Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Practice Makes Perfect?

I recently read a social media post stating that kids were studying chess up to four hours a day. It went on to question the validity of such an effort. I thought about this and realized that just because you study something for hours on end each and every day doesn’t mean you’re going to master that subject or even improve much. Quantity doesn’t guarantee any kind of mastery or improvement unless there is a high degree of quality to one’s studies. I know about this all too well.

We’ve all heard the old adage that states “to master an art you must put in at least ten thousand hours of study.” That’s a great deal of time to dedicate to any endeavor, especially in a world that becomes impatient after three minutes. Think about it. Your internet is running a bit slow, a matter of milliseconds, and you thrown a fit because you can’t download a pop tune in under sixty seconds. There was a time when getting online took a lot longer than sixty seconds. I mention this because those individuals who actually attempt to master something via the ten thousand hour method have a lot of natural patience. However, there’s a crucial missing statement that should be firmly attached to the ten thousand hour party line and that’s, “it only works if you have an excellent training structure or program.” In other words, you can waste ten thousand hours trying to master something and get nowhere because you didn’t employ a sound method of training (quality). To demonstrate that I know what I’m talking about here, I’ll give you my typical training day as a musician.

I play guitar for up to four hours a day (sometimes more). In the right hands, this amount practice each day will have any musician greatly improving within a short period. In the wrong hands, bad playing and the bad habits thus developed will lead to no improvement and a lot of frustration. With music and chess, it all comes down to the structure of your training program more so than the time spent training. I play for such a long period of time each day because I’m studying some extremely complex and difficult to learn jazz guitarist leads (what they call a “professional’s advanced class). This is akin to preparing an opening for a high level chess tournament. Too many improving guitarists and chess players have dreadful training methods that aren’t structured to optimize their studies. This is why they don’t get the results they’re after.

Here’s the way my typical guitar training sessions go. I start with a good thirty minutes of jazz scales. Why scales when I can work on playing actual songs? Because my fingers need to warm up before trying to play extremely complicated guitar leads. If I try to play a lead with no warn up, my fingers don’t work as well and I get frustrated. If I become frustrated, I might not feel like playing. Therefore, I warm up with scales. I then play a series of ten bebop (jazz) leads on my guitar, with each lead becoming more complex as I move through them. I play each lead a minimum of ten times. I should mention that if I hit one off note, I add another five times to the total workout of each lead. Bad habits form when you hit a bad note and continue anyway. You need to stop and start again, correctly. These lead guitar riffs are specifically designed to prepare my fingers for the more complex work I’ll be doing towards the end of my session. Next I move on to twenty Wes Montgomery leads. He was an amazing guitarist and learning to play his music is extremely difficult. Each of the twenty leads is done ten times with the same off or bad note penalty. Sometimes, I’ll play a leads perfectly and then my fingers get stupid (more likely it’s my brain but I hate to admit that) and I can’t play the lead through a second time. I stop and immediately take a break. Trying to continue when you’re frustrated will only make matters worse. It’s time to walk away and play a quick game of chess. I keep a board set up in my studio. In fact, when my bands rehearse there is always a game being played during those rehearsals, with some moves being made while the musicians are playing! The point here is to stop when frustration sets in because you’ll waste more time by not taking a break. Notice that there’s a structure to my studies? This is the only way you can improve.

After my jazz workout, I do some old school country guitar, called “chicken picking.” This is a string bending work out in which I’m using my fingers to “pick” the strings so I’m playing multiple notes at once. Only now do I actually run through both my band’s sets (roughly 18 songs each). Yes, I know the songs because I wrote almost all of them but I like to refine them ever so slightly.

In short, I have a very structured training work out. I’ve also done well over ten thousand hours of playing and am considered (by my peers, not by myself) to have mastered my instrument. However, there is no last stop on the road to improvement. It’s a road than only ends when you die. This is why you have to keep at it. A chess training workout doesn’t have to be as long as my guitar workout to be beneficial. The workout I described above is as long as it is because of solo and song lengths. With chess, you’re workout can be much shorter. Remember, just because someone else is studying chess for four hours doesn’t mean they’re going to play better than someone putting an hour or two into their studies. It’s about quality not quantity.

As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, you should set realistic goals regarding how long you study. I can play guitar for four hours because I’ve developed the concentration and stamina to do so over the last thirty five plus years of playing. If you’re new to chess, you need to study for shorter periods of time until you build up your mental stamina. Otherwise you’ll burn out quickly. Try thirty minutes daily to start and forty five minutes daily, three months later. Trying to study chess for four hours will give the beginner a solid thirty minutes of good studying followed by three and a half hours of glazed eyes and nothing accomplished. Take it slow. You have to be patient to improve. Getting good at sometime takes time and you cannot rush the process if you want to gain the most from your studies. Don’t be impatient. Take it nice and easy.

As for what to study? Make a list of everything you think is wrong with your chess playing and be honest (after all, you’re the only one seeing the list). Categorize the issues into opening, Middle and endgame problems. If you don’t have access to chess books or training software, go online and search for your particular problem. If you have trouble with your opponent hitting you with tactical plays that seem to come from nowhere, type “how to spot tactics in chess” into your search engine. Do this with each of the problems on your list. Do note that the internet allows everyone to be an expert so you have to watch out for people who don’t know what they’re doing. Look for know chess player’s online writings to avoid this. Look for web pages and sites that have positive reviews.

You’ll also want to go online and look up chess training programs. However, I suggest you try working through your list first and using that to start your training because if you’re brand new to chess, you won’t know a good training program from a bad one. Trust books written by Bruce Pandolfini. His writings on chess improvement form the foundation of my own chess teaching and coaching program. He writes in a clear and concise manner and is beginner friendly (many books are too advanced for beginners even though they’re supposed to be for the novice player) Go onto chess forums and see what people recommend in the way of training. You have to do the research.

In closing always remember that when it comes to improvement, quality always trumps quantity and patience wins the war. It comes down to a well thought out training program. That is how you improve. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Concentration for Kids

In coaching Juniors, the hardest task I face is getting my players to completely focus on the task at hand, sitting down to play chess. Because it’s a tournament as opposed to a friendly game with nothing at stake, my team members must be able to fully concentrate on their games. While this is difficult enough for adults, the task becomes doubly difficult when dealing with children or teenagers. Over the years I’ve tried many techniques, some panning out better than others. To help you avoid trying methods that don’t work, I’ll share with you some of the techniques I employ, methods that actually work!

You have to keep in mind that young minds tend to become distracted very easily. In our youth, we’re explorers of the world around us, a world in which everything is seemingly new. It’s “seemingly new” because youngsters are often experiencing things for the first time. Add to this the simple fact that children and teenagers haven’t learned the art of self discipline and you have a recipe for scattered and disjointed thoughts. This translates to a lack of focus and chess is a game that requires absolute focus. We cannot blame youngsters for lacking the ability to totally concentrate on a specific task, especially for long periods of time which is required when playing in chess tournaments. However, we can help them develop concentration skills that will serve them well in chess and more so if life!

The first problem I have to solve is one that most parents overlook which is their child’s diet. Many youngsters with take in high levels of sugar which causes them to become hyperactive. An active mind is crucial to chess. However, a hyperactive mind is a mind that is thinking in a disjointed way, seemingly in seven different directions at once. This means that the ability to focus becomes extremely difficult. Then there’s the simple fact that this high level of artificial energy will wear off quickly, leaving one feeling very tired (usually when the brain is needed most). Then there’s the individual who eats foods like hamburgers and french fries which leave them feeling lethargic which means their brain is struggling to go in even a single direction. Therefore, my students are given strict dietary guidelines for tournaments and I make sure their parents enforce them. The rule is simple: No sugar with the exception of fresh fruit. Meals prior to and during the tournament must be light. You cannot expect to concentrate unless your feed your brain wisely. I carefully explain to my students and their parents that the brain’s reaction with certain substances can lead to dreadful results due to the end product of that sugary biochemical reaction. Since most of my kids love science, they find this of great interest.

The next thing I have my students do to get into the zone of absolute concentration is either Yoga, Tai Chi or some form of physical exercise such as martial arts. Physical activity stimulates the flow of blood throughout your body, carrying much needed oxygen to your brain. Exercise helps to wake you up. Therefore, my students engage in some physical activity prior to their tournaments. I highly recommend Tai Chi because it really helps when it comes to centering yourself. Being centered means being having control of both body and mind. The forms used in this softer martial art require focus and concentration but in a very natural way. If you engage in an activity that requires too much concentration prior to the chess tournament, you may find that you’ve expended some of your ability to concentrate and focus before you really need it (when playing chess). Even simple exercises can be employed as long as you don’t overdo it.

Now for the brain warm up. Of course, my students will play practice games prior to their tournament games. However, I make them do a series of brain games to hone their ability to focus and concentrate. The first thing they do is play a few rounds of Solitaire, that old standby game found on most computers. The reason I have them play Solitaire is because it requires a small amount of focus, specifically in the area of pattern recognition. I build up the level of focus through the series of brain games my students engage in. Next I have my students count cards. That’s right, counting cards as in Black Jack. Of course, I don’t tell them it’s part of being able to successfully play Black Jack. With card counting, you assign three sets of numerical values to the various cards in the deck and keep track of the numerical count. I don’t want to turn this into a card counting lesson so you can look this up online. The point is that my students will have to focus and concentrate a little harder than when they were playing Solitaire. Again, it helps with pattern recognition.

Lastly, I have my students do a series of chess puzzles. The puzzles start off easy and get harder as we go along. The puzzles I use will require the students to look at the entire board. It’s important that they don’t start their games with tunnel vision, looking only at the part of the board where all the action is taking place. They need to see the entire board and do threat assessments, looking for potential threats such as hanging pieces, etc. The puzzles I use cover these issues.

We end our warm up sessions with a talk about good sportsmanship. Being a gracious winner and even more gracious loser is an absolute must with me. Act poorly and you are off the team. I tell my students that if they win they should consider the simple fact that their opponent probably isn’t feeling great about losing and thus ask themselves how they would feel if they lost and the winner was jumping up and down, screaming with joy. Shake hands and say good game! When losing I tell my students that becoming upset and crying only serves to make the victor’s win more sweet (there are a lot of sore winners on the junior chess circuit here). In short be kind no matter what the result.

So this is the basis of how I get my students to concentrate going into their tournaments. It works for adults as well! As for results, my students have owned many local titles for the last three years so I must be doing something right. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Novice Versus Amateur

One genre of chess book I find useful involves games between masters and amateurs. This originated with a series of books by Max Euwe and Walter Meiden in the 1960s, and there have been a few others since. I’ve always thought that you can probably learn more from the play of those rated, say, 300-400 points above you than from the top players. If I see a game played by a 2200 strength player I’ll be able to understand it and think ‘Yes, I could play like that’, while a game played by Carlsen will be over my head.

So perhaps there’s scope for a book for novices which uses games played by amateurs as teaching materials. The games would have to be simple to understand and free from obvious oversights. As it happens, one of the books in the Chess Heroes project, Chess Games for Heroes, will be similar to this, but as it uses the ‘How Good is Your Chess’ principle the games are, of necessity, short.

Here’s a training game I played against one of my pupils which might be useful.

1. e4 d5

I usually play e5, which is what he’s used to, but wanted to see what he’d do when faced with unfamiliar problems. Of course the natural move is to take the pawn, but he noticed I had a threat and chose to defend instead.

2. Nc3 c6

I decided to transpose to a Caro-Kann. How would he cope with that? Rather illogically, perhaps, he now decided to trade pawns.

3. exd5 cxd5
4. d4 Bf5
5. Bf4 Nf6
6. Nf3 e6

Rather careless. I’m trying to develop my king side pieces first, but not considering possible replies. White now has the opportunity to play 7. Bxb8 Rxb8 8. Bb5+ when I’d have to play the uncomfortable Ke7 as Nd7 would lose immediately to Ne5. White has another interesting option in Nb5, which was also possible last move. I’d have to reply with Na6 when the knight on b5 will be safe for some time to come. I really should have played Nc6 by now.

7. Bb5+ Nbd7
8. O-O Bb4

With a positional threat. We haven’t yet spoken much about weak pawns so here’s an opportunity to teach him a lesson. The engines prefer h6 here, to prevent White playing Nh4 and trading off my light squared bishop.

9. a3

Just what I was hoping for. Now I’m going to trade on c3 when White will have backward doubled pawns on the half-open c-file as well as an isolated a-pawn. In an analogous position type where Black has a c-pawn rather than an e-pawn White might be happy with his two bishops, but here I’m hoping to tie him down to defence by targeting the front c-pawn with my major pieces.

9… Bxc3
10. bxc3 Rc8

I could also have played Ne4 here, but I would have had to analyse lines like 10… Ne4 11. Ne5 Nxc3 12. Qh5 Bg6 13. Bxd7+ Qxd7 14. Nxd7 Bxh5 15. Ne5 Ne2+ to justify it.

11. Qd2

He spots my threat and chooses the most natural defence. There were better alternatives, but at novice level it wouldn’t be possible to find them for the right reasons.

The simplest option is 11. Nh4 Bg6 12. Nxg6 hxg6 13. Qf3 Ne4 14. c4.

White can also give up the c-pawn for counterplay:
11. Qb1 Rxc3 12. Qb4 Rxc2 13. Ne5 with more than enough compensation, although Black shouldn’t take the second pawn.
11. Rb1 Rxc3 12. Bd3 Bxd3 13. cxd3 b6 14. Qa4 with compensation for the pawn.

11… O-O

After playing this move I realised that I could have played Ne4 at once, although my move is also strong. Around this point my pupil became stuck, and was unable to find reasonable moves. Understandably so because his position is very difficult to play and he probably doesn’t have any reasonable moves. Some of his moves, including the next one, were my suggestions.

12. Bd3

I’d suggested that he might want to trade off my dangerous bishop. I have no intention of taking it, though, as I don’t want to give him control of c4 and e4. After he’d played the move I realised that Ne4 was very strong.

12… Ne4
13. Bxe4 Bxe4

The wrong recapture. I didn’t want to double my pawns (as I was trying to teach my pupil about the weakness of doubled pawns) or block in my bishop, but dxe4 is excellent as it drives the white knight back to e1.

14. Qe3

If I’d noticed it left the c2 pawn en prise I’d have suggested that he played an alternative. My computer thinks Ne5 is the best try, but Black’s still a lot better.

14… Nb6
15. Nd2 Bxc2

The rest of the game is just a matter of technique for an experienced player. I offered my pupil the chance to switch sides and see if he could win with Black at several points but, to his credit, he preferred to play it out and see how I beat him.

16. Rac1 Bg6
17. Bg5 Qc7
18. Bf4 Qc6
19. Rfd1 Nc4
20. Nxc4 Qxc4
21. Bd6 Rfd8
22. Be7 Rd7
23. Bg5 b6
24. Rd2 Qb3
25. Bf4 Qxa3

A second pawn falls.

26. Rdd1 a5
27. Re1 Rc4
28. Qd2 Rd8
29. Re3 Rdc8
30. h3 b5
31. g3 b4

The third weak pawn falls. White finds a good tactical try but I manage to calculate the win.

32. Bd6 bxc3
33. Bxa3 cxd2
34. Rd1 Rc1
35. Bxc1 Rxc1
36. Rb3

Another good tactical try, threatening mate but allowing an amusing finish. My pupil shows admirable tactical imagination as well as tenacity which will stand him in good stead in the future.

36… Rxd1+
37. Kg2 Rg1+
38. Kh2 Rh1+
39. Kg2 Be4+
40. f3 Bxf3+
41. Kf2 g6
42. Rb8+ Kg7
43. Kxf3 d1=Q+
44. Kf4 Qxd4+
45. Kf3 Rf1+
46. Ke2 Rf2+
47. Ke1 Qd2#

I guess you might find this a useful example of how an amateur can beat a novice by creating weak pawns, attacking them and winning them. This is not the only training game of this nature I’ve played recently so I guess learning about pawn weaknesses, how to avoid them, how to create them and how to exploit them, is a useful lesson for novices who want to become amateurs. There may be more on this topic in Chess Openings for Heroes.

Richard James

Knowing The Opponent’s Plan

This article is aimed at beginners only. Almost at all levels of chess, players try tricks to trap their opponents, the only difference being the level of difficulty. So when do you have better chances of making a fool out of your opponent? The simplest answer is when you know their plan.

Here is a nice miniature to show you the importance of knowing opponent’s plan in order to create a successful trap.

[Site "London"]
[Date "1864"]
[White "Andrews"]
[Black "Janssens"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "C55"]

1. e4 e5 2. d4 exd4 3. Nf3 Nc6 4. Bc4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 (5... Nxe4 6. Re1 d5 7.
Bxd5 Qxd5 8. Nc3) 6. Nxd4 Nxd4 7. Qxd4 d6 8. f4 b6 (8... O-O {is fine here, but
why b6? It is always been good to look for the reasons behind opponent's
{Answer is that Black would like to
play Bc5 to win White's queen. So now you know your opponent's plan and it is
time to create web around it. In the game White did this.}) 9. e5 {Of
course White can remove the queen or king from the diagonal but he used Black's
greed to win the game.} (9. Kh1)(9. Qd3) 9... d5 10. Bb5+ Bd7 11. exf6 {wins a
piece.} (11. Bxd7+ Qxd7 12. b4 c5 {is good for Black.}) 11... Bc5 {Finally
Black has achieved what he planned. But what did he miss?} (11... Bxb5 12.
fxe7 Qxe7 13. Rd1 {White wins.}) 12. Re1+ Kf8 {This allows mate in 2.} (12...
Be7 13. Rxe7+ Kf8 14. Bxd7 {wins}) 13. fxg7+ Kg8 14. gxh8=Q# 1-0

Ashvin Chauhan

Feedback and Follow-ups

This week, some feedback and follow-ups on recent posts.

But first, something rather less recent. It was great to hear from Dr Robert Samuels, a chess player and senior lecturer in music at the Open University, concerning my articles on chess and music last year. I pointed him in the direction of The Even More Complete Chess Addict, which he is enjoying reading. He has just started his own blog on chess and music which you can, and should, if you’re interested in both chess and music, read here.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the European Schools Chess Championship in Montenegro and mentioned the reports by an English parent who was concerned that some of the participants were fearful of the reactions of their parents and coaches if they lost.

Shortly after publication I came across this article from the Jewish Chronicle last year, written by Dana Brass, mother of leading English junior Ezra Brass. Her experience has been very similar:

The reaction of the Russians, who had sent the largest delegation, was perfunctory. A win was simply an expectation met, a job done. A loss would unleash a myriad of expletives at the poor offspring very publicly (again, my Russian proving useful).

Meanwhile, there were problems with parents at the recent PanAm youth Youth Championships in Costa Rica, according to a Facebook post by Paul Truong:

Some chess parents and coaches are embarrassing the chess community, again! After receiving so many complaints, the organization of the 2017 PanAm Youth Championships addressed the complaints and announced a new procedure this morning.

They are allowing all parents, coaches, family members, and head of delegations, etc. 5 minutes to take photos of their players. After the 5 minutes are up, they are asked to leave the playing hall. Once everyone was out of the room, play began.

The reason for this is a number of parents and coaches instead of taking pictures of their players, took pictures of all the opening positions of potential rivals. Some got so aggressive that they got in the way of other parents / family members / coaches who really want to take pictures of their own players.

When this announcement was made, a huge round of applause erupted. At one time years ago, parents were allowed to be in the playing hall. Because of a few parents and coaches who cannot behave, rules had to be changed.

Chess is a game. The time for serious preparation is at home. Young players need their parents and coaches’ support at tournaments but some lines should not be crossed.

In the same article I asked why other Western European countries were not represented in the European Schools Championship. This elicited a reply from Helmut Froeyman, whose son Hugo is Belgian U8 Champion, explaining that, in his case at least, it was a matter of time and money: his national chess federation offers no financial support for this type of event, and he and his wife both work full time. In addition, this particular tournament clashed with Hugo’s school exams. I took the opportunity to read Helmut’s chess blog and ask him more about junior chess in his country. His reply confirmed my understanding: perhaps I’ll return to this some other time.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how many parents misunderstand the nature of chess. Here’s another story.

The other day I was filling in for a colleague who had to leave early in the RJCC Beginners’/Novices’ group. There were a few children who were too young and immature for chess, but others who were really enthusiastic and keen to learn. Some of them were still there with me more than half an hour after the scheduled end of the session. Among the children left at the end were a sister and brother who had come along for the first time that day. Their mother was also watching with interest. I set up this position and asked them how White could get checkmate in two moves.

This is a good question as it tests children’s understanding of both pawn promotion and stalemate as well as their ability to look ahead and their knowledge of typical king and rook checkmates. I was planning to move onto the positions discussed here, but first wanted to see whether they could solve this.

One of them eventually realised that promoting to a queen was stalemate and they finally discovered that the problem was solved by promoting to a rook instead.

The mother watching was incredulous, though. How could it possibly be better to promote to a rook rather than a queen? There’s nothing a rook can do that a queen can’t do. True, but there’s something a queen can do that a rook can’t do: in this case, control the h6 square. She seemed unaware of the concept of stalemate, and of the idea of looking at what your opponent’s next move might be. She told me that when she was a girl her family lived on a boat, and she was taught chess by a man with a fondness for ‘a certain substance’. At least, unlike most parents, she was doing the right thing by taking her children to Richmond Junior Club, where, as we have a separate group for novices, her children will learn to play correctly.

I’d advise her, though, not to read How to beat Anyone at Chess, by Ethan Moore. Simon & Schuster were the first publishers of Fischer’s My 60 Memorable Games, but now they’re publishing a book, which doesn’t quite make the same impression.

Here’s the blurb:

Learn to take the king like a pro!

Whether you’ve played a few matches or are completely new to the game, How to Beat Anyone at Chess helps you master leading strategies for one of the hardest games out there. Each page guides you through important moves with easy-to-understand explanations and tips for staying ahead of your opponent. From utilizing the queen’s power to slaying your rival’s king, you’ll learn all about the traps, squeezes, and sacrifices that give players an extra edge and how you can use these techniques to beat the competition.

The ultimate guide to conquering the classic game, How to Beat Anyone at Chess will show you how to become a grandmaster in no time!

Who, you might ask, is Ethan Moore? Perhaps he’s this guy, with a rating of 883. Who knows? Quality control, indeed!

Finally, shortly after writing this post I read another article about Brexit by a former RJCC member, Jonathan White. Jonathan still finds time to play chess in between being a professor at the London School of Economics. Perhaps one reason is that, unlike Adam and Tommy, he started competitive chess at the age of 13, when he joined RJCC from Westminster School along with his friend, Ben Yeoh.

I’ve said this many times before, and I’ll say it again now: children who start competitive chess at secondary school age are much more likely to play as adults than those who start at primary school age.

Richard James

Chess Hustlers

Chess players are a lot like musicians, running the personality spectrum from absolutely insane to completely sane and everything in between. As a musician, I’ve played with other musicians who were absolutely out of their minds but brilliant artists, always making up for their lunacy with great playing. The world of music is filled with every type of personality as is the world of chess. Some of the craziest chess players I’ve met have been full time chess hustlers. These are the guys you see clustered around tables in big cities, offering to play you for a small fee. In New York, it’s Washington Square park and in San Francisco, it used to be Powell Street, until a real estate developer thought them a visual blight. Here’s what he did to get rid of them:

He tried calling the police to complain about a bunch of undesirables that were frightening his building’s tenants. According to him, those undesirables needed to be promptly removed. The police found the complaint unwarranted since the supposed undesirables were gathered across the street from the property rather than directly in front of it. He complained to the board of supervisors and the mayor’s office who were far to busy to deal with petty nuisance issues. He then upped his game by calling the police back and telling them there was illegal gambling and drug dealing taking place. That warranted police attention, even though he lied about the activities taking place.

I’d be lying if I suggested that the small group of chess hustlers wasn’t at least a bit eccentric and perhaps rough looking. However, marching to your own beat in life doesn’t make you a threat. Nor does wearing tattered clothing, after all, I made a minor career of such fashion during punk rock’s heyday. These guys love chess and either didn’t have a desire to play tournaments or had emotional issues that kept them away from competitive chess. The streets were where they fought their battles. Sure, some of those guys are a bit nutty but so am I for that matter. To take away the simple pleasure of playing chess for a few dollars, mostly won from unsuspecting tourists, seemed a petty action. While the police couldn’t substantiate the accusation of drug dealing, they did conclude that they were gambling. I beg to differ. Chess is not a game of chance which is what constitutes gambling. It’s a game of skill. A person can plop down five dollars to play one of these hustlers and if the hustler wins you can consider your money spent on a valuable life lesson, don’t play chess with guys who earn their living playing chess all day. If you win, you get an additional five dollars and bragging rights. While these guys don’t pay taxes, they’re far from wealthy. This was hardly a back room poker game in Chinatown (I know those places because I’ve gambled there).

The chess hustlers got the boot but we relocated them thanks to the efforts of many of game players (including some professional gamblers who hate city hall). We organized a large noisy protest one Saturday that got great media coverage. We managed to get a marching band to play loudly to make our point. I did a number of interviews in which I challenged the city’s mayor and the entire board of supervisors to a simultaneous chess match. If I lost or drew one game, the hustlers had to go away. If I won, they stayed put. Of course, our mayor and supervisors refused. However, we did get them located to an even better site downtown. They have actual chess tables and benches in a nice park. However, the clock is ticking in regards to their remaining at their new location. San Francisco is currently squashing the culture that’s left in the city, opting for a homogenized landscape of high-end consumer emptiness. The chess hustlers are not pleasant to look at in the eyes of the wealthy millennial generation. They don’t want to see shabbily dressed men play chess in their pristine parks. It breaks my heart to see a city I made my name in turn into a cultural void. Those chess hustlers added much needed character to the landscape.

These guys simply love the game and for whatever reason only want to play it on the streets. Sure, they trash talk and employ every opening trap in the book against their naive opponents, but it’s all in good fun. Some of those guys are pretty good teachers and it’s not uncommon to see a businessman taking in a lesson with one of them. The chess hustler is a species of player who is heading toward extinction. In city after city, with gentrification steam rolling across the once gritty urban landscape, guys like these are being pushed out. They may not be everyone’s idea of a model citizen but they add color and character to their environment.

Maybe, because I’m eccentric, I accept those chess scoundrels as brethren. There’s a beauty and brilliance to these characters. To them I say shine on you crazy diamond. Somewhere there’s a place for you but sadly, it’s not San Francisco. Fortunately, the game itself will never be lost because too many people from all walks of life love it. It’s a common bond we who play the game share on a global scale. However, should we be forced to play chess behind walls where no one can see us? Are we that offensive? What’s offensive is the idea that a person can be judged on appearance rather than their accomplishments. Some of those chess hustlers have advanced college degrees but fell through society’s cracks along their journey through life. So for my street chess playing friends, I will always drive through the neighborhoods of those that tried to silence you and play my car stereo really loud, just to remind those snobs that you can’t keep a chess hustler down. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

As Others See Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard James

Back to Square One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Patterson

Quality Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard James

Yet Another Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hugh Patterson