme such as this might help. It has to be compulsory rather than optional, though, at least if you want to take part in competitions. You might want to open it to players of all ages and perhaps encourage parents to join in.

If you’re interested in setting up something along these lines, either nationally or internationally, please let me know.

Richard James

The Value of the Pawns and Pieces

I’m currently writing a chess book for beginners and thought I’d give you a sample from that book regarding the value of the pawns and pieces. This article is based on discussions I’ve had with my students over the years regarding this topic and is based on those conversations. Knowing how much the individual members of your army are worth helps you make good decisions regarding the exchange of material as well as the order in which to bring your forces into play.

To denote the importance of the pawns and pieces in terms of power, we assign a relative value to them. We use the term relative rather than absolute because the term absolute indicates that the value is unchanging. The term relative tells us that this value is approximate and might change slightly depending on circumstances within the game. We’ll explore that later on. For now, let’s concentrate on the initial relative value of the pawns and pieces. Again, we’ll discuss possible value changes later on. We’ll start with the pawn.

The pawn has a relative value of one. I teach students to think of the relative value of the pawns and pieces in terms of money. Since most of us, both young and old alike, can better understand valuation when we think in terms of money, making the pawns and pieces worth a dollar amount makes understanding their value much easier. This monetary understanding also makes it easier to determine whether or not to trade or exchange material (pawns and pieces). Using our money analogy, the pawn is worth $1.00. Beginners tend to think of the pawn as somewhat worthless since they have the lowest relative value and each player starts the game with eight of them. While the pawn does have the lowest relative value when compared to the pieces (we don’t refer to pawns as pieces but as pawns) it has the ability to promote into a Queen, Rook, Knight or Bishop when it reaches its promotion square on the other side of the board. This means its value will change upon promotion, increasing from $1.00. Because pawns are worth less than the Knight, Bishop, Rook and Queen, they can prevent these pieces from occupying squares the pawn controls. Remember, just because the pawn has the lowest relative value doesn’t mean it has less value in terms of what it can do. The reason the pawn has a low relative value has to do with its slow or limited movement and its limited control of squares on the board (it can only attack or control the adjacent diagonal squares in front of it. Now let’s look at the minor pieces.

We’ll start with the Knight. The Knight has a relative value of three ($3.00). Because the Knight can move a bit further and control a greater number of squares than the pawn, its value is greater. Knights are the only piece that have the ability to jump over other pieces (and pawns). If the chessboard has a lot of pawns and pieces in play or off of their starting squares, pieces such as the Bishops, Rooks and Queen will have trouble moving around. However, the Knight, due to its ability to jump over pawns and pieces, will have greater freedom of movement and is worth slightly more than $3.00 in such a situation. Now let’s look at the other minor piece, the Bishop.

The Bishop also has a relative value of three ($3.00). However, unlike the Knight, the Bishop is a long distance attacker. Therefore, when the board has few pieces in play or open diagonals (devoid of pawns and pieces), the Bishop has a slightly higher relative value than the Knight. Why do the Knight and Bishop share the same value, after all they have very different ways of moving? While the Knight has the ability to jump over other pieces, it’s range is short. Because of the way in which it moves (an “L” shape), getting to an adjacent square can take a number moves. While the Bishop can control great distances along the diagonals, it is tied down to a specific color square, which is why you have two of them. Both minor pieces have limits to their power and this is reflected in their relative value. Now to the major pieces, the Rook and Queen, starting with the Rook.

The Rook has a relative value of five or $5.00. Like the Bishop, the Rook is a long distance attacker, able to control a greater number of squares than the minor pieces or pawns. The Bishop is also a long distance attacker so why is it worth less than the Rook? Bishops are tied down to a single color square for movement. Thus, the Bishop that starts on a light square can only move along and control light squares while the Bishop that starts on a dark square can only move along and control dark squares. A light squared Bishop has no control over enemy pawns and pieces sitting on dark squares. On the flip-side, a dark squared Bishop has no control over enemy pawns and pieces positioned on light squares. The Rook, because he can freely move along the ranks and files, controls both light and dark squares. This is why he’s worth more that the Bishop.

The Queen has a relative value of nine or $9.00. Why so much? Because she can move like both the Bishop and Rook, giving her the ability to control or attack more squares than any other piece. She moves along the ranks, files or diagonals. This ability to travel along the ranks, files or diagonals makes her extremely powerful. She can control a large number of squares from a single location (square). You should respect this great power and not bring her into the game too early. If you do, she’ll become a target for enemy pieces of lesser value. What about the King? If he’s the most valuable piece in the game, he must be worth a great deal.

The King is priceless because if the King becomes trapped (remember you cannot capture the King is chess) the game ends in checkmate and the player whose King is trapped loses. I do give my students a dollar value for the King to emphasize his importance and that dollar figure is $197,635! This drives home the point that the King is worth a great deal! The reason we can’t really assign a realistic value to the King is because we have to protect him for the majority of the game, so early on he has no attacking value. If the King tries to engage in battle early on, he’ll end up being trapped by enemy pawns and pieces and the game will end in checkmate. However, once the majority of the pawns and pieces are off the board, the endgame (more on that later on in this book), the King can be an extremely valuable attacker and defender. However, always remember that the King needs to stay safe for the majority of the game.

There are two things to take away from this concept of relative value. The first has to do with capturing pawns and pieces. Playing chess requires you to capture your opponents pawns and pieces. You don’t have to capture them all but the more opposition pieces you capture, the harder it is for your opponent to attack your King. However, there’s more to capturing than simply trading one piece for another and this is due to their relative value. You want to make profitable exchanges of material. For example, if you traded your $9.00 Queen for a $3.00 Knight, would you profit from the exchange? Absolutely not! You’d be trading your most powerful major piece for a minor piece. Always try to exchange material if it’s profitable or the trade is even as in the case of trading a Knight for a Knight or a Knight for a Bishop (both having a relative value of three). While there are times when making seemingly bad trades works to your advantage because they lead to checkmate, stick to profitable or even trades for now.

The second thing to take away from this relative value system is that it provides an order in which to bring your forces into the battle. You start with the material (pawns and pieces) of lowest value being developed first followed by material of greater value. Thus, the order in which material enters that game is; pawns followed by the minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) followed by the Rooks and then the Queen. Of course, there are a few exceptions to this order but for now use this system when deciding on who to bring into the fight and when.

Well, there you have it, a brief introduction to the relative value system used in chess. Make sure you know it and always use it as guide when considering an exchange or trade of material as well as creating an order for bringing pawns and pieces into the game. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

A Lesson from Spielmann vs. Rubinstein, 1909

Usually instructive endgames attract me more than brilliant combinations and sacrifices. After White’s last move R1c2, we have this position on the board:

Black to play:

Q: Which is better 38…Rxa3 or 38…Rxc2?

A: 38…Rxa3 temporarily wins a pawn but allows enough counter play on 7th rank or against the pawn on d6. In fact the d6 pawn can not be defended so Rxa3 is basically just an exchange of pawns. Looking more closely at the position, the d6 pawn can be protected by Ke7 whilst White’s scattered pawns remains permanently weak. So here Rxc2 is much better choice and in fact winning. White’s rook has to occupy a passive position to defend the weaknesses on a3 and d4 and Black’s king will have a free hand.

The game went as follows:

38…Rxc2 39.Rxc3 Ra8 40.Rc3

Here White can’t generate active play with 40.Rc6 because of 40…Ke7 41.Rc7+ and now 41…Ke8! when the ook has to retreat to c3 and we will have a similar sort of position to the one reached in the actual game. The rest, as they say, is a matter of technique.

Ashvin Chauhan

Going Back to the Basics (1)

“Everything in life goes back to the basics”
Kron Gracie

One of my online students (let’s name him C) sent me his latest analysed games and the following message as he was preparing for a local tournament:
“Recently I’ve been noticing that when I’m in a game, sometimes I don’t find an attack, or a really good move right away, and I start to focus on dumb, and pointless things in the game like taking a side pawn, and I forget about what is happening around me. This is mainly why I blunder and then lose. If you could give me some advice before the tournament I would appreciate it.”

Week after week we repeat the same process while going over his games. It is interesting to see how he struggles to make connection between our analysis and his thought process during the games. I have seen it too many times: the student believes after the lessons taught and puzzles solved, we are done and they do not have use for them anymore. During my earlier years as a coach I would not even think about it (too obvious, right?) and could become frustrated; one such moment was about 10 years ago during the national final of a team competition when I was coaching team British Columbia. Our province is a perennial 3rd in the country with Ontario and Quebec being in a league of their own. There are a number of reasons why this is the reality, but they are not important for the purpose of this article. Anyway the matches versus Ontario and Quebec are always a measuring stick of how we are doing; any wins or draws versus them are important. Our player in question was an up and coming junior at the time and he happened to be my student as well. Do not remember exactly what was the situation he missed in the endgame after a long battle in the match versus Ontario; it might have been going for a draw in the side pawn and bishop of wrong corner color (our app level 3, lesson 24). The point was that coincidentally we covered that situation right before the tournament (one would assume to be fresh on his mind) and I could not believe he failed to remember it.

Coming back to today I just reminded C of our process. One hears a lot in sports “go back to the basics” when things are not going well. It is easy to dismiss it as a cliche and to believe it does not apply to you when in reality it does very much. The first step in going back to the basics is to mind at all times the material balance or in simpler terms to know how many pieces you have versus what the opponent has. Do you mind this at all times in your games? Is it just as simple as counting the pieces and their value, subtract it from what the opponent has and see what you got? Do you count the pieces left on the board or the ones already captured? I see some of my level 2 students counting the pieces captured because they are fewer. This is not very good practice. Do you know why? There are a couple of obvious reasons for it:

  • The captured pieces cannot influence what is going on in the game anymore
  • Some captured pieces could be misplaced (example: falling under the table) or the opponent might hold one or more in their hand

Get into the habit of counting the pieces on the board and watch the balance between you pieces and the opposing ones. It is a basic aspect of the game you can use from the simplest “I am up by a point”, to the most sophisticated ones such as “I am going for an imbalanced material situation”. I am not going to spend time on “I am up by a point” C was alluding to when he mentioned taking a side pawn; however I am going to show a very interesting position where the imbalanced material situation was the answer. Here it is from one of our unfinished team voting games:

We had a long discussion about what to do here and some of the ideas were as follows (in chronological order):

  • “19. c5 gives us a passed pawn but it’ll be very difficult to defend; 19. Rfd1 is also a good idea since b5 is such a slow move”
  • “I like 19. Qb2 to move the queen away from the Black rook”
  • “Going back to 19. c5 it could be interesting to look at: 19. c5 Na5 20. Rbc1”
  • “19. c5 Na5 20. Rbc1 Nb7 21. c6 Bxc6 (21… Rxc6 same line) 22. Qxc6 Rxc6 23. Rxc6 and Black loses at least one queen side pawn”
    This was the seed of looking for an imbalanced material situation!
  • “19. a4 bxa4 20. Qxa4 Nd4 21. Qd1 Nxe2 To me this doesn’t seem great as I’d think their bishop is a bit better than our knight in such an open position, and both …Be6 and …Bg4 look like good moves for them”
  • “At the moment, the blunder 19. cxb5?? is in the lead, so we’re going to have to unite around a move. How about 19.Qb2 … ? It doesn’t seem to have any immediate downsides, and it gets us out of the pin”
  • “One quick note; 19. cxb5 is not a “blunder” per se. 19… Nd4 20. Qd2 Nxe2+ 21. Qxe2 Bxb5 22. Rxb5 axb5 23. Qxb5 with two pawns and a knight for a rook. Not the best, but not a total disaster”
  • “19. Qb2 is a safe option, but the resulting position (19. Qb2 b4) is probably not too much better for us than the a4 line”
  • “19. Qb2 b4 20. Rfc1 a5 21. Rc2 Rc7 22. Rbc1 Rfc8 23. Qb3 a4 doesn’t seem very good for White”
  • “I am not convinced that 19. cxb5 is all that horrible. I also wonder about 19. a4 having an issue with 19…b4 19. Qb2 looks interesting but the variations I see so far look defensive. So, let us look at 19. cxb5 in a little more depth. Tell why it is bad”
  • “19. cxb5 Nd4 20. Nxd4 Rxc2 21. Nxc2 Bxb5 22. Bxb5 axb5 23. Rxb5”
  • “In that line it is not clear to me how Black wins just with the queen, rook and 3 versus 4 pawns after they capture the a2-pawn (worst case scenario). White defends the f2-pawn with one rook and holds (for example) the 4th row with the other rook and knight. It feels easier to play than suffering in the 19. Qb2 line”
  • “I don’t like a4 b4 now (thanks to eric for finding that!). I am skeptical of cxb5; we’ll hold, but it won’t be easy, and we won’t have winning chances. The lines with Qb2 and Nd4 looks pretty good for us. Therefore, my vote goes to Qb2 (though I would be really unhappy if cxb5 won out)”

It is very interesting to go over the above and follow the train of thoughts. In the end 19. cxb5 won by one vote (10 votes) over 19. Qb2 (9 votes). Which move would have you chosen if you could be white in this position? Looking back here we were at the crossroads and going for 19. cxb5 made all the difference. My guess is it also surprised the opposing team and the resulting material imbalance influenced them into playing from bad to worst; now we are in an endgame where winning is just around the corner. Before showing you how the game went on for a few more moves, please remember to watch the material balance at all times until your subconscious will take over and do that for you.

Valer Eugen Demian

Chess and Table Tennis

Yesterday I played in my first table tennis tournament and won three of my seven matches. Overall I would say that table tennis tournaments seem more fun because people talk more and it’s less tense. I also think it will help my chess because you can’t make a draw and always have to play to win.

It seems that Bobby Fischer was also a fan of table tennis and always played to win in his chess games. Here is a Fischer game in which his opponent finally cracked under the strain. It seems Geller thought that 67…g3 was impossible because of 68.fxg3+ followed by 69.Kxf1!, all of which is illegal!

Sam Davies

Dan’s Your Man

Regular readers will probably be aware of my view that most chess instruction, particularly at lower levels, is, at best, misguided.

One shining exception to this, though, is Dan Heisman. If you’re an adult novice (up to, say 1600 strength), you should certainly look at his materials.

He sums up his principles in three words: Slow, Safe, Active. The three show-stoppers.

‘Slow’ is to do with time management: at this level most players move much too fast, while others take far too long over moves which are either obvious or non-critical. I’d add that problems with time management happen at all levels. Off the top of my head I can think of an English IM who plays extremely quickly, while one of England’s top GMs regularly gets into severe time trouble.

‘Safe’ refers to basic tactics. It’s partly keeping your pieces safe but also not missing simple opportunities to win pieces. Heisman’s choice of word is interesting: he’s concentrating on the idea of not making mistakes rather than finding good moves.

‘Active’ concerns piece activity. Put your pieces on active squares. Use all your pieces, not just some of them.

The three show-stoppers can be extended to the Big Five. The additions are Thinking Process, how you decide which move to make, and General Principles/Guidelines, and you know what they are. Nothing, you’ll notice, about openings, endings, complex analysis.

The only two of these five which require specific study are Safety and General Principles/Guidelines, which you can find in Dan’s books or on his website.

This bears little relation to what most teachers seem to teach at this level, and also bears little relation to what most students think they want.

I sometimes tell my pupils that I’m not like other teachers. Most chess teachers are strong players who play lots of brilliant moves and will teach you how to play brilliant moves yourself. I’m a bad player, even though I have a reasonable grade: I spend most of my games desperately trying to avoid blunders and have never knowingly played a brilliant move in my life. I won’t show you how to play brilliant moves but I’ll try to help you to stop playing bad moves.

There are two types of mistake, not just in chess but in everything. Mistakes you make because something is too hard for you. Perhaps you didn’t know the opening well enough, the tactics were too deep for you, you didn’t understand how to play the ending. You can learn from these mistakes and move forward in your chess. There are also the mistakes you shouldn’t have made. You’d forgotten the opening. You missed a simple tactic. You played too fast. I don’t know about you, but most of my chess mistakes come into the second category. Most chess teachers, though, just concentrate on the first type of mistake, and most students think what they need is more chess information rather than techniques to avoid unnecessary mistakes.

If you’re interested in seeing Dan’s materials you could start by visiting his website. He writes articles for chess.com and produces videos for the Internet Chess Club, at least some of which are available for free on YouTube. His Novice Nook articles at Chess Café are behind a paywall, but you’ll also find many of them in his book A Guide To Chess Improvement, published by Everyman Chess. You can also follow him on Twitter where you can read his Chess Tip of the Day. His tip for December 29 sums up much of his philosophy.

“In math it would be obvious that you want to learn to multiply before doing geometry or trigonometry. But in chess so many worry about subtle things before mastering important basics like how to consistently make safe moves, or avoiding trades when behind material.”

I’d just add that there’s a big difference between teaching adults of about 800-1000 strength and teaching 7-year-old children of the same strength. For example, the kids will play too fast because of their immature thinking processes, so the two most important things are safety and thinking process, followed by activity, which they can usually pick up quickly. But the basic principle of doing simple things well and avoiding careless mistakes is still there.

Richard James

Avoiding Pressure

Let’s face it, we all have to deal with pressure. Whether at home, school or work, we’re all under some sort of pressure. Try as we may to avoid it, something always occurs that puts us under the gun, so to speak. While chess is wonderful way to exercise the mind, playing it can be stressful, especially during tournaments. Chess is a challenge in which two minds face off against one another and where the mind does battle so does the ego. When losing a game of chess, we often feel an emotional sting, perhaps the bruising of our ego? Add to this equation the idea that people generally like to win rather than lose and you create a recipe for pressure.

While pressure is a fact of life for nearly everyone and a little pressure can have positive effects, too much pressure can actually lead to health problems. The game of chess should be enjoyed whether you win, lose or draw. However, some people get really wound up before they play the game and it becomes a slightly nerve-racking experience. If you feel pressure before playing and that pressure is taking away from enjoying the game, read further for some tips on removing stress before playing.

Tip number one, and this should be apparent to everyone, be prepared! Be prepared to play. What do I mean by this? You need to be warmed up and in the zone. Before I play shows with my various bands, I spend a lot of time prior to those shows warming up. This means practicing. Sure, I could not practice and play songs I’ve played for years without making any mistakes. However, I might feel a little stress for not having warmed up. I might not play as well as I would had I practiced. Stress equals pressure. As for chess, if you’re about to play an important match, be it against a rival or at a tournament, you need to warm up. You have to play a lot of chess prior to that important game so that you’re in a strong mental state. Playing a lot of chess doesn’t mean playing as many games as humanly possible as quickly as possible. This is a matter of quality over quantity. It’s better to play ten games of chess in which you’re concentrating and making good moves than fifty games in which your simply playing as fast as you can which equates to less concentration and bad moves. If you have a few months before that important game or match, use than time to prepare yourself by simply playing chess.

Avoid suddenly changing your opening right before an important game or match. If you decide to change things up at the last minute, you’ll pay a dreadful price. Concentrate on what you already know. Consider variations against your opening that you haven’t already explored. By doing so, you’ll be less likely to freeze up when your opponent makes that unexpected move. If your opponent makes an opening move you were not prepared for, don’t panic. Use the opening principles to guide your decision making process. These principles will steer you in the right direction.

Another tip, get a lot of rest. Not just the night before your game or match but during the weeks leading up to it. If you stay up late and get up early, operating on little sleep, three weeks prior to the game or match and then decide to go to bed early the night before, you’ll gain no benefit. The effects of good sleeping habits are cumulative so you have to start resting up at least a month before your game or match. Getting a good night’s sleep also helps to reduce your stress levels. Think of your brain as an engine. If you try and run an engine twenty four hours a day, day after day, week after week, the engine will break down. Give your brain a break. This means not playing chess constantly but allotting a period of time each day for your practice. Too much playing will cause you to start losing focus. As I previously mentioned, you want to play lot of chess but it’s quality over quantity.

Of course, engines require fuel to run and so does your brain. Eat healthy and do so way in advance of your game or match. Eating healthily is also a cumulative process. If you live on junk food and then eat a bunch of fresh fruit and vegetables the night before your game or match, you’ll receive no benefits. Start eating healthy at least two weeks prior to the game or match. Avoid sugar based products because sugar will give you a sudden surge or energy that quickly goes away leaving you feeling tired. The same things goes for caffeine. I’m not saying give up coffee or tea (I wouldn’t). I’m saying to keep your caffeine intake to a minimum. The problem with caffeine is that it amps you up with artificial energy and what goes up must come down. You don’t want to suffer a caffeine crash in the middle of a chess game.

Probably the biggest stress reducer is exercise. It’s also the one thing most people don’t want to do. However, you don’t have to go to a gym and pump iron until you look like a body builder. Try taking walks which are an excellent way of getting the blood flowing. Your brain needs oxygen and that oxygen is carried in the blood stream. Walking gets the blood pumping to where you need it, namely the brain! Walking is a great way to relieve stress (unless you choose to walk in a demilitarized zone). Tai Chi is a great way to improve both body and mind. Try bicycling or anything that gets the blood flowing. Start exercising at least a month prior to playing.

So there are some tips for relieving the pressure of life and the pressure of chess. Chess can be stressful no matter how much you love the game. It’s a mental workout but it doesn’t have to be a stressful wokout. Speaking of workouts, here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson