Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Teaching Kids the Ruy Lopez (3)

Back to the Ruy Lopez this week.

We’ll start by travelling back 25 years to watch the 6-year-old Luke McShane in action. It was seeing his early games and results with this opening that first alerted me to the advantages of teaching the Ruy Lopez at a relatively early stage of children’s chess development.

In this game Black allows the familiar discovered check to win the black queen.

The second game features a less common idea: a rather unusual rook fork wins Luke another queen.

In this article we’re taking a break from 3… a6. It’s very natural, especially if Black is more used to facing Bc4, to play a simple developing move such as 3… Nf6 or 3… Bc5. Of course Nf6, the Berlin variation, is very popular at all levels at the moment, while Bc5, while not played so often at GM level, is a frequent guest in amateur events. Both, of course, are perfectly reasonable moves.

Against 3… Nf6, or indeed 3… Bc5, it’s not unreasonable to play, as Luke did, the immediate exchange. f6 is not necessarily the best square for the black knight in the exchange variation. Instead, though, I’d recommend White to play 4. O-O against either of these moves. Making the king safe and giving the rook access to e1 in case the e-file gets opened can’t be bad. What we’re not going to do is transpose into a Four Knights by playing Nc3 and d3.

Games at this level often go 3… Nf6 4. O-O a6 when White can trade on c6 and capture on e5, transposing into our article from two weeks ago. If you want to play a6 you have to do so on move 3, not on move 4. Every move we’re going to work out whether or not it’s safe to win the black e-pawn. Otherwise, we’re going to play a quick d4, not bothering too much if it loses a pawn, and, if the e-file is opened, put our rook on e1.

If they play 3… Bc5 instead we have a choice. We’re going to castle next and then we can, depending on Black’s reply, play c3 followed by d4 (and possibly d5 hitting the pinned knight) or go for the Fork Trick with Nxe5 followed by d4, using a pawn fork to regain the piece.

Let’s look at a few more short games to see how these ideas work out in practice and learn some tactical ideas.

See how easy it is to win a piece. In this game Black plays five obvious and natural moves – giving him a lost game. You see how strong the c3 and d4 idea can be against an opponent who plays Bc5. The only square for the bishop on move 6 is b6, which interferes with the b-pawn so Black cannot unpin with a6 followed by b5.

In this game we learn another important tactical idea. Black makes the mistake of playing 3… Nf6 4. O-O a6 and then allows a classic pawn fork. Pawn forks in the centre happen over and over again at this level. e5 will fork a bishop on d6 and a knight on f6 while d5 will fork a bishop on e6 and a knight on c6. Another typical tactical idea when Black has bishops on c5 and e6 is to play c3 and d4, hitting the bishop on c5, followed by the fork on d5.

Here White is successful with the fork trick. Bd6 is usually the right way to go in Italian fork trick positions but here it’s not good. Black’s 8th move just loses a piece and his 10th move just loses a king. 8… Bd6 would have saved the piece but left him way behind in development.

Finally for this week we return to Luke McShane to see how he handled the Berlin Defence as a GM. 5. d4 is more often played but Re1 is a simpler way of regaining the pawn which also contains a drop of poison.

Richard James

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Developing Focus

The best chess players in the world have a great ability to focus on a position, using this well honed skill (their ability to focus) to concentrate on finding the winning move. Seasoned players can maintain focus for extended periods of time. The beginner, on the other hand, has trouble staying focused for any length of time. The ability to maintain focus eludes even the most enthusiastic and obsessive chess novice. The ability to focus must be learned like anything else, making it a skill. Can the ability to focus really be considered a skill? Absolutely! Like any skill, it requires training and practice. Here are some ideas to help develop your ability to focus, most of which take place away from the chessboard.

First off, don’t confuse memory with focus. Many beginners think that having a well stocked chess memory will give them an advantage, which it does to some extent. However, unless you can focus on the position at hand, a head full of memorized chess positions does you little good. It’s as if you have the pieces of the puzzle in your hand but you can’t put them together because you mind cannot clearly see them as individual components of the puzzle. Lack of focus equates to fuzzy thinking.

We’ll start our exploration of focus with a loose definition. I’m not going to site the Oxford Dictionary for the definition of focus but instead, give you an example of the level of focus you want to achieve. When I was seventeen, I was sitting in my bedroom reading a book. Suddenly, I found myself in the story. Instead of sitting on my bed reading, I was in the scene described in the book. I could see the most minute details described by the author. In short, I was part of the story. This is an example of a momentary high degree of focus. I’ve had the same experience watching certain movies. While this moment is often fleeting, it serves as an example of the type of focus I want you to strive for. Don’t simply play the game externally, be part of the game internally. Be one with the game. Absolute focus allows you to do this.

A wise chess teacher said that when you sit down to play chess, you should leave your day to day thoughts off of the board and concentrate only on the game. While this is true, it is difficult to do, especially when you haven’t developed a strong ability to focus. While we can run away from external situations that distract us we cannot run away from the internal distractions, namely our own thoughts. So how can we develop our focusing skills?

Start by reducing your sugar and caffeine intake. Sugar and Caffeine, friend to many a chess player, may artificially raise your energy level, making you feel as if your brain is functioning at a higher level (greater focus), but what goes up must come down. Once the sugar or caffeine effects start to wear off, you crash, which means your ability to concentrate becomes weaker (less focus). Stick to healthy foods prior to playing chess. Get plenty of rest because a brain deprived of sleep is not conducive to good chess.

The environment in which you play is also important. Quiet environments are the best places to develop you focusing skills. Environments with the least amount of external distractions, such as computers, televisions, etc, give your thought process fewer avenues of escape. Ideally, an empty room with only a table, chairs and chess set would be the best choice. However, it is unrealistic to ask you to empty out an entire room in your home for such a purpose. Libraries are nice and quiet. So are churches! I have sat in the back of a well known church here in San Francisco to work on my game just for this reason. Even the Vicar approved of the idea once I explained my reasoning!

Of course, environmental controls are a small part of this equation. No matter how well suited the environment, you still have to deal with all those noisy thoughts rattling around in your brain. Consider the ability to focus as a circle whose diameter is constantly changing. The greater the circle’s diameter, the broader and less concentrated the focus. The smaller the diameter, the more concentrated the focus. Our goal, as chess players, is to narrow the circle of focus down to a circle so small it appears as a dot! The smaller the circle, the greater the focus.

If you walked in the door after a long day of work or school and immediately started playing chess, it would be somewhat difficult to instantly narrow your focus to only the events on the chessboard. Instead of immediately sitting down to play, try some simple exercises before playing. Start by employing some breathing exercises. Take twenty or so long deep breaths. Take your time. You’ll find that to do this correctly, you have to concentrate on your breathing. Guess what? Because you’re concentrating on your breathing above all else, you’re focusing and unclogging your thoughts a bit.

Next, play solitaire on your computer or better yet, with a real deck of cards for ten minutes. Seriously? This does two things. First, it allows your brain to wind down a bit and concentrate only on the card game, developing your focus and second, it helps you with your pattern recognition skills. I use simple card games with my students to foster these two skills and it has helped immensely.

The next suggestion I have is to sit at the chessboard, position your head so that only board takes up your complete field of vision, and look at each pawn and piece, silently naming the squares each of those pawns and pieces is on. The idea here is to get your focus aimed at the board!

For overall, general improvement of your focus, take up a physical activity if you’re not already involved in one. It can be any physical activity, such as golf, Tai Chi or even bird watching. Why such an activity? I like to bird watch. To get to many of the locations where the birds are at requires some walking. Walking is excellent exercise and exercise helps your brain function at a higher level. While exercise will not make you the next Einstein, it will help you increase your brain’s ability to function optimally. What does bird watching have to do with concentration? To identify a bird in the wild, you have to focus in on the bird’s size, shape, feather coloring, etc. These are all variations of pattern recognition. Because you generally have a very small time frame in which to identify the bird before it flies away, you have to focus your attention very quickly and maintain a high level of focus and concentration while identifying the bird. Learning to focus in small increments makes maintaining focus over a longer period a bit easier.

The point to all of this is simple: The better your focus, the more apt you are to find that winning move. Focus development techniques can be found in many of the things you do away from the chessboard. The more you do in the way of honing your ability to focus, the better your playing will be. Make a list of five things you do each day that help you with your focus. You should be able to come up with at least five. If not, find five things you can do to increase your focus. They can range from card playing to riding a bicycle. Get focused. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Teaching kids the Ruy Lopez (2)

So we left you last time considering the Exchange Variation of the Ruy Lopez after the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Bxc6 dxc6 5.O-O. If Black, as he often will in lower level kiddie tournaments, plays a natural developing move such as Nf6 or Bc5 we can capture the pawn on e5 safely, and, if Black tries to get the pawn back we have an array of tactical weapons involving using our rook on the open e-file at our disposal.

The most popular moves, in order of frequency, are f6 and Bg4, followed at a considerable distance, by Qd6 and Bd6. Stronger players tend to prefer f6 and Qd6, while lower rated players are more likely to go for Bg4 or Bd6.

At this level you can usually get away with simple development but there’s one important thing you need to know. It’s a trap which happens quite often in kiddie chess: the Fishing Pole‘s much more respectable cousin.

After 5… Bg4 play continues 6. h3 (a natural move, and by far White’s most popular choice here) 6… h5 when White has to decide whether or not to take the bishop. Theory recommends 7. d3 when both sides have to calculate each move whether or not White can take the bishop. If instead 7. hxg4 hxg4 leaves White in trouble, and if he tries to save his knight with 8. Nxe5 he gets mated after 8… Qh4 9. f4 g3 (the key move, shutting the door on the white king).

Before we move on there’s one other thing you might want to demonstrate, at least to older kids. Look at this variation: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Bxc6 dxc6 5. d4 exd4 6. Qxd4 Qxd4 7. Nxd4. Now take everything off the board except the kings and pawns and play out the resulting pawn ending. Something like this might happen:

This is worth explaining. White’s winning because he can always force a passed pawn. As long as he doesn’t undouble Black’s c-pawns his opponent will never be able to create a passed pawn. If you run an intermediate level class it’s well worth giving this sort of ending to your pupils. Get them to record their moves and see what happens. In my experience many players will fail to win with White because they play c4xb5 at some point.

This exercise will teach you a lot about doubled pawns: about when and why they can be a disadvantage. It will also teach you a lot about pawn endings. Most importantly, it will teach you how openings and endings are closely connected (even though both are even more closely connected to middle games).

I wouldn’t encourage kids to spend too long playing the exchange variation, though. One reason is that, if you teach them to play the exchange variation after 3… a6 they’ll also make the trade after other third moves, which you probably don’t want them to do. So at some point they’re going to have to move onto 4. Ba4 as well as considering how to meet Black’s most popular 3rd move alternatives.

But first, you might like to demonstrate a couple of famous games. Regular readers will know that I’m very big on teaching chess culture as well as just chess so it’s always a good idea to look at how some of the all-time greats handled the opening you’re learning.

Richard James

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Teaching kids the Ruy Lopez (1)

For years I used to teach kids the Italian Game as their first real White opening once I wanted to get them away from mindless development in the Four Knights. If Black played Bc5, then c3 followed by d4, or if instead he played the Two Knights we went for the Fried Liver Attack with Ng5.

The problem with this, though, is that it’s very much about remembering forced variations, which doesn’t suit everyone and may possibly come at the expense of genuine understanding.

So why not teach the Ruy Lopez instead at this level? In my opinion there are a lot of reasons why you should.

As a not entirely irrelevant aside, most openings books are totally useless for less experienced juniors. In fact some of them are useless even at my level. In practical terms, I’m not interested in what grandmasters play. I want to know what the random player sitting opposite me in my next Thames Valley League match is going to play. If you’re teaching young kids you want to know what young kids who haven’t studied the openings very much are going to play. As someone once said, what good is the book if your opponent hasn’t read it?

So when I teach the Ruy Lopez I’m not going to show them Mickey Adams’s latest TN on move 35 of the Marshall. Nor am I going to discuss Vlad Kramnik’s most recent subtlety in the Berlin Wall. They’re not going to see the Marshall or the Berlin Wall at all. Nor are they going to play an early Nc3 and d3 and transpose into a boring Four Knights Game. They’re not even going to memorise any variations or learn very much theory. Instead they’re going to learn a lot of devastating tactical weapons which they can use against the sort of moves they’re likely to meet over the board in kiddie tournaments. They’re also going to learn about quick development, castling early, controlling the centre, the importance of the c-pawn in the opening, using open files, making pawn breaks, winning a pawn and converting it in the ending.

At this level, the Ruy Lopez is essentially about the resulting tactics when White tries to capture the pawn on e5, and when Black tries to capture the pawn on e4.

So we’ll start by showing them some moves: 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5. The Spanish Opening or Ruy Lopez. Named after a 16th century Spanish priest. Why are we playing this? On move one we stick a pawn in the middle. Our opponent does the same thing. We attack it with our knight and he defends it. So we attack the defender. Now we’d like to trade off our bishop for his knight and then chop off the pawn. Or would we?

If you’re playing this in a low level kiddie tournament there are all sorts of replies you might meet. Beginners will often move the knight away because they don’t want to lose a piece, not understanding that a trade of equal value pieces is fine (and forgetting that they moved the knight to c6 to defend the pawn on e5). They might decide to copy White and play Bb4. Fine – we’re going to play c3 to kick the bishop away, and then, before or after castling, d4. Important lesson about using the c-pawn to fight for the centre (which is why we’re not playing the Four Knights). They might play either Bc5 or Nf6, maybe because it’s what they’ve been taught to do against Bc4, or maybe because they look like sensible developing moves. If they’ve heard that doubled pawns are bad they might play Nge7. If they think their e-pawn is in imminent danger they’ll probably play d6. We’ll look at some of these in more detail in a later article, but we’ll start with what is, at most levels, the most popular reply: a6. They might play this because they know it’s the usual move, or just because they like creating threats, hoping their opponent won’t notice.

We continue, then, 3… a6 and see what happens if White carries out his ‘threat': 4. Bxc6 dxc6 (we’ll explain that this is the better recapture because it opens lines for the bishop and queen). Now we’ll play 5. Nxe5 and ask them to select a move for Black.

As they’ve been taught not to bring their queen out too soon they’ll probably suggest various developing moves like Nf6 or Bd6 before considering the idea of a queen fork. They’ll need a bit of prompting to see that there are three queen moves which Black could employ to regain his pawn: Qd4 (forking e5 and e4), which happens to be the best option, Qe7 (skewering e5 and e4) and Qg5 (forking e5 and g2). We’ll play a few more moves: 5… Qd4 6. Nf3 Qxe4+ 7. Qe2 Qxe2+ 8. Kxe2 and agree that Black stands better: he has the two bishops in a fairly open position and White’s king is awkwardly placed. You might possibly want to leave the discussion about the relative merits of the minor pieces for another time though.

Big lesson number 1: look out for queen forks in the opening. These are easy to miss partly because you may not be looking for tactics when your brain’s still in opening mode and partly for the reason mentioned above: you usually don’t want to bring your queen out too soon.

So we’ll take a few moves back and try to do a bit better for White. Instead of taking the pawn on move 5 we’re going to castle. You’ll see the difference very shortly. If he hasn’t seen the position before Black is quite likely to play a natural developing move such as 5… Nf6. Now we’re going to capture on e5. It’s time to play Spot the Difference.

Let’s suppose Black tries Qd4 as he was advised to play the move before. So: 6. Nxe5 Qd4 7. Nf3 Qxe4 and it’s easy to see how White can win the queen.

Or Black could take the pawn at once: 6. Nxe5 Nxe4 when White again uses his rook on the e-file: 7. Re1. If the knight retreats a discovered check will win the black queen. They may well be familiar with this idea from the Copycat Trap in the Petroff. If not, they should be.

Finally, Black could try to drive the knight back first, just as in the Petroff, say 6. Nxe5 Bd6 7. Nf3 Nxe4 8. Re1. Again we use the rook on the e-file. This time there’s an enemy knight in the way so we have a pin. Black can defend the pinned piece with 8… Bf5 but now we can simply attack the pinned piece with 9. d3 (or Nc3) and come out a piece ahead.

Simple first lesson on the Ruy Lopez, then. A little bit of very basic theory, but much more than that. A graphic illustration of why we castle quickly in positions where the e-file is going to be opened, and how we use the rook there. A lot of vital tactical ideas as well: queen forks for Black, pins and discovered attacks for White. If there’s an enemy piece between our rook and his king we can pin and win it. If there’s a friendly piece in the way we can move it with a discovered check. Next time we’ll take the opening a bit further and look at some more ideas.

Richard James

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Databases

Advances in computer technology have given the modern chess player a plethora of tools to advance their playing abilities. In fact, there are so many options now available to the student of the game that many players become lost in those varied options. However, there is one software program that all serious students of the game should have and that is the database.

A database is a large collection of something, in this case chess games, that is well organized and easily accessible. Historically, databases have been used for everything from population studies to Entomology classifications. In chess, the database is used to house large collections of games played throughout the ages. Prior to the development of the computer database, chess players kept a record of their favorite games in notebooks. Those games were copied from books, magazines and newspapers. Prior to the chess database, chess players had to put a fair amount of effort into building up their own collection of games. Now, a player can simply click their computer’s mouse a few times and have the game they wish to examine appear on the screen within a few seconds. My current database contains over six million games, from the first recorded game of chess, played in Valencia Spain in 1475 to games played as recently as last month. With a good database, our game’s entire rich playing history can be studied in detail. Does this mean that everyone should run out and purchase a chess database program?

If you’re a casual player, you might not want to invest in a database program, but rather visit one of the many websites that house game collections and play through their games online. You could also download a free PGN viewer and download games you find interesting, building your own database one game at a time. What’s a PGN? PGN stands for Portable Game Notation, which is a plain text computer file format used for recording both game moves and related data. This format is supported by the majority of all chess software. This simple format allows games to be replayed using chess databases or PGN viewers. The PGN viewer is essentially a stripped down version of the commercial database. Seeing as you could download a free PGN viewer and build your own database by downloading games from a number of websites that offer those games free of charge, why would you consider purchasing a commercial database?

There are a number of good reasons for purchasing a commercial database, such as Chessbase 12 or 13. The first reason is convenience. Please note, that I tend not to endorse chess products unless they really offer an advantage. Chessbase’s database program includes a huge number of games that are well organized, many of which are annotated by titled players. It’s current incarnation has a database of 6.1 million games. This means you have, at your fingertips, more games then you could play through in a lifetime. Their database allows you to refine or filter your search when looking for specific games. You can also look at games according to opening. A huge plus is the ability to examine a specific position and see all games (in the database) that include that position. It is easy to use and I’ve yet to have the program crash. It also allows you to create secondary databases, such as one with your own games

The second reason their database program is good is because you can use it to play training DVDs such as those done by Nigel Davies, Andrew Martin and Daniel King. These Chessbase Trainers are extremely well done and will help you improve your game. The database can be used in conjunction with various chess engines to thoroughly analyze the game you’re viewing, whether it is one of your own or the game of a master!

There is so much to say about this database that I could write a book! Come to think of it, Jon Edwards already has written a book for Chessbase database users titled Chessbase Complete. Having used this program for years, I thought I knew much of what there was to know about this program. After reading this book, I realized that I had only scratched the surface!

We improve our game by studying the games of others. The serious student of our game no longer has to rut around trying to find games to study from books, magazines or newspapers. With a database program, any game is a mouse click away! So should you run out and spend a fair amount of money on ChessBase?

The answer is “not right away!” If you’re new to the world of PGN files and databases, you might want to try a free program such as Penguin 9 or 10. Its a free PGN viewer and database program that you can use chess engines with for analysis. While it is nowhere near as pretty to look at as Chessbase, it will serve as a good introduction to the world of databases. You can use chessgames.com, which offers a huge number of games available in PGN format that are free to download to build up your game collection. Once you’ve logged in some time with a program like Penguin, learning more about database management, etc, you can move on to a commercial database program. There are other free PGN/Database programs to choose from but Penguin is well supported and easy to use.

After getting used to a simpler database program, you can then consider moving on to a more sophisticated program such as Chessbase. To give you an idea about the versatility of Chessbase, I’ll site an example from my own studies. I’m a huge fan of chess’s romantic period, the age of the gambit. I’ve been studying the King’s Gambit is great deal over the last two weeks. Most notably, I’ve been working through a Chessbase Training DVD on the King’s Gambit. When you start using a database system, you’ll notice that the various openings are coded. The King’s Gambit Accepted is coded, C33, for example. This coding system was developed in 1966 and employed in the Encyclopedia of Chess Openings or ECO. The letters used, A through E, represent a broader openings classification while the numbers, 00 through 99, represent subcategories. This system allows all chess openings to be alphanumerically broken down for easy categorizing. The first Volume of the DVD I was watching deals with King’s Gambit Accepted games in which 3,Bc4 is played.

Having a database containing over six million games would be an exercise in madness if there were no easy way to search through those games. With Chessbase, I was able to first filter the massive collection of games down to games in which the King’s Gambit Accepted was played. I simply entered C33 into the search filter which gave me 3,550 King’s Gambit Accepted games. To further reduce this number, I refined my search by entering the position after 3.Bc4, which reduced the number of games to a much smaller number. To my surprise, I found a game played in Rome from 1590, in which 3.Bc4 was played after 2…exf4. I had no idea that the King’s Gambit Accepted (3.Bc4 line) had been played so early on. The point here is that I was able to use this database program not only to watch my training video (Chessbase Trainers can be viewed using their database program) but to further research games employing this opening.

Of course, there are readers who will say “that’s all fine and good but Chessbase is expensive so why should I make the investment?” Think of investing in this program like buying a car. When you purchase a car, you’re using the idea of investing in problem free transportation to guide your purchase. You might find a car that is inexpensive but old. However, in the end you might have to invest a large sum of money into future repairs. So investing in a newer car that will last a lot longer, before needing repair work, might make more sense. Investing in a program like Chessbase might seem expensive but you’ll get years and years worth of useful assistance from it in the long run. If you want to save some money when investing in Chessbase, consider purchasing an earlier edition. Version 13 recently came out so version 12 can be purchased at a reduced rate.

Whether you use a free database program or a commercial program like Chessbase, you’ll add to your knowledge base by acquiring such a program. It’s a good investment in your chess training. Here’s a King’s Gambit Accepted game from 1690, which I guess you could say was an old school game! Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

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When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth

Back in the day, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, improving one’s chess skills was a simple process in theory. Playing chess meant facing off against a human opponent because the silicon beast had yet to rear it’s ugly head. When I was a teenager, if you wanted to get better at chess you acquired a chess book and studied it. You then took your new found knowledge and tested it out on the chessboard. There was no training software or DVDs. Here’s what I had to do just to get a hold of one chess book in more primitive times:

Back in the late 1970s, I was making my mark on the world by playing guitar in a punk rock band (it was a very small mark). We played the majority of our early shows at the infamous Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino supper club that let anyone show up and commandeer the stage. The man who booked the shows, and subsequently paid the bands, was known for his stinginess. On any given night, my band would make $13.27 to be split three ways. To purchase a single chess book required playing at least three shows.

I decided to purchase by first chess book after I started playing against stronger opponent’s who were crushing me during the opening. Asking a family friend who played chess what I should to improve my opening play, he suggested that I go to the closest chess shop, which was two hours away in Berkeley California, and get a book on chess openings. He added that I should ask for a man whose last name was Lawless. Being a young punk rocker going by the name of Johnny Genocide, I assumed anyone with the last name of Lawless would be either a biker or a punk.

After sweating it out for three nights playing on stage while dodging beer bottles, I had saved enough money to cover the cost of public transportation, sales tax and the cost of the actual book (as long as it wasn’t more than $13.95). I got up early on that faithful day, geared up for an adventure and started the two hour trip to Berkeley California, home of that most aggravating of species, the old school hippy. As a young punk kid, the though of an entire city filled with long haired throwbacks to the 1960s was dismal at best. After suffering through a long train ride spent listening to the caterwauling of poorly trained buskers, I made it to Games of Berkeley or the Church of Chess as I called it.

Walking in, I quickly scanned the store looking for a punk guy or biker. A middle aged man looked up from the counter and then back down at his book. Seeing no one that fit the description my imagination had created, I walked up to the counter. “Hey, do you know a guy named Lawless?” “Yes,” replied the counter-man. “Is he around?” I asked. “That he is,” was all I got in the way of a reply. Undaunted, I continued my line of questioning. “Can you point him out to me?” The man looked up and said “I’m Lawless!” He appeared to be anything but lawless. I suspect this guy had never even gotten a parking ticket and his idea of breaking the law would be having a beer with lunch. Before I could utter another word be said “what do you want kid?” Still trying to get over the fact that this guy did not in anyway resemble his last name, all I could get out was “I need a book on chess openings.” He grunted something and pointed to a massive bookcase on his left.

Not only was the bookcase eight feet tall, it was eight feet wide and every single book on its shelves was about the opening game. There were hundreds of them. Three hundred and seventy three in stock to be exact. We’ll get to how I knew that number later on. Being a guy, I resolutely refused to ask for further help. Anyone with half a brain would have asked for further information. I decided that a real man would simply start rummaging through the books until he found what he was looking for. I grabbed the first book I saw. It was on the Nimzo Indian. I had no interest in indigenous peoples so I grabbed another book. The next book was The Complete Sicilian. Having no interest in Sicily, I kept going. The next book I pulled out left me speechless. It was titled, The Hedgehog. I suddenly felt as if an elaborate prank was being played on me. After all, shouldn’t books about chess openings have “chess openings” in large block letters in their title?

Sadly, I gave up and started the walk of shame back to Mr. Lawless. All men know that walk. It’s the sad shuffle we do when we realize that as men we don’t have all the answers to life’s questions. After clearing my throat a few times, the counter-man looked up. “Yes?” From his tone of voice, I suspect he was enjoying this moment but I would be proven wrong! In a defeated voice, I said “I need a really basic book on chess openings. With that he smiled and said “why didn’t you say so. Come with me.” We walked back to the massive bookcase and what he told me as we went through the books in the opening section changed my chess life.

On that day, I learned that all these strange book titles had something in common. They all described different ways of starting a chess game. If that wasn’t astonishing enough to my rather undeveloped mind, Mr. Lawless went on to say that every single book on those shelves were based on the same guiding principles. All I could say at that point was “wow, the opening most be pretty important and very complicated.” He smiled and told me I had just learned something very crucial.

After finding the appropriate title, he walked me back to the counter and taught me algebraic notation, something I would need to read my new book. He also gave me a battered copy of My System free of charge. I walked out of the store feeling enlightened and more optimistic about my chess playing. The whole adventure took about five hours but it was well worth it.

How did I know the exact number of books on chess openings in their inventory? Six years later, I would go to work in the chess department at Games of Berkeley. Working there, I became well acquainted with all their chess books. When I got my name tag, I was told I didn’t have to use my real name but couldn’t call myself Johnny Genocide. I settled on Alexander Alekhine and for the entire time I worked there, that was my name. Mr. Lawless was my immediate boss and any free time was spent learning the game of chess. It turned out, Mr. Lawless was a National Master so he knew his stuff. I still have the tournament set he recommended I purchase and it is the one thing I’ve managed to keep for over thirty years.

There’s no chess lesson to be learned here, only a life lesson or two. First, never judge a book by it’s cover, as in the case of Mr. Lawless, and never judge a book by it’s title, as in the case of chess books. Second lesson: Ask for directions, whether you’re trying to find a destination while traveling or facing a mammoth wall of books. Asking for directions is much better than doing the walk of shame when your instincts have failed you. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Hanging Pieces

Beginners tend to have an easier time improving their basic opening and endgame skills than they do improving their middle-game skills. The opening principles are easier to define and apply compared to middle-game principles. Basic endgame principles are likewise easier to learn and employ compared to middle-game principles. What is it about the middle-game that causes the beginner so much trouble? To answer this question, let’s first define the middle-game.

During the opening, you gain a foothold in the center by rapid piece development. You and your opponent are racing to see who gets the greatest control of the center and thus an early positional advantage first. Once your pieces are on their most active squares, you enter the middle-game. The middle-game is where the fighting starts! This is the phase of a chess game in which often violent attacks and cunning defenses take place. This is the realm of tactics. It is also the realm of the dreaded hanging pieces.

The big problem beginners face when entering the middle-game is that their calculation skills are minimal. When I say calculation skills, I’m not talking about seeing six or seven moves ahead. I’m talking about seeing one and a half moves ahead. This translates to your move, your opponent’s best response to that move and your subsequent response to your opponent’s move. Beginners tend to think only about the moves they can make and not about their opponent’s response. Subsequently, beginners hang or lose a healthy, or should I say unhealthy, number of pawns and pieces by thinking this way.

Beginners also miss opportunities to capture their opponent’s hanging pieces, pieces that are unprotected and free for the taking. A few years back, I was watching some of my beginning students at their first tournament and was astonished at one game in which both players had multiple hanging pieces that remained on the board for many turns. It was because of this that I started to employ various training methods to help students avoid this problem.

One method I use with my students is to have them do positional exercises, using software training programs, to improve their ability to spot hanging pieces (both their own and those of their opponent). One training module specifically deals with capturing pieces, many of which are hanging. However, that specific module offers no advice, only five thousand plus positions in which a piece can be captured. This series of positional problems comes from real life middle-game positions played by players of varying ratings. While the beginner can develop their skills working through the numerous problems, they won’t get the maximum amount of solid training in this specific area without some additional concepts being introduced to them.

Because we live in a fast paced world that puts a high premium on getting the job done quickly, students will try to blaze through the five thousand plus problems as fast as possible. While some improvement is guaranteed by simply doing the problems, the serious student will not achieve the greatest improvement without putting deeper thought into each problem.

Simply capturing the correct piece isn’t enough. While it may be enough for the training program you’re using, you have to look at the bigger picture. That “bigger picture” comes in the form of questions you must ask after making that correct move, namely, how does this capture change the position. Of course, I don’t expect the beginner to analyze the position like a professional player. However, there are a few key questions a beginner can ask that will help them understand positional play a bit more and spot potentially hung opposition pawns and pieces.

The first question I have students ask themselves after capturing the correct piece has to do with the capturing piece’s relationship to the pawns and pieces around it. After the capture, does that piece now protect pawns and pieces that weren’t previously protected? This is a crucial consideration because if the answer is yes (which it generally is with these types of training programs), then the capture has not weakened the position. Instead, it has improved it. Remember, you don’t want to capture simply to capture. You want to capture if it strengthens your position. I have my students note each pawn and piece that is now protected as a result of the capture. This idea of asking questions helps to slow down the student’s solving of each problem and forces them to look more carefully at the position. This, in turn, develops greater board vision (seeing the entire board and the subsequent pawns and pieces on it).

The obvious second question to ask is, does this weaken my position at all. Even in the games of masters, positional weaknesses can and will occur. With beginners, it is best to keep the list of potential weaknesses short, having them look for immediate weaknesses such as doubled pawns, bad Bishops, exposed Kings and, of course, hanging pieces. Spotting potential long term weaknesses is best left for later, when the beginner has gained some playing experience.

Where these questions really help is when you get into the more advanced sections of the software program. Often, you’ll be given a choice of two similar pieces to capture, two knights for example. Capturing one Knight will lead to an exchange of material that is beneficial to the opposition. Capturing the other Knight will garner you that Knight at no cost of your own material, not to mention a better position. Asking questions when capturing material leads to good decision making.

Training software can be an excellent tool for players wishing to improve on their own. However, you don’t want to blaze through the individual problems without taking the time to carefully look at the position. Often, it is easy to spot the correct piece to capture. However, unless you carefully examine the position after the capture, looking for positional strengths and weaknesses, you won’t get as much out of your training. Take your time. If a capture doesn’t make sense from a positional viewpoint, examine the position further before moving on to the next problem. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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The Road that Leads to Improvement

I thought about titling this article “The Journey to Mastery” but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that not every chess player would be willing to commit to such a difficult endeavor, becoming a titled “master” of the game. On the other hand, anyone who enjoys the game would be more than happy with improving their chess skills. Thinking about it further, I realized that you cannot even consider the journey to mastery until you’ve spent some time walking along the road that leads to improvement. At some point, a mathematical statistician determined that anyone who put ten thousand hours into the study of a subject would become a master of that subject. Does that mean that all you have to do is read a stack of chess books and play chess for ten thousand hours to become a Grandmaster? Absolutely not! In fact, you could spend ten thousand hours studying and playing chess only to become a slightly better than average player. It’s quality of study that leads to real improvement, not quantity of time spent studying. The best students of any subject have highly effective study habits and techniques.

In my youth, back when chess games were recorded on stone tablets, we got better at chess by reading chess books and then testing out our new found knowledge on the board against a human opponent. Now, there are so many alternative methods of study that the beginner is left bewildered by the numerous choices. You can use Books, DVDs, training software or websites that are dedicated to specific aspects of the game. However, no matter which method you choose to employ, there is one specific concept that must be embraced in order to improve. I’m talking about good studying habits. If your studying habits are not good you’ll only retain a fraction of what you learn which slows down your improvement greatly. This can lead to frustration which can lead to simply giving up. How you study is just as important as what you study!

Slow and steady wins the race when if comes to improvement. Humans tend to be impatient so they try to complete a task as quickly as possible. This leads to setting unrealistic goals. If your goal requires three hundred hours to accomplish, you could spend an hour per day and meet your goal in three hundred days. You could also shorten that time frame by spending ten hours a day working toward you’ll goal, cutting the total number of days needed to thirty. This would be a grave mistake! Most people lead busy lives which means they can only dedicate a small amount of time each day to their studies. However, even if they had the time to study for ten hours a day, they would fall victim to mental fatigue, especially when studying chess which requires great concentration. The best route to take is to set a realistic time table, say thirty minutes a day to start. Most of us can take thirty minutes from our daily schedule without having our lives fall apart. Thirty minutes will not leave you mentally drained at the end of your study session. While you might say that thirty minutes day isn’t much, it adds up to 182 hours a year. Still, some of you are thinking that 182 hours isn’t a lot of time, especially when thinking about reaching that 10,000 hour mark. Forget about that 10,000 hour idea. Let’s worry about improving before mastery!

Our next consideration is where to study. I’ve talked about study techniques in previous articles but I feel the subject so important that I’m bringing it up again. My next point is crucial if you want to improve. Find a quiet place to study. I feel so strongly about this that I have taken to sitting in my car, parked in front of my house to study chess uninterrupted. I have a busy household and even my office can be a bit noisy. You need a place that is not only quiet but offers no distractions as well. I’ve taken to my car because of one incident. I was studying a variation of the Nimzo Indian opening because it I had trouble with it. Sitting in my office, I reached one of those “ah ha” moments when everything suddenly became clear. I had the Nimzo Indian within my grasp. Suddenly, our pit bull (Ruby Petrosian Patterson) burst through my office door, made a run towards my desk and started grabbing chess pieces off the board I use. Needless to say, my concentration was broken and the mysteries of the Nimzo Indian still remain a mystery to me. Find a quiet place to study!

If you’ve followed my advice so far, you’ve set up the conditions for productive studying. You have a realistic time table and a place to study. Now comes the question, what to study? Finding suitable chess material to study is similar to buying pants. Pants come in a vast range of sizes. However, you’re never going to purchase a pair that is an exact fit. The length might be perfect but the waist is a bit tight! Chess training material is the same way.

While many companies will list a rating range for their training material, such as “for players rated between 800 and 1200,” that 400 point range is a huge consideration for the beginner whose rating is closer to 800. How can the beginner determine whether the training material in question suitable for their skill set? If its a book, the beginner can either examine the book, if being purchased from a bookstore, or preview it, if being purchased online. In either case, look at the table of contents first. If you’re a beginner trying to improve your general opening play, you should see chapters dedicated to the opening principles such as control of the board’s center, minor piece development, castling, etc. The book should also contain games in which both sides win. Examine a chapter and ask yourself “does this make sense?” If you can’t understand the concepts as explained by the book’s author, you may want to consider another title! Avoid books that promise fast improvement results or promise a fast increase in your rating.

DVDs can be a bit trickier because you cannot play the DVD before purchasing it. However, many DVD producers, such as ChessBase, offer previews on their website which allow you to test drive them prior to purchase. Again, ask yourself “does this make sense.” With specific DVDs, such as those dealing with opening play, you have to be careful as a beginner. I teach and coach chess full time so I spend a great deal of time both teaching and learning. I will always be a student of the game. I mention this because I’ve fallen victim to the purchase of a DVD about specific openings that are beyond my skill set. Beginners should stick to DVDs that explore principles rather than specific openings at least until they have a strong grasp on the principles!

Lastly, invest in a software training program that has a good GUI (Graphical User Interface) and decent chess engine. This gives the beginner an instant opponent and many of these programs have add on training modules that can be purchased separately. There are some pitfalls with these programs. First off, when playing against the computer at its lowest levels, you’re going to get an unrealistic game of chess. The computer will make the worst moves and, while your victory against the silicon beast might feel good, you’ll pay for that joy when you sit down and play a human (even a novice player) and they make much better moves than your computer program (on a low setting), leaving you with a lost game. Only play the computer at a higher game setting. The moves are more realistic and you only get better at chess by playing stronger opponents. Play human opponents every chance you get!

Lastly, beware of website advice. While a decent percentage of these websites are an excellent resource for learning, you have to remember, anyone can create a chess website regardless of their chess skills. I spend a great deal of time correcting my student’s bad habits, bad habits they picked up online. Nigel’s Tiger Chess website is an exception and you should consider an online visit (http://tigerchess.com). Another good resource is IM Andrew Martin’s Youtube videos (https://www.youtube.com/user/YMChessMaster) You would definitely do well to read all the excellent articles by the folks here at The Chess Improver as well. Keep it simple, make your study time count and sit in your car if you need a quiet place to study. Your game will slowly but surely get better. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. I bet these guys had good studying habits!

Hugh Patterson

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Balance

Beginners are fond of launching early or premature attacks regardless of what it does to their position. These attacks are uncoordinated and weaken the beginner’s position which more often than not, costs them the game. After a few chess lessons, the beginner’s attack becomes more coordinated. The most popular point of attack for beginners are the f2 and f7 squares which are weak because they’re solely defended by their respective Kings at the game’s start. An attack on the f7 pawn typically involves the King-side Knight and Bishop. After, 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6 and 3.Bc4…Nf6, white breaks an opening principle and moves the Knight a second time, 4.Ng5. Because white moves first, white has an opportunity to stay one move ahead in development during the opening, except in the above example in which white forfeits his lead in tempo (time). Therefore, I introduce the idea of balance early in my student’s chess careers.

Think of balance as an old fashion seesaw, such as those found at a playground. When the seesaw is parallel with the ground, it is evenly balanced. When someone sits on one side of the seesaw, it tilts, lowering that person to the ground. If another person sites down on the opposite side of the seesaw, the person closest to the ground is raised up. When one end of the seesaw goes up, the other end goes down. It is no longer evenly balanced. How does this relate to chess?

When the game starts, before any pawn or piece is moved, the position on the board is evenly balanced. Since white moves first, white disturbs the balance, tipping it (like the seesaw) in his or her favor with a move like 1.e4. This move puts a pawn in the center of the board, allows the King-side Bishop (as well as the Queen) to develop, which brings white closer to Castling. Its a powerful first move that puts the Question to black, how are you going to restore the balance? If Black plays 1…e5, the balance is restored for the moment. While black can play other moves such as 1…e6, 1…c6 or 1…c5, beginners should start with the simple 1…e5 to restore the balance.

Examining a move in terms of positional balance will help the novice player avoid weakening their position during any phase of the game. The opening exemplifies this idea. Since white moves first, white disturbs the balance of the starting position. Black needs to immediately restore the balance with a counter move that garners the same positional benefits as white (1…e5) or set up a future balanced position with an opening move other than 1…e5. After 1.e4…e5, white might play 2.Nf3. White disturbs the balance again by attacking the e5 pawn and controlling the d4 square. Black might counter with 2…Nc6 which protects the e5 pawn and puts pressure on the d4 square. The point is this: Black is making moves that strive to maintain positional equality or balance.

Chess is a positional dance in which both players must be in sync with each others actions or moves. To ignore your opponent’s moves leads to disaster. An opponent’s move must be met with a counter move that strives for some semblance of positional equality. Does this mean we play for equality or balance of position only? Absolutely not! After all, checkmate wins the game which means you’ll have to launch an attack which means stepping away from the idea of maintaining equality or balance. The point here is that you don’t want to launch an attack until the time is right.

To determine when the time is right for an attack, you have to look at your position and ask a few key questions. Start with an examination of space. Do you control more space on the board than your opponent? If so, an attack might be considered. However, before committing to that attack, ask yourself a few more questions. Does launching an attack weaken your position? So many beginners will capture a piece, only to have their entire position fall apart. A strong position trumps capturing pieces unless capturing staves off a potential checkmate. Does capturing a pieces strengthen your position while weakening that of your opponent? These are the questions to ask before attacking.

An idea I pass onto my students is that their goal in the opening is to aim for a balanced position, waiting until the middle game to launch any attacks. A balanced position means an equal control of space, namely the board’s center during the opening. I make a point of mentioning this each time a student considers moving the same piece twice during the opening. By doing so, they’re giving their opponent the opportunity to develop another new piece. Moving the same piece over and over again allows your opponent to gain tempo (time) which makes it harder for you to achieve balance. How do you determine whether you have a balanced position or not? Determining the balance of a position requires some analysis.

Analyzing a position as a beginner can be extremely difficult because the beginner tends to see everything at once. Rather than focusing in on key elements, the novice player’s chess vision is blurred because they’re trying to look at every pawn and piece at the same time. To analyze a position’s level of balance, the beginner should approach the task systematically. During the opening, controlling the board’s center is the name of the game. Therefore, the beginner should count the number of squares his or her pawns and pieces control. Do the same for the opposition’s pawns and pieces. This simple act will give you an idea about the position’s balance. If you’re behind in spatial control, aim to make moves that balance that control either equally or in your favor.

Beginner’s should get in the habit of continually developing pawns and pieces to more active squares going into the middle-game. I have observed students developing correctly during the opening and stopping their development as soon as their Rooks are connected. They then started gearing up for an attack. While gearing up for the attack, their opponent continues to improve their pawn and piece activity. Ultimately the attack fails because the position’s balance was off, in favor of the player whose pieces were more actively developed.

Therefore, you should look at a position in terms of balance for both sides before considering your next move. When a position is balanced, an attack might be in order. Of course, there are times when a position is imbalanced in favor of your opponent but an attack could tilt the positional seesaw in your favor. However, beginner’s don’t have their skill set built up enough to identify such positions. Keep it simple and balanced until you become a stronger player. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Happy Thanksgiving. I’m off to our family turkey day chess tournament.

Hugh Patterson

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Teaching Kids How To Trap Pieces

When teaching kids how to trap an opponent’s pieces, and not get their own trapped, I start with a very simple example:


Here White is able to win the pawn it is fixed on d5; in other words the pawn is not mobile. The same can be applied to a piece, and here is the most common example:

The knight is less mobile than other pieces and so it is very easy to trap it like this. To promote better understanding we ask kids to play a game where one has only knight and the other has a queen, the winner being the one who can trap the knight in the least number of moves. In a nut shell, if you can hamper or restrict opponent piece mobility there are more chances that you can win that piece.

A common way to trap a piece is by shutting it in with an obstructing piece. This often happens in practice, here’s an example with Black to move:

Here it would be a mistake to capture the g2 pawn because of Bg3, and white will win a rook on his next move. Of course I am not including any points like trapping the opponent’s bishop inside his pawn chain as it is not relevant when you first teach kids. It is very hard to trap a queen but this position often arises while playing against the French Defence.

Though I am not winning the queen here I am creating such threats that I can win some material. Capturing pawn on b2/b7 is also known as poisoned pawn variation in some openings.

Ashvin Chauhan

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