Author Archives: Hugh Patterson

About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).

Chess Forum Survival Guide

A new adult student asked me for some good advice regarding the exploration of chess forums. I gave him a one word answer, “don’t!” “What do you mean don’t?” He replied. I diplomatically explained to him that while joining a chess forum could provide a conduit to a great deal of useful information, in most cases, he’d more likely end up falling down the endless rabbit hole of absolute madness found on many chess forums, never to be heard from again. He looked at me as if I was mad, so I sat him down to have a heart to heart chat about the subject. By conversation’s end, he looked just like a small child whose been told that there is no Santa Claus, Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy. I, on the other hand, felt like a bit of an old fashioned heel. Here’s the gist of what I told him:

Forums can be, and in many cases are, a great resource of practical information, allowing the forum user to save countless hours researching a topic on their own. Of course, I’m speaking purely theoretically, along the lines of “in a perfect world…” As I’m fond of mentioning, there’s a huge difference between theory and reality with chess forums (any many other types of forums to be fair). In theory, the chess forum should be your one stop chess shop when looking to acquire information regarding the game we love so deeply. In fact, you’d think that because we love chess so much, that chess forums would close to perfect in regards to useful information. They would perfect if the worst of human behavior didn’t cloud the numerous postings and threads. What behaviors are those you may ask? Ego and stupidity come to mind!

Now if I sound a bit harsh, let me state that there are a large number of chess forum contributors who really do present useful chess information. Many of these contributors are titled players who offer sound advice, regarding opening theory, for example. However, anyone on a forum can proclaim themselves an expert regardless of their qualifications. This means you might end up taking the advice of a player who barely understands the ideas behind the opening principles when preparing for an important game. Be cautious when taking forum advice regarding playing unless it comes from a qualified individual. With this said, I’ve seen some great explanations of difficult concepts from non-titled players. Like shopping for a car, you have to do your due diligence rather than simply buy the first car you see.

Forums also become a place where individuals can beat a subject to death, the old idea of flogging the dead horse. A subject is posted on the forum and, rather that providing a definitive and simple response, large numbers of people either confuse the issue or hijack the forum and send it in a completely different direction. You spend an hour reading through the threads and forgot what it was you were trying to get out of the posting in the first place. It can start out as a discussion regarding endgame theory and end up as an argument over who sells the best leather wingtip shoes in the greater London area. Unless you’re planning a trip to London and buying shoes while there, you may feel a bit cheated. Many a night I have sent out angry emails to forum members demanding back the hour of my life lost reading their dribble. My tip: If you scan through people’s postings regarding chess theory and you don’t see any algebraic notation within the comments, move on.

Of course, forums allow people to stand proudly at the bully pulpit and spew venomous rhetoric across the internet. Sadly, you find this on many chess forums. What starts as a seemingly Innocent discussion about a specific chess player, chess book, etc, turns into a free for all verbal slug-fest with the least qualified individuals throwing the hardest punches. You’d be surprised at how many people who cannot write to save their lives complain on forums about those who do write. Of course, constructive criticism is important but simply saying a chess book is garbage without offering some solutions to make it better is just old fashion bullying.

You also see chess enthusiasts complain about moves made during important, professional matches. This would be all well and good if the person complaining was a seasoned Grandmaster. However, the biggest complaints come from players whose ratings are on par with their shoe size (and IQ for that matter). “He should of played Bxd4 on move 27. What a dummy.” This from the guy who holds the world record for losing chess games to Scholar’s Mate.

Lastly, there’s the long winded types (which is why I’m trying to keep this to 1,000 words or less). Does it really require 124,375 words to make a point that could have been made employing 27 words (some of you are envisioning me)? Do you really need to use arcane words that we all have to look up in the dictionary? Great, your a wordsmith, but tone it down a bit. You must be a hoot at the local pub’s University Challenge night…

Since the thousand word limit I set for myself is nearing, I fear I must sign off. Enjoy your chess forums but heed my warning because I come this way but once (to quote Professor Harold Hill from The Music Man). My advice: If you put the time you spent reading chess forums into studying the game you’d become a lot better, a lot faster. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. These guys don’t need no stinking forums….

Hugh Patterson

The Scotch Opening

Beginners who play with the White pieces often play timidly at first, pushing a pawn one square instead of two on their first turn. They worry that pushing a pawn to e4, for example, will leave that pawn stranded without protection whereas as pushing a pawn to e3 affords that pawn protection by it’s fellow pawns on f2 and d2. However, if you’re playing White you should aggressively go for control of the board’s center immediately. The Scotch Opening is a good opening for teaching aggressive play from the start. The classical Scotch comes into play after the moves 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. d4…exd4, 4. Nxd4…Nf6 and 5. Nc3, White immediately contests Black’s attempt to control the board’s center, a crucial concept (central control during the opening) as far as opening principles are concerned, while Black fights back to equalize the position. It should be noted that because black is a move behind, he or she should play to equalize or keep the position balanced rather than play for a fast attack during the opening.

The point the beginner should embrace is the idea that, because White moves first, White can gain control of the center before Black does and should therefore aim for central control from move one rather than making passive moves that allow Black to gain central control, turning the position around. The first two moves for both White and Black, 1. e4…e5 and 2. Nf3…Nc6, are the first two moves in a number of openings. Why? Because they fight for the center in a sound way. Move three of the classic Scotch, 3. d4…exd4 demonstrates the idea of White aggressively attacking Black’s own plan for control of the center. One of the reasons I teach this opening to beginners is because it clearly demonstrates the the opening principles in action, especially playing aggressively. A Scotch Opening might proceed a bit further like this:

Let’s review each move in terms of opening principles. Move one, for both players, 1. e4…e5, follows our first opening principle, controlling the center with a pawn. The pawns on e4 and e5 both control key central squares. The Queens and King-side Bishops are given room to develop. On move two (2. Nf3), White correctly develops (with tempo) the King-side Knight to its most active square, f3 where it attacks the e5 pawn while putting pressure on the d4 square. Tempo comes about because the Knight is attacking the pawn on e5, forcing Black to defend it which Black does with 2…Nc6. Black’s last move is a sound and logical choice because it develops a minor piece that not only protects the e5 pawn but also attacks the d4 square. Remember, Black needs to try and equalize the position and this move does just that! On move three, 3. d4, White attacks Black’s centralize pawn on e4, forcing Black to capture the d4 pawn. Does Black have to capture back?

If Black does something other than capture, instead developing the King-side Knight to f6, White can further gain tempo by playing either 4. d5, attacking the Queen-side Knight which forces it off of c6, or playing 4. dxe5 which attacks the King-side Knight, forcing it off of f6. Either way, White gains tempo and dislodges one of Black’s Knights off of an important square. Therefore, Black has to capture the pawn in order to avoid becoming further behind in tempo and sound position.

After Black captures the d4 pawn with 3…exd4, White can capture the pawn with 4. Nxd4. This moves works because the White Knight on d4 is protected by the White Queen on d1. If Black were to capture the White Knight on d4, the White Queen would simply capture it back which wouldn’t be good for Black from a positional point of view. Remember, as Black you want to keep things equalized. Therefore, Black plays 4…Nf6, attacking White’s e4 pawn. White develops a minor piece with 5. Nc3 which protects the pawn. Notice that White develops rather than attack the Knight on f6 with 5. e5. Attacking the Knight with a pawn would be silly since the c6 Knight would simply capture the attacking White pawn. Think development rather than all out attacking during the opening. Of course, White moving the pawn to d4 earlier is an attacking move, but one which was made to contest or stop Black’s attempt to control the center. There’s a difference between the two!

Black now plays 5…Bb4, pinning the c3 Knight to the King on e1. This move by Black stops White’s c3 Knight from being able to protect the e4 pawn due to the absolute pin. Black develops a new piece into the game while preventing White’s previously developed minor piece from doing its job, acting as a bodyguard for the e4 pawn. White plays 6. Nxc6. This does break an opening principle, not moving the same piece during the opening, but there’s a reason for breaking this principle. It should be duly noted that principles are not rules and can be broken if the reason is sound. Here, removing the Black c6 Knight, doubles up Black’s pawns on the c file after 6…bxc6. Note that using the d6 pawn to capture back on c6 would lead to a potential trade of Queens in which the Black King would have to capture back, forfeiting the right to castle. It also allows White to play 7. e5, attacking the f6 Knight. This last move by White is dangerous because Black moves the attacked Knight to e4 (7…Ne4) where it teams up with the Black Bishop on b4, attacking the pinned Knight. There are a few ways to deal with this last move by Black, such as 8. Qd4 which not only adds a second defender on the c3 Knight but protects the vulnerable f2 square from a potential fork by the Black Knight on e4.

Then there’s a more modern approach in which White goes after Black sooner. Take a look:

In this variation, which I first met on a wonderful Andrew Martin DVD on the Scotch, White immediately goes after the center with 2. d4 rather than developing the Knight on move two. After Black captures the d4 pawn (2…exd4), White develops the Knight with 3. Nf3. When Black plays 3…Nf6, White hits back with 4. e5, forcing the Black Knight off of the f6 square. When Black plays 4…Ne4, White captures the pawn on d4 with the Queen (5. Qxd4), attacking the Black Knight and covering the f2 square so Black can’t sacrifice the Knight by capturing on f2 which would fork the King-side Rook and Queen.

All in all, the Scotch is a great way to teach aggressive play to beginners. I highly recommend playing around with this opening, really experimenting with it, seeing what works and what doesn’t. You should always tinker with openings. While learning the mainlines and variations is sound, experiment a little. Be a scientist and explore the board. While you’ll find that many of your ideas can be refuted, you might find a little something in the way of a move that will surprise your opponent. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Parental Warning

This is more of a cautionary warning directed at chess parents and potential chess parents. I had an article written about the Scotch Opening all ready to submit, but a posting on Nigel’s Facebook page this weekend derailed my plans. What kind of social media posting could yield such power? A posting about a young chess player (eight years old) who was hit on the head for losing a junior level tournament. This absolutely caused my blood to boil. I told a friend of mine, who’s a former bank robber having made the FBI’s big time wanted list (he’s a college professor now, teaching writing not robbing) what he thought. He thought this to be a worse crime than armed robbery. Saying I was extremely angry regarding this issue was an understatement. So once again I am writing one of my open letters to the parents of young chess players. Think of it as a public service announcement regarding adults behaving badly, which alarmingly is becoming the norm at junior chess tournaments rather than the exception.

I suspect the root of this problem, parents and/or coaches verbally or physically belittling chess children, has to do with the adult in question’s shortcomings. In my experience as a coach who has spent a great deal of time in tournament halls watching my students/ teams play, I’ve noticed that one of the worst offenders is the parent who played chess in their youth. Typically, the adult in question was a decent junior player back in the day. They played many junior tournaments, laying claim to many a trophy. However, when they finally made it to the big regional tournament they went down in flames or worse yet, earned second or third place rather than first. For them, it was a matter of coming close but not close enough to take home the big prize. No matter though because they now have a son or daughter who can restore their family honor by making it to the regional tournament and grab that first place trophy. Yes, dear parent, you couldn’t do it so you’re now going to get your child to do it at all costs! Of course, you could substitute the parent who didn’t get first place in their elementary school’s finger painting competition with the parent who didn’t win the chess tournament as well. The point here is that some parents live vicariously through their children, forcing their children to right some silly wrong from their childhood. The result is the same, humiliation and suffering on the part of the child so the parent can rewrite their own history. This is how we lose potentially good players early on!

I’ve seen some adult behavior at tournaments that was borderline abuse and it angers me like nothing else. In my mind, it’s on par with beating an animal. Real adults simply don’t act this way. Case in point: I was at a junior tournament with one of my teams and had the opportunity to watch a parent as well as a coach have a complete meltdown when their team ended up in third place. Just placing at a large tournament is grounds for celebration but not for the team in question. Both the parent, who was acting as assistant coach, and the coach himself preceded to scream at the third place team. “You know why you’re losers? Because real winners come in first place, not third.” That was one of many memorable comments made by adults to a group of children ranging between nine and twelve years of age. Of course, there were lots of tears to be had by the third place team and not one of the other parents said anything to defend their children. Yes, I had something to say to say to the coach and parent in question (something I cannot repeat here due to rather colorful language, but not said within earshot of the children). Essentially, I told the two adult miscreants that they aught to be ashamed of themselves and they probably wouldn’t try the same tirade with other adults for fear of getting punched in the face. This is just the tip of the iceberg regarding things I’ve seen at junior tournaments.

Here’s the deal parents. You are not your children and should not try to rewrite your own competitive history by using your children as personal pawns so to speak. Let them find out about winning and losing in their own way. Belittling a child does absolutely nothing to support their interest in chess, in fact, just the opposite. A fair number of potentially good junior players learn to hate the game of chess thanks to their parents and coaches. Just because you lost the regional junior chess championship doesn’t mean you get behave like an insane dictator out for revenge. You lost so you have to accept it. Give your son or daughter a chance to win or lose on their own. They might not win this year but there’s always next year. Kindness and understanding will go a lot farther towards fostering a life long interest for chess.

Then there’s the parent who plays a little chess at their local chess club and insists on doing your job for you. This, coincidentally, is usually the same parent who lost the junior regional championship in their youth. When your car breaks down, you take it to the mechanic to be repaired. The mechanic is the expert at fixing cars which is why you pay him. You don’t stand around and tell him how to go about his business (if you do I guarantee he’ll charge you more). Therefore, if you’re a parent and you’re paying a professional chess coach to provide lessons, don’t tell the coach how he or she should teach. I have this problem from time to time.

The biggest problem with the “I’m going to help you teach chess” parent are the bad habits they’ve instilled in their children. I had a student whose father made a career of winning games against weaker players by employing tricks and traps in the opening. This translated to my student only being able to spring dubious traps on unsuspecting opponents in order to win. When the young man faced off against stronger players he lost because he was more interested in being a trickster rather than learning principled play. Many of my student’s bad habits come from well meaning family members. I probably spend just as much time breaking my student’s bad habits as I do teaching them good chess habits. It’s much easier to develop good habits than it is to break bad habits. Parents should leave the chess teaching to the professional. Seriously parents, you wouldn’t tell your surgeon how to take your appendix out during an emergency appendectomy so don’t do your chess teacher’s job.

Parents, you are the immediate role model that sets the standard for your children. When you act like a uncouth Barbarian your child thinks it acceptable. Don’t be that parent! Of course, the majority of my chess parents are wonderful, always being supportive of their children, win, lose or draw! They let their children learn life’s lessons on their own. To those winning is everything parents I say this: Your son or daughter might have what it takes to become a Grandmaster. However, you’ll never know if your behavior drives them away from the game. Treating your children badly because they don’t take home the first place trophy only makes you look bad. You had your chance now give your child a chance. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week when I’ll post my Scotch Opening article!

Hugh Patterson

Know Your Enemy

Actually, your opponent! Here’s what I mean: When given the chance you should learn a bit about your opponent or potential opponent’s playing abilities. Professionals do this to a high degree. Why should you? Think of it like this: Imagine you’re going to drive in an automobile race of some sort. You’re given no details whatsoever and show up with your old 1983 Honda only to discover that it’s a Formula One race. In chess, we study our opponent’s game so we know what we’re going up against. Why should you bother as an average player? Read on!

Professionals players carefully study the games of those they’re going to play. They learn what openings their opponent’s are going to employ, type of position (open, closed, etc) favored by the opposition and so on. The professional does research. They do so in order to increase their ability to win when facing a particular opponent of equal or greater strength. We all do this outside of chess. When you’re facing a test in school, you study or prepare for it. When you drive somewhere you’ve never been before, you prepare by studying a map.

Of course, it can be a bit more difficult for beginners to prepare for a game against other beginners because of a lack of recorded games. Serious players play in rated tournaments which mean that their games are recorded. By accessing those games, one can study the playing style of a potential opponent. Since beginners often don’t record their games, it’s more difficult to assess their playing abilities. However, there are a few things you can do to get to know your opponent.

The first thing to do is to hang out at a place they play, be it a chess club or local cafe, and watch their games. Of course, you don’t want to march up and announce “I want to play you so I’m here to study your games.” However, it’s not unusual for people to stand around watching chess games, so don’t feel uncomfortable doing so. I watch potential opponents play before I sit down with them. It’s called doing your homework or due diligence.

Watching an opponent playing is only half the battle. The other half is determining the details, such as the openings they favor for both black and white. Make a mental note of the opening they employ. Then go home and study that opening. This gets you prepared from move one. Most beginning or novice players tend to keep it simple, playing openings that don’t require a lot of preparation. However, if they try to tackle more complex openings such as the Ruy Lopez or Sicilian Defense, they often leave themselves vulnerable due to their lack of knowledge regarding the complexity of these openings. This translates to potential mistakes on their part. Note their weaknesses, such as when they make an off or bad move during the opening and how the opposition responds. Every small crumb of knowledge can be put together to create an advantage.

During the middle game, watch to see if they employ sound tactics. This can be a telling sign! If the player your watching is better at tactics than you, plan on trying to keep the position closed in order to remove any potential tactical positions. The key here is to close the position. Too often, novice players who find tactical plays can only do so when the position is wide open because they tend to favor long distance pieces such as the Bishops, Rooks and Queens. Make a mental note of what piece or pieces they favor. Every chess player has a piece of two they favor because they know how to use them well. It’s all in the details!

Endgame play is an area most novice players have limited experience with because most of their games conclude long before the endgame. I’ve seen players take down a stronger opponent in the endgame because of this. Novice players tend to concentrate on middle-game tactics. Therefore, if you get the opportunity to trade down to an endgame, provided you’ve done some endgame studies, do so.

Then there’s the psychological aspect to the opposition. Is your potential opponent a show off who takes wild chances? You’d be surprised how many novice players can succumb to their egos by taking big risks. The premature attack is a common mistake made by novice players. They launch an attack on the f7 (or f2) pawn thinking that trading a Bishop and Knight for your f pawn and Rook (after castling King-side) is good for them during the opening. Don’t be afraid to make that trade of material because you will have the minor piece majority which is crucial during the opening. If your potential opponent launches early attacks, make a mental note of the pieces used so you can look for this pattern early when you play them.

Watch for tricks and traps when observing games. Tricks and traps are the bread and butter of beginning or novice players. When you see a player executing a trick or trap, note the set up. When you get home, research it and see how to avoid it. More often than not, the player employing the trick or trap will use it repeatedly so expect it when you sit down to play them. I don’t suggest learning your own tricks and traps to use against them because good principled play trumps tricky play. However, you should know how to defend against tricks and traps.

You can learn a great deal from watching the games of others, not just top level games but the games of those players you encounter. Just because someone isn’t a titled player doesn’t mean they can’t come up with some stunning ideas that will help you. You have to keep your eyes open! I watch the games of my students not just because I’m their teacher and coach but because they sometimes come up with great stuff that I can use in my own playing. So your homework for the week is to go out and do some scouting. Go to your local chess haunt and observe someone. See what you can learn from a game or two of theirs. Do some prep work and then challenge them. You’d be surprised at how much it will help. Here’s a game until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Into the Crystal Ball

Have you ever played someone who seems to anticipate every move you make as if they have a crystal ball that allows them a glimpse into the game’s future? It happens a great deal to beginners who sit mystified at the chessboard, wondering how their opponent had developed such an impressive skill. When they learn that their opponent can think many moves ahead, beginners start to believe that their skilled opponents are thinking ten or eleven moves ahead. This leaves the beginner, who can barely think a move ahead, feeling as if there’s no future for them as far as improvement is concerned. What it I told you that you only have to think one and a half moves ahead to improve your chess? Would you, the beginner, feel better about your journey towards improvement?

I first came across the concept of thinking one and a half moves ahead when I acquired a copy of Power Chess for Kids by Charles Hertan. In the book, students are taught to think one and a half moves ahead as their starting point. One and a half moves ahead translates to the move you make, your opponent’s best response and your follow up (move) to your opponent’s best response. I quickly incorporated this method into my teaching program and it has worked extremely well.

However, it sounds easier than it actually is to employ this method when you’re first starting your chess career. Here’s why: When you ask a beginner what their plan is, they’ll more often than not tell you that they’re going to make this move and their opponent is going to make that move which will be followed up by another move and so on. The beginner proudly states that he or she is thinking three or four moves ahead. Except there’s one big problem, the beginner is thinking of opposition moves they want their opponent to play, not the moves their opponent is actually going to play. There’s a difference here. Your opponent is simply not going to play into your hands by making the moves you want them to make. They’re going to make moves (hopefully for them) that derail your plan! After all, they want to win as well!

Therefore, if you think in these terms you’re rarely, if ever, going to win games. When you consider that first move in our one and a half move system, you need to think of a sound move from the start. For example, young players love Scholar’s Mate. In four moves they can deliver checkmate with the light squared Bishop (white) on c4 and the white Queen delivering the mate on f7 (either via f3 or h5). If the person manning the black pieces is oblivious to this fast checkmate they’ll lose in four moves. However, anyone with a bit of playing experience can easily deflect this mating attempt. Thus, playing for Scholar’s Mate is a good example of making moves in our system that are unrealistic regarding sound play.

Move two, our opponent’s response to our first move is the first thing we need to consider when plotting our own first move. When considering a candidate move, we should pretend to switch places with our opponent and see if we can come up with as a crushing response. Doing so allows us to test the validity of our potential move before committing to it. If you don’t do this, you won’t get far. It’s that simple. You have to consider the strongest response to your potential or candidate move before making it. Doing so allows you to see the position through the eyes of the opposition which can shed light on potential problems on both sides of the board. Chess is all about seeing the position at hand from both sides and solving problems. Look at every pawn and piece when considering a response to your move idea because you’re less likely to miss that killer opposition reply. It takes time to do this but you’ll develop patience which is key!

Patience is a critical factor here! Patience may be one of the hardest things a beginner has to learn. It literally takes time to develop patience and he or she who takes his or her time when playing will do best in the long run. Beginners have a tendency to play fast. If one’s opponent makes a fast move, the beginner will often respond in kind, thinking of this quick response as a way to show their opponent that “I’m just as smart as you and can play just as fast.” Wrong! Just because someone decides to drive past you on the highway at 110 miles per hour doesn’t mean you should step on the gas pedal to match their speed. Common sense says just because someone does something foolish doesn’t mean you should! Take your time when examining potential moves and responses by your opponent.

Where things get a bit tricky is when you have to come up with the response to your opponent’s move. It’s the starting point for understanding the art of the combination. Most tactical plays are based on a combination of moves. While you do sometimes fall into a situation in which a tactical play, such as a fork or skewer, comes out of nowhere because your opponent made a poor move, you usually have to set up a tactical play. Therefore, getting good at coming up with that third move, your response to your opponent’s move, is extremely important. It’s called follow through!

During the opening, your first moves might be simply to develop a pawn or piece to a good square. Let’s say you want to develop your Queen-side Knight to c3. You eye the c3 square as a great place for the Knight. Then you think of your opponent’s response which might be using his or her King-side Bishop (moving it to b4) to pin your Knight on c3 to your King on e1. Simply knowing this pin is possible goes a long way towards helping you determine whether you want to make this move. You then think to yourself, if I move my Knight to c3 and my opponent uses their King-side Bishop to pin the Knight to the King, what are my options, my best response? You examine the board and see that you can Castle out of the pin. This is the way to employ the one and a half moves ahead concept.

This thinking can be applied to the middle and endgame as well. In the middle game, it’s all about tactics for the novice player. Therefore, you need to take this approach from a tactical perspective. If I make this move, the start of the tactical combination, how can my opponent stop my tactical play. Don’t think in terms of I’ll do this and he’ll do exactly as I want. Your opponent is going to do everything humanly possible to stop your tactical idea. If, after look at all your opponent’s material, you see that he or she can’t stop the tactical play, carry on. If you see that your idea can be rebutted, come up with another one and a half move plan.

In the endgame, things become a little clearer with less material on the board. However, just because there are fewer pieces on the board doesn’t mean things get easier. Endgame calculations, unlike middle-game calculations, can be a lot deeper, meaning players are thinking a lot more than one and a half moves into the future. Beginners should still employ the one and a half move system rather than try to calculate five moves ahead. Keep it simple until you gain more calculation experience.

There’s only one way to develop your ability to calculate moves ahead and that is experience, playing a lot of chess. However, if you use the one and a half move system, you’ll get better at calculating a lot faster. The point here is that you have to have a plan of action with every move. If you have no plan, you might as well be giving your opponent free turns because that’s what the opposition will garner with every bad move made, a free opportunity for them to further develop their pieces or launch a solid attack. Patience is your best friend when playing chess. Good positions must be carefully shaped the way in which a sculptor creates art from a lump of clay or stone. Always put yourself into the opposition’s shoes when considering a response to your move and make sure you have a follow up. Do this and you’ll be playing better chess in no time! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Why Learn Openings?

A young student of mine asked me why he should learn a number of different openings rather than simply apply sound opening principles. On the surface, you might dismiss this question as rather silly, but he brings up a good point. When learning how to play chess, we learn that there are specific principles to be followed during the opening phase of the game. Beginners are taught the idea of allowing opening principles to guide them when they’re not sure what move to make. It’s easy to see why beginners might think that the opening principles are the cure all for studying opening theory. Of course, opening principles will take the beginner a long way on their journey towards improvement. However, they will only take you so far.

One of the problems that keeps many players from studying opening theory is it’s complexity. Let’s face it, even the most enthusiastic improving player will become glassy eyed when faced with reading and playing through the ECO (Encyclopedia of Chess Openings). I’ve seen beginners become catatonic upon opening this book for the first time. It might as well be written in Sanskrit as far as the novice player is concerned! I know plenty of decent casual players who don’t know a lot of opening theory, but manage to apply opening theory and reach a playable middle-game. However, it is important to know a bit about opening theory if you plan on playing well over the long run. With my students, I feed them a little opening theory at a time rather than shoving the entire ECO down their throats at once. So what’s the big deal with knowing openings and opening theory?

Imagine if every move your opponent made during the first ten to fifteen moves (the opening) gave you a clue as to what their next move would be. You’d essentially know what was coming and could counter that future move with a good move of your own. Now image that each move your opponent makes during the opening leaves you drawing a blank except in regards to opening principles. I think I’d rather be in the scenario in which each move provides a clue! Understanding a little opening theory allows you to know what’s coming next from your opponent.

You don’t have to know every move, both mainline and variations, of a specific opening. You just have to know the basics, say the first ten moves if you’re a beginner. If you know the first ten moves of ten openings, five for black and five for white, you’ll have a much easier time navigating the starting phase of the game. This means learning ten openings and the first ten moves of each opening. It is nowhere near as hard as the beginner might think. Here’s how I teach this idea:

I start with the Italian Opening for two reasons. First, it clearly illustrates the basic opening principles. Second, it can transpose into the Evan’s Gambit, which I also teach. I then introduce the Ruy Lopez because of move three, 3. Bb5. We compare the placement of the Bishops, c4 in the Italian and b5 in The Ruy Lopez. The idea here is to build on the foundation of 1. e4, 2. Nf3, so that learning and remembering move order in the various openings is easier. Next up, The Scotch, again building on those first two moves. Since I work with beginners and improving players, we tend to avoid certain openings due to their complexity, which is over the heads of less experienced players. Next we learn the King’s and Queen’s Gambit in that order. Since my students have met the Evan’s Gambit, they know why we sacrifice a pawn and understand the basic nature of Gambit play. Now we look at openings for black.

We start with 1…e5, working on maintaining equilibrium against white. Too often, beginners playing black will either play too timidly or launch premature attacks. Therefore, we learn how to balance the position into the middle-game. We don’t define this first opening but rather employ principled opening play. Then we look at the French Defense and the Caro Kann. Only then do we look at the King’s Indian Defense. The reason for this order is because learning the King’s Indian first can leave students playing too defensively, not going after the center at the right time. Lastly we look at the Sicilian which takes the most amount of time due the numerous lines. I recommend that my students don’t play the Sicilian until they really understand the other openings for black I teach.

When I teach these openings, we learn three moves at a time. With the Ruy Lopez, for example, we learn 1. e4, 2. Nf3 and then 3. Bb5. White’s third move is important to grasp or understand regarding the opening principles. In the Italian Opening, the Bishop is placed on c4 (3. Bc4) which directly influences the center. When the Bishop is placed on b5, it indirectly effects the center because, if white exchanges the Bishop on b5 with the Knight on c6, black’s e5 pawn is no longer defended. The b5 Bishop therefore uses the threat of exchanging itself for the black Knight on c6 as an example of proper opening principles, control (indirectly) of the center.

We then look at the next three moves in each opening, going over how those moves adhere to the opening principles. Each subset of three moves is gone over with the previous three moves until my students not only know the move order of each opening but the underlying principles or mechanics behind them. In the end, my student learn basic opening theory while strengthening their understanding of opening principles. While you don’t have to memorize the ECO, having a basic knowledge of opening theory will take you a lot farther in your chess careers. Try my suggestion. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

When to Walk Away

Professional poker players, as the old song goes, “know when to hold them and when to fold them,” meaning that the seasoned card player knows when to stop playing and walk away if lady luck is nowhere to be found. They know when to cut their losses, step away from the poker table and come back to play another time. This is a lesson all chess players should take to heart. Chess players, from beginner to professional, should know when to take a break from playing and come back refreshed and anew, no longer burnt out. It is much easier to burn out by studying and playing too much chess than you might think.

People who really get into the game of chess can easily become obsessed by it. It’s a bit ironic that you can learn the basic rules of the game in an afternoon yet spend a lifetime trying to master it and in the end, never truly master the game. Yet we, who are fully invested in the game, still travel the often rocky road on our journey towards mastery, cherishing every obsessive bump and roadblock. Some people can play the game casually, such as playing when on holiday or a couple of times a month with friends. Then there are those who fall into the blinding allure of the game’s complexities. We are the chess obsessed or near obsessed. For us, it’s an all or nothing love affair!

Of course, everyone who works to get better at chess through study and practice isn’t obsessed. However, it is very easy to fall under the game’s spell to a point at which it’s all you do. Case in point, myself! I’m an obsessive personality. While obsession can be unhealthy, it’s worked to my advantage(so far). When I find something of interest, be it chess, music or language studies, I throw myself into it full throttle. It’s an every waking hour love affair! Becoming consumed with something allows me to make great strides towards mastering that something. Of course chess mastery is still a long ways off but I get closer with each passing week. I suspect my tombstone will read “He was so close, sort of…”

People who master chess have to put a great deal of time or effort into reaching their goal, mastery. This means that they’re studying during every waking hour. While this gets you from point “a” to point “b” fairly quickly, the side effects of constant studying can be terminal burn out which leads to losing interest in the game. The problem with burning out is that you might burn out to a point at which you simply stop playing chess altogether. Even if you still play when burnt out, you’re apt to start losing games because your heart (ability to concentrate) isn’t into it as it once was. Either way, you’ll want to avoid burning out. Therefore, I’d like to offer a few suggestions to avoid being in this situation.

First off, maintain another interest that keeps you from spending all your time at the chessboard. Physical activities are an excellent choice because physical activity, such as anything that provides you with exercise, actually helps your chess playing. This means that you’d be avoiding burn out while helping your game. How do physical activities help your game? Simply put, anything that provides exercise helps to get your brain functioning at a higher level due to your body’s biochemistry. If not a physical activity, try something that takes you away from the chessboard such wood working or any other craft that has your working with your hands and brain. The key point here is not to engage in another interest or hobby that is similar to chess, such as playing Go. If you decide to play Go as your outside interest you’ll be putting yourself into the same frame of mind required for chess and probably still manage to become burnt out (probably three times as fast). Taking up the game of Go while trying to master chess is akin to deciding to stop your obsessive pulling out of scalp hair with your left hand by using your right hand instead. Find a another hobby that isn’t like chess!

If you’ve reached the point at which you’re starting to burn out by overplaying chess, walk away immediately. You don’t have to walk away forever, just for a period of time long enough to regroup. Only you will know how long that is. It could be a month, it could be a year. However, it’s better to take break than loose all interest in the game!

It’s tough to walk away or take a break from something you’ve put so much time into. After all, you feel as if you’ve come this far and giving up now means you loose the ground you’ve gained. However, you’ll loose even more ground if you continue to play because your heart and, more importantly, your mind won’t be into your game. You’ll get extremely frustrated and fall into the downward spiraling void of no return. More often than not, by taking a break from playing, you’ll come back to the game stronger than ever because you’ve relaxed!

Because teaching and coaching chess is what I do for a living, I cannot take long breaks from the game. Therefore, I take short mandatory breaks from playing so I can regroup or re-energize myself. I absolutely take the month of August off, with the exception of writing this weekly column. It doesn’t matter if I’m feeling great chess-wise going into August. When August rolls around, I’m on a chess vacation. During the rest of the year, I take a week off from playing and studying here and there, even though I still teach and coach. Just taking this time off, here and there, keeps me from getting burnt out. Trust me, when your life is consumed by chess it is easy to get burnt out! You really need to take breaks regardless of how you think mastery is achieved!

We often think of the chess player working towards mastery as an individual hunched over the chessboard day in and day out, an image created via the mythology of mastery. Any film or book about the road to mastery will depict the master to be as an individual who has literally sold his or her soul in an effort to reach their goal. Yes, we have to put more time into our journey towards mastery than someone who just wants to casually play chess. However, even the master in training needs to step back from time to time. There are countless examples of chess players who have literally lost their minds in their quest to master the game. While a little obsession is key to mastering any endeavor, you have to be careful walking along the edge of the cliff. One wrong step and you’re over the edge!

When I first started playing guitar, I was obsessed. On one side of the coin, I was able to be performing in clubs a lot faster than those who took a casual approach, I literally gave up everything else in my life. As a teenager, it worked. As an adult with responsibilities, this kind of obsessive thinking would have left me homeless! When you’re an adult, you have to consider other factors such as earning a living and paying your bills. Balance is the key here.

Slow and steady really does win the race. It’s much better to approach your studies in a slower manner, not trying to mentally digest everything at once. Key ideas and complicated concepts are much more easily mastered when you take on one idea or concept at a time. Master a single idea then move onto the next. Take your time and you won’t be apt to burn out. I know it’s been said that it requires 10,000 hours to master something but setting a goal to do 40 of those 10,000 hours each week is unrealistic. First off, if you’re an adult with responsibilities, you’ll not be able to keep this schedule up (although I hear they have great chess in debtor’s prison). Even if you don’t have to work, you’re brain will not be able to concentrate for long periods of time. You have to build up your ability to concentrate, slowly. It’s like going to the gym. You won’t be able to lift the heaviest weights until you build up your muscles on the lighter weights. Take your time. Take breaks. Avoid burning out. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Geometry and Chess

Chess is a game that relies on geometry, namely lines. The chessboard itself is composed of sixty-four alternating light and dark squares. The board can be further divided into lines, more specifically, ranks, files and diagonals. It is imperative that the beginner become intimately acquainted with these three types of lines in order to play chess well. The beginner often neglects the importance geometry plays regarding the game itself. We’ll start this introduction to the lines found on the chessboard by briefly describing each of the three, starting with the ranks.

Ranks, numbering one through eight, run to the left and right on the chessboard. The first rank starts at the bottom of the board and is where the White pieces start the game. The second rank is directly above the first and is occupied by White’s pawns. The ranks continue sequentially, with the Black pawns occupying the seventh rank and the Black’s pieces occupying the eighth rank. The board is cut in half between the fourth and fifth ranks (Whit’s side being ranks 1 through 4 and Black’s side being ranks 5 through 8). If you’re using a tournament board or mat, you’ll see the rank’s numbers printed on the left and right sides of the board.

Files run up and down the board forming columns and like the ranks, are composed of eight squares each. The files are designated by the letters “a” through “h.” The letters on a typical tournament board are found on the top and bottom edges of the board. Thus ranks run left to right and files run up and down on the chessboard. The “a” file is on the left side of the board and the “h” file is on the right side of the board.

Lastly, we have the diagonal, a line beginners often have trouble with. Simply put, a diagonal is a line of identically colored squares that are grouped together at an angle. An example of a diagonal are the eight squares of identical color that start at the a1 square and end at the h8 square. Just follow the squares; a1, b2, c3, d4, e5, f6, g7 and h8. If you’re new to the game, become accustom to each grouping of identically colored squares that makes up each of the board’s 26 diagonals.

As your chess career develops and you further study the game, you’ll come across the words “open” and “closed” in tandem with the word “line” or “lines.” Let’s take a closer look, starting with an open line:

In the simplest terms, a line (either a rank, file or diagonal) is open if there’s no pawn or piece occupying that line. In the above example, the e file is open. This brings us to an important concept the beginner must embrace, control of the open rank, file or diagonal.

If a rank, file or diagonal is open and you have the ability to take control of it, you absolutely should. In our example, the e file is completely open. The Rook on a1 is not yet activated. Remember, all you material (especially your pieces) needs to be activated early on. Therefore, activating or moving a piece to a square that allows that piece to participate in the game is crucial for victory. Thus, moving the a1 Rook to the open e file gives that Rook something important to do. What’s so important about controlling an open rank, file or diagonal? Controlling, in this case the open e file, means that the opposition (Black) has to think twice about moving any of his or her material onto that file for fear of losing that material. In our example, White, temporarily owns the e file. This brings us to a brief discussion regarding just who can control an open rank, file or diagonal as well as the terms “open” and “closed” games.

Ranks and files are eight squares in length while diagonals run from two to eight squares in length (depending on the diagonal). Note we designate diagonals by their starting and ending squares. The dark squared diagonal starting on a1 and ending on h8 is referred to as the a1-h8 diagonal (eight squares in length) while the diagonal starting on the a7 square and ending on the b8 square is referred to as the a7-b8 diagonal (two squares in length).

Again, it’s important to know just who can control these two to eight square angled lines on the board (diagonals), as well as the ranks and files. Enter our long distance attackers! For diagonals, we have the Bishop and Queen. For the ranks and files it’s the Rooks and Queen. These three pieces are the only material that can control open or semi open lines. It’s all about the long distance attackers. Whats even better about the long distance attacker is that they can control squares on the opposition’s side of the board from the safety of their own side of the board! Short distance fighters, the pawn, Knight and King, don’t have this awesome super power! So, the Rook or Queen can control ranks and files while the Bishop or Queen can control the diagonals. Notice the Queen can control all three, ranks, files and diagonals. No wonder she’s so powerful! Now to the concept of open and closed games.

There are four designations here; open, semi open, closed and semi closed games. It’s important for beginners to understand the four types of games, especially the difference between open and closed games. What’s so important about knowing these four types of games? Within a single game of chess, the position can switch from one type to another within a few moves, so knowing what each of these positions means will help the player to know what to do in a given situation. Each type of game or position requires a different type of strategical or positional thinking. Let’s start by looking at the two most basic types, open and closed games.

In an open game, the board is just that, wide open. This translates to there being a great deal of space (open or empty squares) for the pieces to not only move to but control. Thus, long distance pieces, such as the Bishop, Rook and Queen rule the board. Open games mean open space or squares devoid of pawns and pieces. In an open game you have room to attack from a distance. You also, due to long distance pieces ruling the board, have greater opportunity for tactical plays.

Closed games can be thought of as the opposite of open games. Rather than having open space where your Bishop, Rook and Queen can control the position, the board is shut down or locked up with pawns and pieces. Think of a closed game as being stuck in holiday traffic, a state of gridlock in which only a flying car would solve your problem. Long distance attackers become nearly worthless when there’s no room to move. We call “room to move” mobility is chess and a closed game or position gives our Bishop, Rook and Queen little in the way of mobility. Pieces loose their power when they lack mobility. Fortunately, we have the pawn and Knight to help us out when things are tight or closed.

I just mentioned how great a flying car would be when stuck in traffic. You could simply push a button and your car would rise above the traffic and your problem would be solved. In chess there’s a piece that can do just that and we call him the Knight! Let’s take a closer look at our best friend in a closed game or position.

The Knight is the only piece that moves and captures in a non-linear way. While its “L” shaped movement is difficult for the beginner to learn and master, it is well worth the effort to master it because the Knight has a power no other piece has, the ability to jump over other pieces (and pawns). This ability to jump over traffic on the chessboard makes it a dangerous weapon in closed games. You can see how this would be a great advantage when there’s gridlock on the board!

The pawn is another great weapon in closed games because of its low relative value. No piece is willing to stand by and let the lowly pawn capture it. Considering the pieces range in value from three to nine points, it’s no wonder that our one point friend can push away the the most power pieces! Of course, you need to make sure your little one point friend has some protection when he stands up to a piece. Pawns are a great weapon for closed games.

As for semi open and semi closed games, as beginners you can think about them in terms of positions that share the characteristics of true open and closed games. In these types of positions, use the piece that best suits the position at hand. You can use a closed game piece to open the board up a bit and then bring in your long distance pieces to attack or control lines. I’ll be going into greater detail about piece use in semi open and closed games in future articles.

For now remember, just as a mechanic or carpenter would tell you, you need the right tool for a specific job. Thus, in chess, you need the right tool to control the ranks, files and diagonals in open games and the right tool for those tight positions in closed games. I have a special wrench designed for tight places where a regular wrench wouldn’t fit in my tool kit. Don’t try and use a Rook to fix a tight position. That’s what you have the Knight for. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Things get a bit tight in this game but one player’s brought the right wrench, I mean piece, for the job. Enjoy.

Hugh Patterson

Just Because You Can…

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you actually should! Standing on the side of a busy road, you wouldn’t simply run out into traffic blindfolded and hoping for the best. Sure, you could do it but the results would be disastrous! The beginner often takes this same approach to chess, doing something even though the game’s sound and solid principles suggest doing otherwise. Take the capturing of material.

Beginners love to capture material for a plethora of reasons. Of course, the more experienced player will approach the acquisition of opposition pawns and pieces cautiously, weighing the pros and cons of capturing before doing so! On the other hand, the beginner has some preconceived notions as to why capturing every pawn and piece makes sense, ignoring that old chess adage “don’t capture material unless it helps your position!” We’ll start this exploration into the potential disadvantages of madly capturing material with every chance you get by looking at the beginner’s mindset.

The novice player is taught, by chess teaching characters such as myself, that a material advantage can be decisive. After all, if you’re up a Queen up (having both your own Queen in play and your opponent’s Queen in pocket, so to speak), you’ve eliminated a very dangerous piece from your opponent’s arsenal. There’s no enemy Queen to swoop in and deliver a fast checkmate. Having four minor pieces in play going into the middle-game while your opponent only has two minor pieces sounds promising as well. Therefore, the beginner translates this idea of having a material advantage as free reign to capture opposition pawns and pieces at every opportunity. In theory, this sounds vaguely correct. However, there’s a huge practical void between theory and reality, namely position (in chess). Often, an experienced player will trade a piece of greater value for a piece of lesser value, or perhaps simply sacrifice a piece, in order to get a better position. If a Knight stands in the way of delivering a solid mating attack and you can trade a Rook (a piece of greater value than the Knight) for that Knight, then you should, says the experienced player. On the other hand, the beginner will simply look at this trade as a good one because her or she comes out ahead in the exchange (rather than in terms of clearing a line or removing a defender – real sound reasoning).

Therefore, the beginner should approach capturing and/or exchanging material by looking at the situation in terms of position. Of course, examining a position carefully and fully understanding the potential ramifications of the capture or exchange of material and how it changes that position, comes with experience on the board and careful study off the board. In short, it’s a lot of trial and error effort on the part of the beginner!

It’s always a question of “will this capture or exchange help me or will it work against me, weakening my pawn and piece structure (my position)?” We’ll start with the even trade. By even trade, I mean just that, a Knight for a Knight, a Knight for a Bishop or a pawn for a pawn, etc. From a material viewpoint, the beginner will think “three points for three points, this is a dead even trade.” It may very well be, solely in terms of relative value, but it depends on the position at hand. Let’s look at a simple example, an exchange variation of the Ruy Lopez:

After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bb5…a6, 4. Bxc6…dxc6, the beginner might think “I’ve just traded a three point Bishop for a three point Knight, so it’s an even trade.” Considering only material value, excluding positional aspects, this is true. However, you must consider the position that results from the exchange to truly judge the real value of the trade. Before the trade of Bishop for Knight, the Knight on c6 defended the pawn on e5. With this exchange of minor pieces, there is no longer any protection for the Black e5 pawn and Black now has doubled pawns on the c file. The beginner, playing the White pieces, might make note of this and think the exchange to be absolutely in his or her favor. However, beginners don’t always see the entire positional picture. This means they might not consider the increase in Black’s control of territory because the Bishop on c8 and the Queen on d8 both have more room to move and thus greater access/control of the board (mobility). Black has also maintained the Bishop pair. Therefore, it might have been better not to have exchanged minor pieces on move four but instead, moving the Bishop to a4 (the mainline).

Then there’s the “I can trade a piece of lower value for a piece of much greater value and win” school of thought. Take a look at the example below:

Here, we see a typical beginner’s opening trap that leads to a fast checkmate. It starts off with 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…d6. Black’s first problem arises from the idea that he or she can use a pawn to protect an already protected pawn (e5 has been protected by a minor piece, the Knight on c6). Better to develop more minor pieces who can control more space than a pawn! After White plays 4. Nc3, Black plays 4…Bg4, pinning the Knight on f3 to the Queen on d1. As we shall see, even such a powerful pin can lead to a dreadful positional demise. White plays 5. Nxe5, leaving the White Queen exposed to capture.

Now the beginner’s one sided, non positional thinking rears it’s ugly head. The beginner thinks “wow, I can capture the all powerful Queen and be far ahead in material which should lead to an easy win. All the beginner can see is the exposed Queen, not seeing the position for what it truly is, a fast checkmate for White! Black plays 5…Bxd1 and White puts the screws to Black’s now hopelessly weakened position with 6. Bxf7+, forcing the Black King off of it’s starting square (two attackers to Black’s one defender, the King, spells trouble with a capital “T”). Of course, Black now cannot castle the King to safety, but the worst is yet to come. Since the White Bishop is protected by the Knight on e5, the Black King cannot capture the attack piece and is forced to move to e7 with 6…Ke7 (the d7 square is covered by the e5 Knight). White hammers the final coffin nail in with 7. Nd5#.

The lesson in the above example is simple: Just because you can capture, in this case the Queen, doesn’t mean you should. Yes, you captured the powerful Queen but you lost the game! The Queen is an intoxicating piece to the beginner and its seemingly easy capture is often the basis for many a fast victory.

To remedy this problem, the beginner should always look at the entire board before considering the capture of opposition material. You should look at every pawn and piece belonging to your opponent and determine what squares those pawns and pieces are attacking. If you decide to capture an opposition pawn or piece, ask yourself if it weakens or strengthens your position. The weakening of a position is often difficult for the beginner to determine.

A position is weakened, for example, if you decide to capture an opposition pawn with a pawn only to have them capture it back with a minor piece that, after the capture, controls more space on the board. Sure, you just got a pawn for a pawn but your opponent got a pawn and greater control of the board. Greater spacial control, especially in the opening, leads to a stronger position. Lesser control means a weaker position. Always consider whether or not your opponent gets a better deal, from a positional viewpoint. In our Ruy Lopez example, two minor pieces were traded off but Black gained more spacial control due to the opening up of space for the c8 Bishop and d8 Queen.

You should always think in terms of how your opponent can improve their position through any capture or exchange of material before committing to any capture or exchange. Look at the position from your opponent’s side of the board before considering your side of the board. Good players will trade valuable material for less valuable material in an effort to open lines up (pathways to checkmate) and win the game, not because it’s fun to capture pawns and pieces! Just because a Queen appears to be free to capture doesn’t mean there’s not a steep price to be paid. It’s about position, not how material your have. Just because you can capture doesn’t mean you should. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. This games finds one player down a lot of material but he still manages to win, proving the point!

Hugh Patterson

It’s All About Timing

One difference between beginners and advanced players is their use of time. Advanced players make a point of wasting little time while beginners tend to waste a great deal of time. When I say beginners waste time, I’m not trying to be critical of the chess novice. Part of being a beginner is having to learn the game from the beginning which means learning by trial and error, making mistakes. As the beginner improves, they make fewer mistakes and have fewer problems during their games. One of the problems beginners have has to do with time or tempo.

Tempo is the way in which we measure time in chess. In chess, tempo refers to a single move. You can lose tempo or gain tempo depending on what you do during your turn or move. For example, in the opening game, if you move the same piece over and over again and your opponent develops a new piece with each move, you fall behind in tempo. Sound confusing? Let’s review what you should and shouldn’t do during the opening and see how it effects tempo.

During the opening phase of the game, your job is to control the center with a pawn, develop your minor pieces towards the center of the board, develop a new piece with each move, castle your King to safety and connect your Rooks. That’s what you should do. What you shouldn’t do is make too many pawn moves, bring your Queen out early and move the same piece over and over again. These are the things you should and shouldn’t do. How does this relate to tempo?

We know the name of the game during the opening is control of the board’s center. Since White moves first, it’s like having a free turn so you’re one tempo or ahead of Black. This means, if you’re controlling the Black pieces, that you cannot waste time and have to catch up or at least not loose any further tempo. White shouldn’t waste time either, especially being ahead in tempo from the game’s start! Let’s look at an example of a beginner’s game in which White wastes time or tempo.

White starts off correctly with 1. e4 followed by Black playing 1…e6, signifying The French Defense. When given the chance to place two pawns on central squares, White should always take advantage of this opportunity. However, White chooses instead to play 2. Bc4, which turns out to be a dreadful move after Black plays 2…d5, attacking the Bishop on c4. Since the pawn is worth one point and the Bishop three points, White decides to play 3. exd5, capturing with the unit of least value. Now we see White’s first real loss of tempo after 3…exd5. The Black pawn is protected by his Queen and, because of the difference in material value, White has to move the Bishop employing 4. Bb5+, another bad move. Why is it a bad move? Because Black simply blocks the check with 4…c6, forcing the Bishop to move once more! The White Bishop has moved three times so far. Two of those Bishop moves can be considered a free turn or move for Black. White has lost two tempi, one for each of the additional moves the Bishop made. That means Black is now ahead in tempo. Every bad move leads to a loss of tempo! It gets worse!

After 5. Ba4, Black logically develops the King-side Knight to f6 (5…Nf6). White brings the Queen out early with 6. Qf3. Black counters with 6…Bg4, attacking the White Queen and winning another gain in tempo because the Queen has to move, 7. Qg3. Notice the Knight on f6 protects the Black Bishop attacking the White Queen. Piece coordination is a must! Black’s tempo is growing greatly! White’s last move is proof of why we don’t bring our Queen out early! With 7…Bd6, Blacks gets to develop yet another piece while White’s poor Queen has to run with 8. Qh4. White’s position is getting worse and worse while Black freely develops his forces to active squares. Black’s next move, 8…Qe7+ attacks the White King.

The White King is forced to move to f1 with 9. Kf1 which means his majesty is now stranded, unable to castle. With 9…0-0, Black safely tucks his King away. At this point White is so behind in tempo that recovering from this dreadful position is nothing but a pipe dream! White tries to push Black back with 10. h3, attacking the Bishop, but little can be done to stop Black from winning! Black brings his Rook to e8 with 10…Re8, creating a battering ram aimed down the e file. White’s tries to hold back the attack with 11. f3 and Black responds with 11…Ne4. White thinks, “ah ha, I can trade Queens and reduce the attacking forces with 12. Qxe7. Rather than trade Queens, Black checks the White King with 12…Ng3+ and the White King goes on the run with 13. Ke1. Black now plays 13…Rxe7+, employing good timing in capturing the White Queen, delivering check and setting up the soon to be checkmate! The poor White King shuffles over to d1 with 14. Kd1, running away from the attck and Black plays 14…Nxh1. White again, tries to reduce the number of potential attackers with 15. fxg4 and Black ends White’s suffering with 15…Nf2#!

The problem for White was a great loss of tempo. Each time White had to move the same piece over and over again allowed Black the opportunity to introduce a new piece into the game which led to a swarm of attackers White couldn’t deal with. If you want to avoid being hopelessly behind in tempo, you have think carefully about you moves. White should have played 2. d4 rather than 2. Bc4. White also paid the price in full by bringing the Queen out early. The Queen is an easy mark for minor pieces and sadly, Black was able to develop new minor pieces while pushing the Queen around.

There’s a reason for the opening principles, namely, they work! Had White employed sound principles and avoided what you shouldn’t do during the opening, he might have fared better. Next time you play a game of chess, keep the idea of tempo in mind and use the game’s principles as if your life depended on them. Your chess game certainly does. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. These guys know their opening principles!

Hugh Patterson