Bruce Pandolfini

My last nine articles were about endgame play, specifically positional problems the novice chess player might face and, if they’re properly prepared, easily resolve. Chess is really about logical problem solving, except the problem changes with every move which is why chess is so interesting. Endgame play befuddles the beginner because they tend to have their games end well before an actual endgame starts. When they do reach a proper endgame, their lack of pawn and piece coordination combined with a limited ability to think ahead haunts them like an angry poltergeist!

There are plenty of endgame books and instructional DVDs available for the beginning or improving chess player. Unfortunately, the majority of them go far over the head of the beginner or improver. By this, I mean that they’re written for players who already have a knowledge of basic endgame principles. Since beginners have no real endgame knowledge, the information in such books is of very little use to them until they gain more theoretical (studying) and practical (playing) experience. Luckily for the beginning and improving player, we have Bruce Pandolfini. Let me tell you a little story about how learning chess used to be.

There was time a time, not so long ago (hold on to your seat kids, before the internet), when you learned how to improve at chess by either employing a chess teacher (which none of us could afford) or by getting a hold of chess books. You could try checking chess books out at your local library, but everyone else who couldn’t afford a chess teacher had that same thought, so you’d never find the chess book you were really looking for. This left you having to purchase chess books (books were once printed on actual paper). I would travel to Games of Berkeley ( a two hour bus and train ride from my house) and peruse their huge selection for hours. On a side note, I ended up working in their chess department years later. When looking through the plethora of books, I noticed that most of them were difficult to follow. However, there was one author whose words and descriptions of key ideas were crystal clear. That man’s name was (and still is) Bruce Pandolfini. Everything I learned about chess early on and most of what I teach today comes from Bruce’s books. Anyone who considers me a decent chess teacher has Bruce to thank for that!

Most instructional chess books give you a series of moves followed by a small diagram and more moves. Bruce used a larger diagram and employed a written paragraph containing the moves but with verbalized explanations in between each move which really helped solidify the key concepts being discussed. A series of moves and a diagram, with no explanation as to what’s going on with each move, leaving the beginner to figure it out, simply doesn’t work. Bruce was really the first person to clearly explain positional concepts, move by move, simply using words, something I use in my own teaching and writing! If anything in the last 170 plus articles I’ve written here has made sense to you, you have Bruce to thank for it (not me)!

In my series of endgame articles, I used positions directly from Pandolfini’s Endgame Course because it’s mandatory reading for my older students. Why is it mandatory reading for my students? Because the book clearly explains, using words, a large number of important endgame concepts. Notice, I say “using words?” This is because there’s a lack of verbiage in many chess books. It’s as if everything can be explained to the reader in a handful of moves and a diagram or two. In all fairness, advanced players can gain a great deal of knowledge from such books. However, the poor beginner gets hopelessly lost reading the same books and might just give up on the game, thinking it too complex. I teach chess full time and write this weekly column. I’m not a brilliant chess player. In fact I’m a student of the game and always will be. Thankfully, there’s a writer like Bruce out there. His decades of writing have helped me improve. Of course, there are other authors who use “words” to teach chess, but Bruce was the first to really make things clear, employing analogies from our everyday lives. I guarantee that you’ll not be scratching your head muttering “what the heck is this guy talking about” after reading any of his chess books. More likely, you’ll be crying out “hey I actually understood that!”

Let me say this about teaching chess, brilliant chess players don’t always make for brilliant teachers and brilliant educators don’t always make for brilliant chess teachers. Really good chess teachers need a rare combination of skills. You have to have a fair amount chess knowledge, know how to convey that knowledge (teach) and be a bit of an entertainer. If I had a saving grace it’s that I grew up on a stage in front of an audience. Because of this, I’m very comfortable in front of people but, more importantly, I have learned the art of entertaining an audience. I love chess to the point where I’ll put up with the most droll chess lectures. You know the type, the lectures that are akin to watching paint dry or grass grow! If you’re a teacher and you want people to get into chess, you have to get them excited about the game by being entertaining.

Bruce’s writing has a wit and charm that puts a smile on your face as you read it. He connects with you the reader on a personal level. So, not only do you learn the game by reading his books but are entertained as well. Everything I do as a chess teacher and coach is a direct result of reading his books. He truly is the Dean of American chess teaching. Here’s a little rock and roll tale from my youth:

I had a bunch of musicians over to my loft in the 1980’s for a party. We were all about to embark on tours so we decided to hang out for an evening before going our separate ways. I had a stack of Bruce’s books on my desk and a tournament chess set next to the stack. The musicians hanging out with me were hardcore touring musicians, the type you’d expect to have no interest in chess. As the night progressed into the wee hours of the following morning, I noticed three guys huddled over the chess set with one of Bruce’s books cracked open. I walked up and asked what they were doing. One of them answered that they were having an argument over an aspect of the game. They decided to settle the argument by pawing through one of Bruce’s books. They were so impressed that this man could explain the solution to their problem/argument in such a clear and simple way that they started looking other things up and became engrossed in Bruce’s explanations. While all had learned to play as children, their interest was suddenly renewed. Some thirty years later, all of them play chess while touring and in their spare time, thanks to Bruce. I still play chess with those three as well. Some thirty years ago, Bruce connected with three young men who would go on to become very well know musicians. If you can convert a hardcore rock and roller into a serious chess enthusiast, you know how to connect with your readers.

Bruce also came to my personal aid two years ago. I teach in 10-13 schools a week as well as working with at risk teens in jail by teaching them how to use chess to problem solve and make good decisions in life. Our only form of transportation, the Chessmobile, died and we were stranded. This lack of transportation left us in a dire situation that could have destroyed my chess program. Thanks to a donation from Bruce, we were able to get up and running again. HE saved my program and I am forever in his debt. Bruce is the best of chess people!

If I had to recommend any of Bruce’s books, I’d recommend them all hands down. Like a band that puts out that perfect first album (a CD for you youngsters that have no idea what an album is) in which every single song is brilliant, so is the body of Bruce’s chess writing. Not one bad or mediocre book, period. However, I’ll give you a few titles to consider, starting with Pandolfini’s Endgame Course.

This is the book that served as the inspiration for my last nine articles. It also serves as the instructional program I use for teaching endgame principles to my students. If you’re a beginner, you need to read this book (which contains actual words that make complete sense). If you’re an improving player, read this book!

Pandolfini’s Ultimate Guide to Chess is an excellent text book for the beginner wanting to learn the game from scratch. It uses the Socratic method, employing a dialogue between teacher and student, which is as close as you’ll get to sitting down with a live chess teacher, one that really knows how to teach. It’s like have Bruce at the board with you as you learn.

Chess Opening Traps and Zaps is a must for beginners interested in tricks and traps in the opening phase of the game. While I teach tricks and traps from the viewpoint of the person trying to avoid them, this is a good battlefield manual for beginners wanting to turn the tables on those chess Tricksters and Trapsters you’ll face from time to time (especially in the junior chess arena).

Chess Thinking is an excellent reference book that is really a dictionary of chess terms and concepts. It’s a must for anyone learning the game because it gives you the definition of every term and concept you’ll ever encounter in the world of chess. Again, it has great diagrams and verbal descriptions that clearly explain the ideas discussed. this was the book most heavily pawed through by the musicians mentioned above. Each owns a copy of this book and takes on tour to settle any backstage chess arguments.

Every Move Must Have a Purpose: Strategies from Chess for Business and Life is something I incorporate into my own teaching, life lessons learned on the chessboard. An excellent read, especially for those in the business world. A really fascinating approach to life, business and chess.

Like I said, all of Bruce’s books are brilliant. Read them all and your game will greatly improve. I want to thank you Bruce for all you’ve done for me. I am a chess teacher thanks to you! Here’s a game 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).