Asking Questions

The chess student’s oath: Repeat after me, “If I don’t understand something, I will ask the instructor to explain it again and again and again if necessary.” All joking aside, asking questions seems to be a problem for many chess students. I teach my students to question everything. I also teach them that the only bad question is the one not asked. I’ve recently been observing my stronger students and asking myself the question, what is it that sets them apart from their classmates.

Of course, my more advanced students have arrived at their destination by working hard at their game, putting a great deal of time into their studies. However, there is more to it than that. One thing I’ve noticed is that these students ask a lot of questions. Why is asking questions so important to one’s success both on the chessboard and off the chess board (as in life)? The answer is surprisingly simple! You’ll learn more by asking questions!

When I teach my classes, I’ll present a master level game that demonstrates specific key concepts. Because my young beginners are new to the game, I’ll concentrate on the opening mechanics, middle game tactics and basic endgame play. In the opening for example, a series of obvious moves will be played that aid in controlling the board’s center. This makes perfect sense since our job in the opening is to control more space than our opponent. If we cannot control as much space on the board as our opponent we try to take squares away from the opposition. While is it relatively easy to see how certain moves help us in our opening goal, there are some moves that don’t immediately do this. To the beginner these moves may seem to be out of place, making no sense. However, to the more experienced player, these moves are seen to help set up a greater control of the board’s center later on in the opening. These moves are stepping stones leading to a stronger opening position. Yet many beginners will not raise their hands and ask the question “why was that move made?” Simply asking that question would help shed light on that move and help the beginner improve his or her game. However, they don’t ask and are suddenly lost, missing the bigger picture altogether.

I suspect that many people, both young and old, feel that asking questions makes them appear to be uninformed. Some people even feel foolish asking simple question because they don’t want to appear to be stupid to those around them. I went to a chess lecture once and, while the start time was listed, there was no end time mentioned. While sitting down, waiting for the lecture to start, I overheard I number of people asking when the lecture ended. When the head of the chess club came out to introduce the guest lecturer he welcomed us and asked if there were any questions. No one raised their hand to ask the obvious question on the minds of many participants, when the event ended. Of course, I raised my hand and asked the question. I was surprised that a few of those I overheard earlier asking about the lecture’s ending time now scoffed at my question. This was a good example of why many people don’t ask questions. If given the choice between being informed and being foolish, I’ll take being informed!

If you undertake the process of learning something, it is your job as a student to ask questions. While experienced teachers can anticipate many questions and answer them before they’re asked, they’re not mind readers. This means you, the student, have to take it upon yourself to ask any questions you want an answer to. Asking questions leads to a better grasp on the subject matter. A better grasp on the subject is how you start the journey to mastery.

If you’re studying an opening with your chess teacher and understand the first eight moves but get stuck on the reasoning behind the ninth move, don’t assume that move nine will make sense a move or two later. Stop and ask your teacher why move nine was made. It may be the case that your question will be answered by playing through the next few moves. However, your teacher will now know that you had trouble understanding move nine and focus his or her explanation of the next few moves around your question. As a student, you have to let your teacher know when you’re having difficulty understanding something.

One idea that helps both student and teacher is to clarify your questions. Rather than ask a vague question, try to ask a question that gets to the heart of the matter. If move seven of a specific opening for White makes no sense to you, ask the question “why did White move the c pawn to c3 (for example) on move seven?” This is a clear question that can be addressed by the teacher as opposed to saying “I’m not sure about that c pawn move.” Clear questions get clear answers. If the teacher’s answer doesn’t make sense, ask them to explain it again. I have no problem with going over a position a few times with my students and appreciate the fact that they obviously want to understand the lesson being taught!

If you’re a self learner, you probably work with books and DVDs. While you can’t ask the author of a book or lecturer on a DVD questions, you can write questions down on a piece of paper while reading the book or watching the DVD. This is important! Too often, we read a chess book or watch a chess DVD, think of a question and then forget about it later on. As you read the book or watch the DVD, jot down every question that comes to mind. Often, with good authors and lecturers, the question is answered soon after you’ve written it down. However, there are times when it may not be addressed. If this happens, try to find an answer to question elsewhere, such as online. Then go back and reread or re-watch the section where your question first came up. Of course, this means you’ll take longer to complete your studies but you’ll be far more knowledgeable by doing so. We have access to huge world of chess information and can use it to our advantage if we ask simply ask questions. Asking questions is the key to truly understanding a subject and by asking questions, your understanding of the subject will be greatly improved. Remember, no one masters a subject without dedication and hard work. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

This entry was posted in Articles, Children's Chess, Hugh Patterson on by .

About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).