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).


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Patterson


Theory and Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Patterson


Activity and Vulnerability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Patterson


Endgame Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Patterson


Learning an Opening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Patterson


Flexible Plans

One of the hardest problems facing the beginner is planning. If I ask a roomful of young beginners to define the word “plan,” I get a variety of answers ranging from “I don’t know” to “I’m going to checkmate my opponent on move thirteen with my Queen and a Rook.” Then there’s the student whose only plan is to checkmate their opponent’s King! Checkmate is the game’s goal rather than a plan. Planning is greatly misunderstood by the beginner and it is a lack of planning that leads to lost games. Good planning, be it on the chessboard or in life, can be difficult but not impossible if done correctly. It’s a matter of flexibility (flexible planning) which we’ll discuss later on. Planning is a fundamental and critical part of successful chess playing. It is important to remember that you cannot play chess without a plan. Of course, you could play a game of chess without a plan but the results would disastrous.

A plan is a method of action or procedure for getting something done. Here’s an example: Let’s say you want to visit your family in another city. You don’t close your eyes, click your heels together three times and presto, you’re with your family. You have to get from point “a” (your house), to point “b” (your family’s house). If your family is three hundred Kilometers away, you’ll have to determine what form of transportation you’ll be using to get there. Are you going to take a train which means you’ll have to purchase tickets or are you driving which means purchasing petrol? In either case, you have to follow some sort of procedure, i.e., a plan. Visiting our family is the goal. How we get there depends on our plan.

Planning can be an overwhelming concept for the novice player. Beginners become easily overwhelmed when playing because so much seems to be going on, all at once. An experienced player will look at a given position on the chessboard and systematically resolve the larger problem at hand by breaking it down into smaller more manageable micro-problems. Only then, after the smaller problems have been isolated and understood, will the experienced player embark on a plan or series of smaller plans that resolves the overall or bigger issue. The beginner, on the other hand, will become frustrated because he or she doesn’t have a logical way in which to approach problem solving as well as no grasp of planning. Therefore, I devote a fair amount of classroom time to problem solving and planning.

The first step the beginner must take is to learn efficient problem solving. This starts with looking at the smaller picture rather than the big picture. Let me explain. Chess can be an extremely complex game to master as a whole. Fortunately, the game can be broken down into smaller parts, such as the opening, middle and endgame. These three phases can be further divided by applying principles or guideline to each of these three phases. During the opening game or phase, each player has three overall principles they can apply to guide them through a variety of opening problems. These three principles are getting control of the board’s center with a pawn, the development of minor pieces to active or centralized squares and castling which tucks the King away safely and activates one of the two Rooks. By breaking the game down into phases and applying well thought out principles to each phase, the beginner is able to approach problems individually rather than as one overall large problem.

When faced with a positional problem, I have my students identify the phase of the game in which the problem occurs first. Only after the game’s phase has been identified do we move on to applying a principle to the problem at hand. After identifying the problem by breaking it down into a game phase and determining which principle will apply to the issue at hand, we move on to the idea of planning. Too often, beginners become hopelessly lost because they haven’t narrowed down the realm of possible problems. They’re looking at the big picture which tells them there’s a problem rather than trying to further isolate the real issue. Many times, a student will see the effect, in this case a bad position, without identifying the underlying cause. Identify the phase of the game and applicable principle before creating a plan!

Once the problem has been isolated, it’s time to create a plan. Beginners tend to think that plans come in one of two forms. Either their plans are to vague, not really being plans at all, or they’re too rigid. If a student states that his or her plan is to checkmate the opposition’s King on move twenty two using two Bishops, their plan is too rigid! Each time your opponent makes a move, the landscape of the chessboard changes. A plan that might work for one position may be pointless if your opponent’s move drastically alters the positional landscape of the board. Plans need a certain amount of flexibility. The way to keep your plans flexible is make moves that are less specific but still effective. After 1.e4…e5, the player of the White pieces looks at the moves 2.Nf3 and Qh4. Putting a Knight on f3 is a more flexible move than bringing the Queen out to h4, The Queen is obvious part of an attack on the f7 square. Black can easily stop the Queen dead in her tracks. Putting the Knight on f3 is much more flexible in that it attacks the e5 pawn, influences d4 and keeps the Black Queen off of the g and h files. This is a more flexible more which allows for a more flexible plan. Moves that do more than one thing, such as attack more than one piece, allow for flexible plans.

Plans can quickly change in chess so be prepared! Here’s an example: Your plan is to execute a specific idea, say a Knight fork that checks the opposition’s King and attacks the King-side Rook at the same time two moves from now. A great deal can happen to a position in just two moves. This means that your plan may not be valid two moves from now because your opponent found a move you didn’t factor into your original plan. Rather than count on your opponent making the moves you want them to make, think about the best move or moves they could make. Beginners have a bad habit of only thinking about opposition moves that work for them rather than their opponent. When coming up with a plan based on a position, always try to determine the best move your opponent can make not the move you hope they’ll make. Only then can you create a realistic plan. If you identify the real problem, determine your opponent’s best response or move and keep your plans flexible, you’ll win more games. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Intuition and Second Guessing

On countless occasions, I’ve seen chess students start to make a good move, only to second guess themselves, making an inferior move that costs them the game. For many beginners serious about improving their chess skills, the idea of using intuition to guide them runs against the grain of logical thinking. After all, the learning process is scientific in nature with little room for following one’s gut, or is it? Intuition is not simply a case of following your gut feeling, but rather a case of digging down into your brain’s vast storehouse of subconscious knowledge for an answer or solution. This answer or solution to a problem isn’t a guess or case of grasping at the proverbial straw. Its very foundation is formed by your experience as a chess player and your subsequent study of the game. Second guessing, on the other hand, is the opposite. It’s the undermining of an often sound decision which can make for problems rather than solutions. Here are some thoughts I’ve shared with students regarding embracing intuition and avoiding second guessing.

Intuition needs to be based on properly honed skills, which comes from a thorough understanding of the games underlying mechanics and principles. Thus, the absolute beginner should always be wary of making intuitive decisions until they have a good grasp of the game’s mechanics. Absolute beginners must master the principles before all else. Only when the beginner has gained more experience, should they explore intuitive thinking. However, second guessing should be avoided at all levels. To understand the difference between intuition and second guessing, we have to consider the basic thought process employed when a player makes a move.

When an experienced chess player makes a move, they follow a logical path of thinking that allows them to arrive at their destination, making a good move. The beginner can employ this same way of thinking if he or she follows a few basic guidelines. Following these guidelines helps the beginner to fortify their intuitive thinking. The key to this process is proceeding, thought-wise, in a logical order. Too often, the beginner is overwhelmed because they’re taking in everything at once when considering a move. They look at the entire picture rather than focusing on key elements of that picture. For example, cleaning your entire house can seem overwhelming. However, if you approach it one room at a time, the task becomes less daunting!

The first thing to consider before making your move is your opponent’s last move. Beginners tend to miss the intention of their opponent’s last move because they’re more concerned with the move they want to make. Beginners often have a plan to win that doesn’t take into consideration their opponent’s plan. Don’t consider making a move until you’ve carefully examined the opposition’s last move. Does that move contain an immediate or potential future threat? Carefully examining your opponent’s move first will help guide you towards making a good decision regarding your own move. While experienced chess players will do this automatically, beginners tend to focus on their own pieces and plans.

Once the beginner gets in the habit of examining their opponent’s move before considering their own, they have to decide on the appropriate response. Here the games principles should be employed. When deciding on a move, the appropriate principles should serve as a guide. If launching an attack during the middle game, use the principle of counting attackers versus defenders. If the number of attackers exceeds the number of defenders, the attack will most likely succeed (of course, there are exceptions). If deciding between the development of a minor piece or your Queen during the opening, refer to the principle that tells you to develop minor pieces before major pieces (such as the Queen).

What happens when we apply the principles and have a choice of three possible moves, each qualifying as a good move? When determining the best move out of our three candidate moves, we have to examine each in greater detail, again using the game’s principles to guide us. We do this to determine if one move is stronger than the others. With a bit of close scrutiny, we often see that one move is slightly better than the others (based on game principles). What happens if all three moves are equal in strength? This is where intuition can play a key role. This is a situation in which all of your previous logical chess thinking comes into play. If you’ve applied the game’s principles to every decision you make during your games, those principles become deeply embedded in your thought process. This means they’ve become etched into the part of your brain that is called on when intuition comes into play. You examine the three candidate moves a final time and suddenly have a feeling that one of those moves stands out a bit more than the others. An alarm goes off in your head but you can’t quite quantify your reasoning in an absolute way. You have entered the realm of intuition. You can’t help but feel a bit unsure because you can’t fully articulate you reason for choosing that move above the others. Before second guessing yourself, remember that your intuition is based on sound principles of play. You’ve used a logical method of thinking to work through the three moves. What’s probably causing you to have doubts is the fact that your conscious mind is meeting your subconscious mind. Intuition can make for brilliant chess but you have to nurture intuition via serious study. It is at this point in one’s thought process is often where second guessing rears its ugly head!

Seconding guess comes about when a player hasn’t fully thought a move through. By this, I mean considering your opponent’s move and using the game’s principles as a guide. If you have logically worked through a position in your game, come up with a few candidate moves and found one that stands out above the others, then you have come up with the move you should probably make. If you start second guessing, changing your mind at the last moment, that move probably wasn’t the best one to consider. Reconsider the original move before making another. If it follows the principles then it shouldn’t be abandoned. Think of it this way. You just spent a fair amount of time considering a move using the game’s principles to guide you. Do you want to ignore the principles and make a sudden move with no thought involved? I wouldn’t. Intuition takes time to develop and you have to be patient. However, if you use good judgment and logical thinking, you’ll develop this ability and play better chess. As for second guessing, beware that beast because it will raise its monstrous head every chance it has. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson


Classroom Control

I am asked, on a regular basis, how I maintain order when teaching twenty to thirty young students at a time. As a chess teacher and trainer of chess teachers, I know that maintaining control when teaching is crucial to the student’s ability to learn. If a classroom is noisy and chaotic, it is difficult to concentrate. Both teacher and serious students become frustrated because more time is spent trying to keep the class on track than is spent on the subject matter at hand. After spending a few sessions working with a young man who is new to teaching chess in the schools, I decided to share the ideas I passed on to him.

Teaching any subject in a classroom setting comes down to doing two things well, maintaining classroom discipline and providing an engaging subject. You have to have both. You might have the greatest gift for teaching chess in a fun and exciting way but, unless your students are focused, they’ll miss out on it. We’ll look at discipline and classroom control first.

Children are used to structure in the classroom. Just because you’re teaching an after school program doesn’t mean that the classroom rules children observe during normal school hours shouldn’t apply. As their chess teacher, you have to set the standard for classroom behavior from day one. Trying to enforce classroom rules a month after you’ve allowed students to do as they please simply doesn’t work. Guideline one, set the behavior standard or model for your students immediately. Of course, you have to remember that you cannot overwhelm children with a complex set of behavioral rules to follow because they’re kids. You have to keep it simple. I use three basic classroom rules:

Rule One: When I’m talking, student’s need to be sitting upright at their desks, paying attention and not talking to others in the class.
Rule Two: If you have a question, raise your hand. If my answer doesn’t make sense to you, ask me to explain it again.
Rule Three: After the lecture portion of the class is over, we play chess. When we play chess, we play chess quietly which allows us to concentrate.

These three basic rules point everyone in the right direction. Of course, there are students who will try to ignore the rules, which is why I carefully explain what happens when the rules are broken. I tell my students that at the end of the eight or twelve week session we have a party. There are large quantities of cookies or pizza involved in this party. Why throw a party? We have a party because my students work very hard during each session and should be rewarded. Of course, (continuing with my explanation to the students) there is one way in which this party might not happen. For each rule broken, the class gets a strike. If the class gets three strikes during a single class, there’s no party.

I give my students the classroom rules immediately after I introduce myself and often give out the first strike within five minutes because there’s always one student who likes to test the waters of authority. While some students have referred to me as Professor Serverus Snape (Harry Potter), we get a lot done in my classes. My students also know that I’ll go the extra distance to help them with their game if they meet me half way. By setting the tone immediately rather than later, you and your students can get the most from your time together. Also, remember your relationship with your students. By this, I mean that you’re the teacher which means you can’t try and be their best friend in an effort to win them over. It doesn’t work. You win them over by being a teacher and mentor.

Listen to your students and give them real answers. If a student asks why to one of your questions, don’t simply say “because I said so kid!” Give them a real explanation and your students are apt to honestly accept the answer. Talk to the parents as well. Often, keeping them updated regularly helps with their child’s progress.

Of course, what’s the point of having a well disciplined group of students if the subject matter puts them asleep? I live for chess. I teach fulltime and when I get home study chess and play Correspondence Chess through the ICCF. I mention this because I can sit through the most painfully boring chess lectures ever presented without dosing off. However, most people can’t, especially children. You have to be excited about the subject matter and convey this to your students. I record my teaching trainees as they present a chess lecture and play it back for them later on. They are often surprised at how monotone their presentation is. If you want to share your excitement for chess with a group of students, you have to make it exciting.

One way to do this is to come up with an outlandish story behind the game you’re presenting. My lecture games (for children) have a cast of characters from the Blind Samurai to a stubborn Bull from Spain. Children like stories and if you can tell a good story while presenting a game, you’re students will absorb more. I have a small of group of more advanced students who refer to the Wilkes Barr as the Darth Vadar Attack because it was part of the story around a game featuring the Wilkes Barr. One point I cannot make strongly enough is not to present material that is over your student’s heads. While you want to teach them as many aspects of the game as possible in the time you have with them, students can easily become frustrated if they don’t grasp the ideas being presented. Just because you understand the tactical ideas behind a specific game doesn’t mean that young students will.

I use games for my lectures that present a key idea in the simplest of terms. When children are first learning chess, they need to learn one idea at a time. Break your lectures down to cover single ideas at first. After my students learn the game’s rules, we’ll look at opening principles (for example). I’ll start their introduction to opening principles with a game employing the Italian Opening because it clearly demonstrates control of the center with a pawn, good minor piece development and Castling. I wouldn’t show them, as their first introduction to opening principles, a Ruy Lopez game. The Ruy Lopez is too complicated for a young beginner. I also focus on one opening principle to start, such as placing a pawn on a central square. That will be the focus of the lesson. The next lesson will introduce the development of minor pieces in the opening, with the following lesson on Castling in the opening. Keep it simple when teaching children.

Lastly, play to your strengths. When I first started teaching chess in the classroom, I tried to model myself after other chess teachers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t mimic their personalities. I finally found my own voice or personality strengths and have done well with simply being myself. Lastly, remember that teaching children requires great patience. Children have active minds that often wander. When they do, reel those young minds back in using patience as your watchword. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson


Bending Principles

Beginners who want to improve their game work very hard, especially when it comes to embracing the game’s principles. To improve their opening play, beginners study and employ the opening principles. The same holds true for the middle and endgames. However, these same beginners often treat these principles as steadfast rules. There is a difference between the game’s rules and the game’s principles. The player who makes no distinction between the two can find themselves devolving as a chess player rather than evolving. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should simply ignore principles. What it does mean is that we should know the difference between a rule and a principle as well as knowing when to bend that principle.

We’ll use three opening principles as examples: Controlling the board’s center with a pawn, the development of minor pieces to active squares and castling. Each of these principles can be used to give a player an early advantage if employed during the opening phase of the game. These principles have stood the test of time. While different types of openings have come in and out vogue, their underlying principles have remained that same. These principles are the underlying mechanics that create successful opening play. However, they are principles rather than rules so they are to be used as such, at the player’s discretion.

The first thing a student should do is clearly understand the difference between a rule and a principle. Of course, as adults we understand the difference. However, it pays to go over the definitions of both words just to be clear because we can subconsciously blur the line between the two. Children often think the two words have the same meaning so we carefully define both in class. The rules of chess, because they are rules, leave no grey area, meaning they cannot be broken. Principles, on the other hand, are guidelines that have proven successful. These guidelines have been so successful that they’ve been around for hundreds of years. Once the distinction between rules and principles has been discussed, it’s time to ask a few questions based on positional scenarios.

The first positional scenario involves an attacked minor piece. Your Knight is under attack and you have a choice of following the opening principles, in this case, keeping your Knight where it is because its developed towards the center of the board or, moving it to the edge of the board where it’s safe. In moving it to the edge of the board, you’re putting a Knight on the rim (considered dim or grim) and moving the same piece twice during the opening. Save the Knight or lose it because you think opening principles must be followed to the letter. It is better to bend a principle than to lose a piece. Just because the principles tell us to aim our pieces toward the board’s center doesn’t mean that the piece can’t be effective on the board’s outer edges. Let’s look at another scenario.

Let’s say you have an opportunity during the opening to check your opponent’s King. In doing so, you force your opponent to have to block the check with a minor piece (an absolute pin), tying up that minor and keeping it from participating in the battle for control of the center. The piece you’re going to use for the check is your King-side Bishop. While you could move that Bishop to c4 which helps control the center, you would actually have a stronger position by pinning the opposition’s minor piece to his or her King. Do you stick to the principles and move the Bishop to c4 or do you bend the principles? Here’s a final scenario to consider.

Our final example is Castling. Beginners are taught to Castle their King early to protect it. Playing White, you develop your King-side Knight to f3 and your King-side Bishop to c4. Should you Castle on the next move? The opening principles tell us to Castle our King to safety early on. What happens if you’re given the choice between Castling or developing another minor piece which strengthens your position? Many beginners will simply Castle, providing their King with safety but in doing so, weaken their overall position. Again, it’s a question of whether to stick to the principles or bend them slightly.

Beginners approach chess very mechanically which is a natural evolutionary step in their study of the game. After all, you have to understand the principles, more specifically the underlying mechanics, before thinking about being a rebel and bending those principles. However, you don’t want to get stuck inside the box of purely mechanical thinking. How do you avoid being trapped in the box? Adhering to a few guidelines regarding the bending of, in this example, the opening principles is a good way to start. Using these guidelines, you’ll be able to make an informed decision. The first guideline regards the strength or weakness of your position.

During the opening, you’re fighting your opponent for dominance or control of the board’s center. Obviously, if given the choice of losing a piece or moving it away from the center, you’ll want to hang on to that piece and move it to the edge of the board if necessary. However, what about a potential check of the opposition King that weakens the opposition’s position, by moving a piece such as a Bishop to the board’s edge? In this scenario you have to weigh the benefits of a check that damages your opponent’s position with the strength or weakness of your own position. If your position is weak, you have no business checking when you should be strengthening your position. If your position is strong, does moving the Bishop to the edge of the board weaken or potentially weaken your position. If the answer is yes, then you might want to reconsider.

Castling is a problem for beginners. More than not, beginners ignore King safety and don’t Castle. Once they’ve been beaten a few dozen times because their King was stuck on a central file, they go in the opposite direction and Castle early on, often too early. By too early I mean when their King is not in immediate danger. When considering whether or not to Castle, check your opponent’s pawns and pieces, see if there is a potential threat of a strong check (one that forces you to tie up your position to answer the check) or quick checkmate. If there is no danger, look at your position and determine if your pieces can be more actively developed. Can you strengthen you position even further? If you can, you’ll want to consider doing so before Castling.

Principles can be bent but you have to full understand them before bending them. This is thinking outside of the box and that can lead to amazing chess. Always consider your position’s strengths and weaknesses before bending a principle. If your position is weak, strengthen it. If your pawns and pieces are not on active squares, develop them further. If everything is copacetic, then consider a bit of principle bending. Here’s a game by a man who knew how to bend principles to win games!

Hugh Patterson


Exploiting Weaknesses

Beginning players tend to look at their progress during a game in terms of making aggressive attacking moves that lead to checkmate. Beginners, especially younger ones, love to attack and capture pawns and pieces. In this context, the beginner has a rather one sided or simplistic view of the game. For these players, attacking is the name of the game. My young students often end up on the losing side of a game because, in their efforts to attack, they weaken their position which allows their opponent to take advantage of this weakness and win the game. Of course, a strong position and moves that attack your opponent are instrumental in winning your game, but there is another concept that needs to employed, the exploitation of weakness. In life, the exploitation of weakness would be considered a dastardly thing to do. In chess, however, exploiting weaknesses leads to winning games. Unfortunately, most beginners haven’t matured enough, skill-wise, to consider this idea early in their chess careers. I used to wait until my students had reached a specific level before introducing the concept of exploiting an oppositional weakness. However, as an experiment, I decided to try introducing the concept of exploiting weaknesses earlier in my student’s training.

When I teach chess, and only after my students understand the game’s rules, we move on to simultaneously learning opening principles, basic tactics and how to attack. Beginners can easily become overwhelmed when faced with too much theory so I tend to teach ideas and principles using smaller steps. While teaching three ideas simultaneously might not seem like taking smaller learning steps, all three go hand in hand and each complements the other. In fact, each of the three above mentioned concepts helps to reinforce the other two!

Learning how to properly attack starts with a review of relative piece and pawn value followed by counting attackers and defenders. Generally, you want to start an attack with the units of least value. Therefore, if you have a pawn, a Knight and a Queen, you’ll want to start the attack with the pawn, the unit of least value, then the Knight and finally the Queen (there are exceptions to this idea). Before launching your attack, count up the relative value of the defending pieces and compare it to the relative value of the attacking pieces. If you’re the attacker and your material value is 17, you may not want to start exchanging pieces if the defender’s total material value is 7 points (unless the result is checkmate or you’re avoiding being checkmated). Beginners should also compare the number of attackers to defenders. If you have three attacking pieces and your opponent has five defending pieces, you’re not going to do well with your attack. Again, there are always exceptions to these principles but I work with beginners so I have to keep it simple and make sure they understand the principles before they break them. Beginners need to expand their tactical and strategic horizons!

The point here is that beginners tend to see things in a very black and white way. Beginners see the game of chess two dimensionally when they start off while the experienced player sees the game three dimensionally. This third dimension constitutes the grey areas such as exploiting an opponent’s positional weaknesses. To an experienced player, exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses is a norm rather than an exception. However, beginners tend to see things in terms of straight forward attacking or defending because they’re just taking their first swim in the ocean of strategic thinking, so they’re only ankle deep in the water rather freely swimming!

Chess teaching is a double edged sword. What I mean by this is that you have to teach the underlying mechanics of the game which leads to a very mechanical way of thinking. However, and here’s where the double edged sword rears its ugly blade, mechanical thinking leads to loss when facing an opponent who thinks outside the box (outside of the realm of mechanical thinking). Mechanical thinking is necessary if the beginner ever hopes to really improve. After all, you have to learn the game’s underlying principles. Once you have learned those principles and understand them, you can start thinking about breaking them. Pablo Picasso, for example, was known for his brilliant abstract art. However, he could paint realistic works of art (at the age of fourteen) without effort. He learned the principle of painting first and then went on to break those principles!

As usual, I’ve digressed from the topic at hand! When beginners attack, they do so based on a combination of the positioning of their pawns and pieces, with a minimal amount of attention given to their opponent’s pawn and piece positioning other than counting attackers and defenders. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this idea, the beginner is not necessarily creating the best circumstances for his or her attack. This is where the examination of an opponent’s positional weaknesses comes into play. An example I use to demonstrate this idea of positional weakness is the square or squares left behind after a piece moves.

I learned about this idea watching an instructional video by Grandmaster Maurice Ashley. When we or our opponent moves a pawn or piece, they often create a weakened position. The pawn or piece they just moved is no longer defending the squares it previously defended. This means a weakness has been created. This means that even an apparently strong move can leave behind a dangerous weakness. I tell my students that every move, no matter how good, has a potentially negative aspect to it. For example, after 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6, 3.Bc4…d6 and 4.d3…Nd4, White has to make a decision regarding his Knight on f3. Does White trade off Knights, take the pawn on e5 or move the Queen-side Knight to d2 (there are other choices but I’m trying to keep it simple)? Two of these moves, trading Knights or taking the pawn of e5 leave White with a weakness. That weakness is that the Knight previously on f3 isn’t there anymore to guard the g5 and h4 squares. The person playing Black in the above example is counting on White moving the Knight off of the f3 square which allows easier access to White’s King-side. Black sees a potential weakness and tries to exploit it.

The idea here is that you should look at your moves and your opponent’s moves for weaknesses in the form of the squares that pawns or pieces no longer defend after they move. This helps improve your game because you have to carefully consider each move in terms of weakening your position rather that strengthening it. The beginner starts to see, with a little practice, that an aggressive move may do more harm than good. I have my students write down potential weaknesses (squares left behind) for each of their moves and their opponent’s moves. In doing so, they tend to build up their attacks in a slower manner, avoiding weakening their position in exchange for a fast attack. By examining your opponent’s move, specifically the squares left behind or left undefended, you’ll start to discover weaknesses that you can exploit. You’ll also weaken your position less! Remember, every move has a potential negative side to it. Consider potential weaknesses before committing to a move and your game will improve. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson