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).

Chess and Heavy Vehicle Rescue

We’ve all driven by vehicular accidents on motorways and silently hoped the victims weren’t badly hurt. However, we seldom give a moment of thought to the men and women who have to clear those wrecks off of the road. When a truck flips over and blocks the motorway, it’s these men and women who not only have to clear the road so traffic can flow again, but also have to rescue or save the valuable cargo contained within the truck’s trailer. Add to this the dangers of getting hit by a passing car while trying to clean things up and you have a job taken on by only a brave few.

I started watching a television program called Highway Thru Hell, about a heavy vehicle rescue team in Canada recently. This team patrols the Coquihalla Highway, one of the most beautiful and dangerous highways in North America. What does this have to do with chess? Surprisingly, everything. As I watched episode after episode, I couldn’t help thinking that the owner of Jamie Davis Motor Truck and Auto Ltd, Jamie Davis, uses his mind the way in which a strong chess player does.

The Coquihalla Highway, or Coq as it’s known, is a major transportation route for commercial vehicles in Canada. It’s busy every single day of the year. During the winter it becomes covered with snow and ice, requiring around the clock snow removal. During the winter months, ice is the enemy and an enormous number of truckers lose their battle with it every single day. If a large truck overturns and blocks a lane, traffic builds up for miles and miles. If all lanes are blocked, commerce comes to a standstill. Often all lanes have to be blocked to remove a large wreck. This highway depends on guys like Jamie Davis to keep it open. Still, what does this have to do with chess?

If you’re in the position Davis is in, every single day of the year, you have to solve very complex problems quickly. Those problems are multifaceted. On the one hand, you have to clear the road. Of course, you could use brute force and drag the wreck off the road. However, on the other hand, the owner of the cargo that’s inside the truck wants what’s left of the cargo to remain intact. If the load inside the truck’s trailer is unharmed but the trailer itself is completely damaged, you have to not only save the cargo but do it fast. The only people who can do this are people who can quickly and correctly analyze a problem and then create a flexible plan in case there are any additional, unforeseen problems. This sounds like positional analysis and planning in chess!

Chess players carefully examine candidate moves in order to determine which one is best. Davis carefully looks at the problem and comes up with a number of solutions, only choosing one after thoroughly working though each, comparing their individual merits to determine the best course of action.

Of course, this is where experience comes into the equation. We’ve all seen experienced chess players analyze positions as if it was second nature. They can analyze a position with little trouble because they’ve been doing it for a long time. The same idea holds true for Davis. Watching him work through a specific problem is like watching a strong chess player working through a position. When it comes to vehicle rescue and recovery, he’s a Grandmaster.

I’ve had a few chess players ask me while I seek chess knowledge outside of the realm of chess. You don’t have to be a chess player to make really great decisions based on logic and reason. Problem solving is the key to playing good chess. It’s also the key to being good at everything else in life. The reason I look at how other people solve problems in unrelated fields is because I sometimes find a new way to approach a problem that allows me to find a better solution on the chessboard. Just because chess has principled methods to guide you when solving positional problems doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look elsewhere, especially if you want to improve your methodology. Sometimes the best solutions are found far from the environment in which your problem resides.

Yes, you have to study chess to get good at chess but there are other avenues you can take to improve your game. Yes, you have to learn principled methods to solve positional problems, but your chess education shouldn’t stop there. I’ve taken to watching documentaries that revolve around problem solving. Some of these are medical in nature and some deal with truck wrecks on an icy highway. What they have in common is this: People being forced to solve complex problems in a short period of time. That’s how I develop my positional problem solving skills. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

I’ll Play Chess Anywhere

I’m going to tell you a cautionary tale regarding the appropriate time and place to play chess, rather than offer any practical advice on improving your skills. Think of this as a life skill lesson regarding what not to do. While most people work chess into their often busy lives, I schedule my life around teaching and studying chess. It’s the nature of the obsessive, compulsive type. I have very mild OCD or obsessive compulsive disorder and have used it to my advantage when it comes to studying various subjects, such as chess. However, it’s been brought to my attention that I sometimes take my love of the game a bit too far. I play chess everywhere even if it’s not appropriate. Case in point.

A number of years back, a man I knew from the music scene had died and I decided to go to the service because I heard food would be served afterwards. Everyone at the service had tears and kind words for this fellow. Truth be told, he was a self serving insufferable jerk who I didn’t like. I was sitting in the back with a few friends. Our eyes were glazed over from the tedious lies being spewed from the pulpit regarding the love and kindness of the dearly departed. I had a travel sized chess set in my bag. I motioned to the guy next to me, seeing if he wanted a quick game to which he gave me a thumbs up. I know you’re probably thinking this is in bad taste, which it would be if I actually cared about the guy in the casket. I set up the board and we started to play, occasionally nodding our head to let whoever was speaking know that we cared. Things went well until my opponent, who was rather drunk, accidentally knocked his Queen off the board. I was starting to bend down to find it under our pew when my drunken friend screamed “where did that god damn Queen go.” When one of the ushers came to shut him up, he started a fight and everyone in our pew got thrown out. I refused to leave until I found the Queen. Make a note, don’t play chess at funerals. I still do but have smartened up, playing on my tablet which won’t say a word because I keep the volume down.

I’ve played chess at weddings as well. Trust me, it’s a great way to un-waste the four or five hours of your lifespan you have to commit to such celebrations. When I got married we got the entire event finished in three hours. Our guests thanked us for this months later. I once was at a wedding and the speeches were getting a bit ridiculous. I’m all for pontificating about how you grew up with the groom and what a fine man he was, etc, etc. However, the groom at this wedding was a womanizer and his bride found out about it thirty minutes before saying “I do.” While playing a few games, again, on the back pew in a church, the parents of both the bride and groom had a verbal argument over the groom’s terminal case of wander lust. Fortunately, we didn’t kicked out but the groom sure did. Was there any fallout from playing chess during a wedding? Absolutely! The bride’s sister said to me to me, years later, that I was a self indulgent psychopath because I played chess during what was supposed to be the happiest day of her sister’s life. I suggested she might want to vent her anger at the groom. After all, I wasn’t the one cheating on her sister.

I also play chess when I either play music live or go see others play music live. This is the one place where no body seems to mind you playing. I do it before my own gigs because it helps me both relax and focus my mind. The only time it became a problem was during a barroom fight in which a body was thrown across our table and the position ruined. For a brief moment, I thought about hitting the guy whose body ruined my winning game. However, looking at him crumpled on the floor, I realized that he’d already been punished. Besides, I’m a Buddhist and we’re not allowed to participate in barroom fights (it’s in the small print of the Staying Out of Trouble section of Buddhism for Dilettantes).

Playing chess on a tablet or your phone is great during family reunions. Rather than spending time listening to family members recalling precious moments that never actually happened, you can improve your game. Rather than remind your ninety eight year old mother that you didn’t fall off the boat while traveling down the Amazon because you were never there, you can improve your game. However, you have to train your family to put up with it. My family, because I earn a living teach chess, decided that they’d put up with my playing chess at the dinner table because they think I’m working. Actually, I’m avoiding being dragged into conversations that make me want to jump off the roof. Play freely, play anywhere, enjoy the game and disregard those who don’t Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Training Exercises

Once you’ve learned the rules of the game, you can immediately start playing against human opponents. However, the results are going to be negative at first if you’re playing a more experienced player. Even playing a slightly more advanced beginner might be a losing proposition. What’s the beginner to do? Play a specific training game that will teach the beginner how to move all the pawns and pieces in a coordinated manner. Isn’t that simply playing regular chess? No. The training game I’m writing about uses only pawns, at first, introducing a new piece into the mix when a pawn reaches it’s promotion square and promotes. The name of the game is pawn wars.

GM Susan Polgar stated that her father had her playing pawn wars extensively after she learned the rules of the game and look where she ended up! I use pawn wars to train my beginning students just after they’ve learned the rules but before they start playing normal games of chess. When I first starting teaching, I felt that pawn wars wasn’t a good substitute for simply playing actual chess. However, I took a second look at it and realized that this simple pawn game prepares beginners for more advanced concepts such as pawn and piece coordination and pawn structure. The benefits won out and I started extensively using it in my curriculum.

To play pawn wars, you set up only the pawns on their starting squares, the White pawns being set up along the second rank and the Black pawns along the seventh rank. Players take turns as both Black and White. The key to winning is getting a pawn to it’s promotion square, promoting that pawn and using the piece the pawn promoted into to capture your opponent’s pawns. The beautiful thing about this game is that it forces players to intuitively develop good pawn structure and avoid weak pawns. You can introduce the passed, isolated and backwards pawn to students immediately via this game. It also helps students practice moving the pieces legally as well as teaching them to think ahead.

As for what each player should promote their pawns into? Many teachers allow their students to promote their pawns into only Queens. The problem with this is that students will often favor the Queen, thinking it the only piece that’s good for attacking and capturing. This can lead to them bringing their Queen out early in regular games which leads to disaster. I have my students go through the other pieces first before promoting a pawn into a Queen, starting with the Knight, then Bishop, Rook, King and lastly, the Queen.

Most beginners have trouble with the Knight, which is why that’s the first piece allowed into the game. By starting with the Knight, beginners get a better feel for it’s movement and feel more confident with it when they sit down and play normal games of chess. They get a better feel for it’s “L” shaped movement because they’re forced to practice with it. Many beginners tend to favor one piece because it’s easier to move than the others. This version of pawn wars forces them to become adept at moving all the pieces. It also allows them to start seeing positions tactically. They naturally discover that when placed on certain squares, the Knight can attack two or more pawns at once. When they eventually learn about forks, the concept will seem less foreign to them because they’ve already learned it.

Next comes the Bishop. The Bishop, being a long distance piece, can attack from a great distance. However, it needs mobility which is learned through this pawn game.
The idea of good and bad Bishops can be introduced as well. I teach my students to destroy a pawn chain, which beginners seem to figure out without knowing what it’s called, by attacking the chain’s base. A lot of the learning when playing pawn wars is intuitive and lays a solid foundation for more advanced techniques. It’s important to let students figure things out on their own when playing this game. We learn from our mistakes!

The Rook comes next. The great thing about Rooks versus pawns is that the player with only pawns will learn how to use pawns to protect one another. The player with the Rook will learn how to spot weak pawns and take advantage of them. Again, I let my students discover more advanced concepts intuitively, only teaching them about those concepts after they’ve discovered them.

Then there’s the King. I introduce the King into the game before the Queen because the King can be checked. This means that the player with the King learns how to move it through hostile territory safely. Students intuitively discover the King’s value as an attacker and defender. Using the King prepares students for endgame pawn and King play.

Lastly, I have them promote a pawn into a Queen. However, I remind them that the Queen shouldn’t be introduced early in a normal game. While my students get a taste of the Queen’s intoxicating power, they’re using it in a position that’s closer to an endgame. While many find it easy to win the pawn war with the Queen, a few end up losing their Queen which plants a good principled seed into their brain; be very very careful with your Queen!

Each student will play a cycle of ten games, five games as White and five as Black. Each pair of games sees either player promoting a pawn into one of the five pieces in the following order: Knight, Bishop, Rook, King and lastly, Queen. If you want to hone you basic skills prior to playing a normal game of chess, this is a great way to do it. You’ll learn about advanced concepts early on and understand them much better when you study them in depth. Here’s a short game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Types of Openings

Beginners are often confused when it comes to classifying openings and the type of game they lead to. As we develop our chess skills, we tend to gravitate towards openings that suit our style of play. However, trying to determine what opening suits you best can’t be accomplished unless you know what the four types of openings are. When I say “types,” I’m not talking about specific openings, such as the Ruy Lopez or King’s Indian Defense. I’m talking about groups of openings that are defined by their first move, for both white and black. This is how we categorize openings into types of openings.

It’s important to know the four types of openings because they give you an indication as to the type of game you’ll end up playing. If your an attacking player, you’ll avoid closed openings and concentrate on openings that allow more combat on the board, the open games. However, if you didn’t know what defines an opening, you might end up learning an opening that doesn’t suit your attacking style. Here’s what you need to know.

The Key Ideas

1. Open games are games that start with 1. e4…e5.
2. Semi-open games start off with 1. e4 but black doesn’t respond with 1…e5
3. Closed games start with 1. d4…d5.
4. Semi-closed games start with 1. d4 but black doesn’t respond with 1…d5
5. All chess openings fall into one of these four categories.

Open Games

The term open game refers to openings that start off with 1. e4…e5. In open games, pieces gain access to the board quickly due to the advancement of the of the “e” pawns. The Bishops, Rooks and Queen, have more mobility because there’s more room to move. Some of the more popular openings that lead to an open game are the Ruy Lopez (Spanish Opening), the Giuoco Piano (Italian Opening), the Scotch Game, the Four Knights Game, the Two Knights Defense, the Evan’s Gambit, the King’s Gambit and Petroff’s Defense.

Semi-Open Games

In semi-open games, white starts off with 1. e4. However, black doesn’t counter with 1…e5. One of the most popular openings for black against 1. e4 is the Sicilian Defense in which black plays 1…c5. This move attacks d4, while still maintaining the d7 and e7 pawns for further centralized play. Semi-open games can lead to positions that are open or closed. Openings leading to semi-open games include the Sicilian Defense, the Caro Kann Defense, the French Defense, the Pirc Defense and the Modern Defense.

Closed Games

Closed games typically start with 1. d4…d5. In closed games, the pawns and pieces can become locked into the defense of one another in and around the center of the board. This creates fewer open lines which means the Bishops, Rooks and Queen lose mobility. There is one pieces that does extremely well in closed games and that’s the Knight. Because the Knight has the ability to jump over pawns and pieces, the Knight doesn’t need much space in which to operate. Due to decreased piece mobility, the potential for tactics is reduced. Closed games require more long term strategic planning. Attacks tend to be built up slowly. You have to be extremely patient when playing closed positions. Closed game openings include the Queen’s Gambit (declined or accepted), the Slav Defense and the London System.

Semi-closed Games

In semi-open games, after 1. d4, black makes a response other than 1…d5. This is an asymmetrical opening. After 1. d4, black responds asymmetrically, making a move such as 1…Nf6. In semi-closed games, black often lets white gain control of the center opting for a more defensive position. Knights and Bishops both play important roles in semi-closed games. While mobility can be limited, lines can open up quickly. Semi-closed openings include the Indian Defenses (such as the King’s Indian) the Benoni Defense and the Dutch Defense.

That’s it in a nutshell. Of course, if you want to be a good chess player, you have to play openings of all four types, or at least understand them enough should you face one of them. After all, your opponent isn’t going to play an opening that your comfortable with because they’re trying to win as well. As the Boy Scout motto goes, be prepared. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Finding a Great Chess Teacher

I was recently solicited by an online company specializing in finding students for private teachers. I told them I’d look at their website before considering a listing. What I found was amazing and appalling at the same time. I have never seen so many listings for chess teachers in my life. I decided to see how many chess teachers were in San Rafael, where I live. The town has a population of rough;y 50,000 and about 200 chess teachers. That sounds great for anyone wanting lessons here but there’s one small problem, the teacher’s qualifications. As with the small print in contracts, most people don’t bother to look at the details. In this case, the important detail is teaching experience. I started reading the profiles of these teachers and was a bit concerned about their actual ability to teach.

Some profiles stated “I have an online rating of 2346” or “I’ve been playing chess since 1982.” To someone with no knowledge regarding chess teachers, this information might be impressive. The first guy has a high rating so he must be good. The second guy’s been playing chess forever, so he must be great. Wrong! While everyone who plays chess has taught the game to others, that doesn’t make them great chess teachers. So what makes a great chess teacher?

There are three qualifications. First, you have to play chess reasonably well. By reasonably well, I mean you have to be able to successfully use what you teach in your own games. If you’re teaching students how to set up a tactical combination, you actually have to know how to create them. Merely showing examples from chess books isn’t good enough. You have to be able to look at a position in one of your student’s games and suggest a tactical option. This only happens if you’re good at tactics. While your chess teacher doesn’t have to be a titled player, they should be a strong club player at the least.

Second, you have to be able to explain complex ideas in the simplest of terms. The best chess teachers aren’t the best chess players in the world. However, they have the unique skill of simple communication. A good chess teacher will take a complex concept and create a simple analogy that easily conveys the idea to the student. This can only be done when the teacher really knows the subject matter. They know the subject matter because they’re good chess players. I’ve been teaching chess for a fair length of time and have built up a repertoire of explanations and analogies because often an explanation that works for one student makes little sense to another. The best teachers have plenty of experience and because of that, they know what works and what doesn’t. Look for teachers that have taught chess in a classroom environment because they tend to have more experience. The best are those teachers who work with kids because their explanations will be easy to understand. I make all my adult students use kid’s chess books when they start for this very reason.

Lastly, you have to be entertaining. That’s right, you have to be an entertainer of sorts. Otherwise, you’ll put your students to sleep. I’m willing to sit through the most boring chess lectures ever because I do this for a living and often pick up great explanations I can use. However, I wouldn’t expect someone learning the game to remain awake during such a lecture. You have to captivate your students to hold their interest. I did a chess lecture once that started with me standing on a table flinging chess pieces out into the audience with a golf club. People paid close attention to my lecture not because they were afraid they’d get hit with a flying chess piece but because I use a bit of humor during the lecture. Humor works wonders. Just keep it within the boundaries of semi-good taste. I once gave a lecture to a chess club and started with the line “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, the games of Bobby Fischer.” During Paul Morphy lessons I sometimes add the line “chess genius and women’s shoe fetishist or should I say, just your run of the mill chess master.” The point is to entertain people listening to me talk about chess. Even hardcore chess nuts like to be entertained.

The first two qualifications should be listed with the chess teacher’s information online. As for how entertaining a chess teacher is, either they throw some clever line in their advertisement or you find out after your fork out money for that first lesson. Speaking of money. Just because one teacher charges more than everyone else doesn’t mean they’re better than the rest. If the guy’s a Grandmaster, yes he’s going to charge more than other chess teachers. However, having a title doesn’t guarantee he’s a great teacher (Nigel being the exception). It only guarantees he’s really really good at chess.

Note how much time you get for your money. I do one or two hour sessions. All the teachers I’ve seen online advertise twenty and thirty minute blocks of time at twenty or thirty dollars each. I suspect they don’t want to tell you they charge sixty to ninety dollars an hour, fooling you with a lower rate instead. Don’t haggle over the price. If someone says “well, how about twenty dollars less per hour?” I reply with “ahhhh…..NO.” A good teacher is worth paying for. However, you have to do the research to find one. It’s like buying a car. You do research rather than buying a vehicle with no prior knowledge. As for the cheapest priced teacher in the group, don’t dismiss them and pick someone in the middle. Check their qualifications. They might charge a lower rate because they’re new teachers trying to get established. They might be the best teacher out there. Do your research.

While I teach my students to be self learners, they use me as a guide. That’s what a good teacher is, a guide who makes an otherwise complicated journey easy. A good teacher will be there for you when you get stuck, explaining what seemed incomprehensible. Speaking of teaching, I have to go teach a class so here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Tactics Training

The use of tactics can give the player who employs them a decisive advantage. While tactics won’t always guarantee a winning game, it will give you potential advantage, materially speaking. Beginners often purchase apps or books with simple tactical problems which is a good way to start their studies. However, those puzzles have the tactic already set up, so all the beginner has to do is spot a single move that delivers the tactical blow. In reality, all tactics are set us using a combination of moves. Creating the combination of move is the really hard part. How does the beginner learn how to do this?

By actually starting with those simple tactical problems in which the tactic is already set up. You have to first learn to recognize tactical patterns before you can consider creating the combinations needed to create a tactical position. Pattern recognition is key to playing good chess. With tactics, certain patterns arise that lead to a tactical exploit. With forks, pins and skewers, you look for enemy pieces lined up on the same rank, file or diagonal. This is the pattern you’re searching for. Doing simple tactics in one move problems, you’ll start to develop an eye for spotting this type of pattern. Do as many of these as you can before moving on to tactics in two move problems. You have to spot a tactical opportunity in order to take advantage of it.

The tactics in two move problems are better that the tactics in one problems because you have to set the tactic up. However, the beginner who has just spent months on the one move problems will have a hard time (at first) because the tactical exploit will require making a move to set it up. To solve these problems, first identify enemy pieces lined up on the same rank, file or diagonal. Next, look for a piece that can deliver the tactic. In two move problems, there’s often an enemy piece stopping you from reaching your goal, getting a piece to the square where it can deliver the tactic. Can you either exchange material to remove the piece or force that piece off of the square its on? What if there’s no enemy pieces line up with one another? Then, the first move in the two move problem has to force the alignment of enemy pieces.

With more complex tactical problems, you have to spend a great deal of time examining the position. Sometimes, you’ll see a move that looks good. However, you’re looking at your pieces and not considering what your opponent can do. Examine the enemy pieces, looking for checks and possible counter forks. If you see that your King can be hit with a nasty check, making sure your potential move is forcing. Also reexamine the enemy pieces around the square your planning on using to set up the tactic to ensure your piece can’t be captured before it delivers it’s tactical blow.

Once you work through enough of these it’s time to start setting up tactical combinations in an actual game. I recommend that beginners start learning how to do this by playing a computer program at a low skill setting. The reasoning for this is simple. Playing programs perform badly at lower levels. This level of poor play will allow you to set up your tactics and see them through. If you try this with a program set at it’s highest level, you’ll never get a single tactic in. Most playing programs are extremely good at tactics and at stopping them so the beginner stands no chance. It should be noted that this low playing level should only be used to develop your combination skills. Eventually you’ll want to increase the level of play as your tactical skills get better.

I highly recommend books of tactical problems. Visually solving problems by playing through the moves in your mind helps develop your calculation skills. With books, you can work on problems while commuting or waiting in line. The best books use positions from real games and often present the tactic within a series of five or six moves. You get to see the full combination (of moves) and learn how to do deeper calculations.

You’ll find that the tactical play of strong tacticians works because their moves are very forcing. A forcing move is one that leaves your opponent little choice in terms of a response. When you limit someone’s reaction, you can force them into making a move that supports your tactical exploit. To create forcing moves you have to come up with the best opposition response to the move your considering. This means playing the position as if you were controlling your opponent’s pieces. Look for any way your opponent can stop or avoid the tactic. If they cannot do so, you have your forcing move. If they can get out of it, it’s time to consider another move.

Becoming a strong tactician is a long journey but a necessary one. You must become good at tactics to play better chess. However, don’t solely rely on tactics to win games. While learning tactics, you should also be studying closed positions. Why? Because you’ll face an opponent who creates positions in which tactic can’t be used. If you only know how to gain an advantage tactically, you’ll flounder in a position in which tactics can’t be used. Remember, the best chess players are well rounded, good at all aspects of the game. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

Too Much Opening Theory

How much opening theory does the average chess player really need to know? Certainly nowhere near the amount book publishers tell us we need to know. Before you opening theory purists start screaming “what does some aged, long in the tooth guitar player who spent most of his career in a Bacchus induced stupor know about opening theory,” let me remind you that I teach and train young players and specialize in their opening preparation. It’s primarily how I keep a roof over my family’s head. I have club level players who seek me out for opening preparation as well. Why? Because I know a fair amount regarding numerous openings and their variations. However, I only know as much as I know because I teach it. I certainly don’t need to know as much as I do to play decently and neither do my students.

The quest for opening knowledge has become a quest for some insane holy grail. I suspect if you actually knew all there was to know about openings and theory, it would be like the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where the bad guys open the Ark of the Covenant and subsequently melt. My advice? Don’t stare at the text or you’ll melt as well. I wish I had a rating point for every time someone trying to sell a book said “this is the opening that will change your game.” My rating would be over 3000. I was at a chess shop the other day, listening to a conversation between two chess players. “I’m buying that book because it covers everything on opening theory.” I struck up a conversation with the purchaser of the the book (close to 1,000 pages) and discover his rating is around 1300. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with his rating, only his choice of reading material. At a 1300 level, his book choice was above his skill set and mine, for that matter. Books that give you endless opening moves with little explanation don’t work unless you’re willing to figure out why the moves were made which is beyond the grasp of beginning players.

Too many players breeze through the underlying mechanics of opening play and get right into complex theory. They can recite the opening principles verbatim so they consider their studies of basic opening mechanics finished. This way of thinking is like being able to make a decent paper airplane and then deciding doing do gives you the ability to fly a jet fighter. You really need spend a lot of time working through the opening principles exhaustively and only then start to explore the more complex aspects of opening theory via specific openings. Here’s what I have my students:

Before learning a specific opening and some of it’s variations, my students do nothing but work on making moves that adhere to the opening principles. The moves don’t have to be “book” moves, simply moves that follow one of the principles. Of course, some of these principled moves lead to failure. When they do, my students have to figure out why. If a move is principled, why did it lead to a weakening of the position? I have my students play seemingly non principled moves which sometimes work. Why did they work? Were they actually principled moves that didn’t appear to be so? My students have to answer that question as well. The point of this is to explore the opening’s underlying mechanics and really learn why some principled moves work better than others. This means experimentation. When a beginning student naturally discovers the Italian Opening by making principled moves, I don’t tell them that’s the opening they’re playing.

Rather than refer to a book on opening theory, my students try a variety of moves during the opening. Everything should be considered, move-wise. The only rule to choosing a move is it must adhere to an opening principle. We work on this for months until students can consider a move and then opt for another because they know exactly why their first choice won’t work. They know it won’t work because they’ve tried it rather than being dissuaded by a book. They can determine the worth of a move based on principled play. This exercise also keeps them from playing too mechanically. Now we look at specific openings.

One benefit to the system I have my students use is that they start to get a feel for opening positions that work for them. When they crack open a general book on openings, they can more easily find an opening that they feel comfortable with, one that suits they developing style of play. I have them start by learning the mainline only. When the student sits down to play their opening choice in a friendly game against another student, they’re in for a rude awakening. I’ve provided their opponent, another student, with a series of moves to throw in that were not part of the mainline the student learned. Remember, all that business of trying out principled moves, etc? This is where that comes in handy. The student is suddenly forced into unfamiliar territory and must use principles to guide them. There’s a good reason for teaching opening theory this way.

By being hit with moves that are not in line with the mainline, the student has to come up with sound, principled moves on their own. More often than not, the student will come up with a move that is part of a variation. When they do learn the variation, later on, they’ll understand why the move was made as opposed to memorizing variation lines. It’s too easy to memorize openings and variations without understanding the real reasoning behind each move. Sure, you can say “hey, that move follows the opening principles, so that’s why it was made.” However, thinking like this is similar to memorizing all the parts of a car engine and not knowing how they work together to make the car move. If you know how all the parts work, you might just be able to determine why you car doesn’t start one cold rainy morning! Eventually, my students learn openings and variations using a book for reference, but only after they are comfortable with the underlying mechanics.

As for all those endless variations and books that tell you “you need to know these 12,375 moves to play the Ruy Lopez successfully.” Hogwash. If you’re an average player you can determine how much theory you need to know regarding a specific opening by talking to fellow chess players who play your opening. Ask them what variations they encounter. Go online and research the games of average players who play the same opening. Play through their games and see what they’ve had to deal with. In short, narrow it down to real life chess. By this, I mean games played by players just like you and a little stronger. I’m sure you play a great game of chess but do you really need the theoretical knowledge of Magnus Carlsen? Ah, no. At least not yet! Chess is supposed to be fun and it’s a game you’re supposed to be playing. Of course you should study some theory but if all you do is study, with little real play, you won’t get very far. Try moves out and when they fail, feel blessed because we learn most from our mistakes.

As a rule of thumb, any book on opening theory that is large enough to knock you out should it land on your head is probably a bit much for most players. Look for books that give written explanations. Lastly, don’t be a slave to your computer’s opening choices. Explore the uncharted waters of “out of book” moves during the opening. Of course, the majority of your choices will lead to disaster but you’ll learn a great deal about recovering from a bad opening position by doing so. You might even find an odd opening move that does some good. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

The Silicon Beast

While playing human opponents is the best way to improve your game, not everyone has the time to go down to your local chess club and play. San Francisco has the oldest chess club in the country, the Mechanic’s Institute. The place is amazing, except for one thing, parking! I really don’t enjoy getting into a fistfight with an eighty seven year old woman over the city’s last available downtown parking space. The first time she beat me up, I thought it mere luck. The third time, I realized I was a wimp. While this didn’t really happen (well, once when I was seventeen), it serves to illustrate a point, sometimes you just can’t make playing at a chess club a reality. This is where chess software comes in handy. I’ve been training for a series of corresponding matches and over the board (OTB) tournaments this summer and my sparing partner has been Fritz and Houdini.

I happen to reread a wonderful book by Andrew Soltis, titled Studying Chess Made Easy. Any student of the game should have this book. As much as I’d like to claim the following thoughts as my own, they come from this brilliant book. These thoughts regard how you should set up your software program as an opponent.

Training starts with investing in a real chess playing program. While there are a plethora of chess apps available, most of them aren’t very good. Those free chess apps you can download for your tablet tend to play poorly with Stockfish being the exception. The problem with Stockfish is that it plays too well for beginners and intermediate players. This is where programs like Fritz and Houdini come in. Both give you the ability to find a level that works for you.

You want the program to be playing at a slightly higher level than your rating. If your rating is 1200, try playing against the program set at 1400. If you don’t know your rating or you’re new to chess, try playing the program at it’s lowest level. If you win easily, adjust the rating to a higher level. Repeat the process until the program’s play becomes challenging. When you find the ideal playing level, you should be winning 25% of your games against the machine, not 100% of the games. When you start winning 50% of your games against the computer, crank the program’s rating up a notch. Note that as your rating rises and you set the program’s rating higher, you need to do so in smaller increments.

Soltis makes a great suggestion regarding bad positions. If you end up with a bad position, don’t resign. Instead, switch sides, taking over the program’s position. Then see if you can take advantage of that better position. How do you know your position’s bad? Besides the feeling of dread in your stomach, you can check the evaluation function. It’s found in a window in the lower right-hand corner of the program’s GUI. If the function says -1.00, it’s time to switch sides. Note what makes the program’s position better and determine where you went wrong before continuing the game. The program is a training tool and this is part of the training. Save all your games for future study.

Limit your use of the redo or undo option, that little button that allows you to take a move back. I recommend two or three take backs per game. However, you need to fully understand why your move was bad when you take it back. Obviously, the computer shows you but there’s more to it. You need to go a few moves back and see if a previous move created the problem. Research the problem, don’t simply move on. I have a special rule regarding take backs. If I take back a move, I cannot take back the new move I make. This forces me to really look at the position in greater detail. Of course, if you’re a beginner, it’s going to be hard to analyze a position in detail. Therefore, beginners can use the blunder alert aka “coach is watching” option. This will cause the program to let you know you’ve made a bad decision and let you take back the move. It won’t tell you what move you should make, just that your move is not so great.

I encourage you to try out crazy ideas against the computer. It’s not like the program is going to tell you your out of your mind (well, Fritz might). Try a strange move and see what happens. Use the program to explore ideas. Learning comes from exploration. When beginners first start playing, they make wild moves and try things more advanced players wouldn’t consider. I love playing against my students for this very reason. Not because I’m going to punish them for a weird move but because that weird move forces me to look at the position differently. As beginners improve, they start becoming card carrying members of The Church of Opening Theory. They play book moves and stop taking chances. You know all those guys that have openings and variations named after them. They took chances. Don’t go crazy playing unorthodox moves but do some exploring. Use all the training tools that come with the program.

Chess programs have come a long way and have become much better at playing chess. Opening and endgame play by the program has greatly improved, although I do the greatest damage to Fritz in the endgame. Speaking of which, beginners need to improve their endgame play. Set up endgame positions found in books and play them against the program. You can do the same with middle-game positions. However, be careful when trying to employ tactics against the computer. The computer is a master tactician. If it let’s you execute a fork, for example, be assured it will get that material back in a few moves. Nothing if life or chess is free. Use your chess program as a sparring partner but don’t neglect human play. Using the program’s two dimensional board constantly can throw your game off a bit when you sit down and play on a real board. You can remedy this by playing out your program game moves on a real chess set. Well, there you have it. Some quick advice on computer training. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Do It Yourself

“Remember boys, chess can’t be taught, Chess can only be learned,” So said Mikhail Botvinnik, father of the Russian School of Chess. What he meant was that most progress occurs when the student is alone, working through his or her studies. In chess, we often learn best what we learn independently. My fellow chess teachers and coaches might find this an odd statement from a guy that teaches and coaches chess for a living but I prefer my students to be self learners. If I expect students to teach themselves. What’s my role? I’m simply a guide who can answer questions and point students in the right direction. In the end, it’s the student who does all the work.

You really should be a self learner when it comes to chess for two reasons. First, you’ll learn a lot more when trying to work through problems and positions by yourself. Second, do you really want to pay a high hourly rate for something you can do at little cost? Of course you should have access to a teacher to help you along the way, but don’t depend on them for all of your learning.

Improving your chess is a hands on learning experience the same way music is. It’s a combination of theory and practice, or studying and playing. It’s a balancing act between both with one being needed to achieve the other. You can know all the theory in the world but unless you’ve tested that theory out on the board, you’ll never really improve. Shouldn’t knowing theory be enough to make sound decisions any time you play? No! Take the game’s numerous principles into consideration. There are times when principles are bent in order to gain a better position. The principles don’t tell you exactly when to bend them. Only actual play will show you where this works and where it doesn’t. Practice also helps to cement theory into your memory.

As I first mentioned, learning should primarily be an independent process. A student thirsty for chess knowledge and armed with a good chess book is going to learn a lot more working through the book than having me explain the book to them word for word. I have my students work through books and use me to explain ideas they don’t fully understand (only after they work at it for a while). Of course, you have to be motivated to be an independent learner. Many people rely on teachers because the teacher forces the student to adhere to a schedule. However, after paying the hourly rate, the student goes home and studies the teacher’s lesson. Sounds like the student is doing independent study! Most people who fall in love with chess tend to be motivated to learn. They fall under the spell of chess lust. They lust for chess knowledge which is great until they get a bad case of TMI or Too Much Information!

I had to transfer all of my chess teaching stuff to a new laptop this weekend. It took ten hours to transfer roughly 400 GB of books, videos, training software, my own chess writing, etc. I only transferred the most important materials. My first thought when starting the transfer process was, how does anyone learn independently with so many choices of training material? I have my adult students who are new to chess start off with books written for kids. They are not allowed to study adult books until they’ve read three children’s books I recommend. Kid’s books give clear explanations that can easily be grasped. After they’ve gone through the books do we start talking about apps and programs for training. The secret to avoiding a bad case of TMI? Don’t worry about everything available to help you improve. Simply concentrate on where you need to improve and seek advice from someone who can determine where you need to work on your playing. This is where teachers come in. I sit down with my students, play a few games and then analyze those games. This allows me to determine where the student needs work and point them in the right direction. I suggest books or training programs geared towards their level of play at this point.

Surprisingly, a lot of learning is subliminal. A student plays through the games of a master and tries to follow the action on the board. This student sees a move that follows a principle they learned about and may have forgotten. Now that principle is cemented into their memory. The same student might play through a game they lost trying to determine where they went wrong. Even though they might not see the problem move clearly, they subliminally notice other important things about the game that will become part of their playing thought process. We learn a lot more than we think we do. At the age of thirteen, Botvinnik spent countless hours analyzing his games in order to improve.

The self learner should always know why something is actually important. This can get tricky because you often have to read between the lines. Here’s an example of what I mean: The Knight, Bishop and King against lone King endgame. I use this endgame example in my upcoming book. I did a lot of research regarding this type of endgame because it’s tricky. The majority of endgame books I read stated this is an important endgame to know. Really, how many players find themselves in this type of endgame? Not many. Why this endgame is important has to do with piece coordination. You should learn this endgame because it will teach you how to coordinate your pieces which can be helpful during the entire game. The point here is that if you know why something you’re learning is important, you’ll be able to apply it to your play successfully. I’m a big fan of this endgame situation and share it with my students. However, I never teach it in terms of endgame play.

A lot of your learning takes place when you absorb an idea and run with it, trying it out in your games. The great thing about chess is that you can have fun putting you new found knowledge to the test by playing. You learn something and test it out. It doesn’t always work out the first time around, but stick with it. Principled play always wins over unprincipled play. Be a self learner. Seriously, you’ll get more out of your studies. Of course, I’m happy to take your money. However, I’m still going to make you learn on your own. If a chess teacher says you can’t learn the game on your own, there’s something suspicious regarding that teacher’s motives. Try it out. In fact here’s a little self learner homework. Play through this game and find a principle that applies to every move made. In fairness, I did what I’m asking you to do last night. Enjoy!

Correspondence Chess

Correspondence chess is looked down upon by many over the board players. Their biggest complaint? The use of chess engines for analysis. Of course, the very people that claim this form of chess to be rubbish spend their waking hours using chess engines to help them find moves and then commit those moves to memory for future use. The ICCF or International Correspondence Chess Federation (recognized by FIDE), decided to allow engine use due to problems inherent with online cheating. Some websites have claimed to have developed anti cheating algorithms that have eliminated a larger percentage of cheating. However, someone always comes up with a new way to cheat and those websites are back to square one. The ICCF solved this problem by simply allowing engines to be consulted. Can you quickly become a Correspondence Grandmaster by letting your chess engine to think for you? Absolutely not. In fact, you’ll get absolutely nowhere by doing so!

It’s a combination of human play and computer generated research, starting with the opening. You have to be very creative during the opening phase of the game. Your computer program will ruin your game if you let it decide your opening moves. The majority of ICCF games are won because of good human opening preparation. While I teach a variety of openings to my students, I would have never increased my knowledge to the point it’s at today had I not taken up correspondence chess. An advantage gained during the opening can make a huge difference during the middle game, even with computer assistance guiding players. A quick tip: Never consider a computer move suggestion unless you completely understand why it was made! This means you have to research the lines suggested relentlessly. It’s the opening research that lays the crucial foundation for the game. Here’s how you do it.

You need a good database and chess engine. I use ChessBase and Komodo. You have to have a large database of games from which to craft your opening. Fortunately, correspondence chess is played slowly so you have plenty of time for research during the game. You start by choosing an opening you want to play. I suggest sticking with openings you already know. The preparation is hard enough without adding the additional task learning something new to the mix. The key here is to create a custom opening book. You do this by pouring through your database, looking for games that use your opening. Create a separate database for these games. The next step is to create an opening book. Don’t rely on a commercial opening book. Creating an opening book from scratch forces you to become intimately acquainted with your opening and it’s variations. While some players will create an opening book that covers sixty moves, thirty should be plenty. Wait, isn’t that a bit large? Yes it is, but correspondence chess requires it. Once you have the opening book set up, play through it and look for possible weaknesses that might create problems for your opponent. Chess engines may be excellent at certain aspects of the game but they can still tripped up, at least for a brief second or two. Weaknesses can be moves or entire lines that force your opponent to resort to second and third choice engine generated moves. Remember, engines are great at tactics so consider moves that restrict tactical play. You’re not going to beat an engine by gaining a material advantage because the engine will always gain the material back. Play for even trades and better pawn structure going into the endgame.

The middle game requires a great deal of research, starting with the detailed analysis of lines. The idea is to explore your own ideas and alternative ideas the engine creates. This can be difficult because the engine is going to give you it’s best or top choice. Therefore, you have to enter your choices and see where the engine goes with them. To find the computer’s alternative choices, watch the engine’s thought line in the lower left hand corner of the screen and write down the first move of each line the engine is working through. That’s your reference point. When you have a number of candidate moves, start exploring each one in detail. Don’t rely on the computer’s top choice until you do some exploration of alternative moves. Often, an alternative move can create problems for your opponent later on, many moves into the game’s future. You have to be creative.

Thankfully, the endgame is a bit simpler to play through because the principles are well defined. I highly suggest knowing the pawn positions that lead to a draw and those that lead to promotion. While a Knight, Bishop and King versus King mate can be bungled by the average club player, don’t expect the engine to screw it up. If you see yourself heading into an endgame where you’ll face this specific situation, capture one of those minor pieces. It’s better to draw than lose.

Correspondence chess really helps improve your over the board play because you’re forced to really study while playing the game. However, you have to be creative and not let the chess engine make all your moves. Don’t accept the first suggestion your engine makes. Do the research. You need to have roughly a 1700 rating to not lose your mind. I say this because there’s a lot of subtle positional ideas to consider and you have to have a good foundation in order to comprehend those ideas. If you’re new to chess, find a friend you can play correspondence chess with via email. Set a time limit of three days for each move. During your allotted move time, play though the moves you come up and see where they go. Rather than use a chess engine, play both sides of the board before emailing your friend the move you’re going to make. See if you can come up with the best opposition response to your candidate move. You’ll learn a lot about the game and prepare yourself for playing correspondence chess at the ICCF in the future. Here’s a correspondence game to enjoy!

Hugh Patterson