Category Archives: Children’s Chess

When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth

Back in the day, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, improving one’s chess skills was a simple process in theory. Playing chess meant facing off against a human opponent because the silicon beast had yet to rear it’s ugly head. When I was a teenager, if you wanted to get better at chess you acquired a chess book and studied it. You then took your new found knowledge and tested it out on the chessboard. There was no training software or DVDs. Here’s what I had to do just to get a hold of one chess book in more primitive times:

Back in the late 1970s, I was making my mark on the world by playing guitar in a punk rock band (it was a very small mark). We played the majority of our early shows at the infamous Mabuhay Gardens, a Filipino supper club that let anyone show up and commandeer the stage. The man who booked the shows, and subsequently paid the bands, was known for his stinginess. On any given night, my band would make $13.27 to be split three ways. To purchase a single chess book required playing at least three shows.

I decided to purchase by first chess book after I started playing against stronger opponent’s who were crushing me during the opening. Asking a family friend who played chess what I should to improve my opening play, he suggested that I go to the closest chess shop, which was two hours away in Berkeley California, and get a book on chess openings. He added that I should ask for a man whose last name was Lawless. Being a young punk rocker going by the name of Johnny Genocide, I assumed anyone with the last name of Lawless would be either a biker or a punk.

After sweating it out for three nights playing on stage while dodging beer bottles, I had saved enough money to cover the cost of public transportation, sales tax and the cost of the actual book (as long as it wasn’t more than $13.95). I got up early on that faithful day, geared up for an adventure and started the two hour trip to Berkeley California, home of that most aggravating of species, the old school hippy. As a young punk kid, the though of an entire city filled with long haired throwbacks to the 1960s was dismal at best. After suffering through a long train ride spent listening to the caterwauling of poorly trained buskers, I made it to Games of Berkeley or the Church of Chess as I called it.

Walking in, I quickly scanned the store looking for a punk guy or biker. A middle aged man looked up from the counter and then back down at his book. Seeing no one that fit the description my imagination had created, I walked up to the counter. “Hey, do you know a guy named Lawless?” “Yes,” replied the counter-man. “Is he around?” I asked. “That he is,” was all I got in the way of a reply. Undaunted, I continued my line of questioning. “Can you point him out to me?” The man looked up and said “I’m Lawless!” He appeared to be anything but lawless. I suspect this guy had never even gotten a parking ticket and his idea of breaking the law would be having a beer with lunch. Before I could utter another word be said “what do you want kid?” Still trying to get over the fact that this guy did not in anyway resemble his last name, all I could get out was “I need a book on chess openings.” He grunted something and pointed to a massive bookcase on his left.

Not only was the bookcase eight feet tall, it was eight feet wide and every single book on its shelves was about the opening game. There were hundreds of them. Three hundred and seventy three in stock to be exact. We’ll get to how I knew that number later on. Being a guy, I resolutely refused to ask for further help. Anyone with half a brain would have asked for further information. I decided that a real man would simply start rummaging through the books until he found what he was looking for. I grabbed the first book I saw. It was on the Nimzo Indian. I had no interest in indigenous peoples so I grabbed another book. The next book was The Complete Sicilian. Having no interest in Sicily, I kept going. The next book I pulled out left me speechless. It was titled, The Hedgehog. I suddenly felt as if an elaborate prank was being played on me. After all, shouldn’t books about chess openings have “chess openings” in large block letters in their title?

Sadly, I gave up and started the walk of shame back to Mr. Lawless. All men know that walk. It’s the sad shuffle we do when we realize that as men we don’t have all the answers to life’s questions. After clearing my throat a few times, the counter-man looked up. “Yes?” From his tone of voice, I suspect he was enjoying this moment but I would be proven wrong! In a defeated voice, I said “I need a really basic book on chess openings. With that he smiled and said “why didn’t you say so. Come with me.” We walked back to the massive bookcase and what he told me as we went through the books in the opening section changed my chess life.

On that day, I learned that all these strange book titles had something in common. They all described different ways of starting a chess game. If that wasn’t astonishing enough to my rather undeveloped mind, Mr. Lawless went on to say that every single book on those shelves were based on the same guiding principles. All I could say at that point was “wow, the opening most be pretty important and very complicated.” He smiled and told me I had just learned something very crucial.

After finding the appropriate title, he walked me back to the counter and taught me algebraic notation, something I would need to read my new book. He also gave me a battered copy of My System free of charge. I walked out of the store feeling enlightened and more optimistic about my chess playing. The whole adventure took about five hours but it was well worth it.

How did I know the exact number of books on chess openings in their inventory? Six years later, I would go to work in the chess department at Games of Berkeley. Working there, I became well acquainted with all their chess books. When I got my name tag, I was told I didn’t have to use my real name but couldn’t call myself Johnny Genocide. I settled on Alexander Alekhine and for the entire time I worked there, that was my name. Mr. Lawless was my immediate boss and any free time was spent learning the game of chess. It turned out, Mr. Lawless was a National Master so he knew his stuff. I still have the tournament set he recommended I purchase and it is the one thing I’ve managed to keep for over thirty years.

There’s no chess lesson to be learned here, only a life lesson or two. First, never judge a book by it’s cover, as in the case of Mr. Lawless, and never judge a book by it’s title, as in the case of chess books. Second lesson: Ask for directions, whether you’re trying to find a destination while traveling or facing a mammoth wall of books. Asking for directions is much better than doing the walk of shame when your instincts have failed you. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Hanging Pieces

Beginners tend to have an easier time improving their basic opening and endgame skills than they do improving their middle-game skills. The opening principles are easier to define and apply compared to middle-game principles. Basic endgame principles are likewise easier to learn and employ compared to middle-game principles. What is it about the middle-game that causes the beginner so much trouble? To answer this question, let’s first define the middle-game.

During the opening, you gain a foothold in the center by rapid piece development. You and your opponent are racing to see who gets the greatest control of the center and thus an early positional advantage first. Once your pieces are on their most active squares, you enter the middle-game. The middle-game is where the fighting starts! This is the phase of a chess game in which often violent attacks and cunning defenses take place. This is the realm of tactics. It is also the realm of the dreaded hanging pieces.

The big problem beginners face when entering the middle-game is that their calculation skills are minimal. When I say calculation skills, I’m not talking about seeing six or seven moves ahead. I’m talking about seeing one and a half moves ahead. This translates to your move, your opponent’s best response to that move and your subsequent response to your opponent’s move. Beginners tend to think only about the moves they can make and not about their opponent’s response. Subsequently, beginners hang or lose a healthy, or should I say unhealthy, number of pawns and pieces by thinking this way.

Beginners also miss opportunities to capture their opponent’s hanging pieces, pieces that are unprotected and free for the taking. A few years back, I was watching some of my beginning students at their first tournament and was astonished at one game in which both players had multiple hanging pieces that remained on the board for many turns. It was because of this that I started to employ various training methods to help students avoid this problem.

One method I use with my students is to have them do positional exercises, using software training programs, to improve their ability to spot hanging pieces (both their own and those of their opponent). One training module specifically deals with capturing pieces, many of which are hanging. However, that specific module offers no advice, only five thousand plus positions in which a piece can be captured. This series of positional problems comes from real life middle-game positions played by players of varying ratings. While the beginner can develop their skills working through the numerous problems, they won’t get the maximum amount of solid training in this specific area without some additional concepts being introduced to them.

Because we live in a fast paced world that puts a high premium on getting the job done quickly, students will try to blaze through the five thousand plus problems as fast as possible. While some improvement is guaranteed by simply doing the problems, the serious student will not achieve the greatest improvement without putting deeper thought into each problem.

Simply capturing the correct piece isn’t enough. While it may be enough for the training program you’re using, you have to look at the bigger picture. That “bigger picture” comes in the form of questions you must ask after making that correct move, namely, how does this capture change the position. Of course, I don’t expect the beginner to analyze the position like a professional player. However, there are a few key questions a beginner can ask that will help them understand positional play a bit more and spot potentially hung opposition pawns and pieces.

The first question I have students ask themselves after capturing the correct piece has to do with the capturing piece’s relationship to the pawns and pieces around it. After the capture, does that piece now protect pawns and pieces that weren’t previously protected? This is a crucial consideration because if the answer is yes (which it generally is with these types of training programs), then the capture has not weakened the position. Instead, it has improved it. Remember, you don’t want to capture simply to capture. You want to capture if it strengthens your position. I have my students note each pawn and piece that is now protected as a result of the capture. This idea of asking questions helps to slow down the student’s solving of each problem and forces them to look more carefully at the position. This, in turn, develops greater board vision (seeing the entire board and the subsequent pawns and pieces on it).

The obvious second question to ask is, does this weaken my position at all. Even in the games of masters, positional weaknesses can and will occur. With beginners, it is best to keep the list of potential weaknesses short, having them look for immediate weaknesses such as doubled pawns, bad Bishops, exposed Kings and, of course, hanging pieces. Spotting potential long term weaknesses is best left for later, when the beginner has gained some playing experience.

Where these questions really help is when you get into the more advanced sections of the software program. Often, you’ll be given a choice of two similar pieces to capture, two knights for example. Capturing one Knight will lead to an exchange of material that is beneficial to the opposition. Capturing the other Knight will garner you that Knight at no cost of your own material, not to mention a better position. Asking questions when capturing material leads to good decision making.

Training software can be an excellent tool for players wishing to improve on their own. However, you don’t want to blaze through the individual problems without taking the time to carefully look at the position. Often, it is easy to spot the correct piece to capture. However, unless you carefully examine the position after the capture, looking for positional strengths and weaknesses, you won’t get as much out of your training. Take your time. If a capture doesn’t make sense from a positional viewpoint, examine the position further before moving on to the next problem. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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The Road that Leads to Improvement

I thought about titling this article “The Journey to Mastery” but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that not every chess player would be willing to commit to such a difficult endeavor, becoming a titled “master” of the game. On the other hand, anyone who enjoys the game would be more than happy with improving their chess skills. Thinking about it further, I realized that you cannot even consider the journey to mastery until you’ve spent some time walking along the road that leads to improvement. At some point, a mathematical statistician determined that anyone who put ten thousand hours into the study of a subject would become a master of that subject. Does that mean that all you have to do is read a stack of chess books and play chess for ten thousand hours to become a Grandmaster? Absolutely not! In fact, you could spend ten thousand hours studying and playing chess only to become a slightly better than average player. It’s quality of study that leads to real improvement, not quantity of time spent studying. The best students of any subject have highly effective study habits and techniques.

In my youth, back when chess games were recorded on stone tablets, we got better at chess by reading chess books and then testing out our new found knowledge on the board against a human opponent. Now, there are so many alternative methods of study that the beginner is left bewildered by the numerous choices. You can use Books, DVDs, training software or websites that are dedicated to specific aspects of the game. However, no matter which method you choose to employ, there is one specific concept that must be embraced in order to improve. I’m talking about good studying habits. If your studying habits are not good you’ll only retain a fraction of what you learn which slows down your improvement greatly. This can lead to frustration which can lead to simply giving up. How you study is just as important as what you study!

Slow and steady wins the race when if comes to improvement. Humans tend to be impatient so they try to complete a task as quickly as possible. This leads to setting unrealistic goals. If your goal requires three hundred hours to accomplish, you could spend an hour per day and meet your goal in three hundred days. You could also shorten that time frame by spending ten hours a day working toward you’ll goal, cutting the total number of days needed to thirty. This would be a grave mistake! Most people lead busy lives which means they can only dedicate a small amount of time each day to their studies. However, even if they had the time to study for ten hours a day, they would fall victim to mental fatigue, especially when studying chess which requires great concentration. The best route to take is to set a realistic time table, say thirty minutes a day to start. Most of us can take thirty minutes from our daily schedule without having our lives fall apart. Thirty minutes will not leave you mentally drained at the end of your study session. While you might say that thirty minutes day isn’t much, it adds up to 182 hours a year. Still, some of you are thinking that 182 hours isn’t a lot of time, especially when thinking about reaching that 10,000 hour mark. Forget about that 10,000 hour idea. Let’s worry about improving before mastery!

Our next consideration is where to study. I’ve talked about study techniques in previous articles but I feel the subject so important that I’m bringing it up again. My next point is crucial if you want to improve. Find a quiet place to study. I feel so strongly about this that I have taken to sitting in my car, parked in front of my house to study chess uninterrupted. I have a busy household and even my office can be a bit noisy. You need a place that is not only quiet but offers no distractions as well. I’ve taken to my car because of one incident. I was studying a variation of the Nimzo Indian opening because it I had trouble with it. Sitting in my office, I reached one of those “ah ha” moments when everything suddenly became clear. I had the Nimzo Indian within my grasp. Suddenly, our pit bull (Ruby Petrosian Patterson) burst through my office door, made a run towards my desk and started grabbing chess pieces off the board I use. Needless to say, my concentration was broken and the mysteries of the Nimzo Indian still remain a mystery to me. Find a quiet place to study!

If you’ve followed my advice so far, you’ve set up the conditions for productive studying. You have a realistic time table and a place to study. Now comes the question, what to study? Finding suitable chess material to study is similar to buying pants. Pants come in a vast range of sizes. However, you’re never going to purchase a pair that is an exact fit. The length might be perfect but the waist is a bit tight! Chess training material is the same way.

While many companies will list a rating range for their training material, such as “for players rated between 800 and 1200,” that 400 point range is a huge consideration for the beginner whose rating is closer to 800. How can the beginner determine whether the training material in question suitable for their skill set? If its a book, the beginner can either examine the book, if being purchased from a bookstore, or preview it, if being purchased online. In either case, look at the table of contents first. If you’re a beginner trying to improve your general opening play, you should see chapters dedicated to the opening principles such as control of the board’s center, minor piece development, castling, etc. The book should also contain games in which both sides win. Examine a chapter and ask yourself “does this make sense?” If you can’t understand the concepts as explained by the book’s author, you may want to consider another title! Avoid books that promise fast improvement results or promise a fast increase in your rating.

DVDs can be a bit trickier because you cannot play the DVD before purchasing it. However, many DVD producers, such as ChessBase, offer previews on their website which allow you to test drive them prior to purchase. Again, ask yourself “does this make sense.” With specific DVDs, such as those dealing with opening play, you have to be careful as a beginner. I teach and coach chess full time so I spend a great deal of time both teaching and learning. I will always be a student of the game. I mention this because I’ve fallen victim to the purchase of a DVD about specific openings that are beyond my skill set. Beginners should stick to DVDs that explore principles rather than specific openings at least until they have a strong grasp on the principles!

Lastly, invest in a software training program that has a good GUI (Graphical User Interface) and decent chess engine. This gives the beginner an instant opponent and many of these programs have add on training modules that can be purchased separately. There are some pitfalls with these programs. First off, when playing against the computer at its lowest levels, you’re going to get an unrealistic game of chess. The computer will make the worst moves and, while your victory against the silicon beast might feel good, you’ll pay for that joy when you sit down and play a human (even a novice player) and they make much better moves than your computer program (on a low setting), leaving you with a lost game. Only play the computer at a higher game setting. The moves are more realistic and you only get better at chess by playing stronger opponents. Play human opponents every chance you get!

Lastly, beware of website advice. While a decent percentage of these websites are an excellent resource for learning, you have to remember, anyone can create a chess website regardless of their chess skills. I spend a great deal of time correcting my student’s bad habits, bad habits they picked up online. Nigel’s Tiger Chess website is an exception and you should consider an online visit (http://tigerchess.com). Another good resource is IM Andrew Martin’s Youtube videos (https://www.youtube.com/user/YMChessMaster) You would definitely do well to read all the excellent articles by the folks here at The Chess Improver as well. Keep it simple, make your study time count and sit in your car if you need a quiet place to study. Your game will slowly but surely get better. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. I bet these guys had good studying habits!

Hugh Patterson

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Balance

Beginners are fond of launching early or premature attacks regardless of what it does to their position. These attacks are uncoordinated and weaken the beginner’s position which more often than not, costs them the game. After a few chess lessons, the beginner’s attack becomes more coordinated. The most popular point of attack for beginners are the f2 and f7 squares which are weak because they’re solely defended by their respective Kings at the game’s start. An attack on the f7 pawn typically involves the King-side Knight and Bishop. After, 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6 and 3.Bc4…Nf6, white breaks an opening principle and moves the Knight a second time, 4.Ng5. Because white moves first, white has an opportunity to stay one move ahead in development during the opening, except in the above example in which white forfeits his lead in tempo (time). Therefore, I introduce the idea of balance early in my student’s chess careers.

Think of balance as an old fashion seesaw, such as those found at a playground. When the seesaw is parallel with the ground, it is evenly balanced. When someone sits on one side of the seesaw, it tilts, lowering that person to the ground. If another person sites down on the opposite side of the seesaw, the person closest to the ground is raised up. When one end of the seesaw goes up, the other end goes down. It is no longer evenly balanced. How does this relate to chess?

When the game starts, before any pawn or piece is moved, the position on the board is evenly balanced. Since white moves first, white disturbs the balance, tipping it (like the seesaw) in his or her favor with a move like 1.e4. This move puts a pawn in the center of the board, allows the King-side Bishop (as well as the Queen) to develop, which brings white closer to Castling. Its a powerful first move that puts the Question to black, how are you going to restore the balance? If Black plays 1…e5, the balance is restored for the moment. While black can play other moves such as 1…e6, 1…c6 or 1…c5, beginners should start with the simple 1…e5 to restore the balance.

Examining a move in terms of positional balance will help the novice player avoid weakening their position during any phase of the game. The opening exemplifies this idea. Since white moves first, white disturbs the balance of the starting position. Black needs to immediately restore the balance with a counter move that garners the same positional benefits as white (1…e5) or set up a future balanced position with an opening move other than 1…e5. After 1.e4…e5, white might play 2.Nf3. White disturbs the balance again by attacking the e5 pawn and controlling the d4 square. Black might counter with 2…Nc6 which protects the e5 pawn and puts pressure on the d4 square. The point is this: Black is making moves that strive to maintain positional equality or balance.

Chess is a positional dance in which both players must be in sync with each others actions or moves. To ignore your opponent’s moves leads to disaster. An opponent’s move must be met with a counter move that strives for some semblance of positional equality. Does this mean we play for equality or balance of position only? Absolutely not! After all, checkmate wins the game which means you’ll have to launch an attack which means stepping away from the idea of maintaining equality or balance. The point here is that you don’t want to launch an attack until the time is right.

To determine when the time is right for an attack, you have to look at your position and ask a few key questions. Start with an examination of space. Do you control more space on the board than your opponent? If so, an attack might be considered. However, before committing to that attack, ask yourself a few more questions. Does launching an attack weaken your position? So many beginners will capture a piece, only to have their entire position fall apart. A strong position trumps capturing pieces unless capturing staves off a potential checkmate. Does capturing a pieces strengthen your position while weakening that of your opponent? These are the questions to ask before attacking.

An idea I pass onto my students is that their goal in the opening is to aim for a balanced position, waiting until the middle game to launch any attacks. A balanced position means an equal control of space, namely the board’s center during the opening. I make a point of mentioning this each time a student considers moving the same piece twice during the opening. By doing so, they’re giving their opponent the opportunity to develop another new piece. Moving the same piece over and over again allows your opponent to gain tempo (time) which makes it harder for you to achieve balance. How do you determine whether you have a balanced position or not? Determining the balance of a position requires some analysis.

Analyzing a position as a beginner can be extremely difficult because the beginner tends to see everything at once. Rather than focusing in on key elements, the novice player’s chess vision is blurred because they’re trying to look at every pawn and piece at the same time. To analyze a position’s level of balance, the beginner should approach the task systematically. During the opening, controlling the board’s center is the name of the game. Therefore, the beginner should count the number of squares his or her pawns and pieces control. Do the same for the opposition’s pawns and pieces. This simple act will give you an idea about the position’s balance. If you’re behind in spatial control, aim to make moves that balance that control either equally or in your favor.

Beginner’s should get in the habit of continually developing pawns and pieces to more active squares going into the middle-game. I have observed students developing correctly during the opening and stopping their development as soon as their Rooks are connected. They then started gearing up for an attack. While gearing up for the attack, their opponent continues to improve their pawn and piece activity. Ultimately the attack fails because the position’s balance was off, in favor of the player whose pieces were more actively developed.

Therefore, you should look at a position in terms of balance for both sides before considering your next move. When a position is balanced, an attack might be in order. Of course, there are times when a position is imbalanced in favor of your opponent but an attack could tilt the positional seesaw in your favor. However, beginner’s don’t have their skill set built up enough to identify such positions. Keep it simple and balanced until you become a stronger player. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Happy Thanksgiving. I’m off to our family turkey day chess tournament.

Hugh Patterson

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Teaching Kids How To Trap Pieces

When teaching kids how to trap an opponent’s pieces, and not get their own trapped, I start with a very simple example:


Here White is able to win the pawn it is fixed on d5; in other words the pawn is not mobile. The same can be applied to a piece, and here is the most common example:

The knight is less mobile than other pieces and so it is very easy to trap it like this. To promote better understanding we ask kids to play a game where one has only knight and the other has a queen, the winner being the one who can trap the knight in the least number of moves. In a nut shell, if you can hamper or restrict opponent piece mobility there are more chances that you can win that piece.

A common way to trap a piece is by shutting it in with an obstructing piece. This often happens in practice, here’s an example with Black to move:

Here it would be a mistake to capture the g2 pawn because of Bg3, and white will win a rook on his next move. Of course I am not including any points like trapping the opponent’s bishop inside his pawn chain as it is not relevant when you first teach kids. It is very hard to trap a queen but this position often arises while playing against the French Defence.

Though I am not winning the queen here I am creating such threats that I can win some material. Capturing pawn on b2/b7 is also known as poisoned pawn variation in some openings.

Ashvin Chauhan

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Trading Principles

Beginners learn the relative values of the pieces early in their chess studies and use those values to calculate the outcome of material exchanges (trading pieces). While using this numerical method can help a player avoid losing an exchange of material, it cannot be the sole basis for determining whether or not an exchange will be advantageous. Solely using the relative value system to determine the success of an exchange is akin to occupying only two dimensions in a three dimensional world. You’re going to miss something important and in chess missing something important leads to lost games! Players must see the bigger picture before considering exchanging material.

Obviously, we want to compare the relative value of both our pieces and those of our opponent before considering an exchange of material. Beginners are taught that trading a Queen for a Knight would be a bad trade since the Queen is worth nine points and the Knight three. Trading our Queen for a Knight would mean the net loss of six points which equals two minor pieces or six pawns. However, what if giving up the Queen for a Knight led to checkmate? We’ve all played through the games of Paul Morphy in which he sacrificed a major piece (or two) to win the game. Unfortunately, the average beginner doesn’t have the calculation skills to successfully sacrifice material. Fortunately, there are some trading principles the beginner can employ to help improve their position and lay the groundwork for good calculative thinking.

Here are some ideas to employ when considering an exchange of pieces. Applying these ideas will make a huge difference in your game. Again, its about seeing the bigger picture which means considering the entire position on the chessboard. Is the position open or closed? Are you ahead in material or behind? Are your pieces cramped or free to roam around the board? Are you under positional pressure? Is your opponent threatening checkmate? Positional questions must be asked before considering any exchange of material.

Consider a trade or exchange when you are ahead in material. While this might seem counter-intuitive, since beginners are taught to maintain as much material as possible, the more you trade down when ahead in material, the greater your advantage becomes later on. Both players start out with eight pawns each so both players have an equal number of pawns. Let’s say you and your opponent start trading pawns and reach an endgame position in which you have two pawns to your opponent’s one pawn. You have a much greater advantage since you have twice as many pawns. Of course, this is an extremely simplified example but the idea still holds true. Material advantages become greater or more pronounced as pawns and pieces are traded off the board. Always think about this idea as you approach the endgame. Good chess players think about the future as well as the present! Don’t live solely in the moment!

If you have a spacial disadvantage, where your position is cramped, trade pieces to open up the position. If your opponent has greater control of the board, leaving you stuck in a cramped defensive position, consider trading material to give yourself some room to move. However, you have to be careful in regards to what material you trade. If you’re in an open game, a game in which there is a lot of open space between you and your opponent, consider hanging on to long distance pieces such as the Bishops and exchanging Knights. In a closed position, your Knights should be kept. Of course, you must always consider the value of your material and your opponent’s material before starting any exchange. If you have the spacial advantage, keep applying pressure by controlling more space and avoid trading material.

Consider an exchange if doing so allows one of your remaining pieces to become more active. If you find yourself in a closed position, Knights are going to be more powerful because of their ability to jump over other pieces. If your opponent has an active Knight that you can exchange for a bad Bishop (a Bishop that has little mobility), consider the trade. While both the Knight and Bishop have the same relative value, meaning an equal trade will garner both players three points of exchanged material, a trapped or immobile Bishop really isn’t in the game when the position is closed. The Knight, on the other hand, is able to jump over the positional traffic jam which means it is in the game and has greater value.

If your opponent has an powerful piece that is stopping you from executing your plan, consider forcing an exchange. A Knight on f3 for White or f6 for Black, protects the h2 or h7 pawn when a player has Castled on the King-side. That Knight is a critical defender. Removing that defender leaves only the King to defend either the h2 or h7 pawn. When I say powerful piece, most beginners think of the Queen or Rook. However, we have to look at a piece’s value in relationship to the position. A pawn about to promote is extremely powerful. It might have a relative value of one but because it is about to promote, it’s value increase. Relative value is not absolute value.

When considering any trade, a player must look far beyond the relative value of the pawns and pieces. Its the relationship to a position that determines a pawn or piece’s value. Often we find ourselves under pressure in a position. A potential checkmate may be looming on the positional horizon. Trading pieces may reduce that pressure enough to stop the threat of checkmate. Always ask yourself, “am I under pressure and is there an exchange that will relieve some of that pressure.

Lastly, never, ever exchange material just to exchange. Good chess players capture or exchange pieces to improve their position. I love to capture pawns and pieces but I don’t do so unless I get something more than mere material for my efforts. I need my position to improve when I exchange pieces! Trade smart by looking at all your options. Speaking of trading, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Aggression in Chess

Chess is a violent sport according to artist and chess player Marcel Duchamp. It’s a vicious game, says folk singer Nic Jones. Nigel Short is frequently quoted as saying that chess is ruthless: you’ve got to be prepared to kill people. Grandmaster Boris Gulko tells his (adult) pupils that chess is a game for hooligans.

Your favourite chess book dealer will offer you a killer opening repertoire, advocate street fighting chess, and even provide a chess terrorist’s handbook.

Aggression is natural in all species, particularly among males, and is, in itself, neither bad nor good but a natural instinct. One reason for promoting chess, along with other competitive activities, it seems to me, might be to provide a positive outlet for aggression. Those who favour physical competition might let their aggression loose on the football field, or, more directly, in the boxing ring, while those who favour mental competition might choose a chessboard instead.

This, though, raises a number of questions. Young boys, at the age most of them take up chess, are often interested in weapons and fighting, and by using appropriate metaphors we can make chess more attractive and exciting for them. But one big problem the chess world faces is the small number of female participants. This is something especially true here in the UK. If we promote chess as an ‘aggressive’, competitive activity, will this deter girls from taking part? Or perhaps we should encourage girls to be more competitive: something Alice has to learn in Chess for Kids.

Or we could promote chess in a non-competitive way, as a fluffy game equally suitable for boys and girls. Many schools would be in favour of this: primary schools are often run by ‘nice ladies’ who find it hard to understand and come to terms with the sort of mock aggressive play favoured by many boys (and some girls). But, if we do that, are we not removing something essential from chess? After all, chess started as a war game. Perhaps we’re also removing something essential from the lives of some of the boys who enjoy chess. To be honest, I really don’t know what the answer is myself. If you’re doing chess in the classroom I think you need to take a non-competitive approach, but within a chess club you need to encourage mental aggression over the board, while, of course, prohibiting any form of physical or verbal aggression away from the board and encouraging good sportsmanship at all times.

When you’re playing chess, aggressiveness over the board works in two ways. You can choose an aggressive style, favouring attacks, gambits and sacrifices, or a non-aggressive, ‘vegetarian’ style, playing quietly and trading pieces off to reach an ending. You can also choose a non-aggressive psychological approach, being eager to agree a draw in an unclear or even position, or if you’re feeling sorry for your opponent for some reason, or you can be aggressive in playing out every position to try to win, taking risks in complex positions or grinding away in equal endings as Carlsen, for example, does, waiting for your opponent to make a fatal mistake.

Genna Sosonko wrote about this in an essay entitled Killer Instinct, first published in New in Chess and later reprinted in one of his essay collections, Smart Chip from St. Petersburg (New in Chess 2006). Among his anecdotes was that concerning Boris Gulko, who was teaching an older adult player who would reach good positions but lacked the killer instinct to finish off his opponents. He told him that chess was a game for hooligans and advised him to show more aggression. This more aggressive approach to chess led to a sharp improvement in his results. The nicest person I ever met was a man called Gene Veglio, who was, for some years, a clubmate of mine at Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club. He was always willing to play, but equally willing to stand down if someone else wanted to play. Whenever he reached a good position, though, he’d offer his opponent a draw because he didn’t want to hurt their feelings by beating them.

Now, here’s my problem. Superficially, I come across as an extremely non-aggressive person. I play chess non-aggressively: I usually prefer fairly safe openings and am usually happy to agree a draw. For reasons which I won’t go into here I find it very hard to deal with losing a game, with making a mistake, with any form of confrontation. But when I play blitz on the Internet, where I’m not so bothered about the result, I play much more aggressively, using a totally different opening repertoire. So I’ve decided to make some changes to my opening repertoire this season, to play more aggressively. I’ll explain the reasons for this in more detail next time. Will I, like Gulko’s student, see an improvement in my results?

My next series of articles (with possible interruptions as and when the whim takes me) will let you see how I get on.

Richard James

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Endgame Checklist

Most beginning players never get to the endgame because they’re defeated in the middle-game. When they do get into the endgame, they don’t know what to do with the small amount of material they have left on the board. A beginner once told me that he felt the endgame to be easier than the middle-game because you didn’t have to deal with so many pawns and pieces. The opposite is true. With fewer pawns and pieces on the board, there is no recovering from a single bad move. I give a list out to my students before we start our endgame studies so they know what they need to do to be successful during this game phase. Here are a few key points from my endgame list:

Get your King into the game! The King needs to be active during the endgame. We spend the opening and middle-game ensuring our King’s safety. We don’t dare bring our King out into the open when there are large numbers of enemy pawns and pieces within attacking range. However, when the majority of both side’s pawns and pieces are off the board, the King can become an active attacker or defender. A piece doing nothing is a piece not in the game. This holds true for the King as well. Activate your King. Leaving your King on it’s starting rank in the endgame invites danger!

Always push a passed pawn! A passed pawn is a pawn that has no opposing pawns to stop it from reaching its promotion square. If you create a passed pawn, its your job to get that pawn to its promotion square. This means that you’ll have to use any available force to protect that pawn. If you don’t have the passed pawn, you’ll want to do everything you can to stop your opponent’s passed pawn from promoting. This means using your available material to stop the pawn from promoting by capture or blockading. If you were down to an endgame with only pawns and Kings, you’d need to bring the King into the game to aid in either the promotion of your pawn or stopping the promotion of an opposition pawn.

If you’re ahead a pawn, trade pieces not pawns in the endgame and if you’re not ahead a pawn trade pawns rather than pieces, aiming for a draw. Beginners think that pawns are expendable because they’re plentiful and lowest in relative value. The beginner often concludes that he or she can lose a few pawns during the game. However, every pawn you lose is one less pawn in the endgame which is one less chance to promote. Pawn endings can be easier to win compared to an endgame position with pawns and pieces still on the board. Simplify in the endgame, reducing the material to pawns and Kings.

Pawns do not belong on the same color squares as your Bishop. So if you have a light squared Bishop in the endgame, your pawns should be on dark squares. Why? The answer has to do with mobility. In the endgame, there is generally little material left on the board. This means that every pawn and piece must be as active as possible. If you have a light squared Bishop in the endgame, every pawn on a light square denies that Bishop a bit of mobility. A lack of mobility translates to an inactive piece. With little material on the board, activity and mobility wins endgames.

Bishops are better than Knights in all but blocked pawn endgames. The Bishop is a long distance piece, meaning it can move from one side of the board to the other in a single move. The Knight, on the other hand, is a short distance piece who takes a lot longer to cross the board. Of course, the Bishop is of little use if it is blocked in by its own pawns. Thus, why you want to keep your pawns off of the same color squares your Bishop travels on. In general, long distance attackers, such as the Bishop, Rook and Queen are beneficial in the endgame.

Activate your Rooks. A Rook is useless unless its in the game. Get a Rook on the seventh rank if playing the White pieces or the second rank if playing the Black pieces. A Rook on a rank occupied by pawns can do a great deal of damage. Remember, the more pawns you have in the endgame, the greater the chance of promoting one of them. A Rook on a rank full of pawns is like a hungry fox in a hen house. If you’re attacking your opponent is defending and may not be able to protect all of his or her pawns. All beginners learn Rook checkmates but often think that is all the Rook is useful for. Rooks can be used to go after pawns, reducing your opponent’s chances of promotion. In the endgame, everyone (pawns and pieces) must play aggressively.

Speaking of Rooks! Rooks belong behind passed pawns. We know that pawn promotion is key in the endgame. However, to get a pawn to its promotion square, it needs a bodyguard. Why does it need a bodyguard? If you have a passed pawn your opponent is going to do everything possible to stop it from promoting. The Rook makes an excellent bodyguard because it can protect the pawn from the other side of the board. If your opponent possesses the passed pawn, your Rook still belongs behind it, threatening the potential promotion. You Rook should not be in front of the passed enemy pawn because with each move of the pawn, your Rook loses some of its mobility. It is better to blockade with another piece such as a Knight or, in the case of my next checklist item, the King.

When facing an opponent’s passed pawn, we have to block that pawn’s access to its promotion square. This means playing defensively rather than offensively. Playing defensively, in this example, means tying up a piece to create a blockade. If given the choice of blocking the passed pawn with your King or Knight, you might consider the King. Why? You King cannot attack your opponent’s King but your Knight can. The piece blockading the passed pawn should be the piece who has the lessor of attacking abilities. Because Rooks can be employed so aggressively in the endgame, they shouldn’t be used to block a passed pawn.

The lesson to be learned here is that pawns are critical in the endgame and should be handled with care from the game’s start. Don’t give away pawns early on unless necessary. Save them for the endgame. Rooks can be great assets in the endgame, making excellent bodyguards for passed pawns. Everyone needs to participate in the endgame, including the King. Simplify the material. Piece activity and mobility win endgames. If you’re new to the game, I recommend Bruce Pandolfini’s book, Pandolfini’s Endgame Course. That’s where I learned all of this. Here’s a game to play though until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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In Summary

This will be my last post on the problems with junior chess for the foreseeable future, but, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to summarise what I’ve been writing recently.

I’ve been spending the past 15 years telling anyone who’ll listen to me that the best thing we could do to promote and encourage chess in this country would be to abolish after-school and lunchtime chess clubs for children up to the age of 11.

To play chess to adult club standard you need to be able to apply complex logic to chess. Most children will, under normal circumstances, only develop the required cognitive skills at about 11 or 12.

Children who start chess at, say, 7 and who haven’t reached adult club standard or thereabouts when they leave primary school at the age of 11 are likely to give up chess unless they go to a secondary school which is very big on chess.

Children will only reach adult club standard by the age of 11 if their cognitive development is exceptionally advanced or if they are immersed in chess from a fairly early age, either at home, at school, or through a chess academy which is open every day.

Most chess teachers either have an insufficient knowledge of chess or an insufficient knowledge of how young children learn. Young children are active learners: they need to do things, not listen to lectures. You need to start by finding out what they know and build on their knowledge rather than telling them what you know. Standing in front of a demo board showing them a game is great for older and stronger children but will only confuse younger, less experienced players.

Most parents, at least in my area, teach their children the wrong names for the pieces, the wrong rules and incorrect strategy. Because chess is not part of our culture they are unaware of the extent of their ignorance and unwilling to be told about it.

Competitive chess has a poor public image and chess players are seen as anti-social nerds who are probably also mad. So while some parents and schools want their children to learn chess they don’t want them to be good at chess.

The current ethos with regard to childhood, at least among the majority of parents in my area, emphasises taking part rather than being successful, having fun rather than being serious, doing lots of things at a low level rather than excelling at a few things.

Parents in my area see after-school chess clubs as a learning tool, something that might help their children get into the selective secondary school of their choice, or as a cheap child-minding service. They are not prepared to help or support their children beyond playing low-level games with them. There is also a complete misunderstanding about exactly what chess practice entails.

Children are often encouraged to take part in competitions before they’ve learnt all the rules of chess let alone have any understanding of basic tactics and strategy. Chess entrepreneurs encourage this because they make money out of these events.

If I were Prime Minister what I’d do is this:

Set up a national chess course with an appropriate reward system.

Set up a network of individual and team tournaments linking up with the national chess course: if you pass a level of the course you get a ticket to take part in a tournament at the appropriate level.

Set up a network of junior chess clubs operating the national chess course providing outreach to local schools and individual tuition for talented children with supportive parents.

Abolish all junior chess clubs not following the national chess course.

Encourage primary and prep schools who want to take chess seriously and teach all or most of their children to play properly on the curriculum.

Encourage all secondary schools to set up chess clubs and enter teams of children who have passed the first level of the national course into competitions.

But I’m not PM and never will be, so enough of that.

I appreciate that many of my posts here have been very negative, but there’s a lot to be negative about. Veteran chess journalist Leonard Barden, as someone who, along with the late Bob Wade, played such an important part in the English Chess Explosion in the late 1970s and early 1980s, knows more than anyone about the decline in junior chess in the UK. Here’s what he wrote in his chess column in the Guardian on 1 November:

It was all so different in the 1970s Bobby Fischer boom years. Then England had a huge crop of talented juniors, many of whom became grandmasters and masters, but there was a desperate shortage of suitable older players to coach them.

This week, in contrast, England’s juniors have struggled to average 50% in the European Youth championships for under-18s to under-8s at Batumi, Georgia, whereas in the inaugural World Senior over-50 championship at Katenni, Greece, England has the two top seeds, John Nunn and Mark Hebden, with the European champion, Keith Arkell, also among the favourites.

Now, the implication is, we have a huge crop of older players involved in coaching, many of whom learnt their chess in the 1970s boom years, but there are very few talented juniors coming through.

The good news is that I’m currently talking to a few schools and clubs who might possibly be interested in doing things my way.

If anything positive happens I’ll keep you in touch, but now it’s more than time to move onto another subject.

Richard James

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The Best Defense is a Counterattack

Often, the beginner finds himself (or herself) having to constantly defend a series of positions when playing a stronger or more aggressive opponent. Beginners are apt to be either the aggressive or passive player (defender) during their games and tend to end up on the defensive (passive) side more often than not. They (the beginner) see attacking and defending in a very black and white manner. By this, I mean that the beginner will only consider absolutely defensive moves when under attack or aggressive moves when leading an attack. Countless times, I’ve seen beginners end up with terrible middle-game positions because their opponent launches attack after attack, leaving the novice stuck, having to defend their King with awkward pawn and piece play. This comes about because the beginner panics, moving the attacked piece or only making moves that defend against the opposition’s attacking pieces, not considering the possibility of a counterattack or potential threat.

Much of my own game knowledge comes from studying the teachings of Australia’s own late great C.J.S. Purdy. Cecil Purdy had an amazing talent not only for playing the game of chess but teaching it as well. He (along with Reuben Fine and many others) were proponents of two crucial ideas, developing with a threat and the use of counterattacks as a method for switching one’s role in the game from defender to attacker. The employment of just these two concepts alone will help the beginner step out of the shadow of poor defensive play and into the bright lights of aggressive play. While the two players of a game of chess take on one of these two roles during their game (attacker or defender), it doesn’t mean that they are stuck being the attacker or defender throughout the entire game. Beginners think that once they get stuck defending they’ll remain defenders until their opponent concludes his or her attack. In reality, the tables can be turned on the attacker with a good threat or counterattack. Just because you have to defend a position doesn’t mean that you can’t make a move that suddenly puts your opponent on the defensive.

When the beginning chess player is on the receiving end of a threat, they tend to panic. The beginner gloomily stares at the position and thinks of two options. The first is to flee the scene of the crime by moving the piece being attacked. The second option is to further defend the piece under attack. While there is basically nothing wrong with either of these ideas, the beginner limits themselves in regard to options. In chess, the more options you have, the better off you are! Good players will look at an additional option, creating a bigger threat! If your opponent attacks one of your minor pieces with a pawn you might consider moving that minor piece. However, moving that minor piece might reduce the number of defenders of one of your key central squares or pieces under attack. What if you could move one of your pawns to a square where it attacks an opposition Rook? Your minor piece is worth three points while your opponent’s Rook is worth five points. From a material value viewpoint, your threat is bigger so your opponent will have to move their Rook, hopefully damaging their position in doing so. You opponent will have to deal with your threat before continuing with his or her own threat. The employment of a threat can turn the defender into the aggressor. If your opponent makes a threat, see if you can make a bigger threat. Turn the tables on the attacker. Big threats beat out smaller threats. However, don’t make threats that further undermine your own position!

Therefore, before turning tail and running off to a safer square or locking up one of your pawns or pieces in the defense of your attacked piece, look for a threat. Threats can be absolute game changers! Creating a threat limits your opponent’s choices and thus their plans. A threat can force your opponent to change their game plan costing them tempo or weakening their position. Look for a threat before considering moving the attacked piece or adding additional defenders to the position.

Both Purdy and Fine said that the best defense is a counter attack and this holds true in most cases. When a beginner launches an attack, they often do so while suffering from tunnel vision. This means that they are focused on a small section of the board, the area where the attack takes place, rather than the entire board. When launching their attack, they are considering the pawns and pieces in the immediate vicinity of the attack. I’ve seen a plethora of beginners fall victim to back rank checkmates because their field of vision doesn’t extend throughout the board. A lack of total board vision allows for strong counter attacks. Look at the entire board and ask yourself “can I launch a counterattack that poses a bigger threat because my opponent missed something (a weakness of their position) due to tunnel vision?”

Again, the beginner panics when a piece comes under fire and first thinks about fleeing the scene of the crime or, if this isn’t possible, adding defenders to the position. The problem with moving the attacked piece out of the line of fire is that in doing so, you can weaken your position. If you’re playing Black, have castled King-side and have a Knight on f6, that Knight is a crucial defender of the h7 pawn. If White has their Queen on d3 and the light squared Bishop on c2, with the b1-h7 diagonal clear of pawns and pieces, the f6 Knight is a critical defender of h7. If the Black Knight flees the f7 square, checkmate (by White) will quickly follow. What should Black do if it looks like White is starting to build up an attack against the poor beleaguered Knight? Consider a counterattack. Of course, in the above example, you’ll want to first look for ways to support the Knight.

You’ll see, especially in the games of beginners, one player focusing all his or her efforts on an early attack. Good chess players build up a position and only after their pawns and pieces have been developed to their most active squares, do they launch an attack. Beginners, on the other hand, launch into attacks at the first chance they get. Because these attacks are premature, they usually amount to not much more than a weakening of the attacker’s position. Rather than fleeing or defending against the premature attack, weakening your position in the process, look to see if a counter attack can be employed.

When the beginner launches into an attack, they leave weak spots in their own defense. After all, those pieces used for the attack have been relieved from their defensive duties to launch the attack, meaning there are less defenders on the attacker’s side of the board. This can present an opportunity. Before considering piling up defenders around your attacked piece or fleeing, look for holes your opponent’s position, noting which pawn, piece or square near the opposition’s King has been weakened as a result of your opponent’s attack. Your opponent’s pawns and pieces are lined up for an attack against your position so they may not be on the best squares to suddenly defend their side of the board when hit with a counterattack. The novice tends to throw everything into an attack which means that their defense is neglected. This is the time to launch a counterattack.

When facing an attack, don’t automatically assume that you have to move the attacked piece. The price the attacker pays for launching an attack, especially a premature attack, is often a weakness in their own position. If you don’t panic and use complete board vision (seeing the entire board), you’ll see that weakness. By employing a counterattack or threat, you can gain the upper hand in which case the hunter becomes the hunted. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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