Author Archives: Hugh Patterson

About Hugh Patterson

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

Chess and Rehabilitation

Chess is a game (although devotees will tell you it’s more than just a game) enjoyed by young and old alike. It knows no racial, social, sexual or religious boundaries. It’s inexpensive to invest in the needed equipment to play it and with plenty of free, online sources, one can learn and improve at no cost. However, it can serve a greater cause, changing the future of those who have made bad decisions in their lives. Chess can help to rehabilitate those individuals who have difficultly solving problems in their lives, problems that range from criminality to substance abuse to scattered thinking. Let me explain this idea and give you some real examples of the positive changes chess has brought to a number of individuals.

We’ll start by looking at what chess can do for those individuals with scattered or disorganized thought patterns. We all known someone (maybe even ourselves) who seems to deal with life’s numerous problems in a roundabout way, often going from point “a” to point “b” in an illogical if not haphazard manner. Try as they may, they never seem to have an easy time of solving even the simplest of problems. Chess is a game that requires the ability to create a logical plan and execute it in a straight forward manner. Problem solving in chess comes down to coming up with a series of steps that resolves the issue at hand (a given position on the chessboard) in the most expedient manner possible. In chess, you cannot afford to take the scenic route, instead taking the most direct path to resolution available. This is a learned skill which is developed through both theory (studying the game) and practice (actually playing the game). The organized problem solving methods learned when studying chess can be applied to real life situations. The logic, reasoning and planning required to be a successful chess player can be employed when tackling the many problems we face in our day to day lives. After playing and studying chess, the once scattered thinker can now solve problems using an organized system of thought. Does this mean that chess will make you more intelligent? Sadly no! You’re born with the brain you’re born with but studying chess will hep you to make the best of what lies within your cranial cavity!

In the many schools I teach chess in, I present real life analogies played out on the chessboard and vice versa. I do this so students can more easily apply what they learn from chess to their lives. My students range from prep school children to hardened juveniles and adults who are locked up in jails. When teaching in jails and prisons, the one common thread all the men, both young and old) share is a series of extremely bad decisions they made during the course of their lives. While I’ve never spent time behind the hard iron bars of the prisons I teach in, I’ve made some truly bad decisions in my life that nearly cost me everything. The old adage “there but by the grace of God go I” rattles through my thoughts every time I enter a jail or prison. The only difference between the men I work with in prison/jail and myself is that I was fortunate enough to have found the game of chess before I ended up behind bars and learned a bit about making good decisions and the consequences of bad decisions. You know that other old adage, “sex, drugs and rock and roll?” Lets just say that in my youth I lived that lifestyle to its fullest and that kind of lifestyle is ripe with bad decisions. Because ,for whatever reason, I escaped ending up either dead or locked up in a jail somewhere, I work extremely hard to help incarcerated individuals learn how to stop making the type of bad decisions that landed them in leg irons. I say leg irons because I tend to only work with the worst offenders, many of whom committed murder and are actually moved around the prison in leg irons. On a side note, I will not allow prison guards to be in the room with me when I’m working with one to five of these men. It’s not that I’m some sort of tough guy who can take on five men at once. I simply need to show these guys a certain level of trust and in prison, trusting someone with your life is the highest form of trust there is. Since I’m still here writing this, I may be on to something! In actuality prisoners tend to be on their best behavior with outsiders.

With my incarcerated students, we learn, through the game of chess, how good decisions can make our lives on the chessboard easier and how bad decisions can spiral out of control and leave us in a hopeless situation or position. We apply this idea to their lives. We look to the future because the bad decisions of their past cannot be undone. We learn how, from the moment they start using chess to aid them with solving life problems, their lives can change for the better. The tools used to succeed on the chessboard can be used to succeed in life. Chess is also a way these men can challenge one another without anyone getting physically hurt. As I often say, “chess is the one way you can get into a fight that won’t land you back in jail.” I’ve paired rival gang members against one another on the chessboard and, while there might be a bruise or two to the loser’s ego, no blood is shed. In fact, often, these rivals will become playing partners and even respect one another in the end. Chess has a way of bringing these men closer together.

Then there’s the drug addicts and alcoholics I’ve taught chess to. For someone with a drug or alcohol problem, spending time alone with their thoughts can lead to further substance abuse. Being alone with one’s self can have deadly consequences. The hardest dilemma for the addict is having too much time on their hands when first in recovery because they start thinking (negative thoughts) and early in recovery, those thoughts are as poisonous as the substances they ingest. The addict, early in their recovery, has trouble focusing and when they do, their thoughts are extremely painful, with the addict dwelling on all they’ve lost. They also lack logic and reasoning skills because addiction is an illogical and scattered lifestyle. Therefore, chess is a valuable tool for keeping the addict’s mind occupied and for teaching them to problem solve without the use of drugs or alcohol. Addicts tend to avoid their problems, many deeply rooted within their psyche and extremely painful to relive, by indulging in the drug their choice. They avoid the pain that lives within them, remaining chemically numb because they don’t know how to deal with their pain. They don’t have a point of reference, only scattered thoughts. They’ve lost their ability to function in the world due to the substance abuse. They have no focus. Chess can provide a way in which to learn how to develop focus and concentration as well as how to make sound, logical decisions. However, one of the most important aspects of chess as it related to recovery is the game’s ability to help addicts avoid becoming trapped in their own dark thoughts. Chess keeps the occupied. It keeps the dark thoughts at bay because they’re trying to concentrate on playing. I’ve had good results with many addicts simply by teaching them this game that helps them make better decisions. In closing, chess can be extremely therapeutic as well. When I was diagnosed and treated for an aggressive cancer in 2007, it was chess that kept me from losing my mind. Every moment spent playing chess was a moment I didn’t think about possibly dying. Well, that was a rather grim article anc I thank you for suffering through it. Here’s a game to enjoy until week when I promise the subject matter will be a bit more upbeat!

Hugh Patterson

The Organized Army

Throughout history, most battles have been won by the more organized army. Win enough battles and you win the war. The same hold true with chess. An organized chess army is the army that wins the game. When we first learn the rules of this game we love so much, we concentrate on simply making legal moves with our pawns and pieces. We launch attacks that we’re sure will win the game only to become hopelessly lost in the weakest of positions. What started as a promising attack, with our powerful army leading the charge, ends in defeat. We moved the pieces according to the game’s rules, we launched attacks which you’re supposed to do in order to win games. So what went wrong, muses the novice player. Chances are, there was nothing in the way of organization and organization is the key to success on the chessboard and in life.

Organization really comes down to coordination. In life, those individuals who are organized seem to always accomplished things, seldom becoming bogged down and lost when facing any task, large or small. Disorganized individuals tend to take a lot longer to accomplish their goals and often don’t come close to reaching or meeting those goals. Chess requires having a flexible plan, one that isn’t so rigid that it can’t be adjusted to work within the ever changing positional landscape on the board. If you wish to create a plan that works however, you have to be organized!

Any discussion regarding organization should start with defining a plan. Simply put, a plan is a series of smaller steps that allow one to complete a task. Those steps have to follow a specific order. If you paint a room in your house, you don’t slap paint on the walls before you cover your furniture and floors with a drop cloth. You cover things up and then start painting. Thus most successful plans require the employment of a logical series of steps. However, in chess, there’s an added problem and that’s the creation of a plan that is flexible.

Positions on the chessboard can change drastically from move to move, especially in the games of beginners. Rigid chess plans are those that absolutely depend on one’s opponent making very specific moves that adhere to the plan. Of course, this is unrealistic because, one’s opponent is going to have his or her own plans and will not simply let you execute your plans without a fight. Therefore, you have to create a flexible plan that can change with the changing board positions from move to move. This means, when contemplating a move or plan, really thinking about what your opponent’s best response will be.

If you ask a beginner what their plan is they’ll tell you it’s to checkmate their opponent’s King. This is the goal of the game. The question is how you reach your goal through a series of smaller goals accomplished via plans. During the opening phase of the game, your goal is to control the center of the board by activating (moving) your pieces to active squares (those that control the board’s center) and Castle your King to safety. During the middle-game, your goal is to further activate your forces (pawns and pieces) and look for ways in which to reduce your opponent’s forces through exchanges of material. During the endgame, which many beginners never get to, checkmating your opponent’s King is the goal. These goals are met via short term or flexible plans. The point here is that you have to identify the immediate or short term goal in order to create a plan that allows you to achieve that goal. It comes down to organization. I have my students write down things they do in everyday life that require a plan and the steps they take to solve the problem they have to solve. This serves as an analogy they can use to create an organized plan when playing chess.

I say “organized plan” because I know plenty of people who, when faced with a task, take the long disorganized road to achieve their goal. In chess, time works against you so the longer you take to reach a goal via a disorganized plan, the more opportunities you provide you opponent to stop you from reaching your goal. This is where being organized plays a critical role.

Beginners need to think in terms of “what’s the simplest and quickest way to reach my goal?” When I say “quickest,” I don’t mean making fast decisions. Beginners often make quick moves without putting any thought into why they’re making those moves. We have to separate the idea of reaching our goal quickly with that of simply making moves at a break neck speed. Any move you make should have a legitimate reason behind it. I have my students pretend they’re a famous chess player surrounded by newspaper reporters who ask the question “why did you make that move” after the player’s turn. You need to be able to answer that question prior to committing to a move and if you can’t answer it, you have no business making the move in question.

Executing a plan quickly starts with the organizational skill of identifying the immediate goal. In the opening game, it’s control of the board’s center that fuels our plan. We know we have to achieves this goal during the first ten to fifteen moves and we can use the opening principles as a simple guide. We control the center with a pawn or two, further gain control of the board’s center by developing our minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) towards the four central squares (d4, d5, e4 and e5), Castle our King to safety and connect our Rooks. By using those principles we have an organized method for achieving our opening goal. However, it becomes difficult because our opponent is doing the same thing while also trying to stop us from achieving this goal. Therefore, we have adjust our plans slightly (flexibility) and try to foil our opponent’s plans while still trying to achieve our goal. This can become a confusing idea for the novice player.

The trick here is to always aim for our goals. If our opponent stops us from making a developing move we wanted to make during the opening, such as moving a Knight to f3, why not consider moving the other Knight to c3? You were eventually going to make this move so why not make it now since the move you wanted to make can’t be made immediately. To develop this way of thinking, planning in terms of flexibility, always come up with three possible moves you can make and then commit to one. Thus, if you had planned on developing your Knight to f3 but your opponent makes a pawn move that stops this before you had a chance to make that move, you have other moves you can make that fit in with your plan, centralized control during the opening.

When learning the art of planning and organization, I have my students write out their plans while they play practice games so their goals are clearly defined. They create plans with the fewest number of steps needed to achieve their goals in a logical sequence. On the paper they use for notes is written the phrase “what’s your opponent’s best response (counter move) to the move you’re considering?’ This reminds my students that their opponent is going to fight their plans to the bitter end. Try doing this when playing practice games and eventually you’ll find that you won’t need to write your plans down because you have them committed to memory. Take your time when playing and always have a plan that can change at a moments notice. This type of plan is flexible not rigid. Always remember, your opponent is never going to make the move you want them to make. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Attack or Defend

There are two roles each player assumes during a single game of chess, that of attacker and that of defender. Both players switch between these roles as the game progresses. When one player attacks, the other defends against that attack. With beginners, you often see one player attacking wildly, without a real plan, in an attempt to either win material or produce a fast checkmate. The end result is usually a loss of material for the attacker and a dreadful position as well. Then there’s the beginner who decides to simply build up a defense and ward off the opposition’s attacks for the entire game, playing passively which gets you nowhere. Knowing when to attack or defend is crucial if you want to win games. Also key to success is having the proper amount of force (pawns and pieces) when attacking or defending. The first question we have to address is when to attack and when to defend? To experienced players, the answer to this question is simple. However, to the beginner, the answer isn’t always clear.

The opening principles tell us that we should gain control of the board’s center as early as possible, not letting our opponent gain control first. Therefore we need to be aggressive from the game’s start (attack the board’s center). If you have the White pawns and pieces, you get to make the first move which means you have the chance to gain control of the board’s center from the start. Attack the central squares! Beginners tend to think of attacking in terms of attacking opposition pawns and pieces, in other words physical material. Thus, they think that moving a piece to a square upon which it controls other squares on the opposition’s side of the board isn’t really attacking anything since there’s no physical pieces on those squares. The beginner will move pieces to squares on which they can attack opposition material, even if it weakens their position or causes them to move that piece multiple times to get to the specific square. Remember, when you attack an empty square you are controlling that square, keeping enemy pawns and pieces off of that square which falls into the category of attacking. Just because a square is empty doesn’t mean it has no value. Every square you control is one less square available to your opponent! Therefore, try to control as many squares on your opponent’s side of the board as possible because doing so makes it difficult for the opposition to launch their own attack.

The more force you use when attacking the greater the probability of your attack being successful. You never see a sporting event where a single player takes on an entire opposition team. Teams are made up of multiple players who work together, not individually. Your pawns and pieces should work like a team, meaning they should be coordinated. When attacking do so with multiple pieces who are working with one another (protecting one another and providing multiple attackers) while also attacking a single target (piece or square) multiple times. I see many beginner games in which one player actually attacks with a plethora of attacking pieces but those pieces are not coordinated to they end up being lost within a few moves. Successful attacks involve pieces (and of course pawns) working carefully together. Yes, there are attacks that lead to checkmate involving a single piece, such as a back rank mate or smothered mate (involving a lone Knight), but there are always previous, smaller attacks that open up the necessary lines to deliver checkmate. Coordinated pieces that target specific squares lead to successful attacks.

Speaking of targeted squares, it’s easier to launch a successful attack when you hone in on a weakness in your opponent’s position. Beginners will often launch a multi-piece attack on a specific square but that square will be heavily defended so a loss of material usually ensues rather than a profitable attack. When choosing a target square, look for one that is first, weak due to a lack of defenders and second, one that will open up a further line of attack against the opposition King. With this said, sometimes your opponent will be able to pile up defenders to ward off your attackers. While the rule of thumb is to have at least one more attacker than your opponent has defenders (or one more defender than attackers, when defending), you’ll eventually have to decide whether committing all that material to a single attack is worth it. Does doing so weaken your position elsewhere on the board? If the answer is yes, don’t commit unless you know that you’ll be able to either come out of any exchanges up material or be able to deliver checkmate in the very near future.

If your opponent is attacking then you’ll have to play the role of the defender. The reason it’s better to be the attacker is that defenders get stuck defending and are unable to attack the enemy position until they successfully ward off the current attack. The attacker has the initiative! Too often, beginners will defend a pawn with everything they have only to discover that their opponent can add one final attacker, leaving you unable to successfully defend, in this case, a pawn. You’ve committed a large portion of your forces to the defense of a pawn which means those defending pieces are tied down, leaving you open to attacks elsewhere on the board. Sometimes you have to bit the bullet and simply give up the pawn!

Beginners too often don’t know where an attack is coming from until it’s too late. Before making a move, you should look at any opposition piece that is active, on the board, and note what squares that piece controls and what pieces of yours it attacks. Are there more than one attacker on any of your pieces or key squares? Key squares are those that can open a line that allows an attack on your King. If one of your pieces is under attack, move that piece to a safe square. If a key square is targeted, defend it. During the game, you should always look for weaknesses in your position. When you find one, defend it. If you defend potential weaknesses in your position early on, you deprive your opponent the opportunity to launch an attack on those potentially weak squares.

When attacking, you want to attack squares on your opponent’s side of the board. The reason 1. e4 is better than 1. e3, from an attacking viewpoint, is because the pawn on e4 attacks two squares on Black’s side of the board (d5 and f5). Putting a pawn on e3 does attack a center square but it’s one of your squares which is more of a defensive move. If you deprive your opponent access to his or her own squares, they’re going to have great difficulties launching any attacks. Conversely, you do want to cover squares on your side of the board against opposition attacks. 2. Nf3 does just that because it not only attacks the center of the board, it also keeps the Black Queen off of the h4 and g5 squares, which in an opening such as the King’s Gambit is extremely important.

Attack when the opportunity presents itself. If you see a weakness in your opponent’s position, exploit it. Your opponent will have to become the defender and won’t be able to launch any immediate attacks. Also try to create attacks by targeting weak squares. When creating attacks, you start moving your material towards your target square, only launching the attack once you have sufficient material to do so. Of course, your opponent will probably see the pieces heading his or her way and will try to defend that position. However, if your pieces are coordinated and you have a greater number of attacks than defenders, then you should be successful. Just make sure you have a few defenders left near your King to protect his majesty.

Be the attacker and things will happen. Be the defender and you’ll spend the game warding off attacks and coming no closer to checkmating your opponent than you were on move one. Be aggressive but not foolish. Look for weakness on your opponent’s position while defending your own potential weaknesses. Examine every opposition piece near your side of the board and take your time when considering moves. Do this and you’ll play a better game of chess or at least spend less time defending and more time attacking. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Timing is Everything

At some point, the beginning chess player will enter a tournament to test his or her new found skills. Up until this point in the beginners chess career, games were played casually with no real regard to the concept of time, except maybe thinking their opponent should move a little faster so both players don’t die of old age before the game’s finished. Now our brave novice player has entered their first chess tournament and when they sit down to play they see the chess clock, that harbinger of positional doom that has destroyed many a player, both good and bad! “I’ll just speed through the first fifteen moves which will leave me plenty of extra time should I get stuck contemplating a difficult position. I can manage my time if I go fast during this part of the game and slow down for that part of the game.” These musings are a recipe for disaster.

Of course, one of the key ideas I teach my students is patience, taking your time when playing chess in order to find the best possible move in a given position. However, this idea of being patient or taking your time goes out the window when you sit down to play a game of chess with a chess clock limited the time in which you have to play the game. Time can be extremely troublesome and many a great chess player has lost a crucial match because they start to run out of time, forcing them into making less thought out moves.

Prior to the invention and use of chess clocks, tournament games could and did go on for ridiculously long periods of time. Back then, you might have to block off months of time within your schedule to accommodate playing in a tournament. The chess clock allowed individual games to have a set length of time in which they were played. This made things run much smoother from the tournament’s point of view. With a clock, each player, for example, may have (depending on the type of match) 90 minutes to make the first 40 moves and then additional time added on after completion of those moves. This seems simple enough. You just do some basic arithmetic and conclude that you have a little over two minutes per move, using the above example as a reference. However, things are never that simple, especially when you hit a position that requires some serious analysis.

The way I teach my students to manage time is by employing the “savings system.” Simply put, my students bank their time much in the way one banks or saves their money. We start with the opening.

The opening should be the first place you acquire bankable time because the moves should be easy to make and require less overall analysis. Of course a seasoned player makes their opening moves without hesitation whereas the beginner can get hung up regarding what move should be made. To keep from getting hung up, I have my students use the opening principles to guide them. During the opening phase, they make moves that apply the opening principles (controlling the board’s center with a pawn, developing the minor pieces towards the center, Castling and connecting your Rooks). Using the opening principles as a guide should leave you with some bankable time (time left over from moves made in less than two minutes) and that time adds up!

The middle game is where beginner’s have a tough time when it comes to time management. During the opening, you can make some moves automatically with little thought going into them. However, during the middle game there is so much going on that it’s hard to quickly find good moves. Therefore, I have my students first look to see if any of their material is under attack and if so, I have them address it. Next I have them further develop their pieces to more active squares. The idea behind this is that you’re more likely to find a potentially good attacking move in less time if your army are on their most active squares. Lastly the look for potentially favorable exchanges *where you come out ahead not your opponent). The point here is that my students have a checklist they can go through that keeps them focused and less apt to loose time.

The endgame is tough for beginners because most beginner games never reach a proper endgame. Therefore, they assess what material they have and how to deliver checkmate with that material. My beginning students usually end up with a Queen and King or Rook and King against King and pawn endgame scenario. They have been taught the proper way to deliver checkmate with these pieces. More importantly, they’ve been taught not to waste time. If you’re simply chasing the opposition King around with a Rook or Queen while your King sits idly, you will waste your time.

Time management is about being organized. You need to have a check list as a beginner that will serve as your guide. Improving the position of your pawns and pieces during the early middle game will make it much easier to find tactical plays. By improving the activity of your pieces (and pawns) you’ll often see middle game positions with greater clarity, allowing you to find that winning tactic and saving time otherwise spent staring at the board. Always be mindful of the clock but don’t spend too much time staring at it or you’ll lose time and perhaps your mind. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Finding the Right Opening

There are many ways to start a game of chess. We call the starting phase of the game, the opening and when it comes to the opening, we have many choices regarding the type of opening we employ. Beginners face their first challenge when deciding which opening is right for them. While all good openings (for both Black and White) adhere to the opening principles, some require a more advanced skill set if they’re to be employed successfully. Some openings are very clear cut and safe (beginners take note) while others are wrought with less clear cut (to the beginner) but still strong moves aimed at controlling the board’s center which is the goal of the opening. When choosing an opening to study and use, the beginner should always pick an opening in which the opening principles can clearly be seen. Too often, beginners choose openings that are currently being played on the tournament circuit or by their favorite chess player. This can be a deadly mistake for the beginner because their favorite player has spent years studying opening theory and can make the employment of a difficult opening seem easy. When our beginner tries to play that opening he or she doesn’t get the same results because extremely precise play (of the opening) is required. Should the beginner ignore these complex openings altogether? Absolutely not. However, they should build up to them, skill-wise, the way in which a musician learns simpler songs first and then moves on to more complex pieces.

The opening you eventually settle on depends on your personality. Are you aggressive and a risk taker or are you more reserved? As you improve your opening play, you’ll find an opening that suits your playing personality. However, to start, choose an opening that clearly demonstrates the opening principles. If you’re new to chess, the opening principles are a series of sound and solid ideas that serve as a guide regarding which pieces to bring into the game first and where to place those pieces. They can be thought of as the way in which you complete your opening goal which is controlling the center of the board (e4, e5, d4 and d5). The principles, simply put are as follows:

Control the center of the board with a pawn or two, develop (move) your minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) towards the center squares, get your King Castled to safety and connect your Rooks. Avoid moving the same piece twice (or more) during the opening unless you have to. Don’t make too many pawn moves and please don’t bring your Queen out early. Lastly, always play to control the board’s center before your opponent does. There, that was simply enough. Write these suggestions down so you can refer to them. Also remember that principles are not rules and can be bent under the right conditions. However, you need to be very sure of what you’re doing before bending them. As for breaking the principles, doing so will lead to positional ruin.

To get an idea regarding what I meant by choosing an opening that clearly demonstrates the opening principles versus one in which the principles may not be as clear (to the beginner), let’s look at two openings, The Italian Opening and The Ruy Lopez (Spanish) Opening for White. Both openings start with 1. e4. This adheres to our first principle, controlling the center of the board with a pawn. After Black plays 1…e5, both of our openings play 2. Nf3. The Knight attacks two key central squares, adhering to our second opening principle regarding the development of our minor pieces. After Black plays 2…Nc6, we come to the move that defines and differentiates the two openings. In The Italian Opening, White plays 3, Bc4 and in The Ruy Lopez or Spanish Opening, White plays 3. Bb5. While there is a difference between the two moves, both moves influence the center.

In The Italian Opening, the Bishop on c4 attacks a center square (d5) while also aiming itself at the weak f7 pawn. This clearly adheres to the principle of developing your minor pieces towards the center. A beginner looking at this position will see the opening principles clearly in action. By the way, White can now Castle on the King-side so we’re following our principles to the letter. What of 3. Bb5? Beginners will look at this move and wonder how this could possibly influence or control the board’s center. Should black play 3…a6 and White then play 4. Bxc6 (the exchange variation of the Ruy Lopez), the e5 pawn will no longer have the protection of the Knight, thus the idea of indirect central influence. This makes perfect sense to the more experienced player but to the beginner, it’s often a lost idea!

If you wish to play chess at a high level, such as rated tournaments, you’ll have to eventually learn the Ruy Lopez. However, you need to learn how to walk before your run! Like the music student, you have to learn simple techniques before moving on to advanced techniques. It’s the learning process and it applies to every subject you study. One of the reasons that I suggest my beginning students learn The Italian Opening has to do with its simplicity and flexibility, eventually moving on to the Ruy Lopez only after my students have fully grasped the nuances of the opening principles.

The Italian Opening, 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4 (you’ll see why I didn’t include Black’s third move momentarily), nicely and clearly (for the beginner) illustrates the opening principles that are necessary to learn in order to master any chess opening. As for flexibility, this opening can transpose into the Evan’s Gambit or the Fried Liver Attack, giving the beginning player an introduction to two additional openings as well as introducing them to the idea of flexibility.

Flexibility is extremely important when it comes to chess. Many beginners create overly rigid plans that fail instantly when their opponent makes a move that doesn’t fit into that plan. This is especially true during the opening phase of the game. A beginner will learn the opening moves by solely memorizing them and then play them as memorized regardless of what their opponent does which leads to failure early on. With The Italian Opening, the beginner can react accordingly to their opponent’s moves. If Black plays 3…Bc5, the beginner can consider playing 4. b5, launching into the Evan’s Gambit or after 3…Nf6, play either 4. Ng5, signaling the Fried Liver Attack or sticking with the mainline Italian. Of course, I teach my beginning students the complete Italian Opening before teaching them The Evan’s Gambit or Fried Liver Attack. Again, what I like, in terms of being a chess teacher, is the clear and concise way in which this opening demonstrates the opening principles.

When learning chess openings, the beginner should always start with a simple opening and work their way towards more complex openings after their skills have improved. Beginners really should try many different openings as they gain a stronger knowledge of opening theory. They should also play both sides of the board when studying any opening because you’ll never know what your opponent is going to throw at you. I highly suggest a book that contains a large number of openings for both Black and White, such as The Dummies Guide to Chess Openings. This type of book allows the novice player to examine in some detail the large variety of openings available to them.

It should be noted that just because today’s current roster of Grandmasters aren’t playing a particular opening doesn’t mean that opening is bad, especially for the beginner or intermediate player. Don’t let opening trends dissuade you from playing a particular opening. Play what feels right for you but always remember, before you take on an opening, make sure it’s on par with you skill level. Of course, you should always exercise your brain by taking on an opening that is slightly beyond your skill set, even though it may be hard mental work when it comes to mastering that opening. Just make sure it isn’t so difficult that you become frustrated. How do you know if an opening is above your skill set? If you cannot clearly see the opening principles in action within the opening or the text describing that opening doesn’t make sense, work at other openings and build up your knowledge of opening principles. Then, when you’re more comfortable with opening mechanics, try the opening the once made no sense. Be patient, study theory, practice that theory, and you’ll be rewarded. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Just Walk Away

In the last few months, I’ve written about the amount of work one has to put in if they wish to master a specific area of study or just gain a greater knowledge of that subject. I became so engrossed in creating a rough map that would guide you along the road to improvement and/or mastery that I forgot an extremely important action you will have to engage in (at times) while traveling the road of enlightenment and knowledge, and that is the often difficult skill of walking away or stopping your journey temporarily. When I say “walking away,” I’m not talking about giving up. I’m talking about taking a break, be it short or long. Stopping to regroup your thoughts or re-energize your tired brain can keep you from simply giving up due to a high degree of total frustration. Many a student has completely given up on a subject because they reach a frustration point that stops them dead in their tracks. Let’s look at this in more detail.

I should start by saying that we all face frustrations in life. Be it discovering that you don’t have the one screwdriver you need to fix a leaky sink or having your car break down in the middle of nowhere. There are literally thousands of things that cause frustration. Frustration is similar to a wall that suddenly appears in front of you, seemingly appearing out of thin air. You look at the wall and think, “alright, I can climb over it. It’s a bit tall but I can do it.” Suddenly, the wall grows in height and now you’re facing a wall so tall it blocks out the sun. Using our screwdriver and leaky sink analogy, the initial wall of frustration is not having the right screwdriver. The wall of frustration grows when you try to use a kitchen knife to tighten the screw and end up gouging your brand new sink and breaking your only culinary knife. What if you simply took a trip to the hardware store and bought the right tool? The frustration would be over and the sink fixed. Thus, being properly prepared for the task at hand is a good way to avoid frustration.

When we study anything seriously we inevitably reach a point at which we just don’t understand the concept or idea that is crucial to our academic advancement. It could be something as simple as math formula. We read the text again and again, trying to see how the formula works, eventually becoming glassy eyed. We keep at it until we’re ready to start throwing things around the room. I’ll give you an example from my own experiences.

One day, I started my daily practice routine on the guitar. The day before my playing was nearly flawless. However, on this day I was tired and I got stuck on a long lead guitar line. The more I tried to play it, the worse my playing became. I seriously thought that I had a minor stroke in my sleep. I started to think my career as a guitarist was suddenly over. The more I tried to work through this problem, the worse things got. I finally had to stop. In fact, I didn’t play that entire day. The following day, I got up and went into the studio, opened my guitar case, pulling my arch-top guitar out and guess what? I was playing well again. This taught me a valuable lesson and that lesson is this: When you start to get frustrated in your studies, walk away immediately and take a break. If your new to the game of chess or even playing guitar, don’t think that becoming frustrated is a problem reserved only for beginners. It happens to experts as well. I’ve been a professional guitar player for decades and I’m considered quite good (and it’s not just my mother and wife making that claim), yet I suffer the same frustrations that beginners face, which we’ll talk about next. The only difference is I now know when to walk away.

Learning the game of chess is very similar to learning a musical instrument. It’s a balance of theory and practice. Theory is all about hitting the books and engaging in some long study sessions in order to gain practical knowledge. Practice is about applying that new found knowledge by actually playing chess or your guitar. You have to do both! I study the works of various musicians that are extremely difficult to master, so I often hit the wall of frustration early on and this is after decades of playing. When I first started playing I hit points of frustration as well. Simply put, it’s part of the learning experience. When you study chess, your brain is forced into a state of high concentration. For beginners, this state of mind can quickly turn against you because you haven’t built up the mental muscles to concentrate for long periods of time. Don’t worry, you’ll build up those muscles but it takes time. Therefore, you should study in short bursts rather than long marathon sessions to avoid become frustrated. Then move on to longer blocks of study time, once you’ve at least toned those mental muscles. Still, what do you do when you hit a concept or idea you just don’t understand?

Before you walk away and mentally regroup, try a few things first. Let’s say you’ve just read a section on the opening principles as a beginner and they are a bit unclear. Try going online and seeking out another explanation. Just because your book’s explanation doesn’t make sense to you doesn’t mean there’s not a brilliantly simple explanation somewhere in cyberspace that will clear things up. You can try comprehending the information sentence by sentence as well. We tend to mentally digest things in context of paragraphs rather than the individual sentences that make up each paragraph. If you read each sentence, put it into your own words and then move on to the next sentence, you may fully comprehend the entire paragraph. Putting ideas into you own words by creating an analogy will help improve your comprehension. In short, don’t walk away until you’ve tried the above mentioned techniques.

Don’t try and study when you’re tired or stressed our. While I can play guitar to un-stress myself, if I try to study technique or play chess, I hit the world’s biggest wall of frustration when I’m stressed. A great deal of avoiding frustration has to do with picking exactly when you study. If you’re a morning person, study in the morning but don’t do it at night when you’re tired and apt to become, dare I say it, frustrated! A good night’s sleep also greatly helps!

As for walking away, sometimes you just have to give up the fight and walk away. I don’t make many promises here but I will promise you this: If all else fails and you have to walk away, I promise you that you will not lose any of the knowledge you acquired from your earlier studies. In fact, you’ll probably come back to your studies stronger after a little break. As to how long to stay away? That’s up to the individual, but start at least with a full twenty four hours. Patience is the handiest skill to have because learning is all about patience. Knowing when to walk away and actually walking away (and returning) will aid you greatly in your quest for knowledge. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with walking away when things get too frustrating regarding your studies. Just remember to come back to your studies at some point! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

The Death of Competition

Competition drives civilization. While it’s really the ideas formed in the minds of our species greatest thinkers that advance civilization, it’s what is then done with those ground breaking ideas that sets the course humanity repeatedly embarks upon. To simply come up with a great idea and leave it just that, a brilliant thought rattling around the cerebral cortex, amounts to nothing. The idea must be made a reality and this means turning that idea into action be it the automobile or home computer. When the idea becomes reality it is introduced to the rest of the human species. In the case of the home computer, they were manufactured, sold to millions of consumers and then improved upon. Driving all of this was the idea of competition, one manufacturer creating a better model that would outsell those models introduced by other manufacturers. Sports is also the realm of competition, where individuals and teams compete to see who is the best in their given sport. In short, we are all touched by competition.

However, there has been a recent trend, when it comes to competition between children, whose aim is to remove competition from the equation, opting to create an environment within sports type endeavors in which everyone is a winner just for participating. This means, for example, that if your show up to an event in which traditionally, only the top three participants are rewarded for their performance, you’ll be rewarded for simply showing up and participating. It’s the parenting theory of “every child is special and should be rewarded just for that.” Some call it the “special snowflake” syndrome. This is where parents tell their children that they are special (which of course every child really is) and then steer those children away from a competitive environment. I really understand this point of view because we love our children and don’t want to see them suffer in any way, including their discovering that they’re just not good at something. I suspect some parents think that their child’s lives will become irreversibly damaged should they enter a competitive event and come in last. Again, I understand that you want to shield your child from the horrors of the world, but eventually they’re going to go out into the world and have to deal with competition. It’s everywhere and the sooner you prepare your child to deal with it, the better off they’ll be in the long run.

Everyone has something their good at and can take pride in. For some, it takes longer to find than others. When I was growing up, I was introduced to music and the arts in general. My parents didn’t have to keep me out of competitive sports because even I knew I’d be terrible at any sport (I really was). This is something parents need to understand. You’re children are a lot smarter than you think and intrinsically know their limitations. My parents greatly aided my dream of becoming a professional musician, knowing that it is one of the most competitive businesses around. They left dealing with the issue of competition to me, only making sure they’d be there if it all became too much for me to handle (a good way to approach this). I’ve been in this competitive business almost 40 years and it does require a tough outer layer of emotional skin to survive it. I, as you know, also teach and coach chess. I’ll never be the best chess player in the world (not even close) and I’m fine with that! Just because I’m not the best doesn’t mean I can’t pursue this game I love so much. As for guitar playing, I’m highly rated and very competitive, always aiming to out play the competition. This spurs me on to practice more than most players. I reap the rewards of such diligence. I mention these two things I do to make a point and that is: You don’t have to be the best at something to enjoy it, making it an important part of your life, and if you do find something your really good at, why not shoot for the stars (within reason). I think parents mistakenly steer their children away from chasing their dreams, which change with great regularity.

Children should be allowed to follow their dreams and be taught that there will be others who aspire to the same dream, thus creating an environment of, you guessed it, competition! When we try to avoid situations of competition in our child’s lives we shelter them from the inevitable, the plain and simple fact that life itself is competitive. Children eventually leave their mothers and fathers, setting out into a world that can be fierce and unforgiving. Better to be prepared than not.

I was at a chess tournament thrown by a school a while back and noticed that they had a huge number of trophy’s displayed on the stage. Upon asking why there were so many of them, I was informed that every child playing in the tournament would receive one simply for showing up. I felt a bit uneasy about this idea because some of my students were playing in that tournament and those students spent countless hours working on their game so they would have a chance at winning one of the normally coveted top place trophies. One of my students also found out that everyone was getting a trophy and while he was glad there wouldn’t be anyone going home empty handed, he felt slightly cheated because he had worked so hard to prepare for what was not really a straight forward competition. Do we need to reward everyone for simply showing up? Imagine if this idea of “everyone’s a winner” was applied to the competitive world of technological businesses. Would we see all of the rapidly developed technologies that have changed our lives for the better come about in such a lightning fast way? Would we see once expensive computers we use in our daily lives come down to an affordable cost. I suspect not because competition drives advances and affordability. Yes, you’re a winner for trying, for giving it a shot, but if you want to truly be the best at something, you have to compete against other like minded individuals who also want to be the best at something. The only way to determine one’s level of skill is by comparison, namely comparing your skill to the skills of others who share your interest in that endeavor. This is done, using chess as an example, by playing another person.

One of the tough things about competition and chess is that chess comes down to you and your brain against your opponent and his or her brain. You might say that it’s a battle of brains and when we lose, we tend to take it a bit personally. Is the person you just lost to smarter than you? Absolutely not but people think that chess skills go hand in hand with one’s IQ, meaning the better the chess player the smarter he or she is. Wrong! I’ve heard parents say that “wow, that little boy that won first place sure is smart.” Does this mean that the parent’s son that came in 19th place is less smart? Absolutely not! It means the little boy that won first place may have been playing longer or had better pattern recognition skills. You can’t take your child losing a chess tournament or any other competition as a sign there’s something wrong. You also can’t shield them from what they’re going to meet head on when they mature, competition. So what should you do?

Tell them that the very fact they tried counts for a lot and even if they don’t do well in this endeavor, there is something out there that they’ll be great at. The adventure for the child is finding that. Competition should not be avoided but embraced in a healthy way. I mention this because there are parents who, upon finding their child’s uber talent, become slave drivers who force their children to improve at all costs. Let the child develop the interest and if they’re really into it, they’ll put in the time. Accept competition. Now that you’ve suffered through my rant, I give you a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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