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).

Why the Center?

When I teach my students the opening principles, we talk a great deal about the center of the board because that’s the name of the game when it comes to the opening. My more astute students pay close attention, making mental notes regarding the center of the board. Yet rarely does one of them ask “why the center?” The majority of chess students will simply accept the statement “you must control the center of the board during the opening” as a hard fast rule, a law not to be broken unless you want to lose your game quickly. While I can appreciate the idea of simply taking in such a statement without argument, a great deal more can be learned when you question such a statement. I am overjoyed when a student raises his or her hand and asks me why the center of the board is so crucial to good opening play. Asking questions is a fantastic way to improve one’s knowledge but sadly few students ask questions, even when encouraging them to do so.

Beginner’s too often confuse the game’s principles with the game’s rules, thinking a principle to be another rule of the game. Therefore, I make a point, long before teaching any principles to explain the difference between the two. Rules cannot be broken in chess. However, principles are merely guidelines (albeit great guidelines) that provide us with a way to make informed or sound decisions when considering moves. The principles have been around for centuries and have stood the test of time. They’ve survived this test of time because they work. Of course, students will first ignore the opening principles, trying it their way instead. When they’ve suffered one too many agonizing defeats, they’ll try it the principled way and suddenly see positive results.

To hone in on why opening principles are so important, you have to realize just how important the opening is. For you beginners, the opening comprises roughly the first 12 to 16 moves made in a chess game. Some openings are shorter while some are longer. The opening allows you to build a foundation for the rest of your game. When building a house, if the foundation is weak that house will eventually collapse. The same holds true in chess. If your foundation, the opening, is poorly constructed, your game will collapse.

There are three phases to a chess game, the opening, middle and endgames. The opening sets you up for the middle-game and the middle-game sets you up for the endgame. Therefore, your middle-game is only as good as your opening and your endgame is only as good as your middle-game. They all depend on one another. However, you might not see a middle or endgame if your opening is weak. One question beginners will ask is “I never make it to the middle or endgame because I get checkmated early. What am I doing wrong?” The answer? Not playing a proper opening!

To play properly during the opening, you have to use the opening principles to guide the moves you make. You cannot waste time (tempo) because the goal of the opening is control the center of the board before your opponent does. Remembering that your opponent is trying to achieve the same goals as you during the opening means that every move you make must be principled and not waste time. Wasted moves, such as moving the same piece twice during the opening or bringing your Queen out early allows your opponent to continue their principled moves which furthers their control of the board’s center. When you waste moves you might as well be giving your opponent a free turn.

Before I can even start teaching the opening principles, I have to solidify the importance of the board’s center in the minds of my students. Unless you know why the center of the board is so critical during the opening, you’ll not fully appreciate the importance of the opening principles and might ignore them, opted for wasted moves instead. With that said, let’s look at why the center of the board is so important.

The center of the board is comprised of four squares, e4, e5, d4 and d5. During the opening, both players fight to control these four squares and the squares immediately surrounding them. Why control the center and not one side of the board or the other? Two reasons. First, pieces have greater power or control of squares elsewhere on the board when those pieces are centrally located. A Knight in the center of the board (d4, d5, e4 or e5) controls eight squares while a Knight on the edge of the board (a4 or h4, for example) controls only four squares (a half Knight) and finally, a Knight on a corner square (a1, a8, h1 or h8) controls only two squares (a quarter Knight). The opening is all about having greater control of the board’s center than your opponent. Therefore centrally positioned pieces have greater control and greater options due to controlling more squares.

The second reason for centralized control? the enemy King is on a central file and if you want to get to him, it’s a lot faster to attack through the center than the flanks or sides of the board. Remember, the first person to checkmate their opponent’s King wins the game. Therefore, you want to get to the opposition King as quickly as possible. However, this doesn’t mean you should attack the opposition King the first chance you get. Attacks are built up, often slowly. What I mean by “quickly” is that you should choose the most direct approach when attacking. Why make two moves to get to a square you can reach in one move? This brings me to another important point, time or tempo.

The opening is a race to see who gets control of the board’s center first. The player who makes good opening moves that follow the opening principles will be the winner. The player who wastes time making moves that do nothing to control the board’s center will fall hopelessly behind. In chess terms, we call time tempo and every time you make an unprincipled move that does nothing to help you achieve your goal, control of the board’s center, you lose tempo. Unprincipled moves are wasted moves and every time you make one of these unprincipled moves, you might as well be giving your opponent a free move. Wasted moves waste time and wasting time losses games.

Since the opening comes down to who can control the center first, with greater force, we can see that using the opening principles to guide our moves doesn’t waste time. The player that wastes time or tempo falls behind the player who doesn’t. We now know the reasons for the center of the board being so important, so employing the opening principles should make more sense. Our job during the opening is to control the center of the board with a pawn (or two), develop our minor pieces (Knights and Bishop) to squares that allow them to control the center, castle our King to safety, connect our Rooks and last, continue to improve the activity of our pawns and pieces in order to go into the middle-game with a strong position.

I mentioned that principles are not rules at the beginning of this article. This means they don’t have to be adhered to. There are time when you may have to make a move that goes against these principles because you have no choice. The principles suggest we don’t move the same piece twice during the opening but what if a black pawn suddenly moves to b4 when you have a Knight on c3. Do you leave the Knight there because you don’t want to move the same piece twice during the opening? No! You move the Knight rather than lose it. Leaving the Knight to be captured would be treating principles as rules and they’re not. In fact, great chess players sometimes bend the opening principles if they have a really good reason. However, they don’t break those principles completely, they only bend them slightly. For now though, as a beginner, don’t bend the opening principles until you’ve fully mastered them. Speaking of opening principles, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

The Value of the Pawns and Pieces

I’m currently writing a chess book for beginners and thought I’d give you a sample from that book regarding the value of the pawns and pieces. This article is based on discussions I’ve had with my students over the years regarding this topic and is based on those conversations. Knowing how much the individual members of your army are worth helps you make good decisions regarding the exchange of material as well as the order in which to bring your forces into play.

To denote the importance of the pawns and pieces in terms of power, we assign a relative value to them. We use the term relative rather than absolute because the term absolute indicates that the value is unchanging. The term relative tells us that this value is approximate and might change slightly depending on circumstances within the game. We’ll explore that later on. For now, let’s concentrate on the initial relative value of the pawns and pieces. Again, we’ll discuss possible value changes later on. We’ll start with the pawn.

The pawn has a relative value of one. I teach students to think of the relative value of the pawns and pieces in terms of money. Since most of us, both young and old alike, can better understand valuation when we think in terms of money, making the pawns and pieces worth a dollar amount makes understanding their value much easier. This monetary understanding also makes it easier to determine whether or not to trade or exchange material (pawns and pieces). Using our money analogy, the pawn is worth $1.00. Beginners tend to think of the pawn as somewhat worthless since they have the lowest relative value and each player starts the game with eight of them. While the pawn does have the lowest relative value when compared to the pieces (we don’t refer to pawns as pieces but as pawns) it has the ability to promote into a Queen, Rook, Knight or Bishop when it reaches its promotion square on the other side of the board. This means its value will change upon promotion, increasing from $1.00. Because pawns are worth less than the Knight, Bishop, Rook and Queen, they can prevent these pieces from occupying squares the pawn controls. Remember, just because the pawn has the lowest relative value doesn’t mean it has less value in terms of what it can do. The reason the pawn has a low relative value has to do with its slow or limited movement and its limited control of squares on the board (it can only attack or control the adjacent diagonal squares in front of it. Now let’s look at the minor pieces.

We’ll start with the Knight. The Knight has a relative value of three ($3.00). Because the Knight can move a bit further and control a greater number of squares than the pawn, its value is greater. Knights are the only piece that have the ability to jump over other pieces (and pawns). If the chessboard has a lot of pawns and pieces in play or off of their starting squares, pieces such as the Bishops, Rooks and Queen will have trouble moving around. However, the Knight, due to its ability to jump over pawns and pieces, will have greater freedom of movement and is worth slightly more than $3.00 in such a situation. Now let’s look at the other minor piece, the Bishop.

The Bishop also has a relative value of three ($3.00). However, unlike the Knight, the Bishop is a long distance attacker. Therefore, when the board has few pieces in play or open diagonals (devoid of pawns and pieces), the Bishop has a slightly higher relative value than the Knight. Why do the Knight and Bishop share the same value, after all they have very different ways of moving? While the Knight has the ability to jump over other pieces, it’s range is short. Because of the way in which it moves (an “L” shape), getting to an adjacent square can take a number moves. While the Bishop can control great distances along the diagonals, it is tied down to a specific color square, which is why you have two of them. Both minor pieces have limits to their power and this is reflected in their relative value. Now to the major pieces, the Rook and Queen, starting with the Rook.

The Rook has a relative value of five or $5.00. Like the Bishop, the Rook is a long distance attacker, able to control a greater number of squares than the minor pieces or pawns. The Bishop is also a long distance attacker so why is it worth less than the Rook? Bishops are tied down to a single color square for movement. Thus, the Bishop that starts on a light square can only move along and control light squares while the Bishop that starts on a dark square can only move along and control dark squares. A light squared Bishop has no control over enemy pawns and pieces sitting on dark squares. On the flip-side, a dark squared Bishop has no control over enemy pawns and pieces positioned on light squares. The Rook, because he can freely move along the ranks and files, controls both light and dark squares. This is why he’s worth more that the Bishop.

The Queen has a relative value of nine or $9.00. Why so much? Because she can move like both the Bishop and Rook, giving her the ability to control or attack more squares than any other piece. She moves along the ranks, files or diagonals. This ability to travel along the ranks, files or diagonals makes her extremely powerful. She can control a large number of squares from a single location (square). You should respect this great power and not bring her into the game too early. If you do, she’ll become a target for enemy pieces of lesser value. What about the King? If he’s the most valuable piece in the game, he must be worth a great deal.

The King is priceless because if the King becomes trapped (remember you cannot capture the King is chess) the game ends in checkmate and the player whose King is trapped loses. I do give my students a dollar value for the King to emphasize his importance and that dollar figure is $197,635! This drives home the point that the King is worth a great deal! The reason we can’t really assign a realistic value to the King is because we have to protect him for the majority of the game, so early on he has no attacking value. If the King tries to engage in battle early on, he’ll end up being trapped by enemy pawns and pieces and the game will end in checkmate. However, once the majority of the pawns and pieces are off the board, the endgame (more on that later on in this book), the King can be an extremely valuable attacker and defender. However, always remember that the King needs to stay safe for the majority of the game.

There are two things to take away from this concept of relative value. The first has to do with capturing pawns and pieces. Playing chess requires you to capture your opponents pawns and pieces. You don’t have to capture them all but the more opposition pieces you capture, the harder it is for your opponent to attack your King. However, there’s more to capturing than simply trading one piece for another and this is due to their relative value. You want to make profitable exchanges of material. For example, if you traded your $9.00 Queen for a $3.00 Knight, would you profit from the exchange? Absolutely not! You’d be trading your most powerful major piece for a minor piece. Always try to exchange material if it’s profitable or the trade is even as in the case of trading a Knight for a Knight or a Knight for a Bishop (both having a relative value of three). While there are times when making seemingly bad trades works to your advantage because they lead to checkmate, stick to profitable or even trades for now.

The second thing to take away from this relative value system is that it provides an order in which to bring your forces into the battle. You start with the material (pawns and pieces) of lowest value being developed first followed by material of greater value. Thus, the order in which material enters that game is; pawns followed by the minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) followed by the Rooks and then the Queen. Of course, there are a few exceptions to this order but for now use this system when deciding on who to bring into the fight and when.

Well, there you have it, a brief introduction to the relative value system used in chess. Make sure you know it and always use it as guide when considering an exchange or trade of material as well as creating an order for bringing pawns and pieces into the game. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Avoiding Pressure

Let’s face it, we all have to deal with pressure. Whether at home, school or work, we’re all under some sort of pressure. Try as we may to avoid it, something always occurs that puts us under the gun, so to speak. While chess is wonderful way to exercise the mind, playing it can be stressful, especially during tournaments. Chess is a challenge in which two minds face off against one another and where the mind does battle so does the ego. When losing a game of chess, we often feel an emotional sting, perhaps the bruising of our ego? Add to this equation the idea that people generally like to win rather than lose and you create a recipe for pressure.

While pressure is a fact of life for nearly everyone and a little pressure can have positive effects, too much pressure can actually lead to health problems. The game of chess should be enjoyed whether you win, lose or draw. However, some people get really wound up before they play the game and it becomes a slightly nerve-racking experience. If you feel pressure before playing and that pressure is taking away from enjoying the game, read further for some tips on removing stress before playing.

Tip number one, and this should be apparent to everyone, be prepared! Be prepared to play. What do I mean by this? You need to be warmed up and in the zone. Before I play shows with my various bands, I spend a lot of time prior to those shows warming up. This means practicing. Sure, I could not practice and play songs I’ve played for years without making any mistakes. However, I might feel a little stress for not having warmed up. I might not play as well as I would had I practiced. Stress equals pressure. As for chess, if you’re about to play an important match, be it against a rival or at a tournament, you need to warm up. You have to play a lot of chess prior to that important game so that you’re in a strong mental state. Playing a lot of chess doesn’t mean playing as many games as humanly possible as quickly as possible. This is a matter of quality over quantity. It’s better to play ten games of chess in which you’re concentrating and making good moves than fifty games in which your simply playing as fast as you can which equates to less concentration and bad moves. If you have a few months before that important game or match, use than time to prepare yourself by simply playing chess.

Avoid suddenly changing your opening right before an important game or match. If you decide to change things up at the last minute, you’ll pay a dreadful price. Concentrate on what you already know. Consider variations against your opening that you haven’t already explored. By doing so, you’ll be less likely to freeze up when your opponent makes that unexpected move. If your opponent makes an opening move you were not prepared for, don’t panic. Use the opening principles to guide your decision making process. These principles will steer you in the right direction.

Another tip, get a lot of rest. Not just the night before your game or match but during the weeks leading up to it. If you stay up late and get up early, operating on little sleep, three weeks prior to the game or match and then decide to go to bed early the night before, you’ll gain no benefit. The effects of good sleeping habits are cumulative so you have to start resting up at least a month before your game or match. Getting a good night’s sleep also helps to reduce your stress levels. Think of your brain as an engine. If you try and run an engine twenty four hours a day, day after day, week after week, the engine will break down. Give your brain a break. This means not playing chess constantly but allotting a period of time each day for your practice. Too much playing will cause you to start losing focus. As I previously mentioned, you want to play lot of chess but it’s quality over quantity.

Of course, engines require fuel to run and so does your brain. Eat healthy and do so way in advance of your game or match. Eating healthily is also a cumulative process. If you live on junk food and then eat a bunch of fresh fruit and vegetables the night before your game or match, you’ll receive no benefits. Start eating healthy at least two weeks prior to the game or match. Avoid sugar based products because sugar will give you a sudden surge or energy that quickly goes away leaving you feeling tired. The same things goes for caffeine. I’m not saying give up coffee or tea (I wouldn’t). I’m saying to keep your caffeine intake to a minimum. The problem with caffeine is that it amps you up with artificial energy and what goes up must come down. You don’t want to suffer a caffeine crash in the middle of a chess game.

Probably the biggest stress reducer is exercise. It’s also the one thing most people don’t want to do. However, you don’t have to go to a gym and pump iron until you look like a body builder. Try taking walks which are an excellent way of getting the blood flowing. Your brain needs oxygen and that oxygen is carried in the blood stream. Walking gets the blood pumping to where you need it, namely the brain! Walking is a great way to relieve stress (unless you choose to walk in a demilitarized zone). Tai Chi is a great way to improve both body and mind. Try bicycling or anything that gets the blood flowing. Start exercising at least a month prior to playing.

So there are some tips for relieving the pressure of life and the pressure of chess. Chess can be stressful no matter how much you love the game. It’s a mental workout but it doesn’t have to be a stressful wokout. Speaking of workouts, here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

When to Take Lessons

The question is not should my child take chess lessons but when should the lessons start. The reason we’re seeing so many highly rated and talented young players has a great deal to with when they start studying under a qualified coach or instructor. Many professionals believe the target age for starting chess lessons is between five and eight years old. The reason for this has to do with a child’s ability to absorb information. However, we should explore this notion in greater detail. Young children tend to spend less time second guessing instructional information and are more open to accepting guidelines as fact. I know this seems counter intuitive to the way children think, exploring ideas by testing them, but in the right hands (a good teacher), young children will absorb the information with little intellectual resistance which develops good habits from the start.

Many parents will have a chess coach or teacher handle the entire process, meaning the coach or teacher teaches the rules of the game. As much as I’d enjoy collecting a high hourly wage for explaining the rules, I tell parents not to waste their hard earned money on something they can do on their own. Thus, parents should teach their children the rules of the game before starting them with a coach or teacher. Parents should keep their expectations low, meaning they should set realistic goals such as the child simply being able to move the pieces correctly. Too many parents jump into specific game principles before their child has a basic command of pawn and piece movement which is frustrating for both child and parent alike. Children learn at different speeds so patience is an absolute must. Just because your child’s friend learned to correctly move the pawns and pieces very quickly, doesn’t mean your child will do likewise. It also doesn’t mean your child isn’t going to be a good chess player. He or she make just take a bit longer to catch up. On the flip side, just because your child picks the rules up quickly doesn’t mean he or she will be the next Magnus Carlsen. Take your time and set small realistic goals. Make it fun by telling stories about each piece and define the piece’s special way of moving as the piece’s super power (as if that piece was a comic book hero). If it isn’t fun, your child will be less likely to enjoy the game. If you’re new to chess, pick up a copy of Richard James’ book, The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids.

As for which person to choose for your child, coach or teacher, go with a teacher because there’s a difference. Coaches tend to work with children who already play chess and play it well. Coaches have to prepare their students for tournaments which means they have to cover a lot of conceptual ground and quickly. They often don’t have the patience needed to work with an absolute beginner. Teachers, on the other hand, have more patience and specialize in the basics. Choose a teacher over a coach unless your candidate does both. Finding one depends on your location. If you’re in a big city or near one, you can generally find a chess club. Many schools offer after school chess programs. The important thing is to find someone who works well with kids. Why? Because kids require a teaching program that is on par with their intellectual level. A good chess teacher needs to explain complex ideas employing simple analogies. A teacher who speaks as if presenting a dissertation on particle physics to a room full of rocket scientists is probably going to sound as if they’re speaking ancient Sanskrit to your child. Teachers who specialize in teaching chess to children know how to simplify explanations and more importantly, make those explanations fun.

Of course, there are a lot of people who fancy themselves chess teachers but in reality couldn’t teach well if their life depended on it. Therefore, interview the teacher. Better yet, ask them to define a chess concept for you. See if their explanation makes sense, not only to you but your child. Is that explanation suitable for a child? Remember, you’re hiring this person as a teacher so they better be able to teach. Put them on the spot, After all, you’re paying them for a service. Another good source for finding chess teachers is on college campuses. Put up a flier in the mathematics and science departments (not the music department or you’ll get a roguish character such as myself). College students are generally excited and passionate and this will translate to passionate teaching. Some of the most passionate chess teachers we have at Academic Chess are college students and the kids love them!

You should start your child off learning chess at a young age but the younger the age, the more patient you’ll have to be. As your child gets older, they’ll be more apt to question everything. While there’s nothing wrong with this, in fact I tell my students that questioning everything is their youthful job, it can make the learning process a bit slower. However, there is no age maximum for learning chess. While we’re on the subject of questioning things, there’s nothing wrong with this idea. In fact, most children who learn the game even at an early age will question why they should do something, such as following the opening principles. Let them ignore those principles because they’ll quickly learn via experience that the principles do work. Again, it comes down to being patient. Start your child off young, be patient and let them learn at their own pace. After they learn the game’s rules, hand over the job of teaching to a professional but be proactive. Ask your child what he or she learned during their chess lesson. Have them explain it to you. You’ll know if the teacher is earning his or her keep and if your child is progressing by your child’s response. Don’t be afraid to switch teachers if your current teacher isn’t working out. It’s not a marriage, it’s a paid position! Speaking of positions, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Space, The Crucial Frontier

Space is a critical factor in chess, both the space your forces have to move through and the space those forces control. Simply put, the more space you control, the less space your opponent has which means they’ll have trouble launching meaningful attacks. At the the start of the game, the opening, both players engage in a space race to see who can control the board’s center first. As we move towards the middle game, more astute players continue to activate their pawns and pieces so that they control more space and/or specific squares. Beginners, on the other hand (due to a lack of experience) tend to stop their quest for spacial control as soon as they’ve fulfilled the basic opening principles regarding controlling the board’s center with a pawn (or two), developing their minor pieces towards the center and castling. More often than not, they start attacking immediately after finishing what they think of as the opening which usually leads to disaster. If the beginner continued the development of his or her forces before attacking, the results would be more favorable. They miss the transitional phase that allows them to gain an advantage in the middle game, namely the continued acquisition of space.

During the opening, you have to develop your forces towards the board’s central squares. However, you have to make sure you don’t block in your pawns and especially your pieces while doing so. Of course, you’ll block the c2 pawn in when your develop your white Queen-side Knight to c3. Some blockage cannot be helped. More often than not, there’s a trade off to every move. Developing the Knight to c3 is a solid move during the opening but the trade off is the blocked c2 pawn. Of course, developing the Knight is more crucial than developing the c2 pawn in many openings so the trade off is minimal. On the other hand, moving the white f1 Bishop to d3 while there’s still a pawn on d2 creates a traffic jam that hems in the c1 Bishop. In this case, the developing move does more harm than good. Beginners must learn to develop their pawns and especially their pieces in a manner that minimizes the blocking in of other material.

What separates advanced players from beginners is the more experienced player’s ability to keep developing their pawns and pieces after the opening is finished. This is a lesson beginners need to embrace. Just because you’ve developed your minor pieces towards the center on each of those minor piece’s first move doesn’t mean they can’t be further developed. Always consider further development before attacking. Once you’ve optimized your pieces on their most active squares, those squares that allow greater control of the board, then you can consider attacking. Beginners sometimes think controlling territory on the boards means squares on their side of the board. While you want to protect your side of the board, it’s more important to control your opponent’s side of the board. Why? Because if you control key squares on the opposition side of the board, it’s going to be difficult for them to launch any attacks without paying a material price. Therefore, develop your pieces in a manner that allows them to control squares on your opponent’s side of the board. As for your side of the board, this is where pawns come in handy.

Pawns have the lowest relative value which means they can keep the pieces off of specific squares because no one really wants to trade a piece for a pawn (unless it leads to checkmate of course). Therefore, you can use your pawns to protect key squares on your side of the board. With that said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you shouldn’t go crazy and make too many pawn moves. You just want to make pawn moves that protect specific squares your opponent can exploit. The classic example is stopping the black Queen-side Bishop (c8 square) from pinning the white Knight on f3 to the white Queen on d1. Moving the h2 pawn to h3 prior to the pin can stop the Bishop dead in his tracks. Just keep in mind that the trade off is an opening on the now vacated h2 square. There’s a trade off with every move.

Always try to maintain pawn chains when using pawns to control space. Pawns are better suited for the job of protecting pawns. Using a piece to protect a pawn early in the game means that piece is not being used to control space. It’s as if it isn’t in the game. Always try to create and maintain good pawn structure when using pawns for defending your side of the board. If protecting a key square with a pawn means having to use a piece to protect that pawn, consider another option.

Connect your Rooks! Too many beginners let their Rooks sit dormant throughout the game. Going into and through the middle-game, Rooks can be extremely useful for supporting pawns and pieces. While I previously mentioned that you shouldn’t tie a piece down to a pawn’s defense, it’s perfectly fine for a Rook to serve this role. Why? Because we normally make our Rooks more active much later in the game. However, you have to get your Rooks out of their respective corners. This is another good reason to castle. To connect your Rooks, simply move the Queen up (or down for black) one rank. It should be noted that Rooks are connected when their starting rank is free of other pieces so develop those minor pieces early.

The control of space is the precursor to a solid attack. When you control space on your opponent’s side of the board, you make their positional life difficult. You force them to pay a price (material loss) in order to make inroads towards your King. Always ask yourself, do I have my pawns and pieces on their most active squares, before considering an attack. Of course, if your opponent’s position has a real weakness you can exploit with an early attack, take advantage of it. However, it’s better to carefully build up your forces before sending them into battle. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

The Order of Battle

In chess, as in warfare, there’s an order in which you send your forces onto the battlefield. Modern battles tend to start with ground troops, otherwise known as the infantry. Thankfully, you don’t see armies starting battles with their biggest weapons, nuclear missiles. If they did, I wouldn’t be writing this article and you wouldn’t be reading it because our lives would have been ended with the first nuclear strike. While war usually ends up being an exercise in chaos and carnage, it tends to start with a methodical plan. First into battle, the foot soldiers, followed by artillery, followed by armored vehicles, then bombs and so on. The same should hold true in chess. Yet beginners tend to think “why waste all those resources when I can drop a bomb, in the form of bringing their Queen out early, and end the war with a quick victory.” It may sound great in theory (to the beginning player), but in reality, the battle typically ends with the beginner no longer having his or her most powerful attacking piece in the game. To teach my students thew correct order in which to bring out their forces on the chessboard, I simply point out a few things regarding the placement of the pawns and pieces.

The starting position of the pawns and pieces dictates the order in which members of the army enter the battle. Also contributing to this order is the relative value of the pawns and pieces. With the exception of the Knights, which can enter the game immediately due to their ability to jump over any material in their way, pawns have to be moved in order to get the majority of the pieces into the action. Pawns have the lowest relative value and therefore can keep an opposition piece off of a specific square because of higher value of the pieces. Fortunately, beginners quickly learn to move pawns first in order to get their pieces into the game. However, they often make too many pawn moves, either thinking that it’s safer to use the least valuable members of their army which are also more plentiful or they’re not comfortable with the movement of the pieces so they resort to pawns. I tell my students that bringing too many pawns into the game when your opponent is moving stronger pieces onto the board is akin to sending out foot soldiers with sticks to fight off armored tanks. It simply won’t work. You have to have some force behind your foot soldiers. So who do we use for this force?

Young beginners are infatuated with the Rooks and the Queen. They tend to think of both as super powered weapons. The problem with trying to bring out the Rooks early is that the beginner will move the “a” or “h” pawns two squares forward, then move the Rook two squares forward, planning to aim the Rook at the enemy King along the “e” file after moving the Rook again towards this central file. Sadly, either the opposition ignores the flank activity and builds up a strong center, capturing the Rook soon after, or they capture the Rook with a Bishop after developing a centralized pawn. Either way the power hungry beginner loses a Rook, a lot of tempo and the right to castle on one side of the board. Then there’s the Queen. Since the Queen combines the power of the Rook and Bishop, she’s a nuclear missile in the eyes of the beginner. Why fight a long war, muses the beginner, when I can aim a missile at my opponent and end it quickly? The problem with bringing the Queen out early is twofold. First, your opponent can nicely develop their forces while chasing your Queen around the board. All you have to show for your troubles is a running Queen while your opponent has complete control of the board’s center. The second problem is that you King is unsafe because you haven’t been able to castle due to the attacks on your Queen.

I point out to my students that it makes much more sense to develop the Knights and Bishops before the Rooks and Queen. When the Knights are developed initially to the “c” and “f” files they’re controlling the board’s center squares and bringing you one step closer to castling. Developing the Bishops towards the central squares helps lock down your control of this key area as well as bringing you closer to castling. Think of the Knights and Bishops as support artillery for your ground troops, the pawns. In battle, artillery is used to both gain greater control of the battlefield, repel the enemy and support the soldiers on the ground (the pawns). The minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) are well suited to this task.

Of course, when you develop your minor pieces on the King-side, for example, you can then castle. While castling is designed to place your King in a safety net of pawns and pieces, it does something equally important, getting one of your Rooks out of the corner. While I advised against bringing the Rook into the game early, you don’t want to leave it stuck in the corner where it does absolutely nothing. After castling, a Rook can then move over to the “e” file and stare down the un-castled enemy King at the other end of the “e” file. Rooks like to sit on open and half open files during the game. Think of them as a battleship that can hurl huge shells at the enemy from a long distance.

Lastly, there’s the Queen. She’s best left alone until later in the game when there are fewer Knights and Bishops around to go after her. Of course, one early move you can make with the Queen is to move her up (or down in the case of black) one rank so your Rooks are connected. This isn’t bringing your Queen out early and will give your Rooks more freedom.

The easiest way to remember the order in which pawns and pieces enter the game is by considering the relative value of the pieces, starting from low to high. Pawns have the least relative value (one) so they’re first into the fray. Knights and Bishops, both having a relative value of three come next. Rooks have a relative value of five so they come after the Knights and Bishops. However, this means making them more active not throwing them into the actual battle (save that for the endgame). Lastly comes the Queen who have a relative value of nine. Try to keep her around for a checkmating attempt when you head towards the endgame. Moving her up a rank is fine, just don’t drag her out onto the board during the opening. When in doubt, use the relative value of the pawns and pieces as your deployment guide. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Wood Shedding

There once was a time when an individual wanting to pursue a particular skill would take on the task knowing that the path to mastery was a long, hard and often difficult journey. However, the person embarking on this journey simply accepted the idea of long, hard work as the cost one paid when striving to be the best at something. For centuries, young apprentices worked under their masters, slowly and carefully learning their craft. Today, thanks in large part to technology, humans have to come to expect things to be done quickly, including things that were once done slowly in an effort to produce the highest quality outcome. Whether it’s learning a language, learning music or learning chess, the novice now finds themselves temped by the idea of rapid of accelerated learning.

The idea behind rapid or accelerated learning is that the process of learning itself is streamlined so you only study what is deemed (by the instructor) to be absolutely necessary. While some streamlined learning does work, garnering fairly decent results, I’ve noticed that there’s no mention of the countless hours of work, much of it repetitive in nature, required even by an accelerated learning program. Case in point, guitar mastery.

I receive at least three emails a week from guitar websites stating that they have created a learning program that will knock years off of the time required to play
“great” guitar. If I was a novice guitarist, I’d probably sign up for one of them. However, being someone that still earns part of my income from playing, I know that these emails fail to mention one critical aspect to improvement, hard work and longs hours on the fret board.

You can cut down on the time spent learning how to play an instrument by eliminating some unnecessary or redundant exercises, such as certain scales. However, the scales you do have to learn take time to master. This means you’re going to be putting a great deal of time into practicing them over and over again. In other words, you’re going to be working extremely hard no matter how streamlined the process. This holds true for chess as well.

I’m in the process of writing a chess book for beginning and intermediate players. In writing this book, I closely examined other books to see how those authors approached the same topics I’m going over. I noticed that some books had titles that used the words “rapid improvement” or “improve your chess in “x” amount of days.” While these certainly help to sell books, I believe the titles might lull the potential buyer into a false sense of just how long improvement is going to take. Chess mastery (something I’m nowhere close to) takes a great deal of time. Also consider the fact that we all learn at different speeds. Some people have a harder time learning than others, who quickly pick things up. However, I’ve found that my students who struggle and have to work twice as hard, often come out with a firmer grasp of the subject than those who pick things up quickly.

Chess, like playing a musical instrument, requires both theory and practice, theory being the study of the game and practice meaning actually playing the game. You have to do both. Reading every book ever published on how to play the guitar does you no good unless you pick up a guitar and play it. The same holds true with chess. The point here is this: Studying and practicing what you’ve learned through your studies takes a great deal of time. Therefore, there is no quick road to true mastery! As the Mathematician Euclid said to a King trying to find an easier way learn geometry, “there is no royal road to geometry.” Mastery comes at a cost and that cost is good old fashion hard work.

Too often, in music, you hear about legendary musicians who spend 12 to 15 hours a day playing their instruments, following the hard road to mastery. What you don’t hear about is how it took them a long time to be able to concentrate for such lengthy periods. They slowly built up their ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Yet, musicians new to playing will attempt the same feat, failing completely. You have to develop the mental muscles that allow you to concentrate for long periods of time slowly. You don’t walk into a gym and immediately start your beginner’s weight lifting class by bench pressing 300 lbs. You build up to it, the slower the better. We must learn favoring quality over quantity. More importantly, we must learn how to take on the mastery of something, in this case chess, in proper increments that allow us to learn and move forward without frustration.

My advice is this: Don’t look for an easy way out. This means you’re going to have to put in hard work over a lengthy period of time. Of course, if you find a teaching system that cuts some of that time down, by all means try it. However, always remember that no matter what the system, hard work on your part will be required. Let’s say you decide that hard work is worth the price of mastery or just improvement. Now you have to create a schedule that allows you to study and practice (playing chess) for greater periods of time over the long run. Musicians call studying and then practicing what you’ve just learned “wood shedding,” and while all musicians strive to be able to practice for extremely long periods of time, they have to build their mental and physical muscles to do so. This takes time. Notice how the word time keeps coming up?

Building up one’s level of mental and physical concentration requires patience. This means setting smaller goals. Therefore, you should, in the case of chess which requires a great deal of mental stamina, start with small blocks of study time, such as thirty minutes a day. Of course, some new students of the game will think that thirty minutes a day over seven days will equal only three and a half hours of work a week, a rather small number compared to the ten thousand hours required to reach a master level of comprehension. Fear not, that small amount of study time per week will grow. The beginner could try studying for two hours a day instead but if they can only fully focus (concentrate) for thirty minutes at a time, an hour and a half of their studies will be wasted. It’s a matter of quality over quantity. The biggest problem with setting unrealistic goals is the feeling of failure when we don’t reach those goals. Better to set and reach smaller goals and have a sense of accomplishment than to overreach and be disappointed.

Thus, if you want to get better at chess, or anything for that matter, start with small goals and take your time. Sure, you’ll hear stories of players who spent all their waking hours studying and playing chess, but these players are few and far between. Some of what you hear is simply myth. The only thing you can be sure of is that if you slowly build up your wood shedding skills, you’ll eventually be able to study and practice for hours on end. Remember, it really is a matter of quality over quantity. That’s the key to solid learning retention. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

When Trouble Comes Knocking

When trouble comes knocking, I’m paid to answer the door! Not only do I teach chess and coach junior chess teams but I deal with the problems that sometimes come with the students I teach and coach. What kind of trouble could possibly occur when your career is teaching chess to young people? Let me tell you a story that occurred last week. It’s straight out of a movie, kind of a cross between To Sir With Love and The Blackboard Jungle (both dealing with unruly teenagers).

Year after year, I teach and work with the same groups of students from approximately ten schools. My schedule remains constant and rarely waivers. However, every once in a while, I am suddenly transferred to a school. When I say suddenly, I get 24 to 72 hours notice. I don’t ask why I’m being transferred because I already know the answer: There’s a problem that could seriously jeopardize the chess program at the school in question. Sometimes it’s as simple as the chess teacher or coach isn’t getting results or not maintaining proper classroom management. Worse case scenario, the students have frightened off the chess teacher. Again, I don’t want any information prior to entering the problem school because the information is often either second hand or skewed due to the emotional state of the former teacher. I need to determine the problem myself. It should be noted that the best teachers can sometimes not resolve issues with problem students.

On the day of the chess class’s new session, I arrive at the school, go to the office and pick up forms and any payments. I notice the office staff looking at me sympathetically. This is a good indicator as to the problem, unruly students. If you teach chess in a school, always make friends with the office staff because they can get you anything you need. I then leave the office and proceed to walk down the hall towards the class which is located around the corner from the office. When I turn the corner, I see a gaggle of parents and school staff who make a fast run towards me. One parent asks, in a loud voice, “is my son going to be safe in there?” Obviously, this group of students isn’t going to be easy for anyone who shows any signs of fear. A few teachers start telling me to use the intercom system if I find myself in any trouble. Really? I get that same line when teaching in the prison system! I gather the parents and teachers in a circle and tell them the reason I was sent there is because I’m the guy who deals with the worst behaved teenagers. I start to walk through the classroom door and notice the entire group of teachers and parents following me in. “Where do you think you’re going,” I say to them. Apparently, they wanted to make sure I’d be alright. Both parents and staff were extremely unhappy when told to go someplace else because they were not allowed in my classroom. In I go to my waiting students.

One of my new students stood up and said “who the F#^K are you?” This is the, and I mean “the” defining moment when it comes to what I do in problem classrooms. This is the moment that makes or breaks me as far as respect from my students goes. The reason I do not allow parents and faculty into problem classes is because I use some unorthodox methods that the school staff doesn’t need to see (nothing bad, just unorthodox). They simply need to be happy with the results. When that student stood up and said what he did, I was extremely happy because I just found the Alpha-male or leader of the wolf pack. Break the leader and you tame the pack. Of course, I don’t mean physical actions in regards to breaking the pack leader. Words and street psychology are my weapons of choice and I know how to use them with great accuracy. Here’s what I said. “You must have me confused with one of those idiots that’s either a teacher or a parent on the other side of that door (I point at the door). Let me tell you something and I’m only going to say it once so close your mouth and open your ears. Do not mess with me. I know you ran the last chess teacher out of here but I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to give you a choice, a one time only deal. You can either get with my chess program and learn something or I will make your life in this classroom a weely nightmare.” Needless to say, he backed down and his friend who also was a problem said. “I kinda like this guy. He doesn’t take any…(fill in the blanks)”

They all wanted to know why they should be stuck in the chess class, which was a fair question. Often, parents will sign their kids up for chess classes to keep them busy and out of the parent’s hair for an hour or two. Some of these kids were enrolled even though they said they had no interest. So I answered the question. I told them that chess makes figuring things out (problem solving) much easier. Fast problem solving gives you more time to enjoy life as opposed to being bogged down by life’s problems. I then told them how much money Magnus Carlsen made last year. I know, it’s a cheap trick but it worked because teenagers love the idea of making money doing something they mistakenly think is easy. I also told them that people who are serious about chess get a fair amount of intellectual respect and respect is a critical issue for teenagers.

It turns out that some of the students actually had a real interest in the game. The biggest surprise of all was that the rudest kid in the class had some great chess skills. I played them all at once on separate boards and beat them at their own trash talking game (they like to talk trash to their opponents which is something I’ll be eliminating in the upcoming weeks).

I needed to find out exactly what they did to run the old chess teacher out of the school which meant gaining their trust. I told them (honestly) that anything they told me would not be repeated to anyone outside the classroom. I also told them there was to be no snitching by anyone in my chess class, explaining that snitching on someone can have very bad repercussions for the person doing the snitching (being a tattletale or informant). They finally told me some of the stunts they pulled and I’d run out of there if I were that teacher as well! Fortunately, I’m not and, I can’t tell you what went on because I made a promise to them not to snitch. We did agree that if someone was going to do something dangerous, then telling someone about that person’s intended actions was more akin to saving their life and not snitching. It turned out to be a pleasant afternoon as far as I was concerned.

My goal is to get these kids into shape on the chessboard and get them to be a top ten team in the Bay Area within 18 months (I better make it happen because I have a sizable bet with another chess coach regarding the matter). When it comes down to it, these kids aren’t really that bad, they’re simply teenagers who (like all teenagers) learn about social relationships and life in general by testing its boundaries. The school did send a teacher in to check on our progress toward the end of the class, using the excuse that she forgot some papers, and she surprised to find my new students sitting quietly behind their chessboards.

I don’t suggest employing my methods when dealing with an unruly group of students. It works for me but might not work for you. The one piece of advice I can give on this subject: You have to be the alpha animal, the pack leader in this type of situation, which requires a lot of inner confidence and strength. If you can do this, you can accomplish the task. If you can’t, find someone who can because you don’t want to have a dreadful experience. This class is a fascinating group and I suspect I’ll be reporting on their progress. I’m hesitant to tell them I’m writing about them because I suspect it would go to their heads and I don’t need another inflated ego, other than mine, in the classroom. Another potentially bad situation made good. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Music to Play By

Music has the ability to evoke a long lost memory from our distant pasts or change our emotional state for better or worse. A rough sketch of our very essence could drawn from the music we’ve listened to throughout our lives. It’s literally a part of every human’s existence. In fact, it’s hard to escape music. Music, having the ability to sway our emotional state, can be a useful tool when it comes to chess. Music as a chess tool? I know, that might not make a great deal of sense at the moment but read further and you’ll understand the idea!

Let’ start with the concept that music can alter our emotional state. For some individuals, that altered emotional state can drive them into a kinetic frenzy. Watch a group of people dancing at a club that plays techno music. The dancers literally pulsate to the rhythms, becoming one with the others on the dance floor as well as the DJ. For other individuals, a specific song or genre of music can bring them to tears or complete joy. The point to be taken here is that music can alter one’s emotional state and having the ability to change one’s emotional state can be of benefit to the process of thinking. There’s a reason that certain songs are played at sporting events and that reason is to pump people up, raising their excitement levels to new heights. It’s a method employed to drive a large group of people into a specific state of mind that, in turn, pumps up the sports teams playing in the stadium. What does this have to do with chess?

Prior to sitting down and playing a serious game of chess, the onus or burden is on you to get yourself focused. The ability to focus is a learned skill. While some individuals have a greater natural ability to hone in or focus on the task at at, they still have to further develop their natural abilities. One thing I have my students do before playing tournaments is to create a play list of songs they can listen to on their cellphones and tablets (using headphones) prior to sitting down at the chessboard. The only requirement is that the songs do a couple of things for the listener.

First, the songs have to take my students to a place they can clearly visualize, in great detail. I have one student that plays a song that, in the mind’s eye, takes him to specific street in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When he listens to that song, he can close his eyes and see the tiniest details of the street scene. With each listen prior to playing, I ask him to hone in on another detail, one previously unnoticed. This forces him to focus on this imaginary scene, looking for that elusive detail he missed the last time around. His mind clears of all other thoughts and focuses in order to find another hidden detail within the scene. I have all my students follow this procedure so they can remove the unnecessary thoughts that clutter their minds which allows them to focus on the task at hand, a game of chess. Visualization, using music to guide you, can help you develop your focusing skills. It’s also the most enjoyable way to exercise the mind in this way.

The other important aspect of using music as a training tool is that a song can really get you pumped up. This being the case, I have my students listen to the one song that gets them pumped up and ready for battle. Its the same idea as the music played at sports stadiums during big games, songs that get you excited and ready for the challenge ahead. My Students listen to their “fight song” before their “focusing song” and then afterwards, listen additional songs that evoke focus and excitement.

Each play list is specifically tailored for the individual and no two play lists are exactly alike. I don’t ever tell my students what to listen to (truth be told, I’d rather not have them listen to anything I’ve recorded because I suspect my songs would have the opposite effect, not to mention they all come with a parental warning label). All I do is give them the parameters of what the play list should do and they take it from there. However, to get them to the point where they’re choosing the correct music, I carefully go over the instructions as to what the music should do, emotionally and mentally speaking. You’d be surprised at some of the choices this youngsters make. There’s nothing funnier than an eleven year old listening to Wagner and then The Ramones!

Try this out but make sure to adhere to the parameters mentioned above. A little music can go a long way towards preparing you for taking on tasks, both those on the chessboard and those in your day to day lives. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. I know one of the two players doesn’t use music as part of his program!

Hugh Patterson

Why Play Chess?

Chess is a bit ironic in that you can learn to play the “Game of Kings” in a matter of a few hours yet spend an often maddening lifetime trying to master its complexity and many mysteries. Those mysteries are elusive and only reveal themselves to those who are willing to dedicate their lives to the quest. However, many people play chess casually and are happy to simply use the game to pass the time of day. Over six hundred million people play chess across the globe, most being casual in their efforts. It’s one of the oldest and most popular games and can mirror real life on the chessboard’s sixty four squares. It’s a mix of science and art with a dash of warfare as well. In the hands of masters, it’s a dramatic battle of the mind, a theater-like event that would make Shakespeare take note. It requires patience and planning, courage and cunning, focus and deep concentration. These attributes being what they are, why should you play chess as opposed to another game that requires less effort?

Chess seems to fit a number of personalities, from the casual hobbyist to the dedicated seeker of chess’s mysteries. The great thing about learning this game are the benefits it provides. However, we first have to dispel the greatest chess myth, the one that claims chess is played by the smartest of people (not to mention the idea that chess will make you smarter). If you want to make a character in a movie or book look brilliant, you set the scene with that character sitting behind a chessboard playing a game against their arch rival. We’ve all seen countless movies in which the hero outwits his or her nemesis by beating them up on the sixty four square battlefield. James Bond appears to be brilliant because he plays chess! However, you don’t have to have the IQ of a genius to play well!

In fact, Albert Einstein was an average club level chess player. It’s more a question of recognizing patterns within a given chess position (the combination of pawns and pieces on the board) rather than shear brilliance that makes a great player. In the end, we’re born with a certain level of brain function and can, at best, hone the brain we’re born with to function at it’s highest level. This brings me to my next point, honing the brain to function at it’s maximum level of efficiency.

Most of us, myself included, think we solve our day to day problems logically and expediently. The truth is, we often simply do things our way which means we solve problems in a manner that is comfortable within the way in which we think. We believe we’re going from point “a” to point “b” in a straight line but in reality, we’re all over the place. Our sense of logical problem solving isn’t always as logical as we think it is. This is where chess offers much needed help!

Playing chess well requires solving a series of continual problems in the simplest, quickest manner. With each move made by both players, a new problem arises that must be addressed immediately by each participant. If you procrastinate, you’ll lose the game. Therefore, chess can be a valuable tool for those trying the break the bad habit of procrastination. However, the real bonus here is the development of sound problem solving skills and more importantly, exercising the mind. Chess forces you to seek a direct solution to the problem at hand and provides specific game principles to guide you in the decision making process. It also teaches you to develop the lost art of patience (something in short supply these days). However, the real gift that chess provides all players, whether casual or professional, is mental exercise.

As we grow older, we tend to think less sharply than we did in our youth. We may have a greater knowledge base, gained through a lifetime commitment to educational pursuits, but our ability to think quickly with accuracy dwindles as we age. Chess provides a way to exercise our brains. Think of it as a mental martial art. I tell my students that chess is “ Kung Fu of the mind.”

In my youth, I was much more apt to make a decision quickly and execute a solution to the problem at hand speedily. Of course, being a subscriber to that old adage regarding, “the folly of youth,” some of my decisions may have been a bit flawed. Yet I solved the problem facing me with some degree of accuracy. Approaching middle age, I found myself becoming stuck when faced with a problem, not for lack of coming up with a viable solution but because my brain was operating in a slower gear. Thanks to chess, I’ve been able to get back some of that youthful mental speed when problem solving. Combined with the ability to apply logic and reasoning to come up with strong solutions, acquired by studying chess, I have regained some of that lost brain power. This gift that chess has given me can be applied to ever part of my life.

As a professional musician, I have to be able to play very specific jazz lines or leads at the drop of a hat (my punk guitar playing requires a bit less music theory). If playing guitar was a hobby, I could take my sweet time ( I seriously miss those days). However, when someone is paying me a pretty penny to sit in a recording studio and come up with guitar parts, time is of the essence. Chess helps to keep my mind sharp, avoiding that “deer in the headlights” syndrome many musicians face when under pressure in the studio. You can think of chess as the oil that keeps your mental engine well lubricated and running at optimum efficiency. Let’s face it, we need our minds to run well just to face the day to day challenges we encounter. Chess helps keep our minds sharp. Again, it’s mental exercise (watching the History channel doesn’t count as mental exercise).

I say that any fun way to pass the time that also keeps your mind working well is well worth pursuing. You can play the game casually or become a disciple of it’s mysteries and spend your entire life trying to master the game. Either way, the benefits are enormous. We worry about our bodies as we grow older but ignore the general condition of our minds, opting to blame our weak thinking on aging. Exercise your mind and you’ll be a happier more productive person. This is why you should play chess! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson