Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Black Belt Chess

You will be aware that, if you’re a practitioner of martial arts, you will be able to earn different coloured belts depending on your level of skill. If you’re learning a musical instrument you’ll be able to take grade exams at various levels. I’ve spoken to children who take part in other activities such as gymnastics and drama, who have told me about similar systems. Yet there’s nothing comparable in chess. Why not?

Yes, we have both national and international rating systems. We have titles for strong players: Grandmaster, International Master, FIDE Master and so on. But there’s an enormous gap between social players and serious competitive players. I believe such a scheme would provide encouragement for more people, adults as well as children, to take chess seriously. It wouldn’t be very stressful because you’d only take the test when you were ready to do so: in fact it would be a lot less stressful than playing, and would ensure that no one took part in competitions before they were ready.

Here in the UK we have two competing national systems, but not many people, to the best of my knowledge, take either of them. I’ve encountered parents, though, whose children have passed with merit or distinction but are still not sure of the castling rules. It’s not surprising they’re deluded as to how well their children play chess. Such schemes need to be serious and rigorous – and there has to be a significant reason and a significant reward for following them.

I’ve seen other local schemes as well but haven’t been impressed. If you’re devising an examination you have to be clear exactly what you want to test and ensure that you’re not actually testing something different. If you can pass the exam by memorising the course book, your exam is testing memory rather than knowledge or skill. If you expect examinees to write an essay you’re, to a certain extent, testing English and essay writing skills, which may cause problems for students with dyslexia, or those whose first language is not English, as well as favouring older rather than younger children.

My view is that the most significant indicator and predictor of chess skills is the ability to solve tactical/calculation puzzles, and that the puzzles should be a mixture: not all of the ‘sac sac mate’ type. At the lowest level the puzzles will just test chessboard vision, but higher levels will expect students to look further and further ahead and solve more complicated positions. The test should be serious and rigorous, using pencil and paper rather than screen, with exam conditions enforced. You’d provide sample papers with answers and perhaps also a screen-based version for practice, to ensure that students are fully prepared and ready to take the test.

There are other aspects of chess, though, which are best tested one to one, rather than through a written test. So I’d include, if it was logistically possible, a short viva voce session. At the lowest level this might include checking that the students are familiar with the en passant rule, that they can checkmate with a king and queen against a king, and so on. At higher levels you might want to test opening understanding in this way, by getting them to play and explain the first few moves of the Queen’s Gambit, the Sicilian Najdorf or whatever, as well as ensuring they can win more difficult endings.

In my view we need to get away from purely competitive chess and encourage skills development, with players only taking part in competitions when they have the appropriate knowledge and skills. Within a club like Richmond Juniors we can do this to a certain extent, but it’s not easy within school chess clubs. The nature of chess requires that skills children learn within a chess club are reinforced at home, but if parents just see the school chess club as a childminding service which might also ‘make kids smarter’ they won’t remember very much of what we teach them.

How can we change the perception of how junior chess should be run so that we improve standards and ensure that more children continue their interest in chess beyond primary school? That is the million dollar question, and I think perhaps setting up a scheme such as this might help. It has to be compulsory rather than optional, though, at least if you want to take part in competitions. You might want to open it to players of all ages and perhaps encourage parents to join in.

If you’re interested in setting up something along these lines, either nationally or internationally, please let me know.

Richard James

The Value of the Pawns and Pieces

I’m currently writing a chess book for beginners and thought I’d give you a sample from that book regarding the value of the pawns and pieces. This article is based on discussions I’ve had with my students over the years regarding this topic and is based on those conversations. Knowing how much the individual members of your army are worth helps you make good decisions regarding the exchange of material as well as the order in which to bring your forces into play.

To denote the importance of the pawns and pieces in terms of power, we assign a relative value to them. We use the term relative rather than absolute because the term absolute indicates that the value is unchanging. The term relative tells us that this value is approximate and might change slightly depending on circumstances within the game. We’ll explore that later on. For now, let’s concentrate on the initial relative value of the pawns and pieces. Again, we’ll discuss possible value changes later on. We’ll start with the pawn.

The pawn has a relative value of one. I teach students to think of the relative value of the pawns and pieces in terms of money. Since most of us, both young and old alike, can better understand valuation when we think in terms of money, making the pawns and pieces worth a dollar amount makes understanding their value much easier. This monetary understanding also makes it easier to determine whether or not to trade or exchange material (pawns and pieces). Using our money analogy, the pawn is worth $1.00. Beginners tend to think of the pawn as somewhat worthless since they have the lowest relative value and each player starts the game with eight of them. While the pawn does have the lowest relative value when compared to the pieces (we don’t refer to pawns as pieces but as pawns) it has the ability to promote into a Queen, Rook, Knight or Bishop when it reaches its promotion square on the other side of the board. This means its value will change upon promotion, increasing from $1.00. Because pawns are worth less than the Knight, Bishop, Rook and Queen, they can prevent these pieces from occupying squares the pawn controls. Remember, just because the pawn has the lowest relative value doesn’t mean it has less value in terms of what it can do. The reason the pawn has a low relative value has to do with its slow or limited movement and its limited control of squares on the board (it can only attack or control the adjacent diagonal squares in front of it. Now let’s look at the minor pieces.

We’ll start with the Knight. The Knight has a relative value of three ($3.00). Because the Knight can move a bit further and control a greater number of squares than the pawn, its value is greater. Knights are the only piece that have the ability to jump over other pieces (and pawns). If the chessboard has a lot of pawns and pieces in play or off of their starting squares, pieces such as the Bishops, Rooks and Queen will have trouble moving around. However, the Knight, due to its ability to jump over pawns and pieces, will have greater freedom of movement and is worth slightly more than $3.00 in such a situation. Now let’s look at the other minor piece, the Bishop.

The Bishop also has a relative value of three ($3.00). However, unlike the Knight, the Bishop is a long distance attacker. Therefore, when the board has few pieces in play or open diagonals (devoid of pawns and pieces), the Bishop has a slightly higher relative value than the Knight. Why do the Knight and Bishop share the same value, after all they have very different ways of moving? While the Knight has the ability to jump over other pieces, it’s range is short. Because of the way in which it moves (an “L” shape), getting to an adjacent square can take a number moves. While the Bishop can control great distances along the diagonals, it is tied down to a specific color square, which is why you have two of them. Both minor pieces have limits to their power and this is reflected in their relative value. Now to the major pieces, the Rook and Queen, starting with the Rook.

The Rook has a relative value of five or $5.00. Like the Bishop, the Rook is a long distance attacker, able to control a greater number of squares than the minor pieces or pawns. The Bishop is also a long distance attacker so why is it worth less than the Rook? Bishops are tied down to a single color square for movement. Thus, the Bishop that starts on a light square can only move along and control light squares while the Bishop that starts on a dark square can only move along and control dark squares. A light squared Bishop has no control over enemy pawns and pieces sitting on dark squares. On the flip-side, a dark squared Bishop has no control over enemy pawns and pieces positioned on light squares. The Rook, because he can freely move along the ranks and files, controls both light and dark squares. This is why he’s worth more that the Bishop.

The Queen has a relative value of nine or $9.00. Why so much? Because she can move like both the Bishop and Rook, giving her the ability to control or attack more squares than any other piece. She moves along the ranks, files or diagonals. This ability to travel along the ranks, files or diagonals makes her extremely powerful. She can control a large number of squares from a single location (square). You should respect this great power and not bring her into the game too early. If you do, she’ll become a target for enemy pieces of lesser value. What about the King? If he’s the most valuable piece in the game, he must be worth a great deal.

The King is priceless because if the King becomes trapped (remember you cannot capture the King is chess) the game ends in checkmate and the player whose King is trapped loses. I do give my students a dollar value for the King to emphasize his importance and that dollar figure is $197,635! This drives home the point that the King is worth a great deal! The reason we can’t really assign a realistic value to the King is because we have to protect him for the majority of the game, so early on he has no attacking value. If the King tries to engage in battle early on, he’ll end up being trapped by enemy pawns and pieces and the game will end in checkmate. However, once the majority of the pawns and pieces are off the board, the endgame (more on that later on in this book), the King can be an extremely valuable attacker and defender. However, always remember that the King needs to stay safe for the majority of the game.

There are two things to take away from this concept of relative value. The first has to do with capturing pawns and pieces. Playing chess requires you to capture your opponents pawns and pieces. You don’t have to capture them all but the more opposition pieces you capture, the harder it is for your opponent to attack your King. However, there’s more to capturing than simply trading one piece for another and this is due to their relative value. You want to make profitable exchanges of material. For example, if you traded your $9.00 Queen for a $3.00 Knight, would you profit from the exchange? Absolutely not! You’d be trading your most powerful major piece for a minor piece. Always try to exchange material if it’s profitable or the trade is even as in the case of trading a Knight for a Knight or a Knight for a Bishop (both having a relative value of three). While there are times when making seemingly bad trades works to your advantage because they lead to checkmate, stick to profitable or even trades for now.

The second thing to take away from this relative value system is that it provides an order in which to bring your forces into the battle. You start with the material (pawns and pieces) of lowest value being developed first followed by material of greater value. Thus, the order in which material enters that game is; pawns followed by the minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) followed by the Rooks and then the Queen. Of course, there are a few exceptions to this order but for now use this system when deciding on who to bring into the fight and when.

Well, there you have it, a brief introduction to the relative value system used in chess. Make sure you know it and always use it as guide when considering an exchange or trade of material as well as creating an order for bringing pawns and pieces into the game. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Avoiding Pressure

Let’s face it, we all have to deal with pressure. Whether at home, school or work, we’re all under some sort of pressure. Try as we may to avoid it, something always occurs that puts us under the gun, so to speak. While chess is wonderful way to exercise the mind, playing it can be stressful, especially during tournaments. Chess is a challenge in which two minds face off against one another and where the mind does battle so does the ego. When losing a game of chess, we often feel an emotional sting, perhaps the bruising of our ego? Add to this equation the idea that people generally like to win rather than lose and you create a recipe for pressure.

While pressure is a fact of life for nearly everyone and a little pressure can have positive effects, too much pressure can actually lead to health problems. The game of chess should be enjoyed whether you win, lose or draw. However, some people get really wound up before they play the game and it becomes a slightly nerve-racking experience. If you feel pressure before playing and that pressure is taking away from enjoying the game, read further for some tips on removing stress before playing.

Tip number one, and this should be apparent to everyone, be prepared! Be prepared to play. What do I mean by this? You need to be warmed up and in the zone. Before I play shows with my various bands, I spend a lot of time prior to those shows warming up. This means practicing. Sure, I could not practice and play songs I’ve played for years without making any mistakes. However, I might feel a little stress for not having warmed up. I might not play as well as I would had I practiced. Stress equals pressure. As for chess, if you’re about to play an important match, be it against a rival or at a tournament, you need to warm up. You have to play a lot of chess prior to that important game so that you’re in a strong mental state. Playing a lot of chess doesn’t mean playing as many games as humanly possible as quickly as possible. This is a matter of quality over quantity. It’s better to play ten games of chess in which you’re concentrating and making good moves than fifty games in which your simply playing as fast as you can which equates to less concentration and bad moves. If you have a few months before that important game or match, use than time to prepare yourself by simply playing chess.

Avoid suddenly changing your opening right before an important game or match. If you decide to change things up at the last minute, you’ll pay a dreadful price. Concentrate on what you already know. Consider variations against your opening that you haven’t already explored. By doing so, you’ll be less likely to freeze up when your opponent makes that unexpected move. If your opponent makes an opening move you were not prepared for, don’t panic. Use the opening principles to guide your decision making process. These principles will steer you in the right direction.

Another tip, get a lot of rest. Not just the night before your game or match but during the weeks leading up to it. If you stay up late and get up early, operating on little sleep, three weeks prior to the game or match and then decide to go to bed early the night before, you’ll gain no benefit. The effects of good sleeping habits are cumulative so you have to start resting up at least a month before your game or match. Getting a good night’s sleep also helps to reduce your stress levels. Think of your brain as an engine. If you try and run an engine twenty four hours a day, day after day, week after week, the engine will break down. Give your brain a break. This means not playing chess constantly but allotting a period of time each day for your practice. Too much playing will cause you to start losing focus. As I previously mentioned, you want to play lot of chess but it’s quality over quantity.

Of course, engines require fuel to run and so does your brain. Eat healthy and do so way in advance of your game or match. Eating healthily is also a cumulative process. If you live on junk food and then eat a bunch of fresh fruit and vegetables the night before your game or match, you’ll receive no benefits. Start eating healthy at least two weeks prior to the game or match. Avoid sugar based products because sugar will give you a sudden surge or energy that quickly goes away leaving you feeling tired. The same things goes for caffeine. I’m not saying give up coffee or tea (I wouldn’t). I’m saying to keep your caffeine intake to a minimum. The problem with caffeine is that it amps you up with artificial energy and what goes up must come down. You don’t want to suffer a caffeine crash in the middle of a chess game.

Probably the biggest stress reducer is exercise. It’s also the one thing most people don’t want to do. However, you don’t have to go to a gym and pump iron until you look like a body builder. Try taking walks which are an excellent way of getting the blood flowing. Your brain needs oxygen and that oxygen is carried in the blood stream. Walking gets the blood pumping to where you need it, namely the brain! Walking is a great way to relieve stress (unless you choose to walk in a demilitarized zone). Tai Chi is a great way to improve both body and mind. Try bicycling or anything that gets the blood flowing. Start exercising at least a month prior to playing.

So there are some tips for relieving the pressure of life and the pressure of chess. Chess can be stressful no matter how much you love the game. It’s a mental workout but it doesn’t have to be a stressful wokout. Speaking of workouts, here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

When to Take Lessons

The question is not should my child take chess lessons but when should the lessons start. The reason we’re seeing so many highly rated and talented young players has a great deal to with when they start studying under a qualified coach or instructor. Many professionals believe the target age for starting chess lessons is between five and eight years old. The reason for this has to do with a child’s ability to absorb information. However, we should explore this notion in greater detail. Young children tend to spend less time second guessing instructional information and are more open to accepting guidelines as fact. I know this seems counter intuitive to the way children think, exploring ideas by testing them, but in the right hands (a good teacher), young children will absorb the information with little intellectual resistance which develops good habits from the start.

Many parents will have a chess coach or teacher handle the entire process, meaning the coach or teacher teaches the rules of the game. As much as I’d enjoy collecting a high hourly wage for explaining the rules, I tell parents not to waste their hard earned money on something they can do on their own. Thus, parents should teach their children the rules of the game before starting them with a coach or teacher. Parents should keep their expectations low, meaning they should set realistic goals such as the child simply being able to move the pieces correctly. Too many parents jump into specific game principles before their child has a basic command of pawn and piece movement which is frustrating for both child and parent alike. Children learn at different speeds so patience is an absolute must. Just because your child’s friend learned to correctly move the pawns and pieces very quickly, doesn’t mean your child will do likewise. It also doesn’t mean your child isn’t going to be a good chess player. He or she make just take a bit longer to catch up. On the flip side, just because your child picks the rules up quickly doesn’t mean he or she will be the next Magnus Carlsen. Take your time and set small realistic goals. Make it fun by telling stories about each piece and define the piece’s special way of moving as the piece’s super power (as if that piece was a comic book hero). If it isn’t fun, your child will be less likely to enjoy the game. If you’re new to chess, pick up a copy of Richard James’ book, The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids.

As for which person to choose for your child, coach or teacher, go with a teacher because there’s a difference. Coaches tend to work with children who already play chess and play it well. Coaches have to prepare their students for tournaments which means they have to cover a lot of conceptual ground and quickly. They often don’t have the patience needed to work with an absolute beginner. Teachers, on the other hand, have more patience and specialize in the basics. Choose a teacher over a coach unless your candidate does both. Finding one depends on your location. If you’re in a big city or near one, you can generally find a chess club. Many schools offer after school chess programs. The important thing is to find someone who works well with kids. Why? Because kids require a teaching program that is on par with their intellectual level. A good chess teacher needs to explain complex ideas employing simple analogies. A teacher who speaks as if presenting a dissertation on particle physics to a room full of rocket scientists is probably going to sound as if they’re speaking ancient Sanskrit to your child. Teachers who specialize in teaching chess to children know how to simplify explanations and more importantly, make those explanations fun.

Of course, there are a lot of people who fancy themselves chess teachers but in reality couldn’t teach well if their life depended on it. Therefore, interview the teacher. Better yet, ask them to define a chess concept for you. See if their explanation makes sense, not only to you but your child. Is that explanation suitable for a child? Remember, you’re hiring this person as a teacher so they better be able to teach. Put them on the spot, After all, you’re paying them for a service. Another good source for finding chess teachers is on college campuses. Put up a flier in the mathematics and science departments (not the music department or you’ll get a roguish character such as myself). College students are generally excited and passionate and this will translate to passionate teaching. Some of the most passionate chess teachers we have at Academic Chess are college students and the kids love them!

You should start your child off learning chess at a young age but the younger the age, the more patient you’ll have to be. As your child gets older, they’ll be more apt to question everything. While there’s nothing wrong with this, in fact I tell my students that questioning everything is their youthful job, it can make the learning process a bit slower. However, there is no age maximum for learning chess. While we’re on the subject of questioning things, there’s nothing wrong with this idea. In fact, most children who learn the game even at an early age will question why they should do something, such as following the opening principles. Let them ignore those principles because they’ll quickly learn via experience that the principles do work. Again, it comes down to being patient. Start your child off young, be patient and let them learn at their own pace. After they learn the game’s rules, hand over the job of teaching to a professional but be proactive. Ask your child what he or she learned during their chess lesson. Have them explain it to you. You’ll know if the teacher is earning his or her keep and if your child is progressing by your child’s response. Don’t be afraid to switch teachers if your current teacher isn’t working out. It’s not a marriage, it’s a paid position! Speaking of positions, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

How Beginners Can Avoid Opening Traps

The best way to play against traps is to know them, but that is not possible every time. The second best way is to check the consequences when you have been offered some bait and check the variations in details. This requires good calculation skills and beginners or kids might not have this. Don’t worry as there is one more way to avoid them, and that is to use soft reasoning.

First of all, most of the opening tricks and traps are based on the key opening principle of fast development. For example Legal’s mate involves a queen sacrifice (the bait) and White checkmates with three minor pieces against Black’s only developed piece, the light square bishop on d1. My point is that even if you are not able to calculate thoroughly you can use this sort of soft reasoning to avoid such pitfalls.

Here is an example from real game of mine. My opponent was a 2100+ rated player and had the White pieces.

1. e4 d5
2. exd5 Nf6
3. d4 Nxd5
4. c4 Nb4 ?!

By playing Nb4 on move no 4. I invited White to win a piece with 5. Qa4+ Nac6 6.d5. This is a very cunning trap and my opponent played a3 instead, which is the best move and gained a good center. Later on I asked him whether the trap was known to him and to my surprise he didn’t know it, but he simply rejected the trap based on following reasoning:

White’s only developed piece would be the queen compared to two knights (knights on b4 and c6 after Qa4+) and if he tries to win a piece with pawn to d5 Black can develop a third piece. So he simply rejected Qa4 and smelled something was not right.

Ashvin Chauhan

Space, The Crucial Frontier

Space is a critical factor in chess, both the space your forces have to move through and the space those forces control. Simply put, the more space you control, the less space your opponent has which means they’ll have trouble launching meaningful attacks. At the the start of the game, the opening, both players engage in a space race to see who can control the board’s center first. As we move towards the middle game, more astute players continue to activate their pawns and pieces so that they control more space and/or specific squares. Beginners, on the other hand (due to a lack of experience) tend to stop their quest for spacial control as soon as they’ve fulfilled the basic opening principles regarding controlling the board’s center with a pawn (or two), developing their minor pieces towards the center and castling. More often than not, they start attacking immediately after finishing what they think of as the opening which usually leads to disaster. If the beginner continued the development of his or her forces before attacking, the results would be more favorable. They miss the transitional phase that allows them to gain an advantage in the middle game, namely the continued acquisition of space.

During the opening, you have to develop your forces towards the board’s central squares. However, you have to make sure you don’t block in your pawns and especially your pieces while doing so. Of course, you’ll block the c2 pawn in when your develop your white Queen-side Knight to c3. Some blockage cannot be helped. More often than not, there’s a trade off to every move. Developing the Knight to c3 is a solid move during the opening but the trade off is the blocked c2 pawn. Of course, developing the Knight is more crucial than developing the c2 pawn in many openings so the trade off is minimal. On the other hand, moving the white f1 Bishop to d3 while there’s still a pawn on d2 creates a traffic jam that hems in the c1 Bishop. In this case, the developing move does more harm than good. Beginners must learn to develop their pawns and especially their pieces in a manner that minimizes the blocking in of other material.

What separates advanced players from beginners is the more experienced player’s ability to keep developing their pawns and pieces after the opening is finished. This is a lesson beginners need to embrace. Just because you’ve developed your minor pieces towards the center on each of those minor piece’s first move doesn’t mean they can’t be further developed. Always consider further development before attacking. Once you’ve optimized your pieces on their most active squares, those squares that allow greater control of the board, then you can consider attacking. Beginners sometimes think controlling territory on the boards means squares on their side of the board. While you want to protect your side of the board, it’s more important to control your opponent’s side of the board. Why? Because if you control key squares on the opposition side of the board, it’s going to be difficult for them to launch any attacks without paying a material price. Therefore, develop your pieces in a manner that allows them to control squares on your opponent’s side of the board. As for your side of the board, this is where pawns come in handy.

Pawns have the lowest relative value which means they can keep the pieces off of specific squares because no one really wants to trade a piece for a pawn (unless it leads to checkmate of course). Therefore, you can use your pawns to protect key squares on your side of the board. With that said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you shouldn’t go crazy and make too many pawn moves. You just want to make pawn moves that protect specific squares your opponent can exploit. The classic example is stopping the black Queen-side Bishop (c8 square) from pinning the white Knight on f3 to the white Queen on d1. Moving the h2 pawn to h3 prior to the pin can stop the Bishop dead in his tracks. Just keep in mind that the trade off is an opening on the now vacated h2 square. There’s a trade off with every move.

Always try to maintain pawn chains when using pawns to control space. Pawns are better suited for the job of protecting pawns. Using a piece to protect a pawn early in the game means that piece is not being used to control space. It’s as if it isn’t in the game. Always try to create and maintain good pawn structure when using pawns for defending your side of the board. If protecting a key square with a pawn means having to use a piece to protect that pawn, consider another option.

Connect your Rooks! Too many beginners let their Rooks sit dormant throughout the game. Going into and through the middle-game, Rooks can be extremely useful for supporting pawns and pieces. While I previously mentioned that you shouldn’t tie a piece down to a pawn’s defense, it’s perfectly fine for a Rook to serve this role. Why? Because we normally make our Rooks more active much later in the game. However, you have to get your Rooks out of their respective corners. This is another good reason to castle. To connect your Rooks, simply move the Queen up (or down for black) one rank. It should be noted that Rooks are connected when their starting rank is free of other pieces so develop those minor pieces early.

The control of space is the precursor to a solid attack. When you control space on your opponent’s side of the board, you make their positional life difficult. You force them to pay a price (material loss) in order to make inroads towards your King. Always ask yourself, do I have my pawns and pieces on their most active squares, before considering an attack. Of course, if your opponent’s position has a real weakness you can exploit with an early attack, take advantage of it. However, it’s better to carefully build up your forces before sending them into battle. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

The Order of Battle

In chess, as in warfare, there’s an order in which you send your forces onto the battlefield. Modern battles tend to start with ground troops, otherwise known as the infantry. Thankfully, you don’t see armies starting battles with their biggest weapons, nuclear missiles. If they did, I wouldn’t be writing this article and you wouldn’t be reading it because our lives would have been ended with the first nuclear strike. While war usually ends up being an exercise in chaos and carnage, it tends to start with a methodical plan. First into battle, the foot soldiers, followed by artillery, followed by armored vehicles, then bombs and so on. The same should hold true in chess. Yet beginners tend to think “why waste all those resources when I can drop a bomb, in the form of bringing their Queen out early, and end the war with a quick victory.” It may sound great in theory (to the beginning player), but in reality, the battle typically ends with the beginner no longer having his or her most powerful attacking piece in the game. To teach my students thew correct order in which to bring out their forces on the chessboard, I simply point out a few things regarding the placement of the pawns and pieces.

The starting position of the pawns and pieces dictates the order in which members of the army enter the battle. Also contributing to this order is the relative value of the pawns and pieces. With the exception of the Knights, which can enter the game immediately due to their ability to jump over any material in their way, pawns have to be moved in order to get the majority of the pieces into the action. Pawns have the lowest relative value and therefore can keep an opposition piece off of a specific square because of higher value of the pieces. Fortunately, beginners quickly learn to move pawns first in order to get their pieces into the game. However, they often make too many pawn moves, either thinking that it’s safer to use the least valuable members of their army which are also more plentiful or they’re not comfortable with the movement of the pieces so they resort to pawns. I tell my students that bringing too many pawns into the game when your opponent is moving stronger pieces onto the board is akin to sending out foot soldiers with sticks to fight off armored tanks. It simply won’t work. You have to have some force behind your foot soldiers. So who do we use for this force?

Young beginners are infatuated with the Rooks and the Queen. They tend to think of both as super powered weapons. The problem with trying to bring out the Rooks early is that the beginner will move the “a” or “h” pawns two squares forward, then move the Rook two squares forward, planning to aim the Rook at the enemy King along the “e” file after moving the Rook again towards this central file. Sadly, either the opposition ignores the flank activity and builds up a strong center, capturing the Rook soon after, or they capture the Rook with a Bishop after developing a centralized pawn. Either way the power hungry beginner loses a Rook, a lot of tempo and the right to castle on one side of the board. Then there’s the Queen. Since the Queen combines the power of the Rook and Bishop, she’s a nuclear missile in the eyes of the beginner. Why fight a long war, muses the beginner, when I can aim a missile at my opponent and end it quickly? The problem with bringing the Queen out early is twofold. First, your opponent can nicely develop their forces while chasing your Queen around the board. All you have to show for your troubles is a running Queen while your opponent has complete control of the board’s center. The second problem is that you King is unsafe because you haven’t been able to castle due to the attacks on your Queen.

I point out to my students that it makes much more sense to develop the Knights and Bishops before the Rooks and Queen. When the Knights are developed initially to the “c” and “f” files they’re controlling the board’s center squares and bringing you one step closer to castling. Developing the Bishops towards the central squares helps lock down your control of this key area as well as bringing you closer to castling. Think of the Knights and Bishops as support artillery for your ground troops, the pawns. In battle, artillery is used to both gain greater control of the battlefield, repel the enemy and support the soldiers on the ground (the pawns). The minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) are well suited to this task.

Of course, when you develop your minor pieces on the King-side, for example, you can then castle. While castling is designed to place your King in a safety net of pawns and pieces, it does something equally important, getting one of your Rooks out of the corner. While I advised against bringing the Rook into the game early, you don’t want to leave it stuck in the corner where it does absolutely nothing. After castling, a Rook can then move over to the “e” file and stare down the un-castled enemy King at the other end of the “e” file. Rooks like to sit on open and half open files during the game. Think of them as a battleship that can hurl huge shells at the enemy from a long distance.

Lastly, there’s the Queen. She’s best left alone until later in the game when there are fewer Knights and Bishops around to go after her. Of course, one early move you can make with the Queen is to move her up (or down in the case of black) one rank so your Rooks are connected. This isn’t bringing your Queen out early and will give your Rooks more freedom.

The easiest way to remember the order in which pawns and pieces enter the game is by considering the relative value of the pieces, starting from low to high. Pawns have the least relative value (one) so they’re first into the fray. Knights and Bishops, both having a relative value of three come next. Rooks have a relative value of five so they come after the Knights and Bishops. However, this means making them more active not throwing them into the actual battle (save that for the endgame). Lastly comes the Queen who have a relative value of nine. Try to keep her around for a checkmating attempt when you head towards the endgame. Moving her up a rank is fine, just don’t drag her out onto the board during the opening. When in doubt, use the relative value of the pawns and pieces as your deployment guide. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Elitism in Junior Chess

In an article in the November British Chess Magazine, GM Aleksandar Colovic bemoans the declining standards in junior chess.

Colovic starts by considering various projects involved with putting chess on the curriculum in schools. I share his reservations about this, but not for the same reasons.

“…there is one thing”, says Colovic, “that bothers me. … “It is the fact that all these activities are not aimed at producing the next Garry Kasparov or Judit Polgar. … Chess is seen as part of a person’s culture, not as a possible future profession.”

This is where I have a problem. Junior chess has, over the past 30 years or so, become increasingly elitist, and this attitude is one of the reasons for this. In my view the main purpose of any competition-based junior chess programme should not be to produce professional chess players, but to develop chess culture and produce hobby players with a lifelong passion for chess. Specifically, it should be to maximise the number of young people reaching, say, 1500 strength, not to maximise the number of young people reaching 2500 strength. I like to consider the chess playing population as a pyramid. At the top you get the likes of Garry Kasparov and Judit Polgar, Magnus Carlsen and Hou Yifan. As you go down you get grandmasters, international masters, national masters, down to the mass of 1500 strength (or below) players at the bottom. Unless there are amateur hobby players putting their time and money into chess the whole edifice will collapse.

Hobby players are just as important as professional players. They put money into chess: they join clubs, enter competitions, subscribe to online chess sites, buy boards, sets, clocks, books, software and DVDs. They take lessons with professionals, either online or in person. They put time into chess as well. They become club secretaries, treasurers, match captains, administrators, tournament organisers, arbiters. They pass on their passion for chess to their children. Perhaps they volunteer as teachers in their chess club or their children’s school. Some of them will develop an interest in other aspects of chess such as problems and endgame studies. Some will collect chess books or chess sets. Some will become chess historians. Some, if they’re financially successful in their career, will become chess benefactors, sponsoring events which will enable the professionals to earn a living. Without a strong base of hobby players there will be no market for professionals.

I believe we have our priorities totally wrong. We should be measuring teachers’ success, not by the ratings of their pupils, but by the amount of enjoyment they get out of the game and the length of time they continue to play. I’d much rather one of my pupils enjoyed playing chess at 1500 level for the next 50 years than became a disillusioned 2500 grandmaster stuck with chess because he has no other skills or qualifications (and any chess player active in social media will be able to name several of these).

I believe we should also be wary of promoting chess using dubious claims for its perceived extrinsic benefits and instead focus on the game’s intrinsic qualities. Chess is the greatest game in the world. Quite apart from the excitement of playing, or even watching, chess, it possesses an extraordinary aesthetic beauty. It offers its devotees the opportunity for travel and friendship with like-minded people throughout the world. It has an endlessly fascinating history and heritage going back centuries. It has an unrivalled body of literature covering every conceivable aspect of the game. It has no need for dubious and unverifiable it that chess helps prevent dementia. If you promote it as something that ‘makes kids smarter’ parents will take what they can get out of it for a year or two before taking them out of chess and into some other ‘improving’ pastime.

Let’s consider the nature of chess. We all know how hard it is to play chess even reasonably well. What skills do children require to become proficient players? They need exceptional concentration and impulse control: without these skills they will make one-move oversights every few moves. They need to be able to confident at handling and manipulating complex multi-dimensional abstract information. They need to be able to consider the position from their opponent’s perspective. They need the ability to self-reflect: to understand where they made a mistake and work out how to put it right. They need emotional maturity to cope with the demands of competitive play. If they can appreciate the beauty and heritage of chess they’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of the game. All these are skills we associate more with older children than younger children. Everything about chess screams out ‘adult game’, not ‘children’s game’.

Perhaps you see now why I describe junior chess as elitist. The only children who will really understand chess at a young age are the exceptionally bright kids with extremely supportive parents. Yes, it’s among these children that you’ll find your potential Kasparovs and Polgars, but at the same time many of them will drop out, choosing to concentrate on their academic career with will lead to a job more worthwhile and lucrative than being a 2500 grandmaster. And those children who don’t have an exceptional talent, whose parents are, often for the best of reasons, unable or unwilling to support them, will find it hard to make significant progress. If we want to combat elitism in chess we need to promote chess for older children, and not just for children in top academic schools, so that children from all backgrounds can enjoy chess.

Richard James

Wood Shedding

There once was a time when an individual wanting to pursue a particular skill would take on the task knowing that the path to mastery was a long, hard and often difficult journey. However, the person embarking on this journey simply accepted the idea of long, hard work as the cost one paid when striving to be the best at something. For centuries, young apprentices worked under their masters, slowly and carefully learning their craft. Today, thanks in large part to technology, humans have to come to expect things to be done quickly, including things that were once done slowly in an effort to produce the highest quality outcome. Whether it’s learning a language, learning music or learning chess, the novice now finds themselves temped by the idea of rapid of accelerated learning.

The idea behind rapid or accelerated learning is that the process of learning itself is streamlined so you only study what is deemed (by the instructor) to be absolutely necessary. While some streamlined learning does work, garnering fairly decent results, I’ve noticed that there’s no mention of the countless hours of work, much of it repetitive in nature, required even by an accelerated learning program. Case in point, guitar mastery.

I receive at least three emails a week from guitar websites stating that they have created a learning program that will knock years off of the time required to play
“great” guitar. If I was a novice guitarist, I’d probably sign up for one of them. However, being someone that still earns part of my income from playing, I know that these emails fail to mention one critical aspect to improvement, hard work and longs hours on the fret board.

You can cut down on the time spent learning how to play an instrument by eliminating some unnecessary or redundant exercises, such as certain scales. However, the scales you do have to learn take time to master. This means you’re going to be putting a great deal of time into practicing them over and over again. In other words, you’re going to be working extremely hard no matter how streamlined the process. This holds true for chess as well.

I’m in the process of writing a chess book for beginning and intermediate players. In writing this book, I closely examined other books to see how those authors approached the same topics I’m going over. I noticed that some books had titles that used the words “rapid improvement” or “improve your chess in “x” amount of days.” While these certainly help to sell books, I believe the titles might lull the potential buyer into a false sense of just how long improvement is going to take. Chess mastery (something I’m nowhere close to) takes a great deal of time. Also consider the fact that we all learn at different speeds. Some people have a harder time learning than others, who quickly pick things up. However, I’ve found that my students who struggle and have to work twice as hard, often come out with a firmer grasp of the subject than those who pick things up quickly.

Chess, like playing a musical instrument, requires both theory and practice, theory being the study of the game and practice meaning actually playing the game. You have to do both. Reading every book ever published on how to play the guitar does you no good unless you pick up a guitar and play it. The same holds true with chess. The point here is this: Studying and practicing what you’ve learned through your studies takes a great deal of time. Therefore, there is no quick road to true mastery! As the Mathematician Euclid said to a King trying to find an easier way learn geometry, “there is no royal road to geometry.” Mastery comes at a cost and that cost is good old fashion hard work.

Too often, in music, you hear about legendary musicians who spend 12 to 15 hours a day playing their instruments, following the hard road to mastery. What you don’t hear about is how it took them a long time to be able to concentrate for such lengthy periods. They slowly built up their ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Yet, musicians new to playing will attempt the same feat, failing completely. You have to develop the mental muscles that allow you to concentrate for long periods of time slowly. You don’t walk into a gym and immediately start your beginner’s weight lifting class by bench pressing 300 lbs. You build up to it, the slower the better. We must learn favoring quality over quantity. More importantly, we must learn how to take on the mastery of something, in this case chess, in proper increments that allow us to learn and move forward without frustration.

My advice is this: Don’t look for an easy way out. This means you’re going to have to put in hard work over a lengthy period of time. Of course, if you find a teaching system that cuts some of that time down, by all means try it. However, always remember that no matter what the system, hard work on your part will be required. Let’s say you decide that hard work is worth the price of mastery or just improvement. Now you have to create a schedule that allows you to study and practice (playing chess) for greater periods of time over the long run. Musicians call studying and then practicing what you’ve just learned “wood shedding,” and while all musicians strive to be able to practice for extremely long periods of time, they have to build their mental and physical muscles to do so. This takes time. Notice how the word time keeps coming up?

Building up one’s level of mental and physical concentration requires patience. This means setting smaller goals. Therefore, you should, in the case of chess which requires a great deal of mental stamina, start with small blocks of study time, such as thirty minutes a day. Of course, some new students of the game will think that thirty minutes a day over seven days will equal only three and a half hours of work a week, a rather small number compared to the ten thousand hours required to reach a master level of comprehension. Fear not, that small amount of study time per week will grow. The beginner could try studying for two hours a day instead but if they can only fully focus (concentrate) for thirty minutes at a time, an hour and a half of their studies will be wasted. It’s a matter of quality over quantity. The biggest problem with setting unrealistic goals is the feeling of failure when we don’t reach those goals. Better to set and reach smaller goals and have a sense of accomplishment than to overreach and be disappointed.

Thus, if you want to get better at chess, or anything for that matter, start with small goals and take your time. Sure, you’ll hear stories of players who spent all their waking hours studying and playing chess, but these players are few and far between. Some of what you hear is simply myth. The only thing you can be sure of is that if you slowly build up your wood shedding skills, you’ll eventually be able to study and practice for hours on end. Remember, it really is a matter of quality over quantity. That’s the key to solid learning retention. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

When Trouble Comes Knocking

When trouble comes knocking, I’m paid to answer the door! Not only do I teach chess and coach junior chess teams but I deal with the problems that sometimes come with the students I teach and coach. What kind of trouble could possibly occur when your career is teaching chess to young people? Let me tell you a story that occurred last week. It’s straight out of a movie, kind of a cross between To Sir With Love and The Blackboard Jungle (both dealing with unruly teenagers).

Year after year, I teach and work with the same groups of students from approximately ten schools. My schedule remains constant and rarely waivers. However, every once in a while, I am suddenly transferred to a school. When I say suddenly, I get 24 to 72 hours notice. I don’t ask why I’m being transferred because I already know the answer: There’s a problem that could seriously jeopardize the chess program at the school in question. Sometimes it’s as simple as the chess teacher or coach isn’t getting results or not maintaining proper classroom management. Worse case scenario, the students have frightened off the chess teacher. Again, I don’t want any information prior to entering the problem school because the information is often either second hand or skewed due to the emotional state of the former teacher. I need to determine the problem myself. It should be noted that the best teachers can sometimes not resolve issues with problem students.

On the day of the chess class’s new session, I arrive at the school, go to the office and pick up forms and any payments. I notice the office staff looking at me sympathetically. This is a good indicator as to the problem, unruly students. If you teach chess in a school, always make friends with the office staff because they can get you anything you need. I then leave the office and proceed to walk down the hall towards the class which is located around the corner from the office. When I turn the corner, I see a gaggle of parents and school staff who make a fast run towards me. One parent asks, in a loud voice, “is my son going to be safe in there?” Obviously, this group of students isn’t going to be easy for anyone who shows any signs of fear. A few teachers start telling me to use the intercom system if I find myself in any trouble. Really? I get that same line when teaching in the prison system! I gather the parents and teachers in a circle and tell them the reason I was sent there is because I’m the guy who deals with the worst behaved teenagers. I start to walk through the classroom door and notice the entire group of teachers and parents following me in. “Where do you think you’re going,” I say to them. Apparently, they wanted to make sure I’d be alright. Both parents and staff were extremely unhappy when told to go someplace else because they were not allowed in my classroom. In I go to my waiting students.

One of my new students stood up and said “who the F#^K are you?” This is the, and I mean “the” defining moment when it comes to what I do in problem classrooms. This is the moment that makes or breaks me as far as respect from my students goes. The reason I do not allow parents and faculty into problem classes is because I use some unorthodox methods that the school staff doesn’t need to see (nothing bad, just unorthodox). They simply need to be happy with the results. When that student stood up and said what he did, I was extremely happy because I just found the Alpha-male or leader of the wolf pack. Break the leader and you tame the pack. Of course, I don’t mean physical actions in regards to breaking the pack leader. Words and street psychology are my weapons of choice and I know how to use them with great accuracy. Here’s what I said. “You must have me confused with one of those idiots that’s either a teacher or a parent on the other side of that door (I point at the door). Let me tell you something and I’m only going to say it once so close your mouth and open your ears. Do not mess with me. I know you ran the last chess teacher out of here but I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to give you a choice, a one time only deal. You can either get with my chess program and learn something or I will make your life in this classroom a weely nightmare.” Needless to say, he backed down and his friend who also was a problem said. “I kinda like this guy. He doesn’t take any…(fill in the blanks)”

They all wanted to know why they should be stuck in the chess class, which was a fair question. Often, parents will sign their kids up for chess classes to keep them busy and out of the parent’s hair for an hour or two. Some of these kids were enrolled even though they said they had no interest. So I answered the question. I told them that chess makes figuring things out (problem solving) much easier. Fast problem solving gives you more time to enjoy life as opposed to being bogged down by life’s problems. I then told them how much money Magnus Carlsen made last year. I know, it’s a cheap trick but it worked because teenagers love the idea of making money doing something they mistakenly think is easy. I also told them that people who are serious about chess get a fair amount of intellectual respect and respect is a critical issue for teenagers.

It turns out that some of the students actually had a real interest in the game. The biggest surprise of all was that the rudest kid in the class had some great chess skills. I played them all at once on separate boards and beat them at their own trash talking game (they like to talk trash to their opponents which is something I’ll be eliminating in the upcoming weeks).

I needed to find out exactly what they did to run the old chess teacher out of the school which meant gaining their trust. I told them (honestly) that anything they told me would not be repeated to anyone outside the classroom. I also told them there was to be no snitching by anyone in my chess class, explaining that snitching on someone can have very bad repercussions for the person doing the snitching (being a tattletale or informant). They finally told me some of the stunts they pulled and I’d run out of there if I were that teacher as well! Fortunately, I’m not and, I can’t tell you what went on because I made a promise to them not to snitch. We did agree that if someone was going to do something dangerous, then telling someone about that person’s intended actions was more akin to saving their life and not snitching. It turned out to be a pleasant afternoon as far as I was concerned.

My goal is to get these kids into shape on the chessboard and get them to be a top ten team in the Bay Area within 18 months (I better make it happen because I have a sizable bet with another chess coach regarding the matter). When it comes down to it, these kids aren’t really that bad, they’re simply teenagers who (like all teenagers) learn about social relationships and life in general by testing its boundaries. The school did send a teacher in to check on our progress toward the end of the class, using the excuse that she forgot some papers, and she surprised to find my new students sitting quietly behind their chessboards.

I don’t suggest employing my methods when dealing with an unruly group of students. It works for me but might not work for you. The one piece of advice I can give on this subject: You have to be the alpha animal, the pack leader in this type of situation, which requires a lot of inner confidence and strength. If you can do this, you can accomplish the task. If you can’t, find someone who can because you don’t want to have a dreadful experience. This class is a fascinating group and I suspect I’ll be reporting on their progress. I’m hesitant to tell them I’m writing about them because I suspect it would go to their heads and I don’t need another inflated ego, other than mine, in the classroom. Another potentially bad situation made good. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson