Author Archives: Hugh Patterson

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).

Wood Shedding

There once was a time when an individual wanting to pursue a particular skill would take on the task knowing that the path to mastery was a long, hard and often difficult journey. However, the person embarking on this journey simply accepted the idea of long, hard work as the cost one paid when striving to be the best at something. For centuries, young apprentices worked under their masters, slowly and carefully learning their craft. Today, thanks in large part to technology, humans have to come to expect things to be done quickly, including things that were once done slowly in an effort to produce the highest quality outcome. Whether it’s learning a language, learning music or learning chess, the novice now finds themselves temped by the idea of rapid of accelerated learning.

The idea behind rapid or accelerated learning is that the process of learning itself is streamlined so you only study what is deemed (by the instructor) to be absolutely necessary. While some streamlined learning does work, garnering fairly decent results, I’ve noticed that there’s no mention of the countless hours of work, much of it repetitive in nature, required even by an accelerated learning program. Case in point, guitar mastery.

I receive at least three emails a week from guitar websites stating that they have created a learning program that will knock years off of the time required to play
“great” guitar. If I was a novice guitarist, I’d probably sign up for one of them. However, being someone that still earns part of my income from playing, I know that these emails fail to mention one critical aspect to improvement, hard work and longs hours on the fret board.

You can cut down on the time spent learning how to play an instrument by eliminating some unnecessary or redundant exercises, such as certain scales. However, the scales you do have to learn take time to master. This means you’re going to be putting a great deal of time into practicing them over and over again. In other words, you’re going to be working extremely hard no matter how streamlined the process. This holds true for chess as well.

I’m in the process of writing a chess book for beginning and intermediate players. In writing this book, I closely examined other books to see how those authors approached the same topics I’m going over. I noticed that some books had titles that used the words “rapid improvement” or “improve your chess in “x” amount of days.” While these certainly help to sell books, I believe the titles might lull the potential buyer into a false sense of just how long improvement is going to take. Chess mastery (something I’m nowhere close to) takes a great deal of time. Also consider the fact that we all learn at different speeds. Some people have a harder time learning than others, who quickly pick things up. However, I’ve found that my students who struggle and have to work twice as hard, often come out with a firmer grasp of the subject than those who pick things up quickly.

Chess, like playing a musical instrument, requires both theory and practice, theory being the study of the game and practice meaning actually playing the game. You have to do both. Reading every book ever published on how to play the guitar does you no good unless you pick up a guitar and play it. The same holds true with chess. The point here is this: Studying and practicing what you’ve learned through your studies takes a great deal of time. Therefore, there is no quick road to true mastery! As the Mathematician Euclid said to a King trying to find an easier way learn geometry, “there is no royal road to geometry.” Mastery comes at a cost and that cost is good old fashion hard work.

Too often, in music, you hear about legendary musicians who spend 12 to 15 hours a day playing their instruments, following the hard road to mastery. What you don’t hear about is how it took them a long time to be able to concentrate for such lengthy periods. They slowly built up their ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Yet, musicians new to playing will attempt the same feat, failing completely. You have to develop the mental muscles that allow you to concentrate for long periods of time slowly. You don’t walk into a gym and immediately start your beginner’s weight lifting class by bench pressing 300 lbs. You build up to it, the slower the better. We must learn favoring quality over quantity. More importantly, we must learn how to take on the mastery of something, in this case chess, in proper increments that allow us to learn and move forward without frustration.

My advice is this: Don’t look for an easy way out. This means you’re going to have to put in hard work over a lengthy period of time. Of course, if you find a teaching system that cuts some of that time down, by all means try it. However, always remember that no matter what the system, hard work on your part will be required. Let’s say you decide that hard work is worth the price of mastery or just improvement. Now you have to create a schedule that allows you to study and practice (playing chess) for greater periods of time over the long run. Musicians call studying and then practicing what you’ve just learned “wood shedding,” and while all musicians strive to be able to practice for extremely long periods of time, they have to build their mental and physical muscles to do so. This takes time. Notice how the word time keeps coming up?

Building up one’s level of mental and physical concentration requires patience. This means setting smaller goals. Therefore, you should, in the case of chess which requires a great deal of mental stamina, start with small blocks of study time, such as thirty minutes a day. Of course, some new students of the game will think that thirty minutes a day over seven days will equal only three and a half hours of work a week, a rather small number compared to the ten thousand hours required to reach a master level of comprehension. Fear not, that small amount of study time per week will grow. The beginner could try studying for two hours a day instead but if they can only fully focus (concentrate) for thirty minutes at a time, an hour and a half of their studies will be wasted. It’s a matter of quality over quantity. The biggest problem with setting unrealistic goals is the feeling of failure when we don’t reach those goals. Better to set and reach smaller goals and have a sense of accomplishment than to overreach and be disappointed.

Thus, if you want to get better at chess, or anything for that matter, start with small goals and take your time. Sure, you’ll hear stories of players who spent all their waking hours studying and playing chess, but these players are few and far between. Some of what you hear is simply myth. The only thing you can be sure of is that if you slowly build up your wood shedding skills, you’ll eventually be able to study and practice for hours on end. Remember, it really is a matter of quality over quantity. That’s the key to solid learning retention. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

When Trouble Comes Knocking

When trouble comes knocking, I’m paid to answer the door! Not only do I teach chess and coach junior chess teams but I deal with the problems that sometimes come with the students I teach and coach. What kind of trouble could possibly occur when your career is teaching chess to young people? Let me tell you a story that occurred last week. It’s straight out of a movie, kind of a cross between To Sir With Love and The Blackboard Jungle (both dealing with unruly teenagers).

Year after year, I teach and work with the same groups of students from approximately ten schools. My schedule remains constant and rarely waivers. However, every once in a while, I am suddenly transferred to a school. When I say suddenly, I get 24 to 72 hours notice. I don’t ask why I’m being transferred because I already know the answer: There’s a problem that could seriously jeopardize the chess program at the school in question. Sometimes it’s as simple as the chess teacher or coach isn’t getting results or not maintaining proper classroom management. Worse case scenario, the students have frightened off the chess teacher. Again, I don’t want any information prior to entering the problem school because the information is often either second hand or skewed due to the emotional state of the former teacher. I need to determine the problem myself. It should be noted that the best teachers can sometimes not resolve issues with problem students.

On the day of the chess class’s new session, I arrive at the school, go to the office and pick up forms and any payments. I notice the office staff looking at me sympathetically. This is a good indicator as to the problem, unruly students. If you teach chess in a school, always make friends with the office staff because they can get you anything you need. I then leave the office and proceed to walk down the hall towards the class which is located around the corner from the office. When I turn the corner, I see a gaggle of parents and school staff who make a fast run towards me. One parent asks, in a loud voice, “is my son going to be safe in there?” Obviously, this group of students isn’t going to be easy for anyone who shows any signs of fear. A few teachers start telling me to use the intercom system if I find myself in any trouble. Really? I get that same line when teaching in the prison system! I gather the parents and teachers in a circle and tell them the reason I was sent there is because I’m the guy who deals with the worst behaved teenagers. I start to walk through the classroom door and notice the entire group of teachers and parents following me in. “Where do you think you’re going,” I say to them. Apparently, they wanted to make sure I’d be alright. Both parents and staff were extremely unhappy when told to go someplace else because they were not allowed in my classroom. In I go to my waiting students.

One of my new students stood up and said “who the F#^K are you?” This is the, and I mean “the” defining moment when it comes to what I do in problem classrooms. This is the moment that makes or breaks me as far as respect from my students goes. The reason I do not allow parents and faculty into problem classes is because I use some unorthodox methods that the school staff doesn’t need to see (nothing bad, just unorthodox). They simply need to be happy with the results. When that student stood up and said what he did, I was extremely happy because I just found the Alpha-male or leader of the wolf pack. Break the leader and you tame the pack. Of course, I don’t mean physical actions in regards to breaking the pack leader. Words and street psychology are my weapons of choice and I know how to use them with great accuracy. Here’s what I said. “You must have me confused with one of those idiots that’s either a teacher or a parent on the other side of that door (I point at the door). Let me tell you something and I’m only going to say it once so close your mouth and open your ears. Do not mess with me. I know you ran the last chess teacher out of here but I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to give you a choice, a one time only deal. You can either get with my chess program and learn something or I will make your life in this classroom a weely nightmare.” Needless to say, he backed down and his friend who also was a problem said. “I kinda like this guy. He doesn’t take any…(fill in the blanks)”

They all wanted to know why they should be stuck in the chess class, which was a fair question. Often, parents will sign their kids up for chess classes to keep them busy and out of the parent’s hair for an hour or two. Some of these kids were enrolled even though they said they had no interest. So I answered the question. I told them that chess makes figuring things out (problem solving) much easier. Fast problem solving gives you more time to enjoy life as opposed to being bogged down by life’s problems. I then told them how much money Magnus Carlsen made last year. I know, it’s a cheap trick but it worked because teenagers love the idea of making money doing something they mistakenly think is easy. I also told them that people who are serious about chess get a fair amount of intellectual respect and respect is a critical issue for teenagers.

It turns out that some of the students actually had a real interest in the game. The biggest surprise of all was that the rudest kid in the class had some great chess skills. I played them all at once on separate boards and beat them at their own trash talking game (they like to talk trash to their opponents which is something I’ll be eliminating in the upcoming weeks).

I needed to find out exactly what they did to run the old chess teacher out of the school which meant gaining their trust. I told them (honestly) that anything they told me would not be repeated to anyone outside the classroom. I also told them there was to be no snitching by anyone in my chess class, explaining that snitching on someone can have very bad repercussions for the person doing the snitching (being a tattletale or informant). They finally told me some of the stunts they pulled and I’d run out of there if I were that teacher as well! Fortunately, I’m not and, I can’t tell you what went on because I made a promise to them not to snitch. We did agree that if someone was going to do something dangerous, then telling someone about that person’s intended actions was more akin to saving their life and not snitching. It turned out to be a pleasant afternoon as far as I was concerned.

My goal is to get these kids into shape on the chessboard and get them to be a top ten team in the Bay Area within 18 months (I better make it happen because I have a sizable bet with another chess coach regarding the matter). When it comes down to it, these kids aren’t really that bad, they’re simply teenagers who (like all teenagers) learn about social relationships and life in general by testing its boundaries. The school did send a teacher in to check on our progress toward the end of the class, using the excuse that she forgot some papers, and she surprised to find my new students sitting quietly behind their chessboards.

I don’t suggest employing my methods when dealing with an unruly group of students. It works for me but might not work for you. The one piece of advice I can give on this subject: You have to be the alpha animal, the pack leader in this type of situation, which requires a lot of inner confidence and strength. If you can do this, you can accomplish the task. If you can’t, find someone who can because you don’t want to have a dreadful experience. This class is a fascinating group and I suspect I’ll be reporting on their progress. I’m hesitant to tell them I’m writing about them because I suspect it would go to their heads and I don’t need another inflated ego, other than mine, in the classroom. Another potentially bad situation made good. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Music to Play By

Music has the ability to evoke a long lost memory from our distant pasts or change our emotional state for better or worse. A rough sketch of our very essence could drawn from the music we’ve listened to throughout our lives. It’s literally a part of every human’s existence. In fact, it’s hard to escape music. Music, having the ability to sway our emotional state, can be a useful tool when it comes to chess. Music as a chess tool? I know, that might not make a great deal of sense at the moment but read further and you’ll understand the idea!

Let’ start with the concept that music can alter our emotional state. For some individuals, that altered emotional state can drive them into a kinetic frenzy. Watch a group of people dancing at a club that plays techno music. The dancers literally pulsate to the rhythms, becoming one with the others on the dance floor as well as the DJ. For other individuals, a specific song or genre of music can bring them to tears or complete joy. The point to be taken here is that music can alter one’s emotional state and having the ability to change one’s emotional state can be of benefit to the process of thinking. There’s a reason that certain songs are played at sporting events and that reason is to pump people up, raising their excitement levels to new heights. It’s a method employed to drive a large group of people into a specific state of mind that, in turn, pumps up the sports teams playing in the stadium. What does this have to do with chess?

Prior to sitting down and playing a serious game of chess, the onus or burden is on you to get yourself focused. The ability to focus is a learned skill. While some individuals have a greater natural ability to hone in or focus on the task at at, they still have to further develop their natural abilities. One thing I have my students do before playing tournaments is to create a play list of songs they can listen to on their cellphones and tablets (using headphones) prior to sitting down at the chessboard. The only requirement is that the songs do a couple of things for the listener.

First, the songs have to take my students to a place they can clearly visualize, in great detail. I have one student that plays a song that, in the mind’s eye, takes him to specific street in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When he listens to that song, he can close his eyes and see the tiniest details of the street scene. With each listen prior to playing, I ask him to hone in on another detail, one previously unnoticed. This forces him to focus on this imaginary scene, looking for that elusive detail he missed the last time around. His mind clears of all other thoughts and focuses in order to find another hidden detail within the scene. I have all my students follow this procedure so they can remove the unnecessary thoughts that clutter their minds which allows them to focus on the task at hand, a game of chess. Visualization, using music to guide you, can help you develop your focusing skills. It’s also the most enjoyable way to exercise the mind in this way.

The other important aspect of using music as a training tool is that a song can really get you pumped up. This being the case, I have my students listen to the one song that gets them pumped up and ready for battle. Its the same idea as the music played at sports stadiums during big games, songs that get you excited and ready for the challenge ahead. My Students listen to their “fight song” before their “focusing song” and then afterwards, listen additional songs that evoke focus and excitement.

Each play list is specifically tailored for the individual and no two play lists are exactly alike. I don’t ever tell my students what to listen to (truth be told, I’d rather not have them listen to anything I’ve recorded because I suspect my songs would have the opposite effect, not to mention they all come with a parental warning label). All I do is give them the parameters of what the play list should do and they take it from there. However, to get them to the point where they’re choosing the correct music, I carefully go over the instructions as to what the music should do, emotionally and mentally speaking. You’d be surprised at some of the choices this youngsters make. There’s nothing funnier than an eleven year old listening to Wagner and then The Ramones!

Try this out but make sure to adhere to the parameters mentioned above. A little music can go a long way towards preparing you for taking on tasks, both those on the chessboard and those in your day to day lives. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. I know one of the two players doesn’t use music as part of his program!

Hugh Patterson

Why Play Chess?

Chess is a bit ironic in that you can learn to play the “Game of Kings” in a matter of a few hours yet spend an often maddening lifetime trying to master its complexity and many mysteries. Those mysteries are elusive and only reveal themselves to those who are willing to dedicate their lives to the quest. However, many people play chess casually and are happy to simply use the game to pass the time of day. Over six hundred million people play chess across the globe, most being casual in their efforts. It’s one of the oldest and most popular games and can mirror real life on the chessboard’s sixty four squares. It’s a mix of science and art with a dash of warfare as well. In the hands of masters, it’s a dramatic battle of the mind, a theater-like event that would make Shakespeare take note. It requires patience and planning, courage and cunning, focus and deep concentration. These attributes being what they are, why should you play chess as opposed to another game that requires less effort?

Chess seems to fit a number of personalities, from the casual hobbyist to the dedicated seeker of chess’s mysteries. The great thing about learning this game are the benefits it provides. However, we first have to dispel the greatest chess myth, the one that claims chess is played by the smartest of people (not to mention the idea that chess will make you smarter). If you want to make a character in a movie or book look brilliant, you set the scene with that character sitting behind a chessboard playing a game against their arch rival. We’ve all seen countless movies in which the hero outwits his or her nemesis by beating them up on the sixty four square battlefield. James Bond appears to be brilliant because he plays chess! However, you don’t have to have the IQ of a genius to play well!

In fact, Albert Einstein was an average club level chess player. It’s more a question of recognizing patterns within a given chess position (the combination of pawns and pieces on the board) rather than shear brilliance that makes a great player. In the end, we’re born with a certain level of brain function and can, at best, hone the brain we’re born with to function at it’s highest level. This brings me to my next point, honing the brain to function at it’s maximum level of efficiency.

Most of us, myself included, think we solve our day to day problems logically and expediently. The truth is, we often simply do things our way which means we solve problems in a manner that is comfortable within the way in which we think. We believe we’re going from point “a” to point “b” in a straight line but in reality, we’re all over the place. Our sense of logical problem solving isn’t always as logical as we think it is. This is where chess offers much needed help!

Playing chess well requires solving a series of continual problems in the simplest, quickest manner. With each move made by both players, a new problem arises that must be addressed immediately by each participant. If you procrastinate, you’ll lose the game. Therefore, chess can be a valuable tool for those trying the break the bad habit of procrastination. However, the real bonus here is the development of sound problem solving skills and more importantly, exercising the mind. Chess forces you to seek a direct solution to the problem at hand and provides specific game principles to guide you in the decision making process. It also teaches you to develop the lost art of patience (something in short supply these days). However, the real gift that chess provides all players, whether casual or professional, is mental exercise.

As we grow older, we tend to think less sharply than we did in our youth. We may have a greater knowledge base, gained through a lifetime commitment to educational pursuits, but our ability to think quickly with accuracy dwindles as we age. Chess provides a way to exercise our brains. Think of it as a mental martial art. I tell my students that chess is “ Kung Fu of the mind.”

In my youth, I was much more apt to make a decision quickly and execute a solution to the problem at hand speedily. Of course, being a subscriber to that old adage regarding, “the folly of youth,” some of my decisions may have been a bit flawed. Yet I solved the problem facing me with some degree of accuracy. Approaching middle age, I found myself becoming stuck when faced with a problem, not for lack of coming up with a viable solution but because my brain was operating in a slower gear. Thanks to chess, I’ve been able to get back some of that youthful mental speed when problem solving. Combined with the ability to apply logic and reasoning to come up with strong solutions, acquired by studying chess, I have regained some of that lost brain power. This gift that chess has given me can be applied to ever part of my life.

As a professional musician, I have to be able to play very specific jazz lines or leads at the drop of a hat (my punk guitar playing requires a bit less music theory). If playing guitar was a hobby, I could take my sweet time ( I seriously miss those days). However, when someone is paying me a pretty penny to sit in a recording studio and come up with guitar parts, time is of the essence. Chess helps to keep my mind sharp, avoiding that “deer in the headlights” syndrome many musicians face when under pressure in the studio. You can think of chess as the oil that keeps your mental engine well lubricated and running at optimum efficiency. Let’s face it, we need our minds to run well just to face the day to day challenges we encounter. Chess helps keep our minds sharp. Again, it’s mental exercise (watching the History channel doesn’t count as mental exercise).

I say that any fun way to pass the time that also keeps your mind working well is well worth pursuing. You can play the game casually or become a disciple of it’s mysteries and spend your entire life trying to master the game. Either way, the benefits are enormous. We worry about our bodies as we grow older but ignore the general condition of our minds, opting to blame our weak thinking on aging. Exercise your mind and you’ll be a happier more productive person. This is why you should play chess! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Educational Benefits of Chess Variants

Chess variants are versions of chess that incorporate changes to the way in which the game is played. These variants range from Fischer Random 960 chess, in which the pawns remain on their same starting ranks and squares but the pieces themselves start off on different starting squares (starting off on their initial ranks; 1st rank for White and 8th rank for Black), to Bughouse (A four player version of chess) to variants made up by imaginative children. The questions I pose is should we include these variants within our teaching curriculum? I’ve spoken with many chess educators and there seems to be a line drawn in the sand with one side supporting variants while the other side claims no educational value to these unique versions of the game. We’ll start by examining Bughouse, a favorite variant that’s even played at rated tournament settings.

For those of you unfamiliar with this variation of chess, Bughouse employs four players and two boards. Players work in teams of two. One team member plays Black and the other team member plays white, both team members sitting side by side. Their opponents do likewise, with one player manning the white pieces and the other the black pieces. What makes this game interesting is that after you capture a pawn or piece, you give that captured piece to your teammate who can either hold onto in or place it anywhere on the board. Pawns cannot be dropped on their promotion squares and pieces cannot be dropped on a square that creates an instant checkmate. Let me further explain how this works for those of you unfamiliar with the game. If you’re playing White and your teammate is playing black (you’re sitting side by side, each with a board in front of each of you), each time you capture one of your opponent’s pawns or pieces (your opposition team sits across from you and your teammate) which are Black, you hand that pawn or piece to your teammate. When it’s your teammate”s turn, they can either drop the newly acquired pawn or piece that you gave them onto the board or hold on to it for later use. When your teammate captures a pawn or piece (which is White because your teammate is manning the Black pawns and pieces), they give it to you to either use right away or later on. Dropping a pawn or piece on the board constitutes your turn, so you have to wait until it’s your turn again to move that dropped pawn or piece. The first team member to checkmate ends the game for all players.

Many chess players ans teachers don’t see any benefit from this version of chess. However, I use it for tactics training. Beginners have a tough time with tactics because tactics require being set up via a combination of moves which is above the skill set of the average beginner. With Bughouse, you look at the board and see a potential fork, for example, and rather than trying to maneuver a Knight across the board in order to exploit this tactic (meanwhile your opponent foils you plan with a counter move), you simply drop the Knight on the square that creates the fork. Of course, you don’t get to execute the fork right away because you used your turn up placing the piece on the board, but you start to visualize tactics and that helps beginners identify the patterns that can lead to tactical plays. Pattern recognition can be developed through this variation. Bughouse is also a great way to learn the art of attacking and defending. In this variation, you can drop (place) a pawn or piece onto a square that allows it to attack the opposition. You opponent can also drop a pawn or piece to block the attack or add another defender to the position. Players have to carefully count the number of attackers versus defenders and decide whether or not they should add more material into the fight. Beginners often lose material due to an inadequate number of attackers or defenders and this version of chess helps them with attacking and defending calculations. Is there a downside to Bughouse besides the high level of noise emanating from the rowdy players?

Honestly, there’s no substitute for the traditional form of the game. Kids love Bughouse because they can have a stockpile of additional pieces making attacks much easier and therein lies one of the problems. Kids will often blindly throw material into their attacks, losing the material in the process without reward, because they can always acquire more material from the teammate. This creates a sloppy way of thinking about attacking (and defending). If you’re already a good chess player, Bughouse can be fun and won’t aid you in developing bad chess habits. If you’re a beginner, it can create some bad chess habits unless those beginners are careful. This means, you the chess teacher (or parent) have to instill the principles used in regular chess into the minds of younger players before they play Bughouse on a regular basis. While it’s a fun way to play chess, it’s no substitute for good old fashion chess. However, lessons can be learned within the format of Bughouse as long as you think in teems of principled play so it has some benefit (besides being fun).

Now for Chess 960 as first introduced by Bobby Fischer. In this version, the pieces all start out on their starting ranks but where they are placed on the rank is different. This means Knights, Bishops, Rooks, Queen and King don’t start off on their traditional starting squares. This means all that opening theory goes partially out the window. However, this is a game that is heavy on tactics and serves as a tactical training aid. It also teaches beginners to attack where the action is. What do I mean by “where the action is?” Beginners tend to miss attacking opportunities because they don’t look at the entire board, only focusing in on where the opposition King is. This means they often miss weaknesses in their opponent’s position, lines where an opening to attack the enemy King can be created. Again, you have to be careful with young beginners when introducing them to this variation because it’s important they employ the opening principles in their regular games and follow sound middle and endgame principles as well. However, it can be used to help with improving a student’s attacking skills.

Children play a number of variations of chess from Suicide Chess to Exploding Chess. These variations should not be encouraged because they don’t aid in student’s chess education. Any variation played should always offer something in the way of training that incorporates the games principles. With that said, I encourage my students to create variations that have an educational purpose. Why? Because it gets them really thinking about the game, it’s principles and has them really examining the game in greater detail than when they simply play it. You should always encourage your students to explore the game as long as it’s a serious exploration. If my students are willing to approach creating a new variation of chess with the eyes of a scientist, I’ll support their quest. Don’t dismiss all chess variants because some of them can actually help improve aspects of your game. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Chess and Rehabilitation

Chess is a game (although devotees will tell you it’s more than just a game) enjoyed by young and old alike. It knows no racial, social, sexual or religious boundaries. It’s inexpensive to invest in the needed equipment to play it and with plenty of free, online sources, one can learn and improve at no cost. However, it can serve a greater cause, changing the future of those who have made bad decisions in their lives. Chess can help to rehabilitate those individuals who have difficultly solving problems in their lives, problems that range from criminality to substance abuse to scattered thinking. Let me explain this idea and give you some real examples of the positive changes chess has brought to a number of individuals.

We’ll start by looking at what chess can do for those individuals with scattered or disorganized thought patterns. We all known someone (maybe even ourselves) who seems to deal with life’s numerous problems in a roundabout way, often going from point “a” to point “b” in an illogical if not haphazard manner. Try as they may, they never seem to have an easy time of solving even the simplest of problems. Chess is a game that requires the ability to create a logical plan and execute it in a straight forward manner. Problem solving in chess comes down to coming up with a series of steps that resolves the issue at hand (a given position on the chessboard) in the most expedient manner possible. In chess, you cannot afford to take the scenic route, instead taking the most direct path to resolution available. This is a learned skill which is developed through both theory (studying the game) and practice (actually playing the game). The organized problem solving methods learned when studying chess can be applied to real life situations. The logic, reasoning and planning required to be a successful chess player can be employed when tackling the many problems we face in our day to day lives. After playing and studying chess, the once scattered thinker can now solve problems using an organized system of thought. Does this mean that chess will make you more intelligent? Sadly no! You’re born with the brain you’re born with but studying chess will hep you to make the best of what lies within your cranial cavity!

In the many schools I teach chess in, I present real life analogies played out on the chessboard and vice versa. I do this so students can more easily apply what they learn from chess to their lives. My students range from prep school children to hardened juveniles and adults who are locked up in jails. When teaching in jails and prisons, the one common thread all the men, both young and old) share is a series of extremely bad decisions they made during the course of their lives. While I’ve never spent time behind the hard iron bars of the prisons I teach in, I’ve made some truly bad decisions in my life that nearly cost me everything. The old adage “there but by the grace of God go I” rattles through my thoughts every time I enter a jail or prison. The only difference between the men I work with in prison/jail and myself is that I was fortunate enough to have found the game of chess before I ended up behind bars and learned a bit about making good decisions and the consequences of bad decisions. You know that other old adage, “sex, drugs and rock and roll?” Lets just say that in my youth I lived that lifestyle to its fullest and that kind of lifestyle is ripe with bad decisions. Because ,for whatever reason, I escaped ending up either dead or locked up in a jail somewhere, I work extremely hard to help incarcerated individuals learn how to stop making the type of bad decisions that landed them in leg irons. I say leg irons because I tend to only work with the worst offenders, many of whom committed murder and are actually moved around the prison in leg irons. On a side note, I will not allow prison guards to be in the room with me when I’m working with one to five of these men. It’s not that I’m some sort of tough guy who can take on five men at once. I simply need to show these guys a certain level of trust and in prison, trusting someone with your life is the highest form of trust there is. Since I’m still here writing this, I may be on to something! In actuality prisoners tend to be on their best behavior with outsiders.

With my incarcerated students, we learn, through the game of chess, how good decisions can make our lives on the chessboard easier and how bad decisions can spiral out of control and leave us in a hopeless situation or position. We apply this idea to their lives. We look to the future because the bad decisions of their past cannot be undone. We learn how, from the moment they start using chess to aid them with solving life problems, their lives can change for the better. The tools used to succeed on the chessboard can be used to succeed in life. Chess is also a way these men can challenge one another without anyone getting physically hurt. As I often say, “chess is the one way you can get into a fight that won’t land you back in jail.” I’ve paired rival gang members against one another on the chessboard and, while there might be a bruise or two to the loser’s ego, no blood is shed. In fact, often, these rivals will become playing partners and even respect one another in the end. Chess has a way of bringing these men closer together.

Then there’s the drug addicts and alcoholics I’ve taught chess to. For someone with a drug or alcohol problem, spending time alone with their thoughts can lead to further substance abuse. Being alone with one’s self can have deadly consequences. The hardest dilemma for the addict is having too much time on their hands when first in recovery because they start thinking (negative thoughts) and early in recovery, those thoughts are as poisonous as the substances they ingest. The addict, early in their recovery, has trouble focusing and when they do, their thoughts are extremely painful, with the addict dwelling on all they’ve lost. They also lack logic and reasoning skills because addiction is an illogical and scattered lifestyle. Therefore, chess is a valuable tool for keeping the addict’s mind occupied and for teaching them to problem solve without the use of drugs or alcohol. Addicts tend to avoid their problems, many deeply rooted within their psyche and extremely painful to relive, by indulging in the drug their choice. They avoid the pain that lives within them, remaining chemically numb because they don’t know how to deal with their pain. They don’t have a point of reference, only scattered thoughts. They’ve lost their ability to function in the world due to the substance abuse. They have no focus. Chess can provide a way in which to learn how to develop focus and concentration as well as how to make sound, logical decisions. However, one of the most important aspects of chess as it related to recovery is the game’s ability to help addicts avoid becoming trapped in their own dark thoughts. Chess keeps the occupied. It keeps the dark thoughts at bay because they’re trying to concentrate on playing. I’ve had good results with many addicts simply by teaching them this game that helps them make better decisions. In closing, chess can be extremely therapeutic as well. When I was diagnosed and treated for an aggressive cancer in 2007, it was chess that kept me from losing my mind. Every moment spent playing chess was a moment I didn’t think about possibly dying. Well, that was a rather grim article anc I thank you for suffering through it. Here’s a game to enjoy until week when I promise the subject matter will be a bit more upbeat!

Hugh Patterson

The Organized Army

Throughout history, most battles have been won by the more organized army. Win enough battles and you win the war. The same hold true with chess. An organized chess army is the army that wins the game. When we first learn the rules of this game we love so much, we concentrate on simply making legal moves with our pawns and pieces. We launch attacks that we’re sure will win the game only to become hopelessly lost in the weakest of positions. What started as a promising attack, with our powerful army leading the charge, ends in defeat. We moved the pieces according to the game’s rules, we launched attacks which you’re supposed to do in order to win games. So what went wrong, muses the novice player. Chances are, there was nothing in the way of organization and organization is the key to success on the chessboard and in life.

Organization really comes down to coordination. In life, those individuals who are organized seem to always accomplished things, seldom becoming bogged down and lost when facing any task, large or small. Disorganized individuals tend to take a lot longer to accomplish their goals and often don’t come close to reaching or meeting those goals. Chess requires having a flexible plan, one that isn’t so rigid that it can’t be adjusted to work within the ever changing positional landscape on the board. If you wish to create a plan that works however, you have to be organized!

Any discussion regarding organization should start with defining a plan. Simply put, a plan is a series of smaller steps that allow one to complete a task. Those steps have to follow a specific order. If you paint a room in your house, you don’t slap paint on the walls before you cover your furniture and floors with a drop cloth. You cover things up and then start painting. Thus most successful plans require the employment of a logical series of steps. However, in chess, there’s an added problem and that’s the creation of a plan that is flexible.

Positions on the chessboard can change drastically from move to move, especially in the games of beginners. Rigid chess plans are those that absolutely depend on one’s opponent making very specific moves that adhere to the plan. Of course, this is unrealistic because, one’s opponent is going to have his or her own plans and will not simply let you execute your plans without a fight. Therefore, you have to create a flexible plan that can change with the changing board positions from move to move. This means, when contemplating a move or plan, really thinking about what your opponent’s best response will be.

If you ask a beginner what their plan is they’ll tell you it’s to checkmate their opponent’s King. This is the goal of the game. The question is how you reach your goal through a series of smaller goals accomplished via plans. During the opening phase of the game, your goal is to control the center of the board by activating (moving) your pieces to active squares (those that control the board’s center) and Castle your King to safety. During the middle-game, your goal is to further activate your forces (pawns and pieces) and look for ways in which to reduce your opponent’s forces through exchanges of material. During the endgame, which many beginners never get to, checkmating your opponent’s King is the goal. These goals are met via short term or flexible plans. The point here is that you have to identify the immediate or short term goal in order to create a plan that allows you to achieve that goal. It comes down to organization. I have my students write down things they do in everyday life that require a plan and the steps they take to solve the problem they have to solve. This serves as an analogy they can use to create an organized plan when playing chess.

I say “organized plan” because I know plenty of people who, when faced with a task, take the long disorganized road to achieve their goal. In chess, time works against you so the longer you take to reach a goal via a disorganized plan, the more opportunities you provide you opponent to stop you from reaching your goal. This is where being organized plays a critical role.

Beginners need to think in terms of “what’s the simplest and quickest way to reach my goal?” When I say “quickest,” I don’t mean making fast decisions. Beginners often make quick moves without putting any thought into why they’re making those moves. We have to separate the idea of reaching our goal quickly with that of simply making moves at a break neck speed. Any move you make should have a legitimate reason behind it. I have my students pretend they’re a famous chess player surrounded by newspaper reporters who ask the question “why did you make that move” after the player’s turn. You need to be able to answer that question prior to committing to a move and if you can’t answer it, you have no business making the move in question.

Executing a plan quickly starts with the organizational skill of identifying the immediate goal. In the opening game, it’s control of the board’s center that fuels our plan. We know we have to achieves this goal during the first ten to fifteen moves and we can use the opening principles as a simple guide. We control the center with a pawn or two, further gain control of the board’s center by developing our minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) towards the four central squares (d4, d5, e4 and e5), Castle our King to safety and connect our Rooks. By using those principles we have an organized method for achieving our opening goal. However, it becomes difficult because our opponent is doing the same thing while also trying to stop us from achieving this goal. Therefore, we have adjust our plans slightly (flexibility) and try to foil our opponent’s plans while still trying to achieve our goal. This can become a confusing idea for the novice player.

The trick here is to always aim for our goals. If our opponent stops us from making a developing move we wanted to make during the opening, such as moving a Knight to f3, why not consider moving the other Knight to c3? You were eventually going to make this move so why not make it now since the move you wanted to make can’t be made immediately. To develop this way of thinking, planning in terms of flexibility, always come up with three possible moves you can make and then commit to one. Thus, if you had planned on developing your Knight to f3 but your opponent makes a pawn move that stops this before you had a chance to make that move, you have other moves you can make that fit in with your plan, centralized control during the opening.

When learning the art of planning and organization, I have my students write out their plans while they play practice games so their goals are clearly defined. They create plans with the fewest number of steps needed to achieve their goals in a logical sequence. On the paper they use for notes is written the phrase “what’s your opponent’s best response (counter move) to the move you’re considering?’ This reminds my students that their opponent is going to fight their plans to the bitter end. Try doing this when playing practice games and eventually you’ll find that you won’t need to write your plans down because you have them committed to memory. Take your time when playing and always have a plan that can change at a moments notice. This type of plan is flexible not rigid. Always remember, your opponent is never going to make the move you want them to make. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Attack or Defend

There are two roles each player assumes during a single game of chess, that of attacker and that of defender. Both players switch between these roles as the game progresses. When one player attacks, the other defends against that attack. With beginners, you often see one player attacking wildly, without a real plan, in an attempt to either win material or produce a fast checkmate. The end result is usually a loss of material for the attacker and a dreadful position as well. Then there’s the beginner who decides to simply build up a defense and ward off the opposition’s attacks for the entire game, playing passively which gets you nowhere. Knowing when to attack or defend is crucial if you want to win games. Also key to success is having the proper amount of force (pawns and pieces) when attacking or defending. The first question we have to address is when to attack and when to defend? To experienced players, the answer to this question is simple. However, to the beginner, the answer isn’t always clear.

The opening principles tell us that we should gain control of the board’s center as early as possible, not letting our opponent gain control first. Therefore we need to be aggressive from the game’s start (attack the board’s center). If you have the White pawns and pieces, you get to make the first move which means you have the chance to gain control of the board’s center from the start. Attack the central squares! Beginners tend to think of attacking in terms of attacking opposition pawns and pieces, in other words physical material. Thus, they think that moving a piece to a square upon which it controls other squares on the opposition’s side of the board isn’t really attacking anything since there’s no physical pieces on those squares. The beginner will move pieces to squares on which they can attack opposition material, even if it weakens their position or causes them to move that piece multiple times to get to the specific square. Remember, when you attack an empty square you are controlling that square, keeping enemy pawns and pieces off of that square which falls into the category of attacking. Just because a square is empty doesn’t mean it has no value. Every square you control is one less square available to your opponent! Therefore, try to control as many squares on your opponent’s side of the board as possible because doing so makes it difficult for the opposition to launch their own attack.

The more force you use when attacking the greater the probability of your attack being successful. You never see a sporting event where a single player takes on an entire opposition team. Teams are made up of multiple players who work together, not individually. Your pawns and pieces should work like a team, meaning they should be coordinated. When attacking do so with multiple pieces who are working with one another (protecting one another and providing multiple attackers) while also attacking a single target (piece or square) multiple times. I see many beginner games in which one player actually attacks with a plethora of attacking pieces but those pieces are not coordinated to they end up being lost within a few moves. Successful attacks involve pieces (and of course pawns) working carefully together. Yes, there are attacks that lead to checkmate involving a single piece, such as a back rank mate or smothered mate (involving a lone Knight), but there are always previous, smaller attacks that open up the necessary lines to deliver checkmate. Coordinated pieces that target specific squares lead to successful attacks.

Speaking of targeted squares, it’s easier to launch a successful attack when you hone in on a weakness in your opponent’s position. Beginners will often launch a multi-piece attack on a specific square but that square will be heavily defended so a loss of material usually ensues rather than a profitable attack. When choosing a target square, look for one that is first, weak due to a lack of defenders and second, one that will open up a further line of attack against the opposition King. With this said, sometimes your opponent will be able to pile up defenders to ward off your attackers. While the rule of thumb is to have at least one more attacker than your opponent has defenders (or one more defender than attackers, when defending), you’ll eventually have to decide whether committing all that material to a single attack is worth it. Does doing so weaken your position elsewhere on the board? If the answer is yes, don’t commit unless you know that you’ll be able to either come out of any exchanges up material or be able to deliver checkmate in the very near future.

If your opponent is attacking then you’ll have to play the role of the defender. The reason it’s better to be the attacker is that defenders get stuck defending and are unable to attack the enemy position until they successfully ward off the current attack. The attacker has the initiative! Too often, beginners will defend a pawn with everything they have only to discover that their opponent can add one final attacker, leaving you unable to successfully defend, in this case, a pawn. You’ve committed a large portion of your forces to the defense of a pawn which means those defending pieces are tied down, leaving you open to attacks elsewhere on the board. Sometimes you have to bit the bullet and simply give up the pawn!

Beginners too often don’t know where an attack is coming from until it’s too late. Before making a move, you should look at any opposition piece that is active, on the board, and note what squares that piece controls and what pieces of yours it attacks. Are there more than one attacker on any of your pieces or key squares? Key squares are those that can open a line that allows an attack on your King. If one of your pieces is under attack, move that piece to a safe square. If a key square is targeted, defend it. During the game, you should always look for weaknesses in your position. When you find one, defend it. If you defend potential weaknesses in your position early on, you deprive your opponent the opportunity to launch an attack on those potentially weak squares.

When attacking, you want to attack squares on your opponent’s side of the board. The reason 1. e4 is better than 1. e3, from an attacking viewpoint, is because the pawn on e4 attacks two squares on Black’s side of the board (d5 and f5). Putting a pawn on e3 does attack a center square but it’s one of your squares which is more of a defensive move. If you deprive your opponent access to his or her own squares, they’re going to have great difficulties launching any attacks. Conversely, you do want to cover squares on your side of the board against opposition attacks. 2. Nf3 does just that because it not only attacks the center of the board, it also keeps the Black Queen off of the h4 and g5 squares, which in an opening such as the King’s Gambit is extremely important.

Attack when the opportunity presents itself. If you see a weakness in your opponent’s position, exploit it. Your opponent will have to become the defender and won’t be able to launch any immediate attacks. Also try to create attacks by targeting weak squares. When creating attacks, you start moving your material towards your target square, only launching the attack once you have sufficient material to do so. Of course, your opponent will probably see the pieces heading his or her way and will try to defend that position. However, if your pieces are coordinated and you have a greater number of attacks than defenders, then you should be successful. Just make sure you have a few defenders left near your King to protect his majesty.

Be the attacker and things will happen. Be the defender and you’ll spend the game warding off attacks and coming no closer to checkmating your opponent than you were on move one. Be aggressive but not foolish. Look for weakness on your opponent’s position while defending your own potential weaknesses. Examine every opposition piece near your side of the board and take your time when considering moves. Do this and you’ll play a better game of chess or at least spend less time defending and more time attacking. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Timing is Everything

At some point, the beginning chess player will enter a tournament to test his or her new found skills. Up until this point in the beginners chess career, games were played casually with no real regard to the concept of time, except maybe thinking their opponent should move a little faster so both players don’t die of old age before the game’s finished. Now our brave novice player has entered their first chess tournament and when they sit down to play they see the chess clock, that harbinger of positional doom that has destroyed many a player, both good and bad! “I’ll just speed through the first fifteen moves which will leave me plenty of extra time should I get stuck contemplating a difficult position. I can manage my time if I go fast during this part of the game and slow down for that part of the game.” These musings are a recipe for disaster.

Of course, one of the key ideas I teach my students is patience, taking your time when playing chess in order to find the best possible move in a given position. However, this idea of being patient or taking your time goes out the window when you sit down to play a game of chess with a chess clock limited the time in which you have to play the game. Time can be extremely troublesome and many a great chess player has lost a crucial match because they start to run out of time, forcing them into making less thought out moves.

Prior to the invention and use of chess clocks, tournament games could and did go on for ridiculously long periods of time. Back then, you might have to block off months of time within your schedule to accommodate playing in a tournament. The chess clock allowed individual games to have a set length of time in which they were played. This made things run much smoother from the tournament’s point of view. With a clock, each player, for example, may have (depending on the type of match) 90 minutes to make the first 40 moves and then additional time added on after completion of those moves. This seems simple enough. You just do some basic arithmetic and conclude that you have a little over two minutes per move, using the above example as a reference. However, things are never that simple, especially when you hit a position that requires some serious analysis.

The way I teach my students to manage time is by employing the “savings system.” Simply put, my students bank their time much in the way one banks or saves their money. We start with the opening.

The opening should be the first place you acquire bankable time because the moves should be easy to make and require less overall analysis. Of course a seasoned player makes their opening moves without hesitation whereas the beginner can get hung up regarding what move should be made. To keep from getting hung up, I have my students use the opening principles to guide them. During the opening phase, they make moves that apply the opening principles (controlling the board’s center with a pawn, developing the minor pieces towards the center, Castling and connecting your Rooks). Using the opening principles as a guide should leave you with some bankable time (time left over from moves made in less than two minutes) and that time adds up!

The middle game is where beginner’s have a tough time when it comes to time management. During the opening, you can make some moves automatically with little thought going into them. However, during the middle game there is so much going on that it’s hard to quickly find good moves. Therefore, I have my students first look to see if any of their material is under attack and if so, I have them address it. Next I have them further develop their pieces to more active squares. The idea behind this is that you’re more likely to find a potentially good attacking move in less time if your army are on their most active squares. Lastly the look for potentially favorable exchanges *where you come out ahead not your opponent). The point here is that my students have a checklist they can go through that keeps them focused and less apt to loose time.

The endgame is tough for beginners because most beginner games never reach a proper endgame. Therefore, they assess what material they have and how to deliver checkmate with that material. My beginning students usually end up with a Queen and King or Rook and King against King and pawn endgame scenario. They have been taught the proper way to deliver checkmate with these pieces. More importantly, they’ve been taught not to waste time. If you’re simply chasing the opposition King around with a Rook or Queen while your King sits idly, you will waste your time.

Time management is about being organized. You need to have a check list as a beginner that will serve as your guide. Improving the position of your pawns and pieces during the early middle game will make it much easier to find tactical plays. By improving the activity of your pieces (and pawns) you’ll often see middle game positions with greater clarity, allowing you to find that winning tactic and saving time otherwise spent staring at the board. Always be mindful of the clock but don’t spend too much time staring at it or you’ll lose time and perhaps your mind. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Finding the Right Opening

There are many ways to start a game of chess. We call the starting phase of the game, the opening and when it comes to the opening, we have many choices regarding the type of opening we employ. Beginners face their first challenge when deciding which opening is right for them. While all good openings (for both Black and White) adhere to the opening principles, some require a more advanced skill set if they’re to be employed successfully. Some openings are very clear cut and safe (beginners take note) while others are wrought with less clear cut (to the beginner) but still strong moves aimed at controlling the board’s center which is the goal of the opening. When choosing an opening to study and use, the beginner should always pick an opening in which the opening principles can clearly be seen. Too often, beginners choose openings that are currently being played on the tournament circuit or by their favorite chess player. This can be a deadly mistake for the beginner because their favorite player has spent years studying opening theory and can make the employment of a difficult opening seem easy. When our beginner tries to play that opening he or she doesn’t get the same results because extremely precise play (of the opening) is required. Should the beginner ignore these complex openings altogether? Absolutely not. However, they should build up to them, skill-wise, the way in which a musician learns simpler songs first and then moves on to more complex pieces.

The opening you eventually settle on depends on your personality. Are you aggressive and a risk taker or are you more reserved? As you improve your opening play, you’ll find an opening that suits your playing personality. However, to start, choose an opening that clearly demonstrates the opening principles. If you’re new to chess, the opening principles are a series of sound and solid ideas that serve as a guide regarding which pieces to bring into the game first and where to place those pieces. They can be thought of as the way in which you complete your opening goal which is controlling the center of the board (e4, e5, d4 and d5). The principles, simply put are as follows:

Control the center of the board with a pawn or two, develop (move) your minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) towards the center squares, get your King Castled to safety and connect your Rooks. Avoid moving the same piece twice (or more) during the opening unless you have to. Don’t make too many pawn moves and please don’t bring your Queen out early. Lastly, always play to control the board’s center before your opponent does. There, that was simply enough. Write these suggestions down so you can refer to them. Also remember that principles are not rules and can be bent under the right conditions. However, you need to be very sure of what you’re doing before bending them. As for breaking the principles, doing so will lead to positional ruin.

To get an idea regarding what I meant by choosing an opening that clearly demonstrates the opening principles versus one in which the principles may not be as clear (to the beginner), let’s look at two openings, The Italian Opening and The Ruy Lopez (Spanish) Opening for White. Both openings start with 1. e4. This adheres to our first principle, controlling the center of the board with a pawn. After Black plays 1…e5, both of our openings play 2. Nf3. The Knight attacks two key central squares, adhering to our second opening principle regarding the development of our minor pieces. After Black plays 2…Nc6, we come to the move that defines and differentiates the two openings. In The Italian Opening, White plays 3, Bc4 and in The Ruy Lopez or Spanish Opening, White plays 3. Bb5. While there is a difference between the two moves, both moves influence the center.

In The Italian Opening, the Bishop on c4 attacks a center square (d5) while also aiming itself at the weak f7 pawn. This clearly adheres to the principle of developing your minor pieces towards the center. A beginner looking at this position will see the opening principles clearly in action. By the way, White can now Castle on the King-side so we’re following our principles to the letter. What of 3. Bb5? Beginners will look at this move and wonder how this could possibly influence or control the board’s center. Should black play 3…a6 and White then play 4. Bxc6 (the exchange variation of the Ruy Lopez), the e5 pawn will no longer have the protection of the Knight, thus the idea of indirect central influence. This makes perfect sense to the more experienced player but to the beginner, it’s often a lost idea!

If you wish to play chess at a high level, such as rated tournaments, you’ll have to eventually learn the Ruy Lopez. However, you need to learn how to walk before your run! Like the music student, you have to learn simple techniques before moving on to advanced techniques. It’s the learning process and it applies to every subject you study. One of the reasons that I suggest my beginning students learn The Italian Opening has to do with its simplicity and flexibility, eventually moving on to the Ruy Lopez only after my students have fully grasped the nuances of the opening principles.

The Italian Opening, 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4 (you’ll see why I didn’t include Black’s third move momentarily), nicely and clearly (for the beginner) illustrates the opening principles that are necessary to learn in order to master any chess opening. As for flexibility, this opening can transpose into the Evan’s Gambit or the Fried Liver Attack, giving the beginning player an introduction to two additional openings as well as introducing them to the idea of flexibility.

Flexibility is extremely important when it comes to chess. Many beginners create overly rigid plans that fail instantly when their opponent makes a move that doesn’t fit into that plan. This is especially true during the opening phase of the game. A beginner will learn the opening moves by solely memorizing them and then play them as memorized regardless of what their opponent does which leads to failure early on. With The Italian Opening, the beginner can react accordingly to their opponent’s moves. If Black plays 3…Bc5, the beginner can consider playing 4. b5, launching into the Evan’s Gambit or after 3…Nf6, play either 4. Ng5, signaling the Fried Liver Attack or sticking with the mainline Italian. Of course, I teach my beginning students the complete Italian Opening before teaching them The Evan’s Gambit or Fried Liver Attack. Again, what I like, in terms of being a chess teacher, is the clear and concise way in which this opening demonstrates the opening principles.

When learning chess openings, the beginner should always start with a simple opening and work their way towards more complex openings after their skills have improved. Beginners really should try many different openings as they gain a stronger knowledge of opening theory. They should also play both sides of the board when studying any opening because you’ll never know what your opponent is going to throw at you. I highly suggest a book that contains a large number of openings for both Black and White, such as The Dummies Guide to Chess Openings. This type of book allows the novice player to examine in some detail the large variety of openings available to them.

It should be noted that just because today’s current roster of Grandmasters aren’t playing a particular opening doesn’t mean that opening is bad, especially for the beginner or intermediate player. Don’t let opening trends dissuade you from playing a particular opening. Play what feels right for you but always remember, before you take on an opening, make sure it’s on par with you skill level. Of course, you should always exercise your brain by taking on an opening that is slightly beyond your skill set, even though it may be hard mental work when it comes to mastering that opening. Just make sure it isn’t so difficult that you become frustrated. How do you know if an opening is above your skill set? If you cannot clearly see the opening principles in action within the opening or the text describing that opening doesn’t make sense, work at other openings and build up your knowledge of opening principles. Then, when you’re more comfortable with opening mechanics, try the opening the once made no sense. Be patient, study theory, practice that theory, and you’ll be rewarded. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson