Category Archives: Articles

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

How to Study Tactics

Having spent years teaching and coaching young chess players (and oldsters as well), I’ve had the opportunity to not only see breakthroughs in my students playing but roadblocks as well. This is a great age, technologically speaking, in which to learn the game of chess. There are so many training materials available but this vast array of learning tools can make improvement difficult. While there is no “one size fits all” way in which to teach or learn, the beginning chess player often ends up taking on material that is above his or her skill set. Therefore, I’m going to present a few articles on more streamlined methods to studying an aspect of the game, starting with tactics.

Beginners often confuse tactics and strategy so we’ll define the difference between these two very different terms. Strategy is your plan, the end result you’re aiming for in a given position. When I’ve asked beginners what their strategy is, they’ll respond by saying “to checkmate my opponent, of course!” While this is the overall goal of the game, it’s not a strategy. Strategy is the series of plans you create in order to reach your overall goal, checkmating your opponent. If you were a General leading an army, your goal would be to win the war. To do so, you’d have to have a plan, or series of smaller plans, to reach that goal. I say series of plans because in chess, plans that seem plausible in one position, can become obsolete if the position changes in favor of the opposition. Tactics are the actions you take when implementing your strategies. To win a battle, a General might decide that cutting off the enemy’s supply lines will be the best way to win that particular battle. The actions the General takes, such as bombing the supply line using a specific type of fighter plane, is the tactical play. Tactics are key for the beginner wishing to improve, especially when it comes to younger players! What tactics should the beginner study? Here’s a list of the basics:

Discovered Attacks
Discovered Checks
Double Checks

These are the absolute basics. There are additional tactics such deflection, the decoy, overloading pieces, etc, but the beginner should first become familiar with the previously listed tactics and only then, move on to more sophisticated tactical ideas. Here’s a brief definition of the tactics you need to study as a beginner. A fork can be employed the by pawns and all pieces, including the King. With a fork, one piece attacks two or more opposition pieces. Since your opponent can only move one piece per turn (except when castling), they’re going to lose whichever piece is left behind. This idea alone should enlighten you as to why forks are so useful. A pin occurs when a piece of lesser value is stuck in front of a piece of greater value and both are on a line (rank, file or diagonal) controlled by an opposition piece. Let’s say, as White, your Queen is on d1, your King-side Knight is on f3 and a Black Bishop is on g4 (with the e2 square being void of any material). If you move the Knight off of f3, the Black Bishop will swoop in and capture the Queen. With a skewer, you have a piece of lesser value stuck in front of a piece of higher value and, when the piece of higher value gets out of the way, you capture the piece stuck behind it on the line of attack (rank, file or diagonal). Pins are Skewers are performed by long distance attackers such as the Bishop, Rook or Queen.

Discovered attacks find one of your pieces in line with an opposition piece, except that one of your other pieces is blocking its line of attack. When you move the blocking piece, the attacking piece behind it is free to assault the opposition piece. A discovered check is similar except you deliver check when unblocking the attacking (or in this casing checking) piece. The double check is the most lethal of checks because two pieces are delivering a check to the opposition King simultaneously and, since you can only move a single pawn or piece per game turn, you cannot simply block both the checks!

Learn these basic tactics because, especially at lower levels of play, tactics can be decisive! The next step to learning tactics is to recognize the typical patterns that lead to tactics. A tactical play doesn’t just magically appear. Of course, with so many possible positions occurring within a single game of chess, the beginner looks at the games of advanced players and wonders just how they made those tactical plays happen. Good chess players know to look for certain patterns, the arrangement of pawns and pieces on the board as well as open lines, and exploit those patterns to employ tactics. Certain patterns or arrangements of the pawns and pieces allow tactics to be introduced. Take a look at the example below:

In the above simplified example, after move three for Black (3…Nf6), White sees a pattern forming, a pattern that allows a later tactical play by white, 5. Ng5. White sees that the Black Knight on f6 prevents the Queen on d8 from controlling the g5 square. Therefore, White moves his Knight to that square, setting up the next move (after Black plays 5…d6), 6. Nxf7. This move allows the Knight to fork the Black Queen and Rook. The point here is that White looked carefully at the board and set up his tactical attack. Because the White Knight on f7 is protected by the Bishop on c4, the Black King cannot capture the forking Knight. Beginners should start their pattern recognition training by looking at the Ranks, Files and Diagonals where pieces like the Bishop, Rook and Queen can employ tactics. It should be noted that the Knight is a powerhouse when it comes to tactics such as forks because you can’t block a Knight’s attack. When looking for patterns to exploit for tactics, always check Ranks, Files and Diagonals and ask yourself, “can I use any of these lines for a tactical play. When looking at a possible line on which to employ a tactic, also ask yourself how easily your target square can be defended. In the case of the above example, the Black King is the only defender of the f7 square and, since there are two attackers, the King cannot actually defend that square!

Tactics don’t appear magically although great chess players can make it seem that way. They require a set up which means a combination (of moves that is). Take a look at the next example:

In the above example, Black has a Queen to White’s Rook which should give Black the advantage. However, White sets up a combination starting with 1. Rb8. Black can either move the King and lose the Queen or capture the Rook with 1…Qxb8. Things look good for Black since he still has his Queen. However, the true intentions of White’s move becomes clear with 2. Nd7+ which forks both Black’s King and Queen. After the Black King moves, 2…Ke8, White snaps off the Black Queen with 3. Nxb8. White has leveled the playing field with a fork. This is a very basic example of a combination. Remember, a combination is a group of moves that sets up the tactical play. No magic trick, just seeing a potential tactical pattern and putting it to good use.

So the key to studying tactics is to first understand the basic types of tactics you can employ, developing pattern recognition and then learning how to develop combinations, a series of moves that create a tactical opportunity. It takes time to develop these skills but it’s well worth the time spent. I highly recommend scattering a bunch of Black pawns and pieces on the chessboard and then randomly placing a White Knight near the board’s center. Then, see if you can find any forks. If you can’t find a fork immediately, make a legal move with the Knight and see if any forks appear. This helps start your pattern recognition abilities. Do the same with the Bishops, Rooks and Queen. The idea is develop your ability to see potential tactical positions. After you move a White piece, play the Black side of the board, looking for opportunities White may have for tactical plays and making moves to avoid them (after all, you need to avoid opposition tactics as well). The point here is to develop your tactical eye. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Sharpen Your Chess with Kaizen

Years ago, I was introduced to the concept of kaizen – Japanese for improvement. Simply put, kaizen is continuous refinement and improvement. This concept was introduced to business partly by the work of Dr. W. Edwards Deming – famous for his work after World War II in Japan.

Essentially, Dr. Deming seeked to improve business by looking at all aspects of the business and making improvements – sometimes seemingly insignificant ones – in the various processes present throughout the business. This might include processes for manufacturing, service, sales, marketing, and management. The small improvements in the various processes lead to better products, elimination of wasted resources, and better service which would culminate in more profits.

What does this have to do with chess? Well, in chess our “products” are the moves we make on the chess board. To improve our chess, of course there are many things we can do – studying tactics, studying master games, playing strong competition, analyzing your games, etc.

Applying kaizen to these activities means breaking down the processes that go into playing chess and finding ways to improve them in all the chess activities we do.

How do we do this? Well, Dr. Deming provides a method we can apply to all of our chess training. It is the PDSA Cycle – Plan, Do, Study, and Act. For those in education, this is very similar to using metacognitive strategies.

By applying PDSA to our training, study, and games, we will gradually improve our thinking and the way we learn, ultimately culminating in improving our chess results.

Here is the PDSA Cycle explained with some chess examples.


This is where you identify objectives that you want to accomplish during your training. These objectives should be measurable to some extent. They provide a guidepost for your thinking as you do your training. These objectives are not simply to complete the task at hand. I want you to think like an engineer and break down what you really trying to do.

Here are some examples that I have used:

  • Complete the training session without checking e-mail or Facebook (if doing chess work on the computer).
  • For each problem, I will come up with more than one candidate move (and write these down in my notebook).
  • During Solitaire Chess: List my principle variation (PV) for every move I make.
  • During online games: Every time I feel negative, I will try to look for the postive aspects of my chess position/situation.

Your own self-awareness of your needs (or those suggested by a coach) will help you choose objectives that are appropriate for you. Notice that each of the objectives I listed were process goals – not outcome goals. (Nigel Davies wrote about the difference in a recent post and I discuss it in my article about measurement as well).


The next step is to go through your training, keeping the objectives in mind. The key here is to be self-aware of your thinking during this session. Actually, setting the objectives in itself will help you focus on your thinking.

During this phase, if I’m doing training such as tactics or Solitaire Chess, I’ll make objectives that I can record in my notebook. For example, my example of writing down my principle variation during my Solitiare Chess training sessions forces me to write down a variation (of at least 3 ply) for every move. Similarly, sometimes my objective is to look more broadly at positions, so I will write down all of the candidate moves I suggested. This simply makes things simple for the next step in the PDSA cycle.


After you have finished your activity, the next step is to study the results. There are two aspects to look at.

  • First, did you accomplish your objectives that you set.
  • Second, how did that affect the task.

For example, using the Solitaire Chess example, I will first note the percentage of moves that I wrote down the principle variation for. Surprisingly, it’s usually not 100% – which in itself is an important discovery.

Next, I will notice how successful I was in selecting the proper moves compared to how I usually do. One thing to note is that if you are new to setting these objectives (and metacognitive learning strategies in general) is that you may see a drop in performance at first while you are getting used to thinking differently. This is normal and the benefits should start to appear after a few sessions.

For example, with the example we’ve been using, I noticed that I didn’t get through as many moves in my time period (usually an hour or 90 minutes) than I did before. This is easy to explain, as I had to think about what my principle variation (PV) was and then write it down, whereas before I was just writing down the final move I selected. However, I noticed that my percentage of correct moves increased. I’m confident that my efficiency of doing this – either on paper during training or in my mind during my tournament games – will improve.


In this final step, we have to choose how we will act on the information gained in the first three steps. Using our example, if my move selection performance improves drastically by writing down my PV, then perhaps it is something I need to focus on doing more (and of course the act of practicing it will improve its occurrence). However, if over several sessions there is not signicant improvement, it is possible that another issue (and thus another objective) is hindering performance and should be explored.


Here are a few ways you can start to incorporate Kaizen and the PDSA Cycle to your training.

  • Talk to your coach about what objectives you should pursue during your training.
  • During every chess activity, identify at least one – and one is often enough – objective to pursue during that session.
  • Track and monitor your progress and the objectives you are trying to accomplish. A simple spreadsheet works quite well.
  • Experiment with different types of objectives. For example, try objectives involving your mindset, your thinking process, and your environment (e.g. distractions).
  • Learn more about PDSA and metacognitive learning strategies.


Kaizen is not just a specific process, it’s a way of thinking and living. Many people study and train their chess in a haphazard fashion. By applying the PDSA Cycle, you can learn to control more aspects of your learning process.

Another benefit of applying these concepts is that you realize that there are things you can control and things you can’t. You may not be able to control that your opponent played a great game and thus defeated you. However, you can control your attitude and your own thinking before, during, and after the game.

By measuring and studying your objectives, you may realize that you are improving even though the result of the game doesn’t appear to support that conclusion.

By improving the way you think and your mindset, as well as controlling environmental factors that affect your performance by applying Kaizen as well as increasing your chess knowledge through dedicated study and training, the result cannot be anything other than improvement.

To close, I want to share one of my favorite quotes:

He who stops being better stops being good.

-Oliver Cromwell

Be better – little by little, day by day. Good luck and better chess!

Bryan Castro

A Look at the Queen of Katwe

The members of the Denver Chess Club, all veterans of the movie focus group wars since “Pawn Sacrifice”,  have been invited to a preview of “Queen of Katwe”, a Disney biopic s the life of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan chess prodigy from Katwe who becomes a Woman Candidate Master after her performances at World Chess Olympiads.

Chess seems to be getting better and better educational press as mainstream pedagogues tout its virtues with regard to the formation and maturation of intellectual outlook. It’s scene almost as a panacea for the young who are somewhat detached from the learning process

I teach chess to elementary school students in the public school afterschool enrichment programs. I’d have to agree with the experts here, especially in light of recent experiences where four autistic youth were enrolled in my class by their advisers. Noted for disrupting their mainstream classes, the four immediately took to chess and are perhaps the most focused of the students in my class.

I look forward to seeing the film and reporting back here.

Jacques Delaguerre

A Lead In Development

A lead in development is an opening advantage which vanishes with time, so the side with this lead must act energetically. It is highly dependent on pawn structure as it has little or no importance in positions with a closed structure. On the other hand it can be hugely important in open positions. Often players sacrifice a pawn or pieces in order keep the opponent busy capturing the material. The best advise for the defence is not to be too greedy.

At beginners’ level you often don’t need to sacrifice the material to get a lead in development because they often make many pawn moves or move the same piece many times without good reason. This givesand gifts the same advantage to the opponent therefore beginners have been advised not to do so.

Here is an instructive example illustrating this theme:

Veselin Topalov against Vassily Ivanchuk in 1999

Here Black is a pawn down but he has lead in development. As I mentioned earlier the side with lead in development must react energetically, so how would you follow the same piece of advice?

1…Nd4! 2.Qb2

If 2.Qb1 then 2…Qxc3 2.Bd2 Nc2! is winning.


Keeping the king in the center.


If 3.Qxe2 then 3…Qxc3 is winning


Compare the positions. Black has mobilized all of his pieces which fully compensates him for the sacrificed piece. White resigned after a few more moves, here’s the finish in case you’re interested.
4. Qb4 Qh5+ 5. f3 f5 6. g4 Qh3 7. gxf5 Bxf5 8. Qc4+ Kh8 9. Re1 Rxe4+ 0-1

Ashvin Chauhan

Art Over Elo

It’s been nice to see how entertaining some of the Olympiad games have been which once again provides an argument for staging mixed strength tournaments like we used to do a few decades ago. Having a group of players with high Elo ratings trudge around in a Berlin is NOT entertaining, even if these games are then shown online with expert commentary/computer assessments and every Tom, Dick and Harry commenting on the live feed.

By contrast here’s a great game by English GM Gawain Jones in which he plays a King’s Indian Defence and sacrifices his queen. Garry Kasparov used to do this kind of thing when he was playing and I’m sure that people miss seeing this kind of chess. But the first problem is that Jones is rated just 2635, at least a hundred points lower than he needs for the best tournaments. And his opponent was a lowly 2448.

Nigel Davies

A Complicated Combination

In last Monday’s problem, White does best to play 1.d5.

It gains more space in the centre. After 1…Nb4 White can play 2. Be2 and his plan is to follow up with e4, gaining space.

This week’s problem illustrates one of the problems of being an ‘attacking’ player. Sometimes you have to come up with ingenious ideas or your attack will fizzle out.

Black has to find a way through the defence of White.

The obvious move to look at is 1…Ng4+. Checks always have to be calculated.

But the move doesn’t work.

How does Black increase the pressure on White’s position?

A Challenge for UK Chess

I’m very grateful to my Facebook friend Paul Swaney for directing me to a recent interview with Boris Gelfand on

Paul, who is well aware of my views on junior chess, pointed out this extract:

“Now almost everyone is focused on an immediate result – largely because there are too many championships and tournaments for children. Trainers teach the youngsters traps and psychological ploys, but not the essentials. The main task of a trainer is to instil a love and interest in chess.”



Not to make kids smarter. Not to produce champions. But to give them a genuine life-long passion for chess.

The old system in the Soviet Union, which Gelfand and his generation would have grown up with, was very much to do with skills development rather than playing in competitions. There were no kiddie tournaments in the way we know them. Tournaments only existed, as far as I understand the system, to check that children had learned the appropriate skills and were able to put them into practice before moving onto the next level.

This system still exists in some countries today. You may recall that my friends’ son learned his chess in Baku using this method. The same concept is what drives the Steps method used extensively in the Netherlands and also popular in other Western European countries.

But here we take precisely the opposite approach. Our kids have many opportunities to take part in tournaments but instruction within school chess clubs is very basic and very much involved with teaching Scholar’s Mate and other traps rather than developing chess skills. The result is that, while a small number of children, those who are getting proactive parental support at home, will do well, the vast majority will make little or no progress, will quickly forget most of what they’ve been taught, and will drop out of chess within a year or two.

My view lies, as you might expect, between the two extremes. Children enjoy playing in competitions and gain a lot from them both socially and in terms of emotional development. But unless you can find a way of linking up tournaments with skills development you won’t produce kids with a long-term ‘love and interest in chess’.

Meanwhile, the big chess news here in the UK is that the very popular and successful UK Chess Challenge is in trouble. IM Mike Basman, who started the event and has been running it for two decades, has been declared bankrupt and is faced with a bill for £300,000 in unpaid tax. While bankruptcy is not something I’d wish on anyone, I can’t help feeling Mike’s been extremely foolish in the way he runs the event and in not seeking financial advice. Laws are laws, whether or not you happen to like them or approve of them.

For those of you not familiar with the event, here’s how it works. Between January and March, schools run an internal competition in which players receive small prizes. The most successful players, including the top boy and the top girl within each year group, qualify for the county stage which takes place in May. Here, they compete against other children of their age from other schools in their part of the country. The top children from these events then compete in semi-national events in July. Finally, in August, the top boys and girls from across the country in all age groups come together to compete for a £2000 first prize.

Superficially, the whole concept is wonderful, and the final is a really great event. The kids in my primary school chess clubs enjoy taking part in the competition and winning prizes. What’s not to like? And yet, and yet. My view is that perhaps the major reason for the decline in British junior chess in the past two decades is precisely the nature of primary school chess, putting kids into too many competitions too soon, before they’ve really understood the basics of chess, prioritising competition over skills development, failing to provide any meaningful system whereby children can improve and failing to get the message across to parents that they need to be actively involved in their children’s learning process. It seems crazy to me that we’re putting kids into competitions at school before they’ve learned all the rules of chess, and putting them into county level competitions before they’ve learned very basic skills. This, in my opinion, is one of the main reasons why there are so few teenagers and young adults playing chess.

So here’s a challenge for anyone who wants to improve chess in the UK. Can we find a better way of running chess in primary schools? I have a possible solution. I’ve had the solution sitting in front of me for the best part of 20 years, but neither Mike Basman nor anyone else involved in UK junior chess has taken any interest.

I’ll tell you more next week.

Richard James


The mark of a good teacher, be it in chess or economics, is their ability to take a complex concept or idea and explain it in a manner that makes sense to the student. Too often, a teacher will simply recite an explanation from a textbook, word for word, and call it a day. That’s not teaching. Good teaching is taking a complex subject and simplifying it, often using an analogy that students can relate to. I have a new high school student who was having trouble grasping some game principles, namely the idea of bringing pawns and pieces into the opening in a specific order. By order, I mean that we first control the center with a pawn or two, then introduce our minor pieces and so on. He asked me why follow that specific order if you could start controlling the board’s center by moving a Knight towards it on your first move? His reasoning was sound, in that a Knight moved to c3 or f3 (c6 or f6 for Black) controls two center squares as opposed to a pawn move which controls only one center square, the central squares being d4, d5, e4 and e5. I tried a couple of explanations but he still thought moving the Knight first made more sense. Of course, you can start the game by moving one of your Knights toward the center. However, when first learning the game, you should learn to start the game with a pawn move for a number of reasons.

One thing I do when working with a student for the first time is to find out what their interested in other than chess. Why do this? Because I can often develop analogies based on the student’s interests and provide them with explanations of key concepts that make sense because the analogies relate to something the student already understands. It turns out that my student is a budding military history buff which made my job that much easier. Here’s why:

Chess is many things, including a game of war. In fact, it’s really an excellent example of classical warfare and that’s the analogy I used. From the military formations employed by Roman soldiers in ancient times to the battles of the American Civil War, the theory of classical warfare is alive and well on the chessboard. In fact, the guerrilla warfare style of fighting seen in Vietnam and then in the Middle East can be found on the chessboard in the form of tricks, traps and tactics. Being a Buddhist, you might ask why I’d choose such a violent analogy. The answer is simple. I use analogies that best suit my students (within reason). While I abhor violence, I am a bit of a student of military history myself (specifically, the American Civil War) which is probably why I consider myself a “bad” Buddhist (or militant pacifist)! So let’s look at my student’s question regarding pawn and piece development in the opening from the vantage point of classical warfare.

Prior to the advent of truly mechanized warfare (tanks, planes, etc), fighting battles was mainly done by individual soldiers. During the American Civil War, for example, the majority of the fighting was done by large formations of troops (troop meaning a single soldier and troops meaning multiple soldiers). These troops fell into formations or lines of men with their rifles loaded and ready to fire. Fire upon what? Advancing enemy troops. Eventually, members of the opposing army would make it through the field of fire and hand to hand combat would ensue. During the battle of Gettysburg, tens of thousands of men were engaged in savage hand to hand combat in one of the war’s bloodiest battles. When I was describing this battle, which I had studied in great detail, I could see my student caught up in my retelling of this horrible historical event. From a teaching point, I had my student where I wanted him; using his imagination to take him to the front lines, smelling the acrid stench of gun powder, hearing the screams of wounded men and the deafening sound of hundreds of cannons as the sky turned dark because of the smoke of the many fires that burned across the battlefield. It was at this point that I stopped my story and uttered a single word, Pawns.”

“Pawns?” He replied. Yes, Pawns. All those men wearing either the colors of the blue or gray in the American Civil War were the battle’s pawns. Pawns are the game’s foot soldiers, like the Roman Legionnaires or American Grunts of World War Two. In any army, the overwhelming majority of its members are foot soldiers who individually are of little value but, when united together in large numbers, become a decisive force that can change a battle’s outcome. In classical warfare, it’s the foot soldier who goes out onto the field of battle first. In chess, pawns are your foot soldiers and, while they may be of the lowest relative value when considering them on an individual basis, they can work together and push back the enemy.

In classical warfare, generals would use their foot soldiers in an attempt to weaken the opposition’s army before bringing in more sophisticated weaponry such as archers or cavalry, in the case of the American Civil War. The point I made to my student was that you needed to weaken the enemy first and then bring in heavier weaponry. I emphasized the fact that the Knight in chess was the equivalent to the cavalry in classical warfare and that you simply wouldn’t send in the cavalry against a huge formation of foot soldiers until you weakened those foot soldiers with your own foot soldiers. The same holds true in chess. If you sent your Knights onto the field of battle (the chessboard) they could easily be driven back by Pawns. Why? Because a Pawn has a relative value of 1 point while the Knight’s worth 3 points. No one is going to trade a Knight for a Pawn (unless it leads to a huge positional advantage)! My student was starting to see the merits of employing Pawns first, then the minor pieces. We looked at another reason foot soldiers had to be the first into battle, namely because the rest of the army stood behind them!

In many classical battle formations, which were highly organized, you had an overwhelming majority of foot soldiers in the front, followed by archers, then cavalry and lastly any special weaponry. While the archers could shoot over the heads of the foot soldiers in front of them (and did to reduce enemy numbers), the rest of the army couldn’t get onto the battlefield until the foot soldiers had moved. I pointed out to my student that, with the exception of the Knight, the rest of his forces were trapped until some of his foot soldiers (Pawns) took to the field (the board). My analogy was really starting to sink in. My student is a highly intelligent young man but we have to remember that a “one size fits all” approach to teaching doesn’t work because no single explanation will work for every single individual. Analogies, analogies, analogies!

We looked at the other pieces in terms of our analogy and decided that Bishops were more like archers in a way because they could control important squares on the board from a great distance. However, unlike the archer who can shoot arrows over the heads of the foot soldiers, Bishops needed the Pawns to move out of the way in order to engage in the battle. Rooks became cannons in our analogy, more powerful than the Bishops (archers) because they’re not limited to squares of one color (as the Bishops are). The Queen was either a Gatling Gun (an early large, rapid fire machine gun) or a Weapon of Mass Destruction. I preferred Weapon of Mass Destruction, only to be used carefully and at the right time. Losing the Queen is on par with losing your biggest, baddest weapon while the enemy maintains theirs. As for the King? In Vietnam, the Vietcong would often have snipers try to shoot at American commanders, with the idea of removing the leader which would leave the troops unable to function (cutting off the head of the snake).

By using analogies you can reinforce key ideas and concepts, putting them into terms you understand. I highly recommend, when learning a new chess idea or concept, that you put it into terms you can understand. If you’re a lawyer, create a legal analogy. If you’re a carpenter, put it in terms of a construction project. If teaching chess, discover your students interests to help create meaningful analogies. Use analogies to guide you and you’ll really understand the subject matter you’re trying to master. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Opening Repertoire Strategies

One of the most challenging aspects of chess (among many) is developing an opening repertoire. There are many ways to choose an opening repertoire. For example, some play the openings of their favorite players. Others try to go their own way, experimenting with various openings until settling onto a few favorites. Still others gain guidance from a coach or author.

Like many things in chess and life, there are many good ways to go about the task. In this article, I’m going to highlight a few of the strategies used to develop opening repertoires and some of their pros and cons.

Based on your chess goals, style, and personality, you may decide that one of these strategies are for you. Or, as I have over the years, you can mix and match.

Offbeat and Surprise Openings

This type of repertoire depends on surprising opponents with rarely played – and thus rarely studied – variations. Although these openings are generally not highly regarded, they often have some practical bite for unsuspecting or unprepared opponents. Among these openings are certain gambits as well as “odd” openings such as 1.b4 (the Sokolsky) and 1.g4 (Grob’s Attack).

Some advantages of this opening repertoire strategy:

  • You will probably be more familiar with the opening ideas than your opponent.
  • Your opponent may underestimate the danger and play complacently.
  • Unprepared opponents may fall into a tactical or positional trap, leaving them with practical problems to solve at the board.

Some disadvantages of this strategy:

  • Some of the openings are unsound if your opponent doesn’t fall for the traps, leaving you with an inferior position.
  • Your opponent doesn’t necessarily need to play the main line or the best responses to achieve equality or better.
  • It may be difficult to find high level examples of play within your opening for instructional purposes.

As an example of this strategy, I found an interesting game involving Sokolsky himself playing the opening that bears his name (although it is also known as the Orangutan or Polish opening). Although the opening move (1.b4) seems to break general opening principles, it trades a wing pawn for some central control and an active bishop on b2. His opponent was a strong player as well, IM Yakov Estrin (who surprisingly has a few losses against 1.b4).

Set-up or System Openings

There are some openings that focus on playing a single formation or move order against almost anything their opponent can put up. Some of these openings fall into the off-beat category, but some of them are quite well-known. For example, the King’s Indian Defense falls somewhat into this category, and has been played by two of the greatest players ever – Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. Other examples of this include the London, Colle, and King’s Indian Attack for White.

Advantages of playing opening systems:

  • At least for the first few moves, you don’t have to memorize much theory. (NM Jim West is a big fan of the King’s Indian Attack, and discusses that it allows you to focus on studying the middlegame instead of memorizing opening moves as he discussed in my interview with him).
  • With some exceptions, many of the strategic ideas are applicable in many positions, making it easier to find a plan.
  • With the exception of openings like the King’s Indian Defense, many of these openings does not have a lot of developed theory, so you don’t have to worry about falling into a long theoretical line with your opponent.
  • Similar to offbeat openings, many of these opening systems – again with the exception of the King’s Indian Defense – will not be heavily studied by your opponents.

Disadvantages of this strategy:

  • Although some of these openings are quite sound and well respected, by nature of being a “system” there are some variations that do not press aggressively for an opening edge (this isn’t such a big deal for most amateurs).
  • Playing a narrow set of positions (with a narrow set of plans and strategic ideas) may hinder overall chess development.

The London System is a popular opening both at club level and is making more appearances among the world’s elite, including US chess star Gata Kamsky.

Mainstream and Fashionable

The mainstream approach is just as it sounds – e.g. following the opening variations and the latest developments of the top players. There is a lot of scope within this category, as the top players have a wide variety of opening choices, from the solid choices of Magnus Carlsen to the aggressive options that a player like Nakamura prefers.

The advantages of these opening choices:

  • The quality of the variations have been vetted by the best players in the world, and are unlikely to be refuted anytime soon.
  • The rich strategic complexity of these openings can be very instructive for players’ overall development. (I discuss this with IM Greg Shahade in our article about developing an opening repertoire).
  • You will be able to find recent games by high level players with the most recent developments in your chosen variations.
  • It can be fun playing the openings of your favorite players.

The disadvantages of this opening strategy:

  • Fashionable openings change fairly often, as the strategic battles among the world’s elite can often suddenly change the landscape of the opening – requiring constant maintenance.
  • The complexity of the opening may be difficult to understand for amateur players at times.
  • A lot of time is required because of the first two points, but also because the amount of theory developed in these lines can be enormous.

The nature of fashionable openings is that variations that were once rare can be revived very quickly when championed by one of the world’s elite. One of the most striking examples of this is the Berlin Defense against the Ruy Lopez. Vladimir Kramnik resurrected this defense in his World Championship Match with Garry Kasparov. In that match, the Berlin defense allowed Kramnik to hold key games with the black pieces, allowing him to capture the title from Kasparov after winning two games with White. His revival of this opening had long-term ramifications, as every 1.e4 player who plays the Ruy has to decide whether or not they want to face it and many of the world’s current top ten include it in their repertoire with both colors.

Other Opening Repertoire Strategies

Besides the three I listed above, there are a couple other strategies that can be employed. As with the strategies above, there are pros and cons to each.

Here are a couple examples:

  • “Almost” Mainstream Openings – Playing strong openings that may have been fashionable at one point and are still sound, but are not as popular as they once were. This includes openings played by strong players who are not quite on the main stage of the chess world – such as strong IM’s and “ordinary” GM’s.
  • Modeling a Player – Simply copying the opening repertoire choices of a favorite player. For example, playing 1.e4 with White and the Gruenfeld or KID and Sicilian Defense as Black and studying the games of Bobby Fischer. This can provide some cohesion to your repertoire, but needs to be updated with the latest developments – particularly in sharp openings.


I hope you found this discussion helpful. For most amateurs, all of the main openings are sound and you shouldn’t fear experimenting with different openings. As your skills develop, you can employ one of these strategies to pick openings that meet your needs and ambitions as a player.

Good luck and as always, Better Chess!

Bryan Castro