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).

Logic and Reasoning Skills

One of the thought processing skills that chess helps develop is logic and reasoning. It’s the understanding and employment of logic and reasoning that allows a chess player to determine the best course of action within a given position. The problem that many novice players face when examining a position on the board is not so much finding the solution but determining the the correct questions to be asked that lead to that solution. After all, if you ask the wrong questions, you’ll identify the wrong problem and you won’t be able to determine the correct solution because you’re not seeing the real issue at hand. To solve any problem, you must first ask the correct questions, using logic and reasoning as your guide. This is why I teach my students problem solving skills they can use away from the chessboard first, only then applying them to the game of chess, once they’ve be mastered.

To teach logic and reasoning, I give my students some geographical problems to solve. The first of which has to do with travel. I tell them I’m taking a trip. I’m leaving from San Francisco to a destination that is roughly 3,000 miles away. Their job is to ask the appropriate questions in order to determine the right answer. Our overall goal is to ask the fewest possible questions to achieve the correct answer, which takes practice. From San Francisco, you can go roughly 3,000 miles in any direction and arrive at some destination. Therefore, the first question you might consider is which direction am I traveling? North, South, East or West? Let’s say I’m traveling East. You might then ask, how wide is the United States? It’s roughly 3,000 miles wide. Just two questions have now brought you close to the answer. Because there are many large metropolitan areas within 3,000 miles of San Francisco, you might ask what State am I traveling to and I’d answer New York. Here, many students jump the gun so to speak and say “you’re going to Manhattan, the Big Apple.” I’d say sorry, wrong answer but you’re on the right track. You might ask, is it close to Manhattan? I’d say “yes, just a subway ride away and there’s a bridge named after it.” If you said Brooklyn, you’d be correct. These questions follow a logical sequence rather than a random sequence, forming a pattern leading towards the answer.

Next we gear up the challenge. I tell my students my new destination is roughly 5,500 miles away. The parameters have now changed. With greater distance comes a greater number of possible destinations. Students know from the first problem that direction of travel is a key question to be asked. North, South, East or West? I tell them East. They know from the first problem that the United States is roughly 3,000 miles wide. This means that the first 3,000 miles leads them to the Eastern side of the United States. However, they now have to consider the remaining 2,500 miles. My more astute students will ask for a world atlas with the idea of determining the width of the Atlantic Ocean. I allow them to use an atlas, which I keep with me when we do these exercises. Once they determine that the Atlantic Ocean is close to 2,500 miles wide, it’s time to hone in on my destination a bit further. Because there are two large bodies of land, Europe and Africa, those could be destination points, so their next logical question is which of the two continents is it? Europe, I reply. Here things can get a bit tricky because there are a number of destinations near the Atlantic Coast of Europe that could be my target. Older students who have worked through these problems before, might narrow it down by asking for rough coordinates or longitude and latitude. They might also ask if my destination is on an Island, narrowing the field down quite a bit. The point here is that my students are logically narrowing down my destination sequentially through their questions. I’ll either give them my target’s rough longitude and latitude or perhaps tell them it’s an island. Working through the exercise, employing the right questions, they conclude my destination is England. Where in England? Here I tell them to narrow it by considering my destination to be a metropolitan center for chess in the UK. Many students don’t at first realize that London is the target. However, by asking further questions such as, does this metropolitan center also serve as the country’s Governmental center? Does it have a famous Bridge? It my target address 44 Baker Street? (Yes, a shameless plug for the London Chess Center) Eventually they deduce the correct answer!

You might ask, what does a geography challenge have to do with chess? The answer is simple: As I said early, beginning players often have trouble with positional problems on the chessboard because they’re not fully identifying the actual problem. They might identify “a problem” but is it the correct problem. If you identify the wrong problem, even a good answer to that identified problem does you no good if it’s not the answer to the real or underlying problem. The exercises we employ help students with their chess playing because they learn how to ask the right questions which will ultimately lead them to discovering and addressing the real problem being faced. It’s an introduction to logical thinking and the application of reasoning to problem solving. If you ask the right questions, you’re more likely to discover the real problem. Here’s how this might work when a beginner is trying to identify a positional problem on the chessboard (note, this is a very broad example):

Often beginners apply the opening principles correctly and find themselves going into the middle game with a decent developmental position. So far so good. Then, their opponent makes a few moves that create noticeable problems for our novice player. The problem with multiple problems within a given position is identifying those problems and then deciding which problem needs to be addressed first. If one problem’s solution avoids material loss and the other avoids checkmate, avoiding being mated takes precedence.

Beginners have great trouble identifying a single positional problem let alone multiple problems. The key again is asking the right questions. One reason I use geographical problems in my student’s training is because chess positions are geometrical in nature. Geography is geometrical in nature! In a middle game position, for example, my students use a mental checklist to identify positional problems. They follow a logical sequence of questioning learned via my geography exercises. Imagine trying to determine a problem using random questions. With enough random questions asked, you might eventually identify the real problem. However, if you’re on the clock, your time might run out long before you identified the real issue at hand! Therefore, your questions should be sequential in nature. My students will look at the position and start narrowing things down using the right questions, starting with the most obvious ones. Are any opposition pieces attacking my pieces? If so, are those attacking pieces of greater or lesser value than the pieces being attacked? If the attacking piece is a Knight and the attacked piece a Rook, we might consider moving that Rook. However, before moving the Rook, we should ask if doing so weakens our position? Will moving the Rook cause a ripple effect, weakening our position so much that its moving (the Rook) would create a greater number of problems? Can we launch a counter attack of an opposition piece of equal or greater value? While this is a very generalized example, it serves to show how one can employ basic logic and reasoning skills to determine a problem and its solution. In our example, we would continue to work through our questioning. If we move our Rook out of harms way can we move it to a square that allows us to maintain our positional strength? If so, what square should we move it to? The idea here is to use logical questioning to discover the true nature of the problem and only then trying to solve it.

Once we look at the opposition’s pieces we look at ours. We might ask, if I make this move, what’s my opponent’s best response (move)? The key is always to ask questions that illuminate the biggest problem at hand, starting with an examination of our opponent’s pawns and pieces in relationship to our pawns and pieces. We examine each of our opponent’s pawns and pieces and question its relationship to our pawns and pieces which often reveals the problem. Logically, we’d start by examining the opposition pawns and pieces closest to our own material and work our way outward, using logical questions to guide us.

Again, if you don’t ask the right questions, you won’t get the right answer. With practice my student’s questions become very precise, with each question bringing them closer to the correct answer. I have my students keep a small notebook to write down questions they should ask and the order in which they should be asked. Every time a good question is asked, one that brings my students closer to the answer, they write that question down in their notebook. They refer to their questions when analyzing a position, eventually committing those questions to memory. Try some geography problems to sharpen your logic and reasoning skills and you’ll be rewarded when faced with a tricky positional problem. This is an extremely shortened version of how the process works (I could fully describe it in about twenty pages) but it will give you an idea of how to get started. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Pawn Checklist

Beginners have the bad habit of becoming intoxicated with the power of the Queen, bringing her out prematurely which usually leads to disaster. These same beginners often treat their pawns as expendable, considering them of little value due to their seemingly limited abilities (in the novice player’s mind). Of course, the pawn has the lowest relative material value and this causes beginners to treat their pawns with little care. In reality the pawn is extremely powerful but only when used properly. Pawns can be the glue that binds a position together and if that glue fails, the position falls apart. I have my students repeat the phrase “pawns win games” over and over until it becomes a permanently embedded mantra.

It’s no fault of the beginner to assume that pawns aren’t very valuable. After all, each player has eight of them at the game’s start and they’re the lowest valued unit in one’s army. However, it’s usually the lowly pawn that first stakes a claim in the center of the board at the game’s start. The pawn also has the unique ability to promote into a major (Queen or Rook) or minor (Knight or Bishop) piece upon crossing the board and reaching its promotion square. Even pointing these ideas out to students, they still find themselves at odds when it comes to the question of working with their pawns. This is why I created a small list of things my students should be doing with their pawns and actions they should take against opposition pawns:

Keep you pawn structures intact! The perfect pawn structure can be found in the game’s starting position with white pawns on the second rank and black pawns on the seventh rank. Of course, this perfect pawn structure is altered the moment a pawn is moved. To keep pawn structures intact, consider moves that allow your pawns to work together. Pawn chains are one of the first pawn concepts my students learn. In a pawn chain, each pawn in the chain is supported by another pawn. So, looking at a chain of white pawns, for example, you’d have a pawn on b2, a pawn on c3, a pawn on d4 and a pawn on e5. With the exception of the b2 pawn, you have pawns protecting pawns. The point here is to make sure that you have at least one pawn on an adjacent file to lend support when needed. A pawn with no support pawns on either adjacent file is a pawn not long for this world. Try to develop pawns chains. This way, you don’t have to use your pieces to protect your pawns.

Your opponent will try to create pawn chains as well. These chains often control key squares in the center of the board. This means you’ll have to try to break those chains up. To do so, you’ll want to attack the base of the chain. In the above example, the base pawn is the b2 pawn. If you remove that pawn, the c3 pawn now has no support, making it vulnerable.

Create as few pawn islands as possible. Pawn islands are groups of pawns separated from one another by empty files. The more pawn islands you have, the greater the the number of resources or pieces you’ll have to employ in their defense. Imagine having a single piece to protect to defend your pawn islands. While that piece might be able to defend a single pawn island, defending two or three pawn islands would overload that piece (giving it too many jobs to do at once). Overloaded pieces are not participating fully in the game.

When advancing pawns, try to protect them with other pawns. If you’re thinking of advancing a pawn, make sure you can protect that pawn with another pawn on an adjacent file if possible. Of course, you can’t always do this, which means you may have to protect that pawn with a piece, but try to use pawns to protect or back up pawn advances. This is another reason why pawn chains are so important.

If you pawns are locked in place (they cannot move forward due to a material obstruction), try to use other pawns to free those locked pawns. Using pieces to do this job means you may have to give up extremely useful material to unlock the position. Pieces should be used for control of space rather than unlocking pawns. If you don’t see an immediate way to unlock your pawns using additional pawns, be patient. Remember, positions can change greatly within a few moves. If you cannot immediately unlock locked pawns with your own pawns, continue with active development, holding off on unlocking your pawns until you can do so with a pawn. Sometimes you can’t but again, be patient before giving up more valuable material to unlock your pawns.

Ending up with an isolated pawn is an occupational hazard for the average chess player (especially if you’re me). This means that sooner or later you’ll end up with one. An isolated pawn is one that has no fellow pawns on either adjacent file to help protect it. This is why pawn structure is so important! If you have an isolated pawn, consider keeping it mobile, moving forward towards its promotion square and protect it. Of course, having to protect it with a piece means that piece isn’t really working at its full potential. Therefore, avoid the isolated pawn! Examine your pawn structure before making any move and ask the question, “what does this do to my pawn structure and will this result in an isolated pawn?”

Create passed pawns when given the opportunity to do so. A passed pawn has no opposition pawns on adjacent files to stop its promotion. This means your opponent is going to have to use a piece to stop the passed pawn’s progress. So, if you create a passed pawn, push that pawn towards promotion, using a piece, such as a Rook to protect that pawn. Of course, if your opponent has a passed pawn, you must stop it, blockading it with a piece. While a passed pawn doesn’t always make it to its promotion square, it can tie up opposition pieces trying to stop its progress and that can be good for you if it’s your passed pawn!

On the other side of the coin, if your opponent has a passed pawn, you have to stop it. Try to use pieces of the least value to blockade the opposition’s passed pawn. The reasoning is simple: Pieces of greater value, such as the Rooks and Queen normally control more space on the board. In the end game, these pieces can be decisive because of their power. Beginners who know basic checkmating patterns can deliver mate with Queens and Rooks much easier than when using minor pieces. Therefore, you should use your minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops for blockading passed pawns. Of the two minor pieces, the Knight is a better choice for blockading because the Bishop is a good long distance attacker.

When down to a King and pawn against a lone King in the endgame, keep the King in front of the pawn (in opposition) rather than the pawn in front of the King until you can ensure its promotion (see my earlier article about pawn promotion for a full description of how to do this). Use you King as an active piece in the endgame to protect pawns heading toward their promotion squares. The King has to work in pawn endgames. If you have the lone King against an opposition King and pawn, do your best to use your King to control the enemy pawn’s promotion square.

Play the pawn game in which both players have only pawns. You have to get at least one pawn to its promotion square, promote that pawn into a Queen and capture all your opponent’s pawns to win. It’s a great way to learn about pawn structures, etc.

This is only a smattering of pawn concepts or ideas I present my students. However, I try to get them to grasp these basic ideas first, only later working on multiple pawn endgames (two or three pawns and their respective Kings for both players). Pawns are so important in chess that volume after volume has been written about working with pawns. However, I don’t expect my students to delve into these texts until they’ve played for a while. Be kind to your pawns because they often save the day! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Really? A Battle of the Sexes

If you follow chess news around the world, you may have read a recent article about whether or not men are better at chess than women. Of course, the article created a bit of an uproar. The article’s author, a person I respect highly as a chess player, failed to provide any scientific evidence to back the claims being made that men make better chess players than women. If you are going to make a claim that men may be better than women at chess, please provide some sort of support or at the least some personal experience regarding the issue at hand. It reminded me of a journalist who interviewed a general about trench warfare in World War One. The general painted a rosy picture of the situation, making it out to be a bit of a camping adventure. If you really want to know about life in the trenches, ask the poor soldiers who had to live there in a world filled with death and decay, not the generals who spent their days and nights in luxurious homes miles from the front line carnage! I say this because I’m in the trenches of chess education, day after day, and have some experience regarding the issue of men versus women in chess.

Here are a few thoughts that ran through my head while reading the article in question. While I didn’t do any scientific research regarding those thoughts, I still think they raise some valid points.

First of all, if you compare the number of men playing chess to the number of women playing chess, you’ll find the number of male players greatly overshadows the number of female players. You would need more even numbers to make a real statistical comparison. For example, if over six hundred million people play chess worldwide (a number used when numerically describing the popularity of the game) and the number of male players to female players is a percentage greater than seventy percent, you can’t form a sound statistical model to base an argument on. You’d need a more even number to determine whether men are better chess players than women and you’d need a serious scientific study to back up such a claim. I haven’t seen such a study, have you?

Then there are the Polgar sisters. If you follow chess’s rich and interesting history, you’ll know that the Polgar sisters are extremely talented titled players. In fact, so strong are their talents that they could easily beat the majority of all the male chess players currently playing chess. This isn’t to say that they’d beat every single titled player in the world but they’d beat the majority of male chess players, who are not titled players. A trio sisters against, let’s say five hundred million male players, (a conservative estimate), crushing those male players (if given the chance to play them). I’d say that puts a slight dent in the argument that men are better chess players. Oh, did I mention the plethora of other titled women chess players who could equally crush our non-titled male players?

In my own work as a chess instructor and coach, I have found that my female students tend to do better when learning the game than their male counterparts. They tend to focus more on the lessons and immediately apply what they’ve learned to their games. I am a huge supporter of women in chess and work very hard to ensure that more young ladies learn to play the game. It can be difficult for them, not because there is a intellectual difference between the male and female brain, but because it’s a male dominated game and this seems to be the root of the problem.

In any given chess class that I teach, the ratio of male to female students tends to be eight to two at best, meaning that eighty percent of the class is male and twenty percent is female. Often, my young ladies will feel a bit out of place because they can sometimes be the only female in the class. Because of this, I work very hard to make them feel part of the group. I also ask them how they feel about being only young lady in the class. When they tell me they feel a “bit weird,” I tell them that rather than feel weird, feel like a hero because they are blazing the trail for other young ladies to take up chess. I also ask them if they think chess should be dominated by men? Of course, they say no! I tell them that they have the chance to change this and while they might feel uncomfortable at first, being in a male dominated situation, they can be part of chess history by turn the tide and becoming an example. My young ladies are true trail blazers and heroes, at least in my opinion.

One of the things that drew me to chess was the idea that we are a global community that doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, liberal or conservative, Christian or Muslim, male or female. We gather at the chessboard because of our love of the game. To make a claim regarding one group being better at chess than another is a direct attack against the cohesive nature of our global chess family. I take offense at the idea that men are better chess players than women!

Seriously, chess is a game that requires certain intellectual skills, meaning that one needs a working brain to process the information presented on the chessboard. Skills, such as pattern recognition, are not more developed in male brains. Both sexes have equal claim to the intellectual skills required to play chess.

The real issue at hand is the fact that you cannot claim that men are superior to women when it comes to chess and not have any proof to back it up. I know plenty of women who crush their male opponents, my wife being one of those women. Believe me, it wasn’t a sunny day at Patterson Manor when Mrs. Patterson got wind of that article. I plan on going back to more instructive articles next week as long as certain members of the chess community don’t end up in the news again. Here’s a game by a woman who is beyond brilliant when it comes to chess. She is a role model for my young ladies! Enjoy and remember, chess is for everyone.

Hugh Patterson

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The Power of the Threat

While executing an attack or promoting a pawn can lead to a winning game, beginners often do so because they think that action (attacking or promoting) is more powerful than the threat of action. Taking action, such as launching a successful attack against your opponent or promoting a pawn, certainly can lead to victory. However, sometimes just the threat of such actions can have a greater influence on the course of the game in the long run. An attack can fizzle out and a passed pawn can be captured. However, a good threat can create long term problems for your opponent, stalling their plans while they deal with yours!

Typically, the beginning chess player only looks at moves that lead to something concrete or immediate, such as employing a fork to win material or getting a pawn to its promotion square to add another Queen into the game. These are certainly good goals to have in mind when determining the next move in your game. However, beginners employing this type of thinking are actually looking at things in black and white terms. While the majority of the game’s principles appear to be black and white in nature, there are exceptions or gray areas which more experienced players understand and take advantage of. The threat is one such example.

When we first learn the game’s principles, such as having more attackers than opposition defenders, we approach this principle in a rather primitive way. We pick a target and start aiming our pawns and pieces at that target. As beginners we develop tunnel vision, seeing only our target which limits our consideration of other positional aspects. We use such chess principles to improve our game but when we treat a principle as an iron clad rule we run into problems. Take the threat of doing something compared to making good on that threat and taking action.

A threat is suggesting that you’re going to do something without actually doing it. You’re neighbors might be talking about throwing an all night party so you knock on their door the day before the party and tell them you’ll call the police if the party goes on past a certain hour. This is an example of a threat. Your neighbors might reconsider their party if they think the police will show up and shut it down. You might not have to even call the police because the threat of taking action means those troublesome neighbors will most like reconsider their plans. This same idea holds true in chess.

The simplest example of a strong threat in chess can be found in the passed pawn. A passed pawn is one that has no opposition pawns on the files on either side of it. So, if you have a pawn on the c file and there are no opposition pawns on the b and d files, that mighty little c pawn has a chance to make its way to its promotion square (c8 for White and c1 for Black). The threat is the threat of promotion. This creates problems for your opponent because he or she will have to keep an eye on that pawn, in the form of employing pieces to stop its promotion. Valuable opposition pieces will have to stop what they’re doing, participating actively in the game, to prevent the promotion.

Lets say you get your c pawn to the square c7. Now that pawn is one move away from promotion. The pawn on c7 is a major threat that your opponent cannot ignore. Just keeping the pawn on c7, using a pawn or piece to protect it maintains the threat. This means your opponent has to deal with that threat which can weaken his or her position because someone has to pull guard duty. If you are able to safely promote the pawn, that’s great. However, if you can maintain the threat of promoting that pawn for five or six moves you’ll be doing more damage to your opponent’s game because they’ll have to deal with that threat during each of those five or six moves.

Tactical threats are also very useful, using the same idea that your opponent has to deal with the threat. Let’s say you see a potential Knight fork that will garner material if the fork is executed. Your opponent might see the threat and have to adjust his or her plans to prevent it. If you can keep the Knight positioned so that the threat is maintained for another move or two, your opponent will have to keep shuffling pawns and pieces around to deal with the threat. This means your opponent isn’t able to execute their immediate plan and instead, deal with your threat. While gaining material is certainly worth something, forcing your opponent to deal with a threat by potentially weakening his or her position is worth more. Dealing with threats often means weakening one’s position.

Employing threats in chess is also a great way to learn how to be patient. Beginners are far from patient when they start their chess careers, often launching early attacks that might gain material but weaken their position. When developing a threat on the chessboard you have to hold off on executing the threat, or taking action, until the moment is right. In the case of our Knight fork, you don’t want to try to maintain the threat indefinitely. You want to let your opponent weaken their position and then execute the tactic, in this case a fork. This teaches the beginner a valuable lesson in both patience and timing. When to execute the fork depends on a number of positional aspects. If you’re about to lose the opportunity to execute the fork, then employ this tactic, letting the threat become reality. The same thing holds true with our pawn promotion example. All threats have an expiration date and all expiration dates are different, depending on the position.

One good way to learn about threats is to play through master level games. I have my students go through a game looking for threats. They’ll go through one game four or five times. I have them play through the game twice, simply getting a feel for the game itself, noting whether it’s open or closed game, etc. My students will then note each time a tactic is played or a passed pawn created during their third play through of the game. Next they go back and look at the moves leading up to the tactical play or moment the pawn became a passed pawn. In the case of the tactic, they note when the threat of the tactic started and how long (in moves) it took for the threat to be turned into reality (when the fork, for example, was finally employed) or stopped. With passed pawns, I have students follow the action from the moment the passed pawn was created to either its promotion or capture. How long did the threat hold up? How many pawns and pieces did the opposition have to use to deal with the threat? How was the opponent’s position weakened while dealing with the threat? By playing through master level games, students clearly see the effectiveness of threats which they can then employ in their own games.

Threats can have a greater long term value in the form of tying up opposition material and weakening one’s position. With master level games, it’s extremely educational to see how both sides make and deal with threats. Here’s a game chock full of threats by my favorite chess player, Boris Spassky. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

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Say it isn’t So, Wesley!

If you follow the tournament circuit, you undoubtedly know about what I am now referring to as “doodle-gate.” I use the word doodle, because that is exactly what Wesley did during a ninth round game at the United States Chess Championship in St. Louis earlier this month. An Arbiter declared Wesley’s game against Varuszhan Akobian to be a forfeit, giving the victory to Akobian after he complained about Wesley writing on a piece of paper, forbidden by FIDE tournament rules. What was he scribbling or doodling? Were they words that would turn the tide unfairly against Akobian? Absolutely not! They were merely a few self inspiring words, ” Double check. Triple check. Use your time.” Hardly a Machiavellian scheme to win the game. This has caused an uproar in the chess community and made tournament Arbiters about as popular as parking enforcement officers (those dunces that write parking tickets). My heart goes out to Wesley because, rules or not, I don’t think he did anything morally wrong. In fact, I think FIDE may want to reconsider their rule regarding this issue.

Chief Arbiter Tony Rich said that So wrote “words of general encouragement and advice” to himself on a piece of paper below his score sheet, which FIDE tournament rules forbid. Rich had warned Wesley twice before awarding the game to his opponent. Many chess players from around the world have taken sides on this thorny issue and Wesley So, proving what a decent human being he is, humbly explained himself on Facebook. While I think So received a punishment that outweighed the crime ten fold, the question arises, are the rules that govern tournaments in need of an overhaul? Should they remain as is? Why not take time off of his clock? This got me to thinking about governing rules or laws in general and when they become problematic.

There have been a number of well publicized cheating scandals in the chess world over the last few years. While the number of honest players far outweighs the number of cheaters, at least in over the board games, these cheating scandals have caused problems for honest players. An honest player who works extremely hard, putting in long hours of study and improving greatly for his or her efforts, can often look forward to being accused of cheating when they produce above average results at a tournament. What kind of culture rewards an individual’s hard work by suspecting them of cheating? The culture of black and white, Western culture!

In fairness to Arbiters and tournament staffs that run events, there is always the potential for cheating. The computer technology meant to improve our lives, has also made cheating an easily rendered reality. However, to accuse an individual of cheating should not be taken likely. To do so sullies a person’s reputation and in the end we’re only as good as our reputation in the eyes of others. The solution for putting an end to cheating is not an easy one and so far no one has been able to solve this problem to everyone’s satisfaction. Do we simply go through a full electronic body scan and sit naked at the chessboard? That’s not likely, for aesthetic reasons alone. The point is that there’s no immediate and easy solution.

I mention cheating because it’s an example of the plethora of problems chess federations around the world face today. The laws and bi-laws established in the past to make tournaments proceed smoothly should regularly be examined to see if they’re still valid today. In the United States, there are antiquated laws that make no sense. An example of this is the former Ice Cream law in the town of Carmel California. This city ordinance stated that it was illegal to eat ice cream on the main street of the town. Did I mention that there was an extremely popular ice cream shop on that street? Essentially, you could walk into the store, purchase an ice cream cone legally, walk out the door with cone in hand and become a criminal! Fortunately, Clint Eastwood became Mayor of Carmel and put an end to that law. I site this example because it exemplifies the idea that no rule of law can completely stand on it’s own merits forever. Of course, I’m not talking about laws regarding serious crimes such as murder.

To think that the rules that govern chess tournaments need not be reviewed and revised when necessary is unrealistic. A purist would say of Wesley’s actions, that his doodling was distracting. While I’m not a world class player by any means, my eyes are on the board, seeing only the position in front of me. Personally, I wouldn’t care if my opponent was formulating a cure for cancer on a cocktail napkin during our game. It’s about the action on the sixty four squares!

In fairness, Akibain had the right to complain. However, why not simply ask Wesley to stop, one human being making a simple request of another human being. If you know anything about Wesley So, you know that he is a polite, kind human being, not some wunderkind brat likely to laugh at your request. Chess tournament history is littered with stories of chess players literally insulting one another during a game, a much greater offense than inspirational doodling, with no forfeiture of the game for either party involved.

The Arbiter is trained to operate within the letter of the law but not trained to deal with the quirkiness of the human spirit and chess players can be a quirky bunch (which is why I feel so at home in the world of chess, more so than in the world of music). Serious chess players are a unique breed. They can be eccentric, outspoken, introverted and/or obsessed. The laws that govern tournament play only take into account the game and the environment in which it’s played. I say this because Arbiters need to be able to see beyond the black and white of the rule book, human nature. Again, why not take time off of Wesley’s clock?

What would happen if the FIDE rules changed and players were allowed to doodle during their games? Having a basic understanding of human nature, I could only image the chaos that would ensue. Some players might write unflattering comments about their opponents, making sure the opposition could see those comments. That would be an offense worthy of game forfeiture. However, Wesley’s words we simply inspirational. In fact, his opponent would have benefited from such inspirational words as well. I guess you could say that Wesley provided inspiration for both himself and Akibain.

Should Wesley have listened to the Arbiter? Absolutely! As much as I disagree with this ruling by FIDE, it is a tournament rule and you need to adhere to the rules. However, the punishment didn’t fit the crime. I’ve worked as an Arbiter and can tell you it isn’t easy. You cannot please both players when making a decision. As chess players we learn the games rules and mechanics or principles. Once we master the basics, we learn to think outside of the box, non mechanical thinking, which makes us better players. Shouldn’t a good Arbiter be an individual who, knowing the rules, thinks outside of the box to produce the best results? I challenge all Arbiters worldwide to be more creative and human in their rulings. Who knows, you might become more popular. Here’s a game by Wesley to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Chess and Bonding

I was once offered a piece of advice regarding parenting, “you’re damned if you do and damned of you don’t.” During the early years of your child’s life, he or she looks up to you as parent and hero and all things in between. Then come the teenage years and with them rebellion. No matter what you do, your child will disagree with you, spitting out statements such as “you just don’t understand,” or worse yet, “I hate you.” This can be heartbreaking for a loving parent! However, this attitude tends to be a natural evolutionary stage for teenagers who are exploring the boundaries of adolescence and societal behavior. Don’t take it personally.

Activities that bond parent and child can be extremely important during these unruly years and act as a lifeline for adolescents who might otherwise venture into dangerous situations that lead to irreparable damage. Many parents bond with their children through sports, sharing a common love of a football team, or through youth sporting leagues. However, this bond is often not strong enough to survive the rigors of those terrible teenage years. Of course, I tell my students that it’s their job to rebel as a teenager, doing so creatively rather than destructively. After all, some of the world’s greatest rebels have created some of civilization’s greatest achievements. I also tell them that one day they’ll be sorry for the things they say to their parents in their youth.

Maintaining a bond with a child throughout both your lives can be difficult. So many factors come into play that can work against the parent/child relationship, eroding that relationship before it’s had a chance to fully develop. While love is the key, love can be an extremely difficult idea for the young mind to truly understand. Therefore, developing solid bonds early on, bonds that have the ability to last a lifetime, provide the greatest opportunity for not losing touch with your children.

Chess is a fantastic bonding tool for parent and child. Before delving into the psychological aspects of this idea, we should look at the socioeconomic reasons for chess being an excellent bonding tool. First off, investing in chess equipment is inexpensive. You just need a chess set and access to learning materials which can be found online or at your local library. Second, chess doesn’t have defined social boundaries (financial, religious or political). Rich or poor, Catholic or Muslim, Democrat or Republican, people who love the game of chess play for their love of the game. I’ve often seen Muslims and Catholics happily battling it out on the chessboard, putting their religious differences aside for the sake of the game. Chess has no physical requirements, so a parent with a disability who cannot play football with their child can still play chess with that child.

What sets aside chess as a good bonding tool over other parent/child endeavors is that it is an activity that both parent and child can learn at the same time with both participants being on equal footing (although children who are serious about chess tend to eclipse their parents over time). Because there are no physical aspects to the game, the age at which you learn to play isn’t an issue. Try being a fifty year old man learning how to play football with his fifteen year old son!

The idea that chess can improve a child’s logic and reasoning skills also applies to parents. Imagine an activity that is equally good for both parent and child alike! Chess is also good for one’s memory which is a plus for older parents and excellent for children lacking in focus.

Psychologically, I believe that chess allows for a tighter, long lasting bond between parent and child because it’s a game of the mind in which both players are interlocked in a dance of sorts. Plans are met by counter plans, a type of intellectual ballet. Chess is a neutral zone where parents are less apt to say something their child thinks uncool or offensive, which erodes at the bond rather than strengthening it. It’s a chance to spend time with your child in a place where it’s all about the action on the board. Both parent and child can leave their views and opinions of the world on the sidelines and enter the world of chess.

If you’re a parent who already plays chess, you can help develop your child’s chess skills without having to worry about saying something they won’t like. Your child, even unruly teenagers, will appreciate getting better because they, in turn, will be able to go out and beat their friends at chess (thanks to your help). With teenagers, you don’t want to set up a scheduled time to play on a regular basis at first. Set up a chessboard and sooner or later they’ll get curious. Only then, when your child is interested, should you suggest a regularly scheduled game. This can go a long way towards strengthening bonds.

If you and you child are both new to chess, you have an opportunity to create a very strong bond. If your child is taking his or her first chess class, ask them to show you what they learned in class that day. Let your child become the teacher. Of course, you’ll want to go over what they show you, using an age appropriate chess book, to reinforce your own knowledge, and to make sure they’re playing correctly. If your child struggles with a chess concept, work together to understand it. I offer the parents of my students, the opportunity to sit in on my classes or take a couple of free lessons to get them up to speed. That is how important the idea of bonding through chess is to me. I encourage all of my student’s family members to play chess and have had classes with a parent, uncle and grandmother of one student all learning at the same time.

Chess provides a nice break for both parent and child from the technological devices that we spend much of our day staring at. Video games are a parent’s worst nightmare because they’re often violent and send the wrong message to impressionable minds. Most parents have no interest in the video games their kids play. You don’t have that problem with chess! Chess requires no batteries! Chess helps develop patience in both parent and child and patience is a much needed skill for parents.

I’ve seen first hand, potentially troubled teens who maintained a bond with a parent through their love of chess. Those same teenagers never ended up getting into too much trouble because of that bond. Try playing some chess with your child. Consider it a long term investment, one that pays off down the road. Play chess with your child because forming a better bond may be the single event that prevents calamity later on in their lives. Better human bonds make for better humans. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Cramped Positions

When we first learn how to play chess, we study open games as opposed to closed games. In an open game, there are plenty of available squares on the board, making piece placement easier. Long distance attackers, such as the Bishop, Rook and Queen rule the positional roost. In a closed game, there is less space available, so our long distance pieces can’t openly control the board. Our Knights and pawns become the positional weapons of choice. Open games lead to more tactical play while closed games lead to more positional play. The beginner, more often than not, becomes lost when their opponent steers the game toward a closed position. In closed games, the center of the board is often cramped which leaves beginners wondering what to do. Here are some simple suggestions for un-cramping a closed position.

When faced with a closed or cramped position, you have to create a plan for relieving the pressure. Many beginners end up further cramping their position because they make moves that avoid exchanges, thinking that if they can further close the position down, their opponent will eventually have to give in and make a move that costs them material. Wrong! If you’re playing an opponent who has experience with closed or cramped positions they’re going to, as the saying goes, give you enough rope and watch you hang yourself. Remember, you are used to open positions while your opponent may be used to closed or cramped positions. This is the type of position they like! Therefore, you have to have a plan, which can be difficult for those not used to this type of situation. There are four ideas you can employ to relieve the cramped or closed position.

First, consider removing or trading opposition pieces that are cramping your position. Bishops, for example, are at their best in open positions where they have great mobility. However, if they have no room in which to move, they’re “bad Bishops.” On the other side of the coin, because Knights can jump over other pieces, they work extremely well in closed or cramped positions. If your opponent has “good Knights” and you have “bad Bishops,” see if you can find a way to trade you immobile Bishops for your opponent’s mobile Knights. While Knights and Bishops have the same relative value, this value changes depending on the type of position they’re in. Trading a bad piece for a good piece will help to unclog the position, opening things up. The better a piece’s mobility, the better that piece is!

Second, use pieces of lesser value to push back pieces of greater value that stand in your way. This is a realm in which pawns are King! Because pawns have the lowest relative value, a pawn attacking a minor or major piece is (in most cases but not all) going to force that piece off of its square. The same holds true with minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) attacking major pieces (Rooks and Queens). However, you must take care when attacking in such a way. This type of attack is only completely successful if it drives the targeted piece away without weakening your position. If you successfully drive the piece in question away, only to create a position that allows your opponent to win material or checkmate your King on the next move, you might reconsider your attack. Don’t be discouraged by this last statement! In closed or cramped positions, it usually takes more than one opposition move to ruin your game.

Third, consider attacking your opponent’s weakest point on the board, which can be difficult for beginners to determine. The easiest way for the beginner to find the weakest point in their opponent’s position is to look at each opposition pawn and piece and determine the number of defenders that pawn or piece has. Since attacking the King is the name of the game, start by looking at the pawns and pieces defending the opponent’s King. However, there are often weaknesses elsewhere that can provide an avenue for attack. Always count the number of attackers you have and compare it to the number of defenders your opponent has. Remember, you’ll want to have more attackers than opposition defenders.

Fourth, Attack the opposition’s space advantage straight or head on! When experienced chess players navigate closed or cramped positions, the scales are a bit more balanced. By this, I mean that both players have a more even positions, cramped as it may be. When beginners face a closed or cramped position, they are more often than not playing someone who knows this type of position better. This means, the beginner’s pieces are cramped together with no room to breath while their opponent’s pieces have a bit more in the way of mobility. This means the beginner has to bit the bullet and attack. However, you can’t just attack any piece! Examine the position and look for the piece that controls the most space. When I refer to space, I’m talking about space on your side of the board! Think about where you’d like to put your pieces and determine which opposition piece prohibits this. That’s your target. You might consider exchanging a piece of great value for an opposition pieces of lesser value if doing so gives your other pieces much needed breath room.

I have my students learn a bit about closed positions early on, not so they can start playing closed games out of the gate but so they can recognize openings or sequences of moves that lead to closed or cramped positions. Recognizing that a position is heading towards becoming closed helps you prepare for such a position. If your opponent is trying to close or cramp a position, you should be trying to keep it open. If you find yourself in a cramped position, try using my four suggestions to open that position up. Here’s a game by a gentleman who loved closed positions. Enjoy!

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External Pattern Recognition Exercises

Parents often enroll their kindergarten aged students in a chess class with the idea of introducing their children to logic and reasoning skills early on. When teaching children of such a young age, conventional chess teaching approaches have to be reconsidered. I have one class that is made up of both Kindergarten and First Grade students only. I’ve had this class for roughly nine months and we’ve made some remarkable progress in the development of their chess skills. One technique I’ve used to help develop their chess playing is external pattern recognition exercises. These exercise have worked so well that I’m recommended them to older students as well.

Let me start by explaining the difference between internal and external pattern recognition in terms of my curriculum. Internal pattern recognition is finding or seeing patterns on the chessboard during a game. While this is a goal all chess players strive for, it should and is strengthened by external pattern recognition exercises. External pattern recognition exercises take place far from the chessboard, often in within our daily lives. External pattern recognition exercises lay a solid foundation for recognizing patterns on the chessboard. By employing these external exercises, your ability to recognize specific patterns on the chessboard (internal) will increase at a faster rate.

Because I teach students of all ages, I have to create external pattern recognition exercises appropriate to specific age groups. While all the exercises work well for older students, very young students require exercises that they can comprehend. If they can’t comprehend an exercise, they won’t get anything useful out of it. Therefore, I’ll start with exercises for the youngest of my students.

The idea of pattern recognition can be completely foreign to a Kindergarten or First Grade student. Thus, the definition I give them is “things that match.” I have my young students create a simple list of things they see in their daily lives that match, such as a pair of socks or four tires on a car. This is external pattern recognition (away from the chessboard), Each week, my young students give me their list of things that match. We then look at a chessboard, set up to play a game. I ask them to show me everything that matches on the chessboard, such all the White pawns, all the Black pawns and so on. At this point, I ask them to create a new list, this time looking specifically at nature for examples. When looking at a grouping of similar trees, is there one that has more branches than the others or is leaning in the opposite direction than the others? We increase the scope of their pattern recognition with each passing week. We always go back to the chessboard where I ask them to further explore patterns such as the diagonals, ranks and files. This continues throughout their chess classes for at least six months (no matter how good their chess playing gets).

For older students, I use card games to help build their pattern recognition skills. We start with Solitaire, namely the computer program version of the game. The student plays a three card draw version of Solitaire rather than the single card at a time version. The reason for this is simple. While trying to match the appropriate cards, they have to keep track cards they need within the three card set they’re trying to play. I recommend playing this card game for ten minutes each day because it helps to focus the mind towards recognizing specific patterns. If you want to try this, set the game options so it isn’t timed. Then, once you get used to playing it on a regular basis, use the timer. Solitaire can be an excellent way to enhance pattern recognition.

For adult students, I recommend playing draw poker, specifically the apps designed for tablets. Draw poker has some useful advantages for the novice adult chess player. First, it teaches pattern recognition in a very visual way. You essentially have five cards on the screen and are given the choice to hold those cards or to exchange them for new cards from the deck (exchanging one to five cards per hand). The app always gives you the odds of specific hands such as a pair, three of a kind, four of a kind, etc. Another advantage to using this draw poker game for training is that it forces you to play more scientifically, ultimately (if you’re playing correctly) taking less chances. How does draw poker playing apply to chess?

I spoke of wishful thinking in my last article. Wishful thinking is hoping your opponent will make the move you want them to make as opposed to the best move they can make independent of your ideas. In draw poker, for example, novice players will play a pair of twos rather than hold onto a Ace. If you look at the odds chart that comes with the game, you’ll see that it’s better to hold the Ace. While it is tempting to play the pair, hoping the computer program behind the app will bend to your will, it’s wishful thinking!

Speaking of programming, I introduce my older students to the idea of playing the program’s algorithm, the mathematical instructions that tells the computer how to respond to the card hand you play. Because this version of poker is based on a mathematical formula, it will respond to specific situations in a calculated way (it’s programming), not just responding to your card hand based on odds. You play the algorithm by noting patterns in the hands being played. For instance, if you win two hands, one with a pair of Queens, the next with three Queens, holding a Queen in the next or third hand dealt might not work. The computer program behind the app is designed to respond in a specific way to the cards you play. I have been researching the algorithm behind a specific draw poker app with a group of students and we have been able to win quite a bit by playing the program not just the odds.

The point to all this is to use external methods to improve your pattern recognition because you can literally find patterns everywhere you go and the more you study patterns off of the chessboard, the better your pattern recognition becomes on the chessboard. Games such as Scrabble are also wonderful for pattern recognition. Try some of these exercises and you’ll not only improve your chessboard pattern recognition but see life in a more interesting way. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Wishful Thinking

The beginner makes a move with high hopes that his or her opponent will make the counter-move the beginner has anticipated. Of course, their opponent makes a move but it isn’t the move our beginner anticipated. Our beginner is now faced with a weak position that degrades further and further with each subsequent move. Where did our intrepid beginner go wrong? Our beginner employed the same idea many desperate gamblers use, wishful thinking. My Uncle, who was quite a good gambler, used to say “scared money never wins.” Employing wishful thinking nets the same result, a journey on the road to ruin. What is wishful thinking in chess?

Wishful thinking is making a move that only works if your opponent makes the exact move you want them to make and that opposition move is a poor one! Good chess means both players are making the best moves in an effort to execute their individual plans. Wishful thinking chess means playing one sided chess. One sided chess is only considering what you can do, not what your opponent can do. This is a huge hurdle for the novice player.

Beginners are generally overwhelmed by the large number of game principles and theory thrown at them through instructional material in the form of books, DVDs and software. They often halfheartedly learn these principles and try to bend or break them before they have a true understanding of those principles. A general life principle might tell you it is dangerous to walk on the edge of a cliff because you could slip, fall off and meet a dreadful end. Our beginning chess student certainly wouldn’t walk next to the edge of a cliff because it’s dangerous. However, that same student would take a chance by bending a game principle. Our student would exercise logic and reason when faced with a physically dangerous situation but wouldn’t employ the same logic and reason on the chess board. He might consider taking a chance on the chessboard. Chance has no place in chess because it’s akin to wishful thinking!

Logic should be the driving force behind the moves a beginner makes. Logic is the science of the formal principles of reasoning. Thus, to employ logic you employ specific principles when making a decision. Of course, this is an extremely simplified definition but one that will serve to guide the beginning chess player. Chess principles are ideas that have been tested and retested over time, always found to be sound in nature. If you’re a beginner you should seriously consider the idea that these principles work and they should be learned and employed by you from day one. When you play thought a game by a Grandmaster who breaks or bends a game principle successfully, remember that the Grandmaster first had to master those principles. Mastering game principles means completely understanding them and employing them. When you learn how to play a musical instrument, you spend many years mastering basic musical principles. Only after you gained a fair amount of knowledge, can you start to explore the idea of breaking protocol or principle. You have to learn how to walk before you run!

Two sets of principles, opening and endgame principles, are the most maligned by beginners. When I teach beginner’s classes, I teach basic principles for both these phases of the game. I keep it simple. For the opening phase, I teach the three primary principles, moving a pawn that controls the board’s center on move one, development of minor pieces towards the center and castling. For the endgame phase, I teach basic mating combinations and pawn promotion. My classes spend a great deal of time working on these principles, yet there are always a handful of students who insist on employing wishful thinking, doing things their way rather than the principled way.

There is something to be said about trail and error learning. Sometimes, we need to fail repeatedly to truly learn a lesson. However, this method of thinking can discourage the novice chess player. Therefore, when teaching the game’s principles, the chess teacher must carefully and thoroughly explain each principle in great detail! One of the best ways to teach a principle is to demonstrate what happens when that principle isn’t employed, namely the dire consequences that result. If I have a student who is having trouble embracing game principles, we sit down and play a few games. As I make principled moves and my student makes unprincipled moves, I explain the consequences carefully as we play. The student sees the consequences of not using correct principles on the board as he or she plays.

This easiest way to get students to employ principled play is to teach them to use simple logic as a guide when determining the correct move. I teach my students that logical thinking in chess is weighing the good against the bad. For example, we’re all taught that moving the e pawn to e4 is the best move for an absolute beginner. If a student simply moves the e pawn because everyone says it’s the best move, then they’re not really learning anything in the way of logical thinking. If the student is taught that control of the center is key in the opening, then they have a logical reason for playing 1. e4. However, you have to provide more information such as saying “this moves allows the Queen and King-side Bishop instant access to the board.” You can also further expand on this idea by saying that the opposition’s King is on a central file and he is the ultimate target. Additionally, pieces are more powerful when centrally located. The more information provided, the greater the logical reinforcement. The more information a teacher provides regarding why a principle is sound, the more likely a student will apply that principle. A student should always think about what makes a principled move sound rather than blindly making that move.

Once the principles have been ingrained in the student’s mind, it’s time to stamp out wishful thinking once and for all. This happens when you carefully consider your opponent’s best response to your potential move. Often, a beginner will try to chase a long range piece (Bishop, Rook or Queen) with a short range piece (Pawn, Knight or King). Of course, the long range piece simply races away. If you consider your opponent’s best response to such an idea, you’d never make that move in the first place! To think about your opponent’s best response to your move, put yourself in your opponent’s shoes. Pretend your playing you opponent’s pieces when considering a move. What would you do to stop the move your considering. One exercise I have my student’s do it is switching sides during a game on every move. You start making a move for White and when your opponent makes Black’s move, you switch sides. This is very effective in destroying wishful thinking.

You have to play both sides of the board not just your side of the board. You have to use the principles and basic logic to guide your moves. If you don’t you’re not playing a game of thinking but a game of chance. Remember, when playing a game of chance, the house always wins and sadly you’re not the house. Here’s game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Strategy or Tactics

Students often ask me which is more important, strategy or tactics? It’s a good question, one worth exploring. It’s been said that chess is 99% tactics and the beginner might agree with this since many beginner’s games are won through the deployment of accidental tactics, such as a fork or pin. I say accidental because tactics require a combination of pieces to be in the right place at the right time. This means setting up a specific position which is generally beyond the scope of most beginners. Many beginners stumble onto tactical plays which helps solidify their belief that tactics are the primary key to chess success. However, tactical positions don’t simply appear out of nowhere. This is where strategic thinking comes into play.

Many chess students invest in training software programs that are a collection of tactical problems. While these programs help you to spot tactical opportunities and develop your board vision, which is a good thing, they don’t address a key issue. That issue is how tactical positions come about in the first place. It’s all well and good to be able to spot a tactical opportunity but unless you can create one from scratch while playing, it does you little good. This is one problem with purely tactical studies. Beginner’s spot tactical puzzle solutions but don’t know how the position was arrived at. This is where the study of strategy comes into play.

When beginners start playing chess they look for the big plays, such as fast checkmates and attacks that garner them substantial material. Its all about making moves that either win the game or win pieces. The beginner’s style of playing is based on clumsy brute force thinking. It takes time and practice to develop a more strategic way of playing. When beginners play one another, one often wins because one player stumbles upon a fork, for example, that allows them to win them a Rook or Queen. Their opponent suddenly feels as if they’ve lost a critical piece of material and continues the game as if waiting for the hangman to come and dispatch them from this mortal coil! I’ve seen many students lose a major piece (Rook or Queen) and subsequently lose their will to win. Tactical plays don’t simply appear magically. They require a combination of moves that are based on strategic principles. Without strategy, tactics would be impossible.

The beginner might think that strategy requires many years of carefully honing one’s chess skills, and they’d be right. However, this doesn’t mean that the beginner will not be able to employ tactics until they completely mastered the art of strategy. There are a few basic strategical ideas the beginner can employ to bring them one step closer to creating tactical plays. The most important idea the beginner must learn when walking the road towards tactical mastery is the idea of piece activity.

My students get their first introduction to piece activity when they learn the second of the three primary opening principles, developing your pieces during the opening. During the opening, beginners are taught to move or develop their minor pieces towards the board’s four central squares, d4, d5, e4 and e5 (the squares directly surrounding those four central squares are introduced in later lessons). Then the Rooks are connected by moving the Queen off of her starting rank (but not too far away). Beginners often decide that getting their four minor pieces developed towards the center and connecting their Rooks ends the piece activity phase of the game. They then start launching attacks and looking for, you guessed it, tactical plays such as forks, pins, skewers, etc. Disappointment soon follows because there are no tactical plays to be had (in most cases)!

Piece activity is critical and the greater your piece activity, the greater the opportunity for tactics. This means you have to think strategically or long term. Once you’ve developed your pieces during the opening, you should always be looking to improve a piece (or pawn’s) activity. Active squares are those that influence, control or nail down space in the center or on the opponent’s side of the board. If you control a greater number of squares on your opponent’s side of the board than he or she controls on your side of the board two things are going to happen. First, your opponent is going to have a difficult time safely getting his or her own pieces into the game and second, you’ll have a better chance of employing tactics. So, is piece activity the only key to the successful employment of tactics? No, you need to develop your ability to create combinations.

A combination in chess is a series of connected moves that lead to a positional set up. That positional set up allows you to execute tactical plays such as forks, pins, skewers, etc (or checkmate). When you look at a beginner’s tactical puzzle, which is often solved with a single move, you’re not seeing what lead up to that amazing fork or pin. You see the end result of a combination of moves that lead up to that winning tactical move. Combinations are difficult for beginners because the novice chess player is still looking only one move ahead. Worse yet, the beginner thinks they see a few moves ahead but what they’re really seeing is their move and the response they want their opponent to make. Then, when their opponent makes exactly the move our beginner wants them to make, our novice player hits them with a daring tactical move. “If I make this move and my opponent makes that move, I’ll be able to fork their King and Queen, winning the Queen.” It sounds great except for one slight problem. Your opponent isn’t going to simply make a bad move in order to allow you to win their Queen.

This is a case of wishful thinking and wishful thinking is a sure fire way to lose chess games. What the beginner needs to consider is the best possible move their opponent can make in response to their own move. I teach my students to consider their opponent’s move as if they were suddenly playing their opponent’s side of the board. Doing this allows you to find any flaws with your own potential moves, as well as avoiding the fallout of a bad blunder. Your opponent isn’t going to make it easy for you to win just like you’re not going to make it easy for your opponent to win!

Always think about your opponent’s best response before making a move. This will go a long towards helping you develop winning combinations. When trying to create a combination, define your goal, such as forking the opposition’s Rook and Queen. If employing a Knight fork, note where your Knight needs to be in order to fork those two pieces. Look at the square your Knight is currently on and ask yourself, how can I get the Knight to the square it needs to be one in order to execute the tactic? How many moves will it take to get to the target square? Consider that first move. After considering that move, determine the best possible response from your opponent. What would you do if you were playing as your opponent? After determining the best opposition response, and if your candidate move appears to be sound, consider the next move in your combination. Ask the same questions. If all seems sound then start the combination.

I know, I’m asking the beginner to do a lot of basic calculation and the novice player may not be able to successful anticipate the best opposition responses. However, employing this method of thinking, the beginner will improve and tactical skills will start to develop. While tactics are wonderful, you cannot employ them until you gain some strategical knowledge. Beginners should stick to two move combinations to start, only going for a tactical play if it can be executed within two moves, As they become more strategically experienced they can move on to three move combinations, etc. Chess requires hard work and for my beginning students, strategical thinking can be difficult. However, those that put in the effort are rewarded tenfold. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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