Back to Square One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Patterson

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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).