Keeping a Journal

I’m surprised that I don’t see more chess players carrying around journals to chronicle their progress and personal chess history. Keeping a chess journal is mandatory for my students once they reach a certain point in their studies. I was looking through one of my first chess journals the other day and was surprised at how much useful information it contained, information that helped me a great deal at the time. My old journal also reminded me of how far I’ve come as a chess player. It also chronicled a bit of personal history as well, reminding me of people and places I had long since forgotten about. I firmly believe that every chess player should keep a journal. Here are some guidelines to help you create your chess journal.

I use old fashion composition books for my journals because they’re inexpensive and easy to acquire. Their size, 8 ½ by 11 inches, gives me ample writing space. I opt for the college ruled composition books whose line spacing is narrower so you can get more information written down per page. You can use any type of notebook for your chess journal as long as it gives you ample room to write down your thoughts.

As stated earlier, the primary reason for keeping a chess journal is to chronicle your progress and personal history. Of course, many chess players will see personal progress in the form of an improvement in their rating but not everyone plays in rated tournaments. This is where the journal comes in handy. However, chess journal is more than just a measure of progress. It is also a small storehouse of useful information. Think of it as a training manual that has been customized to fit the needs of its owner. Your chess journal is a training manual that addresses the concepts and ideas you’re learning!

Each chess journal I’ve kept has addressed specific topics that I’ve had trouble fully understanding. Here’s an example: When I first started to learn about the opening principles, I came across numerous explanations and catch phrases such as “ a Knight on the rim is dim.” Rather than having to refer to the countless books I was reading on opening theory again and again, I simply wrote down key points from those books into my chess journal. After a few months of doing this, I had collected, within my journal, a small collection of critical information regarding opening principles. I have done the same for middle and endgame theory as well. The chess journal allows you to consolidate important information rather than have to search for it through countless books. While many players keep a separate book in which to record their games, I suggest recording specific games again within your journal that exemplify specific concepts and ideas your trying to master. This way you have a visual indicator as to where you stand regarding a concept. If you played a fantastic opening that adheres to all the opening principles, record that game in your journal!

The way to use your chess journal in conjunction with any chess books your reading is simple. As you read through a chess book, keep your journal handy. Write questions you want answers to in your journal. For example, I had written in my old chess journal, the question “why are pieces more powerful when they are centrally located?” Looking back on this question (asked around 1976), I see where I was at the time with my chess skills. In writing down questions you have into your journal you’ll be on the lookout for their answers when reading through your chess books. As you find your question’s answers, immediately write them down into your journal.

When you read through a section of a book, write down the basic key concepts into your journal. Doing this allows you to consolidate a chapters worth of information into a few journal pages. However, don’t just copy the book’s explanations word for word. Let’s say you’re studying middle game principles. You come across a succinct explanation of the relationship between attackers and defenders that makes sense to you. After you write down the book’s explanation, rewrite that explanation in your own words. This helps you to fully understand the concept. Because you have both the book’s explanation and your explanation written in your journal, you’ll always be able to access this valuable information quickly. Any concept you have trouble with should be detailed out in your journal.

The journal also serves as a wonderful way to preserve your personal chess history. Its too easy to forget many of the small details that made one tournament, for example, more interesting than another. Its these little details that we often forget. Because of this, I’ll keep notes on things I found interesting during a tournament in my journal. I recently played in a tournament in this wonderful old church. The lighting was absolutely amazing so I wrote about it in my journal. The reason I did this was because I want to improve the lighting at Academic Chess tournaments and the church had found a simple solution. I also wrote a little about the church’s architecture which was amazing.

While it might seem pointless to write about lighting and architecture in a chess journal, years from now, I’ll be able to look back on this part of my life with clarity because I recorded my own personal history. Our pasts have a way of becoming blurred over time. Maintaining a journal helps to keep things in absolute focus.

Imagine if your favorite chess player kept a journal from the very start of their chess careers. Imagine you could read those journals and travel along on their road to mastery. That would be fascinating reading! I tell my students that they might one day become a famous chess player and the world would delight in being able to read their journals.

You should keep a journal for a few reasons. First, it helps you measure your progress. Second, it allows you to keep a vast body of useful information in a small space and lastly, it preserves your personal history. As we get older, our minds get a bit fuzzy when it comes to details. We also tend to get a bit one sided when it comes to the facts. Fortunately, journals stay informatively sharp with the passing of time, existing as a written record of the times.

If your not keeping a journal start! In this age of Tablets and electronic Notebooks and all things technologically advanced (and prone to breaking), a paper notebook and pencil is a rather pleasant excursion into the past. Hey, a composition notebook doesn’t need batteries and will survive being dropped from great distances! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week, a game from one of my journals I might add!

Hugh Patterson


Why I Like Being Part of a Chess Team

Here is a recent win in Team League Chess. I played on Board 4 in all five of the games in which I was paired by the team captain of HappyFun. I won all five of those games and I had White in four of them. Most of my opponents blundered in the openings or early middle games and I didn’t really get into any endgames. HappyFun won the Kasparov Section of league play and I took second place individual in that section.

I first started playing for chess teams back in my Junior year of high school. Because I was new to serious chess and thus I was relatively weak at chess, I started off on Board Nine out of ten. By the time that I was a Senior in high school I had worked  my way up to Board One on the H. B. Plant High School Chess Team. Even so, my USCF standard rating was under 1400 points the entire time that I was at Plant. During my Junior year most of the strong players at Plant were seniors. One of the seniors was still in the 1300 range and he was the most arrogant of them all! However, he had a good sense of humor and thus I liked him anyway. His nickname was “Ace”. His brother’s nickname was “Speed”.

During the Southeastern (Region IV) High School chess championships “Ace” played in both the Open and the Under 1400 sections. Every round “Ace” had two games to play! He had the TD have his opponents sit next to each other during each round so that he could play both games simultaneously without having to move around much. The players in the Open section were saying, “What a fool!” while the players in the Under 1400 section were saying, “What a stud!”. I think that “Ace” was a little of both! I don’t remember how well “Ace” scored in either section, but the team won the Open section.

After I got out of the US Army I was the lowest board on a team that included two masters. I can remember there being only three members on my team but most chess teams have at least four members. One of the masters, Ron, was known to smoke Marijuana before playing chess and the other one, Tom, chewed him out if Ron lost a team game due to being high. What irritated me is that Tom and Ron played better chess drunk or stoned than I did completely sober! One good thing about having two masters on my team is the my team could win even if I lost my individual match. This was a team that played in Central Florida and I don’t remember it or the league having a name.

With HappyFun I helped the team out when the captain lost his individual matches. Sometimes it is nice to be the hero!

Mike Serovey


An Instructive Ending With Bishop Up For A Pawn

My student Eric (currently rated USCF 15xx) showed me a recent tournament game of his in which a rather fascinating ending came up. As Black, he had a Bishop and four Pawns versus White’s five Pawns. At first it seemed obvious that this ending should clearly be a win, but actually, it is not so obvious, because the semi-blocked nature of the position meant that it was not completely trivial for Black to break through White’s wall of Pawns. It turned out that he did come up with a very clever idea that is part of a good winning plan, but he did not manage to follow up on it, and seeing no way to make progress, accepted a draw with his opponent.

Winning an ending given a material advantage is very important, because at some point during one’s chess development, one plays well enough in the middlegame to get a material advantage, but if one is not able to convert in the endgame, it is a shame. In particular, when up more than two Pawns, there is usually a way to win, by taking advantage of imbalances on the board appropriately.

Looking at the game position carefully, we worked out a winning plan for Black. I think it is instructive because it brings together many important principles in endgame play. There are not any forced variations until the key transformative positions are reached. There may be other ways to win than the method I explain below; I would welcome feedback on other ways to win!

Initial position

First, let’s look at the initial position. The fundamental material imbalance:

  • Black has an extra light-squared Bishop.
  • White has an extra King-side Pawn, a g-Pawn that therefore could potentially be converted to a passed Pawn. However, Black is not in any danger of losing, because Black’s Bishop can easily sacrifice itself if necessary to prevent successful Queening.

Other interesting features:

  • White is lucky to have most Pawns on dark squares, out of attack from Black’s light-squared Bishop.
  • Black’s Pawns are currently all blocked up and therefore Black can win only by using an active King somehow to penetrate White’s position and either win some more Pawns or transform the position in order to create a passed Pawn.
  • But while activating the King, Black has to be careful about not letting White’s g-Pawn Queen. However, note that Black’s Bishop control’s the g8 Queening square.

An active King

The single most important lesson in endings is that an active King is critical. Where can Black’s King go? I think Eric was led astray because he was looking for a way to use the Black King to get through on White’s King side, but that is where White is actually strongest and has an extra Pawn. But if we look at the whole board, we see that Black can try to reach c4 or a4 in White’s position, to attack the d-Pawn or the b-Pawn with the King. Granted, White’s King could move over to the Queen side to defend the Pawns, and at least prevent Black from getting to c4. Black could get to a4, but then White can protect the b-Pawn with a3 and protected the a3-Pawn with a King shuffling between a2 and b2. These static considerations make it look like Black’s King cannot make progress.

Eric was also worried about how to get the Bishop involved in case of going over to the Queen side, because what if the Bishop got too far and White played g6 and then g7? We’ll see later how to address this concern.

Notice a Pawn asymmetry

However, Black has another imbalance to use: the Pawn situation on the Queen side is not symmetric. This is important. White has a b-Pawn while Black has an a-Pawn. This means that if Black can prepare the Pawn break …a5, if White ever trades the b-Pawn for Black’s a-Pawn, then White ends up with a passed a-Pawn but Black can then use the second Pawn break …c5 to create either a passed c-Pawn or passed d-Pawn. In an even-material ending, the “outside” passed Pawn (White’s a-Pawn in this situation) is advantageous, but with Black having an extra Bishop, there is no advantage to having the outside passed Pawn, because Black’s Bishop can cover it while Black’s King is free to press on with its own “inside” passed Pawn.

If White protects the b4-Pawn with a3, then Black can just trade Pawns, leaving White with a weak b4-Pawn. In that case, the ending is easy to win for Black, because Black can simply gain the opposition (using waiting moves with the Bishop) to break through and win either the b-Pawn or the d-Pawn.

Therefore, our conclusion is that if Black can safely manage to get the King to b6 or b5 in order to prepare a5, the game is a win. Note that no calculation of sequences of moves is necessary to come to this conclusion: all that is needed is

  • Fundamental understanding of Pawn breaks and passed Pawns
  • Understanding how to win by “taking the opposition” (in a King and Pawn setting)

The final question then is, how to perform this King manoeuvre while preventing White from trying to Queen the g-Pawn?

A clever Bishop manoeuvre

Eric hit upon a clever Bishop manoeuvre that, if followed up, would have worked great.

First, he played …f5 to force White to play g5. Then he moved his Bishop to d3, a6, c8, e6, and finally f7, in order to protect the g6 and h5 squares from White’s King invasion. This was a fine creative plan.

Unfortunately, he agreed to a draw shortly after this manoeuvre, not being able to find the winning plan that involved activating the King and using two Pawn breaks. He saw that after getting the King around, if he ever tried to bring the Bishop around, that would risk White’s g-Pawn advancing. This is in fact a valid concern, but the missing part of the picture was the importance of the …a5 Pawn break and the subsequent follow up. It turns out that there is something very subtle for Black black needs to do to time that Pawn break just properly, to avoid a draw.


The concept of triangulation is very important in endings. The main idea is to “waste time” in order to force the weaker side to reach a position on the move from a position in which the stronger side is on the move (but does not want to be on the move). In the analysis below, a critical position arises in which Black needs to prevent White’s King from becoming too active after a planned Pawn break. By triangulation, Black forces White’s King to the rim at a3 before playing the Pawn break …c5.

Control of the Queening square

It is also important to note that Black can wander just far enough with the Bishop to win White’s a4-Pawn, because of the control of White’s Queening square g8. Black’s Bishop has enough time to make it back to d5 after White plays g6 and g7, to stop White from Queening on g8. Whew!


I thought this was an instructive ending to work out, because of the many themes necessary to understand and integrate in order to create a winning plan.

Full analysis

Franklin Chen


Guidelines For Teaching Kids Endgames and Tactics

Once a student is familiar with piece movements, attacks, check and checkmate, my next topic is to teach him or her elementary mates. This was explained by Capablanca in his book Chess Fundamentals.

“The first thing a student should do, is to familiarise himself with the power of pieces. This can best be done by learning how to accomplish quickly some of the simple mates.”

In my view tactics and endgames should be learned in parallel. For tactics it’s best to proceed step by step to develop tactical skills very gradually and effectively. I have had very good results with that. But for the endgame I referred to many books before finally choosing ‘GM RAM’. This seems very strange at first as there are just 256 dry positions to work out without even knowing who is to move! But once you go though the you realise that the first 58 endgame positions are really essential. I realised that 70% or more of my endgame knowledge is based around those 58 positions, and these cover the following topics:

- Key Square
- Rule of Square
- Opposition
- Shouldering
- Pawn breakthrough
- Essential Rook ending (Philidor and Lucena)
- Queen vs. Rook endgame
- Essential Queen endgames

These elements are all vital for practical endgame play. And as there is nothing ready-made it can actually actually inspire us to work through them in our own way.

There is a problem when a coach focuses on the endgame. A few of my students see the endgame as boring, insisting that I teach them more and more tactics, but the problem is that they can’t understand that they are not knowledgeable enough to decide what is good for them.

Accordingly I have not changed my way even at the cost of some students going elsewhere for lessons. Quality demands sacrifices.

Ashvin Chauhan


A Modular Approach To Chess Opening Development

In the first course I made at my Tiger Chess site I presented a modular approach to building an opening repertoire. I have explored this idea before, for example in my Chessbase DVD, Build a 1.d4 Repertoire, which showed how you can start with a queen’s pawn opening such as the London System and then gradually replace the lines with more sophisticated ones. But now I’ve taken it way further.

Essentially you can play set-ups with White pawns on d4 and e3 (based around the Koltanowski Colle) and as Black have pawns on d5 and e6 (the French and Queen’s Gambit Declined). This sounds like a simple approach, and it’s certainly easy to get started with it. But if someone brings sufficient middle game understanding to this simple initial set-up, it’s quite enough to become a Grandmaster. If you don’t believe me then ask Magnus Carlsen.

This is the whole issue with openings, only a few players bring sufficient middle game understanding to the table to play them well. It’s this understanding that should be the main focus of a developing player, and a simple repertoire which leads to some nice pawn structures and plans is the best way to complement this development.

Here anyway is my Youtube video on the course explaining a bit more:

Nigel Davies


The Second Front (2)

This week, we have an example of second-front strategy in the endgame. In the diagram position, the obvious move is 35.b4+, but after 35…axb4 36.axb4 Kd5 37.Bc4+ Kc6, followed by Nd6, it is not clear whether White can make any real progress.
Instead, Dydyshko focuses on the weakened light squares e4-f5-g6. which can provide a potential avenue for his king to raid the kingside, whilst Black is pre-occupied with stopping the passed b-pawn. 35.h4! prepares to fix those weaknesses with h4-h5. At move 36, Black responds to this possible kingside invastion by putting his knight on d6, to cover e4-f5, but then White turns his attention back to the queenside, by bringing his king to a4 to support the passed pawn. Black could have stopped this by playing 36…Nb6 instead, but then White would have shown his idea on the other flank: 37.Bc2 Nc8 38.g4! Nb6 39.Kd3! Kd5 40.Bb3+ Kc5 41.Ke4! and the king invades decisively on the king’s flank.

In the game, the invasion on the second front never actually happened, but the threat, as usual, proved stronger than its execution. Faced with threats on both wings, Black was unable to maintain the defence. His 39th was a blunder, which loses another pawn, but even after the superior 39…Kb6 40.b4 axb4 41.Kxb4!, White’s passed a-pawn will prove decisive.

Steve Giddins


Child Genius

Yesterday evening I watched the first episode of Channel 4′s Child Genius, a programme in which exceptionally gifted young children compete in a series of tests to identify the ‘brainiest child in the country’.

There were some seriously scary parents on view in the first episode, parents who are devoting their lives to proving a point, that their child should excel in their chosen discipline. It’s parents like these who, in the eyes of many, give child prodigies a bad name.

Of course these programmes are set up by producers who have a specific agenda. I’m sure most of the parents are much less extreme than some of those featured last night, and are doing their best to encourage children with an exceptional natural talent.

We had two children in Richmond Junior Club who between them broke a lot of age records, who both had parents who were extremely encouraging, but not over pushy, whose children genuinely enjoyed chess rather than being forced into it. As it happened, one of them, Murugan Thiruchelvam, eventually decided to do other things with his life, while the other, Luke McShane, continued playing, but as an amateur rather than a professional.

The other day I received an email from parents (presumably not themselves chess players) looking for a chess club where their three-year-old twins could learn the game. I replied explaining why their children were far too young to learn in such an environment. They replied that they understood, but their Korean neighbours were teaching their children (of the same age) to play chess so they felt they ought to arrange lessons for their children as well.

So, what then of Magnus Carlsen, the highest rated player in the history of the game? Did he start at this age? Let’s find out.

I’ve just been re-reading Simen Agdestein’s book about Carlsen’s early career, first published 10 years ago under the title Wonderboy, and recently republished as How Magnus Carlsen Became the Youngest Chess Grandmaster.

Magnus’s father Henrik is himself a strong amateur whose rating has been as high as 2095. Being born into a chess environment is a big advantage for children who start young. Henrik was keen for his son to take up his favourite game. It was clear from an early age that Magnus had exceptional gifts. At the age of two he could complete jigsaw puzzles with more than 50 pieces. At the age of four he was constructing Lego models intended for children up to ten years older. He also had an extraordinary memory. By the time he was five he knew by heart the area, population, flag and capital city of every country in the world. So Henrik thought he might well have a potential chess prodigy on his hands and taught his son how the pieces moved.

Magnus had no problem learning the moves but understanding the game was another thing entirely. Henrik would play with just his king and pawns while his son started with his whole army, but Magnus showed no comprehension of what was happening in the games, so Henrik dropped the idea. He tried again a year or two later, but again with no success. Even at the age of eight he was still losing to Scholar’s Mate.

But then, very suddenly, something happened. Here’s Simen Agdestein:

“Magnus began to sit by himself and shuffle the pieces. He could sit for hours moving the pieces, in known and unknown patterns, finding combinations and repeating games and positions that his father had shown him.”

Shortly afterwards he played in his first tournament, scoring 6½/11 in the youngest age group of the Norwegian Championships, and from then on played in competitions regularly, making dramatic progress.

Teach your children the moves at home when they’re young if you want, but don’t forget even Magnus Carlsen didn’t start taking chess seriously and playing in competitions until he was eight. If your children don’t have his natural talent, it could well be that the best age to encourage them to take the game seriously will be rather later than that. Magnus didn’t suffer from starting real chess at eight so there’s no reason at all why I should run chess classes for three-year-olds as some parents seem to expect.

So why do we encourage early years chess? Teachers do so because they’re hoping to make their reputation by discovering a prodigy. Tournament organisers do so because they think they’ll get more entries and make more money. Parents with no knowledge about chess do so because they’ve heard the message from teachers and organisers in the media and know no better.

Let’s get away from the absurd idea that all children should start chess very young and get across a more sensible message: that chess is a fantasatic game, the best game in the world, many of us would agree, but a game best suited to older children, not younger children.

Next time I’ll look at what exactly we can expect from children of different ages as they learn and play chess.

Richard James



I had no intention of writing this article as of two weeks ago until I was faced with an interesting situation at one of my week long chess camps. A parent emailed me regarding enrolling her child in the camp. The only information she provided about her child was that he was eight years old, played chess and was dyslexic. Having had a problem with dyslexia myself, I looked forward to meeting this young man because I thought of him as a kindred spirit. When the young man arrived for the start of our week long camp, we quickly discovered that the young man was autistic and extremely disruptive because his condition. While we (my interns and I) were able to keep things under control, we would have been able provide a better camp experience for this student had we been informed from the start of the true nature of the problem. That got me thinking about honesty and how it effects your training as a student.

Of course, the above incident was an extremely harsh example of not being forthright about issues that can effect a child’s education on and off the chessboard. However, it serves as a strong reminder for both parent’s and students to be open about any issues that may effect one’s abilities as a student. Simple honesty will go a long way towards helping a student achieve their goals.

I have put a great deal of time into learning how to teach children with learning disabilities. I did so because many of my students were being presented to me (by their parents) with mild to moderate learning issues. If I wanted to succeed at being a chess teacher, I needed to be able to work with these kids rather than do what many enrichment program instructors do, simply ignore the so called problem child. I’m a hard liner on this topic. If you’re not willing to work with a learning disabled student, within reason, then teaching may not be for you. However, it is up to the parent to inform you, the teacher, of any issues.

I implore parents to be completely honest with their child’s chess teacher before starting any chess class or private lessons. I know its painful to have to discuss your child’s problems with a teacher you don’t know. However, in doing so, you’ll be giving that teacher crucial information needed to help provide the best lessons possible for the child in question. Being honest about a child’s abilities is absolutely great for the child. A couple of my students who have had moderate to serious learning disabilities have gone on to do some amazing things with their chess. Why? Because their parents were upfront about their child’s issues which allowed me to tailor my program to meet specific educational needs.

Now we’ll look at honesty and the student with no special needs, the students who make up the bulk of my classes. Do these students need a healthy does of honesty? Absolutely! While they may not have to deal with any type of learning disability, they do disable their learning process by not being completely honest with themselves. This applies to children and adults as well!

Often, when a parent approaches me for classroom or private chess lessons, they proudly describe their child’s great skills. Their child shows, in the parent’s words, above average potential. I hear this a lot and don’t fault any parent for being proud of their child. However, I sit down and play a few games with the child in question to assess just how skilled they are. More often than not, the above average child is a bit less skilled than the parent thinks!

The parent who thinks their child is above average often inadvertently passes this idea onto their child. In private chess lessons, this isn’t a great problem. However, in a classroom setting, a child who thinks he or she is a cut above the rest can face a hard emotional downfall when he or she squares off against a truly strong player of the same age. Suddenly, the falsely built up confidence is gone and the child in question is facing emotional turmoil.

I teach my students to use honesty as a learning tool. The more you use this tool, the more you’ll learn. What I mean by being honest, is being honest about your skills or lack of skills. People, young and old, often don’t like to ask questions because they feel that doing so some how makes them appear less informed than those around them. These are the same people that might think a specific question to be stupid. I teach my students that the only stupid question is the one not asked. Students should get in the habit of asking questions to increase their knowledge base.

At the start of each school session, I tell my students that, if I provide an explanation of a concept that doesn’t make sense to them, they raise their hands and ask for a second explanation (or a third). I will go over a concept again and again, employing different explanations, until that concept is understood by my students. We improve our chess using the idea that actively asking questions strengthens our knowledge. Question everything.

Another honesty tool I employ is self explanation. How many times have you studied a concept, convinced yourself that you understand that concept only to realize a real lack of comprehension when you try to apply that concept to a situation? Children will often nod their heads in agreement, seemingly following the lesson, only to have things fall apart when they try to employ that lesson to their own chess game. To reduce this problem and determine who is actually understanding the lesson, I have my students write out (in their own words) a summary of the lesson’s key concepts. Adults studying the game of chess, or any other subject for that matter, should try this.

Honesty is a critical if you wish to improve your game. There’s no shame in not understanding a concept. You may have to spend some additional time in your studies but you’ll get a lot farther in developing your skills than the person who merely skims through their studies. Honestly assessing your abilities is the best way to start your journey along the road of chess improvement. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Blind In One Eye And Can’t See Out The Other One

The game below is from the second round of my most recent event that I played in Colorado Springs. This game was a comedy of errors. I lost the first round and I think that my opponent did too, but I am not sure of that. Roger appears to be about ten years older than I am and I think that fatigue may have played a part in the way that he played this game. I took a lunch break between the first round and the second round and thus I arrived about five minutes late for the start of this game. That lost time may have hurt me in the endgame when we had a time scramble.

I was disappointed with a draw in this game because I thought that I was winning the endgame. We were the last game to finish that round and we got only 15 minutes to recover before the start of the third and final round. I ended up drawing my third round as well due to fatigue from this round. However, when I played over this game with a chess engine I became grateful for the draw because it was then that I realized that Roger let me get away with some horrendous blunders!

The first eight moves was pretty much what I wanted to play as White. Black’s ninth move pretty much started to mess up my plans because I had never seen that kind of setup against the Botvinnik System before. I misplayed the next ten moves or so and I ended up in an inferior position that Roger eventually let me out of.

On move number 16 I had achieved equality only to give Black a slight edge on move number 17. I outright blundered on move number 19, but Roger failed to take advantage of that. Judging by his facial expressions at a couple of points in this game Roger was actually impressed by some of my blunders!

I blundered again on move number 21. At move number 23 Black was clearly winning. Black missed a winning move on move number 24. I blundered again on move number 26 and Black let me get away with it. My moves number 27 and 28 were again blunders. Black finally finds a winning idea on move number 28. Black gives back part of his advantage on move number 31. Once again, I blundered on move number 35. Black blunders on move number 36 and allows me to regain equality. Black plays some inferior moves on numbers 44, 45, and 46 inclusive that allow me the opportunity to win, but I failed to take advantage of that. It seems that from this point on, every time that one of us made a weak move the other one matched it. I gave away my passed d pawn in the time scramble and then agreed to a draw.

Mike Serovey


How Do You Play Against 1 h3?

When I was 10 years old in 1980, shortly after playing in my first couple of rated tournaments, I came under the influence of the then-current Michigan Open champion, a master who changed the course of my life by introducing me to the bizarre in chess and therefore stimulating my imagination, resulting in my developing a taste for the unorthodox (for both better and worse in my chess development). In particular, he showed me Grob’s Attack, the opening in which White plays 1 g4 as the first move, a move that violates all the conventional principles that most chess players are taught when first learning the game. I never actually played this opening, because to his credit, he not only showed me the traps White can set for Black, but also how Black can sidestep the traps and get an advantage.

Knowing how to face unorthodox openings in chess, both technically and psychologically, is an important part of growth for a serious student of chess. It is extremely easy for chess players to fall into an unthinking automatism in the opening stages of a game, following some pattern of moves without understanding what their purpose is, or without doing at least some rudimentary calculation when the position starts becoming unfamiliar and out of the scope of memorized patterns.

In particular, many chess players as Black behave in a reactive way rather than an active way, because of the fact that many mainstream openings involve White placing considerable pressure on Black from the outset, such that Black is essentially forced to defend. But what if White plays in a less aggressive way? This is when true understanding and creativity are demanded.

I believe that every player as Black should have a prepared personal plan against each of White’s twenty possible opening moves (eight possible Pawn advances of one square, eight possible Pawn advances of two squares, and two possible moves of each Knight). The plan should be not just some new memorized pattern, but one that can be explained in terms of strategic and tactical factors, whether general or specific. I find that being able to confidently verbalize one’s reasoning (even if it is not necessarily entirely correct) is important.

1 h3 as an example

I’m not going to give a Black recommendation against 1 h3 here; instead, I want you to come up with your own, by considering some of the following questions, and answering them for yourself. Even better, go further by adding your own questions and answering them as well.

What is White’s purpose?

The first step is to ask what purpose White has in making the move. There must be some objective to it (even if you can calculate that you can prevent White’s plan from having an advantageous outcome). What squares are now attacked (or protected) that were not, before the move? What squares have been, by contrast, unprotected or weakened? What lines of development or attack have been opened, or closed?

In the case of 1 h3, by thinking about such questions, you might observe:

  • White has not made any progress in developing pieces, either by actually developing a piece or by opening a line to enable development of a piece.
  • White still does not have any control over the center squares.
  • White does control the g4 square now.
  • White has weakened the g3 square, which is now only protected by the f-Pawn.
  • White has made space on the h2 square for a piece to possibly be moved there.

Then you might hypothesize that perhaps:

  • White may be planning to support a g4 Pawn advance.
  • White may be thinking way ahead, in anticipation of Black wanting to eventually put a Bishop or Knight on g4, but is preventing it already.
  • White may be thinking way ahead, preparing to eventually develop the dark-squared Bishop to f4, and then having h2 as an escape square in case the Bishop is attacked.

If you considered the last two of these possibilities, you are probably an advanced player who already has a grasp of mainstream opening theory and are able to relate it to unorthodox moves.

What is your purpose as Black?

Let’s say that you usually play the standard move 1…Nf6 as Black against mainstream opening moves other than 1 e4. Maybe you are used to playing for a Nimzo-Indian or Queen’s Indian type of setup with 1…Nf3, 2…e6. If you went on autopilot, you might quickly play 1…Nf6 against 1 h3 only to be faced with 2 g4. And then if 2…e6, 3 g5 might follow, chasing your Knight away. Now, it’s not the case that White actually has any advantage even if you played on autopilot; in fact, frankly, White still has a worse position despite autopilot. But if autopilot is a symptom of not thinking, you could quickly find yourself in a bad position after all, after several more indifferent moves.

You should probably question why you would play 1…Nf6 against 1 h3 at all. One observation you could make is that you are actually playing White in this game. For example, if you normally play 1 e4 as White, why not consider 1…e5 against 1 h3? Or if you normally play 1 d4 as White, why not consider 1…d5?

Against passive or slow moves by White, consider thinking in terms of actually “playing White”, with reversed colors. Also, even one tempo down, there may be benefits for that missing tempo. For example, might it be possible to exploit White’s weakened dark squares g3 and h2?


I believe there is considerable valuable in devoting some serious time thinking about and writing down your thoughts about how you would approach playing against an opening move like 1 h3. It will expose assumptions you have about the nature of the delicate balance between White and Black in the initial board position, and what you expect to happen in the middlegame when it comes to King safety, weak squares, and a head start in either defense or attack.

Franklin Chen