Category Archives: Children’s Chess

My Favourite Things

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.” Jolly nice they are too, but they’re not MY favourite things.

I like to tell my students that my three favourite things are chocolate, especially plain chocolate, ice cream, especially chocolate ice cream and … pawn endings.

So imagine my excitement when I saw this position on the board while watching some games at Richmond Junior Chess Club the other day.

It was White’s move in a game between two of our (relatively) stronger players, round about 1200 strength. RJCC, sadly, isn’t what it was 20 or 30 years ago.

Let’s have a look at how the game continued.

It’s immediately clear to any experienced player that, with the kings on e3 and e5, White, to move, will lose, whereas Black, to move, will not be able to make progress. A classic case of the OPPOSITION. The players both told me after the game they’d heard of ‘the opposition’ but clearly White, at any rate, didn’t actually understand it. This is why you need worksheets to test that children have actually understood the lessons at a higher level.

Players of this strength tend to think statically rather than dynamically, which is why they’re stuck at 1200 strength. If you’re only thinking statically it will be natural to play Ke3. You know you want to defend your pawn so you move your king next to it. If you’re applying dynamic thinking to chess positions you’ll be looking ahead, calculating everything that moves, and then you’ll see the problem.

So White can draw by playing Ke2 (or Kf3). He needs to be able to play Ke3 when Black plays Ke5 so he needs to stay in contact with the e3 square as long as Black is in contact with the e5 square.

White, after some thought, played 1. Ke3? and Black of course replied with Ke5. Now White realised he had a problem and tried 2. Kf3 Kd4 3. e5. This is a good attempt, forcing Black to make a decision about how to capture the pawn. He chose to take with the king. When I asked him why after the game he told me he wanted to keep his pawns together. This seems to be to be a case of misunderstanding basic principles. Generally speaking you want to keep your pawns together to make it easier for you to create a passed pawn (you’d rather have f and g pawns v g pawn than f and h pawns v g pawn, for instance), but if you have the chance to create a passed pawn in the ending you should generally seize it with both hands. After 3… fxe5 Black wins very easily. Play it out for yourself if you’re not sure. Instead, 3… Kxe5? left White having to make a decision about which way his king should move.

Again, if you understand the opposition you’ll make the right decision and play Ke3, which, as long as you know what you’re doing, will lead to a draw. Of course you have to know exactly how to defend after 3. Ke3 f5 4. gxf5 Kxf5 but this is very basic knowledge which all competitive players of any age should know back to front. But if you don’t understand the opposition and you’re thinking statically rather than dynamically you may well do what White did in the game and play Kg3 instead. He explained to me after the game that he wanted to be near his pawn to defend it. This time Black made no mistake and the game continued 4. Kg3? Ke4 5. Kg2 Kf4 6. Kh3 Kf3 (you need to understand that in this sort of position the white pawn can be attacked from two squares but only defended from one square) 7. Kh2 Kxg4 and Black soon obtained a queen and delivered checkmate.

So much to learn from such a simple position. You can see why pawn endings are among my favourite things.

Meanwhile, you might be wondering what happened to my adventures with 1… e5. Well, I’ve had a few more blacks without facing 1. e4 again. I did reach a pawn ending, although not a very interesting one, in my most recent game, though.

Although there are lots of pieces on the board here both players should be thinking about a potential pawn ending as either player can trade queens and White can, whenever he chooses, initiate a mass exchange on d5.

I had the black pieces and had to make a decision in this position where White has just played 26. c4. At this point we probably both realised that any potential pawn ending would be drawn. I decided to trade queens at the point and centralise my king so we continued 26… Qxf4 27. gxf4 Kf7 28. Kf2 Ke7. Now White can continue to maintain the tension but instead chose to trade on d5. I then had to decide how many pieces to trade off. I could perhaps have kept one pair of rooks on the board, although it’s unlikely that the result would have been different. Instead I went for the pawn ending: 29. cxd5 Bxd5 30. Bxd5 Rxd5 31. Rxd5 Rxd5 32. Rxd5 exd5. It’s well known that this type of pawn ending is drawn. Black can never activate his king because of White’s protected passed pawn and likewise White cannot activate his king because of Black’s queenside pawn majority. We continued 33. Ke2 b5 34. Kd3 a5 35. a3 b4 36. axb4 axb4 37. Kc2 c4 (The only move to draw. Black has to threaten to create a passed pawn. 37… Ke6 38. Kb3 is winning for White.) 38. h4 h5 39. Kd2 Ke6 40. Ke2 Ke7 and my draw offer was accepted.

Richard James

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External Pattern Recognition Exercises

Parents often enroll their kindergarten aged students in a chess class with the idea of introducing their children to logic and reasoning skills early on. When teaching children of such a young age, conventional chess teaching approaches have to be reconsidered. I have one class that is made up of both Kindergarten and First Grade students only. I’ve had this class for roughly nine months and we’ve made some remarkable progress in the development of their chess skills. One technique I’ve used to help develop their chess playing is external pattern recognition exercises. These exercise have worked so well that I’m recommended them to older students as well.

Let me start by explaining the difference between internal and external pattern recognition in terms of my curriculum. Internal pattern recognition is finding or seeing patterns on the chessboard during a game. While this is a goal all chess players strive for, it should and is strengthened by external pattern recognition exercises. External pattern recognition exercises take place far from the chessboard, often in within our daily lives. External pattern recognition exercises lay a solid foundation for recognizing patterns on the chessboard. By employing these external exercises, your ability to recognize specific patterns on the chessboard (internal) will increase at a faster rate.

Because I teach students of all ages, I have to create external pattern recognition exercises appropriate to specific age groups. While all the exercises work well for older students, very young students require exercises that they can comprehend. If they can’t comprehend an exercise, they won’t get anything useful out of it. Therefore, I’ll start with exercises for the youngest of my students.

The idea of pattern recognition can be completely foreign to a Kindergarten or First Grade student. Thus, the definition I give them is “things that match.” I have my young students create a simple list of things they see in their daily lives that match, such as a pair of socks or four tires on a car. This is external pattern recognition (away from the chessboard), Each week, my young students give me their list of things that match. We then look at a chessboard, set up to play a game. I ask them to show me everything that matches on the chessboard, such all the White pawns, all the Black pawns and so on. At this point, I ask them to create a new list, this time looking specifically at nature for examples. When looking at a grouping of similar trees, is there one that has more branches than the others or is leaning in the opposite direction than the others? We increase the scope of their pattern recognition with each passing week. We always go back to the chessboard where I ask them to further explore patterns such as the diagonals, ranks and files. This continues throughout their chess classes for at least six months (no matter how good their chess playing gets).

For older students, I use card games to help build their pattern recognition skills. We start with Solitaire, namely the computer program version of the game. The student plays a three card draw version of Solitaire rather than the single card at a time version. The reason for this is simple. While trying to match the appropriate cards, they have to keep track cards they need within the three card set they’re trying to play. I recommend playing this card game for ten minutes each day because it helps to focus the mind towards recognizing specific patterns. If you want to try this, set the game options so it isn’t timed. Then, once you get used to playing it on a regular basis, use the timer. Solitaire can be an excellent way to enhance pattern recognition.

For adult students, I recommend playing draw poker, specifically the apps designed for tablets. Draw poker has some useful advantages for the novice adult chess player. First, it teaches pattern recognition in a very visual way. You essentially have five cards on the screen and are given the choice to hold those cards or to exchange them for new cards from the deck (exchanging one to five cards per hand). The app always gives you the odds of specific hands such as a pair, three of a kind, four of a kind, etc. Another advantage to using this draw poker game for training is that it forces you to play more scientifically, ultimately (if you’re playing correctly) taking less chances. How does draw poker playing apply to chess?

I spoke of wishful thinking in my last article. Wishful thinking is hoping your opponent will make the move you want them to make as opposed to the best move they can make independent of your ideas. In draw poker, for example, novice players will play a pair of twos rather than hold onto a Ace. If you look at the odds chart that comes with the game, you’ll see that it’s better to hold the Ace. While it is tempting to play the pair, hoping the computer program behind the app will bend to your will, it’s wishful thinking!

Speaking of programming, I introduce my older students to the idea of playing the program’s algorithm, the mathematical instructions that tells the computer how to respond to the card hand you play. Because this version of poker is based on a mathematical formula, it will respond to specific situations in a calculated way (it’s programming), not just responding to your card hand based on odds. You play the algorithm by noting patterns in the hands being played. For instance, if you win two hands, one with a pair of Queens, the next with three Queens, holding a Queen in the next or third hand dealt might not work. The computer program behind the app is designed to respond in a specific way to the cards you play. I have been researching the algorithm behind a specific draw poker app with a group of students and we have been able to win quite a bit by playing the program not just the odds.

The point to all this is to use external methods to improve your pattern recognition because you can literally find patterns everywhere you go and the more you study patterns off of the chessboard, the better your pattern recognition becomes on the chessboard. Games such as Scrabble are also wonderful for pattern recognition. Try some of these exercises and you’ll not only improve your chessboard pattern recognition but see life in a more interesting way. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Teaching Kids Through Classical Games (3)

Here’s another game that’s useful for teaching kids through classical games. This game demonstrates some very instructive play based on a basic queen and bishop checkmate pattern.

As with the last time please note that I am presenting this game just to show its value in teaching kids. But anybody who would like to play d4, must study this game.

Capablanca – J-Jaffe
1910

1.d4 d5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.e3

By playing e3, White is temporarily shutting in his dark square bishop.

Q: How would you bring that piece into the game?
A: Usually I got answers like via b2, d2 or a3. But perhaps best way is to move timely e3-e4 after which you can decide where to place the bishop.

3…c6 4.c4 e6 5.Nc3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 Bd6

Here Black should play 6…dxc4 which is a kind of tempo gaining move. But on the other hand White would then have a central majority. If White succeeds in playing e3-e4-e5, deflecting the key defender and gaining space on kingside, he would have good chances to launch a king side attack. This kind of plan is something to watch out for in similar positions.

7.0–0 0–0 8.e4 dxe4

It was good to take on c4 first and then to play e5.

9.Nxe4 Nxe4 10.Bxe4 Nf6

Q: Where would you place your Bishop and why?
A: Bc2, in order to create a queen and bishop battery on b1–h7 diagonal.

Q: Then Why not on b1?
A: On b1 it blocks the queen’s rook in.

11.Bc2 h6

White plan is very simple, remove the key defender and checkmate black along b1–h7 diagonal.

12.b3 b6 13.Bb2 Bb7 14.Qd3 g6

Look closely at the pawn structure around Black’s king. It is very weak. In order to access Black’s king you need to sacrifice on e6 or g6.

15.Rae1 Nh5

Defending tactically against Rxe6.

16.Bc1

Not only attacking h6, but also preventing Nf4 which makes Rxe6 a threat. 16.Rxe6 immediately would have been met by Nf4.

16…Kg7 17.Rxe6

This rook is untouchable because of mate in 2.

17…Nf6 18.Ne5 c5

The rook still can’t be taken because 19.Qxg6+ gives White a winning attack.

19.Bxh6+ Kxh6 20.Nxf7+

1–0

Mate will follow.

Ashvin Chauhan

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C is for Chess

I’ve just been reading H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s multiple award-winning and beautifully written account of how, suffused with grief as a result of her father’s sudden death, she decides to buy and train a goshawk.

It got me thinking, as I often do, about the whole concept of training, about the difference between being a teacher and being a tutor.

“To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so gain the ability to predict what it will do next. Eventually you don’t see the hawk’s body language at all. You seem to feel what it feels. The hawk’s apprehension becomes your own.”

Just as when training a hawk you have to ‘become’ the hawk, so, when training a child to play chess you have to ‘become’ the child, which, I dare say, is a lot easier than ‘becoming’ a hawk. You have to enter the child’s world, tune into his wavelength, understand the way he thinks, the way he behaves, the way he reacts, why he plays chess and what he’s expecting from chess.

So I try to find out as much as I can about my pupils. I ask what their favourite subject is at school (usually maths) and which subjects they don’t like. I ask what books they like reading, and sometimes read their favourite books myself. If they like Harry Potter, for instance, I can talk to them about Wizard Chess. I ask them which sports they play, and, if they like football, which team they support. I also ask them why I support Croatia, but they are never able to guess. I can then make comparisons between chess and football. The king is the goal, the rook the goalie, the pawns in front of the castled king the defenders, the minor pieces the midfield players and the queen the striker.

Likewise, if they’re interested in music I can use that. I explain that they have to practise chess just as they have to practise the piano. Practising chess does not just mean playing games any more than practising the piano means just playing tunes. If you’re learning the piano you have to practise your scales and arpeggios, which many students find boring, but they still have to do it. So when you’re practising chess you have to spend time solving puzzles as well as playing games. You have to develop chessboard vision: the ability to see at a glance where every piece is, what it’s attacking and what it’s defending. In the same way you have to learn to sight read when you play the piano.

At the same time I’m looking at my student’s personality. Is he quiet or loud? Does he have a sense of humour? This will affect the way I talk to him and also, indirectly, the way he plays chess. Does he want to learn to play aggressive, attacking chess or would he prefer something more peaceful? Is he someone who will prefer orthodox openings or someone who’ll prefer something more unusual?

Another question I ask my students is whether they think in words or pictures. I think very much in words rather than pictures. I can’t visualise the position in my head but can only see what’s on the board in front of me, which is why I can’t play blindfold chess and find it hard to calculate long variations. This will have implications for both the way I teach and the nature of the resources I recommend for them. A word thinker will probably prefer books while a picture thinker would work better with DVDs. I suspect, given the extent of screen-based entertainment and resources out there, children these days are more likely to be picture thinkers.

It all comes down to the difference between sympathy and empathy. It’s very easy to say, as many coaches do, “I (don’t) like this book so you should (not) read it” or “I (don’t) like this opening so you should (not) play it”. Beware of chess teachers who get all their pupils to play the same openings or read the same books. When I teach a child on a one to one basis I to try to become that child, to experience life as he or she experiences it, in the same way that Helen Macdonald had to become Mabel the goshawk and experience life the way a goshawk does.

In mediaeval times both falconry and chess were considered appropriate activities for young noblemen. If H is for Hawk, then C is for Chess, but don’t forget that C is also for Child.

Richard James

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Wishful Thinking

The beginner makes a move with high hopes that his or her opponent will make the counter-move the beginner has anticipated. Of course, their opponent makes a move but it isn’t the move our beginner anticipated. Our beginner is now faced with a weak position that degrades further and further with each subsequent move. Where did our intrepid beginner go wrong? Our beginner employed the same idea many desperate gamblers use, wishful thinking. My Uncle, who was quite a good gambler, used to say “scared money never wins.” Employing wishful thinking nets the same result, a journey on the road to ruin. What is wishful thinking in chess?

Wishful thinking is making a move that only works if your opponent makes the exact move you want them to make and that opposition move is a poor one! Good chess means both players are making the best moves in an effort to execute their individual plans. Wishful thinking chess means playing one sided chess. One sided chess is only considering what you can do, not what your opponent can do. This is a huge hurdle for the novice player.

Beginners are generally overwhelmed by the large number of game principles and theory thrown at them through instructional material in the form of books, DVDs and software. They often halfheartedly learn these principles and try to bend or break them before they have a true understanding of those principles. A general life principle might tell you it is dangerous to walk on the edge of a cliff because you could slip, fall off and meet a dreadful end. Our beginning chess student certainly wouldn’t walk next to the edge of a cliff because it’s dangerous. However, that same student would take a chance by bending a game principle. Our student would exercise logic and reason when faced with a physically dangerous situation but wouldn’t employ the same logic and reason on the chess board. He might consider taking a chance on the chessboard. Chance has no place in chess because it’s akin to wishful thinking!

Logic should be the driving force behind the moves a beginner makes. Logic is the science of the formal principles of reasoning. Thus, to employ logic you employ specific principles when making a decision. Of course, this is an extremely simplified definition but one that will serve to guide the beginning chess player. Chess principles are ideas that have been tested and retested over time, always found to be sound in nature. If you’re a beginner you should seriously consider the idea that these principles work and they should be learned and employed by you from day one. When you play thought a game by a Grandmaster who breaks or bends a game principle successfully, remember that the Grandmaster first had to master those principles. Mastering game principles means completely understanding them and employing them. When you learn how to play a musical instrument, you spend many years mastering basic musical principles. Only after you gained a fair amount of knowledge, can you start to explore the idea of breaking protocol or principle. You have to learn how to walk before you run!

Two sets of principles, opening and endgame principles, are the most maligned by beginners. When I teach beginner’s classes, I teach basic principles for both these phases of the game. I keep it simple. For the opening phase, I teach the three primary principles, moving a pawn that controls the board’s center on move one, development of minor pieces towards the center and castling. For the endgame phase, I teach basic mating combinations and pawn promotion. My classes spend a great deal of time working on these principles, yet there are always a handful of students who insist on employing wishful thinking, doing things their way rather than the principled way.

There is something to be said about trail and error learning. Sometimes, we need to fail repeatedly to truly learn a lesson. However, this method of thinking can discourage the novice chess player. Therefore, when teaching the game’s principles, the chess teacher must carefully and thoroughly explain each principle in great detail! One of the best ways to teach a principle is to demonstrate what happens when that principle isn’t employed, namely the dire consequences that result. If I have a student who is having trouble embracing game principles, we sit down and play a few games. As I make principled moves and my student makes unprincipled moves, I explain the consequences carefully as we play. The student sees the consequences of not using correct principles on the board as he or she plays.

This easiest way to get students to employ principled play is to teach them to use simple logic as a guide when determining the correct move. I teach my students that logical thinking in chess is weighing the good against the bad. For example, we’re all taught that moving the e pawn to e4 is the best move for an absolute beginner. If a student simply moves the e pawn because everyone says it’s the best move, then they’re not really learning anything in the way of logical thinking. If the student is taught that control of the center is key in the opening, then they have a logical reason for playing 1. e4. However, you have to provide more information such as saying “this moves allows the Queen and King-side Bishop instant access to the board.” You can also further expand on this idea by saying that the opposition’s King is on a central file and he is the ultimate target. Additionally, pieces are more powerful when centrally located. The more information provided, the greater the logical reinforcement. The more information a teacher provides regarding why a principle is sound, the more likely a student will apply that principle. A student should always think about what makes a principled move sound rather than blindly making that move.

Once the principles have been ingrained in the student’s mind, it’s time to stamp out wishful thinking once and for all. This happens when you carefully consider your opponent’s best response to your potential move. Often, a beginner will try to chase a long range piece (Bishop, Rook or Queen) with a short range piece (Pawn, Knight or King). Of course, the long range piece simply races away. If you consider your opponent’s best response to such an idea, you’d never make that move in the first place! To think about your opponent’s best response to your move, put yourself in your opponent’s shoes. Pretend your playing you opponent’s pieces when considering a move. What would you do to stop the move your considering. One exercise I have my student’s do it is switching sides during a game on every move. You start making a move for White and when your opponent makes Black’s move, you switch sides. This is very effective in destroying wishful thinking.

You have to play both sides of the board not just your side of the board. You have to use the principles and basic logic to guide your moves. If you don’t you’re not playing a game of thinking but a game of chance. Remember, when playing a game of chance, the house always wins and sadly you’re not the house. Here’s game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Dunning-Kruger

Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? This has its basis in a paper published in 1999 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology, Cornell University. I came across it the other day and considered how it might apply to chess.

From Wikipedia:

“The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.

“Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

fail to recognize their own lack of skill
fail to recognize genuine skill in others
fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy
recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill”

So with regard to playing chess, unskilled chess players have no understanding that they are unskilled. By ‘unskilled’ in this context I mean failing to know all the rules of chess and failing to understand basic tactics and strategy. In my part of the world, most children are taught the moves by parents who are unskilled chess players, who know how the pieces move and think that’s all there is to chess. Which might explain why, when I offer to help them or give them advice on chess they either ignore me or tell me they don’t want my help. They might recognise and acknowledge their own lack of skill if I provided them with training, but as they don’t recognise their incompetence they are not prepared to expose themselves to training.

Of course the idea of ‘unskilled’ is relative. Children who are aware that I can beat them very easily, and also parents who are aware that I can beat their children very easily, often assume that I must be a grandmaster because they perceive me as being unbelievably brilliant at chess. By Magnus Carlsen’s standards, or even by Nigel Davies’s standards, though, I’m a pretty bad player. Competent, perhaps, but no more than that. Competent enough to recognise my own lack of skill, and, up to a point, to appreciate how skilful Carlsen and other grandmasters are.

The Dunning-Kruger effect applies to teaching as well as playing chess. In fact teaching is a whole range of skills. Teaching a group and teaching an individual are very different skills. Teaching elite junior internationals is very different from teaching beginners. Teaching younger children, teaching older children and teaching adults are all very different skills. But many strong chess players assume that all you have to do to be a chess teacher is stand in front of a class and tell them what you know. This might work in some environments, but not, for instance, with a class of 7-year-olds in a primary school chess club.

These teachers may look impressive but if you actually test their pupils to find out what they do and don’t know, or talk through a game with them and ask them what they’re thinking about you’ll discover just how effective they really are.

Dunning and Kruger also concluded that those with genuine ability in a particular domain tended to underestimate their own competence and assume that something they found easy would also be easy for others. So strong players who teach beginners tend to go too fast, assuming that because chess comes easily to them it will also come easily to their pupils, and assuming that children have understood something when in fact they haven’t. It’s very easy to get frustrated when a pupil hasn’t picked up something which is second nature to you.

There are cultural differences which also need to be explored. From Wikipedia again:

“Studies on the Dunning–Kruger effect tend to focus on American test subjects. A study on some East Asian subjects suggested that something like the opposite of the Dunning–Kruger effect may operate on self-assessment and motivation to improve. East Asians tend to underestimate their abilities and see underachievement as a chance to improve themselves and get along with others.”

I’ve written before about different attitudes to parenting and childhood: what I call the ‘Eastern’ approach: children are seen as small adults and are expected to aim to excel at everything they do, and the ‘Western’ approach: childhood is when you have fun: children are expected to work hard in school but extra-curricular activities are often seen as not being very serious. Perhaps this is part of the same thing. People with a ‘Eastern’ mindset are more likely to be searching for self-improvement as well as being more likely to expect their children to excel at music, chess or whatever.

Of course these are crude generalisations. Many Western parents will take an ‘Eastern’ approach while many Asian or East European parents will take a ‘Western’ approach. Most parents will, to a greater or lesser extent, take a ‘Western’ approach to some subjects and an ‘Eastern’ approach to other subjects.

But it seems to me that the fundamental problem with after-school chess clubs is parental ignorance about all aspects of chess. One way of countering this is to put chess on the curriculum so that all children are taught to play properly. Another way is to promote chess clubs in secondary schools when children are old enough to teach themselves if they’re interested rather than in primary schools.

I’ve spent the last 15 years or more telling anyone who wants to listen that primary school chess clubs in their current form are destroying chess as an adult game in this country. The Dunning-Kruger effect explains why most children don’t get anywhere and also why most teaching in primary school chess clubs is ineffective.

Let’s try to do something about it.

Richard James

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Strategy or Tactics

Students often ask me which is more important, strategy or tactics? It’s a good question, one worth exploring. It’s been said that chess is 99% tactics and the beginner might agree with this since many beginner’s games are won through the deployment of accidental tactics, such as a fork or pin. I say accidental because tactics require a combination of pieces to be in the right place at the right time. This means setting up a specific position which is generally beyond the scope of most beginners. Many beginners stumble onto tactical plays which helps solidify their belief that tactics are the primary key to chess success. However, tactical positions don’t simply appear out of nowhere. This is where strategic thinking comes into play.

Many chess students invest in training software programs that are a collection of tactical problems. While these programs help you to spot tactical opportunities and develop your board vision, which is a good thing, they don’t address a key issue. That issue is how tactical positions come about in the first place. It’s all well and good to be able to spot a tactical opportunity but unless you can create one from scratch while playing, it does you little good. This is one problem with purely tactical studies. Beginner’s spot tactical puzzle solutions but don’t know how the position was arrived at. This is where the study of strategy comes into play.

When beginners start playing chess they look for the big plays, such as fast checkmates and attacks that garner them substantial material. Its all about making moves that either win the game or win pieces. The beginner’s style of playing is based on clumsy brute force thinking. It takes time and practice to develop a more strategic way of playing. When beginners play one another, one often wins because one player stumbles upon a fork, for example, that allows them to win them a Rook or Queen. Their opponent suddenly feels as if they’ve lost a critical piece of material and continues the game as if waiting for the hangman to come and dispatch them from this mortal coil! I’ve seen many students lose a major piece (Rook or Queen) and subsequently lose their will to win. Tactical plays don’t simply appear magically. They require a combination of moves that are based on strategic principles. Without strategy, tactics would be impossible.

The beginner might think that strategy requires many years of carefully honing one’s chess skills, and they’d be right. However, this doesn’t mean that the beginner will not be able to employ tactics until they completely mastered the art of strategy. There are a few basic strategical ideas the beginner can employ to bring them one step closer to creating tactical plays. The most important idea the beginner must learn when walking the road towards tactical mastery is the idea of piece activity.

My students get their first introduction to piece activity when they learn the second of the three primary opening principles, developing your pieces during the opening. During the opening, beginners are taught to move or develop their minor pieces towards the board’s four central squares, d4, d5, e4 and e5 (the squares directly surrounding those four central squares are introduced in later lessons). Then the Rooks are connected by moving the Queen off of her starting rank (but not too far away). Beginners often decide that getting their four minor pieces developed towards the center and connecting their Rooks ends the piece activity phase of the game. They then start launching attacks and looking for, you guessed it, tactical plays such as forks, pins, skewers, etc. Disappointment soon follows because there are no tactical plays to be had (in most cases)!

Piece activity is critical and the greater your piece activity, the greater the opportunity for tactics. This means you have to think strategically or long term. Once you’ve developed your pieces during the opening, you should always be looking to improve a piece (or pawn’s) activity. Active squares are those that influence, control or nail down space in the center or on the opponent’s side of the board. If you control a greater number of squares on your opponent’s side of the board than he or she controls on your side of the board two things are going to happen. First, your opponent is going to have a difficult time safely getting his or her own pieces into the game and second, you’ll have a better chance of employing tactics. So, is piece activity the only key to the successful employment of tactics? No, you need to develop your ability to create combinations.

A combination in chess is a series of connected moves that lead to a positional set up. That positional set up allows you to execute tactical plays such as forks, pins, skewers, etc (or checkmate). When you look at a beginner’s tactical puzzle, which is often solved with a single move, you’re not seeing what lead up to that amazing fork or pin. You see the end result of a combination of moves that lead up to that winning tactical move. Combinations are difficult for beginners because the novice chess player is still looking only one move ahead. Worse yet, the beginner thinks they see a few moves ahead but what they’re really seeing is their move and the response they want their opponent to make. Then, when their opponent makes exactly the move our beginner wants them to make, our novice player hits them with a daring tactical move. “If I make this move and my opponent makes that move, I’ll be able to fork their King and Queen, winning the Queen.” It sounds great except for one slight problem. Your opponent isn’t going to simply make a bad move in order to allow you to win their Queen.

This is a case of wishful thinking and wishful thinking is a sure fire way to lose chess games. What the beginner needs to consider is the best possible move their opponent can make in response to their own move. I teach my students to consider their opponent’s move as if they were suddenly playing their opponent’s side of the board. Doing this allows you to find any flaws with your own potential moves, as well as avoiding the fallout of a bad blunder. Your opponent isn’t going to make it easy for you to win just like you’re not going to make it easy for your opponent to win!

Always think about your opponent’s best response before making a move. This will go a long towards helping you develop winning combinations. When trying to create a combination, define your goal, such as forking the opposition’s Rook and Queen. If employing a Knight fork, note where your Knight needs to be in order to fork those two pieces. Look at the square your Knight is currently on and ask yourself, how can I get the Knight to the square it needs to be one in order to execute the tactic? How many moves will it take to get to the target square? Consider that first move. After considering that move, determine the best possible response from your opponent. What would you do if you were playing as your opponent? After determining the best opposition response, and if your candidate move appears to be sound, consider the next move in your combination. Ask the same questions. If all seems sound then start the combination.

I know, I’m asking the beginner to do a lot of basic calculation and the novice player may not be able to successful anticipate the best opposition responses. However, employing this method of thinking, the beginner will improve and tactical skills will start to develop. While tactics are wonderful, you cannot employ them until you gain some strategical knowledge. Beginners should stick to two move combinations to start, only going for a tactical play if it can be executed within two moves, As they become more strategically experienced they can move on to three move combinations, etc. Chess requires hard work and for my beginning students, strategical thinking can be difficult. However, those that put in the effort are rewarded tenfold. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Kirk Versus Spock

Being a life long Star Trek fan, the passing of Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) hit me hard. My band’s long time drummer posted a video clip of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock playing chess on my Facebook page yesterday. Spock announces he will checkmate Kirk on the next move. Well, it’s Kirk’s move and the Captain checkmates Spock. Spock wasn’t very happy, although he had to keep up his Vulcan appearance and avoid any display of emotion. This scene got me to thinking about two very distinct chess types, the player who employs sound logic (Spock) and the player who takes chances (Kirk). What if Spock went back in time and played Paul Morphy. Would the logical playing style of Mr. Spock beat out the swashbuckling and daring of Morphy? I’ll answer this question later.

On Star Trek, Captain Kirk is the taker of great chances while Mr. Spock is the voice of pure reason and logic. When we learn how to play chess, we’re taught sound logical principles, principles that Mr. Spock would approve of. He’d approve of these principles because they have been tested over time and have proven to be sound in nature. We all learn opening principles such as moving a pawn to a central square on move one, developing minor pieces to active, centralized squares and castling our King to safety. Mr. Spock would approve of these principles because they’re logical and sound.

Then there are the opening principles that guide us regarding what not to do. Don’t make too many pawn moves, don’t bring your Queen out early and don’t move the same piece twice before developing the majority of your other pieces. Here’s where Captain Kirk comes into play. Mr. Spock would logically reason that bringing the Queen out early would allow his opponent to develop pieces to active squares while attacking his exposed Queen, forcing that Queen to keep moving at the cost of proper development. Spock would be correct from a logical standpoint. However, our swashbuckling Captain might be able to create some threats by bringing his Queen out early against a less skilled opponent. In the end, logic wins out because bringing your Queen out early only works against the weakest of opponents.

What about not moving the same piece twice before developing your other forces? Here things get a bit murky. Mr. Spock would calmly follow this principle, carefully and thoughtfully developing a new piece with each move. Captain Kirk, on the other hand, might consider moving a piece twice during the opening if it meant he could launch an attack. After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Nf6, our daring Captain (manning the White pieces) might play 4. Ng5, moving his King-side Knight a second time. While this goes against the logic of the principle, it does create a problem for Mr. Spock (manning the Black pieces). The c4 Bishop and g5 Knight are both attacking the f7 pawn who is only protected by the King. Mr. Spock would calmly play 4…d5 and the game would go on with the good Captain having to reevaluate his early attack. Seems simple enough. What would happen if, in another game, Mr. Spock found one of his minor pieces attacked by a pawn in the opening? Remember, Mr. Spock follows the opening principles to the letter. He’d now be faced with having to move a piece twice during the opening. Would he do it? Yes, because he would compare the value of the pawn to that of the minor piece and conclude that it would be better to bend an opening principle as opposed to losing a valuable piece.

Mr. Spock would look at opposition moves, no matter how illogical they seemed, with a watchful eye. However, his adherence to logic might cause him to dismiss an illogical move as a mere human blunder. Of course, the Captain would be likely to make a seemingly illogical move if he could launch an attack with it. It is just this kind of move that throws many beginners off, the seemingly illogical placement of a pawn or piece.

The beginner who is serious about chess follows the game’s principles as if their life depends on it. They become Spock-like in their thinking which is good up to a point. They think that if they’re employing sound game principles so should their opponent. If their opponent makes a seemingly illogical move, the beginner will dismiss it as a blunder rather than looking at the move to determine whether it has real merit. This dismissive thinking is the driving force behind the success of many opening traps. The trap’s victim often sees the moves leading up to a trap as unsound or unprincipled. Mr. Spock might very well dismiss this type of move as illogical and therefore harmless. Captain Kirk would look at a seemingly illogical move with suspicion because he isn’t as driven by pure logic as Mr. Spock. No matter what your opponent’s move, be it logical or illogical, you have to carefully examine that move from your opponent’s perspective to determine it’s merits.

Captain Kirk is an attacking player, going in for the kill as soon as possible, meaning he takes chances. But does he really take chances? Not so much a case of taking chances but playing aggressively. While Spock might be more comfortable building up a strong defensive position, Captain Kirk likes to go into battle with both guns blazing. Beginners should learn to do both. However, the beginner should start by learning the art of attack. Activate your pieces early on and, when you have more attackers than defenders, and attacking won’t weaken your position, be Captain Kirk. Attack! I suspect Spock would also launch an attack with more attackers than defenders with the prospect of weakening his opponent’s position while strengthening his. He’d say it was the logical thing to do!

The point here is that playing good chess requires being able to balance principled play with the ability to think outside of the box, the box being the game’s principles. Kirk did a great job thinking outside of the box when he cracked the Kobayashi Maru, a supposedly unbeatable Starfleet Academy training exercise. Had he only employed principles in his thinking he’d never have succeeded. A good chess player has to be both Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. As for Mr. Spock and Paul Morphy going head to head on the chessboard, I suspect it would close but in the end Morphy would probably get the best of “that pointy eared Vulcan.” Live long and prosper. For any non Star Trek fans reading this, I promise I won’t mention Star Trek again for at least a year. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Weak Squares

If you ever have a desire to create an instantaneous atmosphere of depression in a room full of eager chess students, say the following: “No matter how good a move seems, there is always a negative side to that move that has the potential to undermine your position.” That will instantly wipe the smiles off their collective faces, leaving you with a room full of students demanding to know how this could be possible. My students tend to groan after hearing such a statement but give it careful thought because they’ve seen a few of my lecture games in which this very idea occurs. If I was new to chess, I might wring my hands in despair upon hearing such a statement and consider a career in checkers, but you should read further.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all moves will lead to dreadful positional problems. What it does mean is that you should examine the square you’re moving a pawn or piece off of before examining the square that pawn or piece is about to occupy.

A chess move can be likened to a coin, which obviously has two sides. When we pick up a coin, we examine both sides if for no other reason than to see what is etched on either face. If beginners would only take this approach when considering a move! The beginner tends to look only at the square the pawn or piece is moving to which can lead to positional problems. Even if the beginner carefully examines the square a piece is about to move to, taking into consideration possible opposition attacks against that piece, noting if the piece will increase it’s activity or seeing a potential capture or increase of attacking possibilities, they still ignore a key factor. That key factor is the weakness created upon moving that piece from the square it was on, the square you leave behind. This applies to both pawns and pieces.

One idea I teach my students early on is that you shouldn’t capture material if doing so weakens your position. The employment of this concept alone will go a long way towards improving your game. By capturing not for the sake of capturing but to increase the strength of your position, you avoid creating weaknesses within that position, but it isn’t enough. You have to take another step and that step is to carefully examine the square you leave behind when making any move.

I first became aware of “the square you leave behind” concept while watching a DVD by Grandmaster Maurice Ashley. When he discussed this concept I was honestly shocked because I realized that I was paying more attention to the square I was moving to and almost no attention to the square I moved from. The square you leave behind is the square vacated by a pawn or piece when you make a move. Even though I’m a full time chess teacher and coach, I’ll forever be a student of the game and this astounding idea of the square you leave behind left me feeling as if I’d been punched in the stomach. How could I miss this concept in my own training? Needless to say, I took note and started employing Grandmaster Maurice Ashley’s method of looking at a potential move. Here’s how you can employ this method: When considering a move, you obviously want to look at your opponent’s pawns and pieces to see if they control the square you want to occupy. If the square is controlled by opposition pawns and/or pieces, do you have a greater number of pawns and/or pieces also controlling that square? If you have a larger number of forces controlling the target square, next consider how moving to that square will affect your position. This is where it is absolutely critical to look at the square you’re leaving behind, the square that will be vacated by you pawn or piece when it moves. Take a look at the example below.

After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Nd4, Black has moved the same piece twice during the opening phase of the game. This is something beginners are taught not to do, moving the same piece twice before developing the majority of their material during the opening. Remember, the opening is a race to see who gets control of the board’s center first. The beginner playing the White pieces sees that the pawn on e5 is hanging and his Knight on f3 is under attack by Black’s d5 Knight. The beginner weighs his or her options and decides to preserve the King-side Knight by capturing the undefended e5 pawn. Not once, did the beginner consider the square the White Knight gives up, f3. After White plays 4. Nxe5, Black plays 4…Qg5, forking the Knight on e5 and the pawn on g2. By moving the Knight off of the f3 square, White has weakened the position greatly. The person playing White should have considered the square left behind, f3, and the squares defended by the Knight on f3, the h4 and g5 squares. Always consider the square you leave behind before considering the square you’re moving to. Take a look at the next example from a student game (both beginners).

Here, White plays the King’s Gambit, 1. e4…e5, 2. f4. Rather than accepting the gambit with 2…exf4 (followed by 3. Nf3), Black plays 2…Bc5. White plays 3. d3 (allowing the Bishop on c1 to defend the pawn on f4 – dreadful business), failing to notice the weakness on f2. When discussing this weakness with my beginning students, they often comment that there are no pawns or pieces on f2 so what is the weakness? A pawn on f2 forms a wall with the pawns on g2 and h2 that help protect the White King when castling on the King-side. That pawn, once on f2, is now on f4. Furthermore, the Bishop on c5 is controlling the f2 square and more importantly, the g1 square. White will not be able to castle on the King-side, since you cannot castle into check, as long as the Black Bishop remains on c5. Again, we must look at the square we leave behind when considering a move. Of course, that Bishop can be dislodged from c5 but that requires additional work on the part of the person playing White which means expending additional moves to do so (a loss in tempo). This example is extremely simplified but the idea behind it still remains true, examine the square you leave behind before making a move.

Of course, there are times when you have to move a pawn or piece and doing so will weaken your position to varying degrees. You will find a downside to any move you make. However, you can minimize that downside by weighing the positive and negative aspects of that move and determining whether the positive outweighs the negative. Just carefully examining the square left behind will go a long way towards helping you avoid the positional nightmare that comes from only looking at one side of the coin. Yes, a chess move is like a coin in that it has two sides. You must look at both. In chess, looking at the square you abandon with a critical eye will before examining the square you’re going to will help you avoid heartache and checkmate! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. See if you can find any weak squares left behind!

Hugh Patterson

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Burn’s Right

“He who combinates is lost.” I have a vague memory, many years ago, of seeing this attributed to Amos Burn, but have never been able to track it down. Google only comes up with an old Addicts’ Corner column on a very old Richmond Junior Club website, which, for some reason, still exists out there in cyberspace, in which we asked for help on this subject.

As someone who has never been very good at combinating this has always had a lot of resonance for me. My experience is that more games are lost by unsound than are won by sound combinations and sacrifices. And then there are all the combinations and sacrifices you consider and, usually correctly, reject.

As teachers and writers, though, we like to demonstrate games which are won by brilliant combinations. There are all sorts of valid reasons why we should do this, but, at the same time, kids often get the wrong idea of chess: that all sacrifices work and that making sacrifices is the usual way to win a game. Therefore they often go round making random sacrifices without having worked anything out.

There are essentially two types of sacrifice. We might sacrifice because we’ve calculated that we can force checkmate or win back the sacrificed material, probably with interest. If we’ve miscalculated, though, we’ll just find ourselves behind on material and looking foolish.

We might also make a positional sacrifice, giving up material because using our judgement and experience, we believe the strong position we get in return is more than worth the material investment. To play the first type of sacrifice just involves the ability to calculate, but positional sacrifices require more abstract considerations, which are difficult for young children.

When Morphy was playing the Aristocratic Allies in the Opera House he made a positional sacrifice of a knight for two pawns to gain a strong position, and he was entirely justified in doing so. At the end of the game he sacrificed his queen because he had performed an accurate calculation and worked out that by doing so he would force checkmate.

Let’s see what happened to a few guys who got it wrong.

Our first example shows an unsound positional sacrifice. Black, observing that White had left his king in the centre and advanced some king-side pawns, decided to play a random sacrifice of a bishop for two pawns on g4. It didn’t work out well for him, though, and, although White didn’t play optimally and he had some drawing chances at one point, he eventually lost the game some 50 moves later. Don’t try this at home, kids. if you go round doing this sort of thing you’ll lose far more games than you’ll win.

In this position White saw the opportunity for a rook sacrifice leading to checkmate and played 1. Rd7 Qxd7 2. f6, hoping that Black wouldn’t be able to find a defence to Rg7+. But he was mistaken as Black had two ways to meet the threat. He could just have played Rxf6, returning the rook, when White has no mate and the black a-pawn will soon decide the game in his favour. Instead he played 2… Qd1+ 3. Qxd1 Kxg6, which was even better. He now had two rooks for his queen, White had no attack at all, and his a-pawn was going through. White’s rook sacrifice just made him look extremely foolish. This is what happens if you miscalculate. Get it right. Every time.

In our final example White had already made a random rook sacrifice to reach a totally wild position. He should have tried Bd2, which would have given him some practical chances but instead sacrificed another piece with 1. Ng6 Nxg6 2. Qxf5, hoping that Black wouldn’t be able to meet the threats to his knight and king. But again he’d failed to calculate accurately and after 2… Ne7 3. Qf7+ Kd8 Black’s king was perfectly safe and White had nothing to show for his missing pieces.

I’ll repeat this again and again, kids. You really have to learn to calculate accurately if you want to be good at chess. You can’t just make random sacrifices and hope for the best.

I think you’ll agree that the three losers in these games played pretty badly. But who were they? Were the games played in some fairly low level junior tournament, or in one of the lower sections of a weekend congress?

Far from it. If you follow top level chess you’ll probably have recognised the positions. They all came from rounds 3 and 4 of the recently concluded Grenke Chess Classic played in Baden Baden, Germany. The first example was World Champion Magnus Carlsen losing to Arkadij Naiditsch after punting a rather dubious positional sacrifice. The second example saw Carlsen the beneficiary of a miscalculation by former World Champion Vishy Anand, who, to be fair, had probably switched to desperation mode after losing his a-pawn while trying to build up a king-side attack. The third example was played by the only slightly less stellar David Baramidze, who, rated a long way below the other competitors, decided to go for broke and went wrong in an extremely complex position giving Naiditsch another victory.

If players of that level can misjudge or miscalculate perhaps Amos was right and he who combinates, more often than not, is lost. Or maybe chess is just too hard for mere humans. But let’s get the right message across to our pupils: 90% of the time that sacrifice you’re considering is really not going to work.

Richard James

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