Category Archives: Articles

The Automaton

A precursor of the chess computer was the chess automaton. The best known of these was The Turk, a fake chess playing machine that had a human chess master hiding inside. This device had quite a colorful history, defeating Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin during it’s active playing period of 84 years.

These days there’s no need for fakes, which seems sad in a way. No deception, no employment for diminutive chess masters and no awed spectators. Just a highly sophisticated machine wiping the floor with its human opponents.

On the subject of sadness and chess automatons I came across some music entitled Laments of a Chess Automaton. Actually I rather like it:

Nigel Davies

Mate Or No Mate?

Mate or no mate?

“This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end …”
The End, The Doors

This is such a deep and inspirational song! Have you tried to listen to it with your eyes closed and no other distractions around? I suggest you do it at least once. It will be an experience like no other!…

In chess the most exciting end is checkmate. You want to reach it on the winning side and avoid it on the losing side. I grew up learning the importance of knowing when to resign and from this point of view there was an unwritten rule of resigning when all hope was lost; as a result being checkmated was the ultimate humiliation reserved for patzers. In this new Millenium a lot of students are taught to play all the way to checkmate even in intercontinental play; not sure what is your opinion on it and I will stick with what I know. My students will mostly resign way before checkmate if needed!

Solving problems outside the box is a very popular concept and in chess it takes breathtaking forms. Over the years I collected such materials from the internet and I used them with extreme success at the club. Students are always thrilled of the challenge and engage fully. I guess they are more excited only when allowed to play bughouse which goes down the same alley. Here is one such doozy for you: white moves and DOES NOT checkmate in 1:


Common, give it a try before scrolling down! Do you feel special for tricking “the end” for one more move?…

I gave the above puzzle and a few similar ones to a couple of promising students as the admission test for this year at the club. They missed passing it at the end of June and I wanted to give them something appropriate instead of the same test they already did. Their reaction was typical: it started with “Are you kidding us? We will have the answer as soon as it is written down”, to “What do you mean? We can figure out a few ways to solve it” and ended with a desperate cry “It is impossible!”. Funny though neither gave up on it and continued to look at the board stubbornly, looking for the solution. One of them found a solution I had to argue with:
“White offers a draw!”
Now that is as outside the box as it can get, right? We had a good laugh about it and it is the reason for writing this piece.

The other student took the engineering approach: started to eliminate the pieces and moves not helping:
1. Pawns were eliminated first
2. Knights followed: either knight’s move would checkmate
3. Rh8 was trapped
5. Kg8 was a non factor
6. The remaining pieces to look at were Ba8, Bh7 and Rg6. Did you notice the bishops are on the same colour? You must be a good player.
Now by process of elimination Ba8 has only one move 1.Bxb7# we do not need and Bh7 cannot move, but he can deliver a nasty check when Rg6 moves. This finally brings us to Rg6 and we either see it or start trying all moves along the 6th rank:
a) 1.Rh6# as Rb7 is pinned
b) Immediately after this we see Rf6#, Re6#, Rd6#, Rb6# and Ra6# are similar with “a”
Now you got it for sure, the only move unpinning Rb7. Congratulations!

Valer Demian

The Two Bishops

The solution to last Monday’s problem is that Black must play 1.. Rd8.

If he plays 1… Rxd5, White has 2. Qb8+ Kg7 3. Rxh7+! Kxh7 4. Rh4+ Kg7 5. Qh8 mate. You should always check why an opponent has left a pawn to be taken.

This week’s problem is about the value of the two Bishops. White has the two bishops, but how can he activate his passive bishop on f1?

Steven Carr

The Price of Chess

My attention was recently drawn to a discussion on Mumsnet about the cost of school chess clubs.

The original poster was of the opinion that £6.50 a week for a school chess club (an hour after school) was rather too expensive. She thought that she ought to teach her son at home instead. The subject generated a lot of responses, with many mums thinking the price was not unreasonable given that the school had to pay for heating and lighting as well as buying equipment. Others, though, claimed that extra-curricular clubs were free in their children’s schools. The original poster later explained that this was a primary school, not a prep school, and that the club was run, not by a grandmaster, but by a retired teacher. I’m aware of at least one school in my borough where the club is run by a retired teacher who is, as far as I know, not a particularly strong player. Whether or not it’s this school I have no idea.

As my previous two posts have mentioned, primary school chess clubs of this nature are little more than child-minding services which provide kids with some low-level enjoyment moving pieces around fairly randomly with their friends and occasionally winning a fluffy mascot for their pains. Whether or not you consider £6.50 an hour for child-minding is good value for money is, I suppose, up to you. I’m assuming here that we’re talking about a fairly affluent part of the country.

It’s actually rather more than I charge for clubs in similar schools. I can give a couple of examples.

School A, a small primary school, runs a club with little staff involvement. This term runs for 12 weeks and I charge £60 per term: £5 per child per session. I’m hoping for at least 10 children, for whit I will make £50 per hour, which I think is reasonable. Last term I had a few more than that. I’m not yet certain about this term. Some schools using this model charge the chess tutor for use of the classroom: this school, at least as yet, doesn’t do so.

School B is a much larger primary school where there is a teacher involved with the club. She deals with the club administration and is in the room at the beginning and end of the session. While the club is in progress she’s working in the next room and can hear what’s happening. The club started last October and has been very popular and successful: we had rather too many children last term and were running short of both space and equipment. It was also not possible for me to spend very long with each child. We decided to limit the club to 24 children in future and try to set up another club, mainly for less experienced players on another day. I requested my standard rate of £50 per session, and last term the school made a significant profit. Starting from this term, it was explained to me, teachers are now paid £30 per hour for involvement in extra-curricular clubs, which seems reasonable to me. The school also expects all clubs to make a profit, so they require 20 children paying £5 each to make the club viable. That comes to £100 per session: £50 for me, £30 for the teacher and £20 for the school coffers. Will they find another 20 children? I’ll probably know the answer by the time you read this.

Back on Mumsnet, the original poster implied that her son didn’t know how to play chess and perhaps that she wanted to sign him up for the club to save her the trouble. I make it very clear to all my schools, and insist that they make it clear in their letters to parents, that my clubs are for children who can already play chess, not for complete beginners. (School B above, though, has decided to target the possible second club specifically for beginners, which is fine.)

A poster called ‘LauraRoslin’ (actually the pseudonym of a male IM who is certainly not a mum, and not, as far as I know, a dad) made a very pertinent point:

There are at least three different models a chess club can be run on, and you can decide for yourself how much you are prepared to pay for any of them:

(a) a basic teaching-the-moves course, such that the participants end up knowing how to play a legal game of chess.

(b) a club where it’s expected that everybody already knows the moves, and an environment is provided for them to be able to play against each other (this is essentially the model that nearly all adult chess clubs in this country follow).

(c) a club where it’s expected that everybody already knows the moves and wants to become a better player, and specific training is given towards this aim.

This is quite correct. In fact most school clubs are essentially Laura’s (b). Junior Chess Clubs, for which you’ll probably pay more than £5 an hour, are (c). Schools, or Junior Chess Clubs, could also run (a), but by and large they don’t, possibly because most parents prefer (wrongly, in my opinion) to teach their kids the basics themselves. Richmond Junior Club runs an (a) group and School B’s proposal for a second club would also be run as an (a) group.

Within less than two minutes of Laura’s posting, another poster suggested a club that caters for all of the above. Laura replied, again quite correctly:

“A club that caters for all of the above” is usually a bad model, because it doesn’t serve any of the groups it’s catering for well.

Quite – but parents often fail to understand that you can’t just teach kids the moves in half an hour and then expect them to become strong players.

In answer to the original question, £6.50 an hour, assuming a low-level primary school club in an affluent area, is quite high but not entirely unreasonable. It depends on various factors such as the size of the club and how much profit the school wants to make. If the teacher is not a strong player and is making more than £50 an hour, it’s probably a bit high. But if you’re a parent you make your choice and you pay your money. Or not, as you prefer.

Richard James

Better Music Through Chess

It’s 3:30 in the morning and I’ve just gotten back from a club (at the age of 55). I’m in the studio mixing 20 tracks of music for a band that has twenty plus musicians in it. I’ve scored the material which means writing all the musical parts down via sheet music. The song is a tribute to Lalo Schifrin, who did the sound tracks and scores for the Dirty Harry films and a host of other classics. I get a message on Facebook about doing an interview regarding my music. The interviewer asks me to answer one question before the interview the following morning. The Question: “What made you become good enough, as a musician, to be able to do the fully orchestrated projects you now do? It took me a full twenty four hours to answer this question because unlike the fast, glib and snotty answers I gave in my youth, I take my time and think about what I’m saying in middle age. Here’s the gist of what I said:

My music, composing skills, arrangement skills, engineering and producing are all where they are today because of chess. I can only imagine the horror on the other end of this question because the interviewer probably expected the old “I practiced until my fingers bled” party line. What you do in one area of your life often dictates the results in other areas of your life.

Chess really taught me how to look at both the big picture and the little picture at the same time. To win a game of chess, you have to have an overall plan. However, with each move of a pawn or piece, your immediate plan changes. You might have come up with a plan that is three moves long. Yet, your opponent suddenly makes a move you didn’t expect them to make. This forces you to adjust you original plan to accommodate this unforeseen opposition move. This situation occurs in music as well. You write a song. You’ve created the words and music for that song which means you have a plan that dictates just how that song will sound. You then bring the song to your band. They interpret the song differently so it may not sound as it did when your originally wrote it. It may sound better or it may sound differently than your original version. You work with your fellow musicians, making changes here and there until you get what your want out of the composition. The big picture is the original song your wrote, the little picture is the changes that are made during the evolution of that song. Prior to the influence of chess, I held firm in my song writing. It was my way or the highway, as some people like to say. Now, I embrace the changes other musicians bring to the table when it comes to my songs.

Chess also gave me the gift of patience, something I sorely lacked in my youth. When I first started playing, I wanted everything to happen immediately and when it didn’t, I started to lose interest. In fact, a musician I had auditioned for me when I was young called me out on this, on a social media site, which inspired this very article. Today, I am not only used to, for example, having six to seven hour rehearsals, but embrace them because creativity takes time. Patience is a skill that has positive ramifications far beyond the chessboard. Having some patience can be the difference between creating a musical composition of real substance and simply writing yet another passable song. Patience is a skill that will keep your blood pressure down (except in my case, according to my doctor).

Chess and music both share the concept of pattern recognition. In music, there are a seemingly endless combination of notes that can be combined to create a song. However, only a fraction of those notes can be combined to create a catchy tune. There are specific patterns that, when combined, create wonderful music. Proof of this can be found in the majority of rock and roll songs based on three chords, E, A and B. Chuck Berry became a legend based on this simple pattern. In chess, players that recognize patterns on the chessboard win games. Musicians that recognize patterns write great songs.

Where chess has really proven itself as a valuable tool, musically speaking, is in my work doing composition, arranging and recording of orchestrated bands, those that include horn and string sections. My latest band project, The Troubadours of Misery, is a miniature orchestra. Being the the chief writer and arranger, I’m facing technical challenges I’ve never faced. Often, my back is to the wall and I find myself in a tough spot, be it arranging or trying to get just the right tones in the recording studio. Prior to seriously studying chess, I probably would have settled for a technical solution that I wasn’t quite happy with. Now, I look at the problem, then try and relate it to a tough chess position I’ve found myself in or have studied. I keep a laptop with my game database in the studio and will review that tough position and play through the solution. I try to relate each move to the situation I’m in and more often than not, find a solution to my musical problem on the chessboard.

Chess provides many lessons that can be applied to our lives. I’d say that learning lessons from this great game will probably get you a lot father than hiring one of those life coaches (that person you pay a lot of money to so they can tell you what you already know, common sense). One thing that people have trouble with is losing in life. They take a chance, fail and then never try again. If you talk to anyone who is successful (and honest), they’ll tell you it took a number of failures to become successful (not just one). While I’ve had my share of minor musical successes, I’ve had my share of failed bands (and some real stinkers when it comes to songs). Chess can teach you how to deal with loss and embrace it as a learning tool. What can I say, you really cannot go wrong playing chess and learning off the board life lessons within the sixty-four squares. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Keep Hammering Away

When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.

-Jacob Riis

Do you sometimes get frustrated about your chess progress? Unless you are not human, most likely you have. This is natural, especially with an endeavor like chess improvement, because chess is not easy! However, the challenge of improvement and mastery keeps us going. In today’s article, I’d like to discuss how to stay patient with your chess journey and encourage you to take the “long cut” to chess mastery.

Pounding the Rock

It’s important to remember that even though it doesn’t seem like it, you are gradually making progress – assuming you are training and studying sufficiently.

For example, let’s say a player makes four big blunders a game. Let’s also imagine that these blunders on average lose at least a piece, which should be sufficient to lose in most cases against stronger competition.

After studying and practicing his tactics, our friend reduces his hypothetical blunder rate to two per game. He’s reduced her blunder rate in half, which is incredible improvement. However, because each of these blunders are game losing moves, his rating remains the same.

Eventually, as he continues to progress, eventually all of the habits, knowledge, and experience will combine into more wins.

Stick with the Process

Although we all have our aspirations of winning the big tournament, or moving up a ratings class, or eventually becoming a titled player, we should realize that it is the daily and weekly work done consistently over years that will get us to our higher goals.

In his article Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.,  self-improvement writer James Clear encourages us not to focus on the long-term “outcome goals” but instead to focus on the system to get there.

For example, instead of focusing on becoming awesome at endgame play, you would focus on studying endgames for an hour twice a week. By focusing on your schedule and sticking to it, you will definitely improve your endgame play over time. Sometimes, focusing on the long-term goal can be motivating, but sometimes it can also be disheartening if we focus on it too much. instead, but focusing on the system or process we set up to get there, we will make continual and consistent progress.

The Long Cut

People love shortcuts. It is the reason that books and articles with titles such as Rapid Chess Improvement and Improve Your Chess, Fast! are popular. However, we all know in our hearts that mastery of something as complex as chess is going to take years, if not longer.

Instead, I propose you take the long cut towards chess improvement. What is the long cut? For chess, it is building up your knowledge and skill over time. The process can be optimized and improved of course. Reading good books, working with qualified coaches, and playing tough competition will help you improve over time. Doing so systematically and thoughtfully will do so more efficiently.

This is where working with a coach and learning from the experience of others can be very helpful. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to studying chess. A systematic program such as GM Nigel Davies’ Tiger Chess program provides a comprehensive solution to studying chess strategy. Combining such a program with study of your own games and tactical training can help you cut down on seeking out your own materials. Of course, sometimes plotting your own course can be part of the fun. The choice is yours!

Conclusion

Ratings eventually follows chess strength, although sometimes not instantaneously or even gradually. The climb could be a general upward slope with many jagged peaks and valleys. Sometimes, it looks like a plateau with a sudden jump.

Don’t be fooled though, sudden increases in rating result from a longer period of much consistent study and training. This takes perseverance and determination.

Embrace the long cut and keep hammering away.

Bryan Castro

Castling On Opposite Sides

Positions in which the kings are castled on opposite sides often feature a violent race of attacks. Alexander Kotov wrote a chapter on this subject in the book he wrote together with Paul Keres, The Art of the Middle Game. He described how he used to practice playing such positions as a boy and later formulated a series of rules. One of them was that success in such attacks usually goes to the player who manages to force his opponent on the defensive.

Here’s a nice example of opposite side castling from the Baku Olympiad. Mato Jelic provides some great commentary and his other Youtube videos are worth checking out:

Nigel Davies

The Dreaded Closed Sicilian

Playing online is very convenient and popular today. Lots of players with busy lives can all of a sudden play their beloved game whenever they have free time from the comfort of their own home. I expect this to become widely accepted in the near future, given all positives clearly outweighing the negatives (such as the fear of assisted play). A lot of websites have made significant progress in identifying if anyone uses assistance during their games and this is only going to improve.

I play turn based games mostly with 3 days per move for both standard, as well as the chess 960 versions. It has become obvious for a while now I won’t challenge Magnus Carlsen for the title any time soon, so I play mostly for fun and for practicing what I am teaching in class or in private. It is hard to be convincing in front of anyone if you have little clue about certain openings, plans or methods. You will say that 3 days per move is outrageous and I will remind you we all have a life outside chess. Count in sleeping, eating, family time, work and unexpected stuff life throws at you daily and you will realize 3 days is in reality not a lot! Wanna know how many times I had to eventually make a move in the worst possible moment? Add a dollar for each time and my bank account could look much better than it really is…

The following game was part of a very hard fought match between Canada and Germany in division A, played on 287 boards, one white and one black game on each board, plus 3 days per move reflection time. It puzzles me how spread is the use of nicknames, aliases and hidden profiles over the internet, so don’t know the real name of my worthy opponent. This is a disease I am immune to and could write an entire dissertation against it; of course that would be pointless and as a result I will focus on the game at hand where White played very well!

The game lasted 2 months. I hope you enjoyed this positional struggle! It is not very often when castling proves to be fatal in such a simple yet subtle way; of course this could be above my chess paygrade if you know what I mean. Could I get some suggestions for future? Is this line versus the Closed Sicilian worth using again in an improved version? Is there something else better suited I should look into? Any feedback would be appreciated; thank you!

Valer Demian

Avoiding Mines

The solution to last Monday’s problem is that Black can win with 1…Rg3! This threatens 2…Rxh3+!

The main line runs 2. fxg3 Ng4+ 3. Kh1 Qxg3 4. hxg4 Qxh4 mate.

In this week’s problem, Black has to avoid a mine. He should defend his back rank with 1… Rd8.

Can you see what happens if he takes the pawn with 1…Rxd5?

Steven Carr

Accepting the Challenge

Last week I considered Boris Gelfand’s view that there are too many tournaments for children, and considered the conflicting philosophies of the old Soviet School which involved skill development, particularly tactical skill development, but with very little competition, and the methods we use here in the UK which involves lots of tournaments but with no formal path of skill development. I put forward my view, which lies between the two extremes.

Primary school chess clubs here in the UK at the moment, by and large, do little more than provide an environment in which children can enjoy playing low level chess with their friends. This, at the moment, anyway, is what most parents, most children and most schools want. The children make little progress and soon give up. Chess is an extremely complex game. While older children can teach themselves to play well successfully, younger children cannot. The only children who do well are those who are studying chess seriously at home, either with their parents or with a private chess tutor. The others stand no chance at all.

I also considered the UK Chess Challenge, whose future is in doubt for financial reasons. You might consider this a disaster. I prefer to see it as an opportunity. An opportunity for someone else to take over the event and, while keeping the basic structure, introduce an element of skill development. It will need some investment and additional sponsorship, but, in the long term, it will be worthwhile.

One of my ideas when I first set up chessKIDS academy back in 2000 was that it might in future link up with the UK Chess Challenge in some way, but Mike Basman wasn’t interested. He started to set up something similar himself but didn’t get very far. Technology has moved on since then, and there are now far better ways of introducing skill development into the UK Chess Challenge.

At present kids who barely know how to play chess win fluffy mascots and other trinkets by beating other kids who barely know how to play chess. As a means of keeping kids interested in the chess club in the short term this is excellent psychology, but as a means of improving their chess and giving them a long-term interest in the game it’s appalling psychology.

There has been much research over the past three decades or more on the effectiveness or otherwise of rewards, most of which has reached the same conclusion. Alfie Kohn is perhaps the best known proponent of the theory that, in all environments, rewards and punishments are counter-productive.

Before you read on, you might like to read his 1994 article on the subject here.

I quote:

“At least two dozen studies have shown that people expecting to receive a reward for completing a task (or for doing it successfully) simply do not perform as well as those who expect nothing (Kohn, 1993). This effect is robust for young children, older children, and adults; for males and females; for rewards of all kinds; and for tasks ranging from memorizing facts to designing collages to solving problems. In general, the more cognitive sophistication and open-ended thinking that is required for a task, the worse people tend to do when they have been led to perform that task for a reward.”

I’ll repeat the last sentence again:

“In general, the more cognitive sophistication and open-ended thinking that is required for a task, the worse people tend to do when they have been led to perform that task for a reward.”

I think you’ll agree that playing chess well is nothing if not a task requiring sophistication and open-ended thinking. So, while the fluffy mascots are superficially attractive, perhaps they actually lower the standard of play.

If I had to award fluffy mascots at all, I’d rather give them to kids who could checkmate me confidently with king and queen against king than to kids who win random games against their friends.

Children enjoy playing video games where you have to complete assignments to move up to the next level. So what I’d do, if I had the money, is develop an app in which children complete chess assignments to move up to the next level.

This app would include a chess engine which you could play at various levels, perhaps with a rating function built in. You’d also be able to use the engine to play out endings such as king and queen against king and king and rook against king. There would, of course, be a tutorial to teach you the moves. There would also be a database of puzzles, starting with very simple one-movers. You might also want to provide an eBook for parents and teachers to explain how it works and how they can help their children use the app.

When you complete your assignments and reach a particular level you win, not a fluffy mascot, but a Golden Ticket to a tournament. To play in the Megafinals, you might, for example, have to show you know all the rules, get checkmate with king and queen against king, complete some simple puzzles and reach a rating of, say, 500 against the engine. Higher levels of the tournament, for the moment, are probably fine as they are.

So how about it, then? We really have to accept that our current methods of running primary school chess, while providing short-term enjoyment for kids, don’t work in terms of giving them a long-term passion for the game. While you can’t really overthrow the system, you can perhaps tweak it in stages to reach your destination.

We need to get away from the idea of competitive chess as a fun, low-level activity for small children and promote the game for what it really is: a complex, beautiful and exciting game for all ages.

Richard James