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).

Opening Studies for the Beginner

Learning the game of chess, beyond the basic rules, is perhaps the most daunting endeavor any beginner undertakes. Of course, it’s the idea of having to learn or master something from the very beginning (from scratch), all the while traveling along an often bumpy road that leads to mastery, that seems herculean in effort not matter what the subject being studied. However, there’s a second and third factor that makes learning difficult and those factors are, the approach taken and the material actually being studied. With a subject such as organic chemistry, learning is very straight forward (not easy but straight forward). What I mean by this is that the overwhelming majority of organic chemistry textbooks are written for college classes that follow a structured curriculum. Also, organic chemistry is the study of carbon based molecules and the curriculum is designed to start with simple carbon based structures and move on to more complex ones, with the previous chapter of the textbook laying the foundation for the current chapter being read. It’s a very a, b, c, d or straight forward approach. However, trying to learn the game of chess (beyond the rules) can be extremely difficult for the novice player. With so many learning options and approaches available to the beginner, our novice player can become hopelessly lost and ultimately discouraged before they even have a chance to really learn something. Therefore, we’re going to look at how the beginner should approach, for example, learning various chess openings.

The first questions beginners should ask themselves are what methods of study are appropriately suited for my (beginner) skill level, what materials within that chosen method (books, videos, software programs) are specifically written for my skill level and lastly, how can I maximize the time I spend studying? We’ll look at each one later on, but first we have to talk about the importance of understanding the game’s opening principles.

The opening principles are a simple series of ideas or concepts that have been proven to really help players lay a solid foundation for the rest of their game. As I mention to my students, the house you live in is only as solid as the foundation that house is built upon or in chess terms, your game is only as good as the foundation its built upon and that foundation is built during the opening phase of the game, the first ten to twenty moves.

Thankfully, for the beginner, there is a set of opening principles to guide them as they study the opening. These principles are simple: Control the board’s center (d4, d5, e4 and e5) with a pawn (or two), develop (move) your minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) toward the center and Castle your King to safety. We always want to fight for the center of the board during the opening, which means moving pawns and pieces towards their most active opening squares as soon as possible, those that control or influence the board’s center. Therefore, we want each move we make to employ a principle. There are things we don’t want to do such as bringing our Queen out early, making too many pawn moves and moving the same piece over and over again (during the opening). Employing these principles will ensure that the beginner builds a much better foundation for the rest of their game. If this isn’t reason enough to employ the opening principles, consider this thought: You will never understand why various moves are being made when you sit down to study a specific opening unless you know these opening principles!

All good chess openings employ the opening principles and use them to their fullest advantage. If you know these principles, you’ll understand why certain moves were made during a specific opening. Of course, deciding which of the many openings is right for you is another story altogether. There are over a thousand openings and the next task the beginner faces finding the right one for them. Some teachers have suggesting choosing an opening that fits the player’s personality. However, just because you’re a chaotic person doesn’t mean you should pick a chaotic opening, such as The Benko Gambit, to learn first; especially when you’re just starting your chess career. This would leave you in a world of hurt because the opening is far above the beginner’s skill set. You need to start with simpler openings such as the Italian Opening. Many teachers consider the Italian too passive but I think it’s better suited for the novice player because the opening principles are clearly defined within the opening’s moves and the opening can transpose (change into) a couple of other openings (The Evan’s Gambit and the Fried Lived Attack) which allows the beginner to broaden their opening studies a bit using the same starting moves. In other words, the Italian Opening serves as the foundation for the other two openings mentioned above. Only after the beginner has done some work studying opening theory should they move on to more complex openings. Start simple and then move on to more advanced ideas.

Beginners have a choice regarding their method of study, such as books, DVDs and software programs. Which method a beginner chooses depends on what type of learner they are. If you’re a visual learner, then DVDs or software programs will be more suited for your needs. However, before investing in DVDs or software training programs, consider a book that provides an overview of the opening principles and the many openings played by contemporary chess players. I would recommend Chess Openings for Dummies by James Eade. This book (which I’ve read twice because I don’t recommend books unless I’ve read them) carefully explains the opening principles and gives you an overview of a number of different openings from both White and Black’s perspective. The explanations are clear and concise and the opening principles are pointed out throughout the books many and varied openings. I’m often asked by those who start reading this book, which of those many openings in the book should I start my studies with? The answer is simple: Start with the opening that made the most sense when you played through one of the sample games provided within the book. When reading this book (or one of the other fine books on openings for beginners), you’ll find openings that don’t make sense from a beginner’s perspective, such as the Ruy Lopez or Spanish Opening. This is an opening you must eventually learn but later on when you really have a solid grasp of the principles. Stay away from these until you know more about opening theory. Eventually, as your understanding of theory increases, that opening that didn’t make sense early on will now make perfect sense. When you find an opening and can say to yourself, that makes sense (regarding the moves within the opening), you’ve found an opening to study in more detail.

General opening theory books often give you a game in which White wins and a game in which Black wins, centered around the specific opening being discussed. Play through and study both perspectives (White and Black). You may find an opening that you love and will use every chance you get but remember, you may have to play against that very opening so you need to know how to defeat it! Always study both sides of the board when it comes to openings.

When working through the opening, don’t move on from one move to the next until you know exactly why that move was made. Skipping over moves because you don’t understand them will lead to further confusion because one move during an opening often sets up the following move. Take your time when studying opening theory, especially as a beginner. Patience is your new best friend. Go through the entire book, even if you’ve found an opening you love early on. You want to at least have a feel for the many openings played. You don’t have to memorize every opening in the book, just be able to look at the first few moves of a variety of openings and understand why (in terms of opening principles) those moves were made. Speaking of memorization: Avoid simply memorizing openings as opposed to understanding the underlying mechanics. If you don’t know why a move way made, you’ll become lost very quickly. Opening principles are the beginners lifeline so hang on to them for dear life!

When you study an opening, learn some of the variations to that opening as well. When the beginner sees an opening being played out in a book, they’re seeing a specific game in which specific moves were made. However, in real life, other moves are often substituted into the opening mainline (the way it is traditionally played), creating what are called variations. Again, use the opening principles to guide your studies.

You could spend a life time studying openings. However, I suggest that the beginner choose an opening for White and one for Black (remember, you can’t always play the White pieces so you need to know openings for both sides of the board) and study them, starting with the mainline and working outward towards the more popular variations. Start with a book covering the principles and a sampling of openings for both White and Black. When you feel comfortable, then try DVDs and training software. I have my students hold off on these training tools until they’ve gotten a solid grasp of the opening principles. Also, take it slow, starting with small blocks of time set aside for studying. A solid twenty minutes during which you’re concentrating fully is worth a great deal more than two hours of your mind starting to wander because you’ve lost focus. It takes a lot of time to build up your mental stamina so you can sit for three or four hours and concentrate on your studies. Keep it simple and streamlined. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. These guys know their opening theory!

Hugh Patterson

Darkest Before the Dawn

There’s an old adage about it being darkest before the dawn. What this translates to is the idea that things are toughest before they get better. In short, you have to work the hardest right before you reap the rewards of a break through in any challenge. Be it music or chess, the road to mastery is a tough and often long journey. You have to work to master anything in life because, after all, if mastery was easy, everyone would be a master of their chosen field of study. I mentioned in a previously article that one’s training regime has a major impact on whether or not they make advances in their studies. With the right plan, one can make enormous strides and with the wrong plan, one becomes frustrated because they don’t seem to get anywhere. The journey to mastery requires breaking through a number of ceilings or barriers that must be broken through to continue making educational gains (improvement).

I realized that I needed to address a couple of concepts in greater detail than I did in that article, namely patience and old fashioned hard work. These two ideas go hand in hand when it comes to the mastery of anything. You cannot have one without the other when it comes to reaching one’s educational goals. The study of chess is similar to, for example, the study of chemistry. In chemistry, which I majored in (one of a few degree programs I went through), my time was spent both studying theory, reading lengthy textbooks, and practicing that theory in a laboratory. While you could jusr read and learn the concepts of chemistry, you’d only have a partial knowledge of the subject because you didn’t experience the theoretical first hand, reproducing experiments in a laboratory. The same holds true for chess, theory or study and practice or playing. Doing both requires patience and hard work!

I’d say that patience is the most difficult skill to develop. After all, we live in a fast paced world in which a job well done is a job done quickly. Trades, such as wood working are dwindling because it isn’t economically feasible to pay someone to hand carve wood details for an architectural project when you can have a plastic cast piece made for a fraction of the cost of the hand carving. As the old adages goes, “time is money” so we plow through our lives at a rapid pace. Patience requires taking your time and working through problems no matter how long it takes. The first golden rule all novice chess players should utterly embrace is that you have work through each phase of your training, each new problem you encounter, slowly. You have to learn to do it right from the start no matter what the cost in time. When you think you’ve learned something, go back and learn it again. In short, take your time. Don’t set a rigid time table to your studies.

While you should have a time table such as studying a specific chess concept for thirty minutes a day for the next two months, don’t think that you’ll absolutely meet your goal within the set time frame. It make take longer. The patient learner will set a goal and if he or she doesn’t achieve that goal, they’ll expand their time frame out until that goal is met.

For those of you who become impatient, you can develop patience skills outside of your chess studies that will make you a more patient learner when you study the game we love so much. In our day to day lives, we tend to rush through chores we don’t have a real interest in. I suggest engaging in that chore but instead of rushing through it to get it done, work through the task at hand at a slower, even pace. You can learn a lot about patience simply doing the dishes. Rather than plow through the stack of plates, pots and pans as if in a race for your life, wash each of the items individually as if each item was the only thing you had to clean and you had thirty minutes to clean it. Of course, I don’t mean spending thirty minutes washing one dirty dish. What I mean is to pick up a dish, for example, thoroughly clean both sides of it, dry it and carefully place it where it belongs. Take you time. This way of thinking slows you down. The key point is to slow down your endeavor and do it properly. I can tell when someone is impatient in the dish washing department when I dine at their home and find the previous night’s meal still encrusted on the dinner plate! Try taking your time elsewhere in your activities and you’ll benefit from it in your studies. Patience requires slowing your pace.

We all learn at different speeds and often we’ll find that we’ve been moving along progressively only to hit a point in our studies at which we hit an educational wall, a key concept or idea we can’t fully grasp. This concept or idea is crucial to the next step in our studies so to ignore it or only partially learn it will greatly hamper our understanding of what comes next. This is where patience becomes extremely useful and hard work enters the picture. We easily work through the first part of our studies only to become bogged down by something we can’t get a handle on, educationally speaking. If you simply gloss over the subject giving you trouble and move on, you’ll find that you’re going to start having real problems with more advanced concepts or ideas. You can avoid this by getting in a patient mode, accepting the fact that you’ll have to work though the problem at hand, no matter what the cost in time, before moving on.

This requires hard work. Mastery’s cost is hard work and lots of it. No one is born with a gift that allows them to instantly master a subject. You have to work at it, long and hard. The people who are masters of their chosen field will all tell you that they put in countless hours of work and didn’t skip over things they didn’t understand. When you think of having to work hard for countless hours, it can discourage you from engaging in your studies. Therefore, I suggest small bursts of hard work. Rather than sit for three or four hours attempting to work harder than you ever have, try thirty minute bursts of hard work. While I can work out on the guitar for four or more hours at a time, I’ve been doing it for longer than many of you have been alive. I can do it because I’ve slowly built up my ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Hard work really translates to the ability to concentrate or focus on your studies for an extended period of time. Like the muscles in your body, you have to build your ability to concentrate or focus. You cannot sit down for the first time and engage in hard mental work for hours on end. Build up to it!

When you do work through that educational barrier and are ready for the next step along the road to mastery, make sure you really understand what you just learned. One way to do this is to explain what you just learned (in your own words) to someone else. See if you can give them an explanation that they fully understand. One thing I love about teaching chess is that I have to explain concepts to my students in a way they can understand them. This ensures that I fully understand the concept. In closing, be patient and slowly methodical in your studies. Embrace hard work but build up to long work sessions but starting off with shorter bursts of hard work. Come to love the hard work and view it as something you’ve proudly done. Always remember, it’s darkest before the dawn! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Practice Makes Perfect?

I recently read a social media post stating that kids were studying chess up to four hours a day. It went on to question the validity of such an effort. I thought about this and realized that just because you study something for hours on end each and every day doesn’t mean you’re going to master that subject or even improve much. Quantity doesn’t guarantee any kind of mastery or improvement unless there is a high degree of quality to one’s studies. I know about this all too well.

We’ve all heard the old adage that states “to master an art you must put in at least ten thousand hours of study.” That’s a great deal of time to dedicate to any endeavor, especially in a world that becomes impatient after three minutes. Think about it. Your internet is running a bit slow, a matter of milliseconds, and you thrown a fit because you can’t download a pop tune in under sixty seconds. There was a time when getting online took a lot longer than sixty seconds. I mention this because those individuals who actually attempt to master something via the ten thousand hour method have a lot of natural patience. However, there’s a crucial missing statement that should be firmly attached to the ten thousand hour party line and that’s, “it only works if you have an excellent training structure or program.” In other words, you can waste ten thousand hours trying to master something and get nowhere because you didn’t employ a sound method of training (quality). To demonstrate that I know what I’m talking about here, I’ll give you my typical training day as a musician.

I play guitar for up to four hours a day (sometimes more). In the right hands, this amount practice each day will have any musician greatly improving within a short period. In the wrong hands, bad playing and the bad habits thus developed will lead to no improvement and a lot of frustration. With music and chess, it all comes down to the structure of your training program more so than the time spent training. I play for such a long period of time each day because I’m studying some extremely complex and difficult to learn jazz guitarist leads (what they call a “professional’s advanced class). This is akin to preparing an opening for a high level chess tournament. Too many improving guitarists and chess players have dreadful training methods that aren’t structured to optimize their studies. This is why they don’t get the results they’re after.

Here’s the way my typical guitar training sessions go. I start with a good thirty minutes of jazz scales. Why scales when I can work on playing actual songs? Because my fingers need to warm up before trying to play extremely complicated guitar leads. If I try to play a lead with no warn up, my fingers don’t work as well and I get frustrated. If I become frustrated, I might not feel like playing. Therefore, I warm up with scales. I then play a series of ten bebop (jazz) leads on my guitar, with each lead becoming more complex as I move through them. I play each lead a minimum of ten times. I should mention that if I hit one off note, I add another five times to the total workout of each lead. Bad habits form when you hit a bad note and continue anyway. You need to stop and start again, correctly. These lead guitar riffs are specifically designed to prepare my fingers for the more complex work I’ll be doing towards the end of my session. Next I move on to twenty Wes Montgomery leads. He was an amazing guitarist and learning to play his music is extremely difficult. Each of the twenty leads is done ten times with the same off or bad note penalty. Sometimes, I’ll play a leads perfectly and then my fingers get stupid (more likely it’s my brain but I hate to admit that) and I can’t play the lead through a second time. I stop and immediately take a break. Trying to continue when you’re frustrated will only make matters worse. It’s time to walk away and play a quick game of chess. I keep a board set up in my studio. In fact, when my bands rehearse there is always a game being played during those rehearsals, with some moves being made while the musicians are playing! The point here is to stop when frustration sets in because you’ll waste more time by not taking a break. Notice that there’s a structure to my studies? This is the only way you can improve.

After my jazz workout, I do some old school country guitar, called “chicken picking.” This is a string bending work out in which I’m using my fingers to “pick” the strings so I’m playing multiple notes at once. Only now do I actually run through both my band’s sets (roughly 18 songs each). Yes, I know the songs because I wrote almost all of them but I like to refine them ever so slightly.

In short, I have a very structured training work out. I’ve also done well over ten thousand hours of playing and am considered (by my peers, not by myself) to have mastered my instrument. However, there is no last stop on the road to improvement. It’s a road than only ends when you die. This is why you have to keep at it. A chess training workout doesn’t have to be as long as my guitar workout to be beneficial. The workout I described above is as long as it is because of solo and song lengths. With chess, you’re workout can be much shorter. Remember, just because someone else is studying chess for four hours doesn’t mean they’re going to play better than someone putting an hour or two into their studies. It’s about quality not quantity.

As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, you should set realistic goals regarding how long you study. I can play guitar for four hours because I’ve developed the concentration and stamina to do so over the last thirty five plus years of playing. If you’re new to chess, you need to study for shorter periods of time until you build up your mental stamina. Otherwise you’ll burn out quickly. Try thirty minutes daily to start and forty five minutes daily, three months later. Trying to study chess for four hours will give the beginner a solid thirty minutes of good studying followed by three and a half hours of glazed eyes and nothing accomplished. Take it slow. You have to be patient to improve. Getting good at sometime takes time and you cannot rush the process if you want to gain the most from your studies. Don’t be impatient. Take it nice and easy.

As for what to study? Make a list of everything you think is wrong with your chess playing and be honest (after all, you’re the only one seeing the list). Categorize the issues into opening, Middle and endgame problems. If you don’t have access to chess books or training software, go online and search for your particular problem. If you have trouble with your opponent hitting you with tactical plays that seem to come from nowhere, type “how to spot tactics in chess” into your search engine. Do this with each of the problems on your list. Do note that the internet allows everyone to be an expert so you have to watch out for people who don’t know what they’re doing. Look for know chess player’s online writings to avoid this. Look for web pages and sites that have positive reviews.

You’ll also want to go online and look up chess training programs. However, I suggest you try working through your list first and using that to start your training because if you’re brand new to chess, you won’t know a good training program from a bad one. Trust books written by Bruce Pandolfini. His writings on chess improvement form the foundation of my own chess teaching and coaching program. He writes in a clear and concise manner and is beginner friendly (many books are too advanced for beginners even though they’re supposed to be for the novice player) Go onto chess forums and see what people recommend in the way of training. You have to do the research.

In closing always remember that when it comes to improvement, quality always trumps quantity and patience wins the war. It comes down to a well thought out training program. That is how you improve. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Concentration for Kids

In coaching Juniors, the hardest task I face is getting my players to completely focus on the task at hand, sitting down to play chess. Because it’s a tournament as opposed to a friendly game with nothing at stake, my team members must be able to fully concentrate on their games. While this is difficult enough for adults, the task becomes doubly difficult when dealing with children or teenagers. Over the years I’ve tried many techniques, some panning out better than others. To help you avoid trying methods that don’t work, I’ll share with you some of the techniques I employ, methods that actually work!

You have to keep in mind that young minds tend to become distracted very easily. In our youth, we’re explorers of the world around us, a world in which everything is seemingly new. It’s “seemingly new” because youngsters are often experiencing things for the first time. Add to this the simple fact that children and teenagers haven’t learned the art of self discipline and you have a recipe for scattered and disjointed thoughts. This translates to a lack of focus and chess is a game that requires absolute focus. We cannot blame youngsters for lacking the ability to totally concentrate on a specific task, especially for long periods of time which is required when playing in chess tournaments. However, we can help them develop concentration skills that will serve them well in chess and more so if life!

The first problem I have to solve is one that most parents overlook which is their child’s diet. Many youngsters with take in high levels of sugar which causes them to become hyperactive. An active mind is crucial to chess. However, a hyperactive mind is a mind that is thinking in a disjointed way, seemingly in seven different directions at once. This means that the ability to focus becomes extremely difficult. Then there’s the simple fact that this high level of artificial energy will wear off quickly, leaving one feeling very tired (usually when the brain is needed most). Then there’s the individual who eats foods like hamburgers and french fries which leave them feeling lethargic which means their brain is struggling to go in even a single direction. Therefore, my students are given strict dietary guidelines for tournaments and I make sure their parents enforce them. The rule is simple: No sugar with the exception of fresh fruit. Meals prior to and during the tournament must be light. You cannot expect to concentrate unless your feed your brain wisely. I carefully explain to my students and their parents that the brain’s reaction with certain substances can lead to dreadful results due to the end product of that sugary biochemical reaction. Since most of my kids love science, they find this of great interest.

The next thing I have my students do to get into the zone of absolute concentration is either Yoga, Tai Chi or some form of physical exercise such as martial arts. Physical activity stimulates the flow of blood throughout your body, carrying much needed oxygen to your brain. Exercise helps to wake you up. Therefore, my students engage in some physical activity prior to their tournaments. I highly recommend Tai Chi because it really helps when it comes to centering yourself. Being centered means being having control of both body and mind. The forms used in this softer martial art require focus and concentration but in a very natural way. If you engage in an activity that requires too much concentration prior to the chess tournament, you may find that you’ve expended some of your ability to concentrate and focus before you really need it (when playing chess). Even simple exercises can be employed as long as you don’t overdo it.

Now for the brain warm up. Of course, my students will play practice games prior to their tournament games. However, I make them do a series of brain games to hone their ability to focus and concentrate. The first thing they do is play a few rounds of Solitaire, that old standby game found on most computers. The reason I have them play Solitaire is because it requires a small amount of focus, specifically in the area of pattern recognition. I build up the level of focus through the series of brain games my students engage in. Next I have my students count cards. That’s right, counting cards as in Black Jack. Of course, I don’t tell them it’s part of being able to successfully play Black Jack. With card counting, you assign three sets of numerical values to the various cards in the deck and keep track of the numerical count. I don’t want to turn this into a card counting lesson so you can look this up online. The point is that my students will have to focus and concentrate a little harder than when they were playing Solitaire. Again, it helps with pattern recognition.

Lastly, I have my students do a series of chess puzzles. The puzzles start off easy and get harder as we go along. The puzzles I use will require the students to look at the entire board. It’s important that they don’t start their games with tunnel vision, looking only at the part of the board where all the action is taking place. They need to see the entire board and do threat assessments, looking for potential threats such as hanging pieces, etc. The puzzles I use cover these issues.

We end our warm up sessions with a talk about good sportsmanship. Being a gracious winner and even more gracious loser is an absolute must with me. Act poorly and you are off the team. I tell my students that if they win they should consider the simple fact that their opponent probably isn’t feeling great about losing and thus ask themselves how they would feel if they lost and the winner was jumping up and down, screaming with joy. Shake hands and say good game! When losing I tell my students that becoming upset and crying only serves to make the victor’s win more sweet (there are a lot of sore winners on the junior chess circuit here). In short be kind no matter what the result.

So this is the basis of how I get my students to concentrate going into their tournaments. It works for adults as well! As for results, my students have owned many local titles for the last three years so I must be doing something right. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

You Can Bring a Horse to Water but…

There’s an old saying, “you can bring a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” That neatly sums up what many chess teachers face, the student who just doesn’t want to learn how to play the game. Of course, in every teaching environment, there’s always at least one student who just isn’t into the subject matter being taught. However, when you’re extremely dedicated to teaching and have even one student who isn’t learning, you ask yourself “what am I doing wrong?” It can eat away at you, causing you to focus on that one failure. Rather than think about the many students who have learned from you, you fixate on the one student that didn’t. I once suffered from this problem but have come up with a way to put your mind at ease when it comes to not reaching every single one of your students.

It’s easy to become discouraged when you first start teaching, especially when you’re not connecting with a student. You question your own skills as a teacher. Teachers want every student to feel as passionate as they do about the subject being taught. One of my greatest joys in life is watching my students debate the merits of an opening or specific move. I teach employing the Socratic Method which encourages debate and verbal exchanges of ideas between teacher and student or student and student. I teach my students to question everything, including what I teach them. They are engaged and love their chess class, well at least 99% of them. This leaves 1% who have been brought to the waters of chess knowledge and refuse to drink!

I’ve been teaching and coaching chess for a while so I know that the overwhelming majority of my students have learned a great deal from me and enjoy their chess classes. However, that one student who doesn’t want to learn troubles me. He or she concerns me because, before I dismiss that student as someone who has no interest in chess (which happens), I need to ensure that I’m not part of the root cause of this lack of interest in chess. Therefore, I ask myself a series of questions to help determine the actual problem.

As teachers, we must always remember that learning is not a “one size fits all” affair. People learn differently from one another. People experience things in a way that are unique to themselves, learning being included in this. Of course, in a classroom environment, there is a general structure that students follow but that structure must be altered, even ever so slightly, to accommodate these unique learning personalities. Thus, the first question I ask myself is “am I getting through to my uninterested student? Is the student having trouble comprehending the information I present to them.? To answer this, I spend some one on one time with the student in question, just the two of us sitting at a chessboard. I will try giving a lesson to this student and determine his or her level of comprehension, again one on one. This can often be the root of the problem, an inability to make sense of the information being presented which leads to frustration and an eventual dislike of the subject matter being taught. One thing I ask of all my students is that, should I give an explanation that doesn’t make sense to them, they should raise their hand and ask me to explain it again, in a different way. Just because one explanation works for the majority of students doesn’t mean everyone will understand it. I keep simplifying my explanation until the student who initially didn’t understand now comprehends it fully.

Some of the students I’ve had trouble engaging have been turned around by lightening things up or presenting chess in terms of real life situations. When I teach in Juvenile Detention Facilities (the polite way of saying jail for teenagers), I present the game of chess using a gang analogy. This makes sense to guys who come from gangs. They understand the the overall game principles I’m teaching them because they have a real life example included in the explanations. I use sports analogies as well. I make a point of finding out what my students interests are outside of their chess class so I can create analogies specifically for them. The only way you can come up with analogies that work is to know something about the students you teach. If you’re teaching a large class, which I do a lot, try asking the question “what’s your favorite sport” to the group. You’ll find that the majority of students will hone in on one particular sport. You now have a basis for your analogies and often the one student that doesn’t show an interest in chess will have a keen interest in sports.

Keep it light as well. Chess needs to be fun for children and teenagers. If you make your lessons dry and boring your students will feel like they’re watching paint dry. I come up with some outlandish stories to accompany the games I use in my lectures. My students are completely engaged. In my classes, it’s not uncommon for a lecture game to have been played between a blind Samurai and a clever Wolf. Engage your students by asking them questions. Don’t stand at a demo board for an hour muttering away and expect your students to stay awake. I’d fall asleep and I love chess. It’s supposed to be fun!

Lastly, you sometimes have to accept the simple fact that not everyone wants to learn how to play chess. There are students whose parents stuck them in the chess class either thinking it would help them become smarter or give the parents something to brag about. In the end, the student isn’t going to take up chess as a hobby. With these students, there’s not much you can do. Personally, I have them sit down with me at the chessboard, start talking about sports and music and have them make a few moves on the board. A little more talk and a few more moves. After a while, a full game has been played and perhaps the student views the game in a better light. Sometimes it works, some times it doesn’t. In the end, if you’ve honestly given it your best shot, you can sleep well at night. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Chess Hustlers

Chess players are a lot like musicians, running the personality spectrum from absolutely insane to completely sane and everything in between. As a musician, I’ve played with other musicians who were absolutely out of their minds but brilliant artists, always making up for their lunacy with great playing. The world of music is filled with every type of personality as is the world of chess. Some of the craziest chess players I’ve met have been full time chess hustlers. These are the guys you see clustered around tables in big cities, offering to play you for a small fee. In New York, it’s Washington Square park and in San Francisco, it used to be Powell Street, until a real estate developer thought them a visual blight. Here’s what he did to get rid of them:

He tried calling the police to complain about a bunch of undesirables that were frightening his building’s tenants. According to him, those undesirables needed to be promptly removed. The police found the complaint unwarranted since the supposed undesirables were gathered across the street from the property rather than directly in front of it. He complained to the board of supervisors and the mayor’s office who were far to busy to deal with petty nuisance issues. He then upped his game by calling the police back and telling them there was illegal gambling and drug dealing taking place. That warranted police attention, even though he lied about the activities taking place.

I’d be lying if I suggested that the small group of chess hustlers wasn’t at least a bit eccentric and perhaps rough looking. However, marching to your own beat in life doesn’t make you a threat. Nor does wearing tattered clothing, after all, I made a minor career of such fashion during punk rock’s heyday. These guys love chess and either didn’t have a desire to play tournaments or had emotional issues that kept them away from competitive chess. The streets were where they fought their battles. Sure, some of those guys are a bit nutty but so am I for that matter. To take away the simple pleasure of playing chess for a few dollars, mostly won from unsuspecting tourists, seemed a petty action. While the police couldn’t substantiate the accusation of drug dealing, they did conclude that they were gambling. I beg to differ. Chess is not a game of chance which is what constitutes gambling. It’s a game of skill. A person can plop down five dollars to play one of these hustlers and if the hustler wins you can consider your money spent on a valuable life lesson, don’t play chess with guys who earn their living playing chess all day. If you win, you get an additional five dollars and bragging rights. While these guys don’t pay taxes, they’re far from wealthy. This was hardly a back room poker game in Chinatown (I know those places because I’ve gambled there).

The chess hustlers got the boot but we relocated them thanks to the efforts of many of game players (including some professional gamblers who hate city hall). We organized a large noisy protest one Saturday that got great media coverage. We managed to get a marching band to play loudly to make our point. I did a number of interviews in which I challenged the city’s mayor and the entire board of supervisors to a simultaneous chess match. If I lost or drew one game, the hustlers had to go away. If I won, they stayed put. Of course, our mayor and supervisors refused. However, we did get them located to an even better site downtown. They have actual chess tables and benches in a nice park. However, the clock is ticking in regards to their remaining at their new location. San Francisco is currently squashing the culture that’s left in the city, opting for a homogenized landscape of high-end consumer emptiness. The chess hustlers are not pleasant to look at in the eyes of the wealthy millennial generation. They don’t want to see shabbily dressed men play chess in their pristine parks. It breaks my heart to see a city I made my name in turn into a cultural void. Those chess hustlers added much needed character to the landscape.

These guys simply love the game and for whatever reason only want to play it on the streets. Sure, they trash talk and employ every opening trap in the book against their naive opponents, but it’s all in good fun. Some of those guys are pretty good teachers and it’s not uncommon to see a businessman taking in a lesson with one of them. The chess hustler is a species of player who is heading toward extinction. In city after city, with gentrification steam rolling across the once gritty urban landscape, guys like these are being pushed out. They may not be everyone’s idea of a model citizen but they add color and character to their environment.

Maybe, because I’m eccentric, I accept those chess scoundrels as brethren. There’s a beauty and brilliance to these characters. To them I say shine on you crazy diamond. Somewhere there’s a place for you but sadly, it’s not San Francisco. Fortunately, the game itself will never be lost because too many people from all walks of life love it. It’s a common bond we who play the game share on a global scale. However, should we be forced to play chess behind walls where no one can see us? Are we that offensive? What’s offensive is the idea that a person can be judged on appearance rather than their accomplishments. Some of those chess hustlers have advanced college degrees but fell through society’s cracks along their journey through life. So for my street chess playing friends, I will always drive through the neighborhoods of those that tried to silence you and play my car stereo really loud, just to remind those snobs that you can’t keep a chess hustler down. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Back to Square One

Music and chess have so many parallel characteristics in regards to mastering either of them that the training method of one can successfully be applied to the other. We’ll start this article by examining the process employed when mastering a musical instrument, in this case the guitar. After reading this description, ask yourself if this sounds a lot like trying to master the game of chess. I think the similarities will astound you!

When I first starting playing guitar, my relationship with this instrument was casual at best, with the guitar spending much of the time collecting dust in my bedroom closet next to the chess set my mother purchased for me. However, when I turned 13, I suddenly found myself falling deeply in love with music thanks to albums by bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix. While my friends were listening to bubblegum rock, I was listening to the dark, complex side of rock and roll. During this period, I discovered that the guitar was the real star of those bands, creating amazing tones no human voice could come close to mimicking. Just as quickly as I discovered music, my guitar was pulled out of the closet and dusted off. I decided that I would master the guitar, being able to hold my own, note for note, with Jimmy Page. Taking the guitar out of the closet, dusting it off and deciding to fully master it left me feeling as if I finally found my true calling and purpose in life (as if that actually happens with a scatter brained thirteen year old). However, there was one slight problem with all of this, I actually had to learn how to play the guitar. Up until this point, I had simply banged away on the strings with reckless abandon, jumping up and down on my bed while Led Zeppelin blared loudly on my stereo. Therefore, since my parents were a bit dubious when it came to paying for guitar lessons, I took the road traveled by all professional musicians. I did what every other aspiring thirteen year old rock and roll guitarist did, I found someone on the block who knew a few chords. After I learned those chords, I found a guy in the neighborhood who knew a few guitar leads or solos, slowly working my way across the city’s burnt out guitarists (a frightening group of guys straight out of the movie Wayne’s World), one chord progression and lead guitar solo at a time.

So I finally because serious about learning to play the guitar. Back in the Stone Age, you had to learn songs either by ear, listening to an album and learning a song a single note at a time, or you purchased instructional books for aspiring guitarists. There were no home computer apps let alone the internet, so your choices were extremely limited. Learning a song one note at a time took up a great deal of time and most of us hadn’t developed the skill of listening to a song a few times and then playing it correctly. Eventually, we’d get there but not early on in our careers!

So I hit the books, learned a slough of chords, leads etc. I worked or trained with other guitarists, all of whom were much better than I. If you wish to master an instrument, you need to study with a teacher who is a master of that instrument. You don’t get better studying under teachers with less experience than you! Of course, you have to balance theory and practice. You can learn three hundred guitar leads and play them perfectly. Then you try them out with your neighborhood garage band and things sound terrible. They sound terrible because you’ve been sitting in your own garage, playing by yourself. You’ve had no interaction with other musicians so you don’t have the sense of rhythm needed to play succinctly when other instruments are involved.

It’s easy to learn a bunch of guitar leads. However, there’s more to guitar than just playing lead. You have to be a well rounded player rather than a specialist because great guitar players have impeccable rhythm or timing, knowing when to throw in a little lead work to spice things up and knowing when to keep their guitars quiet to let the drummer and bass player have a piece of the action. You have to look at guitar playing as a more dimensional art. If you listen to a great guitarist, you’ll hear them control the volume and tone of their guitars because they can accent certain parts of the song with something as simple as dropping their overall volume down or going from a distorted tone to a clean tone. What does this have to do with chess (if you didn’t find the similarities)?

Chess is a game in which you need to employ theory and practice. Theory is reading and studying chess books. While this is an important part of your training, it does no good unless you put that theory/studying into action through practice or playing. Just like the musician who spends too much time studying lead guitar books and not enough time playing with other people in a band, chess players need to balance the two, theory and practice! All the book studying in the world isn’t going to make you as good a player as the person who does both. Books will give you positional situations that are carefully set up while playing chess against human opponents will give you more realistic situations in which the game changes with each move. By realistic, I mean moves that you’re likely to encounter. What does any of this have to with going back to square one?

The best guitarists in the world will always go back to the basics (back to square one so to speak) and study them, even though they know the material at hand. Why? Because we often find that our playing has gotten off track and going back to our educational starting point often steers us back in the right direction. Practicing something as simple as scales will force our fingers to work with greater coordination. For example, guitarists tend to take short cuts, such as using three of our four fingers for playing notes because our littlest finger is the weakest finger on our left or right hand. We can play clearer note using three fingers. However, going back to playing scales with all four fingers gives us the ability to play more notes in a single phrase, so we go back to square one. Chess players, as they improve, sometimes take certain opening principles for granted, taking chance they never would have taken earlier in their career. Going back to square one is also a good way to break bad habits you might have developed. Of course, it’s harder to correct a bad habit than it is to maintain good habits! Going back to square one, even when you’re a strong player is a great idea, one that will improve your game (or your guitar playing). Speaking of games in which a titled player ignores some game principles, here’s one to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Yet Another Debate

Recently, a well known Grandmaster interviewed an extremely well know Grandmaster on camera. In an effort to keep Nigel and myself out of court (people get downright uppity when it comes to potential slander), we’ll refer to the Grandmaster doing the interview as GM X and the Grandmaster being interviewed as GM Y (sorry their aliases sound like nasty food additives from Company Z). Immediately after this interview took place, a nasty verbal internet riot was started by chess players from around the world. Chess forums and chat rooms were flooded with commentary about the incident which I’ll now describe.

GM X said to GM Y, “ You seem to have had some hiccups earlier today and you didn’t have really smooth performances (overall) and this game wasn’t that smooth either. It looked a little bit unclear. What’s your feeling overall as the game transpired?” GM Y replied, “OK, what do you want me to do…What do you want from me?” GM Y seemed to fixate on his usually perfect play being called less than smooth. GM Y became defensive. At one point I thought that dueling pistols would appear on the screen. GM Y then said GM X was trying to “belittle the whole thing.” Needless to say it was all down hill from that point on, with GM Y walking away in disgust. Of course, the line was drawn within the global chess community and two armies were formed to fight this verbal war, those who support GM Y and those who support GM X. Of course, thanks to technology, scores of people linked to the internet lined up to take their turn screaming from the bully pulpit, oops, I mean social media sites. Why am I even addressing this subject? Because I have intimate knowledge of this type of situation, being in the same position as GM Y, not as a chess player but as a musician. Let me explain.

As one does if one wants to become a Grandmaster, musicians spend years and years perfecting their craft, in my case guitar playing. While I always feel as if I’m in need of constant improvement, never understanding why people think I play so well, many people feel differently. According to those who know a bit about guitar playing, I’m pretty darn good. However, I still work at it constantly. A number of years ago, we played a series of shows that were close to flawless (and I find fault in everything I do musically). Each show was better than the last. Then we did the second to last show and things didn’t go so well. By this, I mean that the general audience didn’t notice anything wrong with my playing. We received three standing ovations (well, it was a club so everyone was already standing up). People sang along. Everyone appeared to have a great time, except me. I notice mistakes that no one else seems to hear. Unfortunately, one other individual heard those mistakes and that person was about to interview me. He was a dreaded music critic from a well know music magazine. The first question he asked was “Wow, what happened tonight? Seriously, that was not your best work on the guitar.” The old adage ‘those who do, do it and those who don’t write about it” came to mind. However, at that moment, I had two choices regarding the direction I would go regarding my answer. How I answered that question would either absolutely work for me or absolutely work against me. There’s an art to answering questions when being interviewed. Do it right and people love you even more. Do it wrong and you look like a sore loser, bad sport or worse.

I understand, from firsthand knowledge, how upsetting it can be to dedicate your life to something and have your skills questioned (even remotely) due to a single bad moment within a lifetime of success. You feel like saying to the interviewer “hey, when you’re at my level, then talk to me about it. Otherwise, shut up.” However, we can never achieve total and absolute perfection in our chosen craft. By this, I mean you cannot play either a guitar or a game of chess, without hitting a wrong note or making a bad move at some point during your career. We’re only human after all. However, when artists reach the highest level of their art, we expect them to excel and break even greater boundaries. When you’re at the top of your chosen field, people either expect perfection and nothing less from you or they’re gunning for you, waiting to see you fall. I know many musicians who feel this way. There’s a great deal of pressure when you’re great at something. People have an unhealthy fascination with the flaws that come with being human. Watching the self destruction of others is the true opiate of the masses.

I feel for GM Y but I don’t think he handled himself correctly. When I faced that moment with the music critic interviewing me I chose the right path and said “you’re absolutely right. Sometimes things fall apart. However, tonight’s show makes me want to work harder so it doesn’t happen again. Thank you for your honesty.” (I still wanted to give him a swift boot to his bottom side and really didn’t feel the need to slave away any further when it came to my playing) Of course, my interviewer wanted me to have a meltdown which would have been great for his interview. I didn’t give it to him, defused a potentially ugly situation and that was that. I think GM Y should have done something similar. He had a short, bad run in an otherwise near perfect career. Yet, because he behaved the way in which he did, tongues wagged across the world wide web. Of course, people often become very mean spirited when they can hide behind the shadowy curtain of the internet. I say to those who enjoyed GM Y’s antics, “can you play a better game of chess than GM Y? Have you dedicated your entire life to this game let alone anything else, spending your youth unbelievably focused?”

Now let’s get to GM X. If you know that someone can be temperamental, why not approach the dialogue with a bit more tack? While I know the questions were designed to spice the interview up, adding a little drama and tension to it, it was comparable to using dynamite to get rid of a small stain on your sofa. GM X is an extremely nice guy who does a lot of great things for the chess community. However, interviewing people requires a great deal of finesse. If you’ve watched top notch interviewers, you’ve seen how they can get answers to extremely tough questions through well thought out and well timed questions. GM Y literally started his interview with what could be conceived as a hostile question. Tact will get you a lot further in both interviews and life. GM X should have put himself in GM Y’s shoes while he was contemplating his questions.

As for the endless sea of amateur online chess commentators (not everyone who commented on the interview, just the trolls) whose ratings are closer to their own shoe size rather than that of a titled player, you might put yourself in GM Y’s shoes as well. Honestly ask yourself if you could withstand the pressure one is under when one is considered the best at something. You might also ask yourself if you could have played a better game. Until you’ve walked a mile in GM Y’s shoes, you don’t know how it feels. For those of you that enjoyed his becoming slightly unglued, I assume you’ve never, ever had a meltdown leaving you unglued. Whose right and whose wrong? Nobody and everybody. We’re human and we make mistakes. I’m sure GM X would rephrase his questions had he known the end result. Does GM Y’s behavior really change anything? No! At the end of the day GM Y is still a better chess player than any of us mere mortals. However, he does need to learn how to handle those tough questions with tact and even humor. Had he simply said “you’re right. It’s wasn’t my finest moment and I’ll be sure to determine why this happened and learn from it,” there would be no news to cause the great unwashed wagging tongues of the chess world to go into verbal overdrive. No news is good news I say. Here’s a game to get your tongues wagging until next week! Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

Chess: Art Versus Science

While chess has been called both an art and a science, I can’t help but wonder if it’s losing its claim as an art. I was born into a generation who didn’t have cellphones, personal computers, tablets let alone the internet. To a typical teenager, this seems akin to having been born into the dark ages. My generation were explorers of our world which was our backyard and the surrounding neighborhood. When not in school, we were outside exploring the territory around us. Today, kids seem perfectly happy to sit with their faces glued to the screen of whatever technology they have at hand. Rather than feel the warm sands of a beach on their feet or feel the sun’s last glimmer of heat of their face as it sets over the mountains, they look at pictures of the beach and mountains instead. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology and use it in my chess teaching and coaching. However, I know that should I want to experience the beach or mountains, I actually have to go there. What do any of my rantings as an old man have to do with chess, art and science? Let me tell you a cautionary tale I tell all of my students.

Roughly one hundred and fifty years ago, the game of chess was vastly different than the form of the game we play today. While the rules and principles were the same as today, the style in which the game was played was different. It was a daring game played by those who truly wished to venture into the realm of the unexplored. My students will shrug at this last statement until the hear the rest of what I have to say. I always instruct my students to be seated before I make a statement that might drive some of them into having repeated nightmares for the rest of their lives. I loudly announce, “there once was a time in which there were no cellphones, tablets, personal computers or the internet.” Trust me when I say that at least a few kids gasp and recoil in horror.

Roughly one hundred and fifty years ago, if you wanted to learn the game of chess you did so through a family member or friend. Chess was a right of passage in some families, with the game being proudly handed down from father to son or daughter. Once, a game solely played by nobility and the rich, it became a game played by intellectuals and Bohemians (those smart tortured guys who sat around Paris Coffee Houses trying to eek out a living as philosophers or poets. No wonder they were tortured). It eventually found its way into the average household. In those days, the game was handed down from generation to generation the way in which traditions were once passed down around ancient campfires. To learn the game of chess you had to first find someone who knew the rules. This is a very romantic notion, one that I quite fancy, finding another human being to teach you something (as opposed to living life online)!

The reason learning the game required such human interaction, something in short supply today thanks to social media, was because there were very few accessible books on the game. People traveled by horse or train, so getting to a major metropolitan city to acquire a chess book might take three or four days. Because chess was handed down from generation to generation, person to person, combined with a lack of written information about the game, there was a vast expense of unexplored positional territory. Most people played simple e pawn openings because that’s what they were taught. Think of the huge (and I mean huge) number of possible positions within a single game of chess and combine that with the fact that most people played one type of opening and you can see that there was a great deal to explore in the way of opening theory, middle-game play, etc.

Players in the mid 1800’s, which was the romantic era of the game, played in a swashbuckling style. They played gambits and wildly sacrificed material. They took chances, seeing if making a move no one else considered might lead to a new way in which to gain an advantage. These players were truly explorers, a trait lacking in many of today’s younger players. Art on the chessboard was created greatly during this period as well as into the twentieth century. In some regards, art was more was more important to the players of this period. Let’s fast forward to today’s modern young player.

Today’s serious chess player has a plethora of training tools and options thanks to technology. When I first learned the game, we relied heavily on books since that’s all that was available (guys who play guitar in punk bands cannot afford real chess lessons). Thanks to technology, younger players have training partners and coaches in the form of software programs such as Houdini and Komodo. These are extremely sophisticated chess playing programs that can give players deep analysis regarding a single move they’re considering making. Technological advances in training software have allowed the world to produce the youngest Grandmasters in history (of course, it also requires natural talent). Technology and chess! Sounds like a winning combination, doesn’t it? Yes and no.

Technological advances have made a near exacting science out of the game we love so much. Yes, chess playing software has removed your chance of making bad moves but at a cost. Young up and coming, soon to be titled players, rely on their chess programs to tell them the merits of a move based on analysis of the best responses to that candidate move by the opposition, in this case a program with a 3000 plus chess rating. However, when you solely depend on your software program to decide whether a move is wrong or right, might you be missing out on the chance to explore uncharted territory on the chessboard.

Obviously, you don’t want to go on a wild chess exploration while playing for a national championship. However, what’s so wrong about exploring when not playing in tournaments? Some of you would answer that these software programs have explored all there is to explore. After all, if there was something new out there, wouldn’t the computer program have found it? To that I say this: Humans, using technology, have the entire planet mapped out. We have a map for every square inch of our home planet (and other planets as well). However, why is it that we discover new species nearly every single day? Think about that for a moment. If you think of the huge number of possible positions that can be reached within a single game of chess, a number with more zeros attached to it than you can comfortably count, doesn’t it reason that there’s more territory to explore? Might not we create some amazing art on the chessboard just by doing so?

By simply sticking to what our software programs tell us to do, we’re dulling a game that once sparkled with possibility to a flat monotone hue. There has to be a middle ground. Much of the great music created throughout history was flawed by a wrong note played, a mismatched tempo or even imperfections in the equipment. Glorious mistakes from which high art was born. Again, I’m not saying you should purposely makes moves that lead to disaster. However, a little positional chaos can turn an otherwise boring game into an artistic masterpiece. Chaos drives art. Chaos forces you to look at things in a different way. Many of today’s young players only listen to their chess software’s suggestions, never wondering what would happen if they simply said “no Houdini, I’m going to try something else.” If Houdini suddenly wrote “You need to jump off a bridge now” in the analysis window, I suspect a few overzealous players might ponder this idea for a moment or two.

When we try new things, we usual fail, often many times. However, there are those individuals who keep trying and just when it seems that they wasted their time, the solution to their problem reveals itself. I blame chess software for creating a rising number of drawn games at professional levels. I constantly hear about promoters who want to bring professional chess to the masses. It’s great idea but you have to make the game exciting to people with a marginal interest in chess. Drawn game after drawn game isn’t going to do it. We need another Paul Morphy whose games were exciting because he often played dangerously. People like excitement. I would like to see some young player throw chess theory upside down. I don’t know exactly how but with so many possible positions within a single game, human’s might have missed something. Here’s one of those games that is crazy but exciting. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

Three Good Moves

When we first start playing chess, we often make the first move we see, good, bad or indifferent (usually the move falls under the heading of bad when you first start you chess career). Of course, we’re still learning the basics of the game so this is a natural part of the learning process. More astute beginners might stare at the board for a few minutes, examine the position from both sides and only then making a move. Thinking they’ve spent enough time to have found a good move, they’re often shocked when that supposedly well thought out move turns out to be a bad choice. Chess is about decision making and there’s an art or skill to this process. The first step in the decision making process is taking the time to properly make a good decision.

Last week at our Yearly Academic Chess Summer Camp, I noticed that our beginner’s group was playing extremely fast as if it were a game of Blitz. I looked on in horror as hanging pieces (those that can be captured free of charge) were not only there for the taking but remained there for many moves. Had these beginners taken more time to consider their moves, they might have seen and captured those hanging pieces. However, there’s more to making good moves than simply taking your time. You have to employ a logical system that allows you to find good moves and that’s what this article examines.

While it’s true that patience is an absolutely crucial skill in chess, simply staring at the board for a long time, with your thoughts scattered about, does a player little good. You have to employ a logical system with which to examine the position at hand in order to determine the best move. This is the toughest challenge beginner’s face when learning the game. Therefore, we have to assess the position in a sequential, logical order, starting with threats.

Threats, either yours or your opponents, are the first order of business. You must identify threats. Too often, beginners will blindly consider their potential threats which blinds them to those of their opponent. Therefore, every time your opponent makes a move, look for a threat by that opposition pawn or piece. This means looking at every square that pawn or piece is attacking and determining whether or not one of your pawns or pieces is on one of those squares under attack. If one of your pawns or pieces is under attack, determine whether or not to move that pawn or piece or defend it. In assessing this idea of moving or defending, the beginner should first determine the value of the attacking piece versus the value of the piece being attacked. If a three point Knight is attacking a five point Rook, then the Rook should be moved. If the pieces are of equal value, ask yourself, can I move the attacked piece to a more active square? If you can, then your opponent may be doing you a positional favor! You never want to make moves that help your opponent and if your opponent does so, take advantage of them. Good moves serve to strengthen your position.

If the pieces are of equal value and you cannot move the attacked piece to a more active square, then defend it. Again, consider the value of potential defenders. Obviously, if you defend a piece with a pawn then your opponent may reconsider capturing it, especially if doing so does nothing to help their position. However, make sure to look at the position to see if capturing your piece will create an opening in your defenses that allows for a strong opposition attack. If so, you may have to build up your defenses around the attacked piece and potential positional opening. Don’t worry my novice chess playing friends, most beginner’s games will not have such calculated attacks, so you probably will not face this issue until later in your chess careers. However, be aware that more experienced players will sacrifice material to open up the position for an attack.

Now look for potential threats you can create. With beginner’s games, those threats often revolve around hanging pieces. Look to see if any of your opponent’s pawns or pieces are hanging. If there are no hanging pawns or pieces, see if there are any threats you can make. When you first start playing you don’t think in terms of threats. Threats come in varying degrees of severity, a potential checkmate being the strongest threat. We’ve already looked for hanging pieces so next we see if there are any threats you can make that force your opponent to respond with a move he or she doesn’t want to make. What kind of move is this? One that slows down their development or one that weakens their position. If you can further activate your pawns and pieces while threatening your opponent’s material, while weakening their position or forcing them to make moves they don’t want to make, you traveling along the correct road to mastery! Good threats include attacking a piece of greater value with a piece of lesser value, moves that check the opposition King and force him to move (prior to Castling) or moves that set up tactical plays (forks, pins, skewers, etc). Then there’s the counter threat.

If your opponent threatens one of your pieces, see if you can make a bigger threat. If you opponent attacks one of your minor pieces with a pawn, look to see if you can threaten an opposition piece of greater value with either a pawn or a piece of lesser value. You opponent will have to deal with the bigger threat, yours, which may lead to them having to make a positional concession which could give you an advantage!

Always look to further activate your pawns and pieces, especially during the early phases of the game. Before starting to play for Middle-game exchanges, develop your pawns and pieces to their most active squares, especially those that allow pieces to control more of the board. As I stated in earlier articles, the more control of the board you have (especially on your opponent’s side of the board), the greater your options. The greater your options, the fewer options your opponent has. This leads to winning games.

Once we’ve done this, we must look for at least three good moves. I tell my students that the difference between a good move and a great move is this: A good move is just that, a good move. A great move is one that wins the game (or creates an overwhelming advantage). To find that great move, you have to consider a few good candidate moves (moves we’re thinking about making). Just jumping on the first move you see might cause you to miss that great move. Therefore, you should try to think of at least three good moves. When you think of each move, make a mental note to yourself as to why that move is good. Have sound/good reasons for that move! If you can’t come up with a good reason for the move in question then it’s not a good move! Then compare the three moves and decide which of them is the best. If you do this every time you’re considering a move, you’ll win more games than you lose (eventually). Speaking of moves, here’s a game to enjoy until next week that has more than a few good moves in it. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson