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).


I’m the type of individual who would rather be good at a handful of things then master of one. I like intellectual variety in my life, probably because I enjoy a bit of chaos (but not a lot of chaos). I had a teenage student ask me how to get “good” at a number of endeavors and I had no concrete answer until I really thought about it. I’m sure some of you may be thinking “you can’t get good at at one, let alone few things, without having some sort of plan.” However, I tend to jump into things and figure out what works in achieving my goals (or what doesn’t), making a note of what does the trick. Intuition from a lifetime of learning simply kicks in. I use a variety of learning techniques depending on the subject matter. Yet, there is one common thread that ties together all my learning experiences and that is a solid foundation.

Building a solid foundation is the real key to learning something, be it chess, music or Mandarin. You simply cannot become good at something unless your knowledge of the subject at hand rests upon a solid foundation! On the first day of my first college class, the teacher stated that we would spend the first week learning how to study. I was amazed and appalled at the same time. After all, we were in college so we should already know how to study. After quizzing my classmates, it became apparent that none of us really knew the fine art of studying. It’s really quite simple. It comes down to time management and reading the texts in manner that allows you to comprehend the material (skimming through a chapter to become familiar with it, rereading it in detail and asking yourself, after each paragraph, exact what points the author was making). Also included in the professor’s instructions regarding studying were finding a quiet place to read and taking good notes.

However, he never really talked about the power of a strong foundation regarding the subject matter. This is where I’ll jump in! How good you get at something depends completely on the foundation of knowledge you build for yourself. Think about building a house. If you live in earthquake country as I do, building even the nicest house on a foundation of sand will lead to disaster when the ground starts to shake. Therefore, you build a house on a solid foundation of concrete (poured onto bedrock). The same holds true with learning. How far you get in your study of a subject depends on the foundation of information you create. Your foundation, in this case, requires a firm and complete grasp of the basics, the essentials.

We all know chess players who employ openings, for example that are beyond their grasp. They memorize an opening move order along with a few variations without having a solid grasp of the underlying principles. Then they play someone who makes a move they haven’t memorized and it’s game over! Before you venture off and play the Ruy Lopez, you need to understand the principles that guild each move. When white plays 3. Bb5, for example, you need to understand how this seemingly non-centralized move helps to control the center (the Bishop on b5 attacks the Knight on c6 who in turn is defending the pawn on e5). If you want to get good at chess you have to know the very basics of the game inside and out. It’s knowledge if the simplest concepts that allow you to learn and understand the complex ideas. There’s no room for partial knowledge if you want to win games against strong opponents. Too many times, a player will try to make a move he saw Karpov make, only to have it backfire and lead to a loss. As a beginner or improver, you can’t play like Karpov so you shouldn’t try. It’s the idea of learning to walk before trying to run! You build your foundation of knowledge as single brick at a time.

Another great example of building a solid foundation can be found in mathematics. If you wish to learn algebra and calculus, you need to have an absolute grasp of arithmetic! Many people dislike mathematics, and while they’re able to get through the basics of arithmetic with little pain, they usually have a little trouble with fractions (unless you live in a country smart enough to use the metric system which bypasses this annoying branch of mathematics). They skim through learning fractions, which weakens their mathematical foundation and then run into trouble when fractions are applied in algebra! Their thinking is this: Fractions are a small part of arithmetic as a whole, so if I do well everywhere else, I’ll be just fine! Wrong! It only takes one poorly placed brick to bring your foundation crashing down.

There’s no taking half measures when it comes to building a solid foundation. In studying Mandarin, I made a point of really working on the most basic aspects of the language, the tones. Some words in Mandarin are spelled identically but have different meanings based on how they’re pronounced. If you gloss over studying the tonal aspects of the language, you’ll never speak it correctly. You’ll proudly walk into a Chinese restaurant, place your order in Mandarin and be swiftly thrown out because you told the waiter his wife was a goat! Like memorizing a chess opening, you can memorize a huge number of words in Mandarin but if you can’t pronounce them, no one will understand what you’re saying (and you’ll never be allowed back into your favorite Chinese eatery).

So how does the beginning chess player build a solid foundation? Obviously through hard work and study. However, you have to progress slowly and not advance from one concept to another until you have a firm grasp of the material you just studied. I advocate over-kill when it comes to learning. You can’t study too much (within reason of course). Opening theory, something I talk about a great deal in my classes, is a great example of an area in which beginners tend to skim through. Patience, is the chess student and chess player’s best friend. When learning how to start a game, the opening, beginners more often than not, study the games of the masters. There is nothing wrong with this as long as you really understand the opening principles. As you play through the game of a master, ask yourself with each move made for either side, how do the opening principles apply here. Too often, a beginner will jump to the next move if her or she can’t figure out what opening principle applied to the previous move. Wrong! You have to determine the principle behind each move before moving onto the next. If you can’t figure this out, go online and do some research. There are millions of beginners out there and you can’t be the only one stumped by a particular move! By doing the research you’ll answer the question which will, in turn, strengthen your foundation. Play through the game you’re studying not once but five or six times. When you can play that particular game from memory you can move on.

The same holds true for tactical play. I use tactical training programs on my computer to improve my skills. However, I do something not everyone does. Most people will look at the screen, solve the problem and move on. Wrong! Tactics don’t appear out of thin air. They are set up. This means you need to look at moves made prior to the execution of the tactic! If the program you’re using doesn’t give you the moves made prior to the tactic in question (many don’t), find it in a database. I know this this takes extra time and you won’t be able to tell your friends that “I did 1,237 tactical puzzles today,” but you’ll learn a lot about how to set up the tactic in question. It’s all about the foundation you build!

Endgame play tends to stump the beginner because they never get to a proper endgame or if they do, they’re playing someone with endgame experience. Learn endgame principles and find someone to play endgame positions with, such as a chess playing program. Play pawn and King endgames until you’re eyes glaze over and then do it again. Slowly add more different pieces into the mix. Take it slowly, one brick at a time.

Going that extra mile, building a simple but solid foundation, will do wonders for your ability to take on more complex ideas (both on and off the chessboard). Like I said, you can’t run until you learn how to walk. Don’t worry about people around claiming to have sped through their studies because they’ll hit the brick wall fast learning soon enough. Of course, for anyone who has read my social media posts regarding my fast acceleration in learning Mandarin, it’s only happening because I build a solid foundation of the basics, which took a great deal of time and work. However, that work in fully grasping the simplest concepts is paying off. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


The Poor Improver

Oh, the poor chess Improver. You know this person, the novice chess player who has learned the rules of the game, as well as some basic tactics and checkmates, but that’s the extent of their game knowledge. Why do I say the poor Improver? Because this chess player wants to improve his or her chess skills but faces a hard road to improvement. The road is hard because it requires work and dedication. However, the journey is made even more difficult due to the vast array of inappropriate training material available. Stop if you’re thinking that this last statement is ridiculous because it’s true! I know that, thanks to technology, improvers have a seemingly endless source of training options available to them. There are books, DVDs and countless software programs to help them get better at chess. It’s all wonderful and should be propelling players towards mastery. There’s just one problem. For the Improver there isn’t a lot of truly suitable material. The majority of training material is simply too advanced for them!

I don’t normally say this but I am a bit of an authority on this dilemma. Teaching and coaching beginners and Improvers, it’s my job to dig through all the available material out there and find training aids that are suitable for my students. Teaching and coaching is my full time occupation and something I love doing. To keep doing what I love to do, I have to give my students the best education I can so I examine a plethora of training aids to do so. What I’ve discovered is a nightmarish world in which the improver rarely gets the needed outside training support. While some who teach chess might smile because, after all, it forces the student back to their teacher for further improvement (more money for the teacher), I like my students to improve on their own. Here’s what I mean about the nightmarish world of chess self improvement:

You’re a novice Improver, one who knows the bare basics. You decided to pick up a physical catalog from one of the big chess supply businesses or go online and check out their training aids. You decide to look at books and DVDs. You see that the books and DVDs are all geared towards players within a set rating range, such as 1000 to 1400 (the ranges go up much higher). You’re at a rating of roughly 1000 and mutter to yourself “I’ll get this book because the caption says it’s good for players rated between 1000 and 1400. You order the book and, after it arrives, open it up to start improving. Within three pages, you realize it’s way over your head, requiring a more sophisticated skill set to get anything accomplished. Welcome to the world of self improvement!

This common problem arises because improves don’t realize that there is a huge skill set difference between a a player with a rating of 1000 and a player with a rating of 1400. While the 1400 rated player might sail through the book in question, the 1000 rated player will struggle. In a perfect world, an exact rating system would be applied to chess books. “This book is geared towards the player with a rating of exactly 1000.” However, this is unrealistic. Publishers have to sell their chess books to a broader chess playing audience in order to stay in business. Therefore, publishers use a rating range. So what’s the Improver to do?

My suggestion, one I give to all my adult students in this position, is to use books written for junior players. When I say junior players, I’m not talking about small children but kids between the age of 12 and 15. The books I recommend give clear, concise explanations that a 12 year old could understand, or a befuddled Improver. By using these books, you’ll gain a solid grasp of the subject matter that allows you to improve your skill set. Two titles that come to mind are “Winning Chess Tactics for Kids” and “Winning Chess Strategies for Kids,” both by Jeff Coakley. He’s also written other books in this series. What I like about his books are that they explain key concepts very clearly because they’re written for a younger reader, and the game positions he uses are to the point. These books serve as excellent stepping stones that will make working with more complicated adult chess books on the same subject much easier. If you feel embarrassed carrying around a kid’s chess book, make a paper book cover and write (in thick black ink) “The Super Grandmaster’s Advanced Guide to Extremely Complex Tactics.” If you feel silly about doing this, you should. There’s nothing wrong with any book that helps you improve (even books written for kids). If you want to get better at chess do what every it takes, within reason!

Now for those DVDs! DVDs employ a similar rating system with similar pitfalls for the Improver. The advantage to DVDs for many players is the visual aspect. Many players do better with animated pieces moving about the chessboard on their computer when it comes to learning. Here, you also have to be careful because even a rating range of 300 points can make comprehension difficult for the player on the lower end of the rating range. My first suggestion is to research the person lecturing on the DVD. Youtube is an excellent place to vet your electronic chess coach. Simply type in the person in question’s name on Youtube and watch a few clips. Ask yourself, did I get anything out of this clip or did it go over my head? If you want to cut to the chase, check out Andrew Martin and Nigel Davies. Both provide useful information in clear and concise ways. For example, Andrew Martin’s Winning Chess provides the Improver with really clear explanations regarding good overall play. I’m also a huge fan of Nigel’s Tricks and Traps series because it explains the mechanics of tricks and traps early in the game, allowing you to use them and better yet, avoid them. If you’re looking for a basic opening to learn, avoid the more varietal and complex opens, such as The Ruy Lopez or The Sicilian Defense and opt for simpler openings such as The Italian Opening. You can’t learn to run until you learn to walk! At least with DVDs you have the option of sampling them online before purchasing them.

Now for training software! Here, the Improver stands a better chance of improving! As with the other aids for self learning, you have to do some research. Training software also uses the same rating ranges. However, I’ve found that the range tends to favor the player on the lower end of the spectrum. Peshka (ChessOk) has some good programs geared towards the low end Improver, such as their Mate In One and Easy Ways of Taking Pawns and Pieces. While these are really simple, they help you develop your chess eye! They also have a Mate in Two, Mate in Three and tactical training programs that are good. Again do your research. Chess King (also by the Peshka folks) has three good Tactics Training software programs. There are many other programs to consider as well. Training software tends to gear itself (for the most part) to lower level players.

When choosing a training aid, the more research you put into your potential purchase, the less likely you end up with something geared towards a master level player. Ask around. Go onto a chess forum (something I never thought I’d suggest) and ask other improvers what’s worked for them. With all training aids, go through the information at least two or three times. I have gone through Chessbase Training DVDs at least three times. Why? Because the more I work through them the more knowledge I gain. You’d be surprised at how much you miss the first time through. You only discover this fact by going through the DVD again and again, where you pick up more and more.

You don’t go out and buy the first car you see and you shouldn’t go out and purchase the first training aid you run into. Do the research. While you can find a great deal of good training videos on Youtube, you have to remember that anyone can claim to be a chess guru online. Google the name of someone claiming to have a great training video and see what qualifies them to make that claim. Do your homework. Beware titles like “Grandmaster Secrets for Beginners” and “Instant Chess Mastery.” If it sounds too good to be true then it is! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Too Young for Chess

When I was a small child, when technology such as the cordless phone was still considered science fiction, children were allowed to grow intellectually at a natural pace. We grew through our own trial and error way of discovering the world around us, with our parents patiently watching from the sidelines. Now, parents seem to be goaded (often by other parents) into developing their child’s mind literally while that child is still in the womb. When the child is finally born, the race for intellectual superiority is in full swing. Every parent is convinced that their child is brilliant, capable of changing the world (and a few do go on to do just that). Of course, there’s nothing wrong with thinking your child is absolutely brilliant but when you push a child at too young an age, more damage can be done than good. In my work teaching chess to children, I find an overwhelming number of parents enrolling their children in my classes at too young an age. They also expect their young children to excel at chess because, after all, their children are brilliant (according to the parents). Einstein’s childhood exemplifies the falsehood of developing a child’s mind at an early age in order to increase their chances of becoming the next great intellectual thinker of our times!

While it’s generally a good idea to learn chess at a young age, there is a minimum age at which the game should be introduced. Expose a child younger than that age to the game and the results will be mixed at best. For example, I have an entire class of kindergarten students who are roughly five years of age. Five years of age is far to young to get any real benefit out of chess. Why? Because chess requires abstract thinking that five year old children just haven’t developed. While I have had a few exceptions to this rule, the majority of kindergarten students shouldn’t be taking a chess class. They should be playing with Lego building blocks instead which actually would help them develop the mindset needed for chess. Building things, using the trial and error method, teaches young children how to problem solve, a requisite for playing chess. It also introduces them to abstract thinking. However, many (but not all) parents love to tell other parents that their children are studying chess “and they’re only in kindergarten!”

It’s as if there is this race to see who can produce the youngest genius but what it comes down to is childish bragging rights on the part of the parents. I recently had a parent of one of my kindergarten students say that her son wasn’t playing chess very well after two months in my class. I replied that, at the age of five, just moving the pieces correctly should be considered a milestone within this time frame. I asked her what she considered to be “playing chess well.” She said that her son was unable to deliver checkmate when playing her husband. By the way, her husband is a chess know-it-all, who makes weekly suggestions regarding my teaching program (beating him at chess on a regular basis seems to be a poor deterrent and pointing to my student’s tournament victories has little effect as well). Honestly, I had to keep my thoughts to myself because, after all, teaching chess is my job (although I consider it a privilege). Negative commentary on my part would create problems for our chess organization ( my sudden unemployment) leading me to a career in customer service which would leave the city of San Francisco with even more angry people. If I could speak freely, I’d tell her she was an idiot with no idea of how to develop her child’s mind (as well as a total disregard for anything resembling fashion sense). I’d also tell her that her husband was a Patzer. However, I patiently explained that children of a certain age don’t have the capacity, brilliant or not, to understand ideas that require a specific level of intellectual maturity that is developed over time (age)! There’s nothing wrong with wanting the best for your child, you just have to make sure you’re not pushing your child to satisfy your own needs. There might be someone that reads this and thinks “well my kid started chess classes at age five and learned the game quickly.” This does happen. Case in point, one of my five year old students: His father played club level chess and spent the better part of eighteen months working with his son, just concentrating on how the pawns and pieces moved. He also consulted the appropriate books and did the appropriate leg work. When his son arrived in my class, at the age of five, he actually knew quite a bit about the game (especially for a five year old). What made the difference, between the mom with no fashion sense and the well prepared chess playing dad? Dad took his time and didn’t set his expectations in the clouds! Patience is a word many parents think they know but often need to reacquaint themselves with it when it comes to chess and expectations.

I truly believe that everyone can benefit from chess, especially when it comes to life lessons. Chess can give children the ability to problem solve with relative ease. However, timing is everything! Putting a small child into a structured chess class can be extremely boring for that child because they don’t understand the concepts. It doesn’t mean they suffer from sub-intelligence. It just means they’re too young for abstract thinking and extended periods of focusing on something. Yet, many parents think their child has an intellectual problem if they’re not doing well in my chess class. Of course, I try to explain to them that this simply isn’t the case but we live in a world in which parents push their children to the breaking point, thinking they’re helping that child develop an advantage. Dear parents, there is no real intellectual race and parents who allow their children to develop their minds on their own often end up with children who go on to do amazing things.

Parents should also consider whether or not their children actually want to play chess at all. I’ve had students enrolled in my classes who have no interest in the game but their parents force them to attend. Fortunately, I can usually make the game interesting to them but it seems counterproductive to the child’s intellectual growth. What’s wrong with having a child not interested in chess take music lessons instead? Better yet, why not ask the child what they might be interested in? Parents never seem to consider asking their child what they want to do.

I know this all may seem a bit negative but I’m in the trenches so to speak and and watch the great intellectual race run every single day. So, what age is the right age to introduce children to chess? It depends on a number of variables so there is no concrete answer. However, I’ll pose a simple question to determine whether your child is ready for a chess class. Does your child have a problem with sitting still and focusing for 10 to 15 minutes at a time? If the answer is yes, then your child isn’t ready. When I say “focusing,” I don’t expect your child to be able to concentrate on something with the metal dexterity of a Jedi Knight. However, could you ask your child to look at a slightly abstract drawing for a few minutes and then have them answer some simple questions about that drawing, such as what they think it depicts and why they think it depicts what they think it depicts. Can they create a story around the picture? How long can they study the drawing before they start fidgeting? This simple test will tell you a bit about the concentration, depth and abstract thinking your child employs when looking at the drawing. While not an exact science, it tends to shed some light on the issue of being able to sit still, concentrate and interpret an abstract form. There are a number of ways to garner this information, such as having your child build something with Lego building blocks and then explain what they’ve built. Note how long your child spends working on the project.

The point is this: Test your child’s ability to sit relatively still (after all, even the most well behaved children will always fidget a bit), concentrate on something and provide an explanation before enrolling them in a chess class where they’ll have to sit still, concentrate and tackle abstract thinking. Don’t force your child into taking a chess class if they don’t want to. Let them become interested in the game on their own. Forcing them into taking on such a complex game will only produce negative results. The older they are, the better the chances that they’ll enjoy the game and learn how to play it correctly. Third grade is a good age to start taking a chess class.

If your five year old child doesn’t take to chess like a duck to water, don’t worry about it. You can always try again when they’re older. Don’t force the game on them because children don’t want to do what they don’t want to do. Be gentle, nurture your children and allow them to grow at their own pace. It worked wonders for Einstein. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Dear Chess Federation…

Sadly, it doesn’t matter which major chess federation this open letter is addressed to because they’ve all committed the same heinous crime; sending the game of chess back into the dark ages. They’re slowing killing the game we love so much and their destructive weapon of choice is the most dangerous weapon of all, politics. Yes politics, that greasy (at best) business in which the only thing that matters is the feeding of one’s ego. I apologize if I sound a bit bitter but year after year, I’ve watched public interest in chess dwindle away with the very people we’ve elected into chess federation offices doing nothing to change that. At least when you vote for a politician in a democracy you know you’re voting for the lessor of a few evils and you know all promises made during the campaign will not be fulfilled. You know you’re getting the short end of the stick from the get go!

Here’s a little story about the misplaced efforts of one organization I belong to. A while back, I received an email from this organization. Because I am a voting member, I am privy to things the average non voting member never hears about. This email asked me to contact the Chamber of Commerce of a very high profile city to have them pick a local chess club to be its business of the year (or some such nonsense). I would have considered doing this if it were an inner city chess club in need of support. However, this was a wealthy chess club where business power brokers played chess (and made business deals). I smelled a political rat and decided to ignore the email. Unfortunately, the emails kept coming, including some personal emails trying to convince me it would be to my benefit to lend my support. Due to the litigious nature of this organization, I’ll leave the details vague. The point I’m getting at is that it would have been better to use the time, effort and money expended by this chess organization to, dare I say it, promote chess in inner city schools or help out a struggling local chess club. I guess trying to better the lives of children isn’t as important as promoting the chess clubs of the wealthy and famous.

Then there’s all those lawsuits within the federation. Really? You would think the last place you’d find people suing each other would be in a chess federation. Wrong! Without naming names to keep the legal eagles away from The Chess Improver, I watched in horror as a lawsuit a while back financially ate away potential funds that could be used to promote the game. The worst part about the majority of federation related lawsuits is that they’re in house, involving the politicians within the governing body of the federation. Why not have an arbitration system within the federation that prevents such a waste of money? I don’t mind paying yearly dues but what I do mind is discovering that my money, as well as other member’s money, is not being used properly.

In fairness, there are ranking members of the various chess organizations that truly care about the game and promoting it. They’re the members you seldom hear about because they’re too busy trying to bring chess into inner city schools as well as positively promoting the game. It’s no coincidence that these same good people tend to teach chess as well. However, when you have people on the federation’s top who seem to have very little in the way of chess related qualifications for holding office, those doing the good work get know where.

When it’s time to vote for a new Grand Poobah of the federation or board members, I always have to read the candidate information two or three times because I never seem to discover exactly what chess experience these people have. I mean, if you need open heart surgery, you’d seek out the most qualified heart surgeon rather than the mechanic at your local gas station (who could probably do a better job running a chess federation), right? I’m not a picky man (in most matters) but I do want my federation officials to at least have some experience regarding chess. Owning as chess set doesn’t qualify you to run the business. Of course, business experience is necessary if you’re going to run a large organization but you can’t tell me there isn’t at least one person who can run a business and has played a lot of chess. I keep expecting Donald Trump to run for Grand Poobah of my federation. At least with Trump, I’d know we were doomed from the start.

Then there’s the campaign mud slinging that comes in the form of postcards and emails. I’ve received both in which one candidate makes a point of dragging out the other candidate’s dirty laundry. I really don’t need to know that candidate “A” likes to wear his wife’s clothing from six to nine o’clock in the evening. I don’t care as long as he can do a good job. While never really receiving such information I will say that what I have received has been close enough to qualify as political mud slinging. I always assumed that those running for federation offices are adults. Judging from some of those postcards and emails, I’m wrong.

There was a time in the past when chess federations were run by chess players. Because they were chess players, they worked to make things better for those who were new to the game and those who played the game. They may not have been the best at running a day to day business but they took care of their federation’s members. Now, most chess players wouldn’t consider running for office because there’s too much monkey business involved, namely politics, that crusty old wheel of depravity that requires constant tawdry greasing. I hope you’re all seeing a theme here; chess good, politics bad. Of course, politics is everywhere. My local dog park, that place you’re supposed to be able to bring your dog for a fun run, is politically controlled. If you don’t grease the right palms as they say, you and your dog might get black listed. No fun time for your four legged friend. So I expect a bit of politics to go on within a federation. However, it’s gotten out of hand.

The people that run a chess organization should do so with a single goal in mind, the advancement of the game. This means bringing chess to the people, especially children, and this should be the number one priority. That means that any expenditure of money for things other than either chess education or tournament organization must be kept to a minimum, period. Of course, those in power talk about various future programs that will further the game’s reach, especially when they’re running for office. However, like most campaign promises, they’re never kept. I’d offer to provide a swift boot to the back of the pants for each federation official that reneged on a campaign promise but I’d either wear out the bottom of my boot or suffer a grievous leg injury due to a long repetitive action.

Federation forums anyone? Now there’s a place where the insects crawl out of the woodwork! Of course, I’m on forums from time to time but some folks seem to not only live on the forums but make sport out of stirring up trouble. To those folks I say get a life, go out and enjoy the real word and please please please, learn how to communicate using correct spelling and grammar! Rather than jumping on the express train of people bashing, try doing something positive for the game you love. Forums should be a place to exchange ideas, not a place to complain about someone you’ve never met who might of done something you’re not quite sure about. If it has nothing to do with the actual game of chess or a truly important chess related issue, find another hobby. There are already enough trolls on the internet.

Lastly, there’s our fearless leader, Nigel, and his “defection.” I loved seeing the word defection because it made me think Nigel was secretly smuggled across the East/West border of Germany during the height of the cold war. I applaud you Nigel for doing what you did! If I had any credibility in the chess world, I too would defect. I heard the Penguin team down at the South Pole is in need of a few chess players. If my chess federation doesn’t start delivering my monthly chess magazine on time (it’s always two weeks late), I might switch sides. Seriously though, I thought what Nigel did was brilliant. All you federations might change your tune if your best players said enough is enough and found another group to represent. Well, now that this grumpy middle aged punk rock guitar playing chess teacher has complained for 1,505 words, I’ll leave you with a game to enjoy and a promise that I won’t complain like this again. I’m not running for a federation office so it’s a promise that will be kept. Go Wales!

Hugh Patterson


The Line of Scrimmage

I received an email a while back from a gentleman who is a professional football player. He decided to take up chess as a way to relax and exercise his mind while on the road. He carefully explained that he was have trouble with fully grasping the reasons for control of board’s center during the beginning of the game. He asked if I could explain the idea in simple terms. I thought about and decided to use an analogy he’d understand. The key to both good teaching and meaningful learning is to find explanations that allow one to understand a concept comfortably. Thus, the line of scrimmage.

In American football, the line of scrimmage is an imaginary line that runs across the width of the football field. Players of either team cannot cross this line until play has started. When you watch a football game, you’ll see both teams facing each other on either side of this line and when the play starts, one team tries to push across the line of scrimmage while the other team tries to hold the line, keeping the opposition from getting across.

During the opening phase of a chess game, the line of scrimmage can be thought of as the line between the fourth and fifth ranks. This line divides the field of battle, with the fifth through eighth ranks being black’s territory and the first through fourth ranks being white’s territory. In football, it’s the quarterback’s job to get the ball over the line of scrimmage either into the hands of a receiver or carry it himself to the opposition’s goal line for a touchdown. While the quarterback is trying to accomplish this task, his teammates are trying to keep the other side from attacking and tackling the quarterback (or the poor receiver running for his life down the field). His team mates are defending the line of scrimmage. Attack and defense, two concepts football and chess players need to be familiar with.

During the opening, you’re trying to hold down your side of the board while pushing across the line of scrimmage to gain space on your opponent’s side of the board. In football, it’s a lot easier to score a goal if you’re closer to the opponent’s goal line. The closer you get, the better your chances of scoring. The line of scrimmage in a football game moves back and forth and the closer your team gets to the opposition’s goal line, the easier it will be to score a touchdown.

The same idea holds true in chess, especially early in the game. If you’re playing the white pieces, you’ll want to gain a foothold in the center immediately. You’ll want to strengthen your control of the line of scrimmage as quickly as possible. Why is the center of the board so crucial? First of all, pieces have greater power and thus greater control when centrally located. Secondly, the opposition King sits on a central file and he’s the guy you want to get at. In football, the quarterback starts behind his teammates near the center of the line of scrimmage. This is why you’ll see the opposition rush across the center of the scrimmage line. When the play starts, you don’t see everyone running towards the line’s flanks. Because of this, the quarterback’s teammates will build up a heavy presence at the line’s center, defending it. The team that owns the line line of scrimmage usually owns the game (provided they can get the ball to the opposition’s goal). In chess, you build up a strong presence at the board’s center. You defend your territory, keep the opposition tied down and only then consider an attack. However, you have to use the right players for the job.

You can consider the Queen as the quarterback. This means that if you bring her into the game early, she might get taken out before she has a chance to score the game winning touchdown or checkmate (Queen based checkmates are the beginner’s mate of choice)! Therefore, you have to use the right players, or pieces in this case, for the job, and in a specific order. Start with your defensive linemen, the pawns. Pawns have great power against pieces because of their relative value. Your opponent isn’t going to trade a piece for a pawn early in the game (yes, there are exceptions to this idea but we’re just going over the basics for now). It would be like trading your best football player for one with a permanent injury, unable to run. Because of their value, pawns can stand in the center and keep the opposition’s pieces at bay, as long as they are protected. In chess teammates must protect teammates. Next bring in the linebackers, the Knights and Bishops. They have more agility or power than the pawns and work well at controlling the center right away. Again, it’s about the center during the opening so you have to move them towards the center. In football, linebackers are the guys that stop the passes, push forward and sometimes sack the opposition’s quarterback. Like the linebackers, your Knights and Bishops have an extremely important job during the opening and if you leave them on the sidelines (their starting squares), you’ll pay the price.

In football, you keep your quarterback safe because if he can’t play, you’re going to have a hard time scoring a goal. This is why we don’t bring the Queen into the game early. In chess, we also have to keep our King safe because when the King goes down the game ends. The easiest way to do this is to castle your King early on. This special move has the added bonus of bringing a heavy hitter into the game, the Rook. When castling King-side for white, the Rook ends up on the f1 square. From there, it’s only a one square move to e1 where our Rook will be opposite the black King. In football, this would be the equivalent of having a fast moving 350 pound tackling expert aimed at the opponent’s quarterback.

During the opening, you bring the right team members out onto the field, in this case the board, in a strategic order. You play for the center and control of your opponent’s side of the board while holding down the line of scrimmage, keeping your opponent from gaining a foothold on your side of the board.

Then there’s the Hail Mary play in football or the fast checkmate attempt in chess. In football, when things get desperate, the team coach will often try a play that has little chance of succeeding. Sometimes it does and that play goes down in history (look up the Hail Mary football play). In chess, this kind of play fails when employed against an opponent who knows even a little about the game. You have to avoid all or nothing attacks. You build up an attack the same way you would push the line of scrimmage towards the opposition’s goal line to ensure a touchdown. Slow and steady wins the race. Of course, opportunities may present themselves, allowing you to deliver a deadly blow in the form of checkmate. However, this rarely happens when playing skilled opponents, so play the long game not the short game. To win a football game, you have to play all four quarters.

So that is a little of the analogy I gave my football playing friend. Once he applied the game he knows so well to the game he’s just learning, he started to make better decisions during the opening. If you’re learning the game of chess, try to take concepts you know from other endeavors and see if you can use them to create a useful analogy of your own. Here’s a game until next week. Watch the line of scrimmage in this one!

Hugh Patterson


Scholar’s Mate Revisited

Once a month, my students play in a local tournament here in San Francisco. The tournament is very casual because it’s meant to introduce new players to the idea of competitive play in a non stressful manner. My students do extremely well and have done so for a number of years, due to their hard work (as opposed to my instruction). My students aim for longer games, not trying to pull off fast checkmates, and exercise principled play. However, in the beginner’s section, their were a few of their opponents who had been taught the Scholar’s Mate as a means of winning games quickly. Of course, this method of winning works exclusively on players with no practical experience. While my students know how to easily defend against such a ghastly attack, a fair number of students from other schools fell victim to this rather shaky ploy. Therefore, I decided to revisit this topic so any of you who are new to the game won’t fall prey to it.

Scholar’s Mate, otherwise know as the four move checkmate, is a favorite attack with very young chess players. While I dissuade my students from employing it, parents will often allow their children to use it against them in an effort to encourage further study of the game. These parents feel that allowing their children to win, using this attack, is a form of positive reinforcement. Sadly, it has the opposite effect in the long run. It may win a few games at junior level but it will lead to a greater number of losses against slightly more skilled opponents later on. Good chess is all about building a position up until you have more directional options, not going for the quickest attack possible. With that said, let’s look at this sketchy form of checkmate.

The target square for this checkmate is the f7 square. Why the f7 square? Because it’s the weakest of two square on the board (f2 being the other) at the start of game. It’s weak because the only defender of the f7 square is the King and the King isn’t in a position to defend early on. White’s weak square at the start of the game is the f2 square. While I’m giving this example from white’s point of view, it should be noted that black can also checkmate on the f2 square employing the same technique. The first step to avoid falling victim to the Scholar’s Mate is to know that the f7 square is the square to watch.

When we first learn the game, we’re taught to start out with the move 1. e4 for white and 1… e5 for black. Both sides place a pawn on a central square and open up lines for the King-side Bishop and Queen. You should note this (opening lines or diagonals for Bishop and Queen) when making this first move. Playing the black pieces, you should note that your King and f pawn are on light squares while the white Queen and King-side Bishop are also on light squares. This alone suggests the possibility of an early threat. However, there’s no need to panic yet if your playing the black pieces. It’s move two that will tell you whether or not your opponent is going to go for a fast checkmate. As a beginner, it can be difficult to fully comprehend the possibilities within a position. Of course, when there are only two pawns on the board, it’s not too difficult! However, move two will be the test! I’ve already mentioned that the black King and f pawn, and white’s King-side Bishop and Queen are on light squares. White’s two pieces are also no longer blocked in by the e pawn. As the person playing black, you should watch white’s next move carefully. If white plays 2. Nf3, you don’t have to worry about Scholar’s Mate. However, if white plays either 2. Bc4, 2. Qf3 or 2. Qh5, it’s time to start paying extra close attention to the action!

Normally, we’d see white moving the Knight to f3 on move two. Once the Knight occupies the f3 square, the white Queen can no longer move to either f3 or h5. Let’s say that white instead plays 2. Bc4. At this juncture, the beginner should follow the squares the Bishop controls, paying close attention to the f7 square which the Bishop attacks. Of course, there is now only one white attacker (the Bishop) and one defender of f7 (the King). Placing the Bishop on c4 is the start of a legitimate opening for white but you’re not likely to find many beginner’s pursuing this line. Therefore, you should consider it the start of a two piece mating attack on f7. Developing the Bishop first during the Scholar’s Mate is the less obvious way to employ this attack. Many beginners will be far less subtle and move the white Queen to either f3 of h5. In either case, the beginner should draw an imaginary line from either the Bishop or the Queen and see if that line intersects with the f7 square. If the answer is yes, alarm bells should sound off!

With 2. Bc4, the beginner can continue with a normal developmental move for black. Ideally, 2… Nf6 will put the kibosh on this attack because the black Knight on f6 blocks a Queen attack from f3 and keeps her off of the h5 square. Remember, to deliver Scholar’s Mate, you have to have both white’s Queen and light squared Bishop simultaneously aimed at f7 with nothing standing in the way (blocking). See the example below.

Alright, that seems simple enough. However, beginner’s not familiar with this attack tend to end up in trouble by making what they think are correct moves. Let’s say that we reach the position below after 1. e4…e5, 2. Qh5…g6:

Black, being an inexperienced player, has decided to use a pawn to attack the Queen, thinking that a one point pawn will force the nine point Queen away from the attacking square. Well, the Queen does move but unfortunately, she simply takes the e5 pawn with check (Qxe5+…Be7, 4. Qxh8), forking the Black King and Rook on h8. Black loses the Rook and often other valuable King-side material. Black’s mistake was not fully looking at all of the white Queen’s possible escape squares. The correct move for black is 2…Nc6 which defends the black pawn on e5. Remember, the Queen combines the power of the Rook and Bishop, so she can go a lot of places on the board. Therefore, you should note every square she can move to before considering a response. Don’t attack the Queen until you’ve defended any undefended pawns or pieces.

In our next example, black get a little further with piece movement but makes a fatal mistake in the end. After 1. e4…e5, 2. Bc4…Nc6, 3. Qh5, black once again decides to attack the Queen with 3… Nf6. Well, black is attacking the Queen with a piece of lesser value but the Knight is not blocking the Queen’s access to the f7 square. The Queen simply smiles and winks at the Knight and she slips past to f7 delivering checkmate (Qf7#).

The third move that black could have made was 3… g6, attacking the white Queen. This move works now because the Knight on c6 is stopping the Queen from taking the pawn on e5 with check. Now, it’s safe to use the black g pawn to attack the white Queen.

Scholar’s Mate is very easy to defend against if you’re paying attention to the geometry of the attack on the board. Knowing that f7 is extremely weak and knowing that it is the epicenter for many mating attempts goes a long way toward preventing such attacks. Noting that the white Bishop or Queen has come into play on move two gives you advanced warning of this specific mating attack. Following the attacking lines formed by the white Queen and Bishop and seeing them intersecting at the f7 square helps prevent falling victim to Scholar’s Mate. Now, if you suddenly notice that white’s Queen and Bishop are aimed at the f7 square, provided it’s black’s turn, you can always either play Qe7 or Nh6. In either case, you’ll have two defenders to white’s two attackers. Remember, the checkmate will not work if attackers equal defenders in this case. If white had a Bishop on c4 and a Queen on f3 (with an unblocked attack on f7), and you had your Queen on e7, white wouldn’t go through with the attack because they’d be trading 12 points of material for 10 points of material (black’s f7 pawn and Queen).

So pay attention to white’s light squared Bishop and/or Queen coming out early if they’re aimed at your f7 pawn if you want to avoid such an awful and quick demise. Use common sense and you’ll avoid becoming yet another victim of the Scholar’s Mate. As white, apply the same ideas to the f2 square. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


When Openings Go Terribly Wrong

There is a huge difference between simply memorizing an opening and fully understanding the underlying mechanics of that opening. While this should be obvious to anyone with a bit of experience, beginners often don’t consider the difference between knowing the moves (and move order) of a specific opening versus understanding the reasons those moves are made. Compound this with the fact that the very games beginners are memorizing in an effort to learn an opening are played by titled players and you have a recipe for disaster. If you’ve memorized an opening played by two master level players, you’re counting on your opponent making the same moves as were made in the game you memorized. This might work if you were playing a Grandmaster but when playing another beginner, you’ll never see high quality responses to your memorized moves. You can memorize a surgical procedure but if you tried to perform that procedure, you’d likely kill the patient because you don’t understand the reasons behind each swipe of the scalpel.

When we play through the games of the masters, we’re watching two very experienced chess players facing off against one another. There is a huge difference between the skill level of a master compared to the skill level of a beginner. Master level players have played the specific opening they’re employing thousands of times so they have practical experience. However, and more importantly, they have a solid grasp of the underlying principles that guide each move they make during that opening. They know exactly why they’re making a specific move. In addition, because they have played this particular opening so many times, they know what to expect in the way of responses, even the more off beat or off book ones. Underlying mechanics is the key here.

If you memorize a series of moves and responses to those moves, you expect your opponent to make the appropriate reply when it is his or her turn to move. Beginners more often than not, make moves that are not the best response to your memorized move. This means, you might be able to play the first three moves of your memorized opening flawlessly but then your opponent throws you a curve ball, making a move that you didn’t memorize a response to. What do you do then? Well, if you have no idea about the underlying mechanics or reason for a move, you usually go down in flames! This is when an opening goes horribly wrong!

Of course, we learn how to play by studying and subsequently memorizing the games of the masters so you can’t simply dismiss them as a slightly flawed learning tool. However, you need to understand the reasoning behind each and every move when studying an opening. By understanding the underlying mechanics of a move, you’re more likely to respond to an off beat beginner’s move correctly.

Of course, I have memorized plenty of openings including their mainline and variations, and this is a good thing. However, I understand why each move was made and know how to deal with opposition moves that take us off book. By book, I mean the excepted mainline/variation moves. Moves that are off book are those not normally played for whatever reason (usually because they don’t work). I know the difference between memorization and principled mechanics.

Principled mechanics are move ideas that apply the opening principles and their underlying mechanics. The great thing about the opening principles is that they allow you to decide on the appropriate response using sound guidelines to help make a decision regarding what to do. Again, when you learn an opening, you usually do so by studying the games of master level players. This does mean you’ll be memorizing a move order. However, you have to understand each opening principle and how it applies to the move being made. You also have to be flexible with move order because sometimes, move order changes in response to your opposition’s current position. This means that if you simply memorize a sequence of moves and try to play it in the order you memorized it, you may end up sinking the ship early! Underlying mechanics based on principled play is the only way to learn an opening.

Of course, I’ve harped on opening principles with the tenacity of a used car salesman who has just spotted a rube on the car lot, but for good reason, because you’ll get nowhere unless you know these principles inside and out. Yes, you have to do a bit of memorization but, you have to know why each move is made in order to successfully employ those moves in your own games! In short, you have to do both but cannot do one without the other!

I suggest that beginning players study the games of the masters in order to learn an opening. However, you must understand why one move is made in an opening sequence before proceeding to the next move. I’ve had beginning students look at me as if I’m out of my mind when I suggest they determine the thought process involved in masterly moves. However, it’s relatively easy when you have a few principles to guide you.

The three big opening principles are controlling the board’s center with a pawn on move one, developing your minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) toward the center, castling your King to safety and further activating your pieces before launching an attack. The first principle, controlling the board’s center with a pawn is very straight forward. The e or d pawn is advanced two squares. However, beginners will often conclude that only the e and d pawns can garner such control. The English Opening starts off with 1. c4 and the Sicilian Defense starts with 1… c5. The beginner might think, “this isn’t an e or d pawn opening so there might be something wrong here.” Absolutely not. The pawn on c4, in the case of the English Opening, controls the d5 square (the same square controlled by 1. e4). With the Sicilian Defense, the pawn on c5 controls the d4 square (the same square controlled by 1… e5). Both these first opening moves adhere to principled play!

Developing your minor pieces is crucial to sound opening play. Beginners often develop a minor headache (rather than a sound position) trying to think of ways to bring their Knights and Bishops into the game. Playing through master level games, it becomes apparent that the minor pieces are usually developed to squares that allow those minor pieces to control, you guessed it, the board’s center. Then there’s the Ruy Lopz and subsequently the beginner’s perfectly logical question, “wouldn’t white’s King-side Bishop have greater control of the center on c4 rather than b5?” Players with greater experience know the answer to this question while those with less experience, are troubled by this move that seems to go against the opening principles. Here’s the thing, in the Ruy Lopez, the Bishop on b5 is attacking black’s Knight on c6. The Knight on c6 is defending the pawn on e5. If white trades Bishop for Knight, the pawn on e5 is undefended. So, it turns out that the Bishop, while not on c4, is attacking the board’s center, influencing the center via its attack on the c6 Knight. There are other openings where this idea of influencing the center without directly attacking it come into play. The important point is to look at a move, like 3. Bb5, and determine its underlying reason (opening mechanics). The longer you have to examine a move for its merits, the more you’ll learn!

King safety is the number one cause of lost beginner’s games. Beginners are taught to castle their kinds as soon as possible. But what of master level games in which the King isn’t castled immediately? Again we apply principled play and opening mechanics to the move(s) in question. King safety is the key phrase here. If we look at a master level game in which one player has the opportunity to castle on move four and doesn’t castle until move nine, there’s usually a few good reasons for not castling early. The first thing to look at is King safety. If your King is really safe, and this requires looking at the opposition pieces carefully to make sure there isn’t the opportunity for a quick attack, then you should consider further developing your forces. After all, the more control of the board’s center you have, the harder it is for your opponent to build up their position in the center. Master level players will build up control of the board before castling as long as their King remains safe. Also, if your opponent is building up his or her position, you might want to hold off on castling until you know the direction the attack is coming from. If your opponent builds up an attack on your King’side, you may want to castle Queen-side.

I can guarantee that, as a beginner, you’ll find yourself in positional situations in which there is no answer to be found from the memorization of an opening. Your opponent will make a strange move that isn’t found in any book on opening theory. Therefore, you have to use opening principles to guide your response. The principles I mentioned should immediately be applied to such a situation. Doing so will allow you to play a principled move rather than a “Gee, I’m just guessing here and I sure hope it works” move. The principles will not let you down as long as you understand the how and why of these principles. Play through your next master level game and ask yourself, with each move made in the game, if the above principles are being applied. If you find yourself not sure of how to respond to your opponent’s move, let the opening principles guide you!

Learn openings by playing through master level games. However, don’t go from one move to the next until you understand the reasons for that first move. You’ll only understand a move if you apply principles to the situation. When you understand the reasons behind a move, you’re grasping the underlying mechanics of that move and will improve your playing greatly. Principled play will take your understand of opening theory in the right direction. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. See if the principles applied!

Hugh Patterson


Attacking and Defending Calculations 101

Beginners have a propensity for making bad trades on the chessboard and defending material that is all but lost. Of course, as they gain experience, they hopefully learn the art of the trade and know when to give up material and move on. This often takes a large number of losses and too many losses with little in the way of wins can discourage the beginner from playing chess. Therefore, I’d like to offer a few suggestions to the beginning chess player that will help you improve your attacking and defending skills, keeping you from giving up on this fantastic game!

View your pawns and pieces in terms of money! This seems like a silly idea but there’s some merit to it. Teaching and coaching youngsters as well as adults, I’ve found that nothing sells the idea of material value like good old fashion money! Your pawns are worth a dollar each, Knights and Bishops three dollars each, Rooks five dollars each, the Queen nine dollars and the King, we’ll he’s priceless. When it comes to losing or gaining money, everyone pays attention (not to mention it helps small children develop their arithmetical skills). The question I first pose when discussing monetary trades on the chessboard is do you want to make money or lose money? I have yet to have someone say they want to lose money!

When beginners first start playing, they often trade pieces of higher value for pieces of lower value with no positional compensation. It’s one thing when an experienced player trades a Rook for a minor piece, such as a Knight, to clear a path for a mating attack (losing two dollars from a material viewpoint). It’s quite another thing when a beginner makes the same seemingly lopsided trade with nothing to show for it but a weakening of force. Therefore, the beginner should only make trades that garner them a good financial return, at least until the fully understand the idea of positional advantages! The beginner should only exchange pieces if the exchange is even or if they earn greater dollar amount when the material in question comes off the board! Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, such as not exchanging material if it weakens your position. However, beginners first have to learn how to make favorable trades! Here’s an example of an monetary trade that seems even but really isn’t, to make a point about exceptions:

On move six, White starts a quick series of exchanges garnering them Black’s Rook and f7 pawn. The pawn and Rook are worth six dollars total. Black garners White’s Knight and light squared Bishop for a total of six dollars. Is the trade even? Absolutely not. Both players are in the opening phase of the game. During the opening phase minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops, are more important than the Rooks and pawns. Therefore, even though the trade was even from a dollar and cents viewpoint, White has two minor pieces to Black’s four. Don’t trade minors for majors during the opening unless your profit margin spells checkmate! Don’t assume a trade is fair until you consider the position.

When launching an attack on your opponent’s material, do some basic arithmetic first to determine whether or not you’ll be the profiteer. When attacking or defending, consider using pieces of lesser value first. Don’t trade a Queen for a pawn. If you’re attacking (or defending) with a pawn, Bishop and your Queen, start the trade off with the pawn followed by the Bishop, then the Queen, but only if the value of the pieces your capturing are worth more than your collective material, in this case a pawn, Bishop and Queen. If you’re attacking a minor piece that is solely defended by pawns, trading your Queen for a pawn will bankrupt your game! The same holds true with defending.

Then there are those seemingly free or hanging pieces. There’s an old adage that states nothing in life is free. This thought can be applied to chess as well. Of course, when beginners play beginners, hanging pieces abound. However, if you, the beginner, are playing an experienced player, you might want to take a closer look at that seemingly free piece. Good players don’t give material away. They may offer you material but they get something in return, usually a winning game. Look at all of your opponent’s material and follow the direction that material aimed in. You might just notice that they’re aimed at your King and checkmate is looming on the horizon! Play for profit but don’t get greedy!

Then there’s defending! Beginners who employ my monetary ideas will more often than not think the concept translates to “I need to defend the attacked piece at all costs and turn a profit.” Wrong! Defending a lost piece can be akin to inflating kid’s balloons in an effort to keep your boat from sinking. You can keep inflating those balloons and tie them to the boat but eventually it’s going to sink. Sometimes you just have to jump into the water and let the boat go down! A lost piece is one that cannot be sanely defended. Here’s what I mean:

Mobility is the key to winning chess. Mobility is the freedom your pieces have to move around the board and do useful things, such as attacking and and delivering mate. Let’s say you have a well positioned Knight and it suddenly comes under attack. You defend and your opponent attacks again. You defend and your opponent attacks once more. There will come a point where, if you continue to defend, all your pieces will be completely tied up in the defense of that Knight. This means those pieces have lost mobility. How do you avoid ending up in this type of position? Consider this idea: Every time you add another defender to an attacked piece, you’re depriving that defender of mobility. If a large majority of your pieces are tied up with defensive duties, your ability to attack will be greatly diminished. Try to keep defenders to two or three pawns and pieces. In fact, pawns are great defenders since, in the case of our Knight, your opponent won’t want to trade a piece for a pawn. If your opponent has four attackers to your two defenders, you may have to surrender the attacked piece.

The key step after you grasp the raw economics of trades or exchanges is to count attackers and defenders. To experienced players, this idea is second nature but to beginners it’s a cosmic mystery! If your attacking, you want to have more attackers than the opposition has defenders. If you’re defending, you’ll want to have more defenders than opposition attackers. However, don’t throw everything into attack and defense because piece mobility wins games. Also know where to defend. If you have a pawn on b4 at the start of the game (and you shouldn’t be moving flank pawns early in the game) and your opponent attacks it, you might want to let it go. During the opening, the action takes place in the center of the board and that is the crucial region for attacking and defending. Of course, if not defending that flank pawn will lead to you getting checkmated, defend away!

Timing is everything! Like the financial markets, knowing when to make a play is critical. Beginners launch premature attacks that either cost them material or the game. Attacks should be built up using multiple pawns and pieces in tandem. Solo or desperado attacks sound great but usually end in tears (those of the person moving the solo piece). Pieces must work together when attacking and defending. Interestingly, while there needs to be a limit on the number of pieces involved in defensive duties, you can go somewhat hog wild when it comes to attacking as long as you don’t leave your King subject to mate (many a back rank mate has been pulled off this way). However, your pieces need to work together when attacking. Having five pieces attacking your opponent’s position does no good if the pieces aren’t defending one another. Piece coordination is absolutely important. If you want to attack a key square on the board, use a combination of pieces that protect one another. Attack from a distance! Use long range pieces such as the Bishops, Rooks and the Queen. They can attack key squares on your opponent’s side of the board from the safety of your side of the board. You’re a lot less likely to lose material if it’s far away from your opponent’s forces.

Well, there you have some ides to employ when considering attacking and defending. Do the math, don’t try and save the sinking ship and strike when the time is right. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson


Another Chess Boom?

With the release of Pawn Sacrifice, the movie about Bobby Fischer and his journey to the 1972 World Championship match against Boris Spassky, people have asked me if the film will reignite the general public’s interest in chess. It’s the same question many people asked when Searching for Bobby Fischer was released decades ago. While Searching for Bobby Fischer, the story of Josh Waitzkin, did do some good sparking a general interest in chess, we’ll never capture the interest in chess that Fischer brought about in 1972. At the time, I was living in New York and as a twelve year old, saw the impact he had on the United States.

At that time, Americans had an unhealthy interest in the cold war. I say unhealthy because it was a war fought using print and television as its primary weapons and most people became obsessed with those “Communist Russians.” Obsession can be very unhealthy, especially when it’s driven by fear and fear was the watch word of the day. It was us against the Russians and the idea that a single man would go up against the Soviet chess machine proved irresistible to Americans. Who doesn’t like a fight in which the underdog wins?

As the match between Fischer and Spassky drew near, the nightly news reported on Fischer’s demands and speculated as to whether he’d even show up to play Spassky. Chess equipment sales went up overnight. Everyone, especially in New York, seemed to be discovering chess. When Fischer touched down in Iceland and the match began, bars who normally had sports showing on their television sets instead had the match on. Fischermania was sweeping the country. A chess boom was born. Chess clubs sprung up around the country and the future of chess burned like a bright star. However, with boom comes bust and the brightest stars burn out quickly. After Fischer won the championship in 1972, the boom started to fade away. Fischer disappeared into the realm of madness and chess paid the price.

Searching for Bobby Fischer, the story of a young chess prodigy, brought chess back into the limelight and got people interested in the game again. Parents, saw chess as a good thing for their children. However, it didn’t have anywhere near the impact Fischer’s 1972 battle with Spassky had. Rather than a boom there was a quiet pop! Which brings me to the potential impact of Pawn Sacrifice on chess.

The movie doesn’t paint a rosy picture of Bobby Fischer and nor should it. Sadly, he had serious mental health problems that people either didn’t recognize or swept under the rug because, after all, he was a ”chess genius.” When one is titled a genius they’re allowed to be eccentric because, after all, they’re genius! Fischer was an extremely complex individual, one who the mental health community could have a field day with. Back then, mental health was still in the dark ages from a clinical viewpoint. Case in point, Fischer complained during the early stages of the 1972 match that he could hear the motion picture cameras used to cover the event and this was disturbing him. Another outlandish demand by the boy genius? No, actually it’s a symptom of paranoid schizophrenia. Imagine playing for the world championship and have your mind start to fall apart?

Pawn Sacrifice will garner some interest in chess but with script lines comparing chess to falling down a rabbit hole (“this game, it’s a rabbit hole”), we may find a few people fleeing from the game. Let me be clear, chess does not cause mental illness but obsession can and it’s easy for an obsessive personality to fall victim to the obsessiveness that chess can sometimes demand. If you want to truly master something you have to put an abnormal amount of time into your studies.

So what would it take to create another chess boom like we saw in 1972? A set of circumstances whose odds wouldn’t be worth the bet! Now, I’ve gotten more emails than usual about chess lessons over the last week but that still doesn’t amount to a chess boom or even a chess bang. The tragic thing about the Fischer boom and its impact on chess is that those great gains in interest have been lost simply by the passing of time. There was no great follow up moment to sustain the momentum. Yet the idea of another chess boom looms in the minds of many players.

As a chess instructor, I spend time on forums chatting with other instructors in search of effective teaching ideas. I often see postings regarding the lack of or waning interest in chess. These posters will talk about an upcoming championship match and whether or not it will help spread the game. A percentage of those posing comments about increasing the interest in chess are involved in the game professionally, be they players who live off of tournament winnings, tournament organizers, chess clubs/federations and instructors. I understand their thinking. I earn my living teaching chess. While I earn a semi-comfortable living, I worry about the future of chess because if chess was suddenly taken out of the schools here I’d have to find another career (playing guitar in a punk rock band doesn’t pay the bills).

Since the idea of another major chess boom seems highly unlikely, chess professionals should try to raise interest in the game by literally taking it to the people rather than waiting for the people to discover it on their own. The world of chess could take a few lessons from the world of music.

Let’s say you start a really great band. No one is going to appreciate how good you are unless you get out in the world and play. So, you get your band booked at a club for your first show. You use social media to advertise that show. Your band plays the show to one hundred people. They love you and tell their friends. You book another show, advertise on social media sites and three hundred people show up to your next gig. This happens because the original one hundred people that saw your first show tell their friends, spreading the word. You keep doing it and hopefully get more and more people with each show. You sell your band to one person at a time!

When I say we need to bring chess to the people, I mean exactly that. I now do chess clinics and demonstrations at non chess events that range from punk rock clubs to library events. While the majority of the people I engage don’t go on to play chess regularly, a small percentage do and small percentages, when added together, create bigger numbers (of people interested in chess). I do many of these events free of charge, investing my time in hopes of helping the game’s future. The only thing I ask of the people I encounter is that they pass what they learn along to their friends. It’s the system bands use for building a fan base.

It’s slow and steady but it’s progress in the right direction, forward. It’s not sitting around waiting for a miracle. I could concentrate on garnering more paying students but I’d rather help build a future for the game that has given me so much. What’s the point in having a career in chess if its days are numbered? Like a garden, you first have to plant seeds if you eventually wish to smell the flowers!

Chess can be a tough way to make a living. It’s just like music and being in a band, you have to take the slow and steady course, nurturing your future . If you want to see a bright future for the game you love, plant the seeds, tend to them and you’ll have something to harvest later on. Bring the game to the people rather than waiting for a set of circumstances that probably won’t happen. I sometimes take my guitar and go busking, not for money but for my love of playing. Go take a chess set to a coffee place, set it up and ask if anyone wants to learn the game. You might make a few new friends and keep our beloved game going well into the future. Get out there and do something. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Some Words of Advice

When you teach and coach chess long enough, you’ll know what works and what doesn’t. I keep a journal regarding teaching methods that work and those that don’t. I recently had the opportunity to start teaching chess to a group of older students who are all intellectually gifted but had played little if any chess. I decided that our first class would start with some words of advice regarding their study of the game, based on what I’ve learned as a teacher. I gave my pep talk to this group of students because they’re used to learning things quickly and easily. Learning to play good chess is a slow process that can be difficult at times no matter how smart you are. Here’s what I said:

I wish you all slow and steady progress. While we live in a world that measures success in terms of how quickly you achieve your goals, success in chess requires a commitment of time and patience. Chess is a game that rewards those who exercise patience and punishes those who don’t. Chess is a game built upon a foundation and how solid that foundation is depends solely on you, the builder of that foundation. If you build your foundation poorly, your game will collapse like a house of cards. Build it on the bedrock of hard work and careful study and it will weather the worst of positional storms. In short, you have to carefully grasp each game principle completely. This is the slow and steady process, taking one principle, dissecting it until you know it’s true meaning and only then moving on to the next principle. Mastering any skill takes a huge commitment of time. Those of you who play a musical instrument know that you don’t simply pick it up and suddenly create beautiful music. You have to practice.

Some people learn faster than others. However, this doesn’t mean that those who learn faster are necessarily better or smarter. We all learn at different speeds and frankly, those who have to work a little harder than others to learn something have a better grasp of the subject matter when all is said and done. Slow and steady wins the race! Don’t worry if everyone else seems to understand a game principle and you still feel a bit lost. At least eighty percent of those people claiming to “completely understand” that elusive game principle probably don’t understand it as much as they think they do. Embrace struggling with learning because you have to put in more effort which will help solidify your grasp on the subject matter. From today on, you’re going to stop worrying about how quickly your classmates are learning and put that energy into your own efforts on the chessboard. Use your intellectual energy wisely!

Ask questions. I am suspect of any student that sits in my class and doesn’t ask a question. Either they’re secretly a Grandmaster or they’re not paying attention. People who don’t ask questions in life suffer the fate of fools. I implore you to question everything! If I present a concept and my explanation doesn’t make sense to you, ask me to explain it again. The only stupid question is the one not asked. Otherwise, all questions are good. If you don’t ask questions in my class, I’ll question you about your grasp of the concepts I present. If everyone else seems to understand a concept and you don’t, ask for another explanation. Trust me, I’m going to be more impressed with you, the person asking for a different explanation, than I am with everyone else nodding their heads as if they know the idea presented inside and out. Heading nodding will get you nowhere. Actually, it will probably inspire me to ask you to explain to the class, the idea you’re nodding your head about.

Don’t short cut your studies. I will ask you to play through an opening and a number of its variations as homework. Some of you will play through every single move three times while others will speed through the assignment. Again, slow and steady wins the race. If you’re the person slowly playing through the opening and its variations three time and you face off against one of those speedy learners, my money’s on you to win the game. Like music and martial arts, two things I’m very much into, chess requires study and practice. Some of you know I’m a musician. Some of you have seen me play and at least one of you said “you make it look easy.” When you see me play guitar, you’re seeing the end result, the result of decades of work. By playing for so long, my fingers have been trained to know where to go when I play (most of the time). Just because something looks easy doesn’t mean it is. It only looks easy because the person doing whatever it is has spent a good part of their lifetime studying and practicing. Chess is the same way. When you play an opponent who seems to do amazing things on the board, they didn’t wake up one morning being able to play great chess. They put a lot of time into developing their chess skills.

You can think of learning chess as starting a garden. You start with a patch of bare earth. You work the soil, plant the seeds, water the seedlings and eventually you have wonderful flowers, etc growing. When planting a garden, the end result takes time. You can plant seeds and expect them to fully mature into blooming flowers overnight. It takes time and so does learning chess. There are no short cuts. If you see an advertisement for a book that guarantees instant results, run in the opposite direction.

If you tend to be impatient, let learning chess be a way to nurture and improve your patience. Embrace the idea of learning something slowly. Rather than becoming impatient because your not playing like Magnus Carlsen after two weeks, treat each principle you learn as an achievement in itself. Set your immediate goal as mastering one principle at a time rather than the entire game. Did you know that having patience will add years to your life. When your impatient, you become upset or stressed. Stress is a killer. Be smart and live to one hundred by developing patience through chess.

Learn to love losing! I know society places little stock in losses but you’ll learn more from losing a game of chess than winning a game. This is the only class you’ll take that makes losing a cause for celebration. I wish you many losses because from those losses you’ll learn to be a better chess player. Loose a soccer game and you might get booted from the team. Loose a chess game and you’ll improve. How, you ask? A good chess player will play through that lost game, figure out where they went wrong, correct the problem and learn something in the process. You learn from your losses!

So throw out your brainy notions of rapid learning and instant success. Slow down and embrace the idea of taking on one concept or principle at a time. Take the Zen approach not the winner gets all Western approach to life. Feel free to make mistakes, to stumble and fall. It’s all alright because we’re going to take a different road on the journey of life. We’re going to take the slow road to chess enlightenment! With that said, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson