Category Archives: Children’s Chess

As Others See Us

“Chess. Quite boring if you ask me but chess club is the sort of thing you should belong to aged 8 if you’re going to graduate to the Bullingdon Club and then become a Tory MP.”

(A note for non-UK readers: the Bullingdon Club is, according to Wikipedia, “an exclusive but unofficial all-male students’ dining club based in Oxford … noted for its wealthy members, grand banquets, boisterous rituals and destructive behaviour, such as the vandalising (“trashing”) of restaurants and students’ rooms.” It’s former members include David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson.)

This is the opinion, not that anyone, as far as I know, was asking her, of one Sophia Money-Coutts, in a recent Sunday Telegraph article about board games. I guess she should know about Tory MPs, if not about chess. Sophia’s grandfather was Bill Deedes, a Tory (or Conservative, for those of my friends who like to make the distinction) MP famous for his friendship with Margaret and Denis Thatcher, and from a long line of MPs dating back almost 400 years.

I suppose it makes a change from the usual stereotypical description of chess players: we’re usually portrayed as being introverted nerds with poor social skills and dubious personal hygiene, shabbily dressed and with our sandwiches in a carrier bag. Articles about chess on internet news sites often conclude with the obligatory ‘all chess players are loonies’ feature, with paragraphs about Morphy collecting women’s shoes, Steinitz giving God odds of pawn and move, Carlos Torre taking his clothes off on the bus, and Fischer – well – just being Fischer. Given the way we’re presented in the media, it’s not surprising that parents sometimes tell me they don’t want their children to be good at chess. Sure, they want them to play chess because they’ve read that ‘chess makes kids smarter’, but, understandably, they don’t want them to grow up to become either Billy No-Mates or Boris Johnson. To be honest, I’m not sure which is worse.

Perhaps, though, there’s also an element of truth in Sophia’s perception of school chess clubs as being mainly for intelligent boys from upper-class families. We could start by looking at the schools taking part in the final stages of various national schools competitions.

Let’s start with the EPSCA (English Primary Schools Chess Association) Under 9 Championship.

The final eight teams this year, in order of finishing, were as follows:
1. Westminster Under (the junior branch of Westminster School, one of London’s leading academic schools)
2. Homefield (upmarket prep school in South London with a strong recent chess record)
3. St Paul’s Juniors (the junior branch of St Paul’s School, another of London’s leading academic schools, whose former pupils include Jon Speelman, Julian Hodgson and many other chess players)
4. Wetherby (top people’s prep school in central London, former pupils include Princes William and Harry)
5. The Hall (upmarket prep school in Hampstead, also with a strong recent chess record)
6. Hallfield (prep school in Edgbaston, an affluent suburb of Birmingham)
7. Akiva (Jewish fee-paying primary school in North London)
8. Dulwich Prep (the junior branch of Dulwich College, another top academic London school, whose former pupils include Ray Keene)

Eight fee-paying schools, seven of them in London. Will the Under 11 Championship be any different?

1= Westminster Under
1= Haberdashers’ Aske’s (prep department of leading independent school in Elstree, just north of London, another school with many recent chess successes)
3. Heathside (another upmarket prep school in Hampstead with a strong recent chess record)
4. North London Collegiate (prep department of leading independent girls’ school in North London)
5. North Bridge House (upmarket prep school in North London, again with a strong chess tradition)
6= Homefield
6= Brookland (state primary school in Hampstead Garden Suburb)
8. Heycroft (state primary school in Essex with chess on the curriculum via CSC)

So 14 schools were represented in this competition, of which 12 are, I believe, fee-paying, 12 are in affluent areas of London and one in an affluent area of Birmingham.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against any of these schools and offer my congratulations to all of them, to their pupils, their chess tutors and their parents. It’s especially gratifying to see the CSC (Chess in Schools and Communities) pupils from Heycroft and the girls from North London Collegiate doing so well. But it does look as if, taking only school chess clubs into consideration, Sophia Money-Coutts has a point.

The ECF Under 19 Schools Championship is not very different, although, partly because of the way it’s run, there’s a much wider geographical spread: as far as I can tell, the final 16 schools were either fee-paying or grammar (selective) schools.

(For those readers not familiar with the UK education system, in most parts of the country children move from primary to comprehensive (non-selective) schools at the age of 11, but in some areas there are also state grammar (selective) schools which require children to pass an examination. There’s also a thriving private sector with many fee-paying schools.)

1. Royal Grammar School Guildford (fee-paying)
2. Hampton School (fee-paying)
3= Reading School (grammar)
3= Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School (fee-paying)
3= Queen Elizabeth’s School Barnet (grammar)
6= King Edward’s School Birmingham (fee-paying)
6= The Judd School (grammar)
6= Nottingham High School (fee-paying)
6= City of London School (fee-paying)
6= King Edward VI Grammar School Chelmsford (grammar)
6= Wilson’s School (grammar)
12= Sir Thomas Rich’s School (grammar)
12= Eltham College (fee-paying)
12= Wirral Grammar School for Boys (grammar)
12= Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital (fee-paying)
16. Yarm School (fee-paying)

Here’s an exciting game from this event with a remarkable conclusion. Can you find an improvement for Black on move 24? The winner is an IM elect from Haberdashers’ Aske’s school: his opponent was representing Sir Thomas Rich’s School.

While I’d again like to offer my congratulations to the participants, and my thanks to the orgainsers of both competitions, this does make the whole schools chess set-up in the UK look very elitist, in the worst sense. I wonder how many of the participants will indeed go on to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, join the Bullingdon Club and become Conservative MPs.

I’d suggest two things: we should be doing more to promote chess in the state sector, especially within comprehensive schools (CSC is already doing great work in primary schools), and should also strive to promote a more positive image of chess itself: as an exciting and beautiful, not a boring game, and of chess players: as serious sportspeople, not as either nerds or toffs.

The answer to my question above: Black missed the extraordinary defence 24… Qd7, when, after the moves 25. Bxd5 e6 26. Nxe5 Qxd5 27. Qf4 Qb7, my computer assures me that White will eventually draw by perpetual check by moving his knight to g4 and then to f6. Chess is only boring to those who, like Sophia, don’t know enough about it to appreciate its excitement and beauty.

Richard James

Back to Square One

Music and chess have so many parallel characteristics in regards to mastering either of them that the training method of one can successfully be applied to the other. We’ll start this article by examining the process employed when mastering a musical instrument, in this case the guitar. After reading this description, ask yourself if this sounds a lot like trying to master the game of chess. I think the similarities will astound you!

When I first starting playing guitar, my relationship with this instrument was casual at best, with the guitar spending much of the time collecting dust in my bedroom closet next to the chess set my mother purchased for me. However, when I turned 13, I suddenly found myself falling deeply in love with music thanks to albums by bands such as Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix. While my friends were listening to bubblegum rock, I was listening to the dark, complex side of rock and roll. During this period, I discovered that the guitar was the real star of those bands, creating amazing tones no human voice could come close to mimicking. Just as quickly as I discovered music, my guitar was pulled out of the closet and dusted off. I decided that I would master the guitar, being able to hold my own, note for note, with Jimmy Page. Taking the guitar out of the closet, dusting it off and deciding to fully master it left me feeling as if I finally found my true calling and purpose in life (as if that actually happens with a scatter brained thirteen year old). However, there was one slight problem with all of this, I actually had to learn how to play the guitar. Up until this point, I had simply banged away on the strings with reckless abandon, jumping up and down on my bed while Led Zeppelin blared loudly on my stereo. Therefore, since my parents were a bit dubious when it came to paying for guitar lessons, I took the road traveled by all professional musicians. I did what every other aspiring thirteen year old rock and roll guitarist did, I found someone on the block who knew a few chords. After I learned those chords, I found a guy in the neighborhood who knew a few guitar leads or solos, slowly working my way across the city’s burnt out guitarists (a frightening group of guys straight out of the movie Wayne’s World), one chord progression and lead guitar solo at a time.

So I finally because serious about learning to play the guitar. Back in the Stone Age, you had to learn songs either by ear, listening to an album and learning a song a single note at a time, or you purchased instructional books for aspiring guitarists. There were no home computer apps let alone the internet, so your choices were extremely limited. Learning a song one note at a time took up a great deal of time and most of us hadn’t developed the skill of listening to a song a few times and then playing it correctly. Eventually, we’d get there but not early on in our careers!

So I hit the books, learned a slough of chords, leads etc. I worked or trained with other guitarists, all of whom were much better than I. If you wish to master an instrument, you need to study with a teacher who is a master of that instrument. You don’t get better studying under teachers with less experience than you! Of course, you have to balance theory and practice. You can learn three hundred guitar leads and play them perfectly. Then you try them out with your neighborhood garage band and things sound terrible. They sound terrible because you’ve been sitting in your own garage, playing by yourself. You’ve had no interaction with other musicians so you don’t have the sense of rhythm needed to play succinctly when other instruments are involved.

It’s easy to learn a bunch of guitar leads. However, there’s more to guitar than just playing lead. You have to be a well rounded player rather than a specialist because great guitar players have impeccable rhythm or timing, knowing when to throw in a little lead work to spice things up and knowing when to keep their guitars quiet to let the drummer and bass player have a piece of the action. You have to look at guitar playing as a more dimensional art. If you listen to a great guitarist, you’ll hear them control the volume and tone of their guitars because they can accent certain parts of the song with something as simple as dropping their overall volume down or going from a distorted tone to a clean tone. What does this have to do with chess (if you didn’t find the similarities)?

Chess is a game in which you need to employ theory and practice. Theory is reading and studying chess books. While this is an important part of your training, it does no good unless you put that theory/studying into action through practice or playing. Just like the musician who spends too much time studying lead guitar books and not enough time playing with other people in a band, chess players need to balance the two, theory and practice! All the book studying in the world isn’t going to make you as good a player as the person who does both. Books will give you positional situations that are carefully set up while playing chess against human opponents will give you more realistic situations in which the game changes with each move. By realistic, I mean moves that you’re likely to encounter. What does any of this have to with going back to square one?

The best guitarists in the world will always go back to the basics (back to square one so to speak) and study them, even though they know the material at hand. Why? Because we often find that our playing has gotten off track and going back to our educational starting point often steers us back in the right direction. Practicing something as simple as scales will force our fingers to work with greater coordination. For example, guitarists tend to take short cuts, such as using three of our four fingers for playing notes because our littlest finger is the weakest finger on our left or right hand. We can play clearer note using three fingers. However, going back to playing scales with all four fingers gives us the ability to play more notes in a single phrase, so we go back to square one. Chess players, as they improve, sometimes take certain opening principles for granted, taking chance they never would have taken earlier in their career. Going back to square one is also a good way to break bad habits you might have developed. Of course, it’s harder to correct a bad habit than it is to maintain good habits! Going back to square one, even when you’re a strong player is a great idea, one that will improve your game (or your guitar playing). Speaking of games in which a titled player ignores some game principles, here’s one to enjoy until next week!


.
Hugh Patterson

Quality Control

The other day we decided to show a video to the Richmond Junior Club Intermediate Group. As our subject for the day was opening tactics we chose this video from chesskid.com.

I should start by saying that chesskid.com is an excellent site and their curriculum is one of the best I’ve seen. However, I have a few problems with this video.

You may or may not like the idea of using seemingly random positions like the one you see at the start of the video. I don’t much like this myself, but I understand that you may well disagree with me, so we’ll move on.

My first problem is the confusion in terminology. The first confusion is between the words ‘attack’ and ‘threat’. I try to differentiate: an attack is something you could do and a threat is something you want to do (which, at low levels, will be capturing a piece for free, capturing a more valuable piece with a less valuable piece or delivering checkmate). There’s also a problem with the exact definition of the word ‘fork’, and here writers and video producers differ. My definition is ‘a move which creates two threats in different directions with the same piece’. If you don’t make this clear children will play something like 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Ng5 and excitedly tell you they’ve played a fork.

For example, after the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Bc4 Bc5, 3. Qh5 is, in my opinion, a fork, creating two threats with the queen, although one of the threats is only operational because the bishop on c4 is a backup attacker. If I wanted to use this example I’d go on to explain that it’s not a dangerous fork as Black should have no problem finding a move which defends both threats.

By this definition, any piece can make a fork. Other teachers, illogically in my opinion, make some sort of differentiation depending on which piece is making the double attack, and that is what seems to be happening here. We’re told that forking is like a double attack, but done by knights and sometimes by pawns (it depends who you ask). According to my definition, queen forks are the most common, followed by knight forks, and pawn forks often happen in lower level games. As queens and knights both move in eight directions it’s quite understandable that they are the pieces most likely to create forks. There’s a whole section on queen forks in the opening in both Move Two! and Chess Openings for Heroes. I consider this seemingly arbitrary distinction to be confusing.

Continuing with the video, after a couple of minutes we see some double attacks with the rook, one of which is also described as a fork. In fact, according to my definition, the first rook moves we see are forks, but the one that’s described as a fork is no such thing, because, as is pointed out to us, the knight is defended, so that move only creates one threat.

We then continue with a practical example and learn about the Two Knights Defence, and how White can play Ng5, threatening the most common fork in kids’ chess. Excellent – and very important. But we see the move 4… Bc5, which, as you’ll probably know, is the Wilkes-Barre variation. There’s no mention of this, though, and we’re told that after this move we should continue with 5. Nxf7 Qe7 6. Nxh8. In fact I’d probably continue with 5. Bxf7+ because I know it’s the safer option, and I also realise that after Nxf7 my opponent will probably play Bxf2+, and I don’t know enough about the theory to survive.

When I’m teaching this knight fork I prefer to give Black 4… h6 rather than Bc5 to avoid the confusion over the Wilkes-Barre. Dave Rumens, one of the great characters of English chess, whose death was announced as I was writing this column, used to encourage his pupils to play this with black. Whether or not this is a good opening to teach is another matter entirely, and one I’m not going to discuss here.

The next example is slightly strange in that it appears that White has played five moves to Black’s four, but it’s White’s move. Perhaps Black played Qe7 followed by Qf6: I can’t imagine why, but we’ll let it pass. I’d also expect Black to play Kd8 rather than Kf8 after Nxc7+ to try to trap the knight on a8, but my computer has a slight preference for Kf8, so again we’ll let it pass.

I really like the last example, the final position of an endgame study, although I think it’s more an example of how beautiful chess can be rather than something of very much practical use. It looks, though, as if they’d forgotten about the f5 square and only referred to it at the end as an afterthought. In fact the whole video looks in many ways as if it was rushed.

Now you may think I’m being Mr Picky here, but chess is a complex game, and it’s very easy for young children to get confused, to misunderstand ideas or to take them out of context. If you’re talking to, or writing for, young children you need to be very clear in terms of using vocabulary which will be understood within context, using consistent and unambiguous terminology and choosing examples which avoid any possible confusion. Of course I frequently get it wrong myself!

Richard James

Yet Another Debate

Recently, a well known Grandmaster interviewed an extremely well know Grandmaster on camera. In an effort to keep Nigel and myself out of court (people get downright uppity when it comes to potential slander), we’ll refer to the Grandmaster doing the interview as GM X and the Grandmaster being interviewed as GM Y (sorry their aliases sound like nasty food additives from Company Z). Immediately after this interview took place, a nasty verbal internet riot was started by chess players from around the world. Chess forums and chat rooms were flooded with commentary about the incident which I’ll now describe.

GM X said to GM Y, “ You seem to have had some hiccups earlier today and you didn’t have really smooth performances (overall) and this game wasn’t that smooth either. It looked a little bit unclear. What’s your feeling overall as the game transpired?” GM Y replied, “OK, what do you want me to do…What do you want from me?” GM Y seemed to fixate on his usually perfect play being called less than smooth. GM Y became defensive. At one point I thought that dueling pistols would appear on the screen. GM Y then said GM X was trying to “belittle the whole thing.” Needless to say it was all down hill from that point on, with GM Y walking away in disgust. Of course, the line was drawn within the global chess community and two armies were formed to fight this verbal war, those who support GM Y and those who support GM X. Of course, thanks to technology, scores of people linked to the internet lined up to take their turn screaming from the bully pulpit, oops, I mean social media sites. Why am I even addressing this subject? Because I have intimate knowledge of this type of situation, being in the same position as GM Y, not as a chess player but as a musician. Let me explain.

As one does if one wants to become a Grandmaster, musicians spend years and years perfecting their craft, in my case guitar playing. While I always feel as if I’m in need of constant improvement, never understanding why people think I play so well, many people feel differently. According to those who know a bit about guitar playing, I’m pretty darn good. However, I still work at it constantly. A number of years ago, we played a series of shows that were close to flawless (and I find fault in everything I do musically). Each show was better than the last. Then we did the second to last show and things didn’t go so well. By this, I mean that the general audience didn’t notice anything wrong with my playing. We received three standing ovations (well, it was a club so everyone was already standing up). People sang along. Everyone appeared to have a great time, except me. I notice mistakes that no one else seems to hear. Unfortunately, one other individual heard those mistakes and that person was about to interview me. He was a dreaded music critic from a well know music magazine. The first question he asked was “Wow, what happened tonight? Seriously, that was not your best work on the guitar.” The old adage ‘those who do, do it and those who don’t write about it” came to mind. However, at that moment, I had two choices regarding the direction I would go regarding my answer. How I answered that question would either absolutely work for me or absolutely work against me. There’s an art to answering questions when being interviewed. Do it right and people love you even more. Do it wrong and you look like a sore loser, bad sport or worse.

I understand, from firsthand knowledge, how upsetting it can be to dedicate your life to something and have your skills questioned (even remotely) due to a single bad moment within a lifetime of success. You feel like saying to the interviewer “hey, when you’re at my level, then talk to me about it. Otherwise, shut up.” However, we can never achieve total and absolute perfection in our chosen craft. By this, I mean you cannot play either a guitar or a game of chess, without hitting a wrong note or making a bad move at some point during your career. We’re only human after all. However, when artists reach the highest level of their art, we expect them to excel and break even greater boundaries. When you’re at the top of your chosen field, people either expect perfection and nothing less from you or they’re gunning for you, waiting to see you fall. I know many musicians who feel this way. There’s a great deal of pressure when you’re great at something. People have an unhealthy fascination with the flaws that come with being human. Watching the self destruction of others is the true opiate of the masses.

I feel for GM Y but I don’t think he handled himself correctly. When I faced that moment with the music critic interviewing me I chose the right path and said “you’re absolutely right. Sometimes things fall apart. However, tonight’s show makes me want to work harder so it doesn’t happen again. Thank you for your honesty.” (I still wanted to give him a swift boot to his bottom side and really didn’t feel the need to slave away any further when it came to my playing) Of course, my interviewer wanted me to have a meltdown which would have been great for his interview. I didn’t give it to him, defused a potentially ugly situation and that was that. I think GM Y should have done something similar. He had a short, bad run in an otherwise near perfect career. Yet, because he behaved the way in which he did, tongues wagged across the world wide web. Of course, people often become very mean spirited when they can hide behind the shadowy curtain of the internet. I say to those who enjoyed GM Y’s antics, “can you play a better game of chess than GM Y? Have you dedicated your entire life to this game let alone anything else, spending your youth unbelievably focused?”

Now let’s get to GM X. If you know that someone can be temperamental, why not approach the dialogue with a bit more tack? While I know the questions were designed to spice the interview up, adding a little drama and tension to it, it was comparable to using dynamite to get rid of a small stain on your sofa. GM X is an extremely nice guy who does a lot of great things for the chess community. However, interviewing people requires a great deal of finesse. If you’ve watched top notch interviewers, you’ve seen how they can get answers to extremely tough questions through well thought out and well timed questions. GM Y literally started his interview with what could be conceived as a hostile question. Tact will get you a lot further in both interviews and life. GM X should have put himself in GM Y’s shoes while he was contemplating his questions.

As for the endless sea of amateur online chess commentators (not everyone who commented on the interview, just the trolls) whose ratings are closer to their own shoe size rather than that of a titled player, you might put yourself in GM Y’s shoes as well. Honestly ask yourself if you could withstand the pressure one is under when one is considered the best at something. You might also ask yourself if you could have played a better game. Until you’ve walked a mile in GM Y’s shoes, you don’t know how it feels. For those of you that enjoyed his becoming slightly unglued, I assume you’ve never, ever had a meltdown leaving you unglued. Whose right and whose wrong? Nobody and everybody. We’re human and we make mistakes. I’m sure GM X would rephrase his questions had he known the end result. Does GM Y’s behavior really change anything? No! At the end of the day GM Y is still a better chess player than any of us mere mortals. However, he does need to learn how to handle those tough questions with tact and even humor. Had he simply said “you’re right. It’s wasn’t my finest moment and I’ll be sure to determine why this happened and learn from it,” there would be no news to cause the great unwashed wagging tongues of the chess world to go into verbal overdrive. No news is good news I say. Here’s a game to get your tongues wagging until next week! Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

Misunderstandings

Something I remember from nearly thirty years ago. My friend and colleague Ray Cannon is going through the solution to a tactics puzzle on the demo board. I’m watching at the back of the room together with some parents. One of the dads asks me: “Why is he doing this? They’re never going to reach that position in their games.” I try to explain the reasons: that children need to learn how to calculate tactics, and that, although they will probably never reach that exact position they may reach an analogous position where a similar idea works.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago. I was teaching a private pupil, not much more than a beginner. His grandmother, whom I’ve known for nearly twenty years, came to pick him up. She’s a passionate educationalist who has founded no less than three schools. I talked to her about the importance of children solving tactics puzzles. She was astonished. “Puzzles? Why do they need to do that? Chess is just memory.” Again, I tried to explain. “Oh, you mean like those square things in The Times every day, but at a much lower level?” “Yes, exactly!”

Richard Teichmann is alleged to have claimed that “Chess is 99% Tactics”. Well, I think ‘calculation’ is a better word than ‘tactics’ (since strategy involves a different type of calculation to tactics) and I think 99% is something of an exaggeration, but, even so, calculation is the single most important skill in chess. Yet most non-players and most of those who know the moves but nothing else, I suspect, have no understanding that this is the case. The general public’s idea of chess is, I suspect, that it’s mostly about memory.

Well, memory is a complicated subject. It’s hard to become a proficient chess player if you have a weak short-term (working) memory. Long-term memory is also important, and the stronger you get the more important it becomes. You’re going to have to remember opening theory, how to play typical endings, middle game strategy and standard tactical ideas. But without understanding, and without calculation, you won’t get very far.

Here’s something else that happened the other day. When I visited one of my youngest private pupils he and his parents had a specific request for the content of the lesson. He wanted to know the best way to play when he’d lost his queen. Further questioning as to exactly what he meant confirmed that he didn’t want to learn how to play queenless middlegames or endings, but the best way to play after he’d blundered and was a queen behind. Of course the answer is easy: don’t lose your queen! He loses pieces every few moves in his games because his concentration and impulse control are not yet fully developed.

Week after week, my younger pupils argue with me that it doesn’t matter if you lose a piece because you can still win. At their level this is true, but to raise your game to the next level you have to understand that good players, by and large, don’t leave their pieces en prise or move them to unsafe squares. Yes, if Chelsea have a player sent off they might still beat Manchester United, but they are much less likely to do so. Good players might sacrifice a piece because they’ve calculated that they can achieve checkmate or gain a material advantage by doing so. They might play a positional sacrifice because their assessment of the position, combined with their knowledge and experience of chess, that the positional advantage they game provides adequate compensation for the material they’ve lost, but this is a very hard concept for beginners.

Chess is basically this: other things being equal superior force (usually) wins. An advantage of two or more points is, with a few exceptions, enough to win, and an advantage of even one point will often win. Very strong players will sometimes resign even if they’re just a pawn down. Chess is mostly about calculation: looking ahead (I go there, you go there, I go there) to work out how you can get checkmate, win pieces, get your pieces on better squares or get your opponent’s pieces on worse squares. If, by some unlikely combination of circumstances, I find myself sitting opposite Magnus Carlsen in my first Thames Valley League match next season, if I don’t make any mistakes I won’t lose, and, if Magnus makes a mistake, I’ll win.

Yet most non-players have a totally mistaken idea about what chess is and the skills you require to play the game well. Even many strong players and teachers, to whom chess comes naturally, are unaware of the importance of teaching calculation skills and concentrate purely on passing on their knowledge of chess to their pupils.

You need to do just three things to play chess well:
1. Put your pieces on good squares
2. Calculate everything that moves
3. Avoid careless mistakes

How can we get this message across to parents and teachers, so that they can be more proactive in helping their children play chess?

Richard James

Chess: Art Versus Science

While chess has been called both an art and a science, I can’t help but wonder if it’s losing its claim as an art. I was born into a generation who didn’t have cellphones, personal computers, tablets let alone the internet. To a typical teenager, this seems akin to having been born into the dark ages. My generation were explorers of our world which was our backyard and the surrounding neighborhood. When not in school, we were outside exploring the territory around us. Today, kids seem perfectly happy to sit with their faces glued to the screen of whatever technology they have at hand. Rather than feel the warm sands of a beach on their feet or feel the sun’s last glimmer of heat of their face as it sets over the mountains, they look at pictures of the beach and mountains instead. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology and use it in my chess teaching and coaching. However, I know that should I want to experience the beach or mountains, I actually have to go there. What do any of my rantings as an old man have to do with chess, art and science? Let me tell you a cautionary tale I tell all of my students.

Roughly one hundred and fifty years ago, the game of chess was vastly different than the form of the game we play today. While the rules and principles were the same as today, the style in which the game was played was different. It was a daring game played by those who truly wished to venture into the realm of the unexplored. My students will shrug at this last statement until the hear the rest of what I have to say. I always instruct my students to be seated before I make a statement that might drive some of them into having repeated nightmares for the rest of their lives. I loudly announce, “there once was a time in which there were no cellphones, tablets, personal computers or the internet.” Trust me when I say that at least a few kids gasp and recoil in horror.

Roughly one hundred and fifty years ago, if you wanted to learn the game of chess you did so through a family member or friend. Chess was a right of passage in some families, with the game being proudly handed down from father to son or daughter. Once, a game solely played by nobility and the rich, it became a game played by intellectuals and Bohemians (those smart tortured guys who sat around Paris Coffee Houses trying to eek out a living as philosophers or poets. No wonder they were tortured). It eventually found its way into the average household. In those days, the game was handed down from generation to generation the way in which traditions were once passed down around ancient campfires. To learn the game of chess you had to first find someone who knew the rules. This is a very romantic notion, one that I quite fancy, finding another human being to teach you something (as opposed to living life online)!

The reason learning the game required such human interaction, something in short supply today thanks to social media, was because there were very few accessible books on the game. People traveled by horse or train, so getting to a major metropolitan city to acquire a chess book might take three or four days. Because chess was handed down from generation to generation, person to person, combined with a lack of written information about the game, there was a vast expense of unexplored positional territory. Most people played simple e pawn openings because that’s what they were taught. Think of the huge (and I mean huge) number of possible positions within a single game of chess and combine that with the fact that most people played one type of opening and you can see that there was a great deal to explore in the way of opening theory, middle-game play, etc.

Players in the mid 1800’s, which was the romantic era of the game, played in a swashbuckling style. They played gambits and wildly sacrificed material. They took chances, seeing if making a move no one else considered might lead to a new way in which to gain an advantage. These players were truly explorers, a trait lacking in many of today’s younger players. Art on the chessboard was created greatly during this period as well as into the twentieth century. In some regards, art was more was more important to the players of this period. Let’s fast forward to today’s modern young player.

Today’s serious chess player has a plethora of training tools and options thanks to technology. When I first learned the game, we relied heavily on books since that’s all that was available (guys who play guitar in punk bands cannot afford real chess lessons). Thanks to technology, younger players have training partners and coaches in the form of software programs such as Houdini and Komodo. These are extremely sophisticated chess playing programs that can give players deep analysis regarding a single move they’re considering making. Technological advances in training software have allowed the world to produce the youngest Grandmasters in history (of course, it also requires natural talent). Technology and chess! Sounds like a winning combination, doesn’t it? Yes and no.

Technological advances have made a near exacting science out of the game we love so much. Yes, chess playing software has removed your chance of making bad moves but at a cost. Young up and coming, soon to be titled players, rely on their chess programs to tell them the merits of a move based on analysis of the best responses to that candidate move by the opposition, in this case a program with a 3000 plus chess rating. However, when you solely depend on your software program to decide whether a move is wrong or right, might you be missing out on the chance to explore uncharted territory on the chessboard.

Obviously, you don’t want to go on a wild chess exploration while playing for a national championship. However, what’s so wrong about exploring when not playing in tournaments? Some of you would answer that these software programs have explored all there is to explore. After all, if there was something new out there, wouldn’t the computer program have found it? To that I say this: Humans, using technology, have the entire planet mapped out. We have a map for every square inch of our home planet (and other planets as well). However, why is it that we discover new species nearly every single day? Think about that for a moment. If you think of the huge number of possible positions that can be reached within a single game of chess, a number with more zeros attached to it than you can comfortably count, doesn’t it reason that there’s more territory to explore? Might not we create some amazing art on the chessboard just by doing so?

By simply sticking to what our software programs tell us to do, we’re dulling a game that once sparkled with possibility to a flat monotone hue. There has to be a middle ground. Much of the great music created throughout history was flawed by a wrong note played, a mismatched tempo or even imperfections in the equipment. Glorious mistakes from which high art was born. Again, I’m not saying you should purposely makes moves that lead to disaster. However, a little positional chaos can turn an otherwise boring game into an artistic masterpiece. Chaos drives art. Chaos forces you to look at things in a different way. Many of today’s young players only listen to their chess software’s suggestions, never wondering what would happen if they simply said “no Houdini, I’m going to try something else.” If Houdini suddenly wrote “You need to jump off a bridge now” in the analysis window, I suspect a few overzealous players might ponder this idea for a moment or two.

When we try new things, we usual fail, often many times. However, there are those individuals who keep trying and just when it seems that they wasted their time, the solution to their problem reveals itself. I blame chess software for creating a rising number of drawn games at professional levels. I constantly hear about promoters who want to bring professional chess to the masses. It’s great idea but you have to make the game exciting to people with a marginal interest in chess. Drawn game after drawn game isn’t going to do it. We need another Paul Morphy whose games were exciting because he often played dangerously. People like excitement. I would like to see some young player throw chess theory upside down. I don’t know exactly how but with so many possible positions within a single game, human’s might have missed something. Here’s one of those games that is crazy but exciting. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

King and Rook Checkmates

What I often do when playing young children who are lacking in confidence is head for an overwhelmingly won ending and turn the board round to let them win.

I was playing a boy at a school chess club the other day and duly turned the board round when I had a rook and lots of pawns against a few pawns. On swapping the positions my king soon captured my opponent’s pawns and, when I captured his last pawn we reached this position, with Black to move:

I explained to my opponent that he could mate me in two moves by playing a king move, and, more by luck than judgement, he was able to find it.

At the end of the club at this school I usually do a quick 10-minute lesson on the demo board for children who have finished their tournament games. I set up this position and asked if the students could find the mate in 2 (being careful to explain exactly what a mate in 2 was). There was one boy, the strongest player in the club, who had just missed out on qualifying for the Delancey UK Chess Challenge Gigafinals at the weekend, had some idea how to go about trying to work out the answer, but the rest of the class were unable to do anything other than making wild guesses.

I then changed the position slightly:

Again, they had the same difficulty trying to find the mate in 2 for Black. When they eventually found the answer I made another slight change:

When our strongest player found Rc6 I asked the whole class how many different answers there were to this question. At first they just made random guesses (2? 3? 22?) and I told them it wasn’t a guessing game: they had to work it out. Finally, someone found Re6 and it dawned on them that there were in fact five ways for Black to force mate in 2 moves in this position.

I would have liked, if I’d have had time, to have rotated the positions by 90% and 180% to see whether they would realise the answer was, in effect, the same, or whether they would go back and try to solve the puzzles from first principles. But it was the end of the session and the parents were waiting outside to collect their children. Another time, maybe.

The teacher who was in the room with me at the time, not a chess player herself, told me the lesson was very hard for them, and was impressed with their answers as well as with their enthusiasm and concentration during the lesson.

For chess players these examples are very simple and very basic. We know that, in order to play even reasonably good chess, we need to think “I go there, you go there, I go there”, but this type of thinking, even when “you go there” elicits only one possibility, is very hard and very unnatural for most young children, especially if they are not used to playing simple strategy games at home.

I suspect it’s because this sort of exercise introduces children to a totally new thinking skill that scholastic chess in the classroom might have a short-term effect in ‘making kids smarter’.

I also suspect that teaching kids how the pieces move in half an hour and putting them into a competitive environment will have no effect at all in ‘making kids smarter’. A ten-minute lesson of this nature after they’ve finished their tournament game will also have little effect unless the thinking skills are reinforced. Otherwise most of them will have forgotten it by the following week.

Richard James

Three Good Moves

When we first start playing chess, we often make the first move we see, good, bad or indifferent (usually the move falls under the heading of bad when you first start you chess career). Of course, we’re still learning the basics of the game so this is a natural part of the learning process. More astute beginners might stare at the board for a few minutes, examine the position from both sides and only then making a move. Thinking they’ve spent enough time to have found a good move, they’re often shocked when that supposedly well thought out move turns out to be a bad choice. Chess is about decision making and there’s an art or skill to this process. The first step in the decision making process is taking the time to properly make a good decision.

Last week at our Yearly Academic Chess Summer Camp, I noticed that our beginner’s group was playing extremely fast as if it were a game of Blitz. I looked on in horror as hanging pieces (those that can be captured free of charge) were not only there for the taking but remained there for many moves. Had these beginners taken more time to consider their moves, they might have seen and captured those hanging pieces. However, there’s more to making good moves than simply taking your time. You have to employ a logical system that allows you to find good moves and that’s what this article examines.

While it’s true that patience is an absolutely crucial skill in chess, simply staring at the board for a long time, with your thoughts scattered about, does a player little good. You have to employ a logical system with which to examine the position at hand in order to determine the best move. This is the toughest challenge beginner’s face when learning the game. Therefore, we have to assess the position in a sequential, logical order, starting with threats.

Threats, either yours or your opponents, are the first order of business. You must identify threats. Too often, beginners will blindly consider their potential threats which blinds them to those of their opponent. Therefore, every time your opponent makes a move, look for a threat by that opposition pawn or piece. This means looking at every square that pawn or piece is attacking and determining whether or not one of your pawns or pieces is on one of those squares under attack. If one of your pawns or pieces is under attack, determine whether or not to move that pawn or piece or defend it. In assessing this idea of moving or defending, the beginner should first determine the value of the attacking piece versus the value of the piece being attacked. If a three point Knight is attacking a five point Rook, then the Rook should be moved. If the pieces are of equal value, ask yourself, can I move the attacked piece to a more active square? If you can, then your opponent may be doing you a positional favor! You never want to make moves that help your opponent and if your opponent does so, take advantage of them. Good moves serve to strengthen your position.

If the pieces are of equal value and you cannot move the attacked piece to a more active square, then defend it. Again, consider the value of potential defenders. Obviously, if you defend a piece with a pawn then your opponent may reconsider capturing it, especially if doing so does nothing to help their position. However, make sure to look at the position to see if capturing your piece will create an opening in your defenses that allows for a strong opposition attack. If so, you may have to build up your defenses around the attacked piece and potential positional opening. Don’t worry my novice chess playing friends, most beginner’s games will not have such calculated attacks, so you probably will not face this issue until later in your chess careers. However, be aware that more experienced players will sacrifice material to open up the position for an attack.

Now look for potential threats you can create. With beginner’s games, those threats often revolve around hanging pieces. Look to see if any of your opponent’s pawns or pieces are hanging. If there are no hanging pawns or pieces, see if there are any threats you can make. When you first start playing you don’t think in terms of threats. Threats come in varying degrees of severity, a potential checkmate being the strongest threat. We’ve already looked for hanging pieces so next we see if there are any threats you can make that force your opponent to respond with a move he or she doesn’t want to make. What kind of move is this? One that slows down their development or one that weakens their position. If you can further activate your pawns and pieces while threatening your opponent’s material, while weakening their position or forcing them to make moves they don’t want to make, you traveling along the correct road to mastery! Good threats include attacking a piece of greater value with a piece of lesser value, moves that check the opposition King and force him to move (prior to Castling) or moves that set up tactical plays (forks, pins, skewers, etc). Then there’s the counter threat.

If your opponent threatens one of your pieces, see if you can make a bigger threat. If you opponent attacks one of your minor pieces with a pawn, look to see if you can threaten an opposition piece of greater value with either a pawn or a piece of lesser value. You opponent will have to deal with the bigger threat, yours, which may lead to them having to make a positional concession which could give you an advantage!

Always look to further activate your pawns and pieces, especially during the early phases of the game. Before starting to play for Middle-game exchanges, develop your pawns and pieces to their most active squares, especially those that allow pieces to control more of the board. As I stated in earlier articles, the more control of the board you have (especially on your opponent’s side of the board), the greater your options. The greater your options, the fewer options your opponent has. This leads to winning games.

Once we’ve done this, we must look for at least three good moves. I tell my students that the difference between a good move and a great move is this: A good move is just that, a good move. A great move is one that wins the game (or creates an overwhelming advantage). To find that great move, you have to consider a few good candidate moves (moves we’re thinking about making). Just jumping on the first move you see might cause you to miss that great move. Therefore, you should try to think of at least three good moves. When you think of each move, make a mental note to yourself as to why that move is good. Have sound/good reasons for that move! If you can’t come up with a good reason for the move in question then it’s not a good move! Then compare the three moves and decide which of them is the best. If you do this every time you’re considering a move, you’ll win more games than you lose (eventually). Speaking of moves, here’s a game to enjoy until next week that has more than a few good moves in it. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

Under Pressure

Over the last few days I’ve been reading with interest the reports of the English contingent’s progress at the European Schools Championship in Montenegro.

The reports are written by Malcolm Birks, whose son Joe is taking part in the Under 9 section. After Round 5 he wrote “The tension is palpable and not all of it is fun”.

After Round 7 Malcolm went into more detail:

Being strong, even extra strong, is important in these competitions, because the lurking feeling that hangs around in the corners of the playing hall is fear.

Some of the children participating are undoubtedly fearful which is sad and worrying. Fearful of their parents’ reaction, fearful of their coaches and fearful of the great expectations upon their small shoulders.

I’m glad to say that I don’t think that this applies to the England players in our team, who all seem to have a healthy attitude and supportive parents and coaches. Indeed, a friendly parent from the Israeli delegation kindly observed: “I knew it must be players from the England team because they were smiling”.

It’s disturbing, but not altogether surprising, to read this, although good to be reassured that the English parents and coaches have been supporting their children in a healthy and positive way.

By and large, most English chess parents, in my experience, are great. We’ve been very lucky in the parents we’ve had at Richmond Junior Club over the years. However, I’ve witnessed parents shouting at children who have lost games, and heard reports of parents physically abusing children. I’m not sure that the whole concept of children having to score well in one tournament to qualify for the next tournament, or for the England squad, is helpful in this respect. The last time I visited the London Junior Championships I witnessed several children in tears because they hadn’t scored enough points to obtain a norm for the England Junior Squad.

Of course competitive chess, like any competitive activity, is, by its nature, tense and pressurised, and, because it’s a solo activity you can’t blame anyone other than yourself if you make a careless mistake and lose the game. Some people thrive on that sort of pressure, but there are others, including me, who don’t enjoy it.

Malcolm’s report poses a lot of questions, and it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. When Luke McShane was selected for the World Under 10 Championship in 1992 at the age of eight, there were those in the English junior chess establishment who were opposed to his selection, believing that Luke would be too young to cope with that sort of pressure, and citing a boy who had had a bad experience in this event in the past. But those of us who knew Luke and his father well were confident that he had the maturity to take part, and, as we know, he went on to win the tournament.

These days anyone who works with children has to be aware of child abuse, and aware of the long-term damage that physical and emotional abuse, as well as sexual abuse, can do to children. While many children gain a lot of benefit from taking part in junior international chess tournaments of this nature, they do create an environment in which abuse can occur. In events like this, especially when they involve very young children (the World Schools Championship includes U7 and U7 Girls sections), organisers need to be sensitive to the potential for abuse, and national chess federations need to provide guidelines for parents and coaches with regard to appropriate conduct.

There’s one more point. This is a relatively low profile event, much smaller and weaker than the World and European Youth Championships. A large proportion of the competitors are from Russia, with significant participation also from Turkey and Israel. There are 13 English players (plus a member of Richmond Junior Club representing Russia in the U7 section), five Spanish players and one Swedish player. Other West European countries, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, are conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps they’ve decided their players will get more benefit, or better value for money, by playing in open Swiss events against players of all ages. I understand this, but we have very few suitable tournaments in this country. Perhaps they know something we don’t. Perhaps we should ask them and find out.

Richard James

Chess and Jazz

Because I spend the majority of my time teaching chess, I often forget that I’m a musician. I play guitar as well as other instruments. How good am I? Well, my professional guitar playing peers consider me an excellent guitarist, although I always think I need improvement. I have a fairly large fan base for the kind of music I play and have been sited by bands such as Social Distortion and Green Day as being influential regarding their own playing. I mention this because the Grammy’s, those folks that do that yearly award show, just cut a check to pay for the last of my medical expenses. A few months ago, their Board (Music Cares) met and decided (for the second time) that I was worthy of help. I qualified because I am a recording artist who has sold records. Why am I mentioning all this? Because, upon getting the news, I felt guilty about not playing and recording in a while and decided to go back to playing music professionally (as long as it doesn’t get in the way with my chess teaching which is a stipulation in my current record contract). Enter Jazz guitar.

I honestly became bored with playing rock and roll, not because I don’t like it but because it wasn’t technically challenging. I decided to do a Jazz band that focused on Jazz from 1959. I asked a fellow guitar player who the toughest Jazz guitarist to emulate was and he said Wes Montgomery. That was who I’d study. I found some charts of Montgomery’s songs and within ten minutes of starting to learn them I knew I was in over my head. That made me smile because it was the type of challenge I live for. What does this have to do with chess?

You cannot get better at anything unless you take on a challenge that is above your skill set. For example, playing stronger opponents will lead to improvement. Learning Jazz guitar leads when you’ve mainly played rock and roll is like learning a complicated opening. You sit there staring at a sequence of notes or chess moves feeling as if you have no clue as to what’s really going on. However, if you stick with it and work hard, it eventually becomes clear. You slowly master it. You only master it when you put in a great deal of time. Push your boundaries and venture outside of your comfort zone.

One of the aspects of Jazz guitar I really enjoy is the seemingly endless choice of guitar solos. Rock tends to be Blues based so lead guitar work can (but not always) be limited. On the other hand, Jazz, because of it’s broader range of rhythmic drum beats and early prolific experimentation, allows for a greater range of soloing. In chess, you want to explore the many openings and playing styles available before settling on one. In short experiment! Openings are like a specific genre of music. Some have greater complexity than others which requires working harder to master them. Some provide greater options in regards to the direction your game goes in. Some lead to open games while others lead to closed games. Which you chose depends on your personality and how much effort you want to put into theory and study. Again, challenge yourself, aim for the stars and if you fall short of your goal, you’ll still be light years ahead of where you would have been had you simply set a small overall goal. There’s nothing wrong with practical goals that can be easily reached but you should try setting tougher goals that force you to work harder than you ever have. I like openings that give me options. Of course, if you’re a beginner you want to learn the basics first. When first learning to play guitar, you start with basic chords and simple leads. That doesn’t mean you can’t dream of playing like Hendrix! However, you have to build up your playing skills before you arrive at that destination.

Music is an art and so is chess, at least it should be! I’m of the opinion that computer software and technology in general have taken some of the art out of the game. Let me give you an example of how technology has taken a lot of the art out of music:

When I was coming up in the music world, you had to learn to play your instrument if you stood a chance of getting anywhere. While I literally learned to play while standing on a stage in front of people, an opportunity only afforded me thanks to punk rock, you were expected to get better if you wanted to survive. Back then, we didn’t have guitar effects that would essentially make us sound better even if we weren’t good musicians. Today, you can purchase an inexpensive set of effects that make you sound like a technical genius. You can also use effects to make your singing voice sound pitch perfect. What’s so bad about this technology? Some of the best recordings are flawed recordings in which wrong notes and bad tones actually make the musical composition better. Art is created by those who take chances, go against the societal grain and sometimes hit the wrong, right note! With chess, so many younger players strictly adhere to what their chess engines and databases tell them to do. Play through the games of chess’s romantic era, the 1800’s, and you’ll see dangerous and daring art. The same holds true with players like Tal and Spassky, who created art on the chessboard. If Tal played guitar he would have been a Jazz innovator.

Of course, you don’t want to play chess haphazardly, but you do want to experiment a bit. Try new things out, take a chance or two. You might find you like the outcome and even if you don’t, you can at least say you tried. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a student say “well, Houdini says I should make this move,” I’d be writing this article from my villa somewhere on an island I owned!

Jazz, or any music as long as it inspires you, is good to have playing in the background when you play chess. I know some people need silence to play but I find that music can push me further on the chessboard. I have a play list of songs, mostly Jazz from 1959, that inspires me, pushes me one step further in my playing. Well, there you have it, a little music and a little chess. Often, you can find the answers you seek regarding one endeavor in another seemingly unrelated subject. Of course, music and chess are very much related since a few brilliant chess players have also bee professional musicians. I know many musicians who play a lot of chess when on tour. They may be rock and roll animals when on stage but become quiet studious players when they sit down at the chessboard. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. This guy could really rock the piano, classically speaking!

Hugh Patterson