Bad Habits

I mentioned the topic of bad habits in my last article and thought I’d expound on this subject a little further. I decided to do so because it’s a big problem in beginner’s chess. I did a lot of research to see just where these bad chess habits come from before writing my last article and was surprised at their origin. The majority of bad chess habits are passed on to beginning chess players from their family and friends! Of course, these well meaning family members and friends don’t intentionally pass on bad chess habits to the eager beginner. They simply pass on their own chess skills which may be plagued with bad habits. When I learned how to play chess, I learned the basics of the game from a family member who I thought of as a chess genius. While I learned the game’s rules and some very basic concepts, I picked up a plethora of bad habits that took a long time to break. Of course, I can’t find fault in our family friend’s intentions but I can offer some advice on how beginners can avoid the development of bad habits.

In our summer chess camps for children, parents often come early to play a game or two with their children before the day’s program starts. I make a point of watching their games because I want to see how the parent plays. Most parents have an understanding of the rules but lack a basic knowledge of opening principles, tactics, strategy, etc. Some parents who can play at a level or two above the beginner, dumb down their moves when playing their children which is a huge mistake. In short, we have a breeding ground for bad chess habits. Of course, I don’t like to be the guy who crushes my student’s opinion of their parent’s great chess skills so I have to take a diplomatic approach to correcting bad habits. One way to shed light on bad chess habits is to have a stronger junior player play a game against the young beginner whose bad habits I’m trying to correct. I make a point of training my stronger junior players to help me in the teaching process which helps their own game. Often, young beginners will look up to better players in their own age group, accepting their advice. Of course, my junior instructors have to be divested of any bad chess habits before working with others. This brings me to another point regarding bad habits. They can spread like wildfire between children. Bringing the Queen out early is a prime example.

I’ve noticed that when my young beginners play their first tournament, they often get checkmated by a variation of the four move checkmate (scholar’s mate). Rather than ask about ways in which to defend against this mate, they simply memorize the moves that lead to mate and use those moves in their games as much as they can. Suddenly, everyone is using it. One child wins a few games against beginners with this mate and suddenly every beginner is trying to win games with it. This is not good chess since it is easy to defend against. To break this habit, I play students who employ the four move checkmate and show them the folly of their ways. I also provide some guidelines to avoid the development of bad habits.

The first of these is to let opening principles guide you during the game’s beginning. In addition to the three big principles, control of the board’s center with a pawn, minor piece development and early castling, I have a list of don’ts! Do not bring your Queen out early (there are exceptions but not for beginners), don’t move the same piece twice before moving the other pieces at least once and don’t make too many pawn moves. In the middle game, my students count the number of defenders of a piece before considering an attack. I also teach my students not to capture pawns and pieces for no reason other than the enjoyment of capturing. If you can’t find an immediate move, take a look at your pawns and pieces. Can you improve their activity? Another important consideration: Pawns are not to be given away. Just because you start the game with eight of them, doesn’t mean their expendable! Pawns get a bad rap especially since they have a relative value of one, which children interpret as nearly worthless.

To develop good endgame habits and teach the value of the mighty pawn, I have my students play the pawn game. You set up only pawns on the board to start. The pawns move as they do in a regular chess game. If you get a pawn to the other side of the board you promote it into a Queen. The first player who eliminates all of their opponent’s pawns wins. I make my advanced students play the pawn game as well because pawn mastery is critical to the endgame. With advanced students, promoting to a Queen is not allowed. They have to promote their pawns into Knights, Bishops or Rooks.

I print up a list of the above mentioned ideas for my students and have them refer to it as they play chess. It takes time to correct bad habits and you have to be patient. When a student wrings his or her hands in despair because they keep repeating a bad habit, I remind them that it takes time to fix the problem. I’ll pull up a chair and man the student’s check list, reading off the does and don’ts with each move. I might be sitting there for an hour with both players dreading hearing the list read once again. What can I say, I’m committed to my students and breaking their bad habits!

Of course, bad habits require a lot of work to correct. However, if you develop good habits from the start, you’ll be ahead of the curve. Trust me, if I had a dollar for every bad chess habit I had developed I’d be writing this article from a beach front villa in Hawaii. Here’s a game to ponder 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).