Category Archives: Children’s Chess

The Three Cs

There’s an excellent junior chess club in Oldham, Greater Manchester, called 3Cs, which stands, rather prosaically, for Children’s Chess Club.

If I were thinking of starting a children’s chess club and the name hadn’t already been taken I’d consider calling it 3Cs, but my three Cs would stand for something different.

I recently came across a blog post by a young English chess player and teacher, Chris Russell. As it happens, when Chris was a pupil at Norwich School my brother Michael taught him English, which might in part explain why the post is so well written.

Chris writes about the community of chess players:

“Chess is the way we have all chosen to engage with the world and the presence of others helps to give meaning to our journey. I have long ago stopped trying to explain why I spend time on chess to those who don’t. I used to be met with creative variations of “what’s the point?” and never really had a satisfactory answer. Nowadays, I think it is a broader question of networking, support, interest and motivation.”

Chess is the way I’ve chosen to engage with the world, as well. We all need to be part of communities: it’s what makes us human. We can’t always choose our family or our workmates. Sometimes we need to escape and be part of a community of our choice. For some it will be the local pub, or perhaps a place of worship. For others it will be a club or society where they can meet other people with a common interest, people who see the world the same way as they do. Communities of this nature are, by and large, struggling at the moment. Pubs are closing, church congregations are declining, chess clubs are finding it hard to survive. Younger people are spending more time engaging with the world via screens rather than in person. You might, as I do, find this sad. Of course virtual communities also have their benefits: there are communities of those who play chess online, those who discuss various aspects of chess on social media.

So there’s one of my Cs: COMMUNITY.

For many members of the chess community, the main point of chess is to be able to test your skill against other people. Most children and young people enjoy any form of competition, as, of course, do many older people. Competition fulfils a lot of basic human needs. As a society we’re pretty good at promoting physical competition through a wide variety of sports, but less good at promoting mental competition. We should be promoting chess, as well as bridge and other brain games, as outlets for young people’s competitive instincts.

My second C, then, is COMPETITION.

Beyond community and competition, I believe that chess has a cultural significance. Not to the same extent as literature, art and music, of course, but it’s still there. Aesthetic beauty is an inherent part of chess. There’s beauty in a brilliant sacrificial attack, and a very different type of beauty in a subtle ending. Most of us might only dream of playing like that, but at least we can appreciate the artistry of others. There are also specific areas of chess devoted to beauty as opposed to direct competition: the worlds of chess problems and endgame studies, which themselves also include competitions both for solving and for composing. This is only part of the cultural significance of chess. There’s the whole iconography of chess: the beauty of chess pieces of different designs and in different materials, the use of chess in art and literature. I’m very much in favour of introducing children to great music, great art and great literature, and, for this reason I want to introduce children to chess.

My final C: CULTURE.

If chess makes my pupils smarter as well, then so much the better. If they become grandmasters, I’ll be thrilled. But what I really want to give them is COMMUNITY, COMPETITION and CULTURE. These are three basic human needs: to belong, to compete, and to appreciate beauty. Chess can offer all three.

Richard James

The Silicon Beast

While playing human opponents is the best way to improve your game, not everyone has the time to go down to your local chess club and play. San Francisco has the oldest chess club in the country, the Mechanic’s Institute. The place is amazing, except for one thing, parking! I really don’t enjoy getting into a fistfight with an eighty seven year old woman over the city’s last available downtown parking space. The first time she beat me up, I thought it mere luck. The third time, I realized I was a wimp. While this didn’t really happen (well, once when I was seventeen), it serves to illustrate a point, sometimes you just can’t make playing at a chess club a reality. This is where chess software comes in handy. I’ve been training for a series of corresponding matches and over the board (OTB) tournaments this summer and my sparing partner has been Fritz and Houdini.

I happen to reread a wonderful book by Andrew Soltis, titled Studying Chess Made Easy. Any student of the game should have this book. As much as I’d like to claim the following thoughts as my own, they come from this brilliant book. These thoughts regard how you should set up your software program as an opponent.

Training starts with investing in a real chess playing program. While there are a plethora of chess apps available, most of them aren’t very good. Those free chess apps you can download for your tablet tend to play poorly with Stockfish being the exception. The problem with Stockfish is that it plays too well for beginners and intermediate players. This is where programs like Fritz and Houdini come in. Both give you the ability to find a level that works for you.

You want the program to be playing at a slightly higher level than your rating. If your rating is 1200, try playing against the program set at 1400. If you don’t know your rating or you’re new to chess, try playing the program at it’s lowest level. If you win easily, adjust the rating to a higher level. Repeat the process until the program’s play becomes challenging. When you find the ideal playing level, you should be winning 25% of your games against the machine, not 100% of the games. When you start winning 50% of your games against the computer, crank the program’s rating up a notch. Note that as your rating rises and you set the program’s rating higher, you need to do so in smaller increments.

Soltis makes a great suggestion regarding bad positions. If you end up with a bad position, don’t resign. Instead, switch sides, taking over the program’s position. Then see if you can take advantage of that better position. How do you know your position’s bad? Besides the feeling of dread in your stomach, you can check the evaluation function. It’s found in a window in the lower right-hand corner of the program’s GUI. If the function says -1.00, it’s time to switch sides. Note what makes the program’s position better and determine where you went wrong before continuing the game. The program is a training tool and this is part of the training. Save all your games for future study.

Limit your use of the redo or undo option, that little button that allows you to take a move back. I recommend two or three take backs per game. However, you need to fully understand why your move was bad when you take it back. Obviously, the computer shows you but there’s more to it. You need to go a few moves back and see if a previous move created the problem. Research the problem, don’t simply move on. I have a special rule regarding take backs. If I take back a move, I cannot take back the new move I make. This forces me to really look at the position in greater detail. Of course, if you’re a beginner, it’s going to be hard to analyze a position in detail. Therefore, beginners can use the blunder alert aka “coach is watching” option. This will cause the program to let you know you’ve made a bad decision and let you take back the move. It won’t tell you what move you should make, just that your move is not so great.

I encourage you to try out crazy ideas against the computer. It’s not like the program is going to tell you your out of your mind (well, Fritz might). Try a strange move and see what happens. Use the program to explore ideas. Learning comes from exploration. When beginners first start playing, they make wild moves and try things more advanced players wouldn’t consider. I love playing against my students for this very reason. Not because I’m going to punish them for a weird move but because that weird move forces me to look at the position differently. As beginners improve, they start becoming card carrying members of The Church of Opening Theory. They play book moves and stop taking chances. You know all those guys that have openings and variations named after them. They took chances. Don’t go crazy playing unorthodox moves but do some exploring. Use all the training tools that come with the program.

Chess programs have come a long way and have become much better at playing chess. Opening and endgame play by the program has greatly improved, although I do the greatest damage to Fritz in the endgame. Speaking of which, beginners need to improve their endgame play. Set up endgame positions found in books and play them against the program. You can do the same with middle-game positions. However, be careful when trying to employ tactics against the computer. The computer is a master tactician. If it let’s you execute a fork, for example, be assured it will get that material back in a few moves. Nothing if life or chess is free. Use your chess program as a sparring partner but don’t neglect human play. Using the program’s two dimensional board constantly can throw your game off a bit when you sit down and play on a real board. You can remedy this by playing out your program game moves on a real chess set. Well, there you have it. Some quick advice on computer training. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Tennison Gambit

One of my private pupils rushed in excitedly to tell me he’d discovered an amazing new opening: he always wins whenever he plays it.

I asked him the name of the opening. “The Tennison Gambit”, he replied.

The what? Unless you’re an expert in obscure gambits you could be forgiven for not knowing what he was talking about.

First of all, it’s nothing at all to do with Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Tennyson the poet was appointed President of the revived British Chess Association in 1883: I guess they were looking for a big name, and in 1883 celebrities didn’t come much bigger than Tennyson. His actual interest in chess, though, seems to have been fairly peripheral, although back in 1862 his 8-year-old son Lionel played chess against Lewis Carroll. I imagine his dad taught him the moves. History doesn’t record whether or not young Lionel played the Tennison Gambit.

So what is the Tennison Gambit? It’s named after the Danish born American amateur Otto Mandrup Tennison (1834–1909) and starts 1. Nf3 d5 2. e4 (or, if you prefer, 1. e4 d5 2. Nf3).

Here’s a game he played in 1891:

1. Nf3 d5 2. e4 dxe4 3. Ng5 f5 4. Bc4 Nh6 5. Nxh7 Rxh7 6. Qh5+ Kd7 7. Qg6 Rh8 8. Be6+ Kc6 9. Bxc8+ Qd6 10. Qe8+ Kb6 11. Qa4 when Black, rather prematurely, resigned instead of trying to struggle on with 11.. Nc6.

How did my pupil discover this opening? It seems like he read somewhere that 1. Nf3 was the Réti Opening, and, under the misapprehension that the idea of the move was to transpose into a king’s pawn opening, decided to try it out. He played a game online starting 1. Nf3 d5 2. e4, which he won. The computer informed him he was playing the Tennison Gambit, and, because he won the game and he knew 1. Nf3 was popular, he assumed this gambit was both popular and strong. He also told me that after 1. Nf3 e5 he’d play 2. e4, transposing into what he knows. “What about playing 2. Nxe5 instead?”, I asked, but he didn’t seem interested. So his idea was that 1. Nf3 is a great move because after 1.. e5 you transpose, but if Black errs with 1.. d5 you play the brilliant Tennison Gambit.

Is the Tennison Gambit any good? It looks like you’re playing a reverse Budapest with an extra move, and the Budapest is certainly playable for Black, at least at club level. But if you stop and think about it you’ll realise that, if you play the Budapest with Black you’re doing to because you think you can take advantage of White’s c4 by playing Bb4+ at some point. The Tennison Gambit doesn’t give you this option.

So, in a word, no, it’s not any good. You’re just giving up a pawn for next to nothing. But if you google ‘Tennison Gambit’ you’ll come across a few videos like this. To save you the trouble of watching, you’re advised to play these moves:

1. e4 d5 2. Nf3 (if you really want to play the Tennison Gambit you’re more likely to get it after 1. Nf3 than 1. e4) 2.. dxe4 3. Ng5 Nf6 (3.. Bf5, which, according to the video, ‘doesn’t look right’, is more accurate while 3.. e5 is another option) 4. d3 (4. Bc4 is probably a better move, when White has some initiative) 4.. exd3 5. Bxd3 h6 (White isn’t actually threatening anything so something like 5.. Nc6 leaves White with little to show for the missing pawn) 6. Nxf7 Kxf7 7. Bg6+ winning the black queen. You may well recognise this, with colours reversed, as a familiar trap in the Budapest. How many times have the moves in this game occurred in my 7 million game database? A big fat zero.

You see why so many kids tell me about the ‘secret opening tricks’ they’ve learnt: this is one of a whole series of videos by the same presenter. Even some otherwise reputable sources have their fair share of videos recommending dodgy opening traps (don’t get me started on the Fishing Pole Trap). If you look at the comments you’ll soon discover that there must be millions of players worldwide who have been taken in by this sort of thing and think the idea of the opening is to memorise traps and spring them on unwary opponents. Facebook groups concerning chess books and chess teachers are bombarded with requests for recommended books and lessons about opening traps.

In this case, no harm was done and some important lessons were learnt. Misunderstandings are an important learning tool, as long as you have a teacher who can put you right. I wonder how many novices, misled by the seductive idea of opening traps, fail to make progress and eventually give up because they have the wrong idea about what you’re supposed to do at the start of the game.

Richard James

Girl Power 2018

“Everyone has the impulse to be elite”
Alfre Woodard

GM Susan Polgar has been doing incredible work to promote girls chess. This past Saturday we ran our provincial final, qualifying our top girl to the 15th edition of Susan Polgar Foundation Girls Invitational in St. Louis, Missouri. Chess is officially still considered a barbeque side activity in Canada and this is astonishing because we have great talents. I think they keep me and us going. I mean you have to see how a student who walked in the door a while ago comes up with this decent looking plan or combination. To each our own goals. We cannot be all World Champions even if we dream about it. That does not mean we don’t win our personal World Championship every now and then. I guess this is the beauty for us mortals; we win them more than once in our own way. Below is a selection of 3 World Championships won by our girls that day.

Sample #1
Imagine white has won two pawns in the opening, followed by massive exchanges leading into a rook and pawn endgame. The last Black pawn if you can believe it was at some point on f6, hopelessly blocked by an f4-pawn. White gave up the f4-pawn for the a6-pawn a first bad idea, but who could blame her? The endgame was so won, it could almost play itself out. Almost is never good enough and somehow that hopeless pawn reached f3. That is determination you know! Black could simply not be stopped. Do you believe if I told you she learned chess 3 years ago?

Sample #2
Round 2 decided the winner. It was not an easy game for black (the top rated player in the tournament) up to this point. She was under pressure with not a lot of space around. Luckily she reached this position. What happened next is an endgame played in true Capablanca style after rejecting the draw offer with confidence.

Sample #3
No report is worth its value without some tactical fireworks. This was quite a boring game for a while. I guess the girls decided they had enough of that and brought out the guns. One other reason might have been Black running low on time so she had no choice but to do something about it. What followed is something I have not seen in years. Enjoy!

Valer Eugen Demian

Unsound Sacrifices

It was the last week of term at the primary school chess club. The children had all completed their games the previous week and received their fluffy mascots. At the start of the session we handed out the Megafinal qualification forms to the lucky recipients and then moved onto the traditional end of term simul.

There were 19 players present and six large tables in the room so I appointed the six strongest players as team captains, with one to a table, and distributed the other players into teams, leaving one team with four players and five teams with three players each.

One of the games started like this:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Nc3 Nf6
4. Bc4 Nxe4
5. Nxe4 d5
6. Bd3

I was impressed that they found the right move here, and, when they suggested it, confirmed that it was the best move. At this level most of my opponents play Bxd5, but it’s clearly better to keep the bishop rather than the knight.

6.. dxe4
7. Bxe4 Bd6
8. d3 O-O

At this point I expected them to do something sensible like O-O, the usual move here, but instead they surprised me by playing Nd4. I explained that I could capture the knight. “Yes, we know”, their captain replied. “We want to play this move.”

I then realised what they had in mind, so the game continued:

8. Nd4 Nxd4
9. Qh5

As expected. They were sacrificing a piece for a mate threat, hoping that I wouldn’t notice.

9.. g6

Good enough, but 9.. Nxc2+ was more accurate as White could now have played Qd1.

10. Qh6

Now I spotted that they might be planning Bg5, followed by Bf6 and Qg7#, but I decided I had time to meet that threat and played:

10… Nxc2+, winning easily with my extra material.

I suppose I have to be impressed with the idea, which demonstrates imagination and creativity as well as the ability to think ahead. Unfortunately, that sort of thing isn’t going to work against a reasonably competent opponent. If you want to play for a mating attack on move 8 it would make much more sense to play Ng5 when Qh5 really is a threat, but instead they wanted to bait the trap.

I should add, in case anyone from the school is reading this, that the teams played really well in the simul, two of them totally outplaying me, although I think I might have almost equalised in one game when time was called.

Two days earlier I’d been demonstrating the Aronian-Kramnik game from the Candidates Tournament to a group of rather stronger players (about 800-1000 rating) at Richmond Junior Club.

You’ve probably seen the game already, so will be aware that the first moves were:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5 Nf6
4. d3 Bc5
5. Bxc6 dxc6
6. O-O Qe7
7. h3

I asked the class to guess Black’s next move, telling them it wasn’t an easy move to find.

Several of the class liked the idea of Bxh3. One of the stronger players in the group told me he’d play either Bxh3 or Bg4. Someone else suggested Ng4, possibly thinking of the Fishing Pole trap.

Again, you have to be impressed, up to a point. They’d identified that White’s last move had created a weakness and they wanted to take advantage of it. Most of them have seen games in which the winner successfully sacrificed a piece for a winning attack on the enemy king. I might have been more impressed if someone had suggested the idea of Be6, Qd7 and then Bxh3, which, if White gives you the opportunity, will give you two pawns for the piece and a stronger attack.

As you probably know, Kramnik actually played 7.. Rg8 here, continuing with Nh5 and g5, and winning with a brilliant sacrificial attack against Aronian’s king.

It occurred to me some time ago that I was mistaken in thinking that when players at this level lost a piece they were either playing too impulsively or looking at the board but not seeing. Once you talk to children about their moves you’ll realise that very often they know they’re losing a piece but either think it doesn’t matter, or, as in these two examples, think they’re doing something rather clever.

This is what happened, for rather different reasons, in both these examples.

In the first position, they were simply setting a trap which they hoped I’d fall into. How should we look at this? A failure to consider risks and probabilities? Immaturity of thought, playing a move based on what they hope their opponent will play rather than what their opponent is likely to play? A lack of understanding that Superior Force Wins and how to play endings?

The second example (playing, for example, Bxh3 rather than Kramnik’s Rg8) is a higher level error. These players have seen lots of examples of sacrificial attacks but lack the ability to calculate whether or not the sacrifice works and the experience to estimate whether or not the sacrifice is likely to work. Of course all chess teachers like to demonstrate this sort of game, but as you progress in chess you realise that in real life most potential sacrifices don’t work, and that you’ll reject the majority of the sacrifices you consider.

Returning, for a moment, to the first diagram, according to my database, two players (rated 1855 and 1949, so about my level) have tried 9. Bxh7+ here. If you’ve learnt the Greek Gift sacrifice it’s very tempting, isn’t it? I suspect that if I showed this position to the Saturday group, many of whom will know the idea, a lot of them would suggest the same thing.

In this position, though, it just doesn’t work. After 9.. Kxh7 10. Ng5+ Kg8 11. Qh5 Black can defend comfortably with Bf5 (or, if he prefers, 11.. Bb4+ 12. c3 Qxd3 13. cxb4 Nxb4). It’s important to know basic tactical ideas like the Greek Gift and Légall’s Mate, but you have to understand that they don’t always work. The Greek Gift, for example, is unlikely to work if your opponent can, as in this position, play Bf5 in reply to Qh5.

Richard James

Writing a Chess Book

After writing a number of articles for The Chess Improver, I was offered the chance, thanks to Nigel’s recommendation, to write a chess book. Within weeks, I had signed a publishing contract. Of course, I did little thinking before jumping into the project because I didn’t want to lose this opportunity. I was given six weeks to write the entire book because the publisher need one written quickly. The book would be 176 pages. I’ve written this article to give other budding chess writers an idea of what they’re getting into should they decide to write a book.

Having written for many years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the hardest part of writing is actually sitting down and doing it. I know many people who claim to be writers yet spend more time talking about being writers than actually putting words to paper. Writing doesn’t count for anything unless the words find their way to the page. Being contracted means you have to write or you’ll be sued for any advance money if you don’t produce something. The prospects of ending up in an English Court (the publishing company is based in the UK) for doing absolutely no writing served as a great incentive to get busy (while I’d like to experience the English court system, I’d rather do so as a spectator). Given the short period of time in which I had to write my first book, I knew I had to sit down everyday and commit words to paper. I write best in the mornings, so each morning I’d be writing by 6:30 am, stopping only to go teach classes. On that first day, I sat down in front of my laptop, staring at what seemed like the world’s largest blank page.

The hardest thing to face when writing any type of book is that first page, knowing hundreds of blank pages sit behind it. You can’t think about all the pages that haven’t been written. You have to think about the single page your writing. Otherwise, you’ll become overwhelmed and unable to move forward. However, before you start writing, you need a plan. I created an outline, laying out what needed to be covered in the book. Create an outline before typing a single word. The outline provides a guide you can follow and helps ensure you don’t leave anything out.

Fortunately, having taught chess for many years, I was able to use my own teaching program the to form the outline. I started with a broader outline first. The book was broken down into four parts: The Rules, The Opening Game, The Middle Game and The Endgame. I moved on to what would be included in these four sections. It’s fairly easy, if you read a lot of chess books, to know what to include in each section. If you’re not a chess teacher, consider looking at chess books, especially those that you’ve enjoyed, to see how they’re laid out. Don’t worry, you haven’t crossed the plagiarism line yet. You’re merely looking for a template to base your outline on. It’s important to use other chess books to create an outline because you want to make sure you don’t leave anything out. However, if you’re writing a book for beginners, don’t use a book geared for advanced players to create your outline. This brings me to another important point, don’t write above your audiences comprehension level. When you get really good at something (not that I know what I’m doing), it comes easily to you. Too many teachers assume their students will understand their explanations because they understand their own explanations. The reason the teacher understand the words coming out of his or her mouth is because they know the subject inside and out. Meanwhile, their students sit silently, becoming more glassy eyed with each passing minute. Assume your reader has no prior knowledge of the game.

Surprisingly, the hardest part of writing this book was explaining the rules. I teach chess visually, with a board and pieces. My students can see how the pieces move in a three dimensional environment. Explaining how the pieces move using only words to do so, isn’t easy. It’s as if you’re suddenly reduced to one dimension. Here’s where you dig through your collection of chess books. Read five or more authors and see how they describe pawn and piece movement. Then sit down and write an explanation of pawn and piece movement, in your own words. Castling was a challenge because there are many conditions that must be met in order to castle. I had to create a very simple explanation for each condition and group them in a logical order. I wrote, edited, wrote some more, edited some more, and eventually came up with a clear explanation of castling and it’s rules. Editing is what makes a book flow fluidly.

Edit each section as you go along. Write freely without editing and then go back and edit when you’ve finished a single section or chapter! Remove redundant or repetitive sentences and statements. Often, we say the same thing twice when trying to make a point. This wastes space. Cut the fat and your writing will thank you for it! Don’t get too wordy, a problem that’s a terminal condition for this writer. Your readers want to know how to play the game of chess and probably don’t have the time or patience to listen to your old college stories that you use as analogies. Analogies are great, but only use those that everyone can relate to. Planning your vacation to Fiji is not a good analogy for middle game planning unless your travel plans are undefined and prone to chaos.

Limit your use of sophisticated or “big” words. That’s what we have academics for. If your readers have to use a dictionary to figure out what your saying, they’re not learning chess! Of course, there’s nothing wrong with throwing in a few big words now and again, but don’t overdo it. Keep your explanations as simple as possible. Your readers will love you for it, or at least not mutter four letter words when hearing your name. Always assume your reader has never played chess. Keep it simple because the more complicated you make an explanation, the more lost your readers become. It’s not that your readers are simpletons. Far from it. They’re new to chess. Even if one of your readers is a genius, he or she will want an easy to understand explanation of the game not a PhD dissertation.

Always write from your heart. Share your passion for chess with your audience. Readers want to share your passionate for chess or they wouldn’t be reading your book. Always be truthful. Don’t tell your readers that they’ll become brilliant chess players in seven days. Don’t make any other guarantee than with hard work, their game will improve. Honesty is important. Encourage readers to achieve their goals as long as they’re realistic. Think of your reader a family member your helping with their studies (a family member you like). The best thing I got out of writing my book? It made me a better chess teacher. Be a teacher. The world needs them desperately. Try writing a chess book. You learn a lot about chess by doing so. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Defend With Your Life

There are plenty of puzzle books where you’re invited to find the winning move: to win material or force checkmate. But very few books present puzzles where you have to find the best defence.

Try your hand at this position. It’s Black’s move.

Go away, make yourself a cup of coffee or pour yourself a glass of your favourite tipple, and choose a move before reading on.

I came across this position the other day (I’ll tell you where at some point, but not for a few months). It’s, I think, an excellent defensive puzzle for intermediate standard players.

I set this up on the demo board for the upper intermediate group at Richmond Junior Club (these are young children graded round about 40-70 ECF). They set about analysing the position working mostly in small groups. One of two or them preferred to work alone.

They soon noticed that White was threatening Qxh6, not surprisingly. At this level many children get obsessed with this tactic and sometimes give up the rest of their army in order to set it up. While a few wanted to play a king move to h7 or h8, most of them wanted to move their queen. Some of them spotted that Qf6 lost the exchange to Nd7. I was very impressed that one group at first suggested 1… Qh7, and then explained to me that White could then play 2. Nd7, and if 2.. Rd8, then 3. Nf6+, exploiting the pin on the g-file to play a fork.

Interestingly, most of them failed to mention White’s other threat: Bg4, skewering the queen and rook and winning the exchange. At this level, many players make the mistake of only considering one threat, or one reason for playing a move. Trying to think about more than one thing at once proves to be difficult. This, by the way, is a point that Dan Heisman makes regularly: you should ask yourself “What are my opponent’s threats?” rather than “What is my opponent’s threat?”. Because it’s a more familiar pattern, you will tend to see the threat of Qxh6 before the threat of Bg4.

Once you realise that White has two threats you can start trying to find ways to meet them both at the same time. You might think of 1.. h5, which does meet both threats. Now White can win the h-pawn by playing a fork: 2. Rg5. There’s a stronger alternative, though, in 2. Qh6 Qh7 3. Qd6 with multiple threats: one idea is 3.. Rfd8 4. Nd7 Be6 5. Nf6+ Kh8 6. Qxd8, winning the exchange.

On the other hand, an experienced player would probably sense that 1.. h5 doesn’t look right, so would only consider it if everything else failed. Black has one simple move to meet both threats and leave him with a perfectly satisfactory position. That move, as you’ve probably realised by now, is 1.. Qe6, planning to meet 2. Bg4 with f5. After this move Black is at least equal. Eventually, my students managed to find the right answer for the right reason.

I then wound back the position by half a move. White’s last move was Rg4-g3. I asked the class if this was a mistake. Couldn’t White have played the immediate Qxh6 instead? Doesn’t that move win a pawn? A bright spark quickly provided the information that Black would reply with Qxg4, which will leave him a piece ahead. I’d guess, though, that had they been white in that position, most of them would have played Qxh6 without very much thought. Rg3, by the way, is an unusual way to create two threats. The threat Qxh6 comes about by moving the rook away from the attentions of the black queen, while it’s also a clearance move, vacating a square which the bishop wants to use. I’m not sure that there’s a technical term for this sort of double threat.

When we talk about tactics we tend to think about sacrifices and combinations. Most tactics you’ll find in books (including, at the moment, the CHESS FOR HEROES books) are exactly that. In real life, tactics is mostly about sorting out positions like this, defending accurately, not missing simple one or two movers.

Richard James

Love Thy Gambit

With the exception of sacrificing material to gain a positional advantage, it’s generally not a good idea to give away pawns and pieces, especially during the opening. However, a gambit asks you to do just that, give up material at the start of the game. The player employing a gambit will give up material within the first few moves. The material given are pawns. The majority of gambits are executed by white. While most gambits involve sacrificing one pawn, the Danish Gambit sacrifices three. Gambits can be very effective but must be played carefully. All gambits have the same goal, gaining a positional advantage. A positional advantage in the opening is the ability to develop your pieces rapidly. The player who controls the center first has the advantage. Let’s look at the King’s Gambit first. After the moves 1. e4…e5, 2. f4, we reach this position.

White offers black the f pawn. This is the gambit. Black can either except the gambit or decline it. If black captures the pawn, exf4, black gains a slight material advantage but gains doubled “f” pawns and now has only one central pawn. However, taking the pawn doesn’t mean you’ll lose the game. As for white, at some point the “d” pawn will be move to d4, giving white a classical pawn center. With a pawn on d4, white will be able to rapidly develop the minor pieces to active squares. Play continues with 2…exf4, 3. Nf3…g5, 4. d4. We reach the following position.

Black has taken the pawn with 2…exf4. It’s tempting for white to play 2. d4 instead of 2. Nf3. However, doing so would create problems for white. After 2. d4, black would play 2…Qh4+, forcing the white King to move. Trying to block the check with 3. g3, would lead to a heavy loss of material for white. The black pawn on f4 becomes dangerous when the black Queen is on h4, which is why 2.N3 is played. The f3 Knight stops the Queen from moving to h4. After 4. d4, white has a strong pawn center and can develop the minor pieces quickly. Now let’s look at the Danish Gambit, which starts with 1. e4…e5, 2. d4.

Here, white offers the d4 pawn to black. Rather than trying to defend it, which would lead to positional complications, black accepts the gambit with 2…exd4. In the Danish Gambit, white offers the “c” and “b” pawns as well. Play continues with 3. c3…dxc3, 4. Bc4…cxb2, 5. Bxb2, arriving at the following position.

White’s down two pawns, leaving black ahead in material. However, black is behind in development. None of black’s minor pieces have moved, nor does black have a centralized pawn. White, on the other hand, has a pawn controlling the center and two Bishops that control central squares as well. The Bishops are also aimed at black’s King-side pawns, making the prospect of King-side castling risky for black. By giving up a few pawns, white has gained a huge lead in development and has the positional advantage. White has followed the opening principles while black has ignored them, hunting pawns instead. Our Last example is the Evan’s Gambit. The key position is reached after 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Bc5, 4. b4.

Here, white offers black the b4 pawn. Time is critical during the opening. Chess players refer to time as tempo. The player that gains tempo has an advantage over the player who loses tempo. During the opening, you want to gain control of the center before your opponent does, making it a race whose winner is the first player to achieve this. One thing you don’t want to do during the opening is to move the same piece over and over again. Doing so will cause you to lose tempo. In the above position, black has to move the Bishop because it’s being attacked by a pawn. Since the Bishop has to move, costing black tempo, it captures the pawn with 4…Bxb4. Black captures the pawn as compensation for this loss of time. However, white plays 5. c3, and the black Bishop has to move once more. Play continues with. 5…Bc5, 6. O-O…Nf6, 7. d4…exd4, 8. cxd4…Be7, arriving at the following position.

White has strong central pawns, two minor pieces in play, and has castled. Black, on the other hand, has lost tempo and doesn’t have a strong presence in the center. His King hasn’t castled and black’s position needs improvement. Studying gambits will teach you a great deal about development during the opening. They also lead to exciting and sometimes dangerous games. I encourage you to try them. However, precise play is required.

It’s well worth exploring gambits as a beginner because you’ll learn a great deal about development and tempo. Gambits can lead to exciting games that keep you on your positional toes, so to speak. Of course, you don’t see gambits played at a professional level, but as a beginner or improving player, don’t let the stop you. I’m sure the opening theory snobs will have a few things to say about my love of gambits, such as “what a rotten idea, and you call your self a chess teacher.” As the old saying goes, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” It’s a good day for me when I can simply please Mrs. Patterson! See you next week.

Hugh Patterson

Educational Chess

There seems to be a general misunderstanding, at least in this country, about what ‘chess in schools’ means. Let me try to explain.

If you attend the Chess in Schools conference you’ll be informed about what they call Scholastic Chess. Last year it was suggested that Educational Chess might be a better term, as Scholastic Chess, at least in the US, means something totally different. So, for the purposes of this article, at any rate, Educational Chess it is.

Educational Chess has nothing at all to do with competitive chess as you and I know it. Instead it involves using the chessboard and pieces for non-competitive activities across the curriculum. For instance, it might involve very young children using the chessboard to learn about up and down, left and right, black and white. Slightly older children might learn songs and dances explaining the moves of each piece, which could be used both in Music and PE. Beyond that, children might spend time in maths lessons working collaboratively to solve puzzles based on subsets of chess: for instance the Eight Officer’s Puzzles. Here’s a recent report on a major project of this nature.

Now you might well think this sounds great: all children will learn how to play chess in a fun way which will also have other benefits across the curriculum.

You might also think that, by taking this approach you’re dumbing down chess by presenting it as an activity for very young children, and that this will be counter-productive in terms of encouraging older children and adults to take chess seriously.

I have no very strong views one way or the other myself as to the effectiveness of this approach as I have no personal experience. There are, to the best of my knowledge, very few schools here in the UK using this sort of method.

I would, however, question whether or not there are more important skills that 21st century schools should be teaching children, and whether or not these methods are the best way to teach music, PE, maths or whatever.

Wearing my Chess Hat I can see that it’s wonderful to teach all children to play chess. But if I take off my Chess Hat and put on my Education Hat instead there are all sorts of questions I might choose to ask.

What happens in most primary schools, at least in my part of the world, is very different. There are a small number of schools who take chess seriously and see it as part of the life of the school. But in most cases the only chance children have to learn or play is an after-school club running for an hour once a week. These tend to be geared towards low-level competitive chess such as the heats of the UK Chess Challenge. Children who are getting help at home will do well at this level and make progress. Children who are not getting much help will make little progress, but will have fun and enjoy winning their fluffy mascots.

Now you might well think this sounds great: children are introduced to competitive chess at a fairly early age, and those who show talent will be able to qualify for higher level competitions and will perhaps be encouraged to join more serious chess clubs.

You might also think that, by taking this approach you’re dumbing down chess by presenting competitive chess as being suitable for mass participation by young children, and that, by promoting a structure in which the vast majority of children won’t get very far, you’re actually lowering the standards of chess.

I think I’m qualified to have an opinion on this, and, if you know me or if you read my articles, you’ll be aware of my views. However, it’s where we are, and it’s clearly better than nothing.

Other countries take a different approach: one specifically designed to produce strong players. Armenia has been doing this for some time, as recently reported here by the BBC. I must say the mothers and grandmothers waiting for their children to finish their games don’t look terribly excited. Leonard Barden pointed out on the English Chess Forum that there’s little evidence that, despite the claims made in this article, there’s no evidence that Armenia are producing many – or any – exceptionally talented young players. The closest match I can find to ‘Mikhael’ has a rating of 1550 and is ranked 1165th in the world for Under 12s. Of course it’s possible there may be some strong players not taking part in FIDE rated competitions: the old Soviet methods disapproved of young children playing in rated events.

Now you might well think that this sounds great: what could be more admirable than producing a generation of ‘chess whizz kids’? Your country will have lots of grandmasters, win lots of Olympic medals and encourage more young players to take up chess.

You might also think that, by taking this approach you’re taking up two lessons a week which could be better used for something else. My understanding is that one of the chess lessons replaced a PE lesson, which would have been great for me, but not necessarily for everyone. You might also ask what happens to the young children who show promise but fail to make the grade.

Another country taking a similar approach is Turkey. I recently saw some photos of a Turkish junior tournament posted on Facebook. I’ve never seen such an unhappy looking bunch of young people.

So, there you go. If you want to talk about ‘chess in schools’ it’s a good idea to be aware of what sort of ‘chess in schools’ you’re talking about.

Richard James

Are You Good at Chess?

This happens to me regularly. I’m on a bus working on tactics puzzles on my phone or I’m in the bookstore browsing a book on endgames, and some stranger will see me and ask: “So…are you good at chess?”

I never know how to answer that question. First, I’m not sure what the person is asking. Do they wonder whether I can beat them, or most people like them, at chess? Or do they wonder whether I can beat top players at chess? Second, I just started playing chess about two years ago, and after three tournaments my provisional rating with the Chess Federation of Canada is 1115. In my experience that’s good enough to beat most casual players most of the time, but it’s still low enough that I’m a below-average club player. To casual players I seem very good, but to tournament players, I look like a complete beginner.

Some will want to dismiss the question “Who is good at chess?” as meaningless or a matter of perspective to which the only possible answer is, “It depends whom you ask.” But I think the question is an important one, and that when it comes up (as it often does on various Internet forums), we should try to give as clear and as justifiable a response as possible, for two reasons.

The first reason is that every beginner wonders whether he is good at chess. We like to be good at the things we work hard at. We stick with those things, while we drop other activities for which we believe we have no talent. Believing that we are good at chess, or that we might one day be good at chess, is an important motivator for us beginners. It would be nice for us to know where the bar lies. Currently in the chess world the only clear benchmarks are the various chess titles obtained by a tiny fraction of all chess players: Expert, Master, Grandmaster, etc. Surely these are all categories that lie far beyond the humbler title “good at chess,” which ought to describe more than the top 2% of players. The absence of consensus in the chess community over what counts as “good”–or is it the snobbish unwillingness to concede that the term might mean anything less than “Master”?–is a motivational stumbling block.

The second reason is that public chess organizations, whether in schools or clubs, need a goal, something they can promise to the students they teach. That goal should not be to produce future Masters—no public program can promise to achieve something that depends on so many factors outside of its control. Yet, once again, in the absence of clear benchmarks below the chess titles, what else can a chess program aim at? In my opinion, the obvious baseline goal of every chess program should be to produce good chess players. So we need consensus over a definition of “good at chess” and the more specific we can be the better, both for individual students and for organizations.  How can we define this term in a way that avoids the problem of perspective?

Here’s my method: The definition of “good at chess” should strike a balance between two competing intuitions. On the one hand, you are good at chess if you can beat the majority of chess players in the world. This intuition will lead to a low bar for “good at chess,” probably somewhere around 1000 in FIDE’s rating system. On the other hand, you are not yet good at chess until you are taken seriously by the game’s Experts. This intuition will require the bar to be higher. What is the Goldilocks rating that captures both intuitions—not too high to be unattainable by most serious players, but not too low to be laughable by the standards of the game’s Experts?

Here’s a suggestion. Let’s say that if your rating is just high enough for us to expect you to beat chess Experts some percentage of the time, then you should be considered “good at chess.” After all, if you can be expected to take a percentage—any percentage, even just 1%—of your games against an Expert, then surely this is a good reason for the Expert to take you seriously. And surely the rest of us should count you as a good chess player.

If you share my intuition that being just good enough to expect to win 1% of the time against a chess Expert is a reasonable criterion for being “good at chess”, then who is good at chess? Well, first we need to know who, exactly, the chess Experts are. In most federations “Expert” is an informal term whose official version is “Candidate Master.” In FIDE, the lowest rating bar for this title is set at 2000. So if we take 2000 to be the lower limit for chess Experts, then who can expect to win 1% of their games against a 2000 player? The answer can be easily calculated using the ratings tables available on FIDE’s website: a person whose rating is 620-735 points below their opponent can expect to win 1% of their games against that opponent.  So…

Here’s the answer you’ve all been waiting for. Who is good at chess? By my reasoning it’s anyone whose FIDE rating is at least in the range of 1265-1380.

This range is both low enough to capture the first intuition and high enough to capture the second. Somebody who is rated above 1265 will crush casual chess players. Such a player won’t exactly strike fear into the 2000 Expert, but he will make the Expert work, and can even expect to win a rare game against him. I cannot imagine any other sport, art, or discipline in which giving the Experts a run for their money wouldn’t be enough to count as “good”!

Now, I’m not suggesting that FIDE institute a new title, “Good at Chess”, for 1265+ players.  We don’t need new official titles, just new ways of presenting the game and its culture to the broader chess-playing public.  On a practical level, I’m recommending a way to talk about the qualitative meanings of ratings and to set minimal goals for chess programs.

I can hear the objections pouring in, and the debate over who is good at chess will inevitably go on. But to conclude, here is the perspective of International Master Jeremy Silman on players whose ratings lie in precisely the range I’ve argued as constituting “good at chess”:

“I remember going to my first tournament at age twelve. It was all quite magical, and as I watched other players’ games in the under 1600 section I recall being amazed at their skills—skills which were far beyond anything I could fully understand at that time. Indeed, my view of 1200-1399 players as being demigods is not that far out of line…If he plays in tournaments, he holds his own against many experienced players. If he competes against non-tournament playing friends, he most likely dominates them” (Jeremy Silman, Complete Endgame Course, Part Three).

If an International Master thinks 1200+ players can be called “demigods,” then I would say it’s safe for the rest of us to call 1265+ players “good”!

Michael Hickson