Category Archives: Children’s Chess

The Price of Chess

My attention was recently drawn to a discussion on Mumsnet about the cost of school chess clubs.

The original poster was of the opinion that £6.50 a week for a school chess club (an hour after school) was rather too expensive. She thought that she ought to teach her son at home instead. The subject generated a lot of responses, with many mums thinking the price was not unreasonable given that the school had to pay for heating and lighting as well as buying equipment. Others, though, claimed that extra-curricular clubs were free in their children’s schools. The original poster later explained that this was a primary school, not a prep school, and that the club was run, not by a grandmaster, but by a retired teacher. I’m aware of at least one school in my borough where the club is run by a retired teacher who is, as far as I know, not a particularly strong player. Whether or not it’s this school I have no idea.

As my previous two posts have mentioned, primary school chess clubs of this nature are little more than child-minding services which provide kids with some low-level enjoyment moving pieces around fairly randomly with their friends and occasionally winning a fluffy mascot for their pains. Whether or not you consider £6.50 an hour for child-minding is good value for money is, I suppose, up to you. I’m assuming here that we’re talking about a fairly affluent part of the country.

It’s actually rather more than I charge for clubs in similar schools. I can give a couple of examples.

School A, a small primary school, runs a club with little staff involvement. This term runs for 12 weeks and I charge £60 per term: £5 per child per session. I’m hoping for at least 10 children, for whit I will make £50 per hour, which I think is reasonable. Last term I had a few more than that. I’m not yet certain about this term. Some schools using this model charge the chess tutor for use of the classroom: this school, at least as yet, doesn’t do so.

School B is a much larger primary school where there is a teacher involved with the club. She deals with the club administration and is in the room at the beginning and end of the session. While the club is in progress she’s working in the next room and can hear what’s happening. The club started last October and has been very popular and successful: we had rather too many children last term and were running short of both space and equipment. It was also not possible for me to spend very long with each child. We decided to limit the club to 24 children in future and try to set up another club, mainly for less experienced players on another day. I requested my standard rate of £50 per session, and last term the school made a significant profit. Starting from this term, it was explained to me, teachers are now paid £30 per hour for involvement in extra-curricular clubs, which seems reasonable to me. The school also expects all clubs to make a profit, so they require 20 children paying £5 each to make the club viable. That comes to £100 per session: £50 for me, £30 for the teacher and £20 for the school coffers. Will they find another 20 children? I’ll probably know the answer by the time you read this.

Back on Mumsnet, the original poster implied that her son didn’t know how to play chess and perhaps that she wanted to sign him up for the club to save her the trouble. I make it very clear to all my schools, and insist that they make it clear in their letters to parents, that my clubs are for children who can already play chess, not for complete beginners. (School B above, though, has decided to target the possible second club specifically for beginners, which is fine.)

A poster called ‘LauraRoslin’ (actually the pseudonym of a male IM who is certainly not a mum, and not, as far as I know, a dad) made a very pertinent point:

There are at least three different models a chess club can be run on, and you can decide for yourself how much you are prepared to pay for any of them:

(a) a basic teaching-the-moves course, such that the participants end up knowing how to play a legal game of chess.

(b) a club where it’s expected that everybody already knows the moves, and an environment is provided for them to be able to play against each other (this is essentially the model that nearly all adult chess clubs in this country follow).

(c) a club where it’s expected that everybody already knows the moves and wants to become a better player, and specific training is given towards this aim.

This is quite correct. In fact most school clubs are essentially Laura’s (b). Junior Chess Clubs, for which you’ll probably pay more than £5 an hour, are (c). Schools, or Junior Chess Clubs, could also run (a), but by and large they don’t, possibly because most parents prefer (wrongly, in my opinion) to teach their kids the basics themselves. Richmond Junior Club runs an (a) group and School B’s proposal for a second club would also be run as an (a) group.

Within less than two minutes of Laura’s posting, another poster suggested a club that caters for all of the above. Laura replied, again quite correctly:

“A club that caters for all of the above” is usually a bad model, because it doesn’t serve any of the groups it’s catering for well.

Quite – but parents often fail to understand that you can’t just teach kids the moves in half an hour and then expect them to become strong players.

In answer to the original question, £6.50 an hour, assuming a low-level primary school club in an affluent area, is quite high but not entirely unreasonable. It depends on various factors such as the size of the club and how much profit the school wants to make. If the teacher is not a strong player and is making more than £50 an hour, it’s probably a bit high. But if you’re a parent you make your choice and you pay your money. Or not, as you prefer.

Richard James

Better Music Through Chess

It’s 3:30 in the morning and I’ve just gotten back from a club (at the age of 55). I’m in the studio mixing 20 tracks of music for a band that has twenty plus musicians in it. I’ve scored the material which means writing all the musical parts down via sheet music. The song is a tribute to Lalo Schifrin, who did the sound tracks and scores for the Dirty Harry films and a host of other classics. I get a message on Facebook about doing an interview regarding my music. The interviewer asks me to answer one question before the interview the following morning. The Question: “What made you become good enough, as a musician, to be able to do the fully orchestrated projects you now do? It took me a full twenty four hours to answer this question because unlike the fast, glib and snotty answers I gave in my youth, I take my time and think about what I’m saying in middle age. Here’s the gist of what I said:

My music, composing skills, arrangement skills, engineering and producing are all where they are today because of chess. I can only imagine the horror on the other end of this question because the interviewer probably expected the old “I practiced until my fingers bled” party line. What you do in one area of your life often dictates the results in other areas of your life.

Chess really taught me how to look at both the big picture and the little picture at the same time. To win a game of chess, you have to have an overall plan. However, with each move of a pawn or piece, your immediate plan changes. You might have come up with a plan that is three moves long. Yet, your opponent suddenly makes a move you didn’t expect them to make. This forces you to adjust you original plan to accommodate this unforeseen opposition move. This situation occurs in music as well. You write a song. You’ve created the words and music for that song which means you have a plan that dictates just how that song will sound. You then bring the song to your band. They interpret the song differently so it may not sound as it did when your originally wrote it. It may sound better or it may sound differently than your original version. You work with your fellow musicians, making changes here and there until you get what your want out of the composition. The big picture is the original song your wrote, the little picture is the changes that are made during the evolution of that song. Prior to the influence of chess, I held firm in my song writing. It was my way or the highway, as some people like to say. Now, I embrace the changes other musicians bring to the table when it comes to my songs.

Chess also gave me the gift of patience, something I sorely lacked in my youth. When I first started playing, I wanted everything to happen immediately and when it didn’t, I started to lose interest. In fact, a musician I had auditioned for me when I was young called me out on this, on a social media site, which inspired this very article. Today, I am not only used to, for example, having six to seven hour rehearsals, but embrace them because creativity takes time. Patience is a skill that has positive ramifications far beyond the chessboard. Having some patience can be the difference between creating a musical composition of real substance and simply writing yet another passable song. Patience is a skill that will keep your blood pressure down (except in my case, according to my doctor).

Chess and music both share the concept of pattern recognition. In music, there are a seemingly endless combination of notes that can be combined to create a song. However, only a fraction of those notes can be combined to create a catchy tune. There are specific patterns that, when combined, create wonderful music. Proof of this can be found in the majority of rock and roll songs based on three chords, E, A and B. Chuck Berry became a legend based on this simple pattern. In chess, players that recognize patterns on the chessboard win games. Musicians that recognize patterns write great songs.

Where chess has really proven itself as a valuable tool, musically speaking, is in my work doing composition, arranging and recording of orchestrated bands, those that include horn and string sections. My latest band project, The Troubadours of Misery, is a miniature orchestra. Being the the chief writer and arranger, I’m facing technical challenges I’ve never faced. Often, my back is to the wall and I find myself in a tough spot, be it arranging or trying to get just the right tones in the recording studio. Prior to seriously studying chess, I probably would have settled for a technical solution that I wasn’t quite happy with. Now, I look at the problem, then try and relate it to a tough chess position I’ve found myself in or have studied. I keep a laptop with my game database in the studio and will review that tough position and play through the solution. I try to relate each move to the situation I’m in and more often than not, find a solution to my musical problem on the chessboard.

Chess provides many lessons that can be applied to our lives. I’d say that learning lessons from this great game will probably get you a lot father than hiring one of those life coaches (that person you pay a lot of money to so they can tell you what you already know, common sense). One thing that people have trouble with is losing in life. They take a chance, fail and then never try again. If you talk to anyone who is successful (and honest), they’ll tell you it took a number of failures to become successful (not just one). While I’ve had my share of minor musical successes, I’ve had my share of failed bands (and some real stinkers when it comes to songs). Chess can teach you how to deal with loss and embrace it as a learning tool. What can I say, you really cannot go wrong playing chess and learning off the board life lessons within the sixty-four squares. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Accepting the Challenge

Last week I considered Boris Gelfand’s view that there are too many tournaments for children, and considered the conflicting philosophies of the old Soviet School which involved skill development, particularly tactical skill development, but with very little competition, and the methods we use here in the UK which involves lots of tournaments but with no formal path of skill development. I put forward my view, which lies between the two extremes.

Primary school chess clubs here in the UK at the moment, by and large, do little more than provide an environment in which children can enjoy playing low level chess with their friends. This, at the moment, anyway, is what most parents, most children and most schools want. The children make little progress and soon give up. Chess is an extremely complex game. While older children can teach themselves to play well successfully, younger children cannot. The only children who do well are those who are studying chess seriously at home, either with their parents or with a private chess tutor. The others stand no chance at all.

I also considered the UK Chess Challenge, whose future is in doubt for financial reasons. You might consider this a disaster. I prefer to see it as an opportunity. An opportunity for someone else to take over the event and, while keeping the basic structure, introduce an element of skill development. It will need some investment and additional sponsorship, but, in the long term, it will be worthwhile.

One of my ideas when I first set up chessKIDS academy back in 2000 was that it might in future link up with the UK Chess Challenge in some way, but Mike Basman wasn’t interested. He started to set up something similar himself but didn’t get very far. Technology has moved on since then, and there are now far better ways of introducing skill development into the UK Chess Challenge.

At present kids who barely know how to play chess win fluffy mascots and other trinkets by beating other kids who barely know how to play chess. As a means of keeping kids interested in the chess club in the short term this is excellent psychology, but as a means of improving their chess and giving them a long-term interest in the game it’s appalling psychology.

There has been much research over the past three decades or more on the effectiveness or otherwise of rewards, most of which has reached the same conclusion. Alfie Kohn is perhaps the best known proponent of the theory that, in all environments, rewards and punishments are counter-productive.

Before you read on, you might like to read his 1994 article on the subject here.

I quote:

“At least two dozen studies have shown that people expecting to receive a reward for completing a task (or for doing it successfully) simply do not perform as well as those who expect nothing (Kohn, 1993). This effect is robust for young children, older children, and adults; for males and females; for rewards of all kinds; and for tasks ranging from memorizing facts to designing collages to solving problems. In general, the more cognitive sophistication and open-ended thinking that is required for a task, the worse people tend to do when they have been led to perform that task for a reward.”

I’ll repeat the last sentence again:

“In general, the more cognitive sophistication and open-ended thinking that is required for a task, the worse people tend to do when they have been led to perform that task for a reward.”

I think you’ll agree that playing chess well is nothing if not a task requiring sophistication and open-ended thinking. So, while the fluffy mascots are superficially attractive, perhaps they actually lower the standard of play.

If I had to award fluffy mascots at all, I’d rather give them to kids who could checkmate me confidently with king and queen against king than to kids who win random games against their friends.

Children enjoy playing video games where you have to complete assignments to move up to the next level. So what I’d do, if I had the money, is develop an app in which children complete chess assignments to move up to the next level.

This app would include a chess engine which you could play at various levels, perhaps with a rating function built in. You’d also be able to use the engine to play out endings such as king and queen against king and king and rook against king. There would, of course, be a tutorial to teach you the moves. There would also be a database of puzzles, starting with very simple one-movers. You might also want to provide an eBook for parents and teachers to explain how it works and how they can help their children use the app.

When you complete your assignments and reach a particular level you win, not a fluffy mascot, but a Golden Ticket to a tournament. To play in the Megafinals, you might, for example, have to show you know all the rules, get checkmate with king and queen against king, complete some simple puzzles and reach a rating of, say, 500 against the engine. Higher levels of the tournament, for the moment, are probably fine as they are.

So how about it, then? We really have to accept that our current methods of running primary school chess, while providing short-term enjoyment for kids, don’t work in terms of giving them a long-term passion for the game. While you can’t really overthrow the system, you can perhaps tweak it in stages to reach your destination.

We need to get away from the idea of competitive chess as a fun, low-level activity for small children and promote the game for what it really is: a complex, beautiful and exciting game for all ages.

Richard James

How to Study Tactics

Having spent years teaching and coaching young chess players (and oldsters as well), I’ve had the opportunity to not only see breakthroughs in my students playing but roadblocks as well. This is a great age, technologically speaking, in which to learn the game of chess. There are so many training materials available but this vast array of learning tools can make improvement difficult. While there is no “one size fits all” way in which to teach or learn, the beginning chess player often ends up taking on material that is above his or her skill set. Therefore, I’m going to present a few articles on more streamlined methods to studying an aspect of the game, starting with tactics.

Beginners often confuse tactics and strategy so we’ll define the difference between these two very different terms. Strategy is your plan, the end result you’re aiming for in a given position. When I’ve asked beginners what their strategy is, they’ll respond by saying “to checkmate my opponent, of course!” While this is the overall goal of the game, it’s not a strategy. Strategy is the series of plans you create in order to reach your overall goal, checkmating your opponent. If you were a General leading an army, your goal would be to win the war. To do so, you’d have to have a plan, or series of smaller plans, to reach that goal. I say series of plans because in chess, plans that seem plausible in one position, can become obsolete if the position changes in favor of the opposition. Tactics are the actions you take when implementing your strategies. To win a battle, a General might decide that cutting off the enemy’s supply lines will be the best way to win that particular battle. The actions the General takes, such as bombing the supply line using a specific type of fighter plane, is the tactical play. Tactics are key for the beginner wishing to improve, especially when it comes to younger players! What tactics should the beginner study? Here’s a list of the basics:

Forks
Pins
Skewers
Discovered Attacks
Discovered Checks
Double Checks

These are the absolute basics. There are additional tactics such deflection, the decoy, overloading pieces, etc, but the beginner should first become familiar with the previously listed tactics and only then, move on to more sophisticated tactical ideas. Here’s a brief definition of the tactics you need to study as a beginner. A fork can be employed the by pawns and all pieces, including the King. With a fork, one piece attacks two or more opposition pieces. Since your opponent can only move one piece per turn (except when castling), they’re going to lose whichever piece is left behind. This idea alone should enlighten you as to why forks are so useful. A pin occurs when a piece of lesser value is stuck in front of a piece of greater value and both are on a line (rank, file or diagonal) controlled by an opposition piece. Let’s say, as White, your Queen is on d1, your King-side Knight is on f3 and a Black Bishop is on g4 (with the e2 square being void of any material). If you move the Knight off of f3, the Black Bishop will swoop in and capture the Queen. With a skewer, you have a piece of lesser value stuck in front of a piece of higher value and, when the piece of higher value gets out of the way, you capture the piece stuck behind it on the line of attack (rank, file or diagonal). Pins are Skewers are performed by long distance attackers such as the Bishop, Rook or Queen.

Discovered attacks find one of your pieces in line with an opposition piece, except that one of your other pieces is blocking its line of attack. When you move the blocking piece, the attacking piece behind it is free to assault the opposition piece. A discovered check is similar except you deliver check when unblocking the attacking (or in this casing checking) piece. The double check is the most lethal of checks because two pieces are delivering a check to the opposition King simultaneously and, since you can only move a single pawn or piece per game turn, you cannot simply block both the checks!

Learn these basic tactics because, especially at lower levels of play, tactics can be decisive! The next step to learning tactics is to recognize the typical patterns that lead to tactics. A tactical play doesn’t just magically appear. Of course, with so many possible positions occurring within a single game of chess, the beginner looks at the games of advanced players and wonders just how they made those tactical plays happen. Good chess players know to look for certain patterns, the arrangement of pawns and pieces on the board as well as open lines, and exploit those patterns to employ tactics. Certain patterns or arrangements of the pawns and pieces allow tactics to be introduced. Take a look at the example below:

In the above simplified example, after move three for Black (3…Nf6), White sees a pattern forming, a pattern that allows a later tactical play by white, 5. Ng5. White sees that the Black Knight on f6 prevents the Queen on d8 from controlling the g5 square. Therefore, White moves his Knight to that square, setting up the next move (after Black plays 5…d6), 6. Nxf7. This move allows the Knight to fork the Black Queen and Rook. The point here is that White looked carefully at the board and set up his tactical attack. Because the White Knight on f7 is protected by the Bishop on c4, the Black King cannot capture the forking Knight. Beginners should start their pattern recognition training by looking at the Ranks, Files and Diagonals where pieces like the Bishop, Rook and Queen can employ tactics. It should be noted that the Knight is a powerhouse when it comes to tactics such as forks because you can’t block a Knight’s attack. When looking for patterns to exploit for tactics, always check Ranks, Files and Diagonals and ask yourself, “can I use any of these lines for a tactical play. When looking at a possible line on which to employ a tactic, also ask yourself how easily your target square can be defended. In the case of the above example, the Black King is the only defender of the f7 square and, since there are two attackers, the King cannot actually defend that square!

Tactics don’t appear magically although great chess players can make it seem that way. They require a set up which means a combination (of moves that is). Take a look at the next example:

In the above example, Black has a Queen to White’s Rook which should give Black the advantage. However, White sets up a combination starting with 1. Rb8. Black can either move the King and lose the Queen or capture the Rook with 1…Qxb8. Things look good for Black since he still has his Queen. However, the true intentions of White’s move becomes clear with 2. Nd7+ which forks both Black’s King and Queen. After the Black King moves, 2…Ke8, White snaps off the Black Queen with 3. Nxb8. White has leveled the playing field with a fork. This is a very basic example of a combination. Remember, a combination is a group of moves that sets up the tactical play. No magic trick, just seeing a potential tactical pattern and putting it to good use.

So the key to studying tactics is to first understand the basic types of tactics you can employ, developing pattern recognition and then learning how to develop combinations, a series of moves that create a tactical opportunity. It takes time to develop these skills but it’s well worth the time spent. I highly recommend scattering a bunch of Black pawns and pieces on the chessboard and then randomly placing a White Knight near the board’s center. Then, see if you can find any forks. If you can’t find a fork immediately, make a legal move with the Knight and see if any forks appear. This helps start your pattern recognition abilities. Do the same with the Bishops, Rooks and Queen. The idea is develop your ability to see potential tactical positions. After you move a White piece, play the Black side of the board, looking for opportunities White may have for tactical plays and making moves to avoid them (after all, you need to avoid opposition tactics as well). The point here is to develop your tactical eye. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

A Challenge for UK Chess

I’m very grateful to my Facebook friend Paul Swaney for directing me to a recent interview with Boris Gelfand on chess24.com.

Paul, who is well aware of my views on junior chess, pointed out this extract:

“Now almost everyone is focused on an immediate result – largely because there are too many championships and tournaments for children. Trainers teach the youngsters traps and psychological ploys, but not the essentials. The main task of a trainer is to instil a love and interest in chess.”

I’ll repeat that: THERE ARE TOO MANY CHAMPIONSHIPS AND TOURNAMENTS FOR CHILDREN.

I’ll repeat something else as well: THE MAIN TASK OF A TRAINER IS TO INSTIL A LOVE AND INTEREST IN CHESS.

Not to make kids smarter. Not to produce champions. But to give them a genuine life-long passion for chess.

The old system in the Soviet Union, which Gelfand and his generation would have grown up with, was very much to do with skills development rather than playing in competitions. There were no kiddie tournaments in the way we know them. Tournaments only existed, as far as I understand the system, to check that children had learned the appropriate skills and were able to put them into practice before moving onto the next level.

This system still exists in some countries today. You may recall that my friends’ son learned his chess in Baku using this method. The same concept is what drives the Steps method used extensively in the Netherlands and also popular in other Western European countries.

But here we take precisely the opposite approach. Our kids have many opportunities to take part in tournaments but instruction within school chess clubs is very basic and very much involved with teaching Scholar’s Mate and other traps rather than developing chess skills. The result is that, while a small number of children, those who are getting proactive parental support at home, will do well, the vast majority will make little or no progress, will quickly forget most of what they’ve been taught, and will drop out of chess within a year or two.

My view lies, as you might expect, between the two extremes. Children enjoy playing in competitions and gain a lot from them both socially and in terms of emotional development. But unless you can find a way of linking up tournaments with skills development you won’t produce kids with a long-term ‘love and interest in chess’.

Meanwhile, the big chess news here in the UK is that the very popular and successful UK Chess Challenge is in trouble. IM Mike Basman, who started the event and has been running it for two decades, has been declared bankrupt and is faced with a bill for £300,000 in unpaid tax. While bankruptcy is not something I’d wish on anyone, I can’t help feeling Mike’s been extremely foolish in the way he runs the event and in not seeking financial advice. Laws are laws, whether or not you happen to like them or approve of them.

For those of you not familiar with the event, here’s how it works. Between January and March, schools run an internal competition in which players receive small prizes. The most successful players, including the top boy and the top girl within each year group, qualify for the county stage which takes place in May. Here, they compete against other children of their age from other schools in their part of the country. The top children from these events then compete in semi-national events in July. Finally, in August, the top boys and girls from across the country in all age groups come together to compete for a £2000 first prize.

Superficially, the whole concept is wonderful, and the final is a really great event. The kids in my primary school chess clubs enjoy taking part in the competition and winning prizes. What’s not to like? And yet, and yet. My view is that perhaps the major reason for the decline in British junior chess in the past two decades is precisely the nature of primary school chess, putting kids into too many competitions too soon, before they’ve really understood the basics of chess, prioritising competition over skills development, failing to provide any meaningful system whereby children can improve and failing to get the message across to parents that they need to be actively involved in their children’s learning process. It seems crazy to me that we’re putting kids into competitions at school before they’ve learned all the rules of chess, and putting them into county level competitions before they’ve learned very basic skills. This, in my opinion, is one of the main reasons why there are so few teenagers and young adults playing chess.

So here’s a challenge for anyone who wants to improve chess in the UK. Can we find a better way of running chess in primary schools? I have a possible solution. I’ve had the solution sitting in front of me for the best part of 20 years, but neither Mike Basman nor anyone else involved in UK junior chess has taken any interest.

I’ll tell you more next week.

Richard James

Analogies

The mark of a good teacher, be it in chess or economics, is their ability to take a complex concept or idea and explain it in a manner that makes sense to the student. Too often, a teacher will simply recite an explanation from a textbook, word for word, and call it a day. That’s not teaching. Good teaching is taking a complex subject and simplifying it, often using an analogy that students can relate to. I have a new high school student who was having trouble grasping some game principles, namely the idea of bringing pawns and pieces into the opening in a specific order. By order, I mean that we first control the center with a pawn or two, then introduce our minor pieces and so on. He asked me why follow that specific order if you could start controlling the board’s center by moving a Knight towards it on your first move? His reasoning was sound, in that a Knight moved to c3 or f3 (c6 or f6 for Black) controls two center squares as opposed to a pawn move which controls only one center square, the central squares being d4, d5, e4 and e5. I tried a couple of explanations but he still thought moving the Knight first made more sense. Of course, you can start the game by moving one of your Knights toward the center. However, when first learning the game, you should learn to start the game with a pawn move for a number of reasons.

One thing I do when working with a student for the first time is to find out what their interested in other than chess. Why do this? Because I can often develop analogies based on the student’s interests and provide them with explanations of key concepts that make sense because the analogies relate to something the student already understands. It turns out that my student is a budding military history buff which made my job that much easier. Here’s why:

Chess is many things, including a game of war. In fact, it’s really an excellent example of classical warfare and that’s the analogy I used. From the military formations employed by Roman soldiers in ancient times to the battles of the American Civil War, the theory of classical warfare is alive and well on the chessboard. In fact, the guerrilla warfare style of fighting seen in Vietnam and then in the Middle East can be found on the chessboard in the form of tricks, traps and tactics. Being a Buddhist, you might ask why I’d choose such a violent analogy. The answer is simple. I use analogies that best suit my students (within reason). While I abhor violence, I am a bit of a student of military history myself (specifically, the American Civil War) which is probably why I consider myself a “bad” Buddhist (or militant pacifist)! So let’s look at my student’s question regarding pawn and piece development in the opening from the vantage point of classical warfare.

Prior to the advent of truly mechanized warfare (tanks, planes, etc), fighting battles was mainly done by individual soldiers. During the American Civil War, for example, the majority of the fighting was done by large formations of troops (troop meaning a single soldier and troops meaning multiple soldiers). These troops fell into formations or lines of men with their rifles loaded and ready to fire. Fire upon what? Advancing enemy troops. Eventually, members of the opposing army would make it through the field of fire and hand to hand combat would ensue. During the battle of Gettysburg, tens of thousands of men were engaged in savage hand to hand combat in one of the war’s bloodiest battles. When I was describing this battle, which I had studied in great detail, I could see my student caught up in my retelling of this horrible historical event. From a teaching point, I had my student where I wanted him; using his imagination to take him to the front lines, smelling the acrid stench of gun powder, hearing the screams of wounded men and the deafening sound of hundreds of cannons as the sky turned dark because of the smoke of the many fires that burned across the battlefield. It was at this point that I stopped my story and uttered a single word, Pawns.”

“Pawns?” He replied. Yes, Pawns. All those men wearing either the colors of the blue or gray in the American Civil War were the battle’s pawns. Pawns are the game’s foot soldiers, like the Roman Legionnaires or American Grunts of World War Two. In any army, the overwhelming majority of its members are foot soldiers who individually are of little value but, when united together in large numbers, become a decisive force that can change a battle’s outcome. In classical warfare, it’s the foot soldier who goes out onto the field of battle first. In chess, pawns are your foot soldiers and, while they may be of the lowest relative value when considering them on an individual basis, they can work together and push back the enemy.

In classical warfare, generals would use their foot soldiers in an attempt to weaken the opposition’s army before bringing in more sophisticated weaponry such as archers or cavalry, in the case of the American Civil War. The point I made to my student was that you needed to weaken the enemy first and then bring in heavier weaponry. I emphasized the fact that the Knight in chess was the equivalent to the cavalry in classical warfare and that you simply wouldn’t send in the cavalry against a huge formation of foot soldiers until you weakened those foot soldiers with your own foot soldiers. The same holds true in chess. If you sent your Knights onto the field of battle (the chessboard) they could easily be driven back by Pawns. Why? Because a Pawn has a relative value of 1 point while the Knight’s worth 3 points. No one is going to trade a Knight for a Pawn (unless it leads to a huge positional advantage)! My student was starting to see the merits of employing Pawns first, then the minor pieces. We looked at another reason foot soldiers had to be the first into battle, namely because the rest of the army stood behind them!

In many classical battle formations, which were highly organized, you had an overwhelming majority of foot soldiers in the front, followed by archers, then cavalry and lastly any special weaponry. While the archers could shoot over the heads of the foot soldiers in front of them (and did to reduce enemy numbers), the rest of the army couldn’t get onto the battlefield until the foot soldiers had moved. I pointed out to my student that, with the exception of the Knight, the rest of his forces were trapped until some of his foot soldiers (Pawns) took to the field (the board). My analogy was really starting to sink in. My student is a highly intelligent young man but we have to remember that a “one size fits all” approach to teaching doesn’t work because no single explanation will work for every single individual. Analogies, analogies, analogies!

We looked at the other pieces in terms of our analogy and decided that Bishops were more like archers in a way because they could control important squares on the board from a great distance. However, unlike the archer who can shoot arrows over the heads of the foot soldiers, Bishops needed the Pawns to move out of the way in order to engage in the battle. Rooks became cannons in our analogy, more powerful than the Bishops (archers) because they’re not limited to squares of one color (as the Bishops are). The Queen was either a Gatling Gun (an early large, rapid fire machine gun) or a Weapon of Mass Destruction. I preferred Weapon of Mass Destruction, only to be used carefully and at the right time. Losing the Queen is on par with losing your biggest, baddest weapon while the enemy maintains theirs. As for the King? In Vietnam, the Vietcong would often have snipers try to shoot at American commanders, with the idea of removing the leader which would leave the troops unable to function (cutting off the head of the snake).

By using analogies you can reinforce key ideas and concepts, putting them into terms you understand. I highly recommend, when learning a new chess idea or concept, that you put it into terms you can understand. If you’re a lawyer, create a legal analogy. If you’re a carpenter, put it in terms of a construction project. If teaching chess, discover your students interests to help create meaningful analogies. Use analogies to guide you and you’ll really understand the subject matter you’re trying to master. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Executive Stress

Here’s a position from a London League game I played back in 1978.

I was White and had to play one more move before the time control. I don’t remember how much time I had but I suspect it was enough to avoid making a blunder. What I do remember, though, is that I had a heavy cold and didn’t feel fully switched on during the game. This was the main reason why, instead of playing something sensible to consolidate my slight advantage, I grabbed the e-pawn, overlooking that after the trade of bishops my opponent had the deadly fork Qh1+.

Feeling unwell is something that will inevitably affect your executive function skills. Perhaps you will find it harder to make a decision and run short of time. Perhaps you will play impulsively and make an oversight. Perhaps your decision making skills will be impaired.

But what exactly do we mean by ‘executive function’?

Wikipedia, as usual, is your friend.

“Executive functions (also known as cognitive control and supervisory attentional system) are a set of cognitive processes – including attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, as well as reasoning, problem solving, and planning – that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.”

Well, chess is very much about reasoning, problem solving and planning, as I’m sure you’ll agree. To play chess well we need attentional control, otherwise we’ll get distracted by external or internal stimuli. We also need inhibitory control, otherwise we’ll play our moves impulsively, without thinking about the consequences, and make lots of oversights as a result. Working memory is not just short-term memory but involves manipulating the information stored in your short-term memory: without that skill we’re not going to be able to consider alternatives and look ahead, and if we try to do so we’ll quickly become very confused. Finally, we also require cognitive flexibility: the ability to switch between thinking about different ideas, and to think about two different ideas at the same time.

Wikipedia again:

“Executive functions gradually develop and change across the lifespan of an individual and can be improved at any time over the course of a person’s life. Similarly, these cognitive processes can be adversely affected by a variety of events which affect an individual.”

So we’d expect children’s executive functions to improve as they get older, but on occasion an individual may be affected by a particular event, such as, in my example above, having a heavy cold, which, in a game of chess, might increase the likelihood of making mistakes. It was reputedly Tartakower who first said that he’d never beaten a healthy opponent.

“… executive functioning in preadolescents is limited because they do not reliably apply these executive functions across multiple contexts as a result of ongoing development of inhibitory control.”

Quite. You can teach young children all the chess you want but, unless their executive function skills are in place they will find it very difficult to put it into practice. Which is why young children will often get stuck, find themselves not making progress, get frustrated and give up. The younger they start chess the more likely this will happen. The children get frustrated, their chess teachers get frustrated with them, their parents get frustrated both with the children and with their chess teachers.

“Many executive functions may begin in childhood and preadolescence, such as inhibitory control. Yet, it is during adolescence when the different brain systems become better integrated. At this time, (young people) implement executive functions, such as inhibitory control, more efficiently and effectively and improve throughout this time period. Just as inhibitory control emerges in childhood and improves over time, planning and goal-directed behavior also demonstrate an extended time course with ongoing growth over adolescence. Likewise, functions such as attentional control, with a potential spurt at age 15, along with working memory, continue developing at this stage.”

Precisely. Which is why it’s so much easier to teach older children than younger children, and one of many reasons why most young children fail to make progress at chess.

It’s difficult to teach executive functions to young children, but I guess playing games of skill would be one way to develop these attributes. I would also guess that simpler games would be much more effective and probably enjoyable than an exceptionally complex and difficult game such as chess.

Some children will have these skills in place at a very early age, and I’ve been lucky enough to have known and worked with quite a few. Current Richmond Junior Chess Club member Nishchal Thatte, for example, shared first place in the U160 section of the most recent Richmond Rapidplay at the age of 7, and was up with the leaders most of the way in the European Under 8 Championships which finished the other day. But most of the children I’m asked to teach are far too immature to make much progress because they have the typical executive function defects which you’d expect from their age.

Thinking back again to the position at the top of this article:

“Psychologists Don Norman and Tim Shallice have outlined five types of situations in which routine activation of behavior would not be sufficient for optimal performance:

1. Those that involve planning or decision making
2. Those that involve error correction or troubleshooting
3. Situations where responses are not well-rehearsed or contain novel sequences of actions
4. Dangerous or technically difficult situations
5. Situations that require the overcoming of a strong habitual response or resisting temptation.”

In that position I had to make a decision. I had to correct the error in my decision making, but failed to do so. The backward diagonal attack on my rook after Qh1+ might be considered part of a novel sequence of actions. I was in a dangerous situation but failed to realise it. I had to resist the temptation of capturing the pawn but failed to do so.

Who was my opponent in that game? None other than the aforementioned Tim Shallice, who has been a strong chess player for more than half a century and is still active today.

“The work of influential researchers such as Michael Posner, Joaquin Fuster, Tim Shallice, and their colleagues in the 1980s (and later Trevor Robbins, Bob Knight, Don Stuss, and others) laid much of the groundwork for recent research into executive functions.”

Tim Shallice is not only a strong chess player but an influential researcher into executive functions. If you were paying attention recently you might recall another name from the same sentence. The winner of the game I demonstrated last week, Trevor Robbins, was a very strong chess player in his teens and early twenties but chose to concentrate on his academic work in the field of executive function.

Given the importance of executive function in playing chess it’s perhaps not surprising that two of the leading experts in the field should also be strong chess players.

We need to stress the importance of executive function in the development of young chess players, but at the moment we’re not really doing so.

Richard James

Before You Make That Move

You would never drive your car blindly into oncoming traffic because the results would be disastrous, right? Yet, how many of you have blindly made a move on the chessboard without putting much thought into that move because you became frustrated regarding exactly what to do? I’ve been guilty of doing this from time to time in the past. However, because I teach and coach chess full time, I tend to make fewer of these thoughtless moves due to long term training on my part. However, the novice player can easily become frustrated and throw caution to wind, making a move without thinking it through. This occurs because the novice or beginning player hasn’t yet developed an ordered mental check list for determining what move to make in response to the opposition’s last move. Players with greater experience have a large number of game principles not only committed to memory but in a sequential order that makes accessing the right principle for the given situation a very easy task.

When you first seriously study chess, you’re hit with a plethora of useful information in the form of books, DVDs and software. Sometimes, far too much information. In actuality, it’s not that it’s too much information, it’s just too much information at once. The beginner picks up a book or watches a DVD that gives them a great deal of knowledge on opening, middle or endgame theory. A number of principled ideas are presented with actual game examples. The beginner works through the examples carefully, learns the concepts presented and then sits down to play a game employing his or her new found knowledge. Suddenly, they’re hit with bits and pieces of the various principles just learned, all at once, rather than the single principle they need for the situation at hand. Confusion ensues and the beginner loses the game in question. Where this situation really rears its ugly head is when the beginner is faced with a position (similar but not exactly the same) that wasn’t in the book or DVD, which happens more often than not! Beginners tend to think that a position they’ve studied in a book is exactly how that position will appear in their games. It almost never is! This means the beginner may be faced with a position they’ve encountered in their book or DVD studies but doesn’t see it for what it is because the pawns and pieces are slightly different in arrangement than in the example they studied. To the beginner, the position seems foreign.

We’ll address this problem first because it’s key to everything else being discussed! Book and DVD examples come from real games. In a book about endgame play, the beginner might be studying Pawn, Bishop and King endgames. They’ve learned (book/DVD studies) how to promote their Pawn with the King and Bishop being on very specific squares (those found in the book/DVD examples). However, in their real life game, the King and Bishop they need to help promote their Pawn with are on squares not identically positioned as in the initial (book/DVD) example, maybe both King and Bishop are on the other side of the board and the pawn is on a different file. The beginner looks at his or her position and has a very slight recollection of what to do, based on the initial example. However, in the book or DVD example, the King and Bishop were much, much closer to their target squares. The beginner might automatically disregard any thoughts regarding the key concept they need to employ because the position isn’t exactly like the one found in the book or DVD, or they cannot see the pathway (in moves) that will get them to that exact position. Therefore, our intrepid beginner tries to think about another example from the book or DVD. The key point to take away from this is: A key idea or concept found in instructional material, such as a book or DVD, doesn’t rely on an exact position arising but rather on a similar position. Of course, coming to this conclusion does you no good if you can’t pull the idea from you memory palace (Hannibal Lecter’s name for his mentally stored thoughts) in an orderly manner.

Here’s what I mean regarding “orderly manner:” We all collect bits and pieces of information throughout our lives, some of it useful, some of it trivial. If you sat down one day and made a list of everything you knew, you’d be surprised at just how jumbled and eclectic the list was, seemingly out of order with mismatched topics bleeding into one another. It would be a confusing pile of information that would be extremely difficult to make heads or tails of, especially if you needed one specific piece of that information in a hurry (such as when faced with a chess clock counting down the seconds)!

Therefore, you have to employ a system for organizing that vast treasure trove of information into an ordered mental file cabinet or mental database. This is the seemingly daunting task faced by the novice chess player, organizing all those principles you’ve studied in the numerous chess books you’ve read and DVDs you’ve watched. The information you’ve gathered has to be accessible instantly. Of course, for experienced players, this information is extremely well organized within their memory and and can be thrown into their thought process at a moment’s notice. For the beginner, this is, again, a daunting task. Fear not though, because you can achieve this ability relatively quickly and it starts with a few pencils and a small stack of index cards. It’s that easy!

Acquire a stack of index cards and a few well sharpened pencils. I recommend pencils over pens because you can erase something written in pencil and you’re apt to do a fair amount of erasing when you first start this process!

You’ll start with three index cards, one for the opening, one for the middle-game and one for the endgame. Don’t worry about the remaining stack of blank index cards. Those will become filled with notes later on. It’s important that the beginner slowly build up their knowledge base one index card at a time. On your “opening” index card, you’re going to list the opening principles: Controlling the center of the board with a pawn, development of your minor pieces towards the center and castling. Then, you’re going to write down things you shouldn’t do on the back of the card, such as not making too many pawn moves, not bringing your Queen out early, not moving the same piece twice during the opening, etc. While there are more things you can have on your index cards regarding opening theory, as a beginner, you don’t want to have too much information yet, just the bare basics. When you’ve committed the above list of principles to memory and can recognize when to use them easily, only then should you make the list bigger.

For your middle-game index card write down piece activity to start. Too often, beginners launch premature attacks before fully developing their pawns and pieces to active squares. Next, write down attackers versus defenders, having more attackers than opposition defenders when attacking and more defenders when defending against opposition attacks. Also jot down the value of the pawns and pieces so you can determine whether an exchange of material is advantageous. Lastly write down the word “tactics” and the question “are there any potential tactical plays to be made.

For your endgame index card, write down “Kings before Pawns” so you know the King has to be in front of the Pawn you’re trying to promote in a King and Pawn versus King endgame. Another item to add is “watch and stop the passed Pawn” and “can my King reach the opposition’s Pawn before it promotes. Also write in bold letters “King opposition is key to pawn promotion when only Kings and Pawns are present.” On the back of the card, you might note a few methods of checkmate, such as two Rooks versus lone King and Queen and King versus lone King, etc.

Add the information you gather from your books and DVDs onto index card, but do so slowly. Make sure to put the key concepts in your own words. Simply copying a definition verbatim (exactly as it’s written) doesn’t mean you really understand it. By putting the definition in your own words, you’re insuring your complete understanding of the concept.

Just having a few key principles for each phase of the game written on index cards will help you recall crucial information quickly with little confusion and before long you won’t need the cards to guide you because the information will be committed to memory. Memory is a muscle to be developed over time. Of course, you can’t use these cards during tournament games and you’ll have to ask opponents, when playing casually, if they mind your index cards before you refer to them while playing. Of course, when playing a chess software program, you opponent has no say in the matter. As time passes and your knowledge base increases, you’ll have more and more information written down. However, much of it you’ll have committed to memory already so the task will not seem so daunting. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Child Genius

While it was good to see the UK’s impressive haul of medals at the Rio Olympics, it did raise the issue of sponsorship. There are those who have expressed concern that while we’ve been providing welcome financial support for many sportspeople who were seen as potential medallists, other sports, and, more generally, sports at grassroots level, were losing out. If you have funding available, whether it’s for physical sports, the arts or chess, should you use it to support professional exponents in these fields so that they can achieve even more success, should you use it to identify young talents and help bring them up to professional levels, or should you use it to support mass participation?

Let’s suppose, for a moment, that your fairy godmother offers you a million pounds to identify young chess talents and train them to reach international levels. How would you go about it? You might well decide that top grandmasters these days always start young, so if you want to produce strong grandmasters you’ll need to identify young children with the necessary qualities.

If you know little about chess, you might, I suppose, look at a television programme such as Child Genius. UK readers will be able to watch the recently completed 2016 series here.

Of course these programmes are always edited to tell a story, but there’s a very clear division.On the one hand there are kids with an exceptional natural talent (usually an eidetic memory combined with quick and accurate computational skills) who have, we are told, entered themselves into the competition. Their parents, while being extremely supportive, seem bemused by their children’s extraordinary gifts. On the other hand there are kids who are portrayed, fairly or unfairly, as being reasonably bright, but who are being pushed too hard by over-competitive parents whose teaching techniques border on emotional abuse. What they all have in common, though, is a very high level of parental involvement.

If you’re looking for potential sports stars you’re going to look for kids with specific physical attributes. It would be futile training a very short person to be a basketball player or a very heavy person to be a jockey. Likewise, if you’re looking for kids who might excel at chess at an early age you’ll be looking for specific mental attributes.

In my experience, kids who start playing good chess at secondary school age can come from any background: sometimes you’ll be surprised at the kids who take an interest in chess. But the kids who excel at primary school age all have four things in common.

1. They all have exceptional cognitive skills, specifically excelling at subjects requiring logical-mathematical intelligence.

2. They all have extremely supportive parents who are prepared to give up their weekends and holidays to take their offspring to chess competitions.

3. They all have regular access to a strong chess player who is able to develop their chess skills while also being tuned in to their emotional needs. This may either be a family member or friend, or a professional chess tutor.

4. They all have exceptional maturity for their age, or, to put in in more scientific terms, executive function skills. A lot of the children I teach have the first three attributes, but not the fourth, which is one reason why I’m sceptical about starting children too soon.

Some children are strong academic all-rounders who will, in all probability, gain top grades in all their public examinations before getting a degree from a top university. Some of them will give up chess and spend the rest of their life on activities which are more lucrative (hello, Demis Hassabis) while others will still play occasionally (hello, Luke McShane). Others will be single-issue obsessives (hello, Bobby Fischer) some of whom will be diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, and some will go on to have problems related to mental health or addiction later in life.

Some children will come from chess-playing families (hello, Magnus Carlsen), while others will have parents who decide to use chess as a project at which their children can excel (hello, Judit Polgar and sisters). Sometimes parental support can turn into physical or emotional abuse (hello, Gata Kamsky’s dad Rustam). Hugh Patterson wrote an excellent article on this subject recently, which, if you haven’t already done so, I urge you to read.

Next time I’ll take a closer look at what exactly is meant by executive function, but as it’s been a few weeks since I’ve demonstrated a game for your enjoyment, here’s an entertaining king hunt from the 1972 Oxford-Cambridge university match. You need outstanding executive function skills to play a game like this.

Richard James

Chess Forum Survival Guide

A new adult student asked me for some good advice regarding the exploration of chess forums. I gave him a one word answer, “don’t!” “What do you mean don’t?” He replied. I diplomatically explained to him that while joining a chess forum could provide a conduit to a great deal of useful information, in most cases, he’d more likely end up falling down the endless rabbit hole of absolute madness found on many chess forums, never to be heard from again. He looked at me as if I was mad, so I sat him down to have a heart to heart chat about the subject. By conversation’s end, he looked just like a small child whose been told that there is no Santa Claus, Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy. I, on the other hand, felt like a bit of an old fashioned heel. Here’s the gist of what I told him:

Forums can be, and in many cases are, a great resource of practical information, allowing the forum user to save countless hours researching a topic on their own. Of course, I’m speaking purely theoretically, along the lines of “in a perfect world…” As I’m fond of mentioning, there’s a huge difference between theory and reality with chess forums (any many other types of forums to be fair). In theory, the chess forum should be your one stop chess shop when looking to acquire information regarding the game we love so deeply. In fact, you’d think that because we love chess so much, that chess forums would close to perfect in regards to useful information. They would perfect if the worst of human behavior didn’t cloud the numerous postings and threads. What behaviors are those you may ask? Ego and stupidity come to mind!

Now if I sound a bit harsh, let me state that there are a large number of chess forum contributors who really do present useful chess information. Many of these contributors are titled players who offer sound advice, regarding opening theory, for example. However, anyone on a forum can proclaim themselves an expert regardless of their qualifications. This means you might end up taking the advice of a player who barely understands the ideas behind the opening principles when preparing for an important game. Be cautious when taking forum advice regarding playing unless it comes from a qualified individual. With this said, I’ve seen some great explanations of difficult concepts from non-titled players. Like shopping for a car, you have to do your due diligence rather than simply buy the first car you see.

Forums also become a place where individuals can beat a subject to death, the old idea of flogging the dead horse. A subject is posted on the forum and, rather that providing a definitive and simple response, large numbers of people either confuse the issue or hijack the forum and send it in a completely different direction. You spend an hour reading through the threads and forgot what it was you were trying to get out of the posting in the first place. It can start out as a discussion regarding endgame theory and end up as an argument over who sells the best leather wingtip shoes in the greater London area. Unless you’re planning a trip to London and buying shoes while there, you may feel a bit cheated. Many a night I have sent out angry emails to forum members demanding back the hour of my life lost reading their dribble. My tip: If you scan through people’s postings regarding chess theory and you don’t see any algebraic notation within the comments, move on.

Of course, forums allow people to stand proudly at the bully pulpit and spew venomous rhetoric across the internet. Sadly, you find this on many chess forums. What starts as a seemingly Innocent discussion about a specific chess player, chess book, etc, turns into a free for all verbal slug-fest with the least qualified individuals throwing the hardest punches. You’d be surprised at how many people who cannot write to save their lives complain on forums about those who do write. Of course, constructive criticism is important but simply saying a chess book is garbage without offering some solutions to make it better is just old fashion bullying.

You also see chess enthusiasts complain about moves made during important, professional matches. This would be all well and good if the person complaining was a seasoned Grandmaster. However, the biggest complaints come from players whose ratings are on par with their shoe size (and IQ for that matter). “He should of played Bxd4 on move 27. What a dummy.” This from the guy who holds the world record for losing chess games to Scholar’s Mate.

Lastly, there’s the long winded types (which is why I’m trying to keep this to 1,000 words or less). Does it really require 124,375 words to make a point that could have been made employing 27 words (some of you are envisioning me)? Do you really need to use arcane words that we all have to look up in the dictionary? Great, your a wordsmith, but tone it down a bit. You must be a hoot at the local pub’s University Challenge night…

Since the thousand word limit I set for myself is nearing, I fear I must sign off. Enjoy your chess forums but heed my warning because I come this way but once (to quote Professor Harold Hill from The Music Man). My advice: If you put the time you spent reading chess forums into studying the game you’d become a lot better, a lot faster. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. These guys don’t need no stinking forums….

Hugh Patterson