Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Weak Squares

If you ever have a desire to create an instantaneous atmosphere of depression in a room full of eager chess students, say the following: “No matter how good a move seems, there is always a negative side to that move that has the potential to undermine your position.” That will instantly wipe the smiles off their collective faces, leaving you with a room full of students demanding to know how this could be possible. My students tend to groan after hearing such a statement but give it careful thought because they’ve seen a few of my lecture games in which this very idea occurs. If I was new to chess, I might wring my hands in despair upon hearing such a statement and consider a career in checkers, but you should read further.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all moves will lead to dreadful positional problems. What it does mean is that you should examine the square you’re moving a pawn or piece off of before examining the square that pawn or piece is about to occupy.

A chess move can be likened to a coin, which obviously has two sides. When we pick up a coin, we examine both sides if for no other reason than to see what is etched on either face. If beginners would only take this approach when considering a move! The beginner tends to look only at the square the pawn or piece is moving to which can lead to positional problems. Even if the beginner carefully examines the square a piece is about to move to, taking into consideration possible opposition attacks against that piece, noting if the piece will increase it’s activity or seeing a potential capture or increase of attacking possibilities, they still ignore a key factor. That key factor is the weakness created upon moving that piece from the square it was on, the square you leave behind. This applies to both pawns and pieces.

One idea I teach my students early on is that you shouldn’t capture material if doing so weakens your position. The employment of this concept alone will go a long way towards improving your game. By capturing not for the sake of capturing but to increase the strength of your position, you avoid creating weaknesses within that position, but it isn’t enough. You have to take another step and that step is to carefully examine the square you leave behind when making any move.

I first became aware of “the square you leave behind” concept while watching a DVD by Grandmaster Maurice Ashley. When he discussed this concept I was honestly shocked because I realized that I was paying more attention to the square I was moving to and almost no attention to the square I moved from. The square you leave behind is the square vacated by a pawn or piece when you make a move. Even though I’m a full time chess teacher and coach, I’ll forever be a student of the game and this astounding idea of the square you leave behind left me feeling as if I’d been punched in the stomach. How could I miss this concept in my own training? Needless to say, I took note and started employing Grandmaster Maurice Ashley’s method of looking at a potential move. Here’s how you can employ this method: When considering a move, you obviously want to look at your opponent’s pawns and pieces to see if they control the square you want to occupy. If the square is controlled by opposition pawns and/or pieces, do you have a greater number of pawns and/or pieces also controlling that square? If you have a larger number of forces controlling the target square, next consider how moving to that square will affect your position. This is where it is absolutely critical to look at the square you’re leaving behind, the square that will be vacated by you pawn or piece when it moves. Take a look at the example below.

After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Nd4, Black has moved the same piece twice during the opening phase of the game. This is something beginners are taught not to do, moving the same piece twice before developing the majority of their material during the opening. Remember, the opening is a race to see who gets control of the board’s center first. The beginner playing the White pieces sees that the pawn on e5 is hanging and his Knight on f3 is under attack by Black’s d5 Knight. The beginner weighs his or her options and decides to preserve the King-side Knight by capturing the undefended e5 pawn. Not once, did the beginner consider the square the White Knight gives up, f3. After White plays 4. Nxe5, Black plays 4…Qg5, forking the Knight on e5 and the pawn on g2. By moving the Knight off of the f3 square, White has weakened the position greatly. The person playing White should have considered the square left behind, f3, and the squares defended by the Knight on f3, the h4 and g5 squares. Always consider the square you leave behind before considering the square you’re moving to. Take a look at the next example from a student game (both beginners).

Here, White plays the King’s Gambit, 1. e4…e5, 2. f4. Rather than accepting the gambit with 2…exf4 (followed by 3. Nf3), Black plays 2…Bc5. White plays 3. d3 (allowing the Bishop on c1 to defend the pawn on f4 – dreadful business), failing to notice the weakness on f2. When discussing this weakness with my beginning students, they often comment that there are no pawns or pieces on f2 so what is the weakness? A pawn on f2 forms a wall with the pawns on g2 and h2 that help protect the White King when castling on the King-side. That pawn, once on f2, is now on f4. Furthermore, the Bishop on c5 is controlling the f2 square and more importantly, the g1 square. White will not be able to castle on the King-side, since you cannot castle into check, as long as the Black Bishop remains on c5. Again, we must look at the square we leave behind when considering a move. Of course, that Bishop can be dislodged from c5 but that requires additional work on the part of the person playing White which means expending additional moves to do so (a loss in tempo). This example is extremely simplified but the idea behind it still remains true, examine the square you leave behind before making a move.

Of course, there are times when you have to move a pawn or piece and doing so will weaken your position to varying degrees. You will find a downside to any move you make. However, you can minimize that downside by weighing the positive and negative aspects of that move and determining whether the positive outweighs the negative. Just carefully examining the square left behind will go a long way towards helping you avoid the positional nightmare that comes from only looking at one side of the coin. Yes, a chess move is like a coin in that it has two sides. You must look at both. In chess, looking at the square you abandon with a critical eye will before examining the square you’re going to will help you avoid heartache and checkmate! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. See if you can find any weak squares left behind!

Hugh Patterson

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Burn’s Right

“He who combinates is lost.” I have a vague memory, many years ago, of seeing this attributed to Amos Burn, but have never been able to track it down. Google only comes up with an old Addicts’ Corner column on a very old Richmond Junior Club website, which, for some reason, still exists out there in cyberspace, in which we asked for help on this subject.

As someone who has never been very good at combinating this has always had a lot of resonance for me. My experience is that more games are lost by unsound than are won by sound combinations and sacrifices. And then there are all the combinations and sacrifices you consider and, usually correctly, reject.

As teachers and writers, though, we like to demonstrate games which are won by brilliant combinations. There are all sorts of valid reasons why we should do this, but, at the same time, kids often get the wrong idea of chess: that all sacrifices work and that making sacrifices is the usual way to win a game. Therefore they often go round making random sacrifices without having worked anything out.

There are essentially two types of sacrifice. We might sacrifice because we’ve calculated that we can force checkmate or win back the sacrificed material, probably with interest. If we’ve miscalculated, though, we’ll just find ourselves behind on material and looking foolish.

We might also make a positional sacrifice, giving up material because using our judgement and experience, we believe the strong position we get in return is more than worth the material investment. To play the first type of sacrifice just involves the ability to calculate, but positional sacrifices require more abstract considerations, which are difficult for young children.

When Morphy was playing the Aristocratic Allies in the Opera House he made a positional sacrifice of a knight for two pawns to gain a strong position, and he was entirely justified in doing so. At the end of the game he sacrificed his queen because he had performed an accurate calculation and worked out that by doing so he would force checkmate.

Let’s see what happened to a few guys who got it wrong.

Our first example shows an unsound positional sacrifice. Black, observing that White had left his king in the centre and advanced some king-side pawns, decided to play a random sacrifice of a bishop for two pawns on g4. It didn’t work out well for him, though, and, although White didn’t play optimally and he had some drawing chances at one point, he eventually lost the game some 50 moves later. Don’t try this at home, kids. if you go round doing this sort of thing you’ll lose far more games than you’ll win.

In this position White saw the opportunity for a rook sacrifice leading to checkmate and played 1. Rd7 Qxd7 2. f6, hoping that Black wouldn’t be able to find a defence to Rg7+. But he was mistaken as Black had two ways to meet the threat. He could just have played Rxf6, returning the rook, when White has no mate and the black a-pawn will soon decide the game in his favour. Instead he played 2… Qd1+ 3. Qxd1 Kxg6, which was even better. He now had two rooks for his queen, White had no attack at all, and his a-pawn was going through. White’s rook sacrifice just made him look extremely foolish. This is what happens if you miscalculate. Get it right. Every time.

In our final example White had already made a random rook sacrifice to reach a totally wild position. He should have tried Bd2, which would have given him some practical chances but instead sacrificed another piece with 1. Ng6 Nxg6 2. Qxf5, hoping that Black wouldn’t be able to meet the threats to his knight and king. But again he’d failed to calculate accurately and after 2… Ne7 3. Qf7+ Kd8 Black’s king was perfectly safe and White had nothing to show for his missing pieces.

I’ll repeat this again and again, kids. You really have to learn to calculate accurately if you want to be good at chess. You can’t just make random sacrifices and hope for the best.

I think you’ll agree that the three losers in these games played pretty badly. But who were they? Were the games played in some fairly low level junior tournament, or in one of the lower sections of a weekend congress?

Far from it. If you follow top level chess you’ll probably have recognised the positions. They all came from rounds 3 and 4 of the recently concluded Grenke Chess Classic played in Baden Baden, Germany. The first example was World Champion Magnus Carlsen losing to Arkadij Naiditsch after punting a rather dubious positional sacrifice. The second example saw Carlsen the beneficiary of a miscalculation by former World Champion Vishy Anand, who, to be fair, had probably switched to desperation mode after losing his a-pawn while trying to build up a king-side attack. The third example was played by the only slightly less stellar David Baramidze, who, rated a long way below the other competitors, decided to go for broke and went wrong in an extremely complex position giving Naiditsch another victory.

If players of that level can misjudge or miscalculate perhaps Amos was right and he who combinates, more often than not, is lost. Or maybe chess is just too hard for mere humans. But let’s get the right message across to our pupils: 90% of the time that sacrifice you’re considering is really not going to work.

Richard James

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Confessions of a Self Learner

Teaching and coaching chess, my own game improves steadily. However, I put a minimum of two to three hours a day into studying chess because I practice what I preach, which is the idea that getting better at chess requires hard work. If you want to become a better chess player you have to roll up your sleeves and take action. Thinking about improving your own game does no good unless you actually do something such as studying. Action, in this case, is the act of creating a plan of improvement and following it.

I must confess that I can be the world’s laziest person when it comes to things I don’t want to do. My weed covered backyard attests to this fact! However, when I love something, I throw myself into it full throttle. Yet even my great love of chess doesn’t completely stop laziness from rearing it’s ugly head from time to time. I have to maintain self discipline to get through it and self discipline takes time to develop. Here’s my typical training day.

I start my day with a series of tactical mate in one exercises using a software program on my laptop. Typically, I’ll do sixty problems while having my first cup of coffee at 6:00 am. I prefer exercises that require me to look at the entire chessboard which helps improve my board vision. One tip I would offer in solving these problems is to look at all your pawns and pieces to determine which of them cover the enemy King’s escape squares. These pawns and pieces should remain where they are, leaving you to find the pawn or piece that can move and deliver checkmate. Approaching mate in one problems this way will help you avoid missing potential checkmates in your own games. You’d be surprised at how many potential checkmates players miss. Checkmate exercises help reduce the number of missed opportunities.

Once my brain is warmed up, it’s time to play a few games of Blitz against the computer. I start with a few Blitz games because I have commitments in the morning and often don’t have enough time to play an hour long game. I use my laptop’s chess program as an opponent. Blitz games that are five to ten minutes long are a good way to check your instinctual play. By instinctual, I mean testing out what you have retained in your memory (opening principles, tactics, etc). Blitz helps me play more aggressively and less defensively.

Because I have breaks throughout my teaching day, I often have thirty minute blocks of time to fill. This is when I study openings. I use an chess Ebook app on my tablet that has a small built in board so I can play through specific openings while reading the book. Teaching requires that I know quite a few openings so these thirty minute blocks of study time allow me to keep up with the numerous openings my students play. When I study openings, I approach them from the standpoint of how I would play against them. I take this approach because too often, we plod through the opening moves mechanically, looking at the opening from the viewpoint of the side the opening is designed for. We tend to pay just a little less attention to the opposition’s response. Paying just a little less attention can be disastrous when you use that opening in a game and don’t remember what the best opposition move was in a given position. When you look at an opening, say the Ruy Lopez for example, from Black’s perspective you not only learn more about White’s moves but Black’s critical responses as well. Openings are a two sided affair, so look at both sides, especially opposition responses.

During my classes, I make a point of playing as many students as possible. What I love about playing my students is their unpredictability. My students have been known to make some unorthodox but reasonable moves during our games. This gives me a chance to explore responses to those moves, forcing me to think outside of the box. While we learn chess in a somewhat mechanical fashion, purely mechanical thinking will lead to lost games. Learning how to deal with the unexpected will go a long way towards improving your play. Try non book/theory moves against the computer just to see what happens! You may get crushed but you might just find something interesting and useful. Be an explorer of the game!

After work, when I’m home in a quieter environment, I study the endgame. I have thirty minutes dedicated to this. Endgame studies require developing the ability to see many moves ahead which requires concentration. I tend to concentrate best in my office so that’s where I do my endgame work. I use software training programs and work through the positions very slowly. These are not mate in one problems, but mate in four, five and six moves. This means you have to take your time. Fewer pieces on the board means that the tables can turn on you very quickly if you lose a piece or even a single pawn. Endgame problems are a matter of quality over quantity.

After dinner I play a longer game against my computer, using what I’ve learned that day. It is during these games that I work on my middle game skills. What I’ve found in my studies is that we should start our middle game by building up small advantages rather than aiming for one large tide turning advantage such as a quick mating attack. Small advantages, when put together, make a large advantage. Because this large advantage is made up of smaller individual components, it will be more difficult for your opponent to thwart that overall advantage. Piece activity is a key consideration. The question you should ask yourself is whether or not your pieces are on their most active squares. Tactical combinations appear only when pieces are fully active!

The crucial aspect to self learning is getting into the habit of daily study. Like physical exercise, you have to do it regularly and not sporadically. If you do a little work every day, you’ll not only improve but be more apt to sit down and get to work on a daily basis without grumbling. I am fortunate in that I have a great deal of time to study chess. However, you may not. This means that you should put in a reasonable amount of time into your studies based on your schedule. To determine how much time you can put into your chess studies, take a look at your daily schedule and see if there is any down time, such as having to wait for a bus or train. If you have to wait for twenty minutes until your bus or train arrives, use that time to study. Sitting down for an hour at a time might seem a bit daunting. However, if you break it up into three twenty minute sessions, it may seem a bit more palatable. Use the time in between daily activities to improve your chess.

Sometimes you might not feel like studying chess. There’s nothing wrong with this. We all need a break now and again. In fact, I’d say taking time away from your studies can be good thing. Just make sure that you don’t stay away too long. Burn out is an occupational hazard so walk away when you need to. Remember, in chess, as in life, you get out of it what you put into it. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Teaching Kids the Ruy Lopez (5)

Returning to my series of articles on introducing kids to the Ruy Lopez, let’s start with the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4.

What could be more natural or logical than playing 4… b5, driving the bishop back again and negating the potential pin on the a4-e8 diagonal? Children are more interested in creating threats than putting pieces on good squares, and, at low levels, you’ll win a lot of games because your opponent doesn’t notice your threats.

You won’t read a lot about this sequence in openings books, though, because it’s not popular with stronger players, and on the rare occasions they play it they follow up with Na5, immediately trading off the white bishop at the cost of a tempo. Mamedyarov, Morozovich and Agdestein have all started this way a few times, when play usually continues 5. 0-0 d6 6. d4.

It’s very natural again, though, especially for children who are probably more familiar with the Italian than the Spanish, to continue with a developing move like Bc5 or Nf6 just as they would after 3. Bc4. The position might look similar but the analysis is very different. If you’re playing chess at lower levels, particularly in junior tournaments, though, it’s good to know what’s happening.

By and large, the differences favour White, mainly because the bishop is safer from immediate attack on b3 than it is on c4.

Let’s take a closer look.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 b5 5. Bb3 Bc5 as in the Giuoco Piano.

The first point is that White can play, if he chooses, the Fork Trick with 6. Nxe5. You can’t do this in the Giuoco Piano, of course (although kids sometimes try) because 6… Nxe5 will hit the bishop on c4 and you’re not going to get the piece back.

Alternatively, White can continue in Italian fashion with 6. c3 Nf6 7. d4 exd4. We have two strong options here. 8. cxd4 Bb4+ 9. Bd2 Bxd2 10. Nbxd2 is very pleasant for White. In Italy Black can equalise with d5 hitting the bishop on c4, but in Spain we can meet d5 with e5 giving us a nice space advantage. We could also choose 8. e5, which again is well met by d5 in Italy, while in Spain Black has to move his knight to an awkward square.

So perhaps Black should play Nf6 instead. The stats favour White in many of these variations, mainly because a lot of the games feature stronger players beating weaker players, but the engines seem to think Black’s position is not unreasonable.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 b5 5. Bb3 Nf6. Many kids like to play Ng5, going for the Fried Liver Attack. After 6. Ng5 d5 7. exd5 Nxd5 8. Nxf7 seems even stronger for White than the Fried Liver proper, but Black can do much better with 7… Nd4 to trade off the bishop when necessary. Regular readers will be aware than in Italy Nd4 seems to give White a slight advantage if he knows what he’s doing, but in Spain it’s absolutely fine for Black.

Instead, White might want to try 6. d4 here. The engines seem happy with d6 or Nxd4 for Black. 6… d6 seems rather passive but 6… Nxd4 leads to interesting complications. White plays 7. Nxd4 exd4 8. e5 and Black has to give up his knight because of tactics with Qf3 or Qd5. Instead he can play the strange looking computer move 7… c5, trapping the bishop with c4 when the knight moves away. 7. Bxf7+ has also been played, which looks scary to me but not to the engines.

If Black knows the Two Knights Defence, though, he’ll probably play the Italian move 6… exd4. Now White, as in the line above, can play 7. e5 as d5 is not an option for Black. Black is quite likely to play Ne4 when either O-O or the immediate Bd5 are possible for White. We’re now in a position which can arise from a variety of move orders. For some idea of White’s prospects in this sort of position, consider the following short game in which a strong player suffers a painful defeat.

There are one or two loose ends which I may or may not tie up later. One of the ideas of this series of posts was to make the point that most opening books are written by and for very strong players. They have little relevance for those of us playing club standard chess and no relevance at all for kids just starting out in competitive chess. Opening books for kids should be based on what happens in kids’ games, not what happens in grandmaster games. I’ve been asked many times to recommend a good opening book for kids at this level. My answer has always been the same: I haven’t written it yet, but at least I’m now working on it.

Richard James

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Teaching Kids the Ruy Lopez (4)

Today we’re going to look at two important and interrelated tactical ideas which can arise from the Ruy Lopez. One of the ideas is a way for White to win material, while the other idea will win material for Black.

Suppose Black decides to chase the white bishop back with a6 and b5. Black will often do this straight away in kiddie chess. Kiddie players love to create threats in case their opponent doesn’t notice. Now if Black plays d6 there are some potential white square weaknesses around the d5 square. If Black plays Nxe4 a bishop move to d5 might fork the knights on e4 and c6, or, if the knight on c6 has moved away, the knight on e4 and the rook on a8.

Better still, a queen landing on d5 might also threaten mate on f7, backed up by the bishop on b3.

Let’s have a look at a few games to see how this works out in practice.

In our first game Black defends weakly against the Fork Trick. 8… Bd6 would also have failed because of the Qd5 idea: he should have played 8… Bxd4 instead.

Playing natural developing moves doesn’t mean you won’t lose quickly if you’re not careful. Black had to play the ugly 8… Bd6 instead. Note that if 10… Ng4 to defend f7, White just takes it off.

Black, who from his rating isn’t a bad player, comes up with a losing 6th move. He should either take on d4 or play d6 instead of Be7. This just goes to show how devastating an early d4 can be against an unwary opponent.

Again, a player with a reasonable rating plays a careless move (any other capture on move 7 would have been OK) and this time Qd5 pins and skewers everything in sight.

Another Fork Trick where Black goes wrong very quickly. This time White finds a different target: a bishop on e5. Note that, as mentioned last week, in other Fork Trick lines (7…) Bd6 is often the best move but in the Ruy Lopez it usually leads to a quick disaster. Again he should have played Bxd4 instead.

In this game White manages a record-breaking quadruple queen fork.

A typical example of a position where White wins a piece by playing Bd5.

Now for the black trap. This is sometimes known as the Noah’s Ark Trap, allegedly because the trap is as old as Noah’s Ark.

What happens is this: White plays d4 (without c3). Black trades pawns and knights on d4, forcing White to take back with the queen. Black then kicks the queen with c5, followed by c4, trapping the bishop on b3.

Study this game very carefully, paying full attention to the notes, and you’ll see how it works. Both players have to look several moves ahead to see whether or not it’s going to work and recognising the patterns will help you do this. Estonian chess great Paul Keres, who won this game, was one of the strongest players never to become world champion.

Richard James

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Teaching Kids the Ruy Lopez (3)

Back to the Ruy Lopez this week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard James

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Developing Focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Patterson

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Teaching kids the Ruy Lopez (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard James

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Teaching kids the Ruy Lopez (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard James

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Databases

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Patterson

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