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).

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

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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

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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

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Paul Morphy

A parent of one of my new students asked me the question “what’s up with that Paul Morphy guy?” For some reason I found this question delightful in its vagueness. Many times, parents will ask very specific questions that are designed to make them look like they know something about chess, such as “which variation for Black do you prefer against the Ruy Lopez.” Of course, my answer to such a question is usually “ ah…the winning variation,” at which point said parent mutters something about my lack of sanity and wanders off. However, I found the question regarding Paul Morphy to be one worth exploring. I told the parent, I would answer the question in this article. So Ian (parent), this one’s for you!

I think what Ian was getting at was the question of why Paul Morphy is so prevalent in my teaching program and the programs of many others. It’s a good question if you look at it from Ian’s point of view. His son goes to chess class one day, comes home and does nothing but talk about the amazing Paul Morphy. Ian looks up Paul Morphy online and becomes perplexed because he managed to find the one website that published descriptions of some of Morphy’s more eccentric non-chess habits. Fortunately, Ian did continue to read on and discovered that Paul Morphy played chess. Ian had also been trying to get his son interested in George Washington and American history with no luck. Ian wondered how his son could be so fascinated with one “old historical guy” (to quote Ian) and not with another. So what is it about Paul Morphy?

The question is really, what is it about Paul Morphy’s chess that appeals to both young and old alike? With that said, it should be noted that there are a plethora of chess players who find Morphy’s games to be unrealistic and ridiculous which makes this topic even more interesting. Love him or hate him, Morphy made an indelible mark on our beloved game. To answer Ian’s question, we must first look at the period in which Paul Morphy played. This was the romantic era of chess when gambits and all out daring attacks were the order of the day. The game of chess was played differently during the 1800s. Bravado seemed to be the watch word of Morphy’s day. I mention this because many modern players simply dismiss Morphy because he’d never hold up against today’s more sophisticated players. However, I would say to my modern counterparts that they need to look at Morphy in a historical context. Here’s an analogy: The Model T would certainly be an impractical car to drive around today. However, the Model T paved the way for the cars we do drive today and we should appreciate that! Morphy paved the way (along with others) for modern chess.

Chess students learn about specific chess players because those player’s game provide excellent examples of specific concepts. Those player’s games are published in books and used by chess teachers in their lectures. Chess teachers love games that clearly illustrate a specific point or multiple points. Clarity is the key when presenting a game during a lecture or lesson. Paul Morphy’s games clearly illustrate a number of crucial concepts beginning chess players need to learn. Those concepts include opening principles, attacking, defending and checkmating to name a few. However, what really makes Morphy so irresistible to many (but not all) chess teachers is the clarity of specific chess concepts combined with the excitement of his games.

I teach the game of chess to my beginning students in a rather theatrical way due to my past as a musician. I want them to share my passion for the game so I try to make the game interesting to them. I want to show them games that are both educational and exciting. This is where Paul Morphy’s games come into play. The majority of my students are young and youngsters like excitement. They want to see outrageous moves made on the board. I want to teach them specific fundamentals. The games of Paul Morphy allow my students to embark on an adventure and learn something during their travels across the sixty four squares.

One idea young beginners should embrace is the concept of playing attacking chess. Junior players should start their chess careers being attackers rather than defenders. Of course, they cannot be careless attackers or their careers will be short lived! Morphy’s games are ripe with brilliant attacks. To add intellectual icing to the educational cake, those attacks are extremely clear in scope. Take the first three moves of the game Morphy versus Charles the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard de Vauvenargue. Morphy, playing the White pieces follows the opening principles to the letter (1. e4…e5, 2.Nf3…d6, 3d4…Bg4) while the Duke and the Count do their best to hold on. Move three for White demonstrates a very straight forward attack to deny Black’s foothold in the center. 3. d4, attacks the pawn on e5. The d4 pawn is defended by the Knight on f3 and White’s Queen on d1, introducing the idea of counting attackers and defenders. Black’s Bishop on g4 pins the Knight on f3 to the Queen with 3…Bg4, introducing the pin to students and a subsequent discussion regarding this tactic. Three moves into the game and some very important ideas have cropped up!

Another lesson that can be learned through the games of Paul Morphy has to do with putting pieces on the rim or edge of the board. We teach the beginner to develop pieces toward the board’s center where they’re more powerful or influential. However, there are times when moving a piece to the a or h file makes sense. One of Morphy’s signature moves was to put his Queen-side Bishop on a3 where it attacks the f8 square stopping Black from Castling on the King-side.
Morphy was also a great Gambiteer. His Evan’s Gambit games were stunning in their Blitzkrieg-like assaults. I use his Evan’s Gambit games to introduce my students to the idea of the Gambit. While there are plenty of other great chess players who play the Evan’s Gambit better than Morphy, their games are nowhere near as user friendly to the beginner. Morphy’s games are beginner friendly and that is extremely important to someone who is new to the game. After all, to learn from a game you have to be able to follow along.

So Ian, there is your answer. Morphy’s games are exciting, educational and relatively easy to follow. I know some readers will disagree but Morphy’s games work within my program and most importantly, my students are crazy about the pride of New Orleans. Here’s a game by the great Morphy to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Keeping a Journal

I’m surprised that I don’t see more chess players carrying around journals to chronicle their progress and personal chess history. Keeping a chess journal is mandatory for my students once they reach a certain point in their studies. I was looking through one of my first chess journals the other day and was surprised at how much useful information it contained, information that helped me a great deal at the time. My old journal also reminded me of how far I’ve come as a chess player. It also chronicled a bit of personal history as well, reminding me of people and places I had long since forgotten about. I firmly believe that every chess player should keep a journal. Here are some guidelines to help you create your chess journal.

I use old fashion composition books for my journals because they’re inexpensive and easy to acquire. Their size, 8 ½ by 11 inches, gives me ample writing space. I opt for the college ruled composition books whose line spacing is narrower so you can get more information written down per page. You can use any type of notebook for your chess journal as long as it gives you ample room to write down your thoughts.

As stated earlier, the primary reason for keeping a chess journal is to chronicle your progress and personal history. Of course, many chess players will see personal progress in the form of an improvement in their rating but not everyone plays in rated tournaments. This is where the journal comes in handy. However, chess journal is more than just a measure of progress. It is also a small storehouse of useful information. Think of it as a training manual that has been customized to fit the needs of its owner. Your chess journal is a training manual that addresses the concepts and ideas you’re learning!

Each chess journal I’ve kept has addressed specific topics that I’ve had trouble fully understanding. Here’s an example: When I first started to learn about the opening principles, I came across numerous explanations and catch phrases such as “ a Knight on the rim is dim.” Rather than having to refer to the countless books I was reading on opening theory again and again, I simply wrote down key points from those books into my chess journal. After a few months of doing this, I had collected, within my journal, a small collection of critical information regarding opening principles. I have done the same for middle and endgame theory as well. The chess journal allows you to consolidate important information rather than have to search for it through countless books. While many players keep a separate book in which to record their games, I suggest recording specific games again within your journal that exemplify specific concepts and ideas your trying to master. This way you have a visual indicator as to where you stand regarding a concept. If you played a fantastic opening that adheres to all the opening principles, record that game in your journal!

The way to use your chess journal in conjunction with any chess books your reading is simple. As you read through a chess book, keep your journal handy. Write questions you want answers to in your journal. For example, I had written in my old chess journal, the question “why are pieces more powerful when they are centrally located?” Looking back on this question (asked around 1976), I see where I was at the time with my chess skills. In writing down questions you have into your journal you’ll be on the lookout for their answers when reading through your chess books. As you find your question’s answers, immediately write them down into your journal.

When you read through a section of a book, write down the basic key concepts into your journal. Doing this allows you to consolidate a chapters worth of information into a few journal pages. However, don’t just copy the book’s explanations word for word. Let’s say you’re studying middle game principles. You come across a succinct explanation of the relationship between attackers and defenders that makes sense to you. After you write down the book’s explanation, rewrite that explanation in your own words. This helps you to fully understand the concept. Because you have both the book’s explanation and your explanation written in your journal, you’ll always be able to access this valuable information quickly. Any concept you have trouble with should be detailed out in your journal.

The journal also serves as a wonderful way to preserve your personal chess history. Its too easy to forget many of the small details that made one tournament, for example, more interesting than another. Its these little details that we often forget. Because of this, I’ll keep notes on things I found interesting during a tournament in my journal. I recently played in a tournament in this wonderful old church. The lighting was absolutely amazing so I wrote about it in my journal. The reason I did this was because I want to improve the lighting at Academic Chess tournaments and the church had found a simple solution. I also wrote a little about the church’s architecture which was amazing.

While it might seem pointless to write about lighting and architecture in a chess journal, years from now, I’ll be able to look back on this part of my life with clarity because I recorded my own personal history. Our pasts have a way of becoming blurred over time. Maintaining a journal helps to keep things in absolute focus.

Imagine if your favorite chess player kept a journal from the very start of their chess careers. Imagine you could read those journals and travel along on their road to mastery. That would be fascinating reading! I tell my students that they might one day become a famous chess player and the world would delight in being able to read their journals.

You should keep a journal for a few reasons. First, it helps you measure your progress. Second, it allows you to keep a vast body of useful information in a small space and lastly, it preserves your personal history. As we get older, our minds get a bit fuzzy when it comes to details. We also tend to get a bit one sided when it comes to the facts. Fortunately, journals stay informatively sharp with the passing of time, existing as a written record of the times.

If your not keeping a journal start! In this age of Tablets and electronic Notebooks and all things technologically advanced (and prone to breaking), a paper notebook and pencil is a rather pleasant excursion into the past. Hey, a composition notebook doesn’t need batteries and will survive being dropped from great distances! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week, a game from one of my journals I might add!

Hugh Patterson

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Honesty

I had no intention of writing this article as of two weeks ago until I was faced with an interesting situation at one of my week long chess camps. A parent emailed me regarding enrolling her child in the camp. The only information she provided about her child was that he was eight years old, played chess and was dyslexic. Having had a problem with dyslexia myself, I looked forward to meeting this young man because I thought of him as a kindred spirit. When the young man arrived for the start of our week long camp, we quickly discovered that the young man was autistic and extremely disruptive because his condition. While we (my interns and I) were able to keep things under control, we would have been able provide a better camp experience for this student had we been informed from the start of the true nature of the problem. That got me thinking about honesty and how it effects your training as a student.

Of course, the above incident was an extremely harsh example of not being forthright about issues that can effect a child’s education on and off the chessboard. However, it serves as a strong reminder for both parent’s and students to be open about any issues that may effect one’s abilities as a student. Simple honesty will go a long way towards helping a student achieve their goals.

I have put a great deal of time into learning how to teach children with learning disabilities. I did so because many of my students were being presented to me (by their parents) with mild to moderate learning issues. If I wanted to succeed at being a chess teacher, I needed to be able to work with these kids rather than do what many enrichment program instructors do, simply ignore the so called problem child. I’m a hard liner on this topic. If you’re not willing to work with a learning disabled student, within reason, then teaching may not be for you. However, it is up to the parent to inform you, the teacher, of any issues.

I implore parents to be completely honest with their child’s chess teacher before starting any chess class or private lessons. I know its painful to have to discuss your child’s problems with a teacher you don’t know. However, in doing so, you’ll be giving that teacher crucial information needed to help provide the best lessons possible for the child in question. Being honest about a child’s abilities is absolutely great for the child. A couple of my students who have had moderate to serious learning disabilities have gone on to do some amazing things with their chess. Why? Because their parents were upfront about their child’s issues which allowed me to tailor my program to meet specific educational needs.

Now we’ll look at honesty and the student with no special needs, the students who make up the bulk of my classes. Do these students need a healthy does of honesty? Absolutely! While they may not have to deal with any type of learning disability, they do disable their learning process by not being completely honest with themselves. This applies to children and adults as well!

Often, when a parent approaches me for classroom or private chess lessons, they proudly describe their child’s great skills. Their child shows, in the parent’s words, above average potential. I hear this a lot and don’t fault any parent for being proud of their child. However, I sit down and play a few games with the child in question to assess just how skilled they are. More often than not, the above average child is a bit less skilled than the parent thinks!

The parent who thinks their child is above average often inadvertently passes this idea onto their child. In private chess lessons, this isn’t a great problem. However, in a classroom setting, a child who thinks he or she is a cut above the rest can face a hard emotional downfall when he or she squares off against a truly strong player of the same age. Suddenly, the falsely built up confidence is gone and the child in question is facing emotional turmoil.

I teach my students to use honesty as a learning tool. The more you use this tool, the more you’ll learn. What I mean by being honest, is being honest about your skills or lack of skills. People, young and old, often don’t like to ask questions because they feel that doing so some how makes them appear less informed than those around them. These are the same people that might think a specific question to be stupid. I teach my students that the only stupid question is the one not asked. Students should get in the habit of asking questions to increase their knowledge base.

At the start of each school session, I tell my students that, if I provide an explanation of a concept that doesn’t make sense to them, they raise their hands and ask for a second explanation (or a third). I will go over a concept again and again, employing different explanations, until that concept is understood by my students. We improve our chess using the idea that actively asking questions strengthens our knowledge. Question everything.

Another honesty tool I employ is self explanation. How many times have you studied a concept, convinced yourself that you understand that concept only to realize a real lack of comprehension when you try to apply that concept to a situation? Children will often nod their heads in agreement, seemingly following the lesson, only to have things fall apart when they try to employ that lesson to their own chess game. To reduce this problem and determine who is actually understanding the lesson, I have my students write out (in their own words) a summary of the lesson’s key concepts. Adults studying the game of chess, or any other subject for that matter, should try this.

Honesty is a critical if you wish to improve your game. There’s no shame in not understanding a concept. You may have to spend some additional time in your studies but you’ll get a lot farther in developing your skills than the person who merely skims through their studies. Honestly assessing your abilities is the best way to start your journey along the road of chess improvement. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Theory and Practice

Improving your game requires effort in the form of studying. The greater the effort, the greater the improvement. No one is born with a chess gene that allows them to play like a Grandmaster from moment they first sit down at a chess board. We get better at chess though hard work. Like mastering a musical instrument, mastering chess requires a balance of theory and practice. Favoring one over the other can have a negative effect on your game. The balance of theory and practice is crucial if you wish to improve your playing ability. Theory and practice are the Yin and Yang of chess. An even balance of the two is the key that unlocks the gate that allows you to start your journey along the road to mastery.

This idea of carefully balancing theory and practice has been discussed and addressed in many books and countless articles, yet many serious beginners and intermediate chess players fail to balance their use of these two concepts. In fact, one of the reasons I’m addressing this issue is because many beginners I work with have a problem with balancing the two. Lets start off by defining, in chess terms, these two concepts.

To make things simple, I’ll define “theory,” as it relates to chess, as the study of the game and its subsequent principles. Therefore, the opening principles I’ve written about in past articles, can be considered theory. We study theory, the opening principles for example, to improve our opening game. We learn about these opening principles through books and DVDs. In reading/watching these books and DVDs, we are studying specific aspects of the game (specific theories), such as the opening. In order to apply a specific theory to your game you must first study it.

Practice, on the other hand, is actually playing chess. Like learning how to play a musical instrument, the novice chess player must practice his or her playing in order to progress or improve. You cannot master a musical instrument without practice and the same holds true for chess (or anything else you desire mastery of). Practice is where the rubber meets the road, as my chemistry professor used to say. Practice is the place in which (in this case the chessboard) you take what you’ve learned (theory) and test it out. You can study theory for eight hours a day, seven days a week, but unless you apply that theoretical knowledge to a real life situation (a game of chess), you’ll never know if it holds true. Chess theory is has little meaning unless it can be successfully tested on the sixty four square battlefield, and it is at this juncture that students often have trouble combining theory and practice.

It seems easy enough. The student studies the theoretical and then applies it to their game (practice). What could be easier, you study something and then test it out! However, the beginner faces a few hurdles when studying chess theory.

To become a good chess player these days, you can’t be a specialist. A specialist is someone who knows one of the game’s phases well but not the other two. For example, we all know someone who is good at opening play but becomes lost when entering the middle game. That person is an opening specialist and while he or she might play brilliantly during the opening, they often become lost when the middle game begins because they only studied the opening. You have to have an all around knowledge of the complete game. The beginner looking to truly improve must therefore study all three phases of the game and that’s where the trouble often starts!

The serious beginning student understands that he or she must put an equal amount of time into studying each phase of the game. Just knowing this however isn’t enough. Our student needs to chose their study materials well. This can be difficult because many chess book and DVD publishers advertise their products as being suitable for beginners when they’re not. Therefore, I would advise students to take a good look at a book’s contents, reading a few pages to see if it make sense or if it goes over your head. The holds true with DVDs. You can usually find a sample of the DVD online. Watch it and see if it makes sense. Unfortunately, simply acquiring the appropriate book or DVD for your skill set is only half the battle. Having to remember the numerous principles (theory) taught in various chess books/DVDs is the other half. This can be a big problem for the beginner.

Beginners learn the opening principles with relative ease. The reason for this is simple. All chess games have an opening phase. However, a beginner’s game may not reach the middle or end phase due to an early checkmate. This means that a beginning student will play through more openings than middle or endgames. The beginner might put a great deal of time into studying middle and endgame basics but may forget specific ideas because they never get that far in their own games, at least during the early part of their chess careers. Therefore, I suggest that you keep a sheet of paper with you as you study books/DVDs about the middle and endgames. One side of the sheet will be for the middle game while the other side is for the endgame. Write down key concepts to keep in mind when playing the middle and endgame. Create a key concept list.

For your middle game list you might write down key concepts regarding piece activity, pawn structure and passed pawn creation. On your endgame list you might write down key concepts regarding King activity, pawn structure, etc. The point is to keep a list of concepts you’ve learned in your studies. Read through the list before each game and keep it close by for reference during friendly games. By keeping this list and adding to it as you progress in your playing and studies, you’ll become a stronger player because the theory you’ve studied will become ingrained in your memory as you refer back to your list.

Chess improvement is really a balanced combination of theory (study) and practice (playing). All the theory in the world does a player no good unless her or she tries it out on the chessboard. Play as much chess as you can. I play constantly because it allows me to test out my new found knowledge. Like the old joke goes, how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!

Keeping notes from your studies and referring to them prior to play is an excellent way to reinforce your new found knowledge. I have taken this one step farther in my own training by keeping detail chess journals for each phase of the game. However, if you’re just starting out and are not quite a full blown chess lunatic, stick with a single sheet of paper for your notes. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Activity and Vulnerability

Beginners of all ages tend to have two very big positional problems when they’re honing their chess skills, piece activity and piece vulnerability. These two problems, if not addressed, will lead to loss after loss until the beginner simply gives up on this fantastic game. However, if the beginner puts some effort into both the understanding and application of activity and vulnerability, they’ll play a much better game. The earlier the beginner embraces these ideas, the better off they’ll be. Let’s take a look at activity first.

An important question players of all levels should ask themselves when looking at their position is “what are my pieces actually doing?” Pieces are active only if they’re doing something useful. If your pieces are sitting on their starting squares, they’re inactive. However, simply moving a piece randomly out onto the board doesn’t guarantee activity. So what defines piece activity?

A piece is active if it has mobility. Mobility is the ability of a piece to move to a number of different squares. The greater the number of squares, the greater the mobility. Greater mobility leads to greater control of the board. The beginner should always strive to develop their pieces to more active squares. Mobility gives a player greater options regarding the formation of plans. Greater planning options means more flexibility which is crucial since plans change during a game. Having flexibility due to mobility allows you to adjust your plans to fit the ever changing positional landscape on the board.

The ability to attack one or more of the oppositions pieces also adds to a piece’s activity. If you’re attacking one or more of your opponent’s pieces they’ll have to tie down some of their own forces to aid the attacked piece or pieces. This means that those opposition pieces involved in the defense of the attacked pieces lose their activity. Pieces tied down to defending a position cannot participate in an attack. Even if the attacked piece can move out of danger, it still costs time to do so which can detract from one’s development.

Control of territory is another consideration when discussing piece activity. Greater mobility leads to greater control. While controlling squares on your half of the board is important (you don’t want your opponent’s pieces to have an easy time occupying your half of the sixty four squares), it isn’t as important as controlling squares on your opponent’s side of the board. Take away key squares on your opponent’s side of the board and they’ll have a difficult time launching an attack let alone developing their pieces.

Piece coordination and cooperation is also tantamount to good active play. Pieces must work together. Beginners tend to launch lone pieces out on the board in an effort to attack the opposition only to lose that piece because it had no support. Chess is a team sport which means that pawns and pieces must work together. Pieces that work together are far less likely to become targets for your opponent. Now let’s look at vulnerability.

In the broadest sense, a vulnerability can be thought of as a disadvantage for you and an advantage for your opponent. Its a place, in this case the chessboard, in which a series of actions has led to you to being exposed to danger. You could be about to lose material or facing a mating attack. You are vulnerable. Your opponent has the immediate upper hand in the positional situation. Don’t make yourself vulnerable. Giving material away (hanging pieces) is an example of becoming vulnerable because in giving your material away, you’re giving your opponent an advantage (while you maintain the disadvantage).

Beginners tend to hang pieces (place them on squares that allow their opponent to capture said piece freely) early in their chess careers. While employing the concepts mentioned above will help reduce this problem, there are some additional things the beginner can do to make their pieces less vulnerable to capture.

We are taught to look both ways before crossing the street. The same should hold true when moving a piece out onto the board. You wouldn’t just run out onto a busy street hoping you don’t get hit by a car, yet many beginners blindly thrust a piece out onto the board without much though. If you want to move a piece to a particular square, follow the rank, file and diagonals radiating out from that square to see if any opposition pawns or pieces control or attack it. Just doing this one simple thing can eliminate hanging pieces greatly.

Sending major pieces out onto the board early makes you vulnerable to attack. If you bring your Queen out early, you’re opponent will more than likely attack it. As your opponent’s pieces attack your Queen, they’re developing which gives your opponent an advantage. Because you’re having to move the Queen out of the line of fire, you’re losing tempo, a disadvantage. Common sense can greatly help improve your game and common sense tells us to bring out pieces of lesser value at the game’s start.

Beginners also tend to become vulnerable because of a one sided view of the game’s ebb and flow. By this, I mean that the beginner is more concerned with their moves and plans that those of their opponent’s. A student whose game I was watching once told me that he had thought the position through four moves into the future. This is a difficult task for many seasoned players let alone a young beginner. I watched in horror as my student’s position was crushed in three moves. He did think four moves into the future of the position, but those four moves depended on his opponent making the moves my student wanted him to make (which all favored my student’s position). Therefore, before making a move, ask yourself what your opponent’s best response to that move would be. Pretend to play your opponent’s side of the board when making decisions regarding your position! Often, you’ll find that a seemly reasonable move, even one that adheres to sound chess principles, can lead to problems. Problems are a measure of vulnerability.

Creating active positions and avoiding vulnerability really comes down to looking carefully before moving a piece anywhere on the board. It also comes down to putting these ideas into practice. I have my students keep checklists written out on index cards that they consult before making a move. Eventually, they don’t need to refer to their checklists, having committed the information to memory. However, at the start of their training with me I have them use the checklist because it forces them to think carefully before moving a piece. Speaking of pieces, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Endgame Thoughts

One of the most difficult phases of the game for a beginner is the end phase or endgame. There are two reasons for this. First, beginners seldom play through to a proper endgame. Most beginner’s games end in an early checkmate. The second reason for this difficultly with the endgame comes from a flawed idea beginners have about this final phase of the game. Beginners think that having fewer pieces on the board means that the game becomes easier. This is so far from the truth. The fewer pieces you have on the board, the more carefully you have to play. Endgame training should be embraced by the beginner early on. Here are some thoughts regarding endgame play that the beginner should consider.

The decisions you make in the opening and middle games affect your endgame! Beginners tend to think of pawns as disposable, after all, they are the lowest valued units and you start the game with eight of them. Pawns are key components in the endgame and having more pawns during this final phase of the game makes a huge difference. You should always look for ways to create passed pawns early on. Passed pawns, pawns that can promote because no enemy pawns block or attack squares along their route, are key. Therefore, pawns should be considered extremely valuable assets early on! Always consider the endgame when making strategic or positional decisions early in the game.

King activity in the endgame is an idea that beginners seldom consider. The King is a powerful piece in the endgame. In fact, many checkmates are simply impossible without the King’s involvement. Beginners have a tendency to leave their Kings on their starting Rank because of preconditioning. The beginner is taught early on that King safety is critical. “Castle early”, says the chess teacher, “or your King will be exposed to danger.” Beginners take this to heart and leave their Kings safely away from the action. However, when the majority of the pieces have been removed from the board, its time to bring the King into the game. The King can do some real damage to the opposition when he enters the endgame and can be a deciding factor!

The next thing to consider is time. By time, I mean taking your time during the endgame! Because beginners often think that the game will get easier when there are fewer pieces on the board, they tend to play endgames too quickly. A rule of thumb for my students is, the fewer pieces there are on the board, the slower your play should be. Beginners blunder positions and hang pieces. Early during a game, you may have a chance to recover from a bad move. As pawns and pieces leave the board, those remaining pawns and pieces take on a greater value because that’s what you have left as an army and that’s what you have left to deliver checkmate with. If you and your opponent are equal in material and you lose a minor piece, your opponent now has an advantage. Taking your time and completely examining the position not once or twice, but three times will help you maintain your forces and push forward towards mate. Take your time during the endgame!

Play for the passed pawn! While the goal of the passed pawn is promotion, this renegade pawn can create a host of problems for the opposition. The biggest problem your opponent has to deal with regarding your passed pawn is the threat of promotion. What this means is that your opponent will have to tie one of his or her pieces down to stopping that pawn from promoting. A wise chess player once said that a passed pawn belongs under lock and key. An opposition piece dealing with a passed pawn is a piece not actively committed to the rest of the game! Always be on the lookout for a potential passed pawn!

Master Rook endgames. Rook endings are the most common type of endgame. Therefore, the beginner should study Rook endgames closely. Beginners learn the most basic of checkmates, such as two Rooks against a lone King, This is a simple type of checkmate that the novice player easily masters. However, when we remove one of those two Rooks from the equation, things get a little more complex. The beginner should spend a good deal of time learning to mate with a Rook and King against alone King.

A useful area of study, one that applies to all phases of the game, is pawn structure. While good pawn structure is crucial throughout the game, it is an absolute must during the endgame. Pawn structure comes down to pawn coordination, how pawns work with one another (and the pieces) during the game. Beginners can improve their pawn structure by playing the pawn game. To play the pawn game, set up only the pawns on a chessboard. The goal is to get a pawn or pawns to the other side of the board, promote them and eliminate your opponent’s pawns. This simple game will teach you a great deal about pawn structure or the “pawn arts” as I like to call it.

Lastly, invest in a good basic book on endgame play. For the beginner, I recommend Bruce Pandolfini’s Complete Endgame Course. There are many good endgame books available but most are too complex for the beginner. Bruce’s book starts with the simplest mating combinations and works up to more complex mating attacks such as Knight, Bishop and King versus lone King. Section one covers major and minor piece endgame mates while section two deals with pawn endgames. I am currently rereading this book because it is a wealth of information. If you decide to chose another book for your endgame studies, make sure that the examples found within make sense to you. A book is no good to the beginner if it was written for advanced players.

In the end (pun intended) it comes down to practice. Find another player of equal skill and play endgames. Set up the chessboard with the King, a Rook and a few pawns for both players and have at it. This will help both of you improve your endgame play. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Learning an Opening

Beginners often make the mistake of memorizing an opening before they have a solid grasp of its underlying mechanics. The problem with memorizing an opening, as opposed to learning the mechanics underlying the opening (the opening principles), is that you’ll run into serious trouble the moment your opponent makes a move not included in your memorization. Memorizing an opening is not the same as learning an opening. Before learning a specific opening, you must have a solid grasp of its underlying principles. All openings, from the Hippopotamus to the Nimzo Indian, share a common bond. That common bond is the underlying mechanics or principles that make the opening work. Once the beginner has learned the underlying principles (controlling the center with a pawn, active piece development and castling), it’s time to learn a specific opening.

Choosing a specific opening depends on the type of player you are. If you’re aggressive you might chose a more aggressive opening while the more reserved player might chose a more defensive opening. Once you determine what opening fits your general style of play, it’s time to sit down and learn that opening. Beginners should stick to openings that are flexible and simple to learn such as the opening I mention below, the Italian opening. Here’s how I teach an opening to my students.

I teach chess concepts in units of three. For example, when learning the opening principles, we focus on the three critical ideas of putting a pawn on a central square, developing our minor pieces to active squares and castling. I tell my students to always look for three possible moves before committing to one. Of course the game of chess is divided into three phases which was the primary reason for teaching concepts in units of three. I use this number in teaching openings as well.

The first opening I teach the beginning student is the Italian opening. Out of all the openings, this opening allows a beginner to see the opening principles in action very clearly. After 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6 and 3.Bc4…Nf6, white has a pawn in the center, two minor pieces on active squares and is ready to castle King-side. An additional benefit to learning this opening is that it lays the groundwork for learning the Evan’s Gambit and the Fried Liver Attack. However, the key point to learning this opening is the clarity it provides regarding basic opening principles.

We approach learning the opening’s moves in groups of three, starting from move one. Each move is carefully examined to determine which opening principle is being applied. Using the Italian opening, let’s look at the first three moves, starting with move one. White plays 1.e4. When learning an opening, examine every move carefully, even the first move! I tell my students that placing a pawn on e4 has multiple benefits First off; it gains a foothold in the center of the board. However, it also allows the King-side Bishop and Queen to have access to the board. Then we discuss the type of game an e pawn opening can lead to (open game). We then define open and closed games, which leads to a discussion of Bishops and Knights. Next we look at move two, 2.Nf3. This move attacks the pawn on e5. However, there’s more to this move than simply attacking a pawn. The Knight on f3 also contests the black pawn’s control of d4. The Knight also attacks the g5 and h4 squares which helps protect white from a black Queen raid on those files. The point here is to really discuss and examine each move in great detail which helps reinforce the understanding of the move’s underlying principles.

Move three, 3.Bc4, brings up a couple of interesting points. The first is the weakness of the f7 square (f2 for white). This square is weak because, at the game’s start, it is only defended by the King. This makes it a natural target. The second point I bring up with my students is the idea of moving pieces to their most active squares. If we look at how many squares the Bishop controls on c4, we see that the number is ten. The Bishop is extremely active on c4. I solidify this example by looking at the Bishop when placed on d3 where is not only has less activity but blocks in the d pawn and Queen-side Bishop. This leads to a brief discussion about not making opening moves that block in other pawns and/or pieces.

After going over the first three moves of our opening, I quiz my students. Before moving on to the next three moves, each student must understand the underlying principles of each of the previous moves. Once I’m satisfied that everyone has a good grasp on the mechanics behind each of those moves we move on to the next three moves of the opening. Of course, the further you delve into the opening, the more complex it becomes due to numerous variations. Because I’m working with young beginners, I stick to the mainline.

After those first three moves we move onto the next three moves. Before starting into the next grouping of three moves (moves seven, eight and nine), I review the opening from move one. This helps etch the opening’s moves and underlying mechanics into a student’s memory. By frequently going back to move one and playing through the sequence of moves learned up to that point, students get a better idea of how each move helps build up a stronger position. Yes, they’re committing the opening to memory which is memorizing. However, they’re working through the mechanics as they go along which makes the difference.

It really comes down to looking at each move in an opening analytically, using the opening principles to define the underlying mechanics of that move. When studying the moves within an opening, don’t move on from one move to the next until you completely understand the underlying mechanics up to that point. Remember, memorizing an opening and understanding it are two different things. Here’s game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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