Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Typical Errors in Children’s Games

I was watching a game between two young girls, both fairly good players for their age, at Richmond Junior Club yesterday.

As I reached their board the position, in its essentials, looked something like this:

I watched White playing Qxf7+. As soon as she saw the check Black picked up her king and moved it to its only legal square, h8. Now White noticed she had a passed pawn so moved it from c6 to c7. Black now spotted that the white queen was en prise and captured it with her queen. But it was too late: White was promoting a pawn and soon won the game.

In this short sequence we see several errors which are very typical of the play of children at this level.

White sees what she thinks is a good move and jumps at the opportunity to play it without checking whether or not it’s safe. Backward diagonal moves are often the hardest to see, and here White’s move could and should have thrown away the win.

Black does what so many children do when then they hear their opponent announce ‘check’. She picks up her king without stopping to look whether there’s a better way to get out of check, such as blocking or, even better, capturing. This is an automatic reaction: my king’s in danger so I’d better move it. It’s something children really have to get out of, the sooner the better.

Then White reacts to the first thing she notices – the passed pawn on c7. She doesn’t notice that she has a very simple checkmate in one move, or that she can capture her opponent’s queen. When you see a good move, look for a better move rather than playing it straight away. Use a CCTV to look at the chessboard: look for Checks (for both players), Captures (for both players) and Threats (for both players) in that order and you will be rewarded with Victory. In this case White happened to notice a Threat before she looked for Checks (one of which was checkmate) and captures (one of which won a free queen).

At this point, though, it doesn’t matter. Black now notices that she can take the queen on f7, but White promotes and Her Majesty makes a quick reappearance.

A few lessons to learn:

Don’t jump at the first move you see that looks good. Make sure it’s safe, and stop to see whether there’s a better move.

Don’t automatically pick up your king when your opponent says ‘check’. It’s sometimes better, especially early in the game, to block the check. It’s often better still if you can capture the piece that’s checking you safely.

Watch out for backward diagonal moves: they’re often the easiest moves to miss.

Most chess games are not won by playing good moves: they’re lost by playing bad moves. Ensuring you’re not making a mistake is, at this level, the most important chess skill of all.

One of the things I explain to my pupils is that one way (and there are many others) in which I’m different from other teachers is that most teachers teach you to play good moves: I teach you not to play bad moves.

Richard James

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Kids and Chess, Part Two

In a previous article, I posted my loss to a thirteen-year-old girl named Sara Herman. I have decided to find all of my games on  this chess blog in which I played a kid (someone under 21 years of age) and put the links to them on this page. Then, I will add another game in  which I played a kid.

Here is my game against Sara’s sister, Rebecca.

Here are my losses to Sara’s brother, Daniel:

Here is my loss to Omry Tannus.

Here is my loss to Roshan Jayaraman. I a game against a life master, Roshan spent about ten minutes analyzing a position that was a rather closed endgame. It took me about 30 seconds to find the moves that Roshan missed. Once I identified the key squares and diagonal that White needed to con troll the  I knew the moves that White needed to play and there was non need to analyze any further. Roshan did not know the theory and therefore his misanalysed the position. The position can be found here.
Old Age and Treachery

Roshan Jayaraman is the kid on the right in this photograph.

A more detailed analysis of this game, with my commentary, can be found here.

Mike Serovey

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Pawn and Minor Piece Workouts

Beginners tend to employ major pieces for early attacks when they first start learning to play chess. We’ve all brought our Queen out early when we first learned the game only to watch her be captured by our opponent. The same holds true for the Rook. Beginners tend to think about using their minor pieces in limited terms, especially the Knight because of its strange way of moving. Pawns are expendable to the beginner because he or she has eight of them at the game’s start and they’re the lowest valued material in their arsenal (or so the beginner thinks). This often leads to a lack of game skill regarding pawns and minor pieces.

I’ve been trying a number of training exercises to get my students up and running when it comes to employing pawns and minor pieces in their games. Of course, there’s the old standby, the pawn game, used to introduce beginners to pawn movement. However, it only introduces the beginner to pawns interacting with pawns. In the pawn game, both players have only pawns that are lined up on their starting ranks. White moves first. The goal of the game is to get one pawn (or more) to the other side of the board to its promotion square, promote that pawn into a Queen and then capture the opposition’s pawns. The first player to capture all of the opposition’s pawns wins. This is a great way to learn about pawn structure and pawn coordination.

I’ve altered this game a bit to help students learn about the mighty pawn and minor pieces at the same time. It’s very simple. The student playing white will have the pawns and the student playing black will start with a single Knight on the a8 or h8 square (it doesn’t matter which corner square the Knight starts on). The goal for white is to get one pawn to its promotion square, promote it into a Queen and then capture the opposing Knight. The goal for black is to stop the pawns, namely by attacking the base of any pawn chain white creates as well as capturing any lone or unsupported pawns.

While it’s a tough challenge for the player with the lone Knight, it can be done, especially if the pawns are not well structured. If white doesn’t progress across the board with his or her pawns working together, black can pick off any lone pawns with ease. The student who has the black Knight will learn a great deal about moving the Knight, a piece often difficult for beginners to master. When a student says “I don’t think this is fair since my opponent has eight pawns and I only have a single minor piece,” I remind them that those eight pawns are going to have to work extremely closely with one another to avoid capture. I also mention that the Knight has a power no other piece has, the ability to jump over (and behind) any pawn or piece on the board. This means you can’t block an attack by a Knight. Once the game concludes, the students switch sides and start a new game. After that game, they switch sides again and we add a second Knight to the black side. Now the third game starts with all the white pawns again on their starting rank (the second rank) and a black Knight on a8 and h8. Things become a lot tougher for white facing two Knights. At the conclusion of game three, the players switch sides and a fourth game is played.

I use the same idea with the Bishop. White starts the game with eight pawns on the second rank and black starts with a Bishop on either a8 or h8. The goal is the same, with white aiming for a pawn promotion and capture of the enemy Bishop. Because the Bishop is a long distance attacker with a greater board range than the Knight, white has to be extremely careful with their pawn structure. Lone pawns without supporting pawns will be picked off in no time. However, the single Bishop can only attack pawns on the same color square it’s on. After game one is concluded, the players switch sides and play again.

As with the first example employing the Knight, we add a second black Bishop to a corner square for game three. This means you have a black Bishop on a8 and h8 for game three. Now the player with the pawns has to think very carefully about pawn structure. Remember, with one Bishop on the board, your pawns will always be safe if they’re on a square of the opposite color of the square the opposing Bishop is on. With two Bishops, no square is safe. Only careful coordination and pawn structure will allow a pawn to be promoted. Game four finds our players switching sides one last time.

I use this training idea in my classes as well as a warm up exercise for my students at tournaments. What they get from this is twofold. First, they learn a lot about pawn structure, which is critical to good play, especially when they start to get into real endgame positions. Secondly, they learn to master those minor pieces they tend to ignore early on in their careers. When playing with two minor pieces students start to develop coordination between pieces, something sorely lacking when they first learn the game. So there’s a simple exercise you can use to develop some basic chess skills that’s fun but not easy. Getting good at something is never really easy (except in movies and works of fiction) but the reward for mastering it is priceless. Try this and you’ll see. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Recognising the Patterns : Challenge # 22

While playing single minor piece endgames, the defending side has a deadly weapon to draw a game. That is to trade the attacker’s last pawn (usually) against his own piece because a single minor piece can’t checkmate and sometimes even with the help of a rook’s pawn. But how many of you actually recognize this in practice. Here few positions are given to test your knowledge.

Example 1 – Black to Move

Q:How could you save the game?
Hint: A knight can never lose a tempo
A: Black can save the day as follows:

1…Nxg4

Sacrificing whole piece against pawn as white’s knight won’t be able to help his king from getting out of prison

2. Nxg4

This is now a draw because White’s knight can never control the f7 square when the Black king is on f8.

Example 2 – Shirov against Mascarinass – Black to move
This example has been taken from Grandmaster Secrets: Endings by Andrew Soltis.


Q: Black is a piece down for two pawns, are two pawns worth the bishop here?
Hint: White has the wrong colour Bishop
A: Black can save the game with
1…b5!!

The only move that forces to release the control of e5 or g4.

2. Bxb5

If 2.Kc5 then 2…Ke5 or if 2.Bd1 then 2…b4 and b3 which forces White to release the control of one of the squares.

2…g4 3. hxg4

Forced, otherwise …gxh3 on the next move is simple enough to draw the game.

3…Kg5

Threatening to capture the pawn with king as far as c6 and d7 squares are available to White’s bishop
If 3…fxg4 then 4. Kd4 and now 4…Kg5 5.Ke5, 4…g3 5.Bd7 or 4…h3 then 5.g3 followed by Bc6 is winning.

4. gxf5 h3! 5. gxf3 Kxf5

The position is now drawn as g3 or g4 won’t work because the c6 square is not available to White’s bishop.

Ashvin Chauhan

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The Crying Game

I often go to a number of local junior chess tournaments to closely examine the tournament’s inner workings, players, etc. I do this so, when I eventually take my students there to play in a tournament, I know what we’re getting into. I had a chance to visit a tournament that was geared toward very young players which was exactly what I was looking for. The venue looked great, the equipment was good, parking was plentiful and there were plenty of restaurants nearby. However, there was one major problem, an overwhelming number of crying children. Looking at this scene of bleak despair, you’d think that every child in the tournament hall had just been told that Santa Claus had been viciously murdered on Christmas Eve. It got me thinking about my own students and how much crying they did. Thankfully, my students, even the really young ones, aren’t criers. There’s a good reason for that. I teach my students not to cry when they loose a game (or tournament).

I read an article about how we now have a generation of cry babies coming up in the world. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with crying. I had a good cry upon hearing about the death of David Bowie. Crying can be a healthy thing. However, too much of anything, healthy or not, will have negative consequences. My heart goes out to parents who, upon seeing their children in tears, feel terrible. After all, as parents we do our best to shelter our children from life’s often harsh realities. A little sheltering is a good thing but, like anything else, too much of it and you do your child more harm than good. This business of too much crying, according to the article, stems from “Special Little Snowflake Syndrome.” This problem occurs because many parents tell their kids that they’re special little snowflakes, unique and unlike any other child. Well, this seems reasonable enough on the surface. However, many parents, in a effort to shield their children from the emotional pain that comes when a child discovers they’re not good at something, overplay this idea. Yes, every child has the potential to do great things but they’ll have to fail at many things though their journey of life in order to find the one thing they can do well. It’s called growing up and experiencing life!

Now we add into the mix, the new idea that rather than have a first, second, third and fourth place trophy only, we give trophies to every child at a sports competition or chess tournament so no child feels left out and, more importantly, no child cries. At our monthly Academic Chess tournaments we offer four trophies per section so you either place or you don’t. Obviously, this idea of rewarding every child for showing up and playing chess didn’t work at the above mentioned tournament. The drought in California could have been solved had I collected all those tears (they would have filled a petrol truck). I’m not trying to be an old SOB here but, there’s something to be said about healthy competition. After all, it has driven civilizations to great advancements. If every child playing in one of these “everyone’s a winner” chess tournaments knows they’re going to get a trophy, doesn’t that dampen their competitiveness? I think it does to a certain extent. While I can’t change the generation of crying children on a whole, I have been able to control it among the hundreds of students I teach and coach.

The first thing I tell students is that there will always be another game of chess for them to play, so if they just lost a game, there will be another game they’ll have a chance to win. Eventually, they will win a game or two or three. No losing streak lasts forever. I also tell them that they can have a good cry over their loss or regroup. By regroup, I mean playing through the game, figuring out where they went wrong and then correcting the problem so it doesn’t occur in future games. Crying won’t improve your game. Learning from your mistake will! The best revenge is simply learning from your mistakes and moving on.

I make a point of spending greater time with students who are having problems winning games, working through those games with them and creating a battle plan. The battle plan consists of working through the problematic part of the game and coming up with a set of better moves that could have been made. Kids love the term battle plan because it means preparing for future action on the chessboard, a call to action (I use a lot of old Kung Fu movie examples because kids love martial arts). You have to provide hope to your students but telling them they’re special little snowflakes does little in the way of practicality. Practical hope is helping them improve their skills on the chessboard so they’ll win that next game. You also, as a teacher, have to lead by example.

Since losses are what discourage students of the game we love so much, you have to show them your own losses on the chessboard. Young students often assume that because you’re the chess teacher or coach, that you’ve never lost a game in your life. I make it a point of showing my worst chess losses at least once a month. If students see that you’ve painfully lost a game and come back from that loss, they’re more likely to take losing a bit better. Always give them practical hope!. I’ll often ask my advanced students to take one of my losses and show me where I went wrong. You’d be surprised at the really good ideas they come up with!

A loss on the chessboard is really an opportunity to learn, to get better. Therefore, a lost game should be looked at in a positive light. That is the wisdom I impart to my young students. When you lose a game, don’t get sad, get mad. Mad enough to sit down and determine where things went wrong and then correct the problem. I reinforce this idea over and over again until I’ve completely convinced my young students that every single loss is a golden opportunity to get better at chess. Of course, you can’t overdo this idea, otherwise you’d have a gaggle of students simply not trying to win. Again, too much of anything can have negative results.

Then there are those moments where a young student plays the best chess game ever and still loses. After fifty or so moves and hours on the board only to lose, I might feel like crying. However, as I tell them, crying only adds to the winners feeling of superiority. The best way to handle a loss to shake you opponent’s hand firmly, look them straight in the eye and say “great game” with a smile on your face. This works especially well when faced with an obnoxious opponent who wallows in victory. Always be gracious.

Again, I don’t fault parents for their attempts to shield their children from emotional pain but when you go overboard, you’re doing more harm than good. It’s a hard world out there and it requires having thick emotional skin at times. I grew up in a hard world which prepared me for many of the challenges I would face later on. Given the choice between a cloistered or sheltered life or a life steeped in often harsh reality, knowing what I know now, I’d take harsh reality.

I firmly believe that the idea of giving everyone a trophy just for participating, while it might make everyone happy, removes healthy competitiveness from the equation. This leads to children striving less towards achievement. Healthy competition is a good thing and children are a lot more resilient than we think. They’re young so their minds jump from one thing to the next and this holds true for emotional situations as well. A child will lose a chess tournament and move on to thinking about something else. Of course, the parents tend to be more crushed than their children who just lost but that’s part of parenting as well.

So parents, I highly suggest teaching your children to deal with life’s losses early on. I do believe each and every child is special. Every student I teach is brilliant in my book. However, I know realistically, they’re not all, if any, going to become Grandmasters. However, they’ll find their way to that one thing in life that they enjoy and do well at. In the end that’s what counts. Let them find their way through life. Be there when they need you. Let them cry but remember, too much of anything is counter productive. Teach them that crying is appropriate at certain times but it is not the answer to everything. Here’s a game in which I suspect one player might have had a good cry. Enjoy.

Hugh Patterson

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Discipline

We all have personal goals, be it earning a college degree or doing a better job at something in ours lives. We try to achieve these goals with the best of intentions. However, many of us fall short. It’s not that we don’t want to achieve something. We have the initial drive that propels us towards improvement in life. What we often lack is the primary element allowing us to achieve our goals, discipline.

The ideas discussed here can be applied to our lives on and off of the chessboard. How many of you readers have used the term “procrastinate” to describe something you either haven’t done or put off until the last minute? Procrastination is the one of the primary road blocks to achieving goals. Also creating a road block to success is follow through.

Of course, life can be extremely difficult at times and our focus must shift from achieving our goals to simply surviving. While you cannot avoid these forks in the road of life, you can learn to use the time in between life catastrophes wisely.

For most of us, life will move along smoothly and just when we get comfortable, a crisis hits. We have to make changes in our lives and start again. In my own life, I seem to have a major crisis every ten to fifteen years of so. Knowing that I have a major life changing event on a semi schedule means I have to use the time in between these events prudently. The lesson here is that when things are going good in your life, take that time and try to achieve something. However, even thinking this way, you might not achieve your goals because of the previously mentioned road blocks. Lesson one: Be aware of goal road blocks.

When I was younger, I had a bad habit of starting things and not finishing them. With the exception of music, I didn’t stick with the goals I had set, most of them educational. I would get off to a great start and somewhere down the line I would start slacking off and eventually lose interest. I lost interest due to one big reason. I’d overdo things. What I mean is this: My first college major was Astronomy. At the time, I was a somewhat successful local musician. I started dating a girl who went to college. Being a high school drop out (thrown out actually), I determined that I needed to be in college to impress this young lady. That is not a sound reason for seeking an education! I went to the local community college, got their course catalog and started thumbing through it. I was lazy back then and got as far as astronomy in the course descriptions. I read a line from one of the class summaries that said “astrophysicists can trace the origin of the universe to 1/10,000 of a second after the big bang.” I was hooked. I took the class and the other seven astronomy classes they offered (including introductory astrophysics which required knowledge of Calculus – I failed high school Algebra). I worked around the clock, often doing homework at my band’s sound checks at clubs. The famous American concert promoter, Bill Graham, once walked into our dressing room at a big show we were playing and saw me with a calculator and astrophysics text book. He was surprised that I was doing such “heavy reading” and told me that Brian May from Queen was an astrophysicist. Did that propel me towards my degree goal? No, I gave up a few months later. I was studying literally around the clock and became burnt out. Lesson number two: Pace yourself when it comes to achieving goals. Sometimes we have a short finite amount of time in which to achieve our goals, in which case we must burn the midnight oil. However, it is best to take the slow and steady approach, taking your time and methodically building up your knowledge base or foundation. For most of my life, I’ve jumped headlong into things, only knowing only two modes for studying: on and off. If your on, you have to be gong a hundred miles and hour. If your off your off. Find a good, steady cruising speed in which to approach your goals and you won’t burn out.

It was only later in life that I learned how to find that slow an steady pace that would allow me to achieve my goals. However, I still go over the edge when it comes to learning. When earning my Mandarin language degree and certificates, I started slow and steady but ended up jumping head first into the fires of obsessive learning. I immersed myself into my studies and nearly burned out which would have meant not meeting my goal. While immersion is a excellent way to learn a language, it can lead to burn out. Again, pace yourself. What saved me was having the right set of circumstances in place when I started my studies, otherwise things might have ended differently. Of course, I never would completed my studies had I not dealt with procrastination and discipline. Lesson two: Set a reasonable pace!

Procrastination is an issue everyone has to deal with. Show me someone who claims to never have procrastinated and I’ll show you a lair. It’s alright. We have all procrastinated at one point in our lives. Let’s say you have to go to the dentist and you’re not fond of dentists in general. You put your visit off until one side of your face looks like a Chipmunk’s cheek due to an abscess. So much for procrastinating. Humans tend to put off what they don’t like dealing with. They also put off certain aspects of what they want to deal with, such as studying. I know more than a few chess players who purchase a new chess book that’s going to help them improve their playing skills. The book then sits on a shelve collecting dust or gets partially read. We all want to improve our game play but it becomes less appealing when we suddenly realize we’re going to have to put a lot of effort into it! We make up excuses as to why we can’t crack that book open. We procrastinate.

The sure fire way to avoid procrastination is by tackling the biggest road block to achieving goals, discipline. Discipline is something my adopted father lives by. He is a master of this idea. He has had extremely serious health issues during the last few years that include severe pain that would leave most people in tears. Yet every single day, he gets up and practices his martial arts. Of course he is a certified martial arts master, but the point here is that he has discipline.

Discipline is not something you’re born with but something you slowly develop over time. The younger you are when you start to develop discipline, the easier things are going to be throughout life. If you’re a old middle aged goat such as myself, fear not, because you too can develop discipline and that discipline will be a life changer for you.

You develop discipline slowly, one step at a time. You’ll have set backs, but if you keep at it (developing discipline) you’ll find its rewards sooner than you think. The first way to develop this crucial life skill is to choose your initial goals carefully. You can’t think to yourself “even though I’ve never painted before, I’m going to be able to perfectly reproduce the works of Rembrandt within six months.” That’s not going to happen.

When I decided to learn Mandarin, I wanted to learn a few phrases I could use with the Chinese parents and grandparents of many of my students. Nothing more, nothing less. This is an achievable goal. I picked up a book, had some trouble with it and found an online course that allowed me to work at my own pace. I set aside time each day and studied. I stuck with it. Giving up too soon is an occupational hazard of learning any seemingly complex subject. I passed that course and took another one and ended up with an accelerated language degree. The point is this: I set a simple goal with no hard deadline or expectations. Lesson three: Set realistic goals.

Even if your goal is completely realistic, you have to have to achieve it which means following it through. This is really where discipline comes into play. Discipline is a slippery fish in that once you start to develop it, it becomes stronger and stronger. However, the slippery part is actually starting to develop discipline and maintaining it.

This is why you set a realistic goal. Discipline and realistic goals work hand in hand. Developing discipline starts the minute you’ve chosen your goal. To develop and maintain discipline you have to commit to a schedule. If you’re studying anything, you have to commit an allotment of time each day to achieve your goals. If you’re new to a subject, don’t commit a massive amount of time each day to your studies. Otherwise you’ll become burnt out. Concentration is key to studying and the novice doesn’t have the mental stamina to concentrate for long periods of time. When I first started studying Mandarin, I put about an hour a day into my studies, broken down into two thirty minute sessions. Only after I had built a solid language foundation did I extend the time I studied each day.

Disciple is like a garden in that you have to tend it daily or the vegetation will die. You cannot make excuses for not studying. Of course, you’ll have emergencies now and again, but stick to it. Otherwise you’ll skip a day here and there and before you know it, weeks will have passed in between study sessions. Discipline only occurs when you stop making excuses and step up to the task at hand. Discipline is like the muscles in your body. If you don’t maintain them, you’ll lose your strength. Lesson four: Discipline is only developed through daily exercise (sitting down and doing the work that achieves your goal). Here’s a game, by a couple of well disciplined players to enjoy until next week. This one’s for you, David Bowie!

Hugh Patterson

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Recognising the Patterns: Challenge # 20

A battery on lines using major pieces is the simplest yet most powerful mating pattern. This pattern is very easy to recognise on files as compare to ranks.

Heikki MJ Westerinen against Gudmundur Sigurjonsson in 1977


Q: You can see that both White’s rooks are bearing down on the g-file. How could you get the most out of this?
A: White can get the maximum from this position by sacrificing his queen in order to open up the g-file.

25. Qxg7!! Kxg7 26. Bd8!

This is the only move that wins the game after the queen sacrifice.

26…Kh8

If 26…Kf7 then 27. Bh5 is checkmate or if 26…Kh6 then 27. Rh3 is checkmate.

27. Rg8!

Again the only winning move.

27…Rxg8 28. Bf6 Rg7

Forced.

29. Bxg7 Kg8 30.Bxd4+

This discovered check followed by Bxb2 wins the piece and the game.

Karpov against Ribli in 1986

Q: White’s last move was Qh2, offering the knight on b5. Is it wise to take it?
A: The knight can’t be taken as White can checkmate down the h file using a double rooks battery. In the game Ribli did take on b5:

52…Rxb5?? 53. Qxh7!! Kxh7

If 53…Kf8 then 54.Qh8 is mate.

54. Rh2+ Kg8 55. Rdh1 f6

The last try, hoping for 56. g6.

56. Rh8

Black choose to throw in the towel here. If 56.g6 then Kf8 is in fact winning for Black.

Alekhine against colle in 1925


Q: White has just captured the knight on g6. How would you recapture the piece?
A: Black has three options to recapture the piece but only one can prolong the fight.

Option A: 29..Qxg6 White can the win the rook and the game with 30. Qxd7!.

Option B: 29…hxg6 This was played in the game but unfortunately it was not the right one. Alekhine’s reply was stunning:

30.Qxd7!!

Anyway!

30…Rxd7 31. Re8+

Not 31. Rc8+ because of Rd8.

31…Kh7 32. Rcc8

Doubling the rooks on 8th rank after which Black has to give up a ruinous amount of material to stop checkmate.

32…Rd8

Hoping for Rcxd8.

33. Rexd8!

Colle resigned as he has to give up his queen to save the game.

I have found that recognising the pattern vertically is very much easy than seeing it applied horizontally.
.
Option C: 29…fxg6 This is the right option which can prolong the fight but White still has considerable winning chances.

Ashvin Chauhan

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Chess and Autism

I teach chess to a broad spectrum of children and have dealt with a plethora of young personalities. I’m the go to guy when it comes to troubled kids and chess in my geographic area. I’d love to tell you that I have a well researched scientific method that allows me to succeed with the troubled children I work with but I’d be lying. While I’ve done my fair share of research regarding how to work with children who have specific disorders, I suspect there’s simply something in my personality that these students connect with (as opposed to my understanding of human psychology). I’ve taught chess to thousands of children over the years and, while I’ve had a high success rate, all it takes is one student I couldn’t connect with to keep me up at night wondering where I went wrong. Enter Autism.

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are characterized by a difficulty in interacting socially, communication problems and repetitive behaviors (there are additional characterizations but this is merely a short essay on two encounters). There are varying degrees of Autism with some people on the high functioning end of the spectrum, meaning they can lead a relatively normal life, and others falling on the low end of the spectrum, making life very difficult to manage. It’s a lifelong problem but its symptoms can be reduced and controlled with different types of therapy. I wanted to share my experience with two children with Autism. We’ll start with Student #1:

I met Student #1 during one of our summer chess training camps, one week chess boot camps for kids. His mother had indicated that he had a slight learning problem and nothing more. One of the biggest problems I face when working with challenged children is the lack of real information I get from the parents. Of course, I understand that parents don’t want to have to say out loud, because there is still a stigma attached to it, “my child has Autism.” However, things will go from bad to worse if you don’t give the person you’re leaving your child with concrete information. Roughly 50% of children with Autism have a tendency to wander off (eloping) from their caregivers which is a serious problem when that child is in a large group of children managed by a single individual. They can also (but not always) strike (hit or kick) other children, not out of maliciousness but due to the way their brains perceive their environment. Knowing a child has Autism allows the teacher or caregiver the opportunity to monitor and address the situation.

I immediately noticed a few of the signs of Autism with Student #1 and decided to spend one on one time with him. Prior to this, Student #1, within ten minutes of his mother leaving, started walking around and knocking chess pieces off the boards of games in progress. He also started to run towards the front doors of the building with the intention of leaving and kicked my associate when he intervened. He didn’t want to interact with the other students so I sat down at a chess board with him. I asked him if he’d played chess before to which he answered “yes.” I asked him to set up the board and what he did next was amazing to say the least. Rather than set the board up traditionally, he positioned it at an angle resembling a Rhombus. Some of the pawns and pieces were set up in the peaks of the Rhombus closest to each player. He then proceeded to tell me the rules of his game which were not like a typical child’s version, in which the rules get made up as the child goes along. These rules were very specific and made sense. This child had created a very sophisticated version of the game. He is an extremely smart individual!

Unfortunately, he was very disruptive and only made it through a few days at chess camp. However, this part of the story has an amazing ending. Two years pass and I see him listed as a student in my chess class. His father said he’d be attending class with him and serve as his focal point/caregiver. The first day of class arrives and the young man in question is not only the most well behaved student in the class but the most engaged. I was able to pair him up with other students and even when he lost a game, he took it better than most adults do. The youngster is now my classroom assistant (seriously, he’s my assistant). Enter Student #2.

In this same class, I had a student who I was told had some mild learning challenges. This child, I was told by other parents, had a propensity for kicking and hitting. Being slightly forewarned doesn’t help when the issues are serious. You need factual, detailed information. However, in fairness to the school and parents, a child’s medical history is private, so legally I couldn’t be given the information I needed. However, on day one of class I watched the child, saw the same symptoms exhibited by Student #1 and attempted to create a plan of action. The first thing you must do as a teacher is sit down with the child in question and see if you can interact. Communication was quite difficult in this case. The child was brand new to chess so I tried to teach him the game very slowly, starting with the pawns (just their movement). The first thing I noticed was that his thought process shut down as soon as things became too much for him to take in. He then walked away and started disrupting my other students by kicking over their chess pieces. Many of these students have been with me for a year or two and they know to be understanding when another student is having a problem (it’s an absolute rule in my classes). Therefore, they were willing to put up with the set back.

Needless to say, things escalated by the next class and Student #2 had an incident that led to his being removed from the class. Fortunately, I was able to work with the school’s director and guidance counselor to resolve the problem with little fanfare. However, it saddened me because as I said earlier, all it takes is not connecting with one student to keep my up at night thinking about what I could have done better. Time will tell regarding whether or not Student #2 will eventually return to chess.

For parents of children with Autism, I truly recommending being completely upfront with teachers and caregivers no matter what. Being forthright can be the difference between your child being able to successfully participate in a program or not. With Student #1, chess has become a lifeline and a valuable tool in helping him gain greater focus and control. This focus and control will greatly aid him as he enters the teenage years which are hard enough as it is.

If you have a child with any kind of disorder, you have to seek out help from day one. I know that no parent wants to think their child is broken in anyway. Often, this thinking leads a parent to avoid seeking help. They try to fix the problem on their own, hoping the child will grow out of it. Autism has a stigma attached to it, a stigma created by people who have no true understanding of the disease. Parents want their children to fit into society and sometimes treat Autism as if it were a dirty secret to be kept hidden. If you ask the average person to define Autism, they might say “oh that guy in the movie Rain Man.” The point is that the public is generally misinformed which creates a negative mythology regarding Autism. This, in turn, pressures parents into keeping their child’s problem to themselves, when they should be seeking professional assistance.

While school counselors are generally good at what they do, one should work directly with a health care professional who works in this field. I also recommend networking with other parents who have children in the same situation. It’s a balance of the two that seems to garner the best results.

I have spent some time studying Autism since my first encounter with Student #1 because unlike many teachers who would easily say “this is above my pay grade,” when faced with an Autistic student, I want to be the one teacher willing to learn how I can help. Of course, I can only go so far offering my assistance due to a lack of professional knowledge, but some assistance is better than no assistance, especially for parents who are overwhelmed. Know the signs of Autism if you’re a teacher and work towards helping that child out rather than dismissing them. With Student #2, I’m trying to set up some one on one time in a quiet setting to see if chess can be of any assistance. Maybe, if I can find the connection between he and I, we can reintroduce him to chess. It may work, it may not, but to not try would be far worse than trying and failing. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Recognising the Patterns : Challenge #19

Today, I am going to discuss the simplest yet very useful and quite common pattern in practice. It is the queen & bishop battery checkmate. This pattern is not only useful in checkmating your opponent but is also used to weaken the pawn structure around the enemy king.

Here is an educative example to let you know what the pattern is: White to move

White plays e5!, opening up the queen and bishop battery and attacking the natural defender of the king too. If black saves the knight then the queen on d3 delivers checkmate on h7 with the help of her bishop. Therefore White is winning a piece and the game.

Try to find solutions for the following problems based on the given theme.

Albert Frolov against Vitaly Plotnikov in 2006: White to move.

This position is taken after just 9 moves played in a French Defence (Rubinstein variation). Black’s last move was b6 which was a lethal mistake.

Q: How will you proceed?
A: White can win this game as follows:

10. Bxf6

£liminating the natural defender of the king.

10…Bxf6 11. Qe4!!

Attacking the rook on a8 and threatening to checkmate on h7. Of course Black can save checkmate with g6 but losing decisive material. He therefore chose to resign.

Capablanca against Jaffe in 1910: White to move.

Q: White has a winning position. Find the blow that decides the game.
A: In the Capablanca played:

19. Bxh6+!! Kxh6??

Allows mate in two, but if 19…Kg8 then Nxf7 is just a disaster for Black.

20. Nxf7+

Removing the defender of g6, and Black decided to throw the towel here because he can’t stop mate on the next move.
If 20…Rxf7 or 20…Kh7 then 21. Qxg6 is mate and if 20…Kh5 then 21. Qh3 is mate.

The game itself is very instructive, especially about how to build ab attack using a queen and bishop battery. You can find the whole annotated game here.

M. Gerusel against G. Sosonko in 1977: Black to move.

The same position is given in Build up your Chess by Artur Yusupov.

Q: It seems that h2 is perfectly defended against Black’s queen and bishop battery. Is that so?
A: Black can win a piece here as follows:

17…Nxd4! 18. exd4

Opens up the e file.

18…Nxc3

18…Bxd4 loses even more material because of 19. Nd2!!. Now the knight can’t be taken because of mate on h2 and if the queen finds a safe square then …Nxf3+ leads to mate on h2.

19. Rxc3 Rxe2

This wins a piece and the game.

Ashvin Chauhan

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Trial and Error

Technology has been a great aid in learning how to play chess. It allows students in remote regions, where chess teachers are hard to find, the ability to learn the game via software programs, DVDs and online videos. It’s a win win situation, right? Well, there’s positive and negative aspects to learning chess by employing modern technology. Prior to today’s technology, chess students learned the game by reading books and applying the trial and error method of learning. You picked up a book, played through the examples provided within the text and tested your newly acquired knowledge out against human opponents. Now, chess students have access to databases and chess engines that provide the best possible moves in a given position. This is where things go wrong!

What could possibly be wrong with having a computer program that is stronger than the best Grandmasters aid you in deciding on the best response to an opposition move in the early phase of the game? Let’s say our chess student is studying opening theory and uses their computer program to build up their opening skills (not while actually playing another person of course). They employ a database to see how top players respond to specific opening moves. They also use a chess engine to see how the computer would respond. So far, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong with this scenario. However, the student is learning concepts far above their skill set which means they’ll never be able to safely and successfully employ these ideas into their own games (at their current skill level). First off, the beginning student isn’t going to be playing a Grandmaster in their next game, more likely another beginner, so their opponent won’t be making the responses our beginner is expecting. This will leave them lost. Secondly, what good is a stellar move if you don’t understand the principles behind it?

The real problem for the players that learn with the electronic method is that they bypass the trial and error method of learning which actually teaches you something as opposed to simply mimicking database or chess engine moves. Trial and error is just that. You try something, and if it doesn’t work, you try something else and repeat the process until you find something that does work! While this might seem like a waste of time to some, especially those younger players who grew up with chess engines and databases, there is something to be said about simply trying things out, experimentation! Tinkering with things has had the greatest positive impact on civilization’s advancement.

There was a time in the not so distant past when we all had to employ this method to acquire a skill. Learning what didn’t work, through trial and error, taught us a great deal and often led to great discoveries (the history of chemistry is littered with great discoveries made through trial and error methodology). When you try something, such as a non “book” move in the opening, and it fails, you have to examine why it fails which helps to reinforce the correct move. With each failure, your knowledge base increases and you learn more.

Human beings tend to try things their way first. We as a species are stubborn, prone to think that we’re going figure things out on our own. However, as technology makes it easier to streamline our ability to learn something, we tend to use that technology to guide us in our efforts. Let’s say you want to fix a leaky faucet. You can no go online and find a video that walks you through changing the worn rubber washer that caused the leak. You don’t have to give a second thought as to how the water system in your home works. Sounds again, like a win win situation. You save money and time.

Let’s say you’re a budding artist and you want to learn how to paint a landscape. Here’s where things bet a bit dodgy. You can go online and find step by step videos that will have your creating great landscapes with a minimal effort. There’s only one problem. There’s no real art in your work. You’ve mimicked the work of the person presenting the video and nothing more. What would happen if you employed the trial and error method, trying to figure it out on your own? It would certainly take a lot longer to create a landscape. However, you’d not only create an original piece of art but you’d probably make some interesting artistic discoveries along the way. You might become a highly original artist! The same holds true for music (I know this from learning by trial an error, which left me with a playing style that has some originality to it – not that it’s brilliant).

How does this apply to chess? Well, younger players spend far too much time basing their play on the suggestions given by software programs than they do going into uncharted waters on their own. While this may help in tournament play, it turns chess into a dry exercise in mechanical play. Think about the games played during the romantic era of chess, when gambits and sacrifices were king! Sure, those players wouldn’t hold up against today’s super Grandmasters, but there might be less draws and more exciting games! A game of chess should be like a movie, full of action, drama and tension. Yes, there are such games to be found today but they might soon become rare due to an over-reliance on technology.

I actually encourage my students to use the trial and error method. Of course, I try to teach them the correct way to play from the start but I know, especially with children (and adult beginners), that they’re going to try things their way first. They should try things their way because eventually they’ll see that the principles I’ve shown them really work. They learn the hard way and in doing so, learn a lot during the journey.

Then there’s the nagging thought that with the astronomical number of potential positions within a single game of chess, there must be uncharted waters ripe with rich potential discoveries. There could be some awesome game changing idea floating on those uncharted waters, but no one’s going to find that great idea because their computer is calling the shots. I’m sure your copy of the latest, greatest chess playing software will tell you that there is nothing out there (otherwise your program would have found it), but I don’t fully trust machines (neither does Stephen Hawking and he’s no intellectual lightweight). Great discoveries are still the domain of human explorers. As I say to my students, “go out into the sea of potential chess positions and find something new. Be an explorer, don’t be a minion of the silicon monster.” As for you, go out and explore. The next time you have a problem on the chessboard, see if you can figure it out before asking your computer for it’s opinion. You might not completely come up with a solution on your own but you’ll learn more than enough from the process of trial and error to make up for it. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. No Deep Houdini Smoodini 10.4 being used here!

Hugh Patterson

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