Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Why Learn Openings?

A young student of mine asked me why he should learn a number of different openings rather than simply apply sound opening principles. On the surface, you might dismiss this question as rather silly, but he brings up a good point. When learning how to play chess, we learn that there are specific principles to be followed during the opening phase of the game. Beginners are taught the idea of allowing opening principles to guide them when they’re not sure what move to make. It’s easy to see why beginners might think that the opening principles are the cure all for studying opening theory. Of course, opening principles will take the beginner a long way on their journey towards improvement. However, they will only take you so far.

One of the problems that keeps many players from studying opening theory is it’s complexity. Let’s face it, even the most enthusiastic improving player will become glassy eyed when faced with reading and playing through the ECO (Encyclopedia of Chess Openings). I’ve seen beginners become catatonic upon opening this book for the first time. It might as well be written in Sanskrit as far as the novice player is concerned! I know plenty of decent casual players who don’t know a lot of opening theory, but manage to apply opening theory and reach a playable middle-game. However, it is important to know a bit about opening theory if you plan on playing well over the long run. With my students, I feed them a little opening theory at a time rather than shoving the entire ECO down their throats at once. So what’s the big deal with knowing openings and opening theory?

Imagine if every move your opponent made during the first ten to fifteen moves (the opening) gave you a clue as to what their next move would be. You’d essentially know what was coming and could counter that future move with a good move of your own. Now image that each move your opponent makes during the opening leaves you drawing a blank except in regards to opening principles. I think I’d rather be in the scenario in which each move provides a clue! Understanding a little opening theory allows you to know what’s coming next from your opponent.

You don’t have to know every move, both mainline and variations, of a specific opening. You just have to know the basics, say the first ten moves if you’re a beginner. If you know the first ten moves of ten openings, five for black and five for white, you’ll have a much easier time navigating the starting phase of the game. This means learning ten openings and the first ten moves of each opening. It is nowhere near as hard as the beginner might think. Here’s how I teach this idea:

I start with the Italian Opening for two reasons. First, it clearly illustrates the basic opening principles. Second, it can transpose into the Evan’s Gambit, which I also teach. I then introduce the Ruy Lopez because of move three, 3. Bb5. We compare the placement of the Bishops, c4 in the Italian and b5 in The Ruy Lopez. The idea here is to build on the foundation of 1. e4, 2. Nf3, so that learning and remembering move order in the various openings is easier. Next up, The Scotch, again building on those first two moves. Since I work with beginners and improving players, we tend to avoid certain openings due to their complexity, which is over the heads of less experienced players. Next we learn the King’s and Queen’s Gambit in that order. Since my students have met the Evan’s Gambit, they know why we sacrifice a pawn and understand the basic nature of Gambit play. Now we look at openings for black.

We start with 1…e5, working on maintaining equilibrium against white. Too often, beginners playing black will either play too timidly or launch premature attacks. Therefore, we learn how to balance the position into the middle-game. We don’t define this first opening but rather employ principled opening play. Then we look at the French Defense and the Caro Kann. Only then do we look at the King’s Indian Defense. The reason for this order is because learning the King’s Indian first can leave students playing too defensively, not going after the center at the right time. Lastly we look at the Sicilian which takes the most amount of time due the numerous lines. I recommend that my students don’t play the Sicilian until they really understand the other openings for black I teach.

When I teach these openings, we learn three moves at a time. With the Ruy Lopez, for example, we learn 1. e4, 2. Nf3 and then 3. Bb5. White’s third move is important to grasp or understand regarding the opening principles. In the Italian Opening, the Bishop is placed on c4 (3. Bc4) which directly influences the center. When the Bishop is placed on b5, it indirectly effects the center because, if white exchanges the Bishop on b5 with the Knight on c6, black’s e5 pawn is no longer defended. The b5 Bishop therefore uses the threat of exchanging itself for the black Knight on c6 as an example of proper opening principles, control (indirectly) of the center.

We then look at the next three moves in each opening, going over how those moves adhere to the opening principles. Each subset of three moves is gone over with the previous three moves until my students not only know the move order of each opening but the underlying principles or mechanics behind them. In the end, my student learn basic opening theory while strengthening their understanding of opening principles. While you don’t have to memorize the ECO, having a basic knowledge of opening theory will take you a lot farther in your chess careers. Try my suggestion. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

When to Walk Away

Professional poker players, as the old song goes, “know when to hold them and when to fold them,” meaning that the seasoned card player knows when to stop playing and walk away if lady luck is nowhere to be found. They know when to cut their losses, step away from the poker table and come back to play another time. This is a lesson all chess players should take to heart. Chess players, from beginner to professional, should know when to take a break from playing and come back refreshed and anew, no longer burnt out. It is much easier to burn out by studying and playing too much chess than you might think.

People who really get into the game of chess can easily become obsessed by it. It’s a bit ironic that you can learn the basic rules of the game in an afternoon yet spend a lifetime trying to master it and in the end, never truly master the game. Yet we, who are fully invested in the game, still travel the often rocky road on our journey towards mastery, cherishing every obsessive bump and roadblock. Some people can play the game casually, such as playing when on holiday or a couple of times a month with friends. Then there are those who fall into the blinding allure of the game’s complexities. We are the chess obsessed or near obsessed. For us, it’s an all or nothing love affair!

Of course, everyone who works to get better at chess through study and practice isn’t obsessed. However, it is very easy to fall under the game’s spell to a point at which it’s all you do. Case in point, myself! I’m an obsessive personality. While obsession can be unhealthy, it’s worked to my advantage(so far). When I find something of interest, be it chess, music or language studies, I throw myself into it full throttle. It’s an every waking hour love affair! Becoming consumed with something allows me to make great strides towards mastering that something. Of course chess mastery is still a long ways off but I get closer with each passing week. I suspect my tombstone will read “He was so close, sort of…”

People who master chess have to put a great deal of time or effort into reaching their goal, mastery. This means that they’re studying during every waking hour. While this gets you from point “a” to point “b” fairly quickly, the side effects of constant studying can be terminal burn out which leads to losing interest in the game. The problem with burning out is that you might burn out to a point at which you simply stop playing chess altogether. Even if you still play when burnt out, you’re apt to start losing games because your heart (ability to concentrate) isn’t into it as it once was. Either way, you’ll want to avoid burning out. Therefore, I’d like to offer a few suggestions to avoid being in this situation.

First off, maintain another interest that keeps you from spending all your time at the chessboard. Physical activities are an excellent choice because physical activity, such as anything that provides you with exercise, actually helps your chess playing. This means that you’d be avoiding burn out while helping your game. How do physical activities help your game? Simply put, anything that provides exercise helps to get your brain functioning at a higher level due to your body’s biochemistry. If not a physical activity, try something that takes you away from the chessboard such wood working or any other craft that has your working with your hands and brain. The key point here is not to engage in another interest or hobby that is similar to chess, such as playing Go. If you decide to play Go as your outside interest you’ll be putting yourself into the same frame of mind required for chess and probably still manage to become burnt out (probably three times as fast). Taking up the game of Go while trying to master chess is akin to deciding to stop your obsessive pulling out of scalp hair with your left hand by using your right hand instead. Find a another hobby that isn’t like chess!

If you’ve reached the point at which you’re starting to burn out by overplaying chess, walk away immediately. You don’t have to walk away forever, just for a period of time long enough to regroup. Only you will know how long that is. It could be a month, it could be a year. However, it’s better to take break than loose all interest in the game!

It’s tough to walk away or take a break from something you’ve put so much time into. After all, you feel as if you’ve come this far and giving up now means you loose the ground you’ve gained. However, you’ll loose even more ground if you continue to play because your heart and, more importantly, your mind won’t be into your game. You’ll get extremely frustrated and fall into the downward spiraling void of no return. More often than not, by taking a break from playing, you’ll come back to the game stronger than ever because you’ve relaxed!

Because teaching and coaching chess is what I do for a living, I cannot take long breaks from the game. Therefore, I take short mandatory breaks from playing so I can regroup or re-energize myself. I absolutely take the month of August off, with the exception of writing this weekly column. It doesn’t matter if I’m feeling great chess-wise going into August. When August rolls around, I’m on a chess vacation. During the rest of the year, I take a week off from playing and studying here and there, even though I still teach and coach. Just taking this time off, here and there, keeps me from getting burnt out. Trust me, when your life is consumed by chess it is easy to get burnt out! You really need to take breaks regardless of how you think mastery is achieved!

We often think of the chess player working towards mastery as an individual hunched over the chessboard day in and day out, an image created via the mythology of mastery. Any film or book about the road to mastery will depict the master to be as an individual who has literally sold his or her soul in an effort to reach their goal. Yes, we have to put more time into our journey towards mastery than someone who just wants to casually play chess. However, even the master in training needs to step back from time to time. There are countless examples of chess players who have literally lost their minds in their quest to master the game. While a little obsession is key to mastering any endeavor, you have to be careful walking along the edge of the cliff. One wrong step and you’re over the edge!

When I first started playing guitar, I was obsessed. On one side of the coin, I was able to be performing in clubs a lot faster than those who took a casual approach, I literally gave up everything else in my life. As a teenager, it worked. As an adult with responsibilities, this kind of obsessive thinking would have left me homeless! When you’re an adult, you have to consider other factors such as earning a living and paying your bills. Balance is the key here.

Slow and steady really does win the race. It’s much better to approach your studies in a slower manner, not trying to mentally digest everything at once. Key ideas and complicated concepts are much more easily mastered when you take on one idea or concept at a time. Master a single idea then move onto the next. Take your time and you won’t be apt to burn out. I know it’s been said that it requires 10,000 hours to master something but setting a goal to do 40 of those 10,000 hours each week is unrealistic. First off, if you’re an adult with responsibilities, you’ll not be able to keep this schedule up (although I hear they have great chess in debtor’s prison). Even if you don’t have to work, you’re brain will not be able to concentrate for long periods of time. You have to build up your ability to concentrate, slowly. It’s like going to the gym. You won’t be able to lift the heaviest weights until you build up your muscles on the lighter weights. Take your time. Take breaks. Avoid burning out. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Geometry and Chess

Chess is a game that relies on geometry, namely lines. The chessboard itself is composed of sixty-four alternating light and dark squares. The board can be further divided into lines, more specifically, ranks, files and diagonals. It is imperative that the beginner become intimately acquainted with these three types of lines in order to play chess well. The beginner often neglects the importance geometry plays regarding the game itself. We’ll start this introduction to the lines found on the chessboard by briefly describing each of the three, starting with the ranks.

Ranks, numbering one through eight, run to the left and right on the chessboard. The first rank starts at the bottom of the board and is where the White pieces start the game. The second rank is directly above the first and is occupied by White’s pawns. The ranks continue sequentially, with the Black pawns occupying the seventh rank and the Black’s pieces occupying the eighth rank. The board is cut in half between the fourth and fifth ranks (Whit’s side being ranks 1 through 4 and Black’s side being ranks 5 through 8). If you’re using a tournament board or mat, you’ll see the rank’s numbers printed on the left and right sides of the board.

Files run up and down the board forming columns and like the ranks, are composed of eight squares each. The files are designated by the letters “a” through “h.” The letters on a typical tournament board are found on the top and bottom edges of the board. Thus ranks run left to right and files run up and down on the chessboard. The “a” file is on the left side of the board and the “h” file is on the right side of the board.

Lastly, we have the diagonal, a line beginners often have trouble with. Simply put, a diagonal is a line of identically colored squares that are grouped together at an angle. An example of a diagonal are the eight squares of identical color that start at the a1 square and end at the h8 square. Just follow the squares; a1, b2, c3, d4, e5, f6, g7 and h8. If you’re new to the game, become accustom to each grouping of identically colored squares that makes up each of the board’s 26 diagonals.

As your chess career develops and you further study the game, you’ll come across the words “open” and “closed” in tandem with the word “line” or “lines.” Let’s take a closer look, starting with an open line:

In the simplest terms, a line (either a rank, file or diagonal) is open if there’s no pawn or piece occupying that line. In the above example, the e file is open. This brings us to an important concept the beginner must embrace, control of the open rank, file or diagonal.

If a rank, file or diagonal is open and you have the ability to take control of it, you absolutely should. In our example, the e file is completely open. The Rook on a1 is not yet activated. Remember, all you material (especially your pieces) needs to be activated early on. Therefore, activating or moving a piece to a square that allows that piece to participate in the game is crucial for victory. Thus, moving the a1 Rook to the open e file gives that Rook something important to do. What’s so important about controlling an open rank, file or diagonal? Controlling, in this case the open e file, means that the opposition (Black) has to think twice about moving any of his or her material onto that file for fear of losing that material. In our example, White, temporarily owns the e file. This brings us to a brief discussion regarding just who can control an open rank, file or diagonal as well as the terms “open” and “closed” games.

Ranks and files are eight squares in length while diagonals run from two to eight squares in length (depending on the diagonal). Note we designate diagonals by their starting and ending squares. The dark squared diagonal starting on a1 and ending on h8 is referred to as the a1-h8 diagonal (eight squares in length) while the diagonal starting on the a7 square and ending on the b8 square is referred to as the a7-b8 diagonal (two squares in length).

Again, it’s important to know just who can control these two to eight square angled lines on the board (diagonals), as well as the ranks and files. Enter our long distance attackers! For diagonals, we have the Bishop and Queen. For the ranks and files it’s the Rooks and Queen. These three pieces are the only material that can control open or semi open lines. It’s all about the long distance attackers. Whats even better about the long distance attacker is that they can control squares on the opposition’s side of the board from the safety of their own side of the board! Short distance fighters, the pawn, Knight and King, don’t have this awesome super power! So, the Rook or Queen can control ranks and files while the Bishop or Queen can control the diagonals. Notice the Queen can control all three, ranks, files and diagonals. No wonder she’s so powerful! Now to the concept of open and closed games.

There are four designations here; open, semi open, closed and semi closed games. It’s important for beginners to understand the four types of games, especially the difference between open and closed games. What’s so important about knowing these four types of games? Within a single game of chess, the position can switch from one type to another within a few moves, so knowing what each of these positions means will help the player to know what to do in a given situation. Each type of game or position requires a different type of strategical or positional thinking. Let’s start by looking at the two most basic types, open and closed games.

In an open game, the board is just that, wide open. This translates to there being a great deal of space (open or empty squares) for the pieces to not only move to but control. Thus, long distance pieces, such as the Bishop, Rook and Queen rule the board. Open games mean open space or squares devoid of pawns and pieces. In an open game you have room to attack from a distance. You also, due to long distance pieces ruling the board, have greater opportunity for tactical plays.

Closed games can be thought of as the opposite of open games. Rather than having open space where your Bishop, Rook and Queen can control the position, the board is shut down or locked up with pawns and pieces. Think of a closed game as being stuck in holiday traffic, a state of gridlock in which only a flying car would solve your problem. Long distance attackers become nearly worthless when there’s no room to move. We call “room to move” mobility is chess and a closed game or position gives our Bishop, Rook and Queen little in the way of mobility. Pieces loose their power when they lack mobility. Fortunately, we have the pawn and Knight to help us out when things are tight or closed.

I just mentioned how great a flying car would be when stuck in traffic. You could simply push a button and your car would rise above the traffic and your problem would be solved. In chess there’s a piece that can do just that and we call him the Knight! Let’s take a closer look at our best friend in a closed game or position.

The Knight is the only piece that moves and captures in a non-linear way. While its “L” shaped movement is difficult for the beginner to learn and master, it is well worth the effort to master it because the Knight has a power no other piece has, the ability to jump over other pieces (and pawns). This ability to jump over traffic on the chessboard makes it a dangerous weapon in closed games. You can see how this would be a great advantage when there’s gridlock on the board!

The pawn is another great weapon in closed games because of its low relative value. No piece is willing to stand by and let the lowly pawn capture it. Considering the pieces range in value from three to nine points, it’s no wonder that our one point friend can push away the the most power pieces! Of course, you need to make sure your little one point friend has some protection when he stands up to a piece. Pawns are a great weapon for closed games.

As for semi open and semi closed games, as beginners you can think about them in terms of positions that share the characteristics of true open and closed games. In these types of positions, use the piece that best suits the position at hand. You can use a closed game piece to open the board up a bit and then bring in your long distance pieces to attack or control lines. I’ll be going into greater detail about piece use in semi open and closed games in future articles.

For now remember, just as a mechanic or carpenter would tell you, you need the right tool for a specific job. Thus, in chess, you need the right tool to control the ranks, files and diagonals in open games and the right tool for those tight positions in closed games. I have a special wrench designed for tight places where a regular wrench wouldn’t fit in my tool kit. Don’t try and use a Rook to fix a tight position. That’s what you have the Knight for. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Things get a bit tight in this game but one player’s brought the right wrench, I mean piece, for the job. Enjoy.

Hugh Patterson

Just Because You Can…

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you actually should! Standing on the side of a busy road, you wouldn’t simply run out into traffic blindfolded and hoping for the best. Sure, you could do it but the results would be disastrous! The beginner often takes this same approach to chess, doing something even though the game’s sound and solid principles suggest doing otherwise. Take the capturing of material.

Beginners love to capture material for a plethora of reasons. Of course, the more experienced player will approach the acquisition of opposition pawns and pieces cautiously, weighing the pros and cons of capturing before doing so! On the other hand, the beginner has some preconceived notions as to why capturing every pawn and piece makes sense, ignoring that old chess adage “don’t capture material unless it helps your position!” We’ll start this exploration into the potential disadvantages of madly capturing material with every chance you get by looking at the beginner’s mindset.

The novice player is taught, by chess teaching characters such as myself, that a material advantage can be decisive. After all, if you’re up a Queen up (having both your own Queen in play and your opponent’s Queen in pocket, so to speak), you’ve eliminated a very dangerous piece from your opponent’s arsenal. There’s no enemy Queen to swoop in and deliver a fast checkmate. Having four minor pieces in play going into the middle-game while your opponent only has two minor pieces sounds promising as well. Therefore, the beginner translates this idea of having a material advantage as free reign to capture opposition pawns and pieces at every opportunity. In theory, this sounds vaguely correct. However, there’s a huge practical void between theory and reality, namely position (in chess). Often, an experienced player will trade a piece of greater value for a piece of lesser value, or perhaps simply sacrifice a piece, in order to get a better position. If a Knight stands in the way of delivering a solid mating attack and you can trade a Rook (a piece of greater value than the Knight) for that Knight, then you should, says the experienced player. On the other hand, the beginner will simply look at this trade as a good one because her or she comes out ahead in the exchange (rather than in terms of clearing a line or removing a defender – real sound reasoning).

Therefore, the beginner should approach capturing and/or exchanging material by looking at the situation in terms of position. Of course, examining a position carefully and fully understanding the potential ramifications of the capture or exchange of material and how it changes that position, comes with experience on the board and careful study off the board. In short, it’s a lot of trial and error effort on the part of the beginner!

It’s always a question of “will this capture or exchange help me or will it work against me, weakening my pawn and piece structure (my position)?” We’ll start with the even trade. By even trade, I mean just that, a Knight for a Knight, a Knight for a Bishop or a pawn for a pawn, etc. From a material viewpoint, the beginner will think “three points for three points, this is a dead even trade.” It may very well be, solely in terms of relative value, but it depends on the position at hand. Let’s look at a simple example, an exchange variation of the Ruy Lopez:

After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bb5…a6, 4. Bxc6…dxc6, the beginner might think “I’ve just traded a three point Bishop for a three point Knight, so it’s an even trade.” Considering only material value, excluding positional aspects, this is true. However, you must consider the position that results from the exchange to truly judge the real value of the trade. Before the trade of Bishop for Knight, the Knight on c6 defended the pawn on e5. With this exchange of minor pieces, there is no longer any protection for the Black e5 pawn and Black now has doubled pawns on the c file. The beginner, playing the White pieces, might make note of this and think the exchange to be absolutely in his or her favor. However, beginners don’t always see the entire positional picture. This means they might not consider the increase in Black’s control of territory because the Bishop on c8 and the Queen on d8 both have more room to move and thus greater access/control of the board (mobility). Black has also maintained the Bishop pair. Therefore, it might have been better not to have exchanged minor pieces on move four but instead, moving the Bishop to a4 (the mainline).

Then there’s the “I can trade a piece of lower value for a piece of much greater value and win” school of thought. Take a look at the example below:

Here, we see a typical beginner’s opening trap that leads to a fast checkmate. It starts off with 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…d6. Black’s first problem arises from the idea that he or she can use a pawn to protect an already protected pawn (e5 has been protected by a minor piece, the Knight on c6). Better to develop more minor pieces who can control more space than a pawn! After White plays 4. Nc3, Black plays 4…Bg4, pinning the Knight on f3 to the Queen on d1. As we shall see, even such a powerful pin can lead to a dreadful positional demise. White plays 5. Nxe5, leaving the White Queen exposed to capture.

Now the beginner’s one sided, non positional thinking rears it’s ugly head. The beginner thinks “wow, I can capture the all powerful Queen and be far ahead in material which should lead to an easy win. All the beginner can see is the exposed Queen, not seeing the position for what it truly is, a fast checkmate for White! Black plays 5…Bxd1 and White puts the screws to Black’s now hopelessly weakened position with 6. Bxf7+, forcing the Black King off of it’s starting square (two attackers to Black’s one defender, the King, spells trouble with a capital “T”). Of course, Black now cannot castle the King to safety, but the worst is yet to come. Since the White Bishop is protected by the Knight on e5, the Black King cannot capture the attack piece and is forced to move to e7 with 6…Ke7 (the d7 square is covered by the e5 Knight). White hammers the final coffin nail in with 7. Nd5#.

The lesson in the above example is simple: Just because you can capture, in this case the Queen, doesn’t mean you should. Yes, you captured the powerful Queen but you lost the game! The Queen is an intoxicating piece to the beginner and its seemingly easy capture is often the basis for many a fast victory.

To remedy this problem, the beginner should always look at the entire board before considering the capture of opposition material. You should look at every pawn and piece belonging to your opponent and determine what squares those pawns and pieces are attacking. If you decide to capture an opposition pawn or piece, ask yourself if it weakens or strengthens your position. The weakening of a position is often difficult for the beginner to determine.

A position is weakened, for example, if you decide to capture an opposition pawn with a pawn only to have them capture it back with a minor piece that, after the capture, controls more space on the board. Sure, you just got a pawn for a pawn but your opponent got a pawn and greater control of the board. Greater spacial control, especially in the opening, leads to a stronger position. Lesser control means a weaker position. Always consider whether or not your opponent gets a better deal, from a positional viewpoint. In our Ruy Lopez example, two minor pieces were traded off but Black gained more spacial control due to the opening up of space for the c8 Bishop and d8 Queen.

You should always think in terms of how your opponent can improve their position through any capture or exchange of material before committing to any capture or exchange. Look at the position from your opponent’s side of the board before considering your side of the board. Good players will trade valuable material for less valuable material in an effort to open lines up (pathways to checkmate) and win the game, not because it’s fun to capture pawns and pieces! Just because a Queen appears to be free to capture doesn’t mean there’s not a steep price to be paid. It’s about position, not how material your have. Just because you can capture doesn’t mean you should. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. This games finds one player down a lot of material but he still manages to win, proving the point!

Hugh Patterson

The Davies Family Chess Project

My son Sam turns 14 today so I thought I’d devote today’s post to him and our ‘chess project’, which is a little more than 6 years old. I taught him the moves in March 2010 and he’s now well established in the tournament circuit. His new ECF grade will be around 146-147 (around 1800 Elo) and he’s probably a bit stronger than that already.

There are of course many kids who are ahead of him but I’m very proud of the way Sam is doing. He’s not one of those kids who are brilliant academically and succeed at chess (to a certain level) in passing. Instead it’s been a tough journey with a lot of hard knocks. Yet every time he’s had a setback Sam has bounced back to become a better player, which shows the sort of character and mental toughness that will help him in everything he does.

SamHeywood2016Many people have been curious about his progress and the kind of regimen we follow. From a chess perspective it’s essentially a bespoke version of my Tiger Chess syllabus which has a strong focus on core skills. The main differences with the way most juniors are taught are that he does not waste time on tricky, tactical openings and there are strong strategy and endgame components. He plays regularly in tournaments but never plays in junior events. So almost all his games are against experienced adult players.

He does quite a bit of work on chess but we go for quality over quantity. We probably do around 5-6 hours a week together when he’s got school, 9-10 when he’s on holiday. In addition to this he does an hour or two of tactical work per week on Chessity and goes through some of my Tiger Chess videos in some of his openings. He doesn’t play internet blitz but plays quite a few blitz games against me, almost always in selected openings.

What does the future hold? Well if he keeps up his current work rate he should be in Open tournaments next year and be around IM level in his late teens. Since taking up chess he’s grown in confidence, done a lot better at school and has a lot of friends and acquaintances at tournaments. So I’d say it’s going very well.

Nigel Davies

It’s All About Timing

One difference between beginners and advanced players is their use of time. Advanced players make a point of wasting little time while beginners tend to waste a great deal of time. When I say beginners waste time, I’m not trying to be critical of the chess novice. Part of being a beginner is having to learn the game from the beginning which means learning by trial and error, making mistakes. As the beginner improves, they make fewer mistakes and have fewer problems during their games. One of the problems beginners have has to do with time or tempo.

Tempo is the way in which we measure time in chess. In chess, tempo refers to a single move. You can lose tempo or gain tempo depending on what you do during your turn or move. For example, in the opening game, if you move the same piece over and over again and your opponent develops a new piece with each move, you fall behind in tempo. Sound confusing? Let’s review what you should and shouldn’t do during the opening and see how it effects tempo.

During the opening phase of the game, your job is to control the center with a pawn, develop your minor pieces towards the center of the board, develop a new piece with each move, castle your King to safety and connect your Rooks. That’s what you should do. What you shouldn’t do is make too many pawn moves, bring your Queen out early and move the same piece over and over again. These are the things you should and shouldn’t do. How does this relate to tempo?

We know the name of the game during the opening is control of the board’s center. Since White moves first, it’s like having a free turn so you’re one tempo or ahead of Black. This means, if you’re controlling the Black pieces, that you cannot waste time and have to catch up or at least not loose any further tempo. White shouldn’t waste time either, especially being ahead in tempo from the game’s start! Let’s look at an example of a beginner’s game in which White wastes time or tempo.

White starts off correctly with 1. e4 followed by Black playing 1…e6, signifying The French Defense. When given the chance to place two pawns on central squares, White should always take advantage of this opportunity. However, White chooses instead to play 2. Bc4, which turns out to be a dreadful move after Black plays 2…d5, attacking the Bishop on c4. Since the pawn is worth one point and the Bishop three points, White decides to play 3. exd5, capturing with the unit of least value. Now we see White’s first real loss of tempo after 3…exd5. The Black pawn is protected by his Queen and, because of the difference in material value, White has to move the Bishop employing 4. Bb5+, another bad move. Why is it a bad move? Because Black simply blocks the check with 4…c6, forcing the Bishop to move once more! The White Bishop has moved three times so far. Two of those Bishop moves can be considered a free turn or move for Black. White has lost two tempi, one for each of the additional moves the Bishop made. That means Black is now ahead in tempo. Every bad move leads to a loss of tempo! It gets worse!

After 5. Ba4, Black logically develops the King-side Knight to f6 (5…Nf6). White brings the Queen out early with 6. Qf3. Black counters with 6…Bg4, attacking the White Queen and winning another gain in tempo because the Queen has to move, 7. Qg3. Notice the Knight on f6 protects the Black Bishop attacking the White Queen. Piece coordination is a must! Black’s tempo is growing greatly! White’s last move is proof of why we don’t bring our Queen out early! With 7…Bd6, Blacks gets to develop yet another piece while White’s poor Queen has to run with 8. Qh4. White’s position is getting worse and worse while Black freely develops his forces to active squares. Black’s next move, 8…Qe7+ attacks the White King.

The White King is forced to move to f1 with 9. Kf1 which means his majesty is now stranded, unable to castle. With 9…0-0, Black safely tucks his King away. At this point White is so behind in tempo that recovering from this dreadful position is nothing but a pipe dream! White tries to push Black back with 10. h3, attacking the Bishop, but little can be done to stop Black from winning! Black brings his Rook to e8 with 10…Re8, creating a battering ram aimed down the e file. White’s tries to hold back the attack with 11. f3 and Black responds with 11…Ne4. White thinks, “ah ha, I can trade Queens and reduce the attacking forces with 12. Qxe7. Rather than trade Queens, Black checks the White King with 12…Ng3+ and the White King goes on the run with 13. Ke1. Black now plays 13…Rxe7+, employing good timing in capturing the White Queen, delivering check and setting up the soon to be checkmate! The poor White King shuffles over to d1 with 14. Kd1, running away from the attck and Black plays 14…Nxh1. White again, tries to reduce the number of potential attackers with 15. fxg4 and Black ends White’s suffering with 15…Nf2#!

The problem for White was a great loss of tempo. Each time White had to move the same piece over and over again allowed Black the opportunity to introduce a new piece into the game which led to a swarm of attackers White couldn’t deal with. If you want to avoid being hopelessly behind in tempo, you have think carefully about you moves. White should have played 2. d4 rather than 2. Bc4. White also paid the price in full by bringing the Queen out early. The Queen is an easy mark for minor pieces and sadly, Black was able to develop new minor pieces while pushing the Queen around.

There’s a reason for the opening principles, namely, they work! Had White employed sound principles and avoided what you shouldn’t do during the opening, he might have fared better. Next time you play a game of chess, keep the idea of tempo in mind and use the game’s principles as if your life depended on them. Your chess game certainly does. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. These guys know their opening principles!

Hugh Patterson

Anti-Trap Teaching

Traps and tricks are extremely popular with junior chess players. The young beginner starts out learning Scholar’s Mate and, as their chess skills improve, so does the complexity of their traps. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t teach a single trap until a student had been working with me for at least a year, ensuring that principled play came before tricky play. However, if I held firm to this notion, my students would fall prey to the plethora of junior players who employ tricks and traps to gain an early advantage in their games. In the world of junior chess, tricks and traps are a reality. This is why I teach my students how to defend against tricks and traps rather than use them exclusively to win games. Here’s some of what I talk about in my anti-trap lecture:

No matter how cunning or complex a trick or trap, it will never stand up to smart principled play. Good, sound play will always put the kibosh on a trick or trap. However, the key to avoiding a trap is to see it coming. If you don’t see it coming, you’re might fall for it. All traps require a set up and that set up costs the player employing it something, be it tempo or the weakening of one’s opening position. Most junior level traps occur during the opening phase which means that while you’re setting up the trap, often making moves that don’t adhere to the opening principles, your opponent is gaining further control of the board’s center (employing opening principles). If your trap fails, you may not be able to recover. Let’s look at these ideas in more detail.

Opening traps are popular with junior players because if they work, they can thrown the opposition into positional disarray, giving the trapper enough of an advantage to win early on. Since most junior’s games are won or lost early on, traps are very popular. However, traps require setting up and setting up a trap often means making moves that go against sound opening principles. Let’s say you want to employ a trap that takes two moves to set up. This means that your opponent gets to make two developmental moves that strengthens his or her control of the board’s center while you make two moves that serve only to set your trap. If your trap fails, you end up with a weak position you may not be able to recover from. Principled play will always trump tricky play. Take Scholar’s Mate, for example.

This is the most popular trick employed by young beginners. It starts with the moves 1. e4…e5. Nothing in the way of tricks or traps up to this point. This is where I start my anti-trap teaching. I ask students what move White should make next. Of course, my more astute students reply “2. Nf3.” This is the type of move you’d expect from a young beginner who employs sound opening principles. I show them the next move actually played, 2. Bc4, and ask them what important square on Black’s side of the board is under fire? The answer is f7. I mention that this square is weak because it is only defended by the Black King. It’s here that our first clue regarding White’s intentions is unveiled. I have my students note that while The Bishop’s Opening is a real, non tricky, opening, there’s something amiss and they need to pay attention to white’s next move (anti-trap teaching). Black plays 2…c6 (Black could have played other stronger moves but we’re just using this as an example). White then plays 3. Qf3. I ask my students what piece should reside on f3 at the start of the game and they answer the King-side Knight. I then ask them how many pieces attack the weak f7 square and they answer two. I ask them, if White had an extra turn, what move would do the greatest damage (such as checkmate) and they answer Qxf7#. So White can deliver checkmate on his or her next turn. How do we stop it while making a solid developing move? My students respond 3…Nf6. We go through some additional examples of Scholar’s Mate from the viewpoint of the defender and discover that Black can repel White’s mating attempt while gaining a better position.

The point here is that my students first learn how to deal with such a premature attack rather than learning the attack itself as a weapon. This does two things. First, it teaches my students how to avoid falling victim to Scholar’s Mate and second, it shows them just how faulty such a mating attempt is (since Black ends up with the better position). This helps to reinforce the idea of using principled play rather than tricks and traps to win games. It should be noted that I am a student of tricks and traps and have nothing against them. However, I don’t employ them unless an opportunity falls into my lap that allows me to execute a trap with no essential damage to my position. Again, when the trick or trap fails, the person attempting to execute the positional chicanery ends up with a weaker position. Principled play should come before all else.

Being able to sniff out a trap is the key to avoiding them. In the case of Scholar’s Mate, the placement of the Queen on f3 instead of the King-side Knight was an important clue and if you want to avoid falling victim to traps, you have to be a good chess detective. This means that every move made by the opposition is a clue that, in the hands of a skilled detective, can spell out an opponent’s intentions. We use opening principles to help decipher our opponent’s moves and the true intentions of those moves. Let’s look at another example, the Costage Trap:

After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4, it appears that we have the start of The Italian Opening or perhaps The Evan’s Gambit, depending on what move Black makes next. Black plays 3…Nd4! Let’s think about one of the things we don’t want to do during the opening, moving the same piece twice. My students know that we try to introduce a new piece with each move we make during the opening. Therefore, using principled play as our guide, a blaring siren should be raging in our skulls when this move is made. Why is black breaking an opening principle? The clueless beginner will see the undefended e5 pawn and think “that’s a hanging pawn I can capture free of charge” and captures it with 4. Nxe5. Then Black springs the trap with 4…Qg5, forking the Knight on e5 and the g2 pawn. White is now in a jam, either losing the Knight on e5 or, worse yet, the pawn on g2 which would lead to White having an un-castled King. General principles tell us never to capture a pawn or piece unless it helps our position. Opening principles tell us that there’s something fishy about Black moving the Queen-side Knight twice during the opening when the Knight in Question is perfectly safe. The game’s principles help provide us clues regarding potential tricks and traps.

I teach my students how to spot and defend against potential tricks and traps rather than how to use tricks and traps to win games. There’s a huge difference in that. My students, by seeing how easily they can defend their position against traps, discover the true weakness of this kind of play. While they know the traps as well as those who try to employ those traps against them, my students know the short comings of such short cutting.

Again, I enjoy tricks and traps and highly recommend Grandmaster Nigel Davies’ Chessbase DVD series Tricks and Traps in the Opening (all three volumes). Nigel covers some very sophisticated tricks and traps that don’t require taking a chance on your position in order to set a trap. Of course, with junior players, the tricks and traps are somewhat crude but there are a few that can give the uninitiated player major headaches. Nigel covers all level and manner of these tricks and traps and, most importantly, teaches you sound ways to deal with them. So the idea here is learning from an anti-trap perspective. Knowing how to deal with tricks and traps, using sound principled play, will take you a lot farther in your chess career than relying solely on tricks and traps to win games. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. I don’t think you’d want to try Scholar’s Mate on either of these two players!

Hugh Patterson

The Dark Side

Competition is healthy and has fueled great advances in civilization. Competition drives economics. Competition, within reason, can be a healthy motivator that brings out the best in us because we have to work hard when competing. However, it can also bring out the worst in us. There’s a fine line to be walked when it comes to competition and, if you fall over the wrong side of that line, you’ll find yourself on the dark side, a place akin to the Twilight Zone!

I make reference to the landmark television series, the Twilight Zone, because in each episode we were afforded a glimpse into a skewed reality into which the story’s protagonist is haplessly thrown. In my story, we meet a young chess player who’s thrown into the world of competitive junior chess. Our young protagonist starts out as a chipper, charming young man who serves a model of compassion. However, he ends up becoming a victim of the side effects of competition. He truly got to experience the Twilight Zone first hand.

William, that’s what we’ll call our young man, was a former student of mine. He was shy and not one of the more popular kids at his school. He wasn’t athletic but he was extremely bright. However, he looked at being smart as a curse. He wanted what the guys who played on his school’s sports teams had, friends and popularity. He knew how to play chess and knew the school had a chess team which I coached. He came in one afternoon, signed up and fit right in. I was amazed at his ability to quickly pick up the concepts I taught him. William was also a gracious winner and even more gracious when he lost. The one thing I stress above all is good sportsmanship and he had it.

The young don’t know social boundaries and have to learn them the hard way, by trial and error. This means they might jump up and down screaming “Ha, I beat you” after winning a chess game. However, once you point out that this is not the way to embrace victory, they often heed your words and become more gracious. Sometimes, it takes being beaten themselves by a person exhibiting bad sportsmanship to drive home the concept. The point is, they eventually learn. Of course, if they refuse to behave properly, they’re off our team.

William, was a great sport. After several months of training he was off to his first tournament with the team. He won all but one of his games, taking first place and bringing the team to second place overall. Of course, I was happy because I had a team that was strong and worked well together. Then something started to happen.

William slowly started to become more aggressive, being a bit less gracious with each victory. I talked at length with him and his parents about his behavior, explaining that as his rating went up his opponents would become a much stronger. There would be a time when William would face a series of losses against stronger players and have to deal with those losses calmly. The parents felt William had such a strong record of wins and, since he had handled his losses well up to this point, that there wouldn’t be any problems in the near future (despite what I had seen and commented on). As a coach dealing with parents, you can only make a sound argument and hope the parents leave the decision making to you. After all, you’re the professional. Well, the parents let William do as he pleased because he was happy. After a few months, William’s parents decided their son would be better off playing tournaments on his own, “not having to act as sole strong player on our team.” There’s an old saying, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and William’s father, it turns out, was a really bad sport. The parents took William off the team, hired an International Master to train him and entered him in tournaments.

About six months later, I get a call from his new trainer who says “the kid has turned into a bloody little monster.” Of course, I really wanted to say “and how is this my problem” but refrained as that would make me a bad sport. It turned out that William was now so rude to his opponents that Tournament Directors were taking serious notice. I asked his new trainer if he had talked to the parents. He had and reported to me that the father would scream things like “I’m paying you good money to deal with this nonsense.” Somehow, I suspect I got the good end of the deal when I was taken out of the equation. Within months, William had been all but black listed from tournament play. He eventually gave up on chess. William gained personal power through chess but in the end absolute power corrupts absolutely.

I tell this cautionary tale because I see the dark side of competition on a regular basis in the junior chess arena. Again, competition is a good thing within reason. However, some individuals take it to an unhealthy extreme. I’d like to offer some advice for young players and their parents:

To you youngsters: Enjoy winning because it feels good. Your hard work has paid off. However, remember that your victory on the chessboard means your opponent is suffering emotionally from their loss. Losing doesn’t feel good and having to deal with an opponent who rubs victory directly in your face makes matters worse. When winning, think of your opponent’s feeling before your own. Offer them a handshake and thank them for a good game. People remember gracious winners in a far better light than winners who grandstand. Be the better person. Who knows, your opponent might end up becoming a good friend of yours (if you’re a good sport).

For parents: Don’t live vicariously through your child. I see this all the time. Just because you didn’t win the junior state chess championship in your youth doesn’t mean you get a second chance through your child. I’ve seen parents put so much pressure on their children to win that it takes away the love that child has for the game. I’ve also seen parents belittle their children in front of other children because the child’s performance wasn’t up to par. Children have feelings! It’s about enjoying the game.

You, as a parent, should also let your child develop their chess skills naturally. Your son or daughter is not going to be playing like Magnus Carlsen after six months of lessons. You’d be surprised at how many parents have completely unrealistic expectations regarding their children and chess. Here’s an easy one: If your child doesn’t want to take chess lessons, try something else. I have had students who have no interest in chess but attend classes because their parents want them enrolled. Listen to your children and let them pursue what interests them.

Teach them how to win graciously. As I mentioned earlier, children tend to discover social boundaries through trial and error. However, helping them along can make their social journey a lot easier. Remember it’s easier to develop good habits than it is to break bad habits. Teach them to love the game first and foremost. If they behave in an unsportsmanlike manner, explain to them why this isn’t the proper way to act. Ask them how they’d feel had they lost the game.

Lastly parents, how you act at a chess tournament influences your child and how her or she behaves. You are their ultimate role model. I’ve seen parents sink to all time lows in an effort to see their child win a tournament. This behavior ranges from trash talking other children and parents to using subtle hand signals to aid their child while playing which is also known as cheating. Be the better person. Chess should be enjoyed and loved, first and foremost. Speaking of enjoyment, here’s a game to ponder until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Practice Practice Practice

There’s an old joke in which one gentleman asks another gentleman, who just so happens to be carrying a violin case, how to get to Carnegie Hall (a famous New York City concert hall where only the best musicians in the world are invited to play). The gentlemen asking the question is running late and simply wants to get to the venue in time to see the show. The man with the violin case is a musician which explains his response, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Well, practice, practice, practice of course!” While this joke received it’s last dying gasp of laughter in the Catskill Mountain’s Borscht Belt sometime in the late 1950s, it serves as the basis for this week’s article.

If you want to be a serious magician, you have to become an apprentice to a master magician. When the apprenticeship starts, the first thing you’ll ask for is the secret to the one trick performed by the master that inspired you to enter into an apprenticeship with him in the first place. The master might, at some point, tell you the “secret” to the trick you love so much. You’ll then know how the seemingly impossible illusion or trick was executed. Does this mean you’ll be able to instantly perform such an amazing feat of illusion? Absolutely not. Not even close. Why? Because knowing the mechanics behind the illusion doesn’t mean you can successfully perform that illusion. The successful execution of a magician’s illusion requires not only knowing the underlying mechanics of the “trick” but something equally, if not more, important, the ability to execute the illusion in seamless manner. A seamless and perfectly timed illusion takes years of practice to master. So simply knowing how a magic trick is performed isn’t the same as being able to actually perform the trick itself. What separates knowing how to do a trick from performing the trick perfectly? Practice, and a lot of it to the point of near overkill. Right before I became a full time rock and roller I did street magic for tourists here in San Francisco (my skills were certainly passable enough to fill up my hat with tip money but Houdini I wasn’t), so I know a bit about practicing tricks to get them right.

This same idea applies to music as well. I started my musical career training as a classical pianist. You might ask, how I ended up becoming a guitar player in a rock and roll band, worse yet, a punk band? The answer is girls, girls and girls. Guitar players get more girls than piano players (no offense to you pianists out there). My classical training made playing guitar possible because I developed an ear for music, the ability to isolate individual notes when hearing them, meaning I could listen to a song and be able to play it note for note in a short period of time. I would put a record on the turntable, listen to it and pick out each note played by the band’s guitarist and know how to play the song in very short order. Brilliant right? After all, while I can read sheet music, I could bypass that step completely and listen to a recording six or seven times and play it note for note. Brilliant right? Wrong! Sure I could play the individual notes correctly but my playing was still sloppy and didn’t have the same feel as the guitarist playing on the recording. This occurred because I wasn’t skilled enough to make the notes blend into one another seamlessly. Of course, thirty years later, I can listen to a recording and do the same the same thing but with a huge difference. Because I have over thirty years of guitar playing under my belt, I’ve developed advanced skills that allow me to play those notes fluidly. How did this happen? Practice, practice and more practice. All the theory in the world will only take you so far. You can possess a huge body of music theory but unless you put that theory into practice, or playing, you’ll never be any good. Theory and reality are two completely different things. Theory is what you learn from books, reality is that moment when you realize that your books didn’t prepare you for the situation you often find yourself in. What holds true for magic and music also holds true for chess. You can only go so far with theory of any kind.

Of course, we have to study chess theory in order to improve. We have to read and play through chess books, watch instructional DVDs, playing through all the games presented in those DVDs, but none of this does us any good if we’re not applying this new found knowledge to the real world, playing chess against an opponent be it human being or obnoxious computer program that verbally quips at you with in a thick accent. I know plenty of players who are walking encyclopedias of chess theory but when pressed to apply their vast knowledge to an actual game of chess, what they know (memorized) greatly outweighs their ability to successfully apply it to the game! They can give you the moves of a specific chess opening and its numerous variations, but when they face a position in which an out of book move (one not covered in the book they read on that particular opening) is made, they tend to hit a brick wall regarding what to do. They’ve memorized a particular chess opening and its variations but haven’t spent enough time playing that opening against an opponent where non book moves are sometimes made.

Of course, most of us learn an opening by reading a book or by watching a DVD, but you have to physically play that opening for it to be any use to you. This is where “practice, practice, practice” come into play. What I mean by this is simple. Let’s say you learn the mainline of the Ruy Lopez by reading a book on this opening. You play through every example and every game in the book not five but six times. After all this, you have a pretty good idea of the opening’s basics. Prior to reading this book on the Ruy Lopez, you read a book on opening principles and understand the underlying mechanics of sound opening play. Now it’s time to get down to the hard part, applying your new found knowledge to real life play. It’s time for theory to meet reality. Here’s what I suggest as your next step; working out with the computer:

Set your computer’s chess program to a rating level that’s between 1400 and 1700 (for improving players, those who are just above beginners in experience). You don’t want to set the computer’s playing level too low because you’ll be facing opposition moves that are farcical at best. You want the computer to play like a human opponent which they don’t when their skill level is set too low. With the Ruy Lopez, a computer program set at a skill level or rating around 1500 will provide the corresponding moves needed to play this opening. You want to play practice games against your computer to prepare for over the board (OTB) games against real life humans! I suggest playing against the computer, employing the opening of your choice for at least a few months. Just make sure your program is playing at a high enough level to mimic realistic human play (if your computer responds to your 1. e4 with 1…a6, you need to set the program’s skill level a lot higher). Many chess software programs allow you to adjust the program’s playing style through the GUI (see the user manual, that 400 page book collecting dust somewhere in your house) so you can further refine your silicon opponent. Once you’ve played the computer for a few months (you can play for just a week but the longer you play the better), play a few practice games with a human opponent either with the same skill set or a slightly higher skill set. Play with the opening principles to guide you rather than making moves that only correspond to the opening you’re using. This helps deal with those out of book moves you’ll encounter.

Record all your games during this process and review them to check your progress. After you’re comfortable with your opening during these practice games, take your show on the road and play rated games. Practice!

This system (practice) can be used for every phase of the game, from middle game tactics to endgame positions. The point here is simple. You have to take what you learn (theory) and apply it to the real world (playing a game of chess) and to be successful, you have to practice, practice, practice. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. I bet these gentlemen practiced a great deal early in their chess careers!

Hugh Patterson

Bruce Pandolfini

My last nine articles were about endgame play, specifically positional problems the novice chess player might face and, if they’re properly prepared, easily resolve. Chess is really about logical problem solving, except the problem changes with every move which is why chess is so interesting. Endgame play befuddles the beginner because they tend to have their games end well before an actual endgame starts. When they do reach a proper endgame, their lack of pawn and piece coordination combined with a limited ability to think ahead haunts them like an angry poltergeist!

There are plenty of endgame books and instructional DVDs available for the beginning or improving chess player. Unfortunately, the majority of them go far over the head of the beginner or improver. By this, I mean that they’re written for players who already have a knowledge of basic endgame principles. Since beginners have no real endgame knowledge, the information in such books is of very little use to them until they gain more theoretical (studying) and practical (playing) experience. Luckily for the beginning and improving player, we have Bruce Pandolfini. Let me tell you a little story about how learning chess used to be.

There was time a time, not so long ago (hold on to your seat kids, before the internet), when you learned how to improve at chess by either employing a chess teacher (which none of us could afford) or by getting a hold of chess books. You could try checking chess books out at your local library, but everyone else who couldn’t afford a chess teacher had that same thought, so you’d never find the chess book you were really looking for. This left you having to purchase chess books (books were once printed on actual paper). I would travel to Games of Berkeley ( a two hour bus and train ride from my house) and peruse their huge selection for hours. On a side note, I ended up working in their chess department years later. When looking through the plethora of books, I noticed that most of them were difficult to follow. However, there was one author whose words and descriptions of key ideas were crystal clear. That man’s name was (and still is) Bruce Pandolfini. Everything I learned about chess early on and most of what I teach today comes from Bruce’s books. Anyone who considers me a decent chess teacher has Bruce to thank for that!

Most instructional chess books give you a series of moves followed by a small diagram and more moves. Bruce used a larger diagram and employed a written paragraph containing the moves but with verbalized explanations in between each move which really helped solidify the key concepts being discussed. A series of moves and a diagram, with no explanation as to what’s going on with each move, leaving the beginner to figure it out, simply doesn’t work. Bruce was really the first person to clearly explain positional concepts, move by move, simply using words, something I use in my own teaching and writing! If anything in the last 170 plus articles I’ve written here has made sense to you, you have Bruce to thank for it (not me)!

In my series of endgame articles, I used positions directly from Pandolfini’s Endgame Course because it’s mandatory reading for my older students. Why is it mandatory reading for my students? Because the book clearly explains, using words, a large number of important endgame concepts. Notice, I say “using words?” This is because there’s a lack of verbiage in many chess books. It’s as if everything can be explained to the reader in a handful of moves and a diagram or two. In all fairness, advanced players can gain a great deal of knowledge from such books. However, the poor beginner gets hopelessly lost reading the same books and might just give up on the game, thinking it too complex. I teach chess full time and write this weekly column. I’m not a brilliant chess player. In fact I’m a student of the game and always will be. Thankfully, there’s a writer like Bruce out there. His decades of writing have helped me improve. Of course, there are other authors who use “words” to teach chess, but Bruce was the first to really make things clear, employing analogies from our everyday lives. I guarantee that you’ll not be scratching your head muttering “what the heck is this guy talking about” after reading any of his chess books. More likely, you’ll be crying out “hey I actually understood that!”

Let me say this about teaching chess, brilliant chess players don’t always make for brilliant teachers and brilliant educators don’t always make for brilliant chess teachers. Really good chess teachers need a rare combination of skills. You have to have a fair amount chess knowledge, know how to convey that knowledge (teach) and be a bit of an entertainer. If I had a saving grace it’s that I grew up on a stage in front of an audience. Because of this, I’m very comfortable in front of people but, more importantly, I have learned the art of entertaining an audience. I love chess to the point where I’ll put up with the most droll chess lectures. You know the type, the lectures that are akin to watching paint dry or grass grow! If you’re a teacher and you want people to get into chess, you have to get them excited about the game by being entertaining.

Bruce’s writing has a wit and charm that puts a smile on your face as you read it. He connects with you the reader on a personal level. So, not only do you learn the game by reading his books but are entertained as well. Everything I do as a chess teacher and coach is a direct result of reading his books. He truly is the Dean of American chess teaching. Here’s a little rock and roll tale from my youth:

I had a bunch of musicians over to my loft in the 1980’s for a party. We were all about to embark on tours so we decided to hang out for an evening before going our separate ways. I had a stack of Bruce’s books on my desk and a tournament chess set next to the stack. The musicians hanging out with me were hardcore touring musicians, the type you’d expect to have no interest in chess. As the night progressed into the wee hours of the following morning, I noticed three guys huddled over the chess set with one of Bruce’s books cracked open. I walked up and asked what they were doing. One of them answered that they were having an argument over an aspect of the game. They decided to settle the argument by pawing through one of Bruce’s books. They were so impressed that this man could explain the solution to their problem/argument in such a clear and simple way that they started looking other things up and became engrossed in Bruce’s explanations. While all had learned to play as children, their interest was suddenly renewed. Some thirty years later, all of them play chess while touring and in their spare time, thanks to Bruce. I still play chess with those three as well. Some thirty years ago, Bruce connected with three young men who would go on to become very well know musicians. If you can convert a hardcore rock and roller into a serious chess enthusiast, you know how to connect with your readers.

Bruce also came to my personal aid two years ago. I teach in 10-13 schools a week as well as working with at risk teens in jail by teaching them how to use chess to problem solve and make good decisions in life. Our only form of transportation, the Chessmobile, died and we were stranded. This lack of transportation left us in a dire situation that could have destroyed my chess program. Thanks to a donation from Bruce, we were able to get up and running again. HE saved my program and I am forever in his debt. Bruce is the best of chess people!

If I had to recommend any of Bruce’s books, I’d recommend them all hands down. Like a band that puts out that perfect first album (a CD for you youngsters that have no idea what an album is) in which every single song is brilliant, so is the body of Bruce’s chess writing. Not one bad or mediocre book, period. However, I’ll give you a few titles to consider, starting with Pandolfini’s Endgame Course.

This is the book that served as the inspiration for my last nine articles. It also serves as the instructional program I use for teaching endgame principles to my students. If you’re a beginner, you need to read this book (which contains actual words that make complete sense). If you’re an improving player, read this book!

Pandolfini’s Ultimate Guide to Chess is an excellent text book for the beginner wanting to learn the game from scratch. It uses the Socratic method, employing a dialogue between teacher and student, which is as close as you’ll get to sitting down with a live chess teacher, one that really knows how to teach. It’s like have Bruce at the board with you as you learn.

Chess Opening Traps and Zaps is a must for beginners interested in tricks and traps in the opening phase of the game. While I teach tricks and traps from the viewpoint of the person trying to avoid them, this is a good battlefield manual for beginners wanting to turn the tables on those chess Tricksters and Trapsters you’ll face from time to time (especially in the junior chess arena).

Chess Thinking is an excellent reference book that is really a dictionary of chess terms and concepts. It’s a must for anyone learning the game because it gives you the definition of every term and concept you’ll ever encounter in the world of chess. Again, it has great diagrams and verbal descriptions that clearly explain the ideas discussed. this was the book most heavily pawed through by the musicians mentioned above. Each owns a copy of this book and takes on tour to settle any backstage chess arguments.

Every Move Must Have a Purpose: Strategies from Chess for Business and Life is something I incorporate into my own teaching, life lessons learned on the chessboard. An excellent read, especially for those in the business world. A really fascinating approach to life, business and chess.

Like I said, all of Bruce’s books are brilliant. Read them all and your game will greatly improve. I want to thank you Bruce for all you’ve done for me. I am a chess teacher thanks to you! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson