The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I like to ask my students if they know the difference between a good move and a great move. The correct answer is; good moves are good but great moves win games. Of course, bad moves are those moves that cost you the game. How about ugly moves? Ugly moves can either be bad moves that are really bad but, on occasion, are moves that produce surprising results (traps and tricks). The point here is that each move you make within a game of chess can determine the outcome of the game early on, even before the first attack is launched. Therefore, you should consider each move very carefully and never dismiss a bad or ugly move as bad or ugly) until you’ve examined it.

Carefully considering your moves isn’t rocket science and doing so will likely do more for your game than anything else. Of course, the beginner might say “with all the possible moves you can make in any given position and the fact that I am a beginner, how can I possibly find a great move let alone a good one?” Fortunately, the beginner has a weapon at his or her disposal, one employed by the world’s top players. That weapon is principled play.

Principled play envolves employment of the game’s proven principles when considering any move. When the beginner seriously studies chess, they learn specific principles for each phase of the game (opening, middle and endgame). These principles have been tested over hundreds of years of play and have been proven to be sound. Take the opening principles, for example. Beginners should always consider the “big three” as I call them, controlling the center of the board with a pawn or two from the start, developing one’s minor pieces towards the central squares and castling. I’ve seen so many beginners move their pawns and pieces in a very random or disconnected way at the start of the game. I say disconnected, because your pawns and pieces should be coordinated from move one. Pawns and pieces must work together, in positional harmony from the game’s start, otherwise you’ll never achieve control of the board.

Principles are the beginners lighthouse, providing a guiding light when the seas of an unknown position become dark and dangerous. When faced with a given position in which the opposition’s plan isn’t clear, it is difficult to know how to react. However, in the case of the opening, you can’t go wrong (in most cases) with the active development of your pawns and pieces. Remember, the name of the game during the opening is to control the center of the board. Only after you gain a foothold in the center should you think about possible attacks.

During the opening, a beginner following sound opening principles will be making decent if not good moves. He or she should aim for great moves later on in their chess careers, when they develop some skills, unless the opportunity for checkmate suddenly appears which would qualify the move delivering mate as great. For now, and I ‘m speaking of the opening still, the beginner should be happy with making good moves that activate the pieces. The beginner should also be on the lookout for ugly opposition moves that might reek havoc for them. Ugly moves can hide a devilish underlying intent. By this, I mean moves that set up opening traps. I’ve mentioned three things you definitely should do during the opening. However, there are things you shouldn’t do and it’s these things that often signal a potential trap being laid. For example, moving the same piece twice or bringing the Queen out early can signal a possible trap. The beginner should look at these moves, especially when made by a player who has some obvious skill at the chessboard and ask the question “why would a good chess player break a principle proven to be sound?” Traps can easily be spotted because the moves required to set the trap sometimes go against principled play. This is what I mean by ugly moves appearing to be seemingly bad but having the potential to produce a brilliant result. It should be noted that you don’t often see highly skill chess players making ugly moves, but when they do, expect some exciting fireworks on the board, fireworks apt to blow your position out of the water!

Great moves take time to spot. I have my beginning students always try to come up with three possible or candidate moves before committing to one. We do this because beginners have a tendency to jump on the first seemingly reasonable move they see. While they might find a good move, they’ll miss out on finding a better move without further inspection and contemplation of the position. Finding anything in the way of decent moves is difficult when you first learn them game because you haven’t developed your pattern recognition skills yet. This is why it’s so important to use the games principles as a guide. Great moves are often the result of a combination of moves and beginners have trouble creating combinations when they first start playing. Beginners should aim for finding good moves first.

This is why trying to come up with three candidate moves before committing to one is crucial. When looking for multiple moves, you’re forced to really examine the entire board, considering not only your pawns and pieces but those of your opponent. Board vision, seeing everything on the board, assessing opposition threat values, etc., is a skill you need to develop over time. Beginners tend to look at a position and focus on the immediately noticeable action, such as the pieces surrounding the central squares going into the middle-game. They miss opposition pieces sitting out of their centered line of sight and it’s those pieces that can end up doing a great deal of damage.

An important idea that every beginner should embrace is the idea that even a slightly bad move (as opposed to an absolutely bad move) can start the downward spiral of a losing game. It’s the snowball effect. If you roll a small snowball from the top of a mountain, it picks up additional snow and speed, becoming bigger and faster until it’s knocking over houses at the mountain’s base. Bad moves have the same effect, making your position become worse and worse. Bad moves have a cumulative effect that leads to loss and should be avoided. Think small advantages rather than big advantages if you cannot seem to find a solid move right away. Never just go for broke. One must think about the repercussions of every move they make in terms of the snowball effect. All it takes is one bad move to ruin a game!

Can beginner’s find great moves? Yes they can but it’s extremely difficult. The way to make finding great moves less difficult is to employ the hardest skill the beginner must learn, patience. Patience means being able to methodically look at a position and consider all the possibilities for both you and your opponent’s pawns and pieces. Patience means taking your time. Fortunately, as your skills on the chessboard grow so does your ability to thoroughly examine a position in less time (while still exercising patience). Use principled play or game principles as your guide. It’s a lot easier to determine a good move when you have a mental checklist (game principles) that defines what a good move idea is for a particular phase of the game. You never see a top player carelessly thrust a pawn or piece into the game, hoping they get lucky. No, they carefully think about potential moves and use principled play to guide them.

Beginner’s shouldn’t worry about finding great moves right away because that comes later with experience at the chessboard. Just look for good moves. As for ugly moves, such as those that set up traps, don’t try to employ them, making chess traps a way of life. See an ugly move for what it may be and refrain from making them yourself. Principled play will always trump the trap, but you should always be on the look out for a trick or trap. To prove my point about principled play, I present a game between two Grandmasters, one of whom ignores using sound principles. You don’t have to think long and hard about who gets punished! Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

The Obsession Talent

Being obsessive, especially if it goes with being compulsive too, is often seen as disorder. But for chess it’s actually a wonderful gift that enables people to put in the required amount of practice to make progress with the game. The often quoted figure of 10,000 hours time investment just isn’t going to happen with ‘normal’ people as their study time will be interrupted with checking text messages, phoning people up, making cups of tea and eating biscuits.

Being an obsessive person myself I’ve never had a problem with silly distractions. But what should someone do if they don’t have this talent? An internet search came up blank, but then I had the bright idea to simply reverse guidelines against obsessive tendencies. I found an article here and suggest adapting it as follows:

1) Focus on chess mastery and resolve to dismiss distractions.

2) Keep your mind on the board and the moves.

3) Read chess books, nothing else.

4) Understand that chit chat and socialization are a waste of time.

5) Eat simply and order in pizza rather than cook.

6) Accept chess as your lord and master.

7) Seek out practice partners who share your chess obsession, they can function as a ‘social outlet’ without getting distracted.

8) Exercise at home with a chess DVD running at the same time.

9) Only consider activities that will help develop your chess.

10) Don’t do anything for others, focus on your own needs.

11) Avoid wasting time on other activities.

So there you have it, an excellent template for making progress with chess. And if you can’t hack it then just accept staying weak, being the club secretary or something and losing to those with more focus and determination. Obsession isn’t a problem, it’s a talent!

Nigel Davies

Back in the Saddle Again

With opposite coloured bishops the attacking side has in effect an extra piece in the shape of his bishop. –  Mikhail Botvinnik

I had a difficult few months of chess, but I’m back in the saddle again. Even my opponent, USCF Life Master Brian Douglas Wall, noticed and commented upon the change.

For one thing, I’ve gotten over what in retrospect was probably pneumonia.  But the important change is that I’ve settled some issues that were spoiling the game for me.

  1. I spent some time feeling I had penned myself in too closely in my choice of openings. But that which I concluded some years ago about my formal repertoire I believe still valid. The wide spectrum of opening possibilities mostly lie for me in the realm of rapid or blitz chess. I have to follow my own interpretation of game theory as it applies to a comprehensive approach to the openings and cannot play with heart in any other fashion.
  2. The utilitarian justification for continuing to participate in formal competition is that it requires the discipline to find the coup au plus juste first time, every time. This is a good life and work discipline.

In any event, my play in tonight’s game conformed at least to my minimum expectations.

My opponent with White chose the “Chicken Classical” against my Modern Defense with 6. h3. I thought for a very long time and chose 6 … Na6 with an early c5 and a Benoni pawn formation. White sought action with a temporary pawn sacrifice, but dynamic equality ensued leading to a Q+R+B ending with bishops of opposite colors in which White had to abandon his intended pawn-snatching raid and force the trade of queens to save his king.

Jacques Delaguerre

The Automaton

A precursor of the chess computer was the chess automaton. The best known of these was The Turk, a fake chess playing machine that had a human chess master hiding inside. This device had quite a colorful history, defeating Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin during it’s active playing period of 84 years.

These days there’s no need for fakes, which seems sad in a way. No deception, no employment for diminutive chess masters and no awed spectators. Just a highly sophisticated machine wiping the floor with its human opponents.

On the subject of sadness and chess automatons I came across some music entitled Laments of a Chess Automaton. Actually I rather like it:

Nigel Davies

Mate Or No Mate?

Mate or no mate?

“This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end …”
The End, The Doors

This is such a deep and inspirational song! Have you tried to listen to it with your eyes closed and no other distractions around? I suggest you do it at least once. It will be an experience like no other!…

In chess the most exciting end is checkmate. You want to reach it on the winning side and avoid it on the losing side. I grew up learning the importance of knowing when to resign and from this point of view there was an unwritten rule of resigning when all hope was lost; as a result being checkmated was the ultimate humiliation reserved for patzers. In this new Millenium a lot of students are taught to play all the way to checkmate even in intercontinental play; not sure what is your opinion on it and I will stick with what I know. My students will mostly resign way before checkmate if needed!

Solving problems outside the box is a very popular concept and in chess it takes breathtaking forms. Over the years I collected such materials from the internet and I used them with extreme success at the club. Students are always thrilled of the challenge and engage fully. I guess they are more excited only when allowed to play bughouse which goes down the same alley. Here is one such doozy for you: white moves and DOES NOT checkmate in 1:


Common, give it a try before scrolling down! Do you feel special for tricking “the end” for one more move?…

I gave the above puzzle and a few similar ones to a couple of promising students as the admission test for this year at the club. They missed passing it at the end of June and I wanted to give them something appropriate instead of the same test they already did. Their reaction was typical: it started with “Are you kidding us? We will have the answer as soon as it is written down”, to “What do you mean? We can figure out a few ways to solve it” and ended with a desperate cry “It is impossible!”. Funny though neither gave up on it and continued to look at the board stubbornly, looking for the solution. One of them found a solution I had to argue with:
“White offers a draw!”
Now that is as outside the box as it can get, right? We had a good laugh about it and it is the reason for writing this piece.

The other student took the engineering approach: started to eliminate the pieces and moves not helping:
1. Pawns were eliminated first
2. Knights followed: either knight’s move would checkmate
3. Rh8 was trapped
5. Kg8 was a non factor
6. The remaining pieces to look at were Ba8, Bh7 and Rg6. Did you notice the bishops are on the same colour? You must be a good player.
Now by process of elimination Ba8 has only one move 1.Bxb7# we do not need and Bh7 cannot move, but he can deliver a nasty check when Rg6 moves. This finally brings us to Rg6 and we either see it or start trying all moves along the 6th rank:
a) 1.Rh6# as Rb7 is pinned
b) Immediately after this we see Rf6#, Re6#, Rd6#, Rb6# and Ra6# are similar with “a”
Now you got it for sure, the only move unpinning Rb7. Congratulations!

Valer Demian

The Two Bishops

The solution to last Monday’s problem is that Black must play 1.. Rd8.

If he plays 1… Rxd5, White has 2. Qb8+ Kg7 3. Rxh7+! Kxh7 4. Rh4+ Kg7 5. Qh8 mate. You should always check why an opponent has left a pawn to be taken.

This week’s problem is about the value of the two Bishops. White has the two bishops, but how can he activate his passive bishop on f1?

Steven Carr

The Price of Chess

My attention was recently drawn to a discussion on Mumsnet about the cost of school chess clubs.

The original poster was of the opinion that £6.50 a week for a school chess club (an hour after school) was rather too expensive. She thought that she ought to teach her son at home instead. The subject generated a lot of responses, with many mums thinking the price was not unreasonable given that the school had to pay for heating and lighting as well as buying equipment. Others, though, claimed that extra-curricular clubs were free in their children’s schools. The original poster later explained that this was a primary school, not a prep school, and that the club was run, not by a grandmaster, but by a retired teacher. I’m aware of at least one school in my borough where the club is run by a retired teacher who is, as far as I know, not a particularly strong player. Whether or not it’s this school I have no idea.

As my previous two posts have mentioned, primary school chess clubs of this nature are little more than child-minding services which provide kids with some low-level enjoyment moving pieces around fairly randomly with their friends and occasionally winning a fluffy mascot for their pains. Whether or not you consider £6.50 an hour for child-minding is good value for money is, I suppose, up to you. I’m assuming here that we’re talking about a fairly affluent part of the country.

It’s actually rather more than I charge for clubs in similar schools. I can give a couple of examples.

School A, a small primary school, runs a club with little staff involvement. This term runs for 12 weeks and I charge £60 per term: £5 per child per session. I’m hoping for at least 10 children, for whit I will make £50 per hour, which I think is reasonable. Last term I had a few more than that. I’m not yet certain about this term. Some schools using this model charge the chess tutor for use of the classroom: this school, at least as yet, doesn’t do so.

School B is a much larger primary school where there is a teacher involved with the club. She deals with the club administration and is in the room at the beginning and end of the session. While the club is in progress she’s working in the next room and can hear what’s happening. The club started last October and has been very popular and successful: we had rather too many children last term and were running short of both space and equipment. It was also not possible for me to spend very long with each child. We decided to limit the club to 24 children in future and try to set up another club, mainly for less experienced players on another day. I requested my standard rate of £50 per session, and last term the school made a significant profit. Starting from this term, it was explained to me, teachers are now paid £30 per hour for involvement in extra-curricular clubs, which seems reasonable to me. The school also expects all clubs to make a profit, so they require 20 children paying £5 each to make the club viable. That comes to £100 per session: £50 for me, £30 for the teacher and £20 for the school coffers. Will they find another 20 children? I’ll probably know the answer by the time you read this.

Back on Mumsnet, the original poster implied that her son didn’t know how to play chess and perhaps that she wanted to sign him up for the club to save her the trouble. I make it very clear to all my schools, and insist that they make it clear in their letters to parents, that my clubs are for children who can already play chess, not for complete beginners. (School B above, though, has decided to target the possible second club specifically for beginners, which is fine.)

A poster called ‘LauraRoslin’ (actually the pseudonym of a male IM who is certainly not a mum, and not, as far as I know, a dad) made a very pertinent point:

There are at least three different models a chess club can be run on, and you can decide for yourself how much you are prepared to pay for any of them:

(a) a basic teaching-the-moves course, such that the participants end up knowing how to play a legal game of chess.

(b) a club where it’s expected that everybody already knows the moves, and an environment is provided for them to be able to play against each other (this is essentially the model that nearly all adult chess clubs in this country follow).

(c) a club where it’s expected that everybody already knows the moves and wants to become a better player, and specific training is given towards this aim.

This is quite correct. In fact most school clubs are essentially Laura’s (b). Junior Chess Clubs, for which you’ll probably pay more than £5 an hour, are (c). Schools, or Junior Chess Clubs, could also run (a), but by and large they don’t, possibly because most parents prefer (wrongly, in my opinion) to teach their kids the basics themselves. Richmond Junior Club runs an (a) group and School B’s proposal for a second club would also be run as an (a) group.

Within less than two minutes of Laura’s posting, another poster suggested a club that caters for all of the above. Laura replied, again quite correctly:

“A club that caters for all of the above” is usually a bad model, because it doesn’t serve any of the groups it’s catering for well.

Quite – but parents often fail to understand that you can’t just teach kids the moves in half an hour and then expect them to become strong players.

In answer to the original question, £6.50 an hour, assuming a low-level primary school club in an affluent area, is quite high but not entirely unreasonable. It depends on various factors such as the size of the club and how much profit the school wants to make. If the teacher is not a strong player and is making more than £50 an hour, it’s probably a bit high. But if you’re a parent you make your choice and you pay your money. Or not, as you prefer.

Richard James

Better Music Through Chess

It’s 3:30 in the morning and I’ve just gotten back from a club (at the age of 55). I’m in the studio mixing 20 tracks of music for a band that has twenty plus musicians in it. I’ve scored the material which means writing all the musical parts down via sheet music. The song is a tribute to Lalo Schifrin, who did the sound tracks and scores for the Dirty Harry films and a host of other classics. I get a message on Facebook about doing an interview regarding my music. The interviewer asks me to answer one question before the interview the following morning. The Question: “What made you become good enough, as a musician, to be able to do the fully orchestrated projects you now do? It took me a full twenty four hours to answer this question because unlike the fast, glib and snotty answers I gave in my youth, I take my time and think about what I’m saying in middle age. Here’s the gist of what I said:

My music, composing skills, arrangement skills, engineering and producing are all where they are today because of chess. I can only imagine the horror on the other end of this question because the interviewer probably expected the old “I practiced until my fingers bled” party line. What you do in one area of your life often dictates the results in other areas of your life.

Chess really taught me how to look at both the big picture and the little picture at the same time. To win a game of chess, you have to have an overall plan. However, with each move of a pawn or piece, your immediate plan changes. You might have come up with a plan that is three moves long. Yet, your opponent suddenly makes a move you didn’t expect them to make. This forces you to adjust you original plan to accommodate this unforeseen opposition move. This situation occurs in music as well. You write a song. You’ve created the words and music for that song which means you have a plan that dictates just how that song will sound. You then bring the song to your band. They interpret the song differently so it may not sound as it did when your originally wrote it. It may sound better or it may sound differently than your original version. You work with your fellow musicians, making changes here and there until you get what your want out of the composition. The big picture is the original song your wrote, the little picture is the changes that are made during the evolution of that song. Prior to the influence of chess, I held firm in my song writing. It was my way or the highway, as some people like to say. Now, I embrace the changes other musicians bring to the table when it comes to my songs.

Chess also gave me the gift of patience, something I sorely lacked in my youth. When I first started playing, I wanted everything to happen immediately and when it didn’t, I started to lose interest. In fact, a musician I had auditioned for me when I was young called me out on this, on a social media site, which inspired this very article. Today, I am not only used to, for example, having six to seven hour rehearsals, but embrace them because creativity takes time. Patience is a skill that has positive ramifications far beyond the chessboard. Having some patience can be the difference between creating a musical composition of real substance and simply writing yet another passable song. Patience is a skill that will keep your blood pressure down (except in my case, according to my doctor).

Chess and music both share the concept of pattern recognition. In music, there are a seemingly endless combination of notes that can be combined to create a song. However, only a fraction of those notes can be combined to create a catchy tune. There are specific patterns that, when combined, create wonderful music. Proof of this can be found in the majority of rock and roll songs based on three chords, E, A and B. Chuck Berry became a legend based on this simple pattern. In chess, players that recognize patterns on the chessboard win games. Musicians that recognize patterns write great songs.

Where chess has really proven itself as a valuable tool, musically speaking, is in my work doing composition, arranging and recording of orchestrated bands, those that include horn and string sections. My latest band project, The Troubadours of Misery, is a miniature orchestra. Being the the chief writer and arranger, I’m facing technical challenges I’ve never faced. Often, my back is to the wall and I find myself in a tough spot, be it arranging or trying to get just the right tones in the recording studio. Prior to seriously studying chess, I probably would have settled for a technical solution that I wasn’t quite happy with. Now, I look at the problem, then try and relate it to a tough chess position I’ve found myself in or have studied. I keep a laptop with my game database in the studio and will review that tough position and play through the solution. I try to relate each move to the situation I’m in and more often than not, find a solution to my musical problem on the chessboard.

Chess provides many lessons that can be applied to our lives. I’d say that learning lessons from this great game will probably get you a lot father than hiring one of those life coaches (that person you pay a lot of money to so they can tell you what you already know, common sense). One thing that people have trouble with is losing in life. They take a chance, fail and then never try again. If you talk to anyone who is successful (and honest), they’ll tell you it took a number of failures to become successful (not just one). While I’ve had my share of minor musical successes, I’ve had my share of failed bands (and some real stinkers when it comes to songs). Chess can teach you how to deal with loss and embrace it as a learning tool. What can I say, you really cannot go wrong playing chess and learning off the board life lessons within the sixty-four squares. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Keep Hammering Away

When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.

-Jacob Riis

Do you sometimes get frustrated about your chess progress? Unless you are not human, most likely you have. This is natural, especially with an endeavor like chess improvement, because chess is not easy! However, the challenge of improvement and mastery keeps us going. In today’s article, I’d like to discuss how to stay patient with your chess journey and encourage you to take the “long cut” to chess mastery.

Pounding the Rock

It’s important to remember that even though it doesn’t seem like it, you are gradually making progress – assuming you are training and studying sufficiently.

For example, let’s say a player makes four big blunders a game. Let’s also imagine that these blunders on average lose at least a piece, which should be sufficient to lose in most cases against stronger competition.

After studying and practicing his tactics, our friend reduces his hypothetical blunder rate to two per game. He’s reduced her blunder rate in half, which is incredible improvement. However, because each of these blunders are game losing moves, his rating remains the same.

Eventually, as he continues to progress, eventually all of the habits, knowledge, and experience will combine into more wins.

Stick with the Process

Although we all have our aspirations of winning the big tournament, or moving up a ratings class, or eventually becoming a titled player, we should realize that it is the daily and weekly work done consistently over years that will get us to our higher goals.

In his article Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.,  self-improvement writer James Clear encourages us not to focus on the long-term “outcome goals” but instead to focus on the system to get there.

For example, instead of focusing on becoming awesome at endgame play, you would focus on studying endgames for an hour twice a week. By focusing on your schedule and sticking to it, you will definitely improve your endgame play over time. Sometimes, focusing on the long-term goal can be motivating, but sometimes it can also be disheartening if we focus on it too much. instead, but focusing on the system or process we set up to get there, we will make continual and consistent progress.

The Long Cut

People love shortcuts. It is the reason that books and articles with titles such as Rapid Chess Improvement and Improve Your Chess, Fast! are popular. However, we all know in our hearts that mastery of something as complex as chess is going to take years, if not longer.

Instead, I propose you take the long cut towards chess improvement. What is the long cut? For chess, it is building up your knowledge and skill over time. The process can be optimized and improved of course. Reading good books, working with qualified coaches, and playing tough competition will help you improve over time. Doing so systematically and thoughtfully will do so more efficiently.

This is where working with a coach and learning from the experience of others can be very helpful. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to studying chess. A systematic program such as GM Nigel Davies’ Tiger Chess program provides a comprehensive solution to studying chess strategy. Combining such a program with study of your own games and tactical training can help you cut down on seeking out your own materials. Of course, sometimes plotting your own course can be part of the fun. The choice is yours!

Conclusion

Ratings eventually follows chess strength, although sometimes not instantaneously or even gradually. The climb could be a general upward slope with many jagged peaks and valleys. Sometimes, it looks like a plateau with a sudden jump.

Don’t be fooled though, sudden increases in rating result from a longer period of much consistent study and training. This takes perseverance and determination.

Embrace the long cut and keep hammering away.

Bryan Castro

My System

“We do not stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing!”
– Benjamin Franklin

Readers may recall that I’ve made various game theory comments about Chess over the past two years.

In practice, what it has meant for me is that I’ve not been comfortable with charging into the center with White. It seems like leaning into it.  This led to me playing 1. g3 for some years.

After a few disappointing results, not due to the opening itself, I became bored and recently switched to the center pawn openings.

My results have been mediocre. I consistently obtain good positions and then fail to execute. I feel like I don’t belong there. My heart isn’t in it.

It’s too much work for someone who isn’t a full-time chess player. I have to find my niche, and I think I found it in 1. g3 and should probably stay there and be happy if I don’t lose games and leave the spectacular winning streaks to the pros.

Jacques Delaguerre