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).

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


Developing Focus

The best chess players in the world have a great ability to focus on a position, using this well honed skill (their ability to focus) to concentrate on finding the winning move. Seasoned players can maintain focus for extended periods of time. The beginner, on the other hand, has trouble staying focused for any length of time. The ability to maintain focus eludes even the most enthusiastic and obsessive chess novice. The ability to focus must be learned like anything else, making it a skill. Can the ability to focus really be considered a skill? Absolutely! Like any skill, it requires training and practice. Here are some ideas to help develop your ability to focus, most of which take place away from the chessboard.

First off, don’t confuse memory with focus. Many beginners think that having a well stocked chess memory will give them an advantage, which it does to some extent. However, unless you can focus on the position at hand, a head full of memorized chess positions does you little good. It’s as if you have the pieces of the puzzle in your hand but you can’t put them together because you mind cannot clearly see them as individual components of the puzzle. Lack of focus equates to fuzzy thinking.

We’ll start our exploration of focus with a loose definition. I’m not going to site the Oxford Dictionary for the definition of focus but instead, give you an example of the level of focus you want to achieve. When I was seventeen, I was sitting in my bedroom reading a book. Suddenly, I found myself in the story. Instead of sitting on my bed reading, I was in the scene described in the book. I could see the most minute details described by the author. In short, I was part of the story. This is an example of a momentary high degree of focus. I’ve had the same experience watching certain movies. While this moment is often fleeting, it serves as an example of the type of focus I want you to strive for. Don’t simply play the game externally, be part of the game internally. Be one with the game. Absolute focus allows you to do this.

A wise chess teacher said that when you sit down to play chess, you should leave your day to day thoughts off of the board and concentrate only on the game. While this is true, it is difficult to do, especially when you haven’t developed a strong ability to focus. While we can run away from external situations that distract us we cannot run away from the internal distractions, namely our own thoughts. So how can we develop our focusing skills?

Start by reducing your sugar and caffeine intake. Sugar and Caffeine, friend to many a chess player, may artificially raise your energy level, making you feel as if your brain is functioning at a higher level (greater focus), but what goes up must come down. Once the sugar or caffeine effects start to wear off, you crash, which means your ability to concentrate becomes weaker (less focus). Stick to healthy foods prior to playing chess. Get plenty of rest because a brain deprived of sleep is not conducive to good chess.

The environment in which you play is also important. Quiet environments are the best places to develop you focusing skills. Environments with the least amount of external distractions, such as computers, televisions, etc, give your thought process fewer avenues of escape. Ideally, an empty room with only a table, chairs and chess set would be the best choice. However, it is unrealistic to ask you to empty out an entire room in your home for such a purpose. Libraries are nice and quiet. So are churches! I have sat in the back of a well known church here in San Francisco to work on my game just for this reason. Even the Vicar approved of the idea once I explained my reasoning!

Of course, environmental controls are a small part of this equation. No matter how well suited the environment, you still have to deal with all those noisy thoughts rattling around in your brain. Consider the ability to focus as a circle whose diameter is constantly changing. The greater the circle’s diameter, the broader and less concentrated the focus. The smaller the diameter, the more concentrated the focus. Our goal, as chess players, is to narrow the circle of focus down to a circle so small it appears as a dot! The smaller the circle, the greater the focus.

If you walked in the door after a long day of work or school and immediately started playing chess, it would be somewhat difficult to instantly narrow your focus to only the events on the chessboard. Instead of immediately sitting down to play, try some simple exercises before playing. Start by employing some breathing exercises. Take twenty or so long deep breaths. Take your time. You’ll find that to do this correctly, you have to concentrate on your breathing. Guess what? Because you’re concentrating on your breathing above all else, you’re focusing and unclogging your thoughts a bit.

Next, play solitaire on your computer or better yet, with a real deck of cards for ten minutes. Seriously? This does two things. First, it allows your brain to wind down a bit and concentrate only on the card game, developing your focus and second, it helps you with your pattern recognition skills. I use simple card games with my students to foster these two skills and it has helped immensely.

The next suggestion I have is to sit at the chessboard, position your head so that only board takes up your complete field of vision, and look at each pawn and piece, silently naming the squares each of those pawns and pieces is on. The idea here is to get your focus aimed at the board!

For overall, general improvement of your focus, take up a physical activity if you’re not already involved in one. It can be any physical activity, such as golf, Tai Chi or even bird watching. Why such an activity? I like to bird watch. To get to many of the locations where the birds are at requires some walking. Walking is excellent exercise and exercise helps your brain function at a higher level. While exercise will not make you the next Einstein, it will help you increase your brain’s ability to function optimally. What does bird watching have to do with concentration? To identify a bird in the wild, you have to focus in on the bird’s size, shape, feather coloring, etc. These are all variations of pattern recognition. Because you generally have a very small time frame in which to identify the bird before it flies away, you have to focus your attention very quickly and maintain a high level of focus and concentration while identifying the bird. Learning to focus in small increments makes maintaining focus over a longer period a bit easier.

The point to all of this is simple: The better your focus, the more apt you are to find that winning move. Focus development techniques can be found in many of the things you do away from the chessboard. The more you do in the way of honing your ability to focus, the better your playing will be. Make a list of five things you do each day that help you with your focus. You should be able to come up with at least five. If not, find five things you can do to increase your focus. They can range from card playing to riding a bicycle. Get focused. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson



In my youth, I knew another chess player who was absolutely obsessed with the game. While I had my music and other interests, my friend was only interested in chess. As time passed, we saw him less and less. He preferred the company of his chess set to that of his friends. Eventually, we didn’t see him anymore. He became a recluse whose only ambition was to unlock the deep mysteries of our game. We completely lost touch and years later I heard that he had been committed to a mental health facility. While I seriously doubt that chess was the cause of his problems, his obsession with the game serves as a cautionary tale for those of us that love the game. Too much of anything can be unhealthy.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am a bit obsessed with chess, but its a healthy obsession. By healthy, I mean that I have other interests and, more importantly, I know when to take a break from my playing and studies. Its no secret that getting good at something requires practice. We build our chess knowledge base by studying the game and put our new found knowledge to the test on the chessboard. We find the balance between theory (study) and practice (playing) and improve our skill set. The serious student of the game sets aside a time each day for their studies. This students knows the limitation of their attention span and sets a realistic limit on how much time they spend hitting the books. Then there’s the all out student.

The all out student puts much of his or her free time into studying the game. They think that if thirty minutes a day of study produces a good deal of improvement over a year, then three hours a day will in turn lead to the same improvement in far less time. The problem with this is that the untrained mind can only concentrate for so long before it starts to lose focus and wander. Putting three hours a day into your chess studies sounds great but if your mind can only handle 30 minutes of complete focus, you’re actually wasting the other two and one half hours of your study time. Building your mental muscles is similar to building your body’s muscles, you increase your exercise regime slowly. Now there’s the obsessive student. The obsessive student lives only for chess.

The obsessive student ignores all else except for chess. The obsessive student gets up in the morning and studies/plays chess and then falls asleep at the chessboard 10 hours later, repeating the process again the following day. Chess consumes their every thought. While truly chess obsessed people are somewhat rare, they exist. Of course, there is a difference between someone who studies the game and goes on to become a Grandmaster and someone who is simply obsessed. However, even titled players have been known to take it too far. Bobby Fischer is an example of a titled player who was unhealthily obsessed with the game. Yet there was a trade off in the case of Fischer. He became one of the greatest chess players ever known, but paid a tragic price for his success.

I have thought a lot about why people become obsessed with chess, either a slight obsession in which the obsessed has outside interests or a full blown ’til death do you part’ obsession. I believe it has to do with unlocking the game’s mysteries. The one aspect of studying chess that keeps me going is the simple fact that the more I study, the more my game improves. The more my game improves, the greater my calculation skills. The greater my calculation skills, the better my combinations. Of course, better combinations lead to winning games. But what about the mysteries of chess?

When you first start playing chess, the entire game seems a mystery. However, as you diligently study the game, you start to unlock some of it’s mysteries. Of course, at the beginning of your training the mysteries revealed to you are small in stature, such as proper development during the opening. However, as your skill set improves, the mysteries that are revealed become deeper in nature. One such mystery is calculation. Beginners tend to calculate a single move at a time, their move, which isn’t much in the way of calculative skills. As they improve, they improve their calculative abilities and think in terms of “if I make this move, what is my opponent’s best response?” Now they’re calculating two moves into the future. As time passes, the beginner becomes an intermediate level player and can see three or four moves into the future. The now intermediate player goes back over a master level game that they didn’t understand as a beginner and suddenly it starts to make sense. Moves that baffled our beginner now become clear. This is an ‘unlocking the mystery’ moment.

There is a great natural high to making such a discovery. Sure, other players have made the same discovery during their studies. However, this discovery is new to the discoverer and often has the effect of driving them further into their studies. This is a good thing but too much of a good thing can be problematic. You should never drive yourself to study past the point of losing concentration. When your concentration is lost, time is wasted. You’ll also face the possibility of becoming burnt out which will destroy your game.

I have a textbook addictive personality so I have to be careful, be it in life or in chess. I could easily become a completely obsessed chess player. Fortunately, I balance my chess with other activities like playing music. I also don’t go overboard with my studies. I break my study time down to small increments of three, thirty minute segments, five days a week. Because I’m 54 years old, I don’t have the ability to concentrate for as long as I used to, with the exception of music. Rather than try and force myself into long study sessions, I break my sessions up into manageable blocks of time. I also am weary of becoming burnt out from too much chess so I take vacations from playing. Because I teach chess full time, I spend a great deal of time around the game. Sometimes, when I have a break of a few days to a week, I grab my binoculars, journal and go bird watching. Sometimes, I take a day off and play guitar. In fact, some of my best chess ideas have come to me while the playing guitar. The point is to know when to take a break. Not doing so can lead to terminal burn out. Take it slow and take it easy. That is a sure fire way to improve your game. Balance your studies with physical exercise. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson



Advances in computer technology have given the modern chess player a plethora of tools to advance their playing abilities. In fact, there are so many options now available to the student of the game that many players become lost in those varied options. However, there is one software program that all serious students of the game should have and that is the database.

A database is a large collection of something, in this case chess games, that is well organized and easily accessible. Historically, databases have been used for everything from population studies to Entomology classifications. In chess, the database is used to house large collections of games played throughout the ages. Prior to the development of the computer database, chess players kept a record of their favorite games in notebooks. Those games were copied from books, magazines and newspapers. Prior to the chess database, chess players had to put a fair amount of effort into building up their own collection of games. Now, a player can simply click their computer’s mouse a few times and have the game they wish to examine appear on the screen within a few seconds. My current database contains over six million games, from the first recorded game of chess, played in Valencia Spain in 1475 to games played as recently as last month. With a good database, our game’s entire rich playing history can be studied in detail. Does this mean that everyone should run out and purchase a chess database program?

If you’re a casual player, you might not want to invest in a database program, but rather visit one of the many websites that house game collections and play through their games online. You could also download a free PGN viewer and download games you find interesting, building your own database one game at a time. What’s a PGN? PGN stands for Portable Game Notation, which is a plain text computer file format used for recording both game moves and related data. This format is supported by the majority of all chess software. This simple format allows games to be replayed using chess databases or PGN viewers. The PGN viewer is essentially a stripped down version of the commercial database. Seeing as you could download a free PGN viewer and build your own database by downloading games from a number of websites that offer those games free of charge, why would you consider purchasing a commercial database?

There are a number of good reasons for purchasing a commercial database, such as Chessbase 12 or 13. The first reason is convenience. Please note, that I tend not to endorse chess products unless they really offer an advantage. Chessbase’s database program includes a huge number of games that are well organized, many of which are annotated by titled players. It’s current incarnation has a database of 6.1 million games. This means you have, at your fingertips, more games then you could play through in a lifetime. Their database allows you to refine or filter your search when looking for specific games. You can also look at games according to opening. A huge plus is the ability to examine a specific position and see all games (in the database) that include that position. It is easy to use and I’ve yet to have the program crash. It also allows you to create secondary databases, such as one with your own games

The second reason their database program is good is because you can use it to play training DVDs such as those done by Nigel Davies, Andrew Martin and Daniel King. These Chessbase Trainers are extremely well done and will help you improve your game. The database can be used in conjunction with various chess engines to thoroughly analyze the game you’re viewing, whether it is one of your own or the game of a master!

There is so much to say about this database that I could write a book! Come to think of it, Jon Edwards already has written a book for Chessbase database users titled Chessbase Complete. Having used this program for years, I thought I knew much of what there was to know about this program. After reading this book, I realized that I had only scratched the surface!

We improve our game by studying the games of others. The serious student of our game no longer has to rut around trying to find games to study from books, magazines or newspapers. With a database program, any game is a mouse click away! So should you run out and spend a fair amount of money on ChessBase?

The answer is “not right away!” If you’re new to the world of PGN files and databases, you might want to try a free program such as Penguin 9 or 10. Its a free PGN viewer and database program that you can use chess engines with for analysis. While it is nowhere near as pretty to look at as Chessbase, it will serve as a good introduction to the world of databases. You can use, which offers a huge number of games available in PGN format that are free to download to build up your game collection. Once you’ve logged in some time with a program like Penguin, learning more about database management, etc, you can move on to a commercial database program. There are other free PGN/Database programs to choose from but Penguin is well supported and easy to use.

After getting used to a simpler database program, you can then consider moving on to a more sophisticated program such as Chessbase. To give you an idea about the versatility of Chessbase, I’ll site an example from my own studies. I’m a huge fan of chess’s romantic period, the age of the gambit. I’ve been studying the King’s Gambit is great deal over the last two weeks. Most notably, I’ve been working through a Chessbase Training DVD on the King’s Gambit. When you start using a database system, you’ll notice that the various openings are coded. The King’s Gambit Accepted is coded, C33, for example. This coding system was developed in 1966 and employed in the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings or ECO. The letters used, A through E, represent a broader openings classification while the numbers, 00 through 99, represent subcategories. This system allows all chess openings to be alphanumerically broken down for easy categorizing. The first Volume of the DVD I was watching deals with King’s Gambit Accepted games in which 3,Bc4 is played.

Having a database containing over six million games would be an exercise in madness if there were no easy way to search through those games. With Chessbase, I was able to first filter the massive collection of games down to games in which the King’s Gambit Accepted was played. I simply entered C33 into the search filter which gave me 3,550 King’s Gambit Accepted games. To further reduce this number, I refined my search by entering the position after 3.Bc4, which reduced the number of games to a much smaller number. To my surprise, I found a game played in Rome from 1590, in which 3.Bc4 was played after 2…exf4. I had no idea that the King’s Gambit Accepted (3.Bc4 line) had been played so early on. The point here is that I was able to use this database program not only to watch my training video (Chessbase Trainers can be viewed using their database program) but to further research games employing this opening.

Of course, there are readers who will say “that’s all fine and good but Chessbase is expensive so why should I make the investment?” Think of investing in this program like buying a car. When you purchase a car, you’re using the idea of investing in problem free transportation to guide your purchase. You might find a car that is inexpensive but old. However, in the end you might have to invest a large sum of money into future repairs. So investing in a newer car that will last a lot longer, before needing repair work, might make more sense. Investing in a program like Chessbase might seem expensive but you’ll get years and years worth of useful assistance from it in the long run. If you want to save some money when investing in Chessbase, consider purchasing an earlier edition. Version 13 recently came out so version 12 can be purchased at a reduced rate.

Whether you use a free database program or a commercial program like Chessbase, you’ll add to your knowledge base by acquiring such a program. It’s a good investment in your chess training. Here’s a King’s Gambit Accepted game from 1690, which I guess you could say was an old school game! Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson


Rise of the Machines

Has the creation of chess playing programs and their subsequent use for game preparation ruined the game of chess? While it may not have completely ruined our great game (yet), it has taken some of the excitement away that comes from purely human play. Further more, it appears as if the silicon beast is raising a new generation of chess players that won’t make a move unless Houdini or Stockfish gives them the green light to do so.

A chess game can be a work of art. Art’s creative process requires taking chances. Sometimes those chances lead to absolute failure, but sometimes those chances lead to absolute beauty. Will the chess engine lead to artless, dull games? Can we find a way to balance computer play and human play in our own quest to improve as chess players?

For those of you with little understanding of playing software, what I’m talking about when I say “chess engine” is the heart of a chess playing program. Chess engines use brute force to determine what it considers it’s best response to your move. The chess engine can weed through hundreds of thousands of potential moves in the blink of an eye, finally settling on what it considers to be the best of those moves. Unfortunately, the human mind cannot match this kind of brute force thinking. This is why most of us simply cannot beat a strong chess engine.

The advent of the chess engine and GUI (Graphical User Interface) have given chess players access to an opponent anytime of day or night. They serve as an excellent sparing partner, allowing us to improve our game through play or practice. They can help us achieve our goal of becoming better chess players but we must tread lightly in regards to our usage of such programs.

These types of programs serve another useful purpose in that they allow a player trying a new move in a specific opening, for example, to see how that move might be successfully or unsuccessfully refuted. This is where the trouble often starts. A player might enjoy playing an opening, one of the Indian Defenses for example, and has done quite well with that opening at the local chess club. This same player reads a variety of chess periodicals and discovers to his horror that his favorite Indian Defense is no longer being played by master level players. It isn’t being played because a popular chess engine has come up with a way to refute it. Our club player decides that if top level players no longer employ his favorite opening, he shouldn’t either. He decides to switch to another opening which leads to a decline in his rating because he doesn’t play it as well. Of course, this is a simplified example but there are a lot of players that follow this type of thinking.

Younger players who have developed their chess skills to a higher level often take the opinion of the chess engine as if it were a direct message from some higher power. If chess engine “X” says this is the move to make then it must be right! If chess engine “X” refutes your opening then your opening is weak! With many younger players its as if the dreaded machine (or chess program in this case) is allowed to make decisions for them.

I was talking to a younger player about an opening he played and he kept repeating the phrase “Houdini says that this is the better move” over and over. I asked him if minded having his thought process controlled by a computer program. Of course, he was appalled by this notion and went to great lengths to carefully explain that the world’s top players employed the same method of computer preparation. I asked him if he considered himself a creative player. He said he didn’t understand the question. I went on to explain that creativity often meant taking chances in an effort to explore uncharted territory. He was quick to point out that trying to be creative in chess could only lead to lost games and a decline in rating points.

Because many players will simply accept the chess engine’s decision regarding a specific move as absolute, they don’t attempt understand the reasoning behind that move. If the engine’s suggested move occurs in the opening, a player might accept that move at face value and adjust the remaining moves of their opening around the engine’s move. Don’t play a move unless you fully understand the reasons for it. Of course, at Grandmaster level, players will understand the engine’s reasoning. However, at lower levels you’re apt to get into trouble. Develop your own chess brain before relying on the silicon monster. To quote my father (a U.S. Marine) “there was a time when men only had their wits to rely on when playing chess.” Of course, this is the same man who thought that standing in your underwear in a snow storm was an exercise in character building. The point is, you need to have a well developed skill set to understand why a chess engine makes a specific move. In fairness though, a decent portion of the moves made by chess engines do make sense to your average club player. However, it’s the moves that go over their heads that somehow seem to stick!

One of the reasons I enjoy the era of chess prior to computer analysis is because players had to use their own minds to work out positions when preparing for matches. Players took chances, albeit calculated chances, but chances all the same. Taking chances is a fundamental part of creativity. There are so many possible positions within a single game of chess that surely there must be some uncharted positional territory on the sixty four squares just waiting to be discovered by the intrepid and creative explorer.

It should be noted that I use Houdini in my work as an instructor and coach. However, it does not have the final say in the chess world I live in. It is a teaching/learning tool. I value my chess engine and it has helped me immensely with my own improvement. However, I insist on questioning it’s solution to every positional problem. I teach my students to ask a fundamental question when it comes to a computer based move: Do you understand why it is making this move? The move is of new use to your chess education unless you understand why it was made. By asking this question, students don’t simply accept the engine’s choice. They are forced to think for themselves and learn a bit in the process.

Where I see the worst use of engines is on many chess forums where a 1100 rated player will start picking apart the games of Magnus Carlsen as an amateur analyst, depending on the chess engine to do all the work and giving it none of the credit. It’s akin to someone bragging that they beat up a professional martial artist but not telling you they showed up in an armored tank to do so. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology but I love using my own mind more. At the rate this craze over using chess engines is going, chess tournaments of the future may be a case of laptops opposing one another in the tournament hall. Well, there you have it. Here’s a game to enjoy until next. No computer nonsense for these two players!

Hugh Patterson