Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Another Chess Boom?

With the release of Pawn Sacrifice, the movie about Bobby Fischer and his journey to the 1972 World Championship match against Boris Spassky, people have asked me if the film will reignite the general public’s interest in chess. It’s the same question many people asked when Searching for Bobby Fischer was released decades ago. While Searching for Bobby Fischer, the story of Josh Waitzkin, did do some good sparking a general interest in chess, we’ll never capture the interest in chess that Fischer brought about in 1972. At the time, I was living in New York and as a twelve year old, saw the impact he had on the United States.

At that time, Americans had an unhealthy interest in the cold war. I say unhealthy because it was a war fought using print and television as its primary weapons and most people became obsessed with those “Communist Russians.” Obsession can be very unhealthy, especially when it’s driven by fear and fear was the watch word of the day. It was us against the Russians and the idea that a single man would go up against the Soviet chess machine proved irresistible to Americans. Who doesn’t like a fight in which the underdog wins?

As the match between Fischer and Spassky drew near, the nightly news reported on Fischer’s demands and speculated as to whether he’d even show up to play Spassky. Chess equipment sales went up overnight. Everyone, especially in New York, seemed to be discovering chess. When Fischer touched down in Iceland and the match began, bars who normally had sports showing on their television sets instead had the match on. Fischermania was sweeping the country. A chess boom was born. Chess clubs sprung up around the country and the future of chess burned like a bright star. However, with boom comes bust and the brightest stars burn out quickly. After Fischer won the championship in 1972, the boom started to fade away. Fischer disappeared into the realm of madness and chess paid the price.

Searching for Bobby Fischer, the story of a young chess prodigy, brought chess back into the limelight and got people interested in the game again. Parents, saw chess as a good thing for their children. However, it didn’t have anywhere near the impact Fischer’s 1972 battle with Spassky had. Rather than a boom there was a quiet pop! Which brings me to the potential impact of Pawn Sacrifice on chess.

The movie doesn’t paint a rosy picture of Bobby Fischer and nor should it. Sadly, he had serious mental health problems that people either didn’t recognize or swept under the rug because, after all, he was a ”chess genius.” When one is titled a genius they’re allowed to be eccentric because, after all, they’re genius! Fischer was an extremely complex individual, one who the mental health community could have a field day with. Back then, mental health was still in the dark ages from a clinical viewpoint. Case in point, Fischer complained during the early stages of the 1972 match that he could hear the motion picture cameras used to cover the event and this was disturbing him. Another outlandish demand by the boy genius? No, actually it’s a symptom of paranoid schizophrenia. Imagine playing for the world championship and have your mind start to fall apart?

Pawn Sacrifice will garner some interest in chess but with script lines comparing chess to falling down a rabbit hole (“this game, it’s a rabbit hole”), we may find a few people fleeing from the game. Let me be clear, chess does not cause mental illness but obsession can and it’s easy for an obsessive personality to fall victim to the obsessiveness that chess can sometimes demand. If you want to truly master something you have to put an abnormal amount of time into your studies.

So what would it take to create another chess boom like we saw in 1972? A set of circumstances whose odds wouldn’t be worth the bet! Now, I’ve gotten more emails than usual about chess lessons over the last week but that still doesn’t amount to a chess boom or even a chess bang. The tragic thing about the Fischer boom and its impact on chess is that those great gains in interest have been lost simply by the passing of time. There was no great follow up moment to sustain the momentum. Yet the idea of another chess boom looms in the minds of many players.

As a chess instructor, I spend time on forums chatting with other instructors in search of effective teaching ideas. I often see postings regarding the lack of or waning interest in chess. These posters will talk about an upcoming championship match and whether or not it will help spread the game. A percentage of those posing comments about increasing the interest in chess are involved in the game professionally, be they players who live off of tournament winnings, tournament organizers, chess clubs/federations and instructors. I understand their thinking. I earn my living teaching chess. While I earn a semi-comfortable living, I worry about the future of chess because if chess was suddenly taken out of the schools here I’d have to find another career (playing guitar in a punk rock band doesn’t pay the bills).

Since the idea of another major chess boom seems highly unlikely, chess professionals should try to raise interest in the game by literally taking it to the people rather than waiting for the people to discover it on their own. The world of chess could take a few lessons from the world of music.

Let’s say you start a really great band. No one is going to appreciate how good you are unless you get out in the world and play. So, you get your band booked at a club for your first show. You use social media to advertise that show. Your band plays the show to one hundred people. They love you and tell their friends. You book another show, advertise on social media sites and three hundred people show up to your next gig. This happens because the original one hundred people that saw your first show tell their friends, spreading the word. You keep doing it and hopefully get more and more people with each show. You sell your band to one person at a time!

When I say we need to bring chess to the people, I mean exactly that. I now do chess clinics and demonstrations at non chess events that range from punk rock clubs to library events. While the majority of the people I engage don’t go on to play chess regularly, a small percentage do and small percentages, when added together, create bigger numbers (of people interested in chess). I do many of these events free of charge, investing my time in hopes of helping the game’s future. The only thing I ask of the people I encounter is that they pass what they learn along to their friends. It’s the system bands use for building a fan base.

It’s slow and steady but it’s progress in the right direction, forward. It’s not sitting around waiting for a miracle. I could concentrate on garnering more paying students but I’d rather help build a future for the game that has given me so much. What’s the point in having a career in chess if its days are numbered? Like a garden, you first have to plant seeds if you eventually wish to smell the flowers!

Chess can be a tough way to make a living. It’s just like music and being in a band, you have to take the slow and steady course, nurturing your future . If you want to see a bright future for the game you love, plant the seeds, tend to them and you’ll have something to harvest later on. Bring the game to the people rather than waiting for a set of circumstances that probably won’t happen. I sometimes take my guitar and go busking, not for money but for my love of playing. Go take a chess set to a coffee place, set it up and ask if anyone wants to learn the game. You might make a few new friends and keep our beloved game going well into the future. Get out there and do something. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Some Words of Advice

When you teach and coach chess long enough, you’ll know what works and what doesn’t. I keep a journal regarding teaching methods that work and those that don’t. I recently had the opportunity to start teaching chess to a group of older students who are all intellectually gifted but had played little if any chess. I decided that our first class would start with some words of advice regarding their study of the game, based on what I’ve learned as a teacher. I gave my pep talk to this group of students because they’re used to learning things quickly and easily. Learning to play good chess is a slow process that can be difficult at times no matter how smart you are. Here’s what I said:

I wish you all slow and steady progress. While we live in a world that measures success in terms of how quickly you achieve your goals, success in chess requires a commitment of time and patience. Chess is a game that rewards those who exercise patience and punishes those who don’t. Chess is a game built upon a foundation and how solid that foundation is depends solely on you, the builder of that foundation. If you build your foundation poorly, your game will collapse like a house of cards. Build it on the bedrock of hard work and careful study and it will weather the worst of positional storms. In short, you have to carefully grasp each game principle completely. This is the slow and steady process, taking one principle, dissecting it until you know it’s true meaning and only then moving on to the next principle. Mastering any skill takes a huge commitment of time. Those of you who play a musical instrument know that you don’t simply pick it up and suddenly create beautiful music. You have to practice.

Some people learn faster than others. However, this doesn’t mean that those who learn faster are necessarily better or smarter. We all learn at different speeds and frankly, those who have to work a little harder than others to learn something have a better grasp of the subject matter when all is said and done. Slow and steady wins the race! Don’t worry if everyone else seems to understand a game principle and you still feel a bit lost. At least eighty percent of those people claiming to “completely understand” that elusive game principle probably don’t understand it as much as they think they do. Embrace struggling with learning because you have to put in more effort which will help solidify your grasp on the subject matter. From today on, you’re going to stop worrying about how quickly your classmates are learning and put that energy into your own efforts on the chessboard. Use your intellectual energy wisely!

Ask questions. I am suspect of any student that sits in my class and doesn’t ask a question. Either they’re secretly a Grandmaster or they’re not paying attention. People who don’t ask questions in life suffer the fate of fools. I implore you to question everything! If I present a concept and my explanation doesn’t make sense to you, ask me to explain it again. The only stupid question is the one not asked. Otherwise, all questions are good. If you don’t ask questions in my class, I’ll question you about your grasp of the concepts I present. If everyone else seems to understand a concept and you don’t, ask for another explanation. Trust me, I’m going to be more impressed with you, the person asking for a different explanation, than I am with everyone else nodding their heads as if they know the idea presented inside and out. Heading nodding will get you nowhere. Actually, it will probably inspire me to ask you to explain to the class, the idea you’re nodding your head about.

Don’t short cut your studies. I will ask you to play through an opening and a number of its variations as homework. Some of you will play through every single move three times while others will speed through the assignment. Again, slow and steady wins the race. If you’re the person slowly playing through the opening and its variations three time and you face off against one of those speedy learners, my money’s on you to win the game. Like music and martial arts, two things I’m very much into, chess requires study and practice. Some of you know I’m a musician. Some of you have seen me play and at least one of you said “you make it look easy.” When you see me play guitar, you’re seeing the end result, the result of decades of work. By playing for so long, my fingers have been trained to know where to go when I play (most of the time). Just because something looks easy doesn’t mean it is. It only looks easy because the person doing whatever it is has spent a good part of their lifetime studying and practicing. Chess is the same way. When you play an opponent who seems to do amazing things on the board, they didn’t wake up one morning being able to play great chess. They put a lot of time into developing their chess skills.

You can think of learning chess as starting a garden. You start with a patch of bare earth. You work the soil, plant the seeds, water the seedlings and eventually you have wonderful flowers, etc growing. When planting a garden, the end result takes time. You can plant seeds and expect them to fully mature into blooming flowers overnight. It takes time and so does learning chess. There are no short cuts. If you see an advertisement for a book that guarantees instant results, run in the opposite direction.

If you tend to be impatient, let learning chess be a way to nurture and improve your patience. Embrace the idea of learning something slowly. Rather than becoming impatient because your not playing like Magnus Carlsen after two weeks, treat each principle you learn as an achievement in itself. Set your immediate goal as mastering one principle at a time rather than the entire game. Did you know that having patience will add years to your life. When your impatient, you become upset or stressed. Stress is a killer. Be smart and live to one hundred by developing patience through chess.

Learn to love losing! I know society places little stock in losses but you’ll learn more from losing a game of chess than winning a game. This is the only class you’ll take that makes losing a cause for celebration. I wish you many losses because from those losses you’ll learn to be a better chess player. Loose a soccer game and you might get booted from the team. Loose a chess game and you’ll improve. How, you ask? A good chess player will play through that lost game, figure out where they went wrong, correct the problem and learn something in the process. You learn from your losses!

So throw out your brainy notions of rapid learning and instant success. Slow down and embrace the idea of taking on one concept or principle at a time. Take the Zen approach not the winner gets all Western approach to life. Feel free to make mistakes, to stumble and fall. It’s all alright because we’re going to take a different road on the journey of life. We’re going to take the slow road to chess enlightenment! With that said, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Know Your Students

Sometimes, I’ll go into a school, get the school started with a chess class and then hand the class over to another of our instructors six months later. When I check in with that instructor and ask them how the class is going, they always say the same thing, “those students are really loyal to you.” My students, be they children, teenagers or adults, are loyal to me. It’s not because I’m the greatest chess teacher in the world but because I make a point to get to know each of my students, and this goes a long way towards teaching those students chess.

Every student you encounter may share a common interest, in this case chess, but has different interests outside of your class. Students also have varied personalities. We’ve all seen the disastrous effects of “one size fits all” teaching in the school system. Each of us has a unique personality and because of this, we tend to absorb information in different ways. However, even using a teaching approach that takes this into consideration only goes so far. To maximize the student/teacher relationship, you have to know something about your students.

When I meet students for the first time, I interview them. I do this with all my students. I do so because I want to know how my students approach life. To determine this, I ask them about their interests. What are their favorite subjects in school and which subjects do they detest? One of their least favorite subjects, for example, is mathematics because many of my young students are leaving the cloistered safety of arithmetic and jumping into the waters of algebra. Knowing this, I can use chess notation to help them make the transition. After all, chess notation is based on alphanumeric thinking, something introduced when you first learn algebra. These same anti-mathematic students often have a passion for the creative arts and approach life differently because of this passion. These students need to learn the game from a visual perspective so pattern recognition is going to be their gateway learning tool.

Of course, pattern recognition is critical for all students of the game. However, with creatively inclined or visual learners, you have to emphasize pattern recognition even more so than mathematically inclined students. Student’s outside interests play a key role in getting them to play more chess. I always ask students if they play a musical instrument or partake in sports. Of course, this is a loaded question, as they say, because as soon as the student says “yes, I play the piano,” I hit them with “I bet you have to practice a lot.” Once the student admits to putting time into practicing I mention that chess works the same way. You get better only if you practice by playing a lot of chess! The same holds true with sports, for those that play sports rather than an instrument.

In addition to improving your ability to effectively teach, knowing your students helps build their respect for you because you’re listening to them. I treat my students, no matter how young, as adults. By this, I mean that when they speak to me I listen and give them the attention they often don’t get from other adults. What they say matters to me. When my students come to class, I’ll ask them how they are and what they’ve been up to. My students will gladly provide me with a plethora of information that helps me adjust my teaching methods to help them maximize the retention of information I’m providing. More importantly, the lines of communication are open and a student who might not ask subject related questions during class feels more prone to do so because he or she feels more comfortable with me. Respect is something not automatically given to you as a teacher because you’re a teacher. Respect is earned, no matter how young your students are.

I’ve had every kind of student, from well behaved to juvenile delinquent and, in the end, earning their respect goes the longest way towards helping them learn. It should be noted that earning respect can be a slippery slope. I’ve seen many instructors fail to earn their students respect because those instructors try to be something their not. They try to be more like a student than teacher. If you’re an adult, you’re not going to gain your student’s respect if you try to behave as they do. I maintain a higher level of discipline in my classes than the schools do in their regular classes. My students know that there are certain rules that cannot be broken. However, they also know that if they adhere to these rules, they’ll have fun. Just because you maintain an orderly class doesn’t mean your students are going think anything less of you, as long as you make a point of knowing them. Because I’m strict, when I do have a moment of being goofy, it makes it that much funnier!

Getting to know your students is also helpful for other reasons. Many students go through their academic life with learning disabilities that are not diagnosed. This happens because many schools are overcrowded, teachers don’t have the time to know every student or the teacher in question is burned out. If you, their chess teacher, can discover that a student has a learning issue, you can bring this to the attention of the school and help change that student’s life for the better. Then there’s the chess benefits.

Many of my classes have a waiting list, not because I’m a great chess teacher, but because my students and I are invested in one another so they take the class year in and year out. Seventy percent of my classes are filled with students who have been with me for two or more years. This only happens because I know my students! The longer you work with a student, the better their chess education!

The same idea holds true for adult students. I teach a few well known musicians who have very demanding schedules and very diverse lives. When they signed on for lessons, I got to know them by asking questions. The same questions I use for my younger students were asked of my adult students. What subjects did you like in school? What are you passions or hobbies outside of your profession? Knowing who a person is away from the chessboard is tantamount to helping them improve on the chessboard. If you don’t ask questions and get to know your student, you’re depriving them of the one thing you’re offering, knowledge. Do note that I had to figure all this out through trial and error. Figuring out how to teach, now that’s hard work. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


The Belt System

Teaching students in the school system presents a number of challenges regarding the measure of a student’s improvement. In a perfect world, the student’s progress would be measured in terms of rating’s points earned through tournaments. However, because my classes only take up seven or eight months of the school year, students don’t have the opportunity to play in many rated events. Therefore, I just recently started using the martial arts belt system for measuring my student’s progress. Like a martial arts class, students earn belts based on what they’ve learned and how they employ that knowledge, in this case, on the chessboard. This is a new teaching method for me and one that I’ve just started using so we’re still in the testing phase!

So far, this system has had positive results because students tend to put more into their studies when they know that their efforts are rewarded with a belt, which in this case is actually a program certificate. The belt order I use, from lower to higher skill levels is white, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown and black. The certificate has a color image of the belt, the student’s name, achievement and the date of passing their test.

My students have always had a healthy interest in the martial arts, many of them having taken classes. Running a chess class like a martial arts studio or dojo has advantages because you can work discipline into you teaching program. Since chess improvement requires discipline, this is an excellent way to help students develop this much needed skill. Chess classes don’t work unless students are fully engaged, otherwise, you’re simply working as a babysitter! Running a chess class like a martial arts studio keeps my students actively involved. While I use the belt system as a means to measure my students progress, and students have to pass tests for each belt, I’ve incorporated one other condition into their ability to progress from belt to belt. The more experience students must help the less experienced students improve. Students wishing to move up to the next belt must tutor students of lower belts. Teaching fellow students helps to improve one’s true understanding of the ideas and concepts being taught. It also helps solidify the idea that our class is a team and a team is only as strong as its weakest member. We work together for the common good of the dojo.

If you’re looking for a way to manage and measure your student’s progress, the belt system works well (so far) because often, in school based chess classes, you have a mix of students with different skill levels. If you try to present a game with intermediate concepts, the advanced students will become bored and the beginning students lost! It is very difficult to employ a one or two sizes fits all approach. What I started doing recently was presenting a game and pointing out concepts based on my belt system. When a key point for absolute beginners comes up, I’ll announce “white and yellow belts pay attention. All other belts be prepared to explain this concept to your students” When an advanced idea is presented, I’ll say “white and yellow belts this is an advanced idea which we’ll discuss later, one on one, so don’t worry about it if you don’t understand the idea right away.” It is now important for advanced students to pay attention to ideas they already have a basic understanding of since they’ll need to teach them to less experienced members of the group and it’s more important for less experienced students to know that they’re not expected to understand more advanced ideas right away. I’ve been using this system since the start of the this session less than two weeks ago with good results, so far.

So now we’ll look at qualifying for belts. All students who are brand new to chess start out as a white belt. To earn their yellow belt, they must know how the pawns and pieces move, castling, check and checkmate. White belts are expected to help other white belts learn these rules. To pass the yellow belt test one must also know the rules of promotion, capturing en passant, piece value and chess notation. Yellow belt candidates must also tutor at least one white belt to earn their belt.

Orange belts must learn and master three opening principles, starting the game with a centralized pawn move, development of minor pieces to active squares and when to castle. They must demonstrate that they’ve used these principles correctly during the three games I grade them on. I watch Orange belt candidates play three consecutive games and base their grades on the application of these three primary opening principles. Of course, they must tutor at least one yellow belt to advance.

The green belt test includes the three primary opening principles plus some additional principles regarding what you don’t want to do in the opening. I thought about including this in the orange belt test but wanted to make the student’s progression through the belt system easier at the start and more complex as they move up the ranks. The things they cannot do during the opening are making too many pawn moves, moving the same piece twice unless necessary (which requires a full explanation by the student) and bringing the Queen out early. Again, they also have to tutor at least one orange belt to advance.

The blue belt is more complex in that there are two levels within this belt. Students have to have taken classes with me for at least six months. This belt is all about introductory tactics. Students must learn and employ forks, pins, skewers, discovered attacks, etc. I watch as they play a number of games and while playing, when they execute a specific tactic, I grade them on it. They pass if they are able to set up and successfully execute each tactic. To pass the first belt level, students must simply set up and execute the tactic, one per game. To pass the second level, at least two tactical plays must be made in a single game. There is no limit to the number of games required to pass level two. They might meet the requirement in two games or twenty. Of course they have to tutor a student who holds a belt below theirs.

The brown belt requires learning basic middle and endgame play. This belt requires that the student has been taking chess classes with me for at least nine months. A brown belt candidate must demonstrate the ability to improve piece activity during the middle game, before attacking, and employ tactics during this game phase. Their endgame work requires the ability to deliver checkmate using their King and pawn, as well as the King and a combination of pieces. Their is also a test in which they play a pawn and King endgame against me, demonstrating ideas such as King opposition and using their King to promote a pawn. They also work with lower belt students.

Finally, the black belt requires two years of working with me. We work one on one, going through opening theory, advanced middle and endgame ideas, etc. Students, through hard work have the opportunity to work with their instructor (me) directly, playing a game and analyzing it afterward. Black belt candidates work with brown belt candidates.

Since this system is new for me, I’m working with yellow and orange belts only but expect to see more advancement towards the end of the year. Because I have a new crop of students, I thought this would be the right time to test this teaching method out. I’ll keep you posted regarding what works and what doesn’t. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


The Journey

Chess is a lot of things to a lot of people. For some it’s simply a game to pass the time while to others it’s a way of life. Chess is a battle in which we use our brains as our weapon. I tell my students that chess is an intellectual martial art, Kung Fu of the mind. As a student of both Tai Chi and Wing Chun, I see great similarities between chess and the martial arts. In fact, chess and martial arts are the two things that make me who I am. Without them, I’m not whole and I’m not happy. Let me explain:

Western society places a high premium on winning so many people study chess to get better at it so they win more games, demonstrating to themselves that they possess the superior mind. Wrong! Our goal in life should not be one of winning but one of improving our minds and bodies to their greatest potential. How you feel during your day depends on the state of your mind and body. When we’re sick our bodies ache and we don’t feel very well. We drag through our day looking forward to sleep. If we live a life without exercise, when we do have to do something physical we feel the wrath of a sedentary life, a life spent in front of our computer. If we watch television all day and then have to use our brains to solve a problem, our brain strains under the pressure and we become tired. Our lives become dreadful and we physically and mentally shuffle from one day to the next. I was this person, having the worst physical and mental habits you could have. I was dying a slow death each and every day. I wanted nothing more than to sleep because at least while I slept I felt no pain!

I’ve written about chess having gotten me through addiction and a life threatening disease which it did by strengthening my mind to battle the mental demons that manifested themselves in both situations. So chess holds a special place for me, not because I want to be a winner but because I want to maintain a healthy mental outlook. I also suffered all my life from dyslexia, something chess was able to eliminate from my life. How did chess do this? By forcing my brain, through pattern recognition, to visualize things correctly. Chess also helps one’s memory, something that weakens with age. Because chess has helped my mind so much, I view it more in Eastern terms as a way to balance my internal life which also aids my external life. While I enjoy winning my games, I take losses with a grain of salt, as something that is part of the journey. Losses are simply a reminder that we can always improve.

Of course, there are two components to one’s being, the mental and the physical. You have to have a good balance of both if either is work. For decades, I walked with a limp using a cane. A small flight of stairs was a painful obstacle. Doctors prescribed pain medications, a dangerous drug in the hands of a recovering addict. Fortunately, I knew enough to have my wife dole them out. However, I didn’t want to be enslaved to medication, not to mention the medication took away from my mental abilities. When faced with such a dilemma, you have to be proactive. I decided to try exercise but became bored easily when at the gym. I turned to Tai Chi and it was a game changer. It was slow and difficult at first because I felt as if I was getting no benefit from it. However, one day realized I was walking around without my cane and had no idea how long I had been doing so. People started commented that my limp was gone as well. The noticeable break through for me was that my chess playing got better because my mind was clear.

Over time, I started to feel more balanced, both internally and externally (with the world around me). I started talking on challenges I never would have in the past. This led me to wanting to study Kung Fu. I knew that I still had physical limitations due to the many reconstructive surgeries on my right ankle so I talked to a number of different martial artists who suggested I try Wing Chun. I found a teacher by accident. He was filling in for his brother driving his cab and I was a passenger. He said he always wanted to play western chess. When I found out he taught Wing Chun we decided to trade lessons. I look at the set of circumstances that led to this chance encounter, not as chance, but as an opportunity that presented itself because I was being proactive in my life. I opened my mouth and engaged in conversation with this man which led to a great opportunity. If you sit at home and wait for opportunity to knock, you’re apt to wait a lifetime. Opportunity presents itself to those who seek it.

As my body’s condition improves so does that of my mind. This means that my chess improves as well. If you want to attain your maximum potential as a chess player, you have to look at the bigger picture which includes your physical state. The physical and mental go hand in hand.

I now teach my young students that chess is a way in which they can strengthen their minds. Of course, they’re kids so they have a desire to win. However, by teaching them that there are lifelong benefits to playing chess, I remove some of the Western competitive thinking from their thought process. I’ve been restructuring my teaching program to approach chess from an Eastern point of view, treating the class like a martial arts studio. Students spare with one another on the board, learning to appreciate good moves made by each other regardless of the outcome. When a good move is made by one student, his or her opponent will compliment that move. I also encourage my students to engage in physical activities and teach them the balance between body and mind.

So my fellow chess players, play to improve your mind not just to win. Anyone can win but the person who can lose and learn from that loss is the true winner. Take care of your bodies because you only have one. Trust me when I say that a little bit of physical exercise will go a long way towards making you a happier person and a better chess player. You don’t have to go crazy and take up kick boxing. Try walking. My journey has taken me from very near death to feeling pretty darn good. I do suggest avoiding the near death part because it’s not much fun but take a cue from me; good mental and physical health makes for a better life and better chess. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Take a healthy walk, then play through the game!

Hugh Patterson


Getting the Most out of DVDs

As self improving chess players, we seek out educational tools to help us improve our game. Back when I first started playing, you had one choice if you wanted to get better at chess on your own, books. You’d go to the library or purchase a copy of the book you wanted, study it and apply your new found knowledge on the chess board. Back then, there were nowhere near as many chess books available as there are now and it was much easier to figure out which book would apply to your skill level. Now, we have an overwhelming number of chess books, most of which go over the heads of the average player. Then there are instructional DVDs.

DVDs are a great way to learn for those who don’t want to plod through often dryly written chess books. DVDs are visual and animated which helps with comprehension and pattern recognition. However, the DVD market is flooded with titles and it’s often difficult to determine which DVD is right for you. So, before we discuss how to get the most out of a chess DVD, we should briefly learn how to choose the correct DVD.

If you’re a beginner or improver, you’ll want to look for titles that include key words such as beginner, basic and introductory. Stay away from titles that use words such advanced or the term club player. Also avoid DVDs that concentrate on the games of a particular master because they’re often geared towards players with a solid grasp of more advanced principles. You’ll also want to consider the source. Remember, anyone can put out a chess DVD and these days it seems like everyone is. Plenty of titled players put out their own instructional DVDs but it takes a special talent to teach chess. This means that not all titled players are great or even just good teachers! Two DVD series I would recommend are the Chessbase series and the Foxy series. Both, use top notch teachers such an Andrew Martin, Nigel Davies and Daniel King, to name just a few! These titled players also teach so they know how to explain the subject matter in a manner that the viewer will understand. Now let’s look at how to get the most from your new DVD.

Let’s say you’ve decided to learn the Caro Kann opening and have purchased Andrew Martin’s Chessbase DVD, The ABCs of the Caro Kann. Before viewing the DVD, you should study the opening a bit. While Andrew’s DVD explains the opening in detail from move one, it’s to your advantage to do some preparation before actually viewing the DVD. Why should you do this? The answer is very simple. You’ll want to do some preparatory studying so you understand the underlying mechanics of this specific opening because the more basic knowledge you have of this opening prior to watching the DVD, the more you’ll get out of viewing it. Too often, players who use DVDs for their training don’t bother to prepare themselves prior to viewing. While they can learn from the DVD, they won’t learn as much as if they did some simple preparation. Here’s what I mean.

Get a general book on openings for your chess library if you don’t already have one. If you’re a beginner, get a book like The Dummies Guide to Chess Openings because its easy to understand. Read through the section on the Caro Kann. When reading that section, look at each move playing in this opening and examine the mechanics or principles behind that move. Does each move adhere to the opening principles? Play through the example games. The author presents a game in which black wins and one in which white wins. Take notes. Yes, take notes. Have a notebook dedicated to the Caro Kann. You should write the game you’re playing through down in your notebook and comment on every move. Your commentary should explain, in your own words, why a move works, why it doesn’t, etc.

Then go online and look up the Caro Kann. Read a few beginner’s articles and watch a few videos. This sounds like a lot of work just to watch a DVD but you’ll be rewarded in the end. Take notes on the articles you read and any videos you watch. Now it’s time to watch The ABCs of the Caro Kaan!

Common sense tells us to start at the beginning of an instructional video and work our way through sequentially. You’d be surprised how many chess players will skip around in no real order when watching such a DVD, cheating themselves out of a series of strong, well thought out lessons. In the case of Andrew’s DVD, the presentation is designed to be watched sequentially and that’s how you get the most out of it. Take notes as well. The great thing about these DVDs is that you can rewind them and watch parts again, parts that you may find confusing the first time around. If you can rewind a section that you don’t understand and re-watch it, why take notes? Because when you take notes, you’re writing the concepts down in your own words which helps you retain those ideas in your head. Its also much easier to carry a notebook around (and safer) than a laptop.

Go through each individual video a few times before moving to the next video. In other words, don’t simply go from one game to the next (one video to the next). Watch Andrew’s presentation of a game two or three times, then move on to the next video. Often, ideas demonstrated in one section will form the backbone of the next section (video). After you’ve gone through the entire DVD, practice what you’ve learned in some casual games. After playing the opening yourself, go back and watch the DVD again. You’ll learn more from the DVD, having played the opening yourself.

Take your time when watching chess DVDs. You will not retain everything offered through this instructional tool in one sitting. Watch it over and over. Take your time. If you really want to get the most out of self learning using DVDs, try this approach. I use this method (I wouldn’t ask you to try something unless I did so myself) and it works. Here’s game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Tournament Prep for Older Players

I met a chess player a few weeks back who was about to enter his first tournament in three weeks. He’s in his late forties and sought my advice for getting ready, both for this tournament and future tournaments. “You should consider Tai Chi or another martial art and get cracking with it!” His look of bewilderment said it all. My chess playing friend was of the opinion that chess was a completely mental effort and no physical conditioning was needed. Wrong. If you don’t believe me ask Boris Spassky who blended his chess studies with physical activities! I recommend Tai Chi to my students now because it helps immensely with stamina, concentration, focus and patience. Exercising your mind for many hours cannot be done simply by building your mental muscles because using your brain can be physically draining. We’ve all had a bad case of “brain drain” in which we’re physically exhausted after a long match. You increase your brain function physically as well as intellectually. It’s a case of Yin and Yang.

“Since, I’m not going to become a martial arts master in the three weeks left before my first tournament, what can I do?” Expecting me to say “not much, good luck,” he was taken back when I gave him some ways to increase his stamina in this short time period. Here’s what I suggested:

Change your eating habits to start. Start reducing the amount of sugar and caffeine you take in. While these might give you a boost of energy, that energy is short lived. As they say, what goes up must come down and this is true when ingesting sugar and caffeine based products. Eat fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as anything else deemed healthy. Consider the time of day when you’ll be playing to determine the appropriate food to eat. Heavy foods make you sluggish which translates to being sleepy (not good for the tournament player). Eat light and healthy. “Should I start now?” Absolutely! I told my friend that he must start now so his body can adjust to the lack of sugar and caffeine. Sugar and caffeine are treated by the body the same way drugs are which means there is a period of withdrawal. When you introduce a chemical to your body and it’s a substance your body naturally produces, your body will stop producing it. Therefore, when you stop feeding your body that substance, it takes a while for the body to start producing it again. Healthy eating and natural forms of energy acquisition make for better levels of concentration.

Next, I told my friend to regulate his sleep so he is getting the necessary amount of sleep each night. I heard people say they do their best work on little sleep. This is a ego driven myth. We need sleep and most of us don’t get enough due to life’s many surprises. Rather than just getting a good night’s sleep just prior to the tournament, I told my friend that each time he got a good night’s sleep before the tournament was like putting money in the bank of focus and concentration. The longer you put money in, the greater the amount available later on (focus and concentration) when you need to cash out! He needed eight full hours of sleep per night. I asked when the tournament started and he said 10:00 am. Since it was a local tournament less than 30 minutes from his house, I suggested going to bed at 11:00 pm and getting up at 7:30 pm. He mentioned that this added up to 8 ½ hours. I reminded him that it takes people a bit of time to actually fall asleep. Sleep isn’t sleep unless you’re actually sleeping.

Time for some exercise. I didn’t expect him to do ten three minute rounds of boxing with me (something I do three times a week in addition to my other physical activities) but I did expect him to get the blood flowing through his body, feeding a greater amount of oxygen to the brain. I suggested taking long walks every single day, rain or shine. Sitting around hunched over the chess board while studying opening theory looks impressive but you mind can wander easily when you start to get tired. Walking is a good way to get the blood flowing to your brain and isn’t as boring as sitting in a gym doing repetitive exercises (yes, martial arts requires repetitive exercises but they’re a lot more fun than a stair master). I told him to walk two miles a day, downloaded an app to measure his progress and reminded him that I would check the app. Of course, I had to say, quoting a friend, a Chinese Judge who says to young people who stand before her in court in regards to cheating on his exercise “You shame your family honor if you don’t walk the full two miles.” I suspected he was having second thoughts about asking for my advice.

“Well, what about the chess part of this preparation?” My reply was “stick with what you know.” At this point, he got a bit agitated “What?” I explained that he should employ the openings he felt comfortable with rather than trying out something new. If you want to play a new opening at a tournament, you need to put at least six months of serious work into that opening before testing it out in tournament play. “What if my opponent plays an opening I’m not familiar with?” In these case, let the opening principles guide you but not in a mechanical way. Always make moves to improve your position rather than going for premature attacks. If your opponent is tactical, close the position down. Always work with your pawns with an eye towards the endgame. Play both sides not just your own. Pretend to be your opponent and find his best move before he does. Then you can calculate an appropriate response.

“Sometimes my mind wanders while my opponent is thinking about their move.” That comment was worthy of a “shame your family honor” rebuttal, which he got! The time in which your opponent is thinking of possible moves is a gift to you! You should be looking at every single one of the opposition’s pawns and pieces, figuring out where they could move to to create problems for your position. When you have this free “opposition time,” you should use it wisely, examining the position carefully. If you do it right, you’re actually using your opponent’s own clock time against them. I recommend reading The Art of War to get into this way of thinking.

Get to your tournament early which means leaving early. Rushing into a tournament means you’re going into it with added stress. Tournaments can be stressful enough so don’t add to an already stressful situation. So far, my friend is taking my suggestions to heart. While he may not take of Tai Chi, the cure all for everything in my book, he’ll at least avoid some of the pitfalls many players experience when they sit down to play. All this advice is simple common sense but there seems to be a global lack of it these days. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


King Opposition

As I’ve said in previous articles about the endgame, beginners seldom know what to do when in this game phase. Of course, most beginner’s games end well before a proper endgame so I can’t fault them for lacking practical experience. However, one problem beginner’s face when they do end up in an endgame, in which Kings and pawns are the only material left on the board, is the use of their Kings. Beginners tend to leave their Kings sitting inactively on their starting ranks. King activity is absolutely a must in King and pawn endgames!

The beginner who has gained a small modicum of experience knows to defend their King in the game’s first two phases, the opening and middle-game. During the opening, the beginner castles his King to safety and develops his or her pieces actively. During the middle-game, our beginner keeps a watchful eye out for opposition attacks on their King while launching their own attacks on the enemy King. Then, if they reach the endgame, the beginner often attempts to advance pawns across the board to their promotion squares. However, they often do so without the assistance of their King. When the majority of you and your opponent’s material is off the board, you need to employ the power of the King!

When students ask me to analyze their endgame, asking who has the better chance of winning, I first look at the balance of material. If they have a superior force that can corral opposition pawns while helping to promote one of their own pawns, they’ve got the opportunity to win. If the position is equal, material-wise, I look at King activity. If their opponent’s King is active and their King is not, the opposition has better opportunities to win. Again, you have to get your King into the game if you’re going to deliver a successful checkmate!

King opposition is a key factor in endgame play! Simply put, Kings in opposition are Kings facing one another on a rank, file or diagonal with a single square separating them. You’ll want to have the opposition to gain the advantage. What do I mean by having the opposition? You have the opposition when the other King has to move. In other words, if you’re playing the white pieces in such a position and it’s black’s turn to move, you have the opposition. When the black King moves, he gives the white King the right of way so to speak. Look at the example below:

In this example, it’s black to move. The black King moves to f6. The white King now has two choices. He can move to f4, maintaining the opposition, or he can move to d5, outflanking the black King. Outflanking means getting past something by moving around its side. A key point beginners should embrace is the idea that the opposition King can never move to squares controlled by their King. This means that you’ll want to use your King to control squares you want to keep the opposition King off of. This becomes a critical idea when using your King to aid in the promotion of a pawn. Now let’s see these ideas employed in an endgame situation in which both players have their Kings and a pawn each.

It’s black to move, so white has the opposition. The black King moves to d7 (1…d7) in an effort to protect his pawn and go after the white pawn on f5. However, getting the white pawn will prove difficult. It is too soon for the white King to outflank the black King so white keeps the Kings in opposition with 2. Kd5. Black moves his King to e7 (2…Ke7) to prevent white from placing his King on e6. So far, white is dictating the play in this endgame! Only now does white outflank the black King with 3. Kc6. Timing is everything in an endgame scenario such as this. The white pawn on f5 cuts off the e6 square and, combined with the white King’s control of d6 and d7, the black King cannot get onto a good square. Note that the white King is on the same rank as the back pawn, preparing to go after that pawn. In our example, black plays 3…Ke8 which merely puts off black’s demise by a few moves.

White then plays 4. Kd6, heading toward the poor black pawn. One point that should be made about pawn and King endgames is that you should always consider your opponent’s best response to your move before you make it. When white moved his King to d6, he knew that black would play 4…Kf7, trying to protect the pawn. As a beginner, you should note that this type of endgame position relies completely on the Kings. Since the pawns are locked in place, it is up to one of the Kings to free his pawn by capturing the opposition pawn. White plays 5. Kd7 and this is the critical move, placing the King’s in opposition. Since it’s now black’s turn to move, white has the opposition and, because of the position of the Kings and pawns, black is forced away. Black plays 5…Kf8 and white will win.

The game continues with 6. Ke6. White is now next to the black pawn so black tries to hold onto it with 6…Kg7 but white has anticipated black’s move and now plays 7. Ke7. The black King cannot go to g6 because of the white pawn on f5 so he is forced away from the defense of his f6 pawn, playing 7…Kg8. White will now capture the black pawn with 8. Kxf6.

It is at this point in the position that I would tell a student playing white to slow down and think very carefully about the next few moves. Experienced players might say “oh, but this is such an easy win!” The problem is that beginners often see the end result, checkmate, and become so excited that they play quickly which leads to a blunder which leads to stalemate.

Black now plays 8…Kf8. Black is hoping to somehow block the white pawn’s advance but white should fear not because white has his King in front of the pawn. When trying to promote a pawn with the aid of your King, you want your King facing your opponent’s King, in opposition. You don’t want your King behind your pawn which leads to a draw. This means that white has to think carefully about the next move. White plays 9. Ke6, outflanking black’s King. This allows white to control two key squares, e7 and f7. Black plays 9…Ke8, trying to maintain opposition. After 10. f6, black plays 10…Kf8, desperate to stop the advancing white pawn. After 11. f7, black is lost because he has to move off of the white pawn’s promotion square (f8). Black plays 11. Kg7. Here white moves his King to e7 with 12. Ke7, which protects both the white pawn and its promotion square. With nothing better to do, black plays 12…Kh7 followed by white promoting his pawn to a Queen with 13. f8=Q. Needless to say, white will win!

You should always use the ideas of King opposition and outflanking in endgame play. Always bring your King into the endgame and always take your time during this phase. Rather than give you a game to enjoy, here’s some homework: Set up five endgame positions, using Kings and pawns, with your computer or human opponent. Play through them and practice the ideas I presented above. Enjoy your homework!

Hugh Patterson


Chess Games for Heroes (2)

Here’s another Chess Games for Heroes offering in which students are shown a game, asked to find the best move in certain situations, and are rewarded with points for making good choices.

Game 2
Howard Staunton – Alfred Brodie
London 1851

This game was played in the first ever international chess tournament, held in London in 1851. Howard Staunton, the winner of this game, was one of the strongest players in the mid 19th century as well as the organiser of the tournament. Alfred Brodie was an amateur drafted in at short notice when some of the expected players failed to arrive on time. Can you play as well as Staunton?

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6

Choose a move for White

3. d4

5 points for this move, Nc3, Bc4 or Bb5. 3 points for c3 or Be2. This is the SCOTCH GAME.

Choose a move for Black

3… exd4

5 points for this move, Black’s only good reply. 2 points for d6, Nf6 or Nxd4.

Choose a move for White

4. Bc4

5 points for this move, Nxd4 or c3. Nxd4 is the main line of the SCOTCH GAME. 4. c3 is the GÖRING GAMBIT. 4. Bc4 is the SCOTCH GAMBIT. White plays for quick development rather than stopping to take the pawn back.

Choose a move for Black.

4… Bb4+

3 points for this move. 5 points for Nf6, Black’s safest reply, which is a variation of the TWO KNIGHTS DEFENCE. 3 points also for Bc5, Be7 or d6.

Choose a move for White

5. c3

5 points for this move, gaining time by attacking the bishop. 2 points for Bd2.

5… dxc3

Choose a move for White

6. 0–0

5 points for this move, bxc3 or Nxc3. White again goes for quick development but taking the pawn on c3 was also good.

6… Qf6

Choose a move for White

7. e5

3 points for this move. 5 points for Nxc3, probably the best move. 3 points also for bxc3, Bg5, Qc2 or Qb3. White sets a trap, hoping Black will capture the pawn.

Bonus question 1: what would you play if Black played Nxe5 here?

5 points for Nxe5.

Bonus question 2: what would you then play if Black played Qxe5?

10 points for Re1.

7… Qe7

Choose a move for White

8. a3

2 points for this move which is a bit slow. 5 points for Nxc3 or bxc3, taking a pawn back.

8… cxb2

Choose a move for White

9. Bxb2

No points: this is the only sensible move. Otherwise Black will capture the rook on a1 and get another queen. Lose 5 points if you played anything else.

9… Bc5

Choose a move for White

10. Nc3

5 points for this move, getting the knight out onto a strong square. 2 points for Qc2 or Qd3.

10… d6

Choose a move for White

11. Nd5

5 points for this strong move, attacking the black queen. 2 points for exd6.

Bonus question 3: What would you play if Black played Qe6 now?

10 points for Nxc7+, a FORK winning the queen.

11… Qd8

Choose a move for White

12. exd6

5 points for this move. This capture opens two lines of attack for White: the e-file and the long diagonal. 3 points for e6 and 2 points for Re1.

12… Bxd6

Choose a move for White

13. Bxg7

5 points for this move, capturing a pawn and trapping the rook in the corner. No points for anything else.

13… Bg4

Choose a move for White

14. Re1+

5 points for this move, moving the rook to the open file, checking the black king and setting a trap. 5 points also for Bxh8: capturing the rook must also be good.

14… Nge7

Choose a move for White

15. Nf6#

10 points for this move. White spots a clever checkmate. 5 points for Bxh8 which will also win easily.

Howard Staunton won this game by developing his pieces quickly and opening lines for an attack on the enemy king. Black played a risky opening, accepting the gambit pawns. He then made two mistakes. He should have played Ba5 rather than Bc5 on move 9, to capture the knight if it went to c3. His 10th move, d6, was also a mistake, allowing Staunton to open the e-file.

Finally he overlooked the checkmate but he was going to lose his rook on h8 anyway. It would still have been easy for Staunton to win the game.

If you didn’t score well on this game think about how you can develop your knights and bishops quickly. Exchanging pawns will help you open lines for your pieces. Castle quickly and then use your rook in the centre of the board.

Richard James


Endgame Preparation

A student at last week’s summer chess camp asked me when he should start preparing for the endgame. He was a bit shocked when I suggested he start his endgame preparation at the start of the game, during the opening. “Isn’t a game of chess divided into three phases, with the endgame coming last?” he asked. “It certainly is,” I replied. I went on to explain that too often novice players don’t consider the endgame until they’re in it and by that time their position going into this game phase is dreadful. As you advance in your playing abilities, you’ll find that games stop ending during the middle game (or earlier) and go into a real endgame! This means you have to prepare early and the player who prepares from the start will be better off at the end of the game!

Probably the biggest endgame offense beginners make is that of pawn structure. The novice players lives in the here and now, not thinking ahead. Thinking ahead requires experience which the beginning player only gains through theory and practice. While the beginner may follow the opening principles and use central pawns to stake a claim in the board’s center, they often give up non-centralized pawns in an effort to trade material. When the endgame starts, our novice player often faces a pawn majority on one side of the board or the other. If their opponent has twice as many pawns at this point, it is likely that they’ll be able to promote one of those pawns and win the game. The first idea the beginner should embrace is to never capture material unless it improves their position!

Novice players consider pawns expendable since their relative value is the lowest of all the material and there are eight of them at the game’s start. Using simple arithmetic, the beginner sees trading a one point pawn for a three point minor piece as a good deal. In many circumstances it might be a winning exchange. However, if it weakens your position, you might reconsider such an exchange. A more experienced player might be happy to trade a minor piece for a pawn if doing so gives them a better position or substantial pawn majority going into the endgame.

We should always think about pawn majorities, having a greater number of pawns on one side of the board than our opponent has, throughout the game. At some point, minor and major pieces will be traded off leaving both players going into the endgame sometimes with only pawns and their Kings. If your opponent has three pawns on the Queen-side and you have only one, your opponent will most likely be able to promote one of those pawns into a Queen.

Be wary of isolated pawns, those who have no potential protection from their fellow pawns. Pawns are like Sparrows in that they may be small but when they work together they get things done. I watch a group of these wonderful birds in my backyard each morning and when the larger Crows show up to raid the Sparrow nests, the little Sparrows fight back as an angry mob and the Crows give up. You don’t see a lone little Sparrow going out to fight. They, like your pawns work best together. Employ pawn chains to keep you pawns safe during the opening and middle-games. Pawns can do an excellent job of protecting one another, leaving your pieces available for attacking duties.

If you have a passed pawn, send it towards its promotion square. Even if you may not be able to promote it, your opponent will have to deal with it, tying down one of his or her pieces to do so. Remember the saying “Rooks belong behind passes pawns.” If you have a Rook sitting around doing nothing on its starting rank, put it to work as a body guard for a passed pawn! Your pawns and pieces are not in the game if they’re idle. Your material must work!

Another endgame misconception beginners have is the idea that with fewer pieces on the board, a player has to do less thinking. Wrong! Just because you have fewer pieces on the board during the endgame doesn’t mean you can mentally relax, in fact, it’s just the opposite. During the endgame you have to calculate further than in the opening or middle-game. The good news is that with fewer pawns and pieces skulking around the board, calculations are a bit easier to make (but still difficult for the average player). Since you have fewer pawns and pieces going into the endgame, you cannot lose material because the smaller your army, the more disastrous the position becomes when your material is taken away. If both you and your opponent have two pawns and a King each, and suddenly you blunder away one of your pawns, your opponent now has a two to one pawn majority and that’s a winning percentage!

To think or calculate ahead in the endgame, start by considering your opponent’s best response to your potential move. Pretend you’re playing his or her side of the board. You should be doing this through the entire game. Often, you’ll see that what appeared to be a reasonable move can be easily refuted by the opposition. In doing this, you’ll see the best possible moves your opponent can make. Make a mental note of them. If you can’t find an opposition move that thwarts your candidate move, take it one step further and ask yourself If I make move “x” and my opponent responds with move “y”, what is my next move? Go through the response sequence once more. Beginners should start by trying to think through two complete game turns when calculating their endgame positions. While master level players think many, many moves ahead during the endgame, the beginner has yet to train their brains to do this. Therefore, take it slow and build up your calculation abilities.

Another bad habit beginners have when it comes to the endgame is striping their opponents of everything but the King, thinking that leading the mating attacking with an overwhelming force will easily win the game. I have seen so many junior level games end in stalemate because of this. Consider leaving your opponent with a movable piece or pawn to avoid this scenario.

Speaking of Kings, activate yours going into the endgame. While we avoid exposing our King during the opening and middle-game, he becomes a deadly fighter and defender during the endgame. Don’t let your King sit on its starting rank during the endgame. Use him to help get those pawns safely to their promotion squares! Kings must be active in the endgame!

In conclusion, you should always be thinking about the endgame, even during the opening because with fewer pawns and pieces on the board at the game’s end, every bit of material counts. Practice playing endgames with your friends by setting up a board with your Kings and a few pawns each. Then add a minor or major piece to the mix. While there are concepts and principles I didn’t mention, because you could fill a book or three with them, these basic ideas should point you in the right direction. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson