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).

External Pattern Recognition Exercises

Parents often enroll their kindergarten aged students in a chess class with the idea of introducing their children to logic and reasoning skills early on. When teaching children of such a young age, conventional chess teaching approaches have to be reconsidered. I have one class that is made up of both Kindergarten and First Grade students only. I’ve had this class for roughly nine months and we’ve made some remarkable progress in the development of their chess skills. One technique I’ve used to help develop their chess playing is external pattern recognition exercises. These exercise have worked so well that I’m recommended them to older students as well.

Let me start by explaining the difference between internal and external pattern recognition in terms of my curriculum. Internal pattern recognition is finding or seeing patterns on the chessboard during a game. While this is a goal all chess players strive for, it should and is strengthened by external pattern recognition exercises. External pattern recognition exercises take place far from the chessboard, often in within our daily lives. External pattern recognition exercises lay a solid foundation for recognizing patterns on the chessboard. By employing these external exercises, your ability to recognize specific patterns on the chessboard (internal) will increase at a faster rate.

Because I teach students of all ages, I have to create external pattern recognition exercises appropriate to specific age groups. While all the exercises work well for older students, very young students require exercises that they can comprehend. If they can’t comprehend an exercise, they won’t get anything useful out of it. Therefore, I’ll start with exercises for the youngest of my students.

The idea of pattern recognition can be completely foreign to a Kindergarten or First Grade student. Thus, the definition I give them is “things that match.” I have my young students create a simple list of things they see in their daily lives that match, such as a pair of socks or four tires on a car. This is external pattern recognition (away from the chessboard), Each week, my young students give me their list of things that match. We then look at a chessboard, set up to play a game. I ask them to show me everything that matches on the chessboard, such all the White pawns, all the Black pawns and so on. At this point, I ask them to create a new list, this time looking specifically at nature for examples. When looking at a grouping of similar trees, is there one that has more branches than the others or is leaning in the opposite direction than the others? We increase the scope of their pattern recognition with each passing week. We always go back to the chessboard where I ask them to further explore patterns such as the diagonals, ranks and files. This continues throughout their chess classes for at least six months (no matter how good their chess playing gets).

For older students, I use card games to help build their pattern recognition skills. We start with Solitaire, namely the computer program version of the game. The student plays a three card draw version of Solitaire rather than the single card at a time version. The reason for this is simple. While trying to match the appropriate cards, they have to keep track cards they need within the three card set they’re trying to play. I recommend playing this card game for ten minutes each day because it helps to focus the mind towards recognizing specific patterns. If you want to try this, set the game options so it isn’t timed. Then, once you get used to playing it on a regular basis, use the timer. Solitaire can be an excellent way to enhance pattern recognition.

For adult students, I recommend playing draw poker, specifically the apps designed for tablets. Draw poker has some useful advantages for the novice adult chess player. First, it teaches pattern recognition in a very visual way. You essentially have five cards on the screen and are given the choice to hold those cards or to exchange them for new cards from the deck (exchanging one to five cards per hand). The app always gives you the odds of specific hands such as a pair, three of a kind, four of a kind, etc. Another advantage to using this draw poker game for training is that it forces you to play more scientifically, ultimately (if you’re playing correctly) taking less chances. How does draw poker playing apply to chess?

I spoke of wishful thinking in my last article. Wishful thinking is hoping your opponent will make the move you want them to make as opposed to the best move they can make independent of your ideas. In draw poker, for example, novice players will play a pair of twos rather than hold onto a Ace. If you look at the odds chart that comes with the game, you’ll see that it’s better to hold the Ace. While it is tempting to play the pair, hoping the computer program behind the app will bend to your will, it’s wishful thinking!

Speaking of programming, I introduce my older students to the idea of playing the program’s algorithm, the mathematical instructions that tells the computer how to respond to the card hand you play. Because this version of poker is based on a mathematical formula, it will respond to specific situations in a calculated way (it’s programming), not just responding to your card hand based on odds. You play the algorithm by noting patterns in the hands being played. For instance, if you win two hands, one with a pair of Queens, the next with three Queens, holding a Queen in the next or third hand dealt might not work. The computer program behind the app is designed to respond in a specific way to the cards you play. I have been researching the algorithm behind a specific draw poker app with a group of students and we have been able to win quite a bit by playing the program not just the odds.

The point to all this is to use external methods to improve your pattern recognition because you can literally find patterns everywhere you go and the more you study patterns off of the chessboard, the better your pattern recognition becomes on the chessboard. Games such as Scrabble are also wonderful for pattern recognition. Try some of these exercises and you’ll not only improve your chessboard pattern recognition but see life in a more interesting way. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson


Wishful Thinking

The beginner makes a move with high hopes that his or her opponent will make the counter-move the beginner has anticipated. Of course, their opponent makes a move but it isn’t the move our beginner anticipated. Our beginner is now faced with a weak position that degrades further and further with each subsequent move. Where did our intrepid beginner go wrong? Our beginner employed the same idea many desperate gamblers use, wishful thinking. My Uncle, who was quite a good gambler, used to say “scared money never wins.” Employing wishful thinking nets the same result, a journey on the road to ruin. What is wishful thinking in chess?

Wishful thinking is making a move that only works if your opponent makes the exact move you want them to make and that opposition move is a poor one! Good chess means both players are making the best moves in an effort to execute their individual plans. Wishful thinking chess means playing one sided chess. One sided chess is only considering what you can do, not what your opponent can do. This is a huge hurdle for the novice player.

Beginners are generally overwhelmed by the large number of game principles and theory thrown at them through instructional material in the form of books, DVDs and software. They often halfheartedly learn these principles and try to bend or break them before they have a true understanding of those principles. A general life principle might tell you it is dangerous to walk on the edge of a cliff because you could slip, fall off and meet a dreadful end. Our beginning chess student certainly wouldn’t walk next to the edge of a cliff because it’s dangerous. However, that same student would take a chance by bending a game principle. Our student would exercise logic and reason when faced with a physically dangerous situation but wouldn’t employ the same logic and reason on the chess board. He might consider taking a chance on the chessboard. Chance has no place in chess because it’s akin to wishful thinking!

Logic should be the driving force behind the moves a beginner makes. Logic is the science of the formal principles of reasoning. Thus, to employ logic you employ specific principles when making a decision. Of course, this is an extremely simplified definition but one that will serve to guide the beginning chess player. Chess principles are ideas that have been tested and retested over time, always found to be sound in nature. If you’re a beginner you should seriously consider the idea that these principles work and they should be learned and employed by you from day one. When you play thought a game by a Grandmaster who breaks or bends a game principle successfully, remember that the Grandmaster first had to master those principles. Mastering game principles means completely understanding them and employing them. When you learn how to play a musical instrument, you spend many years mastering basic musical principles. Only after you gained a fair amount of knowledge, can you start to explore the idea of breaking protocol or principle. You have to learn how to walk before you run!

Two sets of principles, opening and endgame principles, are the most maligned by beginners. When I teach beginner’s classes, I teach basic principles for both these phases of the game. I keep it simple. For the opening phase, I teach the three primary principles, moving a pawn that controls the board’s center on move one, development of minor pieces towards the center and castling. For the endgame phase, I teach basic mating combinations and pawn promotion. My classes spend a great deal of time working on these principles, yet there are always a handful of students who insist on employing wishful thinking, doing things their way rather than the principled way.

There is something to be said about trail and error learning. Sometimes, we need to fail repeatedly to truly learn a lesson. However, this method of thinking can discourage the novice chess player. Therefore, when teaching the game’s principles, the chess teacher must carefully and thoroughly explain each principle in great detail! One of the best ways to teach a principle is to demonstrate what happens when that principle isn’t employed, namely the dire consequences that result. If I have a student who is having trouble embracing game principles, we sit down and play a few games. As I make principled moves and my student makes unprincipled moves, I explain the consequences carefully as we play. The student sees the consequences of not using correct principles on the board as he or she plays.

This easiest way to get students to employ principled play is to teach them to use simple logic as a guide when determining the correct move. I teach my students that logical thinking in chess is weighing the good against the bad. For example, we’re all taught that moving the e pawn to e4 is the best move for an absolute beginner. If a student simply moves the e pawn because everyone says it’s the best move, then they’re not really learning anything in the way of logical thinking. If the student is taught that control of the center is key in the opening, then they have a logical reason for playing 1. e4. However, you have to provide more information such as saying “this moves allows the Queen and King-side Bishop instant access to the board.” You can also further expand on this idea by saying that the opposition’s King is on a central file and he is the ultimate target. Additionally, pieces are more powerful when centrally located. The more information provided, the greater the logical reinforcement. The more information a teacher provides regarding why a principle is sound, the more likely a student will apply that principle. A student should always think about what makes a principled move sound rather than blindly making that move.

Once the principles have been ingrained in the student’s mind, it’s time to stamp out wishful thinking once and for all. This happens when you carefully consider your opponent’s best response to your potential move. Often, a beginner will try to chase a long range piece (Bishop, Rook or Queen) with a short range piece (Pawn, Knight or King). Of course, the long range piece simply races away. If you consider your opponent’s best response to such an idea, you’d never make that move in the first place! To think about your opponent’s best response to your move, put yourself in your opponent’s shoes. Pretend your playing you opponent’s pieces when considering a move. What would you do to stop the move your considering. One exercise I have my student’s do it is switching sides during a game on every move. You start making a move for White and when your opponent makes Black’s move, you switch sides. This is very effective in destroying wishful thinking.

You have to play both sides of the board not just your side of the board. You have to use the principles and basic logic to guide your moves. If you don’t you’re not playing a game of thinking but a game of chance. Remember, when playing a game of chance, the house always wins and sadly you’re not the house. Here’s game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Strategy or Tactics

Students often ask me which is more important, strategy or tactics? It’s a good question, one worth exploring. It’s been said that chess is 99% tactics and the beginner might agree with this since many beginner’s games are won through the deployment of accidental tactics, such as a fork or pin. I say accidental because tactics require a combination of pieces to be in the right place at the right time. This means setting up a specific position which is generally beyond the scope of most beginners. Many beginners stumble onto tactical plays which helps solidify their belief that tactics are the primary key to chess success. However, tactical positions don’t simply appear out of nowhere. This is where strategic thinking comes into play.

Many chess students invest in training software programs that are a collection of tactical problems. While these programs help you to spot tactical opportunities and develop your board vision, which is a good thing, they don’t address a key issue. That issue is how tactical positions come about in the first place. It’s all well and good to be able to spot a tactical opportunity but unless you can create one from scratch while playing, it does you little good. This is one problem with purely tactical studies. Beginner’s spot tactical puzzle solutions but don’t know how the position was arrived at. This is where the study of strategy comes into play.

When beginners start playing chess they look for the big plays, such as fast checkmates and attacks that garner them substantial material. Its all about making moves that either win the game or win pieces. The beginner’s style of playing is based on clumsy brute force thinking. It takes time and practice to develop a more strategic way of playing. When beginners play one another, one often wins because one player stumbles upon a fork, for example, that allows them to win them a Rook or Queen. Their opponent suddenly feels as if they’ve lost a critical piece of material and continues the game as if waiting for the hangman to come and dispatch them from this mortal coil! I’ve seen many students lose a major piece (Rook or Queen) and subsequently lose their will to win. Tactical plays don’t simply appear magically. They require a combination of moves that are based on strategic principles. Without strategy, tactics would be impossible.

The beginner might think that strategy requires many years of carefully honing one’s chess skills, and they’d be right. However, this doesn’t mean that the beginner will not be able to employ tactics until they completely mastered the art of strategy. There are a few basic strategical ideas the beginner can employ to bring them one step closer to creating tactical plays. The most important idea the beginner must learn when walking the road towards tactical mastery is the idea of piece activity.

My students get their first introduction to piece activity when they learn the second of the three primary opening principles, developing your pieces during the opening. During the opening, beginners are taught to move or develop their minor pieces towards the board’s four central squares, d4, d5, e4 and e5 (the squares directly surrounding those four central squares are introduced in later lessons). Then the Rooks are connected by moving the Queen off of her starting rank (but not too far away). Beginners often decide that getting their four minor pieces developed towards the center and connecting their Rooks ends the piece activity phase of the game. They then start launching attacks and looking for, you guessed it, tactical plays such as forks, pins, skewers, etc. Disappointment soon follows because there are no tactical plays to be had (in most cases)!

Piece activity is critical and the greater your piece activity, the greater the opportunity for tactics. This means you have to think strategically or long term. Once you’ve developed your pieces during the opening, you should always be looking to improve a piece (or pawn’s) activity. Active squares are those that influence, control or nail down space in the center or on the opponent’s side of the board. If you control a greater number of squares on your opponent’s side of the board than he or she controls on your side of the board two things are going to happen. First, your opponent is going to have a difficult time safely getting his or her own pieces into the game and second, you’ll have a better chance of employing tactics. So, is piece activity the only key to the successful employment of tactics? No, you need to develop your ability to create combinations.

A combination in chess is a series of connected moves that lead to a positional set up. That positional set up allows you to execute tactical plays such as forks, pins, skewers, etc (or checkmate). When you look at a beginner’s tactical puzzle, which is often solved with a single move, you’re not seeing what lead up to that amazing fork or pin. You see the end result of a combination of moves that lead up to that winning tactical move. Combinations are difficult for beginners because the novice chess player is still looking only one move ahead. Worse yet, the beginner thinks they see a few moves ahead but what they’re really seeing is their move and the response they want their opponent to make. Then, when their opponent makes exactly the move our beginner wants them to make, our novice player hits them with a daring tactical move. “If I make this move and my opponent makes that move, I’ll be able to fork their King and Queen, winning the Queen.” It sounds great except for one slight problem. Your opponent isn’t going to simply make a bad move in order to allow you to win their Queen.

This is a case of wishful thinking and wishful thinking is a sure fire way to lose chess games. What the beginner needs to consider is the best possible move their opponent can make in response to their own move. I teach my students to consider their opponent’s move as if they were suddenly playing their opponent’s side of the board. Doing this allows you to find any flaws with your own potential moves, as well as avoiding the fallout of a bad blunder. Your opponent isn’t going to make it easy for you to win just like you’re not going to make it easy for your opponent to win!

Always think about your opponent’s best response before making a move. This will go a long towards helping you develop winning combinations. When trying to create a combination, define your goal, such as forking the opposition’s Rook and Queen. If employing a Knight fork, note where your Knight needs to be in order to fork those two pieces. Look at the square your Knight is currently on and ask yourself, how can I get the Knight to the square it needs to be one in order to execute the tactic? How many moves will it take to get to the target square? Consider that first move. After considering that move, determine the best possible response from your opponent. What would you do if you were playing as your opponent? After determining the best opposition response, and if your candidate move appears to be sound, consider the next move in your combination. Ask the same questions. If all seems sound then start the combination.

I know, I’m asking the beginner to do a lot of basic calculation and the novice player may not be able to successful anticipate the best opposition responses. However, employing this method of thinking, the beginner will improve and tactical skills will start to develop. While tactics are wonderful, you cannot employ them until you gain some strategical knowledge. Beginners should stick to two move combinations to start, only going for a tactical play if it can be executed within two moves, As they become more strategically experienced they can move on to three move combinations, etc. Chess requires hard work and for my beginning students, strategical thinking can be difficult. However, those that put in the effort are rewarded tenfold. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Kirk Versus Spock

Being a life long Star Trek fan, the passing of Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) hit me hard. My band’s long time drummer posted a video clip of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock playing chess on my Facebook page yesterday. Spock announces he will checkmate Kirk on the next move. Well, it’s Kirk’s move and the Captain checkmates Spock. Spock wasn’t very happy, although he had to keep up his Vulcan appearance and avoid any display of emotion. This scene got me to thinking about two very distinct chess types, the player who employs sound logic (Spock) and the player who takes chances (Kirk). What if Spock went back in time and played Paul Morphy. Would the logical playing style of Mr. Spock beat out the swashbuckling and daring of Morphy? I’ll answer this question later.

On Star Trek, Captain Kirk is the taker of great chances while Mr. Spock is the voice of pure reason and logic. When we learn how to play chess, we’re taught sound logical principles, principles that Mr. Spock would approve of. He’d approve of these principles because they have been tested over time and have proven to be sound in nature. We all learn opening principles such as moving a pawn to a central square on move one, developing minor pieces to active, centralized squares and castling our King to safety. Mr. Spock would approve of these principles because they’re logical and sound.

Then there are the opening principles that guide us regarding what not to do. Don’t make too many pawn moves, don’t bring your Queen out early and don’t move the same piece twice before developing the majority of your other pieces. Here’s where Captain Kirk comes into play. Mr. Spock would logically reason that bringing the Queen out early would allow his opponent to develop pieces to active squares while attacking his exposed Queen, forcing that Queen to keep moving at the cost of proper development. Spock would be correct from a logical standpoint. However, our swashbuckling Captain might be able to create some threats by bringing his Queen out early against a less skilled opponent. In the end, logic wins out because bringing your Queen out early only works against the weakest of opponents.

What about not moving the same piece twice before developing your other forces? Here things get a bit murky. Mr. Spock would calmly follow this principle, carefully and thoughtfully developing a new piece with each move. Captain Kirk, on the other hand, might consider moving a piece twice during the opening if it meant he could launch an attack. After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Nf6, our daring Captain (manning the White pieces) might play 4. Ng5, moving his King-side Knight a second time. While this goes against the logic of the principle, it does create a problem for Mr. Spock (manning the Black pieces). The c4 Bishop and g5 Knight are both attacking the f7 pawn who is only protected by the King. Mr. Spock would calmly play 4…d5 and the game would go on with the good Captain having to reevaluate his early attack. Seems simple enough. What would happen if, in another game, Mr. Spock found one of his minor pieces attacked by a pawn in the opening? Remember, Mr. Spock follows the opening principles to the letter. He’d now be faced with having to move a piece twice during the opening. Would he do it? Yes, because he would compare the value of the pawn to that of the minor piece and conclude that it would be better to bend an opening principle as opposed to losing a valuable piece.

Mr. Spock would look at opposition moves, no matter how illogical they seemed, with a watchful eye. However, his adherence to logic might cause him to dismiss an illogical move as a mere human blunder. Of course, the Captain would be likely to make a seemingly illogical move if he could launch an attack with it. It is just this kind of move that throws many beginners off, the seemingly illogical placement of a pawn or piece.

The beginner who is serious about chess follows the game’s principles as if their life depends on it. They become Spock-like in their thinking which is good up to a point. They think that if they’re employing sound game principles so should their opponent. If their opponent makes a seemingly illogical move, the beginner will dismiss it as a blunder rather than looking at the move to determine whether it has real merit. This dismissive thinking is the driving force behind the success of many opening traps. The trap’s victim often sees the moves leading up to a trap as unsound or unprincipled. Mr. Spock might very well dismiss this type of move as illogical and therefore harmless. Captain Kirk would look at a seemingly illogical move with suspicion because he isn’t as driven by pure logic as Mr. Spock. No matter what your opponent’s move, be it logical or illogical, you have to carefully examine that move from your opponent’s perspective to determine it’s merits.

Captain Kirk is an attacking player, going in for the kill as soon as possible, meaning he takes chances. But does he really take chances? Not so much a case of taking chances but playing aggressively. While Spock might be more comfortable building up a strong defensive position, Captain Kirk likes to go into battle with both guns blazing. Beginners should learn to do both. However, the beginner should start by learning the art of attack. Activate your pieces early on and, when you have more attackers than defenders, and attacking won’t weaken your position, be Captain Kirk. Attack! I suspect Spock would also launch an attack with more attackers than defenders with the prospect of weakening his opponent’s position while strengthening his. He’d say it was the logical thing to do!

The point here is that playing good chess requires being able to balance principled play with the ability to think outside of the box, the box being the game’s principles. Kirk did a great job thinking outside of the box when he cracked the Kobayashi Maru, a supposedly unbeatable Starfleet Academy training exercise. Had he only employed principles in his thinking he’d never have succeeded. A good chess player has to be both Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. As for Mr. Spock and Paul Morphy going head to head on the chessboard, I suspect it would close but in the end Morphy would probably get the best of “that pointy eared Vulcan.” Live long and prosper. For any non Star Trek fans reading this, I promise I won’t mention Star Trek again for at least a year. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson


Weak Squares

If you ever have a desire to create an instantaneous atmosphere of depression in a room full of eager chess students, say the following: “No matter how good a move seems, there is always a negative side to that move that has the potential to undermine your position.” That will instantly wipe the smiles off their collective faces, leaving you with a room full of students demanding to know how this could be possible. My students tend to groan after hearing such a statement but give it careful thought because they’ve seen a few of my lecture games in which this very idea occurs. If I was new to chess, I might wring my hands in despair upon hearing such a statement and consider a career in checkers, but you should read further.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all moves will lead to dreadful positional problems. What it does mean is that you should examine the square you’re moving a pawn or piece off of before examining the square that pawn or piece is about to occupy.

A chess move can be likened to a coin, which obviously has two sides. When we pick up a coin, we examine both sides if for no other reason than to see what is etched on either face. If beginners would only take this approach when considering a move! The beginner tends to look only at the square the pawn or piece is moving to which can lead to positional problems. Even if the beginner carefully examines the square a piece is about to move to, taking into consideration possible opposition attacks against that piece, noting if the piece will increase it’s activity or seeing a potential capture or increase of attacking possibilities, they still ignore a key factor. That key factor is the weakness created upon moving that piece from the square it was on, the square you leave behind. This applies to both pawns and pieces.

One idea I teach my students early on is that you shouldn’t capture material if doing so weakens your position. The employment of this concept alone will go a long way towards improving your game. By capturing not for the sake of capturing but to increase the strength of your position, you avoid creating weaknesses within that position, but it isn’t enough. You have to take another step and that step is to carefully examine the square you leave behind when making any move.

I first became aware of “the square you leave behind” concept while watching a DVD by Grandmaster Maurice Ashley. When he discussed this concept I was honestly shocked because I realized that I was paying more attention to the square I was moving to and almost no attention to the square I moved from. The square you leave behind is the square vacated by a pawn or piece when you make a move. Even though I’m a full time chess teacher and coach, I’ll forever be a student of the game and this astounding idea of the square you leave behind left me feeling as if I’d been punched in the stomach. How could I miss this concept in my own training? Needless to say, I took note and started employing Grandmaster Maurice Ashley’s method of looking at a potential move. Here’s how you can employ this method: When considering a move, you obviously want to look at your opponent’s pawns and pieces to see if they control the square you want to occupy. If the square is controlled by opposition pawns and/or pieces, do you have a greater number of pawns and/or pieces also controlling that square? If you have a larger number of forces controlling the target square, next consider how moving to that square will affect your position. This is where it is absolutely critical to look at the square you’re leaving behind, the square that will be vacated by you pawn or piece when it moves. Take a look at the example below.

After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Nd4, Black has moved the same piece twice during the opening phase of the game. This is something beginners are taught not to do, moving the same piece twice before developing the majority of their material during the opening. Remember, the opening is a race to see who gets control of the board’s center first. The beginner playing the White pieces sees that the pawn on e5 is hanging and his Knight on f3 is under attack by Black’s d5 Knight. The beginner weighs his or her options and decides to preserve the King-side Knight by capturing the undefended e5 pawn. Not once, did the beginner consider the square the White Knight gives up, f3. After White plays 4. Nxe5, Black plays 4…Qg5, forking the Knight on e5 and the pawn on g2. By moving the Knight off of the f3 square, White has weakened the position greatly. The person playing White should have considered the square left behind, f3, and the squares defended by the Knight on f3, the h4 and g5 squares. Always consider the square you leave behind before considering the square you’re moving to. Take a look at the next example from a student game (both beginners).

Here, White plays the King’s Gambit, 1. e4…e5, 2. f4. Rather than accepting the gambit with 2…exf4 (followed by 3. Nf3), Black plays 2…Bc5. White plays 3. d3 (allowing the Bishop on c1 to defend the pawn on f4 – dreadful business), failing to notice the weakness on f2. When discussing this weakness with my beginning students, they often comment that there are no pawns or pieces on f2 so what is the weakness? A pawn on f2 forms a wall with the pawns on g2 and h2 that help protect the White King when castling on the King-side. That pawn, once on f2, is now on f4. Furthermore, the Bishop on c5 is controlling the f2 square and more importantly, the g1 square. White will not be able to castle on the King-side, since you cannot castle into check, as long as the Black Bishop remains on c5. Again, we must look at the square we leave behind when considering a move. Of course, that Bishop can be dislodged from c5 but that requires additional work on the part of the person playing White which means expending additional moves to do so (a loss in tempo). This example is extremely simplified but the idea behind it still remains true, examine the square you leave behind before making a move.

Of course, there are times when you have to move a pawn or piece and doing so will weaken your position to varying degrees. You will find a downside to any move you make. However, you can minimize that downside by weighing the positive and negative aspects of that move and determining whether the positive outweighs the negative. Just carefully examining the square left behind will go a long way towards helping you avoid the positional nightmare that comes from only looking at one side of the coin. Yes, a chess move is like a coin in that it has two sides. You must look at both. In chess, looking at the square you abandon with a critical eye will before examining the square you’re going to will help you avoid heartache and checkmate! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. See if you can find any weak squares left behind!

Hugh Patterson


Confessions of a Self Learner

Teaching and coaching chess, my own game improves steadily. However, I put a minimum of two to three hours a day into studying chess because I practice what I preach, which is the idea that getting better at chess requires hard work. If you want to become a better chess player you have to roll up your sleeves and take action. Thinking about improving your own game does no good unless you actually do something such as studying. Action, in this case, is the act of creating a plan of improvement and following it.

I must confess that I can be the world’s laziest person when it comes to things I don’t want to do. My weed covered backyard attests to this fact! However, when I love something, I throw myself into it full throttle. Yet even my great love of chess doesn’t completely stop laziness from rearing it’s ugly head from time to time. I have to maintain self discipline to get through it and self discipline takes time to develop. Here’s my typical training day.

I start my day with a series of tactical mate in one exercises using a software program on my laptop. Typically, I’ll do sixty problems while having my first cup of coffee at 6:00 am. I prefer exercises that require me to look at the entire chessboard which helps improve my board vision. One tip I would offer in solving these problems is to look at all your pawns and pieces to determine which of them cover the enemy King’s escape squares. These pawns and pieces should remain where they are, leaving you to find the pawn or piece that can move and deliver checkmate. Approaching mate in one problems this way will help you avoid missing potential checkmates in your own games. You’d be surprised at how many potential checkmates players miss. Checkmate exercises help reduce the number of missed opportunities.

Once my brain is warmed up, it’s time to play a few games of Blitz against the computer. I start with a few Blitz games because I have commitments in the morning and often don’t have enough time to play an hour long game. I use my laptop’s chess program as an opponent. Blitz games that are five to ten minutes long are a good way to check your instinctual play. By instinctual, I mean testing out what you have retained in your memory (opening principles, tactics, etc). Blitz helps me play more aggressively and less defensively.

Because I have breaks throughout my teaching day, I often have thirty minute blocks of time to fill. This is when I study openings. I use an chess Ebook app on my tablet that has a small built in board so I can play through specific openings while reading the book. Teaching requires that I know quite a few openings so these thirty minute blocks of study time allow me to keep up with the numerous openings my students play. When I study openings, I approach them from the standpoint of how I would play against them. I take this approach because too often, we plod through the opening moves mechanically, looking at the opening from the viewpoint of the side the opening is designed for. We tend to pay just a little less attention to the opposition’s response. Paying just a little less attention can be disastrous when you use that opening in a game and don’t remember what the best opposition move was in a given position. When you look at an opening, say the Ruy Lopez for example, from Black’s perspective you not only learn more about White’s moves but Black’s critical responses as well. Openings are a two sided affair, so look at both sides, especially opposition responses.

During my classes, I make a point of playing as many students as possible. What I love about playing my students is their unpredictability. My students have been known to make some unorthodox but reasonable moves during our games. This gives me a chance to explore responses to those moves, forcing me to think outside of the box. While we learn chess in a somewhat mechanical fashion, purely mechanical thinking will lead to lost games. Learning how to deal with the unexpected will go a long way towards improving your play. Try non book/theory moves against the computer just to see what happens! You may get crushed but you might just find something interesting and useful. Be an explorer of the game!

After work, when I’m home in a quieter environment, I study the endgame. I have thirty minutes dedicated to this. Endgame studies require developing the ability to see many moves ahead which requires concentration. I tend to concentrate best in my office so that’s where I do my endgame work. I use software training programs and work through the positions very slowly. These are not mate in one problems, but mate in four, five and six moves. This means you have to take your time. Fewer pieces on the board means that the tables can turn on you very quickly if you lose a piece or even a single pawn. Endgame problems are a matter of quality over quantity.

After dinner I play a longer game against my computer, using what I’ve learned that day. It is during these games that I work on my middle game skills. What I’ve found in my studies is that we should start our middle game by building up small advantages rather than aiming for one large tide turning advantage such as a quick mating attack. Small advantages, when put together, make a large advantage. Because this large advantage is made up of smaller individual components, it will be more difficult for your opponent to thwart that overall advantage. Piece activity is a key consideration. The question you should ask yourself is whether or not your pieces are on their most active squares. Tactical combinations appear only when pieces are fully active!

The crucial aspect to self learning is getting into the habit of daily study. Like physical exercise, you have to do it regularly and not sporadically. If you do a little work every day, you’ll not only improve but be more apt to sit down and get to work on a daily basis without grumbling. I am fortunate in that I have a great deal of time to study chess. However, you may not. This means that you should put in a reasonable amount of time into your studies based on your schedule. To determine how much time you can put into your chess studies, take a look at your daily schedule and see if there is any down time, such as having to wait for a bus or train. If you have to wait for twenty minutes until your bus or train arrives, use that time to study. Sitting down for an hour at a time might seem a bit daunting. However, if you break it up into three twenty minute sessions, it may seem a bit more palatable. Use the time in between daily activities to improve your chess.

Sometimes you might not feel like studying chess. There’s nothing wrong with this. We all need a break now and again. In fact, I’d say taking time away from your studies can be good thing. Just make sure that you don’t stay away too long. Burn out is an occupational hazard so walk away when you need to. Remember, in chess, as in life, you get out of it what you put into it. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Starting a Chess Club

I am often asked about starting chess clubs outside of my own chess classes by parents and teachers. I also receive frantic emails from teachers and parents who have started chess clubs and are having trouble maintaining them. Therefore, I thought I’d offer some advice on how to start a chess club for parents and teachers who may not have a great deal of experience with the game.

The first step in starting a chess club is finding a suitable location. Because chess requires concentration, the club should meet in a location that offers the least amount of external distractions. If meeting at a school, use the library or a classroom. Usually, a classroom will be assigned. Ask the person assigning the classroom if there is a classroom available that doesn’t have computers or musical instruments (both distractions). I recommend trying to use a classroom designated for Kindergarten aged students because the items found in this type of classroom won’t appeal to older kids. If using a library, ask if they have a smaller meeting room the chess club can use. Larger rooms make it more difficult to maintain control.

Invest in some basic equipment. This equipment includes boards, chess pieces, a few chess clocks and a demonstration board. Use non-weighted pieces because weighted pieces have a metal slug in them that can come loose and become a choking hazard. Chess pieces are based on King height and the height you want is 3 ¾ inches which is the tournament standard. Use vinyl chess boards with 2 ¼ inch squares. Start with five to eight complete sets of boards and pieces. As for clocks, invest in two to start. Most of your club’s members will be beginners and will not need to use a chess clock until they develop some real chess skills. Young beginners play too fast as it is, not thinking about their moves, and chess clocks seem to inspire them to play faster. The use of a chess clock should be earned through slow, good play. Use the use of a chess clock as a reward for hard work.

As for the demo or demonstration board, I recommend the old fashioned slotted pocket type. It’s old school but it doesn’t need batteries and won’t suddenly crash on you. Even though I have a laptop that can plug into my school’s projection system, I rely on my old demo board because it will not break down in the middle of a lecture.

The question that I’m most often asked regarding chess clubs is how to determine who in the club is a beginner and who is more advanced. If you’re a seasoned chess coach, you could have everyone start playing chess and be able to see who plays at what level. However, if you’re a parent or teacher who plays only a little chess, making such a determination can be difficult. The solution? A simple written quiz. This quiz should ask questions about piece movement, pawn and piece values, castling, opening principles as well as having some basic chess problems to solve. Have the club members take the quiz and sort those club members into two groups, beginners and intermediate players. I suggest two groups because most club members will fall into one of those two categories. What should you do if you get an advanced player into your club who might play chess as well as you? Make them your assistant coach and have them help fellow students.

What about the parent or teacher who isn’t a strong chess player? Well, you’ll have to put some work into your game. Use books to improve, such as the many books written by Bruce Pandolfini. You’ll get better and you can pass that knowledge on to your club members. Before you grumble, remember this; you signed on to start a chess club so you must have some interest in chess. If you have an interest in the game, you’ll enjoy improving along with your students. Here’s how I look at teaching and coaching: Wow, I get a chance to get better at the game I love and pass it along to others. That’s a win win situation!

Chess clubs are not a babysitting service. There are some parents who might look at an after school chess club as a cost effective alternative to paying a nanny. However, as the head of the chess club you cannot take this view. You have to be proactive. You have to make it an environment in which club members want to learn rather than simply pass the time. This brings us to the structure on the club itself.

Ideally you’ll want to meet once a week. Working with youngsters is different than working with adults. For one thing, young minds tend to lose concentration easily. Therefore, meet for one hour to start. You can give a lesson for the first twenty minutes, leaving forty minutes to play chess. Warning: Dull chess lessons can be comparable to watching paint dry. Keep the lessons simple. Trying to explain twenty different principles using a Bobby Fischer game that is sixty moves long will crush any enthusiasm your club members might have. Stick to the basics such as a lesson on checkmating with a King and Queen against a lone King or a lesson on the three basic opening principles (putting a pawn in the board’s center, developing the minor pieces and castling). Teach one concept at a time. Read anything written by Richard James for lesson ideas.

Regarding the opening principles, don’t teach specific openings until the opening principles are fully understood. Too often, the club leader will teach a specific opening which the club members memorize. Those club members will suffer on the board if they don’t know why they’re making those moves.

Have patience because you’ll need it! When you’re new to chess, which many of your club members will be, concepts can be difficult to grasp. The explanation you provide may not make sense to a ten year old. I tell my students that if I fail to explain a concept to their satisfaction then they have the absolute right to ask for another explanation of that concept. Encourage questions. Questions keep club members engaged and engaged minds are focused minds! My classroom lectures are a Socratic adventure in which the back and forth dialog reinforces my student’s comprehension of the subject matter.

Maintain discipline. You’re the adult so you have to keep order. While the majority of your club members will be focused, there is always one member who is troublesome. When I identify that individual, I say to them, “you’re my new assistant so I need you to give me a hand.” Even if its just to set stuff up, that individual will more often than not, feel a sense of purpose.

If you have trouble getting club members focused at the start of a lesson, try this: I’ll walk into the classroom, not say a word and set up the demonstration board. Then I’ll start playing through a game, making comments such as “that’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.” Of course, my students will suddenly start looking at the demonstration board and asking me what is so amazing. I then proceed with the lesson which actually started the minute I starting playing through the game and making comments. Be creative!

Play against your students but make it a reward for hard work. In other words, play only those students who pay attention to the lessons. Maintain quiet when club members are playing one another. I use a Judge’s gavel to bring order to the room and when students hear it banging against the desk, they know it’s too loud.

As for homework, I seem to be one of the few instructors that get student’s to do homework on a regular basis. 85% of my students have been with me for one to three years and know that improvement comes with hard work (homework). However, you cannot do this with new students. I suggest no assignment of homework, at least at first. Students have enough homework as it is. The lesson you give and club members subsequently trying out their new found knowledge on the chessboard will be enough for basic improvement. Encourage club members to play with their parents, etc.

Take it slow, take is easy and be patient. Make your lessons entertaining (I have pulled out a guitar and sung “The e pawn blues” to my classes) and engaging. Know your topic. If you don’t understand it how can you expect anyone else to understand it? Maintain a structured disciplined environment, otherwise you’ll be the ring leader of the circus of madness. Teach good sportsmanship. Above all else, have fun. Here’s a game to ponder until next week.

Hugh Patterson


Dollars and Sense

Once you’ve acquired some basic chess knowledge, such as an understanding of opening principles, rudimentary tactics and endgame principles, you’ll feel a bit more confident at the chessboard. You’ll get through the opening relatively unscathed and prepare yourself to unleash some of those tactical ideas you’ve learned (forks, pins, skewers, etc) at some point in the middle game. However, before you get a chance to demonstrate your tactical prowess, you see a chance to exchange some material. This exchange seems like a good idea and you jump into it. After a few moves, you’re down material, stuck in a weak position and wondering what went wrong. The exchange of material in chess comes down to dollars and sense, chess sense that is!

What does money have to do with chess? In chess we assign a relative value to the pawns and pieces. The pawn, for example, is worth one point and serves as our base value. The minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops, are worth three points. Rooks are worth five points and the Queen nine points. The King is priceless because losing the King loses the game. I assign a monetary value to the pawns and pieces because students, especially adults, are more apt to consider their choices carefully when there’s money on the line (even pretend money). Using the dollar system, a pawn is worth $1.00, Knights and Bishops $3.00, Rooks $5.00 and the Queen $9.00. No one likes to lose money and most people would be happy making money, which is why I use this system.

My beginning students often face an exchange on the chessboard and don’t know whether or not to go through with it. If trading a Rook for a Knight, saying your trading a five point piece for a three point piece doesn’t have the same impact as saying “would you trade $5.00 for $3.00, losing $2.00?” Even a seven year old would say he or she wouldn’t want to lose $2.00! Using dollars (or the currency of your country) instead of points helps solidify the concept of exchanging pieces when doing so will allow you to come out ahead in the exchange.

When trading or exchanging material, ideally we want to gain more material than we lose or at least break even. Of course, we could choose to lose material, as in the case of a sacrifice, if it leads to checkmate. However, beginners have no business sacrificing material until they’ve learned how to make advantageous trades. An advantageous trade can be one that gains material (but doesn’t weaken your position) or evenly exchanges material to improve your position. It should be noted that you should never capture material, even if you come out ahead in the exchange, if it weakens your position. Having more material does you no good if you then lose the game because your pawns and pieces are poorly placed.

You can sometimes make an even exchange of material, dollar for dollar, only to find that it severely hampers your efforts. On move six in the game below, White uses the dollar method to guide his exchange of pieces. After 6. Bxf7+…Rxf7, 7. Nxf7…Kxf7, both sides have gained six points of material. White wins a pawn and the Rook ($6.00) while Black wins a Bishop and Knight ($6.00). Is this an even exchange? Using the dollar method, it’s an even trade. However, if we consider the material involved, things change! This is where the idea of using sense, or chess sense, comes into play. We’re in the opening phase of the game. Opening principles tell us that we should develop our minor pieces centrally and that our minor pieces are very powerful in the opening. The same principles tell us that Rooks should be developed later on. In the exchange below, we’ve just traded two powerful minor pieces that should be employed to control the center for a Rook and pawn that are not as active. Using some chess sense, we see that this exchange, although monetarily equal, is not equal from a positional standpoint. Black has four minor pieces to White’s two minor pieces. Those lost minor pieces would have been much more valuable during the opening than Black’s Rook on f8 and the pawn on f7.

In our next example (below), we see that Black pins the Knight on f3 to the Queen on d1 on move four (4…Bg4). Using our dollar system, the idea has merit. After all, if the Knight moves, Black trades a $3.00 Bishop for a $9.00 Queen which nets Black $6.00! Would White be crazy to move the Knight on f3? Absolutely not! White plays 5.Nxe5! Black does the math and decides to make the trade, netting $6.00.

Black should have used some chess sense and asked the question, why would White give up such a valuable piece? If it looks too good to be true then it most likely isn’t true! White sacrificed the Queen to deliver checkmate. While this is an extremely basic example, it serves to make a point. You can’t assume an exchange is advantageous just because you came out of it with more dollars in your pocket. You have to use your chess sense. Ask yourself, “why would my opponent give up his or her Queen to capture a pawn. There’s something terribly wrong here and maybe I should take a look at the whole board and not just at the Queen on d1.” Had Black looked at the f7 square, noticing that the f7 square was being attacked by both the Bishop on c4 and the Knight on e5 (not to mention the Knight on c3), he might have thought twice about capturing the Queen.

So when using the dollar system to determine the outcome of an exchange, remember that dollars are not the only factor in the equation. Sense, or chess sense, is needed as well. Consider the worth of a pawn or piece by it’s role in a position or phase of the game. How active is that piece you’re about to exchange? If you and your opponent are about to trade minor pieces, don’t trade your active minor piece for your opponent’s inactive minor piece. While both may be worth the same dollar amount in theory, the active piece is worth a bit more in reality. The activity of a piece should always be considered when engaging in an exchange. The more active a piece, the more value it has.

Always question a potential exchange by thinking outside of the box, using your chess sense. Using the dollar method for determining material value serves only as a starting point. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Your Opponent’s Best Move

As a chess instructor and coach, I spend a great deal of time studying the mistakes of my students, especially beginners, in an effort to help future students avoid making those same mistakes. Not surprisingly, these mistakes are common to all novice players and can easily be identified. However, merely identifying the problem does nothing to resolve it. We’ll look at one of the most common mistakes beginners make, making bad moves based on one sided thinking, and employ some simple methods for dealing with this problem.

The definition of a bad move is broad in scope. It can be a move that allows our opponent to capture an unprotected pawn or piece of ours or it can be a move that weakens our position or even leads to our King being checkmated. A move can be considered bad if it gives our opponent the opportunity to improve their position and subsequently win the game. Good moves help us execute our plans, both short and long term.

Planning is the key to successful chess for without the simplest of plans, you’re cast adrift in an ever changing sea of positional turmoil. Even the most rudimentary plan is better than no plan at all. I teach my students to always have a plan, even a simple one that may not extend past a few moves. Unfortunately, it is the very idea of planning that gets many beginning students into trouble. How can the formulation of a plan get you into trouble? Because beginners create extremely one sided plans, not taking into account their opponent’s plans! Here’s what I mean.

During a practice game between my students, one student looked up at me and said “I have a brilliant plan over the next six moves.” I replied, “so you’re seeing six moves into the future?” My student assured me he was indeed calculating well into the game’s future. He went on to explain that when his opponent did this, then he’d do that. If his opponent then did this, he’d then do that and so on through the six moves. While this might sound good, the calculations were one sided, based only on what my student wanted his opponent to do, not what his opponent might actually do. Your opponent has a mind of his or her own and will do everything in their power to execute their own plans.

What makes chess fascinating is when the plans of two players violently clash on the board. This can be intellectual drama at its best! A plan that seemed sound and potentially victorious on move ten might be completely ripped apart by move thirteen. While the game’s overall goal (checkmate) remains the same, plans, on the other hand, change with with the positional landscape. Because beginners are new to the game, they tend to create rigid, one sided plans that solely depend on their opponent making moves that fit that specific plan. When their opponent makes a move that is unexpected, our beginner’s already shaky plan begins to unravel. So how does the beginner create a realistic plan?

Step one is to keep your plans simple and flexible! During the opening, for example, use the opening principles to guide your moves. Ask yourself, have I put a pawn on a square that controls the board’s center? Am I developing my minor pieces to active, centralized squares? Is my King safe? These are three principles you can use to create an opening plan. What do I mean by Flexible? Take Scholar’s Mate for example. After 1.e4…e5, 2.Qh5…Nc6, 3.Bc4…g6, 4.Qf3…Nf6, White’s rigid, one sided plan has fallen apart. White was counting on Black playing a specific sequence of moves which would allow White to checkmate on move four. There was no flexibility in White’s plan. Black was able to develop his Knights to active squares and has a broader selection of future moves while White has to catch up. Black has a more flexible position and thus more opportunities as far as planning is concerned.

Stay away from opening traps. In fact, traps are an excellent example of one sided thinking. When you set a trap, you have to move pawns and pieces to specific squares that may not be the strongest squares for those pawns and pieces. Then your opponent has to make the moves you want them to make in order for the trap to work. If your opponent moves elsewhere, you’re stuck with a weak position. While I have nothing against traps, I prefer to teach my students the concept that strong piece activity and flexible planning trumps tricks and traps, Now to OSTS or One Sided Thinking Syndrome.

This is a topic that I first came across in Power Chess For Kids (an excellent book by Charles Hertan). In fact, the author spoke highly of Richard James in regards to this subject. With OSTS, plans are truly one sided, as if there was no opponent on the other side of the chessboard. It would be like saying to your opponent, “listen, I’m going to make this move and then I want you to make this move so I can then make that move.” Sound ridiculous? Of course it does, but many beginners think like this. If you remember just one idea from this article, let it be the following: Your opponent is not going to make the move you want them to make so be prepared!

So what should the beginner do? How are they supposed to figure out what their opponent’s plan might be? Obviously, I don’t expect my beginning students to be good enough at positional calculation to see many moves ahead. However, they can see at least one move ahead, their opponent’s move, by asking themselves one simple question, what is best move my opponent can make when it is his or her turn?

This question should be asked prior to making your own move I might add! Look at every single pawn and piece belonging to your opponent and ask yourself if there is anything (attacks, etc) that the pawn or piece can do if it is moved. Look at pawns and pieces even if they’re on their starting squares. Can any of those pawns and pieces suddenly be in a position to attack your pawns and pieces if moved? Follow the path each of those opposition pawns and pieces travels on and see if any of your pawns and pieces are in the line of fire. By thoroughly examining your opponent’s forces in relation to your forces, you’ll see both sides of the coin and be less likely to employ one sided thinking.

Power Chess for Kids uses a method I recommend which is seeing 1.5 moves ahead which is your move, your opponent’s move and finally your subsequent response or move. While seeing 1.5 moves ahead isn’t as glamorous as seeing ten moves ahead, its a number the beginner can grasp and successfully employ in their games. Keep it simple, employ the game’s principles and stay away from traps (at least until you know the difference between a good trap and a bad trap). Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


How to Read a Chess Book

Really? An article about how to read a book? Chess books are similar to textbooks used in schools, and getting the most out of a textbook requires some technique. The better your technique, the more information you retain. The more information you retain and put into practice, the better your chess game!

I was first introduced to this idea in college when I took an Introductory Archaeology class. On the first day of class, the teacher announced that we would first learn how to read our textbook before actually reading it. While the rest of the class rolled their eyes, I prepared to take notes. Why? Well, because I had been expelled from high school, I suspected I had a lot to learn about the art of learning! Here’s what I learned from that professor and from my own observations after reading many chess books.

Your first order of business is to invest in a notebook and a few pencils. You are going to take notes while reading. Why take notes if you own the book? Because you can jot down key concepts and ideas in your notebook and access them more quickly than if you had to skim through the book to find the same information. Also, the act of writing something down helps to implant it within your memory. As an added bonus, you’ll often be able to keep the key ideas from seven or eight books in a single notebook, making it a compact source of useful information. I have a single notebook that was created from eleven chess books I read. When you start reading a book, write the title and author down in your notebook prior to taking notes. This way you know where the information came from.

The first thing my professor told our class was to read the table of contents thoroughly. Many people simply plow into their reading, ignoring the table of contents. The table of contents tells you exactly what you’ll be studying, breaking it down into sections. Read the Book’s introduction as well. Some people find this a waste of time, but often you’ll find that you make a connection with the author and that connection, no matter how slight, pulls you that much further into the book. I read a chess book once where the author said that he was the worst chess player in the world when he started. I could identify with this which made me really want to pay attention to what he had to say as well as read all his other books. If you have a connection with a book you’re apt to put more effort into your reading and studying. Read the bibliography because this will tell you where the author’s ideas came from. If you really like the author’s writing, you might want to read the books listed in the bibliography. If there is an index, read that as well. While this might sound a bit silly, by reading the index prior to reading the book, you’ll have a better idea of the book’s contents and be able to easily find things while reading.

So now we sit down and start reading our chess book. Before even glancing at page one, have a board and pieces next to you. While you can read some chess books without having a physical board and pieces, you won’t retain as much information. The act of moving pieces, physically playing through the book’s examples, helps cement that knowledge within your memory. If you’re a Tablet user and read chess books in electronic form, invest in a chess book reader. These apps come with a small screen containing a fully functional chess board, allowing you to play through the book’s examples as you read. It really helps when studying openings. If you’re an old school, paper books or nothing type of chess player, have a board and pieces set up. Now you can start reading.

Many chess books start each chapter with a written explanation of that chapter’s key concepts. While most of us just want to get to the game examples, it is critical that you carefully read and understand the concepts being explained in that chapter. Even if its a concept you already understand, read the written explanation. While the basic explanation of a concept may be universal, each author offers a unique way of presenting that concept, one that might make even more sense to you, but you’ll never know unless you read that author’s explanation.

After each paragraph, stop reading and ask yourself, what did that last paragraph just say? We often plow through technical books too quickly, not assessing our own understanding of the material as we read. If the paragraph talks about the three primary opening principles, see if you remember those principles. If you can’t immediately remember them, go back and read the paragraph again. However, don’t get caught up with trying to memorize the paragraph. You’re after just the basic idea presented within the paragraph. While this may seem like slow going, this is not a race. You are here to learn, so take your time. If you do you’ll walk away with a great deal of information within your memory.

As you read each paragraph, jot down any key concepts that appear within that paragraph in your notebook. By doing so, you’ll easily be able to answer the question, what did that last paragraph say? Try to write the concept or idea down as a single sentence. Many chess books have the key concept being discussed written as a single sentence in bold letters. Write that down and then translate it into your own words. Again, try to keep your own explanation to a single sentence. Write down any specific words or terms used. Look those words or terms up if you don’t understand them. I have no problem keeping a dictionary handy if it means I get more out of the book I’m reading.

When you get through the entire chapter, review your notes to make sure that you understand everything you’ve just read. I cannot emphasize this enough. When you’re new to a subject, such as chess, there will be many concepts and ideas that are foreign to you. The more effort you put into understanding these concepts and ideas, the easier studying chess will become in the long run because you’re building a solid foundation of knowledge for yourself. This brings me to the game examples within the book you’re reading.

One type of chess book that tests the patience of chess students are books on various openings. Because there are so many variations presented in these books, many players try to skim through them. Don’t do it. Play through every single example no matter how long it takes. This is where the chess book app is king. With the Tablet app, you can play through numerous variations without having to physically reset the board. If you’re using a physical board and pieces, still play through all the examples. When playing through an opening, after each move, ask yourself why that move was made before referring to the text’s explanation. This really helps your understanding of the opening’s mechanics. Take your time and explore every move!

There is so much to this topic that you could write an entire book about it. However, this should give you enough ammunition to fight the good fight. Remember, what you get out of a book is directly proportional to what you put into that book in the way of effort. Read one book at a time! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson