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).

How to Read a Chess Book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Patterson

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Developing Focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Patterson

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Obsession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Patterson

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Databases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Patterson

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Rise of the Machines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Patterson

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When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth

Back in the day, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, improving one’s chess skills was a simple process in theory. Playing chess meant facing off against a human opponent because the silicon beast had yet to rear it’s ugly head. When I was a teenager, if you wanted to get better at chess you acquired a chess book and studied it. You then took your new found knowledge and tested it out on the chessboard. There was no training software or DVDs. Here’s what I had to do just to get a hold of one chess book in more primitive times:

Back in the late 1970s, I was making my mark on the world by playing guitar in a punk rock band (it was a very small mark). We played the majority of our early shows at the infamous Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino supper club that let anyone show up and commandeer the stage. The man who booked the shows, and subsequently paid the bands, was known for his stinginess. On any given night, my band would make $13.27 to be split three ways. To purchase a single chess book required playing at least three shows.

I decided to purchase by first chess book after I started playing against stronger opponent’s who were crushing me during the opening. Asking a family friend who played chess what I should to improve my opening play, he suggested that I go to the closest chess shop, which was two hours away in Berkeley California, and get a book on chess openings. He added that I should ask for a man whose last name was Lawless. Being a young punk rocker going by the name of Johnny Genocide, I assumed anyone with the last name of Lawless would be either a biker or a punk.

After sweating it out for three nights playing on stage while dodging beer bottles, I had saved enough money to cover the cost of public transportation, sales tax and the cost of the actual book (as long as it wasn’t more than $13.95). I got up early on that faithful day, geared up for an adventure and started the two hour trip to Berkeley California, home of that most aggravating of species, the old school hippy. As a young punk kid, the though of an entire city filled with long haired throwbacks to the 1960s was dismal at best. After suffering through a long train ride spent listening to the caterwauling of poorly trained buskers, I made it to Games of Berkeley or the Church of Chess as I called it.

Walking in, I quickly scanned the store looking for a punk guy or biker. A middle aged man looked up from the counter and then back down at his book. Seeing no one that fit the description my imagination had created, I walked up to the counter. “Hey, do you know a guy named Lawless?” “Yes,” replied the counter-man. “Is he around?” I asked. “That he is,” was all I got in the way of a reply. Undaunted, I continued my line of questioning. “Can you point him out to me?” The man looked up and said “I’m Lawless!” He appeared to be anything but lawless. I suspect this guy had never even gotten a parking ticket and his idea of breaking the law would be having a beer with lunch. Before I could utter another word be said “what do you want kid?” Still trying to get over the fact that this guy did not in anyway resemble his last name, all I could get out was “I need a book on chess openings.” He grunted something and pointed to a massive bookcase on his left.

Not only was the bookcase eight feet tall, it was eight feet wide and every single book on its shelves was about the opening game. There were hundreds of them. Three hundred and seventy three in stock to be exact. We’ll get to how I knew that number later on. Being a guy, I resolutely refused to ask for further help. Anyone with half a brain would have asked for further information. I decided that a real man would simply start rummaging through the books until he found what he was looking for. I grabbed the first book I saw. It was on the Nimzo Indian. I had no interest in indigenous peoples so I grabbed another book. The next book was The Complete Sicilian. Having no interest in Sicily, I kept going. The next book I pulled out left me speechless. It was titled, The Hedgehog. I suddenly felt as if an elaborate prank was being played on me. After all, shouldn’t books about chess openings have “chess openings” in large block letters in their title?

Sadly, I gave up and started the walk of shame back to Mr. Lawless. All men know that walk. It’s the sad shuffle we do when we realize that as men we don’t have all the answers to life’s questions. After clearing my throat a few times, the counter-man looked up. “Yes?” From his tone of voice, I suspect he was enjoying this moment but I would be proven wrong! In a defeated voice, I said “I need a really basic book on chess openings. With that he smiled and said “why didn’t you say so. Come with me.” We walked back to the massive bookcase and what he told me as we went through the books in the opening section changed my chess life.

On that day, I learned that all these strange book titles had something in common. They all described different ways of starting a chess game. If that wasn’t astonishing enough to my rather undeveloped mind, Mr. Lawless went on to say that every single book on those shelves were based on the same guiding principles. All I could say at that point was “wow, the opening most be pretty important and very complicated.” He smiled and told me I had just learned something very crucial.

After finding the appropriate title, he walked me back to the counter and taught me algebraic notation, something I would need to read my new book. He also gave me a battered copy of My System free of charge. I walked out of the store feeling enlightened and more optimistic about my chess playing. The whole adventure took about five hours but it was well worth it.

How did I know the exact number of books on chess openings in their inventory? Six years later, I would go to work in the chess department at Games of Berkeley. Working there, I became well acquainted with all their chess books. When I got my name tag, I was told I didn’t have to use my real name but couldn’t call myself Johnny Genocide. I settled on Alexander Alekhine and for the entire time I worked there, that was my name. Mr. Lawless was my immediate boss and any free time was spent learning the game of chess. It turned out, Mr. Lawless was a National Master so he knew his stuff. I still have the tournament set he recommended I purchase and it is the one thing I’ve managed to keep for over thirty years.

There’s no chess lesson to be learned here, only a life lesson or two. First, never judge a book by it’s cover, as in the case of Mr. Lawless, and never judge a book by it’s title, as in the case of chess books. Second lesson: Ask for directions, whether you’re trying to find a destination while traveling or facing a mammoth wall of books. Asking for directions is much better than doing the walk of shame when your instincts have failed you. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Hanging Pieces

Beginners tend to have an easier time improving their basic opening and endgame skills than they do improving their middle-game skills. The opening principles are easier to define and apply compared to middle-game principles. Basic endgame principles are likewise easier to learn and employ compared to middle-game principles. What is it about the middle-game that causes the beginner so much trouble? To answer this question, let’s first define the middle-game.

During the opening, you gain a foothold in the center by rapid piece development. You and your opponent are racing to see who gets the greatest control of the center and thus an early positional advantage first. Once your pieces are on their most active squares, you enter the middle-game. The middle-game is where the fighting starts! This is the phase of a chess game in which often violent attacks and cunning defenses take place. This is the realm of tactics. It is also the realm of the dreaded hanging pieces.

The big problem beginners face when entering the middle-game is that their calculation skills are minimal. When I say calculation skills, I’m not talking about seeing six or seven moves ahead. I’m talking about seeing one and a half moves ahead. This translates to your move, your opponent’s best response to that move and your subsequent response to your opponent’s move. Beginners tend to think only about the moves they can make and not about their opponent’s response. Subsequently, beginners hang or lose a healthy, or should I say unhealthy, number of pawns and pieces by thinking this way.

Beginners also miss opportunities to capture their opponent’s hanging pieces, pieces that are unprotected and free for the taking. A few years back, I was watching some of my beginning students at their first tournament and was astonished at one game in which both players had multiple hanging pieces that remained on the board for many turns. It was because of this that I started to employ various training methods to help students avoid this problem.

One method I use with my students is to have them do positional exercises, using software training programs, to improve their ability to spot hanging pieces (both their own and those of their opponent). One training module specifically deals with capturing pieces, many of which are hanging. However, that specific module offers no advice, only five thousand plus positions in which a piece can be captured. This series of positional problems comes from real life middle-game positions played by players of varying ratings. While the beginner can develop their skills working through the numerous problems, they won’t get the maximum amount of solid training in this specific area without some additional concepts being introduced to them.

Because we live in a fast paced world that puts a high premium on getting the job done quickly, students will try to blaze through the five thousand plus problems as fast as possible. While some improvement is guaranteed by simply doing the problems, the serious student will not achieve the greatest improvement without putting deeper thought into each problem.

Simply capturing the correct piece isn’t enough. While it may be enough for the training program you’re using, you have to look at the bigger picture. That “bigger picture” comes in the form of questions you must ask after making that correct move, namely, how does this capture change the position. Of course, I don’t expect the beginner to analyze the position like a professional player. However, there are a few key questions a beginner can ask that will help them understand positional play a bit more and spot potentially hung opposition pawns and pieces.

The first question I have students ask themselves after capturing the correct piece has to do with the capturing piece’s relationship to the pawns and pieces around it. After the capture, does that piece now protect pawns and pieces that weren’t previously protected? This is a crucial consideration because if the answer is yes (which it generally is with these types of training programs), then the capture has not weakened the position. Instead, it has improved it. Remember, you don’t want to capture simply to capture. You want to capture if it strengthens your position. I have my students note each pawn and piece that is now protected as a result of the capture. This idea of asking questions helps to slow down the student’s solving of each problem and forces them to look more carefully at the position. This, in turn, develops greater board vision (seeing the entire board and the subsequent pawns and pieces on it).

The obvious second question to ask is, does this weaken my position at all. Even in the games of masters, positional weaknesses can and will occur. With beginners, it is best to keep the list of potential weaknesses short, having them look for immediate weaknesses such as doubled pawns, bad Bishops, exposed Kings and, of course, hanging pieces. Spotting potential long term weaknesses is best left for later, when the beginner has gained some playing experience.

Where these questions really help is when you get into the more advanced sections of the software program. Often, you’ll be given a choice of two similar pieces to capture, two knights for example. Capturing one Knight will lead to an exchange of material that is beneficial to the opposition. Capturing the other Knight will garner you that Knight at no cost of your own material, not to mention a better position. Asking questions when capturing material leads to good decision making.

Training software can be an excellent tool for players wishing to improve on their own. However, you don’t want to blaze through the individual problems without taking the time to carefully look at the position. Often, it is easy to spot the correct piece to capture. However, unless you carefully examine the position after the capture, looking for positional strengths and weaknesses, you won’t get as much out of your training. Take your time. If a capture doesn’t make sense from a positional viewpoint, examine the position further before moving on to the next problem. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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The Road that Leads to Improvement

I thought about titling this article “The Journey to Mastery” but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that not every chess player would be willing to commit to such a difficult endeavor, becoming a titled “master” of the game. On the other hand, anyone who enjoys the game would be more than happy with improving their chess skills. Thinking about it further, I realized that you cannot even consider the journey to mastery until you’ve spent some time walking along the road that leads to improvement. At some point, a mathematical statistician determined that anyone who put ten thousand hours into the study of a subject would become a master of that subject. Does that mean that all you have to do is read a stack of chess books and play chess for ten thousand hours to become a Grandmaster? Absolutely not! In fact, you could spend ten thousand hours studying and playing chess only to become a slightly better than average player. It’s quality of study that leads to real improvement, not quantity of time spent studying. The best students of any subject have highly effective study habits and techniques.

In my youth, back when chess games were recorded on stone tablets, we got better at chess by reading chess books and then testing out our new found knowledge on the board against a human opponent. Now, there are so many alternative methods of study that the beginner is left bewildered by the numerous choices. You can use Books, DVDs, training software or websites that are dedicated to specific aspects of the game. However, no matter which method you choose to employ, there is one specific concept that must be embraced in order to improve. I’m talking about good studying habits. If your studying habits are not good you’ll only retain a fraction of what you learn which slows down your improvement greatly. This can lead to frustration which can lead to simply giving up. How you study is just as important as what you study!

Slow and steady wins the race when if comes to improvement. Humans tend to be impatient so they try to complete a task as quickly as possible. This leads to setting unrealistic goals. If your goal requires three hundred hours to accomplish, you could spend an hour per day and meet your goal in three hundred days. You could also shorten that time frame by spending ten hours a day working toward you’ll goal, cutting the total number of days needed to thirty. This would be a grave mistake! Most people lead busy lives which means they can only dedicate a small amount of time each day to their studies. However, even if they had the time to study for ten hours a day, they would fall victim to mental fatigue, especially when studying chess which requires great concentration. The best route to take is to set a realistic time table, say thirty minutes a day to start. Most of us can take thirty minutes from our daily schedule without having our lives fall apart. Thirty minutes will not leave you mentally drained at the end of your study session. While you might say that thirty minutes day isn’t much, it adds up to 182 hours a year. Still, some of you are thinking that 182 hours isn’t a lot of time, especially when thinking about reaching that 10,000 hour mark. Forget about that 10,000 hour idea. Let’s worry about improving before mastery!

Our next consideration is where to study. I’ve talked about study techniques in previous articles but I feel the subject so important that I’m bringing it up again. My next point is crucial if you want to improve. Find a quiet place to study. I feel so strongly about this that I have taken to sitting in my car, parked in front of my house to study chess uninterrupted. I have a busy household and even my office can be a bit noisy. You need a place that is not only quiet but offers no distractions as well. I’ve taken to my car because of one incident. I was studying a variation of the Nimzo Indian opening because it I had trouble with it. Sitting in my office, I reached one of those “ah ha” moments when everything suddenly became clear. I had the Nimzo Indian within my grasp. Suddenly, our pit bull (Ruby Petrosian Patterson) burst through my office door, made a run towards my desk and started grabbing chess pieces off the board I use. Needless to say, my concentration was broken and the mysteries of the Nimzo Indian still remain a mystery to me. Find a quiet place to study!

If you’ve followed my advice so far, you’ve set up the conditions for productive studying. You have a realistic time table and a place to study. Now comes the question, what to study? Finding suitable chess material to study is similar to buying pants. Pants come in a vast range of sizes. However, you’re never going to purchase a pair that is an exact fit. The length might be perfect but the waist is a bit tight! Chess training material is the same way.

While many companies will list a rating range for their training material, such as “for players rated between 800 and 1200,” that 400 point range is a huge consideration for the beginner whose rating is closer to 800. How can the beginner determine whether the training material in question suitable for their skill set? If its a book, the beginner can either examine the book, if being purchased from a bookstore, or preview it, if being purchased online. In either case, look at the table of contents first. If you’re a beginner trying to improve your general opening play, you should see chapters dedicated to the opening principles such as control of the board’s center, minor piece development, castling, etc. The book should also contain games in which both sides win. Examine a chapter and ask yourself “does this make sense?” If you can’t understand the concepts as explained by the book’s author, you may want to consider another title! Avoid books that promise fast improvement results or promise a fast increase in your rating.

DVDs can be a bit trickier because you cannot play the DVD before purchasing it. However, many DVD producers, such as ChessBase, offer previews on their website which allow you to test drive them prior to purchase. Again, ask yourself “does this make sense.” With specific DVDs, such as those dealing with opening play, you have to be careful as a beginner. I teach and coach chess full time so I spend a great deal of time both teaching and learning. I will always be a student of the game. I mention this because I’ve fallen victim to the purchase of a DVD about specific openings that are beyond my skill set. Beginners should stick to DVDs that explore principles rather than specific openings at least until they have a strong grasp on the principles!

Lastly, invest in a software training program that has a good GUI (Graphical User Interface) and decent chess engine. This gives the beginner an instant opponent and many of these programs have add on training modules that can be purchased separately. There are some pitfalls with these programs. First off, when playing against the computer at its lowest levels, you’re going to get an unrealistic game of chess. The computer will make the worst moves and, while your victory against the silicon beast might feel good, you’ll pay for that joy when you sit down and play a human (even a novice player) and they make much better moves than your computer program (on a low setting), leaving you with a lost game. Only play the computer at a higher game setting. The moves are more realistic and you only get better at chess by playing stronger opponents. Play human opponents every chance you get!

Lastly, beware of website advice. While a decent percentage of these websites are an excellent resource for learning, you have to remember, anyone can create a chess website regardless of their chess skills. I spend a great deal of time correcting my student’s bad habits, bad habits they picked up online. Nigel’s Tiger Chess website is an exception and you should consider an online visit (http://tigerchess.com). Another good resource is IM Andrew Martin’s Youtube videos (https://www.youtube.com/user/YMChessMaster) You would definitely do well to read all the excellent articles by the folks here at The Chess Improver as well. Keep it simple, make your study time count and sit in your car if you need a quiet place to study. Your game will slowly but surely get better. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. I bet these guys had good studying habits!

Hugh Patterson

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Balance

Beginners are fond of launching early or premature attacks regardless of what it does to their position. These attacks are uncoordinated and weaken the beginner’s position which more often than not, costs them the game. After a few chess lessons, the beginner’s attack becomes more coordinated. The most popular point of attack for beginners are the f2 and f7 squares which are weak because they’re solely defended by their respective Kings at the game’s start. An attack on the f7 pawn typically involves the King-side Knight and Bishop. After, 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6 and 3.Bc4…Nf6, white breaks an opening principle and moves the Knight a second time, 4.Ng5. Because white moves first, white has an opportunity to stay one move ahead in development during the opening, except in the above example in which white forfeits his lead in tempo (time). Therefore, I introduce the idea of balance early in my student’s chess careers.

Think of balance as an old fashion seesaw, such as those found at a playground. When the seesaw is parallel with the ground, it is evenly balanced. When someone sits on one side of the seesaw, it tilts, lowering that person to the ground. If another person sites down on the opposite side of the seesaw, the person closest to the ground is raised up. When one end of the seesaw goes up, the other end goes down. It is no longer evenly balanced. How does this relate to chess?

When the game starts, before any pawn or piece is moved, the position on the board is evenly balanced. Since white moves first, white disturbs the balance, tipping it (like the seesaw) in his or her favor with a move like 1.e4. This move puts a pawn in the center of the board, allows the King-side Bishop (as well as the Queen) to develop, which brings white closer to Castling. Its a powerful first move that puts the Question to black, how are you going to restore the balance? If Black plays 1…e5, the balance is restored for the moment. While black can play other moves such as 1…e6, 1…c6 or 1…c5, beginners should start with the simple 1…e5 to restore the balance.

Examining a move in terms of positional balance will help the novice player avoid weakening their position during any phase of the game. The opening exemplifies this idea. Since white moves first, white disturbs the balance of the starting position. Black needs to immediately restore the balance with a counter move that garners the same positional benefits as white (1…e5) or set up a future balanced position with an opening move other than 1…e5. After 1.e4…e5, white might play 2.Nf3. White disturbs the balance again by attacking the e5 pawn and controlling the d4 square. Black might counter with 2…Nc6 which protects the e5 pawn and puts pressure on the d4 square. The point is this: Black is making moves that strive to maintain positional equality or balance.

Chess is a positional dance in which both players must be in sync with each others actions or moves. To ignore your opponent’s moves leads to disaster. An opponent’s move must be met with a counter move that strives for some semblance of positional equality. Does this mean we play for equality or balance of position only? Absolutely not! After all, checkmate wins the game which means you’ll have to launch an attack which means stepping away from the idea of maintaining equality or balance. The point here is that you don’t want to launch an attack until the time is right.

To determine when the time is right for an attack, you have to look at your position and ask a few key questions. Start with an examination of space. Do you control more space on the board than your opponent? If so, an attack might be considered. However, before committing to that attack, ask yourself a few more questions. Does launching an attack weaken your position? So many beginners will capture a piece, only to have their entire position fall apart. A strong position trumps capturing pieces unless capturing staves off a potential checkmate. Does capturing a pieces strengthen your position while weakening that of your opponent? These are the questions to ask before attacking.

An idea I pass onto my students is that their goal in the opening is to aim for a balanced position, waiting until the middle game to launch any attacks. A balanced position means an equal control of space, namely the board’s center during the opening. I make a point of mentioning this each time a student considers moving the same piece twice during the opening. By doing so, they’re giving their opponent the opportunity to develop another new piece. Moving the same piece over and over again allows your opponent to gain tempo (time) which makes it harder for you to achieve balance. How do you determine whether you have a balanced position or not? Determining the balance of a position requires some analysis.

Analyzing a position as a beginner can be extremely difficult because the beginner tends to see everything at once. Rather than focusing in on key elements, the novice player’s chess vision is blurred because they’re trying to look at every pawn and piece at the same time. To analyze a position’s level of balance, the beginner should approach the task systematically. During the opening, controlling the board’s center is the name of the game. Therefore, the beginner should count the number of squares his or her pawns and pieces control. Do the same for the opposition’s pawns and pieces. This simple act will give you an idea about the position’s balance. If you’re behind in spatial control, aim to make moves that balance that control either equally or in your favor.

Beginner’s should get in the habit of continually developing pawns and pieces to more active squares going into the middle-game. I have observed students developing correctly during the opening and stopping their development as soon as their Rooks are connected. They then started gearing up for an attack. While gearing up for the attack, their opponent continues to improve their pawn and piece activity. Ultimately the attack fails because the position’s balance was off, in favor of the player whose pieces were more actively developed.

Therefore, you should look at a position in terms of balance for both sides before considering your next move. When a position is balanced, an attack might be in order. Of course, there are times when a position is imbalanced in favor of your opponent but an attack could tilt the positional seesaw in your favor. However, beginner’s don’t have their skill set built up enough to identify such positions. Keep it simple and balanced until you become a stronger player. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Happy Thanksgiving. I’m off to our family turkey day chess tournament.

Hugh Patterson

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Trading Principles

Beginners learn the relative values of the pieces early in their chess studies and use those values to calculate the outcome of material exchanges (trading pieces). While using this numerical method can help a player avoid losing an exchange of material, it cannot be the sole basis for determining whether or not an exchange will be advantageous. Solely using the relative value system to determine the success of an exchange is akin to occupying only two dimensions in a three dimensional world. You’re going to miss something important and in chess missing something important leads to lost games! Players must see the bigger picture before considering exchanging material.

Obviously, we want to compare the relative value of both our pieces and those of our opponent before considering an exchange of material. Beginners are taught that trading a Queen for a Knight would be a bad trade since the Queen is worth nine points and the Knight three. Trading our Queen for a Knight would mean the net loss of six points which equals two minor pieces or six pawns. However, what if giving up the Queen for a Knight led to checkmate? We’ve all played through the games of Paul Morphy in which he sacrificed a major piece (or two) to win the game. Unfortunately, the average beginner doesn’t have the calculation skills to successfully sacrifice material. Fortunately, there are some trading principles the beginner can employ to help improve their position and lay the groundwork for good calculative thinking.

Here are some ideas to employ when considering an exchange of pieces. Applying these ideas will make a huge difference in your game. Again, its about seeing the bigger picture which means considering the entire position on the chessboard. Is the position open or closed? Are you ahead in material or behind? Are your pieces cramped or free to roam around the board? Are you under positional pressure? Is your opponent threatening checkmate? Positional questions must be asked before considering any exchange of material.

Consider a trade or exchange when you are ahead in material. While this might seem counter-intuitive, since beginners are taught to maintain as much material as possible, the more you trade down when ahead in material, the greater your advantage becomes later on. Both players start out with eight pawns each so both players have an equal number of pawns. Let’s say you and your opponent start trading pawns and reach an endgame position in which you have two pawns to your opponent’s one pawn. You have a much greater advantage since you have twice as many pawns. Of course, this is an extremely simplified example but the idea still holds true. Material advantages become greater or more pronounced as pawns and pieces are traded off the board. Always think about this idea as you approach the endgame. Good chess players think about the future as well as the present! Don’t live solely in the moment!

If you have a spacial disadvantage, where your position is cramped, trade pieces to open up the position. If your opponent has greater control of the board, leaving you stuck in a cramped defensive position, consider trading material to give yourself some room to move. However, you have to be careful in regards to what material you trade. If you’re in an open game, a game in which there is a lot of open space between you and your opponent, consider hanging on to long distance pieces such as the Bishops and exchanging Knights. In a closed position, your Knights should be kept. Of course, you must always consider the value of your material and your opponent’s material before starting any exchange. If you have the spacial advantage, keep applying pressure by controlling more space and avoid trading material.

Consider an exchange if doing so allows one of your remaining pieces to become more active. If you find yourself in a closed position, Knights are going to be more powerful because of their ability to jump over other pieces. If your opponent has an active Knight that you can exchange for a bad Bishop (a Bishop that has little mobility), consider the trade. While both the Knight and Bishop have the same relative value, meaning an equal trade will garner both players three points of exchanged material, a trapped or immobile Bishop really isn’t in the game when the position is closed. The Knight, on the other hand, is able to jump over the positional traffic jam which means it is in the game and has greater value.

If your opponent has an powerful piece that is stopping you from executing your plan, consider forcing an exchange. A Knight on f3 for White or f6 for Black, protects the h2 or h7 pawn when a player has Castled on the King-side. That Knight is a critical defender. Removing that defender leaves only the King to defend either the h2 or h7 pawn. When I say powerful piece, most beginners think of the Queen or Rook. However, we have to look at a piece’s value in relationship to the position. A pawn about to promote is extremely powerful. It might have a relative value of one but because it is about to promote, it’s value increase. Relative value is not absolute value.

When considering any trade, a player must look far beyond the relative value of the pawns and pieces. Its the relationship to a position that determines a pawn or piece’s value. Often we find ourselves under pressure in a position. A potential checkmate may be looming on the positional horizon. Trading pieces may reduce that pressure enough to stop the threat of checkmate. Always ask yourself, “am I under pressure and is there an exchange that will relieve some of that pressure.

Lastly, never, ever exchange material just to exchange. Good chess players capture or exchange pieces to improve their position. I love to capture pawns and pieces but I don’t do so unless I get something more than mere material for my efforts. I need my position to improve when I exchange pieces! Trade smart by looking at all your options. Speaking of trading, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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