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).

Getting Ready for the Chess Club

Parents want their children to get the most out of their educational experience, be it learning about science, music or chess. Many parents have no problem investing in educational DVDs or books to aid in their child’s education or employing a tutor. However, when it comes to chess, many parents send their children to chess classes or clubs with no knowledge of the game’s rules. This can be a problem if the rest of the class already knows how to play. The child who doesn’t know the rules can feel awkward and can easily lose interest in the game. Therefore, parents who want their children to get the most out of their chess class or club should do a little preparation, namely teaching their children the basic rules of the game. Doing so will go a long way to ensuring that a child have a positive experience with chess.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that measures success on how quickly a job can be done, leaving quality of workmanship out of the equation. For example, someone wanting to learn a musical instrument is more likely drawn to a learning program that offers fast results. However, you can only get better at playing a musical instrument through hard work and practice. The same holds true for chess. This doesn’t mean that your child has to spend hours every day slaving away over the chessboard. It does mean that you cannot expect instant results upon enrolling your child in a chess class or club. You have to be patient. Here are some suggestions that will help children entering chess class for the first time:

Before enrolling them in a class, teach your child how the pieces move. This will help them immensely. In my classes, we spend the first half of the class learning about a specific concept or idea and spend the second half of the class playing chess to test out our newly acquired knowledge. Since most of my classes are a mix of skill levels, the lessons will be geared towards students who at least know how the pieces move. Teaching your child how the pieces move will help them tenfold during their lessons.

You should teach piece movement in a specific order, starting with the pawns. Have them learn how the pawns move, forward, and how they capture, diagonally. Of course, you’ll want to make sure they understand that a pawn can move one or two squares forward on their first move but only a square at a time after that initial move. Have them play with only pawns (the pawn game) on the board until they have mastered pawn movement. Don’t worry about pawn promotion yet. This concept should be taught after the child understands how the pieces move. Then move onto the Rook which moves up and down the board (along the files) and left and right (along the ranks). Rooks capture in the same way they move, a point that must be made to the young student. Have them play Rook against pawns, with you, the parent, moving the pawns and your child moving the Rook. The goal for the child is to capture as many pawns as possible without having their Rook captured by a pawn. Next move on to the Bishops. Here, you have to emphasize that each Bishop is only allowed to travel diagonally on squares of the same color the Bishop started out on. The dark squared Bishop can only travel along dark squares while the light squared Bishop can only travel along light squares. Bishops capture the same way they move. Play a game of pawns against both Bishops with your child trying to capture enemy pawns with the two Bishops while avoiding the loss of those Bishops to the pawns. Tackle the Queen next, reinforcing the idea that the Queen combines the power of the Rook and Bishop. The Queen also captures the same way as she moves. Play pawns against Queen, with the Queen trying to capture the enemy pawns while avoiding capture herself. At this point, you can introduce the idea of pawn promotion. Play the pawn game again. However, if a pawn makes it all the way across the board, it turns into a Queen. Mention that the pawn can also promote into a Rook, Knight or Bishop.

Next, teach the movement of the King, which is the same as the Queen, except the King can only move a single square at a time. Kings capture the same way in which they move. Reinforce the difference between the King and the Queen. Also start talking about how crucial it is to protect the King at all times. Play a game of pawns against the King. Don’t introduce check and checkmate yet. However, do introduce the idea that if the King is attacked, he must stop the attack by either capturing the attacking piece or moving. Reinforce the idea that the King cannot be captured! Wait until piece movement has been master before introducing additional game rules.

Only after the child can confidently and legally move the above mentioned pieces should you move onto the Knight. The Knight moves in an “L” shape which is unique. The other pieces move in a linear fashion, in straight lines along the board’s ranks, files and diagonals. The Knight, on the other hand, moves two squares in one direction and then one square either to the left or right. In short, the “L” that the Knight makes when moving is three squares tall and two squares wide. Knights capture the same way they move. Play a game of Knight against pawns.

The longer a period of time you spend with your children, teaching them how the pieces move, the better their playing experience will be. Children should learn how to move one piece at a time, only moving on to the next piece after they have master the piece in question. Don’t set a time limit on these mini lessons. Let your child take as much time as they need to master each piece. Only after they fully understand how each piece moves should you consider having them playing with all the pieces at once. Otherwise, the child will become confused, mixing up the movement of one piece with another. You don’t have to put a great deal of time into these lessons. In fact, with younger children, you might want to start with fifteen minutes per day. Again, don’t move to the next piece until your child masters the piece being worked with. It might take them nine months to master piece movement but they’ll do much better in their chess class or club knowing how the pawns and pieces move. Always have them use the piece they’re learning about against pawns, as in the pawn game, because simply moving a piece around an empty board can be boring. Also try, playing pieces against pieces. So instead of playing a pair of Bishops against enemy pawns, play a pair of Bishops against a pair of Bishops. The longer you spend on piece movement, the better the end results will be in the long run. As parents, your commitment to your child’s chess education determines what your child gets out of chess. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. These gentlemen know how to move their pieces!

Hugh Patterson

Share

What to Expect From Children

Inevitably, parents ask me how their children are doing with their chess playing at some point during the semester. Its a simple enough question. After all, the parent has signed their child up for one of my chess classes and wants a progress report. However, parents often feel that their child should be making greater progress than they actually are. This is because most parents have unrealistic expectations when it comes to their child’s ability to learn something outside of the normal school curriculum. Rather than comparing the study of chess to the study of music, which requires a great deal of dedication and practice, most parents think of chess as a mere board game akin to Monopoly. Thinking of chess as a simple game sets the parent up to think that it can be learned and mastered in a relatively short period of time. Therefore, a parent thinking in these terms will expect their child to quickly learn a game that in reality can take many lifetimes to master.

Parents enrolling their children in a chess class or club should do a little research regarding what to expect from both their children and the person(s) teaching the class or running the club. Of course, parents have the right to think that their child is exceptional. After all, we’re all proud of our offspring! However, we should always maintain realistic expectations when it comes to our children’s learning experiences for both their sake and ours!

A crucial idea to consider is that children learn slowly. While some youngsters learn subjects more quickly than others in their peer group, the majority of children learn at a slower pace. This means that both parents and instructors alike must exercise patience. I had one of my young instructors comment that his students were three weeks into their chess lessons and they still hadn’t fully grasped the idea of developing their pieces towards the board’s center. His students were 1st and 2nd graders, new to the the game, so it will take them a while to understand and employ basic opening principles, not to mention how the pieces move. Patience is key!

How do we, as chess instructors, help young students understand important concepts? Through repetition and reinforcement. In the opening phase of the game, students have to develop their pawns and pieces towards the center of the board. Children learn this concept of good development repetitively. Good opening moves are practiced over and and over again until the concept of centralized material development is etched into their thought process. However, I’m not talking about merely memorizing moves! When I say “repetitive,” I’m also talking about trial and error! Often, the most important lessons in chess are learned when beginners try to achieve their goal using one method (their method) only to eventually realize that their method doesn’t work. Once the beginner realizes that his or way of thinking doesn’t work, they try the method taught to them by their instructor. This is something children have to go through, trying their way first. During this cycle of repetitive learning, teachers have to reinforce the reasons for using, for example, correct opening principles. This is done by showing students how those opening principles make their game better. If we show our students that centrally developed pawns and pieces control important squares, making it difficult for their opponent to launch attacks, we’re able to visually reinforce the concepts being taught. You cannot simply say, “do these things during the first ten moves of the game because I say so!” You have to show children visually why specific principles work. Don’t assume, because they’re young children, that they don’t need a real explanation when asking them to do something. I don’t like someone answering my question with “because I said so,” and neither do my students! My students are taught to question everything!

Children also learn by mimicking what they see and this can be a double edged sword. When showing young children a game by Paul Morphy in which he makes a seemingly wild sacrifice of his Queen, don’t be surprised if a few students sacrifice their Queens with disastrous results. A child might think, “Morphy sacrificed his Queen and won the game, so I’ll do the same thing and I’ll win my game!” Children learn by example, so if you present a game in which important pieces are sacrificed to win the game, don’t be surprised if your young students try to emulate what they’ve just seen on the demonstration board. It is best to use very simplified examples that demonstrate sound game principles rather than daring gambits and sacrifices, at least until your student’s knowledge of the game improves.

Parents should talk to the parents of other students in the chess class or club to get a better idea of where their children are in relation to other class or club members. More often than not, they’ll see that the majority of the class is on the same page. Parents should also take an active role in their child’s chess education. They should encourage their children by playing chess with them. If a parent doesn’t play chess or is too busy to play, that parent might consider investing in a chess playing program so their child always has an opponent. A fair portion of a child’s chess education lies in the hands of their parents. I offer free chess lessons to parents who want to play with their children but don’t know how!

Learning chess takes a long time. While adults can learn the game’s rules in a few hours, children are another matter altogether. In a perfect world, children would spend about nine months just learning how the pieces move. However, most chess classes have to condense that nine months into eight to ten classes per semester. Sometimes, a parent will say to me “my child is still making illegal moves, so I don’t think their learning the game correctly.” This translates to, “you’re not doing your job because my child is not playing as well as he or she should be playing, in my non chess playing opinion.” Rather than explain to the parent that young children can take up to 12 months to adequately learn the basic rules of the game and taking an 8-10 week class is too short a time frame for proper instruction, I ask them if they play chess with their children or, if they don’t play would they be willing to learn how to play. Sadly, many parents say that they’re too busy. Then there are the parents who are convinced that their child is the next Magnus Carlsen. This brings me to my final thought: Pressure

We’ve all witnessed the horror that is the all out sports parent. You know the type. They mentally brow beat their children into thinking that the game must be won at all costs and if the game was lost it was because their child wasn’t giving one hundred percent of themselves. Every game is a dire do or die situation. Life for adults is filled with too much pressure as it is. Let your child enjoy childhood. There will be plenty of time for them to stress out later on in life. One of my best students has parents who gently nurtured his interest in chess. They followed my instructional advice and didn’t put him under any pressure to perform. He is now one of the top players in his age group here in California and the Northwest. His parents met with me, took notes at all our meetings regarding their son’s improvement and played chess with him. His mother, who hadn’t played before, took lessons from me so she could help her son. Incidentally, his mother, two years later is a regular player on the local chess club scene here. They did all the right things and made a point to not put pressure on their son. Pressure can drain the passion for chess right out of even the most enthusiastic young player. So, remember what to realistically expect from your children when you enroll them in their first chess class or club. Be gentle and nurture their budding love for the game. Here’s game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Share

Space Point Count

You’re playing a game of chess, well into the opening, and you compare your position to that of your opponent. It appears that you both are equal, developmentally speaking. Your pawns and pieces are on active squares, yet your opponent quickly becomes the aggressor which leaves you having to defend rather than attack. You quickly lose the game wondering where you went wrong. If this has happened to you, let me ask you a question, did you tally up your space points (space point count) when considering a move? If you’re wondering what a space point count is, read further!

How much territory you control on the board is critical during all phases of the game. However, nowhere is it more important than in the opening. If you control a greater number of squares than your opponent, your opponent is going to be hard pressed to safely get his or her pawns and pieces into the game. After my students learn the games rules, we move on to the opening principles. We often start with the Italian Opening because it clearly demonstrates these basic principles in action. With any opening, you want to get your pawns and pieces to their most active squares before launching into any attacks. Often, one player will develop their pawns and pieces actively while their opponent develops their pawns and pieces more defensively. While a well seasoned player can develop defensively in such a way that makes it difficult for their opponent to whip up a strong attack, the beginner playing defensively tends to create a traffic jam of pawns and pieces that trap their King on it’s starting square.

If you’re attacking, your opponent is defending and if you’re defending your opponent is attacking. Eventually, you become one or the other during the course of the game! Two players can have somewhat equal positions and suddenly, one of those players gains greater control of the board! In fact, you can take a quick glance at a given board position and it can appear as if both players have equal control of the board. However, if you apply a space point count to the position, you’ll see that one player has a slight edge or greater control of the situation.

A space point count is simply a way to calculate who has greater territorial control of the board. To employ this idea, count the number of opposition squares your pawns and pieces control. Opposition squares are those squares on your opponent’s side of the board. If you’re playing the white pieces, the squares you’re going to count are those squares on the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th ranks (squares on your opponent’s side of the board). If you’re playing the black pieces, you’re looking at opposition squares on the 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 1st ranks. In essence, you’re calculating the opposition space you control, thus the term space point count.

In the above example, the space count points for white are 23 while the space point counts for black are a mere 5. White has a much greater control of black’s side of the board while black is barely attacking anything on white’s side of the board. This is a spatial advantage and spatial advantages lead to winning games!

Beginners have a difficult time with the concept of overall spatial control. This occurs because beginners tend to focus on a specific area on the board, such as the center during the game’s opening. During the opening, the beginner will focus on d4, d5, e4 and e5, moving their pawns and pieces on or towards those squares. Of course, this is what we’ve learned to do during the opening. However, this essentially mechanical way of thinking can leave the beginner ill equipped, transitionally speaking, to enter into the middle game.

By moving pawns and pieces to squares that control the maximum number of opposition squares during the opening, you’ll be setting yourself up for a better middle game. Employing a space count can also help you decide on a specific move. Let’s say you’ve come up with three good moves you can make and now have the task of narrowing it down to the one move you’re going to make. How do you determine which move is best? I suggest doing a space point count for each of the three moves and see which one controls the greatest number of squares on the opposition’s side of the board. Of course, there are exceptions to this but the beginner should stick to the basics and keep it simple!

By counting the number of opposition squares a piece will control after it is moved, the beginner will see the entire board rather than an isolated area such as the center. Many of my beginning students have had major problems with hanging pieces, losing them because they weren’t looking at the entire board. After using the space point count system, those students greatly reduced the number of hung pieces because their board vision was better. Those same students were also able to start making a smoother transition into the middle game.

Try using the space point count method when considering a specific move. It comes in handy when you have a few moves to chose from that are close in their advantages. More often than not, you’ll find that one move garners you a bit more control of the position. However, you have to count those squares to truly know! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Try using the space point count system while playing through this game.

Hugh Patterson

Share

Focus

One form of chess I have all my students try, both young and old alike, is blindfold chess. Blindfold chess is simply a game of chess without a physical board and pieces. You play the game within your mind. At first, it seems an impossible task but, with some practice, you can improve quickly. Students ask me why I have them learn this form of chess and my answer is because it improves their concentration and ability to focus.

I use blindfold chess to help keep my own mind sharp and increase my ability to focus, an important mental skill to have at any age. As we get older, we tend to become forgetful and our ability to concentrate becomes more difficult. Just as your eyes lose their ability to focus on objects as you get older so too does your mind. Some of my younger students have asked me if blindfold chess involves simply memorizing the game’s moves. The answer is no. To play blindfold chess, you must see the chessboard clearly in the mind’s eye! You are playing a real game of chess, only you have no physical board or pieces. You have to remember the position of the pawns and pieces on the board. In short, you have to see the entire board within your mind!

When I teach blindfold chess to my students, we start with some exercises, mental stretches if you will, to get their brains warmed up. These exercises are designed to help students develop their ability to focus. The first exercise is a tour of the chess board. Close your eyes. Take ten deep slow breaths. Now, visualize a vinyl tournament chessboard as seen from above. The board has alpha-numeric symbols around it’s edges so you’ll be able to easily navigate around the board. In your mind, you can fly like a bird. You are now going to slowly fly clockwise around the four corners of the chessboard, naming each square along the board’s edges as well as the color of each square. Start with the square a1. Next, visualize the board’s center squares and the squares that immediately surrounding them. Say the name of each square out loud. Note each square’s color.

This first step is designed to get students to mentally focus on the landscape of the chessboard. Next we slowly add pawns and pieces to our imaginary chess board. However, before starting this exercise, I place a single pawn on a vinyl tournament chessboard and have my students take a close look at that pawn. The pawn they are looking at is one that has a large scratch running down it’s side. I use this particular pawn because its large scratch is easy to visualize. Then I have my students close their eyes and visualize the scratched pawn on e4. I ask them what square the scratch is facing. Is it facing towards e5 or perhaps f4? We repeat this exercise with a few more pieces (on different squares), all of which have specific physical flaws due to my pet pit bull who has a penchant for chewing on plastic chess pieces.

These two initial exercises are practiced daily for about two weeks. Because I work with beginning and intermediate students, I don’t push them too hard with regard to playing blindfold chess. I ask students to practice these visualization exercises for ten to twenty minutes each day. After this two week period, we move on to their first game of blindfold chess.

Rather than have students try to play a complete game of blindfold chess. I have them start by playing the first five moves of the game, stopping and then starting another five move game. This allows them to become comfortable with visualizing a full set of pawns and pieces in play. Student’s alternate between e and d pawn openings. Once they become comfortable with visualizing their first five moves (and those of their opponent), we add another two moves to each game. We continue this process until a full game of blindfold chess can be played. How long this takes depends on the student.

When students start playing through the first five moves of a game, I have them imagine what the board looks like from the pawn or piece’s viewpoint. I have them follow the path the pawn or piece travels. Are there any opposition pawns or pieces that can be captured? Are any of the opposition’s pawns or pieces able to capture the piece in question?

Interestingly, my students who learn blindfold chess tend to hang less pieces in their regular games because they are seeing the entire board and have a more intimate relationship with the pawns and pieces in play. I suspect the reason for this is because students are playing through the positions in their heads, thanks to the above exercises, while playing the physical game. This translates to them paying more attention to their game. Their memory also improves from such exercises which makes it easier to learn more complicated ideas. A win win situation!

Visualization goes a long way towards developing or improving focus and blindfold chess really helps to develop this skill. However, it takes time to be able to play a complete game. Slow and steady wins this race. Playing blindfold chess is especially helpful to those of us who are middle aged and prone to moments of forgetfulness. Try it out and see if it doesn’t help your memory and focus. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Share

Dwelling on Lost Games

“Don’t dwell on the game you lost last week. Focus on the game you’re playing now!” Those were my words to one of my students before he started playing a game against an opponent he lost to the previous week. While we improve by learning from our losses, we can do more harm than good (to our game) if we dwell upon loss in the wrong way. Embrace a lost game as a chance to learn from your mistakes but remember not to overstay your welcome by simply dwelling on the loss. Otherwise, you may become slowly paralyzed by fear.

One of the hurdles that beginners face, both young and old, is surviving long enough to win a few games as a novice player. The human ego is fragile, especially in the young. Humans, again both young and old, have a habit of letting their egos do the talking when they excel at something. In junior chess you’ll often see a bit of bragging and gloating from the winner and a potential outpouring of tears from the loser (tears being proportional to the level of gloating and bragging). Simply put, kids don’t like to lose but often don’t understand the concept of having to put work into their game to avoid losing. One form of “work” that can have the greatest results is game analysis.

I teach students to use their losses as an opportunity to learn! When you lose a game its because something went wrong. Finding out where you went wrong can go a long way towards improving your game. For beginners, a single weak move can lead to disaster. The reason for this is because bad moves have a cumulative effect. Its the domino effect. If you make a bad move that weakens your position and your opponent makes a good move that strengthens their position, things will get worse before they get better (for you). Like history, if you fail to learn from your mistakes, you’re doomed to repeat them. With that said, how does the beginner determine where they went wrong?

Game analysis is something players of all skill levels can do. Obviously, a highly rated player will be able to do some serious in-depth analysis that is beyond the technical scope of the beginner. However, the novice player can do some basic analysis that will help them determine where they went wrong. All they have to do is to ask a simple question after examining each move. That questions is “does this move adhere to sound game principles?”

Beginners have a terrible time with opening play. Therefore, when going through your opening moves, you should examine each move and see whether or not it adheres to the opening principles. Beginners should keep their checklist simple. The opening principles that should be applied are central pawn development, minor piece development to active squares and King safety. If the beginner is playing the white (or black) pieces and, on move one develops a flank pawn, such as those found on the “a” or “h” files, they’re not addressing control of the center and that’s where the problem starts. If minor pieces are being developed away from the board’s center, the problem is there, etc.

For the middle game, beginners should be looking at piece activity. Are your pieces on their most active squares? Hanging pieces are another problem beginners have. If you hang a piece, go back and play through the moves made prior to the loss of that piece. By going back a few moves you’ll often see that you got distracted doing something else, such as launching a premature attack or not looking at the entire board. If an exchange has left you down material, go back three moves and play it through. You’ll see things more clearly. The point is simple: Studying your games, using basic game principles as a guide, will lead to improvement!

Endgame questions should revolve around pawn structure and King activity. Can you get a pawn to its promotion square? Can your King stop the promotion of an opposition pawn. Keep the questions you ask yourself simple. As a beginner, you’re not going to be able to analyze games like Karpov so don’t even try.

Even using game analysis and the idea of learning from your losses, some players will still become paralyzed by loss. Sometimes we face losing streaks that leave us stuck in “fear mode.” The fear of losing overwhelms us, spreading the seeds of doubt within our minds. Here’s my advice:

If you’ve gone back, played through your lost games, discovered where you went wrong and worked at correcting the problem, you’re half way to playing winning chess. You’ve found the problem and addressed it. Does that mean you’ll win your next game? In a word, no. However, it does mean that you’ll play better chess. For example, let’s say that you’ve analyzed your last lost game and sit down to play another. You know where you went wrong in that previous game and should be able to avoid that initial problem this time around. Let’s say you lose this current game. While it may be a loss, you’ve made progress because of your previous game analysis. When you analyze this current game, you’ll notice that you did better this time around, not getting into the same trouble you got into before. This is progress in small steps. Small steps leads to solid improvement.

Eventually, you’ll start winning more games than you lose. However, you have to exercise patience. Chess requires work. If you put work into your game you’ll get better. Just remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Take your time and celebrate the small improvements in your game. The overall war is won only by winning a series of smaller battles. Here’s game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Share

Strategic Thinking

There are two concepts that all chess players must understand from the start; strategy and tactics. Beginners often confuse the two. Simply put, when we employ a strategy in chess, we are examining a game position in general terms and working out a plan to deal with the overall problem at hand (From a strategic problem comes a tactical solution). A tactic is the actual method we employ to bring our plan into fruition. So a strategy can be though of as our plan of action while a tactic is the actual plan in action. Strategic thinking looks at the “big picture.” Once you see the “big picture,” its time to roll up your sleeves and get down to business, resolving the strategic problem with a fist full of tactics. Einstein was a strategic thinker, calculating the variables of a problem, while Clint Eastwood portraying Dirty Harry would be a tactician, blasting away at the problem!

Tactics, such as forks, pins and skewers, are easier to learn because because they employ pattern recognition. Tactics are visual in nature. The chess student uses pattern recognition and is taught to look for specific piece/board patterns such as an opponent placing his or her Queen in front of their King on an open rank, file or diagonal. The opposition’s Queen can then become pinned to her King should our budding tactician notice this great tactical opportunity. You can think of the difference between tactics and strategy as the difference between linear and non linear mathematics. In linear mathematics, one plus one will always equal two. In non linear mathematics, one plus the one doesn’t always equal two. Strategy requires a more abstract, big picture view of the situation at hand, in this case a chess game!

To help students differentiate between tactics and strategy, we’ll consider tactical thinking first: If you’re looking at your own pawns and pieces, determining which are protected and which are not, you’re thinking tactically. Tactical thinking tends to require immediate action, such as having to protect an unprotected pawn or piece. If you’re looking for checks ,mates, forks, pins or skewers, you’re thinking tactically. Again, if you see a great tactical play, you’re going to take action immediately. If you’re trying to calculate the end result of an exchange, you’re thinking tactically. Tactical thinking means taking action (not simply thinking about it). On the other side of the coin, if you’re counting material to determine who has an advantage, you’re thinking strategically. If you’re examining a position to see whose material is more actively placed, you’re thinking strategically. If you’re contemplating attacking versus defending, you guessed it, you’re thinking strategically. Action will not be immediate as is the case with tactical thinking.

There are three simple concepts that will help you understand strategic thinking or strategy, and those are material, safety and freedom. It should be noted that these three concepts or ideas are part of the “bigger picture” or positional overview. Think of the difference between strategic and tactical thinking as viewing a painting in a museum. With strategic thinking, you’re taking in the entire painting, examining it as a whole (seeing everything at once), whereas with tactical thinking, you’re examining the painting on a more detailed level, such as brush strokes or color relationships. Tactical thinking requires that you hone in on a specific issue and resolve it through an action. Strategic thinking requires that you identify the overall problems before any action is taken. We’ll start our look at strategic thinking with an examination of material.

When we talk about material, we talking about both player’s pawns and pieces. If we want to know which player has more material, we simply count each side’s captured pawns and pieces. Of course, the pawns and pieces have been assigned a relative numeric value based of the pawn or piece’s power. The pawn, who is limited in power, is on the bottom rung of the value ladder and is worth one point. The Queen, the strongest piece in either side’s army is on the top rung of our ladder and is worth nine points (Knights and Bishops are worth approximately three points, while Rooks are worth five points).

Being able to compare the relative strength of both side’s pawns and pieces allows a player to assess a position from a strategic viewpoint. If you know you’re down a substantial amount of material, you’ll plan accordingly, avoiding the execution of any attacks that might cost you what little material you have left. If you’re ahead in material, you might be apt to launch a more aggressive attack.

Safety is another important consideration. When I say safety, I’m speaking of your King’s safety. Castling is a critical factor in any game. Most beginners who don’t castle their king to safety end up losing their games. So how does castling your King to safety and the concept of strategy fit together? Here’s how:

To castle your King, you have to move two minor pieces on the King-side or two minor pieces and your Queen on the Queen-side. You also cannot have moved your King or the Rook (on the side you intend to castle on) prior to castling. You can’t move into or through check with your King when castling. In short, you have to meet specific conditions in order to castle. Your opponent knows this and will do his or her best to thwart your chance to castle. This means you have to be on the lookout for possible attacks, checks, etc. Therefore, if you plan on castling, you have to exercise strategic thinking from the start! Following the opening principles, we know that we place a pawn in the center of the board (1.e4…e5). Moving the e pawn to e4 allows White to bring the King-side Bishop into the game. White might follow up with 2.Nf3 then 3.Bc4. These two moves put White’s King-side minor pieces on active squares and allows White to castle on move four. This is big picture thinking: White knows he or she needs to castle so a strategy is put into place to castle. Your plan to castle is strategic in nature.

The concept of Freedom is really the concept of piece activity. Beginners often have a hard time with developing their pawns and pieces to active squares. When I teach my students to develop their pawns and pieces, they often think that a pawn or piece is finished in its development after a single move. However, pieces can be further developed to more active squares. An actively developed piece finds itself on a square that controls a large number of other squares on the board, especially squares on the opponent’s side of the board. Therefore, you should always look to see if you can further develop a piece to an even more active square. Piece activity is strategic in nature rather than tactical because you’re looking at the piece in question and comparing it to the other pieces on the board. You’re looking at the big picture.

The intention of this article is to get you, the reader, to see the difference between strategies and tactics in its most basic form. I think of strategy as the job of army generals who sit behind their desks and look at the big picture while the grunts or soldiers have to put those plans into action, using tactics or simply put physical fighting. Speaking of fights, here’s game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Share

Children and Studying

If you want to get good at chess, you have to put work into it, namely in the form of studying the game’s principles. Unfortunately, living in a society that values instant gratification, we often avoid hobbies or pastimes that require serious effort. Many chess playing adults tend to learn only what is necessary to make a slight improvement in their game. Most adults work so their free time is limited which, in turn, limits the time they have to study. Children face an even great obstacle when it comes to learning chess. That obstacle is the video game. Let me explain.

I play video games now and again so I speak with a little authority on the subject. With video games, the only way to improve your skill set is to play the game over and over. Video games do not have a method of study you can employ to get better at playing them. You simply play the game over and over until you get better (or give up). The majority of my young students are video game players. When they first started their classes with me, they thought of chess and video games as being in the same category; games. They were preconditioned by their video games to approach improvement in chess by simply playing the game over and over. The idea of studying a game in a systematic way was foreign to them.

Today, my students actually embrace the idea of studying and ask for homework. When a student enters one of my classes, I make sure the parents know that work outside the classroom is necessary if their child want to get better at chess. I make a point of explaining to the parents that my reasons for giving homework are not Machiavellian on my part. No, my reasoning is simple: Children become frustrated easily and this frustration can lead to a child giving up on something they truly enjoy, such as chess. With students and parents alike, I use a music analogy:

When I was about fourteen years old, I decided that I was going to make a name for myself as a guitar player. I was determined to see my face on an album in the local record store. That was the plan! I had studying classical piano from a very young age so I knew the musician’s secret weapon for success, practice. Therefore, I locked myself in my room for a few years and taught myself guitar. By the age of seventeen, I was playing and touring in bands and had penned my first minor college radio hit (the first song I wrote). The song did well on the regional charts and I went on from there. My student’s parents, if they lived in San Francisco long enough, knew my name as a musician so they took what I had to say seriously. Study and practice. Study and practice!

When I start each class session, we briefly discuss how to get better at playing a musical instrument. Of course the discussion revolves around working at your craft by studying how to play and then practicing what you’ve learned. I had a student come to the first day of chess class in a t-shirt with my bands name on the front and an image of me playing guitar on the back. After the above opening session discussion, the student in question asked me if you really had to work that hard to get better at something. Knowing he took guitar lessons, I asked him if he practiced his guitar everyday. He said he did because his playing sounded terrible if he didn’t. I told him that the same idea applied to chess. Mastering the guitar would allow him to create art with his instrument and mastering chess would allow him to create art on the chess board. He seemed intrigued by this thought.

I poll my students at the start of every session and the majority of them either play a musical instrument or play a sport. The bottom line: both require some method of organized study followed by practice. However, just because there are similarities between learning chess and learning an instrument (or sport), doesn’t mean you’re going to get your students to throw themselves wholly into the study of chess! Rule one for me, lead by example.

I put a great deal of time into studying chess. I do it because I love the game and the more I study, the more secrets the game reveals to me. However, telling children or teenagers that the mystic secrets of the game of Kings will be revealed if they hunker down and hit the books isn’t enough. Therefore, at the start of every class, I say “guys, you’re not going to believe was I discovered in my studies last night. This is truly mind boggling and I’m not sure I can even show it to you.” The key point here is the build up. I get them pumped up to the point where they want to know what brilliant secret I learned in my chess studies. Do I share with them the greatest chess secret ever? Actually, we proceed with our regularly scheduled lesson. However, it isn’t just any old chess lesson, it’s a long lost Russian Grandmaster’s secret suddenly discovered in my studies. In actually, it might be an introduction to Knight forks or the dreaded double discovered check. The point is, it’s an adventure. I share my enthusiasm and the personal homework I’ve done with my students. Of course, the studying I’m doing is a bit more complicated than that of my students but the basic concepts are the same.

I also do any homework in the form of workbooks and handouts my students do. Yes, every year, I sit with a pencil in one hand and a workbook in the other, doing the same work I ask my students to do. Students will ask me why I bother doing their homework (since I know it already) and I tell them this, “I would never ask you to do something I didn’t do myself!”

I also use a bit of an incentive program. The more studying outside of class my students do, in the form of workbooks and handouts, the more one on one playing time they can earn with me. There is nothing wrong with a bit of incentive. Of course, my students start seeing progress because they’re studying chess outside of class so they often conclude that a bit of study can be a good thing. While it doesn’t work with every child and I did have one parent comment that my methods were on par with a television evangelist (my feathers are still ruffled over that comment), it has served the majority of my students well.

If you’re going to ask students to do outside work, make it an adventure and give them reasons for doing so that they can relate to. Well, time to go do some studying myself. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Share

The Pawn Game

The pawn is the most misunderstood member of the beginner’s army. While the experienced player knows just how valuable an asset pawns are during all phases of the game, the novice player views them as expendable. In the eyes of an inexperienced player, pawns are on the bottom rung of the chess ladder for a number of reasons. First off, pawns are the lowest valued unit according to the relative value system employed in learning chess. A pawn is worth one point while the Queen is worth nine. Beginner’s tend to view comparisons such as the relative value system as absolute. If the Queen is at the top of the value system, the pawn is at the bottom. Adding to this conceptual problem is the fact that players starts the game with eight pawns each. Beginner’s often think that having so many pawns, combined with their low relative value, means that they’re expendable. After all, you have eight pawns at the game’s start. Certainly you can afford to lose a few? Absolutely not! You’ll have to give up pawns to move forward in the game but they must be given up for the right reasons.

Another problem with pawns, in the eyes of the novice player, is that they are unidirectional. Pawns move in one direction only, forward, while pieces move in multiple directions. White’s pawns march towards Black’s pawns along a single file and Black’s pawns march towards White’s pawns along a single file. The exception to this rule is when a pawn captures another pawn or piece, in which case it captures diagonally, meaning that the pawn doing the capturing moves to a new file (the file the captured pawn or piece was on). This means pawn moves are absolutely committal. Move a pawn forward and there’s no going back!

Then there’s that special pawn rule, pawn promotion. Tell a beginner that they can promote a pawn into a Queen if it safely moves to the other side of the board and that beginner will envision winning the game because they have multiple Queens. Suddenly, pawns are being pushed towards their promotion squares with complete disregard of anything else, such as a good position.

Pawns play different roles during the game’s three phases which means there’s a lot to learn about the pawn. Countless books have been written solely about pawns during the opening, middle and endgames as well as pawn structure. There is a great deal of pawn theory for the beginner to learn. I use the term pawn theory as an umbrella phrase to cover all pawn related concepts. One method I employ to teach pawn theory is the pawn game. This starts as a “pawn only” game that allows students to learn how to work with their pawns.

To play the first phase of the pawn game, both players set up only their pawns, White’s pawns on the second rank and Black’s pawns on the seventh rank. Pawns adhere to the standard rules of the game such as being able to move one or two squares forward on their first move and then one square only after that. The goal of this game phase is to get a pawn to the other side of the board, promote it into a Queen and use that Queen to capture the remaining enemy pawns. After this game phase is finished, the student’s play phase two. In phase two, when a pawn reaches it’s promotion square, it promotes not into a Queen but a Rook. The Rook is used to capture any remaining enemy pawns. The game is played again, phase three, but upon reaching a promotion square, the pawn is promoted to a Bishop, then a Knight in the following game phase (phase four). The idea here is to have players learn how to use different pieces (upon promotion) in conjunction with pawns to win the game. Of course both players can promote pawns during the same phase which makes the game a bit harder.

Prior to playing the pawn game, my students and I discuss pawn structure. The first concept we discuss is pawn cooperation or pawns working together. Beginner’s have a habit of thrusting lone pawns out onto the board and leaving them unprotected. To avoid this problem, we discuss the pawn chain. A pawn chain is simply a group of pawns connected to one another so that each pawn defends the pawn ahead of it diagonally. An example of a White pawn chain would be a pawn on b2, c3, d4 and e5. The base of the pawn chain is the b2 pawn while the head of the chain is the e5 pawn. In this pawn chain, pawns protect one another leaving the major and minor pieces free to partake in more important tasks. This is a case in which the pawn’s low relative value works to an advantage in that most players will not trade a minor or major piece (of greater value) for the lowly one point pawn!

Then we look at pawn islands. A pawn island is a pawn or group of pawns separated from one another by a file. The rule of thumb here is that the more pawn islands you have, the harder it is to defend your pawns. Therefore, the fewer pawn islands you have the better off you are. Other key concepts covered before starting the pawn game are isolated pawns, a pawn who has no friendly pawns to defend him on adjacent files and backwards pawns, pawns whose fellow adjacent file friendly pawns have advanced past the point of protecting him. An example of this (for White) would be pawns on b5, c4 and d5, the c4 pawn being the backwards pawn. Then there’s the passed pawn, a pawn able to promote because there are no enemy pawns on adjacent files to stop him nor is there an enemy pawn on the same file to block his promotion. Always try to created a passed pawn or two!

I have my students write these definitions down on a sheet of paper they will refer to as they play the pawn game. After the first run through of the pawn game (four phases), I have my students add Kings to the board (on their starting squares). The objective is now to checkmate the enemy King using a pawn promoted to a Queen and any remaining friendly pawns. The game is repeated, with the promoting pawn promoting into a Rook (phase two), then a Bishop (phase three) and finally a Knight (phase four). As students complete a full promotion cycle of the pawn game, promoting to Queen, Rook, Bishop and finally Knight, a new piece is added to the board. After the King, a Queen is added followed by a Bishop, etc (one minor/major piece at a time). Pawns are promoted as in the previous phases.

By the time my students have gone through these numerous phases, they’ve developed some basic pawn skills. Only then do we start our study of pawn endgames. I use the pawn game first because it allows students to study the interactions between pawns and pieces in a simplified scenario. I have my more advanced students do these exercises as well because you cannot spend too much time studying pawn theory. Remember the pawn’s motto, “we may be small but we do big things.” However, those big things can only happen when you know a bit about pawns. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Share

Checklists

There are three basic types of chess students that I’ve encountered in my teaching career. The first is the casual student who simply wants to play chess without putting much time into studying the game. The second type is the serious chess student who wants to improve and is willing to put a fair amount of time and effort into their studies. The third type is one who starts off as a casual student only to end up becoming a serious student because they develop a love of the game. Whether or not my students becomes serious about learning the game of chess depends on my actions as their instructor. My job is to present relevant information to my students in a clear concise way.

Experienced players know the game’s principles well and can draw upon those principles when trying to work through a complicated position for example. Because I teach chess, I have the game’s numerous principles embedded in my thought process. When you lecture about a plethora of chess principles year after year, you can’t help but commit them to memory! The beginner, unfortunately, doesn’t have that luxury because they lack practical playing experience. The beginner gets hit with an enormous amount of information either from chess classes, books, DVDs or software training programs. While technology has given chess students a huge advantage regarding training materials, it can be overwhelming.

The problem facing the serious student is twofold. The first part of the problem has to do with the amount of information the beginner needs to retain in order to play decent chess. If you include only the most basic ideas, covering the opening, middle and endgame, the number of principles the beginner needs to employ during their games is huge, at least to the beginner. The second part of the problem is applying these principles in a logical order. Experienced players don’t have this problem because they’ve been playing chess a lot longer than the novice player and know exactly when to apply a specific principle. Beginners, due to a lack of experience, often try to apply the wrong principle at the wrong time. So what can the confused beginner do to eliminate this problem? Use checklists.

One technique I started using with my beginning students is the use of checklists. I have my students use small index cards to write down important principles they need to remember. When I start teaching my students opening principles, for example, I hand out index cards to everyone in the class. I have my students write down “Opening Principles Must Do List” on one side of the index card and “Opening Principles Don’t Do List” on the other side of the card. As I talk about the opening principles, I have my students write down key concepts they must know in order to play a decent opening game. Here’s what my students put on their opening principles index card:

Opening Principles Must Do List:

1. Open by placing a pawn on a central square or a square that controls one of the four central squares.
2. Develop your minor pieces to active squares that help control the center.
3. Castle your King to safety.
4. Connect your Rooks.

Opening Principles Don’t Do List:

1. Don’t bring your Queen out early.
2. Don’t make too many pawn moves
3. Don’t move the same piece twice until you’ve moves 70% of your forces into the game.

On a single index card, my students have a list of key opening principles they can refer to until they have them committed to memory. While these are very simple principles, they’re structured in such a way that my young beginners can refer to them as they play casual games. I have my students refer to this list before making each move during their opening. Because they refer to their list before each move, they quickly memorize the principles and if they suddenly draw a blank during a game, they can refer back to their checklist.

We create similar lists for the middle and endgame as well. The trick is to keep each phase of the game, or tactical/positional concept, restricted to a single index card. On the middle game list of principles, we include the idea of counting attackers and defenders, pawn structure, never capturing unless it improves your position, etc. However, each of these ideas has it’s own index card that can be accessed when more detailed information is needed.

The index card checklist is also applied to subjects such as pawns and pawn structure. I have my students list specific types of pawns such as the passed pawn and the backwards pawn. A definition of pawn chains and pawn islands is also included.

The overall idea is to have a small collection of index cards that can be referred to as the beginner plays chess. By referring to the index card checklists, beginners can make good moves based on sound principles. Constant referral to these principles also helps the beginner to commit them to memory. Whether your new to chess or have played for a few years, try creating a few index card checklists. They can be very helpful when trying to work through a complicated position that is a bit over your pay grade (translation: a bit over your head). Here’s a game to tide you over until next week!

[Event "Cairo Egyptian op"]

Hugh Patterson

Share

Getting out of the Squeeze

In past articles I’ve talked about methods you can use to acquire an advantage during the opening and early middle game. We’ve explored some of these ideas, such as having a spacial advantage due to better piece activity or going on the offensive and attacking before your opponent gets a solid foothold in the board’s center. However, I have not yet addressed the subject of what to do should you find yourself in an unfavorable position. What do I mean by unfavorable? How about a cramped position in which your opponent has greater piece activity and therefore better control of the board, leaving you feeling the tightening squeeze of the opposition’s forces!

Every chess player has found themselves squeezed into a cramped position by an opponent at one time or another. While we all try to follow sound opening principles that allow us to develop greater piece activity and subsequently greater control of the board, we eventually square off against a stronger opponent who gets the upper hand early on. By upper hand, I’m speaking of having greater control of the board’s center during the opening as well as control of squares on our half of the board. This type of positional dominance cramps our position which can render our pieces nearly useless. Some chess players made a career out of suffocating their opponent’s position on the board. Tigran Petrosian, the tenth World Chess Champion, was nicknamed “the boa constrictor” because he could create absolutely suffocating positions.

Obviously, we want to avoid playing in such a way that would lead to a cramped position! As obvious as this may sound, the simplest way to avoid such a positional scenario is to “Always Think Ahead” (ATA, as its known to my students). We often hear the phrase “think ahead” as beginners but don’t take this simple phrase to heart. Let’s look at how thinking ahead relates to avoiding a cramped position.

A cramped position can come about in one of two ways. Either our opponent moves his or her pawns and pieces to extremely active squares, keeping our pawns and pieces from safely entering the game or, worse yet, we cramp our own position because we make bad moves. We’ll look at this idea first, making bad moves that cramp our position. Let’s first define a bad move. Since we’re discussing cramped positions, we’ll define a bad move as one that restricts a piece’s mobility or blocks in other friendly pawns and pieces which in turn restricts those pawns and piece’s mobility. For example, after 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6, White decides to move the Bishop on f1 to d3 (3.Bd3). This is a terrible move because it’s blocking in the pawn on d2 which inadvertently blocks in the Bishop on c1 in. This means that it will take a few moves to correct the problem and since the opening is a race for central square control, you can ill afford to be behind in tempo. The Bishop on d3 is on a less active square. If we count the number of squares the Bishop on d3 controls the answer is seven. If that same Bishop had been moved to c4 rather than d3, it would not be blocking in any pawns or pieces and would be controlling ten squares. On move three. Black plays 3…Bc5, gaining much greater spacial advantages than its counterpart on d3. Always think ahead when considering the placement of a pawn or piece early in the game!

When moving a pawn or piece during the opening, consider not only the activity of that pawn or piece but it’s effect, spatially speaking, on the pawns and pieces around it. The beginner should always think about making a move in terms of opening up a position for themselves (positive space) or cramping that position for their opponent (negative space). A question the beginner must always ask is whether or not a specific move blocks in their own pawns or pieces. The beginner should also ask whether or not a move will block in their opponent’s pawns or pieces, cramping their opponent’s position. Coincidentally, moves that develop a piece more actively for one player often have the reverse effect for the other player. Therefore, if given a choice of moves, chose the move that is most active. If given the choice between two good moves that both provide equal piece activity, chose the move that potentially blocks in the fewest friendly pieces. Think ahead!

When I say think ahead, I should add that you need to think ahead in relation to the problem at hand. In other words, you don’t need to think ahead in terms of the endgame when you’re only on move five. You should think ahead only as it relates to the potential problem at hand. Playing 3.Bc4 rather than 3.Bd3 because it blocks in a pawn and a minor piece, is an example of thinking ahead.

Let’s say you’ve done everything I’ve suggested but are now playing against an opponent who you swear is the ghost of Tigran Petrosian. As would be the case, had you actually been playing against Petrosian, you now find yourself squeezed by “the boa constrictor” into an unbelievably cramped position. What now? Now we deal with the immediate, not the future. Now is the time to create some space on the board. We know that the position is cramped which means moving your pawns and pieces anywhere is apt to result in their untimely demise! Therefore, you have to try something else, namely, trading pieces!

One idea I try to embed into my student’s thought process is that you don’t capture pieces unless doing so improves your position. Does that idea apply here? Absolutely! You’ve managed to play Tigran Petrosian reincarnated and he has put you into one of his famously cramping positions. This means that no matter where you move your pawns and pieces to, they’ll become casualties of the war and be quickly captured. In short, you have no space so you’ll have to make some!

Of course, you’re going to have to part with some material in order to gain any space for your pawns and pieces. How you go about gaining this much needed space, via material exchanges, is the crucial consideration here!

In a perfect world, you’s simply trade off material evenly, minor piece for minor piece, etc. However, in the real world, you’re most like faced with having to trade material in an uneven way, such as trading one of your minor pieces for a pawn or trading one of your major pieces for an opposition minor piece. How do you decide what gets traded? Now you have to think ahead a little.

Let’s say you have a choice of two exchanges. In one exchange, you’ll trade a minor piece for a pawn. In the other exchange, you’ll trade a major piece, a Rook for example, for a minor piece. In both of these exchanges, you’ll be trading a unit of greater value for a unit of lesser value. Which trade works better? Look at the position and ask yourself which trade will give you more overall space immediately and in the near future. If you see that trading your Rook for an opponent’s minor piece opens up the board more than the trade of minor piece for pawn, then you should trade your Rook. While you’ll be down the exchange, the position will become less cramped and your other pawns and pieces will become more active.

Sometimes, you have to sacrifice material to open a position up. Trading a Rook for a minor piece will leave you down two material points. However, if that uneven trade opens up the position, giving you the opportunity to gain better piece activity, then that two point deficit is worthwhile. So the next time you’re in a cramped position, see if a bit of material trading helps open things up. Even if you come out down the exchange, you’ll at least have a chance to get the rest of your material into the action. While we should all try to avoid cramped positions by employing sound game principles, we sometimes get boxed in by a stronger player. When this happens, don’t panic. Work your way out of it! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Share