Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Hanging Piece Syndrome

One of the bigger problems every single beginner and many “improvers” face early in their chess careers is losing material due to hanging pieces. A hanging piece is one that’s not only unprotected but can be captured en prise or freely, meaning the hanging piece is captured without any loss of material to the player doing the capturing. Unlike an even exchange of material where one piece is exchanged for another piece of equal value, such as a Knight for a Bishop, capturing a hanging piece costs the attacker nothing! You capture the unprotected piece and the piece you used to capture it lives on to fight another battle.

Hanging a piece can have a devastating effect on your game. Of course, if you hang a pawn or minor piece as a beginner playing against another beginner, you may not face an immediate loss and even go on to win the game. However, if you lose your Queen because you brought her out early and left her unprotected, your ability to win will be greatly diminished. The Queen is a piece that most beginners can’t seem to live (or win a game) without (personally, I dislike the Queen).

Of course, the beginning chess player will hang pieces simply due to a lack of playing experience and board vision (the ability to closely examine the entire board/position). Therefore, the beginner shouldn’t be too hard on themselves when they hang a piece. However, they should start working on ways to avoid this problem and the best way to do this is by using training software that has program modules dealing with spotting hanging pieces. Peshka/ChessOK has a software program titled Easy Ways of Taking Pawns and Pieces. It has 5,800 problems that revolving around finding hanging pieces, categorized into groupings based on a specific piece (purchase the hard copy rather than downloading it because some players have had past problems with downloading from their site).

The goal is to find the hanging or undefended piece and capture it. While this program deals with opposition hanging pieces rather than your own hanging pieces, it gets you, the beginner, employing a technique that is critical to chess success, seeing the entire board by using Board Vision. Too often, beginners lose or hang pieces because they’re not looking at the entire board but where the immediate action is (such as the center during the opening). By not scanning the entire board, especially your opponent’s side, you’re apt to miss opposition pieces aimed at your unprotected material. Board vision takes time to develop but working with a software training program will help speed the process up.

When doing the software’s exercises, you’re forced to look at the entire board because often, the piece that’s hanging will be on one side of the board while the piece that can capture it is on the other side. Sometimes, you’ll be given a choice of two identical pieces to capture. You have to look closely because one of those pieces is protected, which means it’s not truly hanging while the other is free for the taking.

Of course, it’s another thing to avoid hanging pieces in an actual game of chess! It becomes more difficult because unlike the software’s problems, which are stagnant and set up, the arrangement your of pawns and pieces (as well as that of the opposition) will change with each move. This means you have have to constantly check the vulnerability of your material before considering making any move. You have to be patient (a lost art in our fast paced, technological world).

The idea of having to check every single pawn and piece on the board (both yours and your opponent’s) before each move seems like an absolutely daunting task to the beginner, which it is. However, with time, the beginner will do this automatically and systematically. You have to get in the habit of doing this which is the hardest hurdle to cross. To simplify this process and make it less maddening to execute, you have to follow some sort of logical, systematic order when examining your opponent’s material for threats.

Start with the pawns. Pawns have the lowest relative value which means they can easily push a piece of greater value back. Look at each opposition pawn and first, make sure it’s not attacking one of your pieces. Then see how many moves it will take for any opposition pawns to reach and attack your pieces. You’ll also want to know what opposition minor pieces will have access to the board if any pawns blocking those pieces in moves forward. In other words, “if my opponent moves the c pawn forward two squares, will a piece originally blocked by that pawn be able to attack one of my pieces.”

Next look at each opposition piece and trace its line of attack across the board, noting any places (squares) where enemy pieces intersect with your pieces. Obviously, if you find one of your pieces can be captured En Prise, you better move that piece or defend it. What happens if the piece being attacked (your piece) is already defended? First, determine the value of the attacking piece and compare it to the value of your piece. If your piece is worth more that the attacking piece, get your piece out of the line of fire! If the value of both pieces is even, you have to consider how the exchange will effect your position. For example, if trading minors with your opponent leads to you having doubled pawn or your opponent being able to launch a nasty attack, you may want to avoid the exchange.

As a beginner, you have to get good at discovering any hanging pieces before your opponent does. Again, there are various software programs and apps for this type of training. The advantage to the above mentioned program is the large number of problems your have to solve. The more you put into it, the better your results. I recommend that my students do the entire program twice. While the program does deal exclusively with opposition hanging pieces, it develops your ability to examine the entire board which means you’ll notice any potentially hanging pieces belonging to you. You’d be surprised at how quickly you start to see everything on the board once you start doing the exercises. You’ll be able to spot any pieces your opponent hangs automatically after putting some effort into it (doing the program’s problems). It should be noted that you should slowly work through the problems and see if you can find a good counter move for the opposition after you make the correct move that solves the puzzle. This will heighten your learning greatly. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

A Nuanced View

I’m sure all politicians, whatever their views, will have a shared frustration that their opinions are frequently misunderstood, misinterpreted and oversimplified, and that others will often claim they hold views which are very different from their actual views.

This is going to happen whenever you put your views on any subject in writing. Those who have genuine knowledge and expertise in a subject will usually have pretty nuanced views, while those with less knowledge and expertise will be more likely to see things in black and white.

Jack and Jake are five years old. They’ve seen a chess set in a shop window and would like to learn the game. Should they do so or not? Jane and Joan, who enjoy playing chess in their school club, have been given entry forms for a junior tournament. Should they take part or not? Tim and Tom are learning some mini-chess games as part of the maths curriculum in their school. Should they play chess at home with their parents or not?

Here are my answers. Jack should learn chess, but Jake shouldn’t. Jane should play in the tournament but Joan shouldn’t. Tim should play with his parents at home, but Tom shouldn’t.

How come?

The reason is very simple. Children are different. Some children have a lot of potential chess ability, most children have a fairly average chess ability. Some children will find chess very difficult at any age. (Most of the latest research from the likes of Robert Plomin suggests that, despite what some might believe, IQ is more down to nature than nurture.) Parents are different as well. Some will be knowledgeable about chess, some won’t. Some will have the time and inclination to help their children, some won’t. Some will want their children to take chess seriously, some won’t. So it all depends. I’ll repeat that in capitals for anyone who doesn’t understand me: IT ALL DEPENDS!!

Jack is a precociously bright and mature boy. His parents are both proficient chess players and will be able to help him a lot at home. He will probably benefit from learning chess now and in a couple of years time he’ll be able to do well in junior tournaments. Jake is an averagely bright boy whose maturity, concentration and self-regulation skills are age-appropriate but no more than that. His parents are not chess players and are too busy to have time to learn the game properly. It would be great for Jake to start by playing some simpler strategy games and perhaps learn chess in a few years time.

Jane, like Jack, has chess playing parents. She has learnt a lot and wins most of her games at school. She’s also mature enough to understand that she’ll probably lose a few games in her first tournament. Joan has not yet reached the same level and she’d struggle against the stronger players she’d meet in a tournament. She really wouldn’t enjoy the experience, so would be well advised to wait a year or so, until she’s had more experience.

Tim’s parents, while not brilliant players, know enough to be able to help him with the basics. It would be really great for Tim to play chess at home. When he can beat them he’ll be able to join a chess club and perhaps have lessons with a private tutor. Tom’s parents think they’re good players, but they set the board up the wrong way round, think rooks are called castles, have never heard of the en passant rule, and start their games with 1. h4 2. Rh3. It might be helpful if they played mini-games with him, but if they tried to play complete games they’d put him off by passing on their own bad habits and misinformation about the game. It would be great if they could buy The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, or perhaps talk to Tim’s parents. If parents are knowledgeable about chess they should certainly play with their kids, as long as they talk through what’s happening rather than just acting the competitive dad and taking all their pieces without explanation.

I’ll say it again. The right age for a child to learn chess might be anywhere between 3 and 13, or even not at all. It depends on all sorts of things: the child, how much the parents know about chess, how much time they have to help their children, the culture in which the child is being brought up.

My interpretation of educational theory as applied to chess (and if you disagree or interpret educational theory another way please feel free to let me know) is that typically developing children will be able to handle simple abstract logic from the age of about 7, and will be able to handle complex multi-dimensional abstract logic from the age of about 11. Some children will be able to handle both simple and complex logic much earlier, others much later, or not at all.

It seems reasonable to me that primary/elementary school education should be based on the typically developing child, while also providing opportunities for those whose development is advanced and support for those who are lagging behind. Bear in mind also that some children might excel in a particular domain at an early age but make little progress, while others might struggle at an early age but later excel. I excelled academically at an early age but struggled later, while I know a lot of people who struggled in their early years at school but went on to achieve academic success at a high level.

Observe, if you will, the Finnish education system, considered by many to be the best in the world. Children don’t start formal education in the three Rs until the age of 7. As these subjects involve logic this makes perfect sense to me. However, schools provide facilities and opportunities for younger children who wish to do so to read books and do sums. Many children take advantage of this, and will also be learning these subjects at home.

So if you want to put strategy games on a primary school curriculum (and whether or not you should do this is another matter entirely) you should probably be doing so using games requiring simple logic rather than complex logic: mini-chess rather than ‘big chess’. You should also provide facilities for younger children who are ready to play ‘big chess’, either through a school chess club or through working in conjunction with an external junior chess club.

Richard James

The Politics of Chess

Of course, many of you readers are expecting this to be an article regarding infighting within the world of professional chess. However, this assumption is actually farthest from the truth! This article came about thanks to the recent Presidential election here in the United States (or should I say un-united states). How, you may ask, can a political election possibly serve as the inspiration for a chess article? It has to do with the subject of civics, an area of study schools here have deemed unnecessary as a practical course. This has led to a generation that has no idea how Democracy works, let alone how to vote (sadly, many simply choose not to vote and then complain about the state of politics after the election). I decided, rather than taking up the art of violent protesting which serves no real purpose, to introduce my chess students to the world of civics and politics via the game of chess. Here’s the gist of my lessons regarding chess and civics/politics. This lesson is taught to older students only because young children would end up having nightmares and be sent to a therapist due to my harsh approach.

We start the lesson by defining key ideas such as voting, The Electoral College (who are more mysterious that the Free Masons) and diplomacy as well as the role of the President, Congress and the Senate. I ask students questions regarding the above concepts during the lessons to make sure they understand the subject matter. Then the narrative starts:

Chess is a war between two countries. Our two countries both see an opportunity to expand their global control and will do whatever it takes to achieve this goal. Sadly diplomacy has failed and our two countries, Blacklandia and Whitelandia have decided to face off on the battlefield. Both Congress and the Senate have voted for a declaration of war. This is a fight to the death. You are the President of your country and now must face the hard decisions the Commander and Chief deals with during times of war, namely the loss of life. You cannot avoid the loss of life in war so you must try to minimize it. This means that the pawns and pieces (soldiers) you send out onto the field of battle must be carefully deployed to minimize loss. Your fellow countrymen have voted you into office and their fate lies in your hands. Don’t let them down. At this point, we discuss the role of the military during times of war as well as how it effects the economy.

The battle starts when one side strikes the first blow. In the game, members of the Whitelandia army decide to attack first. As with all wars, it’s not the King that goes out onto the battle field but the lowly foot soldier, the pawn. The pawn comes from small towns scattered throughout the country and is at the bottom of the military food chain (and the economic food chain as well). However, just because the pawn is low man on the Totem Pole doesn’t mean he can’t do great things. The history of warfare is littered with exceptionally brave acts and won battles thanks to the pawn. Treat him with care and always have him work with his fellow pawns (pawn chains) and provide support for the more specialized warriors who we’ll meet next. Pawns are the first to walk onto the battlefield so respect their bravery.

As with all military forces, there are specialized units that can greatly effect the outcome of a battle, but only if they’re used correctly. During the early stages of a battle, the opening game, it is crucial that your troops are carefully placed. You job is to corner the enemy King who, at the start of a game, is on a central file. The most direct route to victory is through the center of the board during the opening. Therefore, you should develop your forces towards the four central squares (d4, d5, e4 and e5). You cannot waste time because the other side is trying to achieve the same goal. So who do we deploy? The minor pieces of course!

We don’t want to waste time because the citizens of your country want this war won quickly and with minimal loss of life (pawns and pieces). Thus, you should try to develop a new piece with each move, only launching an attack on the enemy King once you’ve achieved maximum development of your military forces. What happens if you don’t do this? You approval ratings go down and you become an unpopular President. We briefly discuss the Vietnam War and it’s affect on Presidential approval ratings at this point.

Of course, you have to keep your King safe, the King really being you the President because if you’re taken down, the war ends and you lose. Therefore, Castling early is a sound idea. Unlike our political leaders who never actually fight on the battlefield, the King gets his hands dirty in the endgame!

To minimize the loss of life, you don’t want to attempt an early attack against the enemy. If you do and that attack fails, your fellow countrymen will want to know why you behaved in such a risky manner, allowing other countrymen to die. Build up your control of the battlefield, trying to maximize the activity of your forces before attacking. Remember, wars are not won in a single battle. They are won through many smaller battles. In chess, these smaller battles are called tactical plays. A brief discussion of the American Civil War reinforces this point as well as the great cost of life that war causes. Once you’ve developed your forces, only then should you consider striking at the enemy.

This is where your specialized forces come into play. The name of the game here is tactics. If the battlefield is crowded with soldiers from both sides we can can use our Knights to reek havoc because Knights can jump over other pieces. They’re like the Air Force! If the field of battle is wide open we use our long distance artillery, the Bishops and Rooks. We briefly discuss the idea of supply lines, something all armies need to survive, using examples from World War Two. I also interject a dialog about the cost of war and how it effects the National economy. In chess, keeping an open supply line means pawns and pieces supporting one another. If your material is chaotically placed across the board, you forces may end up being captured. This means a loss of life and there go your approval ratings as Commander and Chief!

Only now should you consider bringing in your special forces, the Queen. The Queen is your special ops (operations) force. Unlike a real army in which there are many members of the Special Forces, you only have one Queen, so use her awesome and deadly power wisely. If you don’t, the enemy will use their forces to hunt her down!

Eventually the time to attack comes. Are your pieces aimed at the enemy King? Are your forces deployed to active squares? Are your pieces coordinated and your supply lines open? These are all questions every Commander and Chief asks themselves before launching that final assault needed to win the war. It’s here that you must be patient and careful, often having to make adjustments in your position to ensure success. If everything is in place, it’s time to strike and deliver checkmate!

The game of chess can be used to teach a number of external concepts and is an entertaining way to do so. I teach the above ideas regarding politics over a few classes so that students can really grasp and thoroughly understand the concepts being discussed. Of course, the Electoral College still remains a bit of mystery since people know more about the doings of the Free Masons than the rather mysterious Electoral College. It should be noted that there’s nothing educational about this college. Here’s a game played by two members of the Electoral College to enjoy until next week. Just kidding. Those guys don’t play chess, they mysteriously elect Presidents and leave the rest of us dumbfounded…

Hugh Patterson

Walking the Dog

When I was a boy we had a dog. Every day one of us would take her for a walk in the local park, where we’d meet a lot of other dogs and their owners. I still live very near the same park now, but about a mile away. (It’s a linear riverside park, about two miles in length. I used to live half a mile from one end: now I live half a mile from the other end. I’ll tell you another time and another place about the farm and flax mills where I used to live and the gunpowder mills where I now live.) These days, more than half a century on, you’ll still find a lot of dogs there, but the walkers will be different. You won’t find any kids walking their dogs as I did as kids aren’t allowed out on their own any more. They’re probably too busy looking at screens, anyway. You won’t find so many individuals or families walking their dogs, either. What you will find, especially on weekdays, which you wouldn’t have found when I was a boy, is dog walkers, with several dogs under their control. In this part of the world, many people are too busy, or just too preoccupied, to give their pooches the exercise they require so they’re prepared to pay good money for others to do so.

At one level you might think it’s sad that so many people lack the time or inclination to exercise their dogs, but at another level everyone wins. The dog owners are happy to be relieved of a chore. The dog walkers are happy because they can make a decent living doing something they enjoy, earning money from their love of animals and spending time in the open air. The dogs are happy as well: perhaps walkies is more fun if you can share it with your four-legged friends rather than just your two-legged master. Bear in mind that the owners aren’t looking for anything difficult or complicated: they just want someone reliable who is good with animals and will keep them safe. If they want their dog to win the Greyhound Derby or become Supreme Champion at Cruft’s they’ll take a different approach.

It seems to me that, in my affluent part of London, parents take the same attitude to playing with their children that they take to playing with their dogs. They’re too busy to do it themselves, working long hours in demanding jobs to enable them to afford the exorbitant house prices in this part of the world. They recognise, quite rightly, the benefits of strategy games for young children, but many of them lack the time or the inclination to play these games. So instead, just as they’ll happily pay a dog walker to entertain Fido and Rover, they’ll happily sign Johnny and Jenny up for their school chess club. Again, at one level everyone wins. The parents, if they’re not themselves interested in chess, are happy to be relieved of a chore. The chess tutors are happy to be paid for something they enjoy. Johnny and Jenny are happy because playing chess with their friends at school is more fun than playing with Mum and Dad at home. If they want Johnny and Jenny to become grandmasters they’ll take a different approach: they’ll sign them up for a higher level club (in my area that will be Richmond Junior Club), enter them in competitions and perhaps employ a private tutor.

Now if you’re reading this you’ll probably agree about the benefits of strategy games for kids, and probably also agree that chess is one of the world’s greatest strategy games. You’ll also agree that some talented children with supportive parents can excel at chess at an early age. Johnny and Jenny’s parents, though, are too busy provide much support, and let’s assume they are typical, rather than exceptionally bright, students. Is chess really the best game for them to start with, or would they do better to learn simpler games, moving onto chess when they’re ready? Perhaps we should teach them a wide variety of games from different cultures. Perhaps we should introduce them to chess through mini-games before encouraging them to play full games. Perhaps they’ll benefit more from playing games which are easier to master than chess. Perhaps they’ll gain more enjoyment from games with simpler rules which don’t last as long. Perhaps if we take this approach we’ll be able to persuade more schools to start clubs and more chess teachers will be able to make more money.

Ideally, perhaps, schools should run two clubs: a main group for kids who can already play a complete game, and a beginners’ group for kids who can’t play a complete game, or who would just prefer simpler and quicker games.

I’ve been helping a large local Primary School with their chess club for a year now. The club is over-subscribed (this term we’ve set a cap on 24 members) and the school wants to start another session next term. I’ve proposed that they make this a mini-chess club, and the teacher involved is very much in agreement with this. Here’s an edited version of the letter I’ve suggested could go out to parents:

Dear Parents

Strategy games should play a part in all children’s lives. They provide a fun and enjoyable way for children to learn logic, problem solving, self-regulation and social skills.

There are many, like me, who believe that chess is the greatest of all strategy games, but, because of its difficulty, it’s really much more suitable for older children and adults than for younger children. Although most young children have little difficulty learning how the pieces move, they find it hard to cope with the complex abstract logic and the multitude of choices every move.

In this club children will not be playing complete games of chess, but will instead be playing mini-games, solving puzzles and answering quizzes using subsets of the chess. The course will be fully structured and fully documented so that parents and other family members will be able to replicate the activities at home. We’d also like to stress that the club will be equally suitable for both girls and boys.

Perhaps this sort of club will attract more members. Perhaps parents and children just want chess clubs and nobody will be interested. Either way, it will be good to find out. I’ll try to get back to you in the New Year and let you know what happens next.

Richard James

Thinking Skills Revisited (2)

This week I’m revisiting questions 5 to 8 of my thinking skills quiz. My thanks to those readers who have been in touch to provide feedback regarding their pupils’ results.

In Q5 Black’s just taken our knight on c3. It looks like we have a straight choice between capturing the knight with the queen or the b-pawn. In fact quite a few children fail to capture the knight, perhaps thinking that it won’t run away and they’ll be able to take it next move, or perhaps just not noticing that they can take it at all. I tweaked this position slightly from last time, placing the black bishop on e7 rather than c5. When the bishop was on c5 most children captured with the queen in order to threaten the bishop. Some of them pointed out that it was also a double attack, threatening Nxe5 as well as Qxc5. Would moving the black bishop to a safe square make any difference? From the small sample this time round, the answer is ‘no’. All the children who captured on c3 chose the queen, telling me that they wanted to get their most powerful piece into play. None of them asked themselves what Black might play next, so they were all oblivious to the potential pin Bb4 after Qxc3. At this level asking “It I play that move, what will my opponent do next?” is just too hard, but without asking themselves this question they will find it hard to make much progress.

I should add that, if you add the moves O-O for White and Be6 for Black, so that Qxc3 is a viable option, strong players would still prefer bxc3, moving another pawn towards the centre, but at this level children have little idea about the subtleties of pawn play so it would be automatic for them to capture with the queen.

Q6 is a standard tactical idea which happens quite often. It’s helpful to be aware of it and hard to find the right answer if you haven’t seen it before. Most (but not all) children will notice that their queen is in danger. A popular choice would be f3, a perfectly reasonable and logical move. Others will choose a queen move such as Qd2, again very sensible. Some choose Qxg4, usually not noticing that the bishop is defended by the knight, but sometimes spotting that the knight on f6 is pinned and planning a trade of queens and minor pieces. This is also not a bad move, but there’s something much better.

A few children do notice (perhaps they’ve seen the idea before) that the move Bxf6 wins a piece whether Black captures the bishop or the queen in reply. This is hard at this level, though. It’s automatic, if your queen is attacked, to consider moving her to a safe square, blocking the attack or capturing the attacking piece. The idea of creating an Equal or Bigger Threat (EBT) is not so easy.

Looking through my RJCC database (nearly 17000 games played over 30 years) the most frequent tactical idea, occurring, or being missed, in hundreds of games, is the queen fork with Qa4+, or Qa5+ if you’re black, hitting a loose minor piece, often, but not always, on b4/b5. Remember, Loose Pieces Drop Off (LPDO).

This position is a typical example, but few children at this level find the right move for the right reason. Quite a few children look blankly at this position, finding it hard to suggest any move at all, as they don’t think anything very much is happening. Some of them notice that their knight is pinned and resolve to do something about it by playing a3 or Bd2. Others are seduced by the idea of a check and might play either Bb5+ or Qa4+, or even suggest either move, being unable to choose, giving as their reason ‘because it’s check’. Some children think that saying check makes a move worth playing. Always check – it might be mate! Not very many will suggest the correct move for the correct reason. To get full credit they’d need to mention that the move is a fork, hitting the unprotected bishop on b4, and also to note that they’d meet Nc6 with Qxc6+. Of course you also have to notice that after 1. Qa4+ Nc6 2. Qxc6+ Bd7 3. Qb7 your queen will eventually be able to scurry back to safety.

The final question was designed deliberately to be confusing. Nonetheless, a few children do manage to solve it for the right reason. First of all you have to see that your bishop is under threat. Secondly, you have to see that it’s also pinned against the rook on a1. Then you have to notice that you can move the bishop to c3 where it defends the rook on a1. Finally, you have to spot that after 1. Bc3 Qxc3 you have 2. Rxa8+. Will children move their bishop to a safe square, overlooking the pin? Will they decide they’re losing a piece anyway and try something else?

A popular choice is e5. There might be several reasons for this: i) they haven’t noticed their bishop is threatened: ii) they’ve noticed their bishop is threatened and think they can’t save it: iii) they’re thinking ‘if you take my bishop I’ll take your knight’. But the move can be met most simply by Nd5, when Black’s winning a piece because the white bishop no longer has access to c3. Another popular choice is Qc4: I really hope you’ll take my bishop because then I’ll take your queen. Unfortunately the move’s no good because Black can trade queens before capturing the bishop. Rd1 is also sometimes suggested by children who think that after Rxa5, Rd8 might possibly be checkmate.

This quiz demonstrates a few things about how children think about chess positions and why they make mistakes. At this age children find it difficult to think about two different aspects of the position at the same time. Although they might analyse accurately if they see a familiar idea such as a back rank mate, by and large they will make one of two mistakes. They will either think “I’ll go there, then I’ll go there, then I’ll go there” or “I’ll go there because I hope you’ll do something really stupid”, or, in another version of this, “I’ll go there because I hope it might be checkmate”. All of which is very much what you’d expect if you read up on children’s cognitive development.

I’m planning to produce more of these quizzes, which might possibly make a book in the Chess for Heroes series. Although all the questions in this quiz had one right answer, there’s no reason why future questions shouldn’t have two, three or many right answers. I’m just as interested in the reasons for my students’ choice as I am in the moves themselves.

If you have any positions you’d like to submit for future quizzes of this nature, or if you’ve tested this quiz on any of your students, I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Richard James

Tracking Improvement

Many of my students have asked me how they were doing in regards to their own improvement on the chessboard. If you think about it, it’s an extremely valid question since it’s often difficult to measure one’s chess improvement when all you see are your losses. In fact, most beginners (and many experienced players) become frustrated because they feel as if they’re getting nowhere when it comes to honing their chess skills. It’s a lot easier to see progress in others than it is to see progress in your own efforts. Again, we tend to see our losses as total losses, after all, a loss just proves you’re not moving forward. Right? Absolutely wrong, so remove that idea from your thinking. I really mean it, remove the idea that a loss is simply an example of your chess playing shortcomings! Great strides in improvement can be found in even the most brutal losses (within reason).

Of course, someone reading this (other than my wife and mother) is going to think, “hey, if I just suffered a brutal loss, doesn’t that mean I’m doing something wrong?” I’d answer this by saying, “you have to lose a lot of games along the road to mastery.” However, there’s more to it than just simply saying you have to lose before you win. Let’s look at a hypothetical situation:

A student attends my chess classes, showing up every day, paying attention to my lectures and then acquiring some of my recommended chess books to study. This student, who was brand new to the game when we first met, also invests in a chess playing program so they have an opponent around the clock. The students reads and takes that new found knowledge with them when they play against the computer. They lose game after game because they set the software’s playing level fairly high for a beginner. The software program records all of the games played. After a few months, the student comes to me nearly in tears saying “I’m just not any good at this so I’m going to give up.” I say to them, as I say to every students who thinks about giving up, “let me take a look at the games you’ve played against the computer and see where you’re at. Don’t give up yet!”

I look at their games in chronological order, from the first game played to the last game played. I see a much different picture. I see improvement from the first game through the last, even if the student in question lost every game they played. It’s not the result of the game that I’m interested in but the application of their chess studies to the games. Here’s what I look for.

Obviously, I don’t have to worry about illegal piece movement and the breaking of rules when students are playing against the computer because the computer will not let you do anything illegal! What I’m really looking for is improvement. What do I mean by improvement?

The game of chess has three distinct phases, the opening, middle and endgame. Each of these three phases require that certain tasks be accomplished, so that’s where I start. I examine each game phase and determine, first, if my students are applying the correct principles for the phase of the game and second, if those applied principles are improving in scope. I don’t expect a student to play a perfect opening at the start of their chess careers. I want to see the basics starting to come to light!

Most beginners are lost during the opening, not controlling the board’s center with a combination of pawns and pieces (especially the minor pieces). Add to this, the idea that beginner’s pieces aren’t coordinated from the start and you can see why they become so discouraged. The first thing I look at in their games against the computer (from first game to last) is whether they’re getting their pieces out towards the board’s center during the first six to eight moves. I give them a point for each minor piece moved towards the board’s center, ignoring piece coordination until I examine later games. As I play through the students games, I look to see if they start coordinating their pieces in later games. One point is awarded to each pair of coordinated pieces (five points for three pieces working together). A point is awarded for castling as well as good pawn structure.

Next, I examine the middle game, a realm in which many beginners have gone down in flames. What I’m look at here is further activity of pawns and pieces, awarding a point for each piece that is further developed to an active square. Points are taken away for premature attacks and capturing of opposition material if it damaged their position. Combinations that lead to tactical plays get five points.

The endgame, if reached (beginners seldom reach a real endgame), is tough for the beginner because they think that less material makes for less thinking! Wrong! While checkmate with a pair or Rooks or a Queen and King score a point, proper pawn promotion earns a whopping five points! I add up the scores for each game played and we look to see if the score increases from game to game.

By going through a student’s collection of games against their computer from the first game to the last, while scoring points for the above mentioned principled play and adding those points up, can give the student a snapshot of their improvement over time. I suggest you try this with your own recorded games. While you may be losing a lot of games, you’ll at least see that you are improving and getting better at the game we love so much in the long run. Don’t become discouraged if you’re not winning many games because you’re more likely improving but that improvement is buried under the stigma of losing. You just have to look beyond the losses and look for the things you’re doing right. Remember, even the world’s top players lose games and they don’t give up. Also, remember to be kind to yourself when assessing your improvement. My first chess teacher fired me as a student because, as he put it, “you really don’t have the intellectual skill set to play chess.” In other words, he thought I was the village idiot. I had the satisfaction of running into him decades later and crushing him on the sixty four squared jungle. While I try to be a gracious winner, I did kind of dance around the table yelling “ha ha ha, whose the idiot now.” Not my finest moment as an adult! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Thinking Skills Revisited (1)

More than a decade ago I devised a short quiz designed to test the chess thinking skills of children rated up to about 1500 ELO/100 ECF. There were eight questions in which my pupils were invited to choose a move for White and give reasons for their choice either using a short sentence or a variation.

The results were written up in an article which was published in various places.

Two of the original questions were slightly unsatisfactory so were omitted from the article. I’d rather forgotten about the whole project, partly because I hadn’t had the opportunity recently to teach in an environment where the test would be appropriate. But following a recent discussion about the article with my online friend from across the Atlantic, Paul Swaney, I decided to revive it for the Intermediate Group at Richmond Junior Club, making some minor changes to two of the other positions in the process. This group is for children of primary school age who have mastered the basics and understand notation, but who are not yet ready for serious competition. Their ratings would be up to about 800/1000 ELO and their ECF grades up to about 40/50. My previous experience is that players of about 1500 ELO/100 ECF will get most of the questions right, but anyone much below that will struggle to get more than a few correct.

My interest in these questions is not so much the answers that the children give but the reasons for their answers. I have to bear in mind, of course, that young children are not always very good at putting their thoughts into words and their words onto paper.

This is Q1: a basic test of endgame knowledge. I repeat this over and over again with my pupils, so some of them will get it right. Others will choose a random move, saying that if Black replies with c2 they’ll be able to capture the pawn. This is an error in differentiation. I explain to them it’s like me asking what the difference is between Jack and Joe, and getting the reply “Jack’s a boy”.

It occurred to me that there’s a slight problem with interpreting the reasons they give for their answers to this question. Many children think ‘stalemate’ is just another word for draw and announce ‘stalemate’ when they reach a position with king against king. If they say that they’ll play Kc1 because they’re more likely to get stalemate they might have the right reason, or they might just be saying it because they’re anticipating c2 in reply.

In Q2 we have a pawn on the seventh rank about to promote. But there’s a problem: Black is threatening mate in 1, which, because it relies on a pin, is not easy to see at this level. The other problem is that, because promotions are very common in games played by young children and a queen is almost always chosen, they find it very difficult even to consider the idea of promoting to anything other than a queen.

As expected, most children at this level promote to a queen here, overlooking the mate. They will often point out that next move they intend to play Q(either)g8#. Some children will play something else instead even though they haven’t seen Black’s mate threat, thinking that promotion can wait. So Rd1, for instance, is sometimes chosen. Some children move the rook, explaining that they’ve seen the mate and want to provide an escape square for their king on g1, overlooking that they’re just allowing mate in 2. Some children will stop the mate by playing a move like c4 or Kh2. Only a few will even consider promoting to a knight rather than a queen because the idea of promoting to a queen is so ingrained. When I ask children how many possible moves they have with the pawn on f7 they’ll usually say ‘one’: it takes me a very long time to persuade them that the answer is actually ‘four’.

When I first devised Q3 I expected it to be a straight choice between captures on d4. I was wondering how many would choose the rook capture because they wanted to avoid doubled pawns. At this level at least half the children, typically, will give an incorrect answer. A few will mention doubled pawns but most will not: children will usually see the rook capture first because pawns move and capture in different ways and play it with no further thought.

Many children at this level are familiar with the back rank mate and some of them will notice the problem with Rxd4. You’d expect them all to play cxd4 instead, but not all of them do. Some of them will instead play a move such as h3 to stop the back rank mate, intending to capture the knight next move. This didn’t actually happen with the small RJCC group, but when I tested some of my private pupils later, one of them did play h3. Again, this demonstrates that children at this level tend, if they’re thinking ahead at all, to think “I go there, then I go there, then I go there” rather than “I go there, then you go there, then I go there”. The idea that they have an opponent who is going to try to find the best move is a very difficult concept for most young children whose theory of mind skills are, as yet, insufficiently developed for them to consider their opponent’s perspective in any meaningful way.

Q4 might be considered the hardest question in this set. The idea, which mostly works, is that weaker players will play the right answer for the wrong reason, and will take the queen without any further thought. The intermediate players will spot the potential back rank mate but the idea of meeting Re1+ with Rf1 rather than Rxa1 won’t occur to them. So they’ll play a move such as Qd1 or h3, planning to capture the queen next move.

At this level, only a few players will get the question right for the right reason, pointing out that after 1. Rxf6 Re1+? they’re going to play Rf1. There will also be a few who don’t notice that they can capture the black queen.

I’ll consider the other four questions next week. If any of my readers teach at this level and would like to try this quiz out or devise suitable questions of their own I’d love to hear from them.

Richard James

Chess Problem Solving

One of the best ways a beginner can improve their game is by doing chess puzzles. Of course, there’s no substitute for playing and gaining experience that way, but chess problems are an excellent choice for improvement because they can be done during your down time, even if it’s only five minutes. However, beginners often have trouble when they first start doing basic chess problems, not because the basic problems are difficult but because the beginner doesn’t fully understand what they’re being asked to do.

The first key to solving a chess problem is to fully understand what you’re being asked to do. First determine which color is making the move. With problems found in books, you’ll be told whether it’s white to move or black. With some software programs, they don’t tell you via actual words but using a color indicator, either white or black, on the right or left side of the chessboard. Always start with knowing whose move it is!

There are different types of problems ranging from mates in one, two, three or four, as well as tactical and material gains. Here, you really have to pay attention. With mate in one problems, your job is to find the single move that delivers checkmate. This means you make one move and the game ends. With mate in two, you will be making two moves, the second of which delivers mate. The key to solving this type of problem is to look for pairs of pieces that attack a key square. This square is one adjacent to the enemy King (or near, in the case of a back rank mate). Mate in three and four will eventually involve two pieces but often require an exchange or two to get to the two piece solution. The trick to all chess problems is to look at all your pieces in relation to the opposition King and the opposition’s pieces in relation to your pieces (and King). Only then determine the best course of action. This course of action can only be considered after a close examination of all the material on the board (which helps to develop your board vision). Remember, the key is to take your time even if there’s a clock counting the seconds away, as found on many chess problem software programs and apps. It doesn’t matter if you solve the problem in thirty seconds or thirty minutes. Either way, you’ve solved it.

Then there are the tactical problems which can leave the beginner completely lost. When trying to solve one of these problems, consider the word tactic. In chess this can be a fork, pin, skewer, etc. However, the majority of beginner’s problems will revolve around forks. The first step towards solving the problem is to mentally note that this is a tactical play not a mate in one (unless otherwise noted). This means that you’ll be winning material. Beginner’s tactics usually only require you to make one move that forks the key pieces in the problem. Start by looking at the most popular forking piece, the Knight. The Knight is a powerful piece when it comes to forking because you cannot block a Knight’s attack due to its ability to jump over other pieces. Take a look at the example below:

In our example, White has two Rooks, one on b1 and the other on d1, as well as a Knight on e5. Black has a Queen on a8. White has to use a tactic to win material and ensure an easy victory. It’s White to move. The key here is for White to win material and since the only material to be won is the Queen, that’s the piece we target. This problem requires a fork. First we look at our material, the two Rooks and the Knight. We aim for finding the fastest way in which to accomplish our task. Look at the Knight first. The White Knight could move to d7 and check the King, but that’s a check not a fork. We look at the black Queen on a8 and think “if only the Queen were on b8, then we could fork King and Queen, winning the Queen.” How do we get the Queen onto the b8 square? Take a look at the Rooks, specifically the Rook on b1. If the b1 Rook moved to b8, black would be forced to use the Queen to capture the Rook, allowing the white Knight to then move to d7 forking King and Queen. That’s how you want to think through a puzzle.

Beginner’s tactical puzzles tend to be either one move tactical plays or two move combinations. The two move combinations are much harder because they require setting up the tactical play by making a first move that sets the stage for the tactic. The above example was a combination of moves leading to the tactic, a fork. I highly recommend working through tactical puzzles, starting with the simplest one move tactical problems. These puzzles will help you immensely when it comes to finding tactical positions during your games.

So the the secret to solving chess puzzles is to first understand exactly what is being asked of you. Then you have to methodically analyze the situation or position in this case. This analysis starts with looking at every single pawn and piece belonging to both you and the opposition. See where those pieces can move to and what the results of that move would be (from a tactical standpoint). Just working out problems, even if it takes you hours, will greatly improve your game. Try working through as many chess puzzles and problems as you can and you’ll see a positive difference in your improvement. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

The Unexplored Territory

With the advent of computer technology, have we completely and successfully explored the seemingly endless array of positions within a single game of chess? Have we reached the zenith of game theory? Are there any unknown chess mysteries left to solve? Some might simply say no because, after all, computers would have been able to calculate into the dark void of possible positions, so if there was anything unknown it would have been found by the Silicon beast. I say rubbish to that! I firmly believe that there is a vast array of uncharted territory and that territory might lead to some astonishing discoveries that might change the way we play the game. Sorry, my Hyperbaric therapy sessions have thrown my brain into overdrive so I’m stuck dwelling upon such thoughts. To appreciate what I’m getting at, we have to look at the huge number of potential positions that can arise in a single game of chess. The number is so staggering that after first hearing it mentioned, I thought the gentleman rattling off this number was full of…well, you know what I was thinking.

At the start of the game, each player has a choice of 20 first moves. That seems easy enough to digest since each of the eight pawns can move one or two squares on move one (16 possible moves) and each Knight can make one of two moves (4 moves total). As we move forward into the game, the number then jumps to 400 possible positions to be found on the board. So far, this seems reasonable. With another pair of moves made, the number now jumps to197,742. Then the number jumps up to roughly 121,000,000. It only gets worse, large number-wise, from here! The number of ways of playing the first four moves per side in a single game of chess is approximately 318, 979, 564,000. You can look up the theoretical total number of potential positions in a single game of chess online by googling the Shannon Number. Make sure to have a mirror close by so you can watch your jaw drop upon grasping this enormous number.

Rather that get into the Shannon number and the associated mathematics behind these calculations, I want you to think about a number that is far larger than the total number of atoms in your body combined with the number of individual grains of sand on our planet multiplied by a gigantic number and ask yourself, are there still deeper mysteries to explore within the game we love so much, especially considering the huge number of potential positions?

One of the problems that keep us from being able to discover these potential mysteries is that the fact that the very principles that help us to play better, preventing us from taking a side trip into the realm of positional chaos, a place in which principles hold no sway and games are lost. We learn specific game principles that tell us we need to do this or that during a specific phase of the game. Doing otherwise, will lead to a loss and since we’re trying to win more than we lose, we take the path more traveled rather than venture into uncharted waters. It’s slightly ironic that we’re given this vast uncharted territory to explore but can’t take the journey because doing so would lead to positional ruin (and losing games). However, I really believe that there’s something out there in the vast unexplored territories. It’s kind of like believing in UFOs. Mathematical theory tells us the chances of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is most likely. Yet, a large number of people simply think intelligent life elsewhere (as if we’re actually an intelligent species) is ridiculous. With a number of potential positions in a single game so large my arm would fall off trying to write it out, has the game been fully explored? Theory says no!

Then again, who is going to explore it while trying improve their rating level? Not anyone paying a high entrance fee at their local rated tournaments! It’s the great double edged sword of irony. The question more aptly might be, can we actually explore the unknown in chess?

Because the numbers are so large, we’d need computer assistance. However, you’d have to consider a more specialized program than your high end chess software. After all, it’s designed to come up with the best way to win a game, not take a dip in the dark waters of positional chaos. Chess computers give you the potentially best moves rather than open a portal into the realm of the unknown. A more specialized computer program would be needed. An unconventional path would have to be taken!

I’m going to get together with some mathematicians and computer programmers next month and see if we can seriously look at this problem, finding a way into the rabbit hole (and hopefully a way out). I will be addressing this subject in greater detail in the near future (articles), but wanted to simply throw the idea out for debate. I suspect every chess player has wondered if there was additional life out there on the outer edges of the chess universe. I think it’s a subject worth further study. Until then, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Fast Forward Focus

I’ve always had trouble focusing my mind quickly because my thoughts tend to be akin to a pinball wildly bouncing around a full tilt gaming machine. This can be troublesome when trying to sit down and play a game of chess! For the last three years, I’ve been studying the game of blackjack from a mathematical standpoint. In my studies, I’ve also learned the art of card counting which any good blackjack player will tell you, drastically improves your chances of doing well against the casino (reducing the odds). I should note that this article is not in any way an endorsement for either card counting or gambling. To be able to card count at a blackjack table takes years of practice and is only a small part of mastering the game, mathematics being the lion’s share of the work. However, I will say that taking a single, well shuffled deck of cards and counting it (using the basic Hi-Low system) is an excellent way to focus your ability to quickly concentrate. Again, don’t think that simply doing this is going to make you a high roller at the casinos (they frown upon card counters and you don’t want to visit the casino’s pit boss in his dark, smokey and frightening back office)!

When you watch a Hollywood film about blackjack card sharks, you tend to see either one or two character types. You have your rain man type, savants who can’t string two words together but seem to be able to instantly count the exact number of tooth picks that fall out of a container and onto the floor. The next character is the guy who walks up to the blackjack table and a though bubble appears over his head filled with calculus equations. From these two highly exaggerated examples, people think you have to be a gifted idiot or rocket scientist to pull off card counting. The good news? If you know how to add, subtract, divide and multiply, you have the prerequisite skills required. Learning card counting is easy but mastering it extremely difficult (especially when faced with a six decks, 312 cards, a standard in Las Vegas). Doesn’t this sound like a familiar game we all love? However, to do this concentration exercise you just need to learn the basics.

Because you have to concentrate heavily while doing the counting, it focuses your mind, narrowing the thought process down and in doing so, helps to point your thinking in a single direction rather than a scattered one. I now count a single deck of cards before sitting down to play chess (whenever possible) because it gets rid of the scattered thoughts that damage my ability to singularly concentrate on one thing. Here’s how it works:

A deck of card has four suits, diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades. These are completely ignored in the count. It’s all about the card numbers! There are thirteen numerically valued cards within each suit, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King and Ace. You might be thinking, with thirteen different types of cards, how am I supposed to keep track of them all? The good news is that we’re going to divide all of those cards into one of three numeric values: +1, -1 and 0 or the neutral card.

Any card with a value of 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 is assigned a value of +1. This means they’re worth one point. The 7, 8 and 9 have a value of zero. The Jack, Queen, King and Ace are worth -1. This means they’re subtracted from the positive numbers. Let me clarify this with an example:

After shuffling the deck, you flip over the first card and it’s a 2. This means it’s worth 1 point. The next card up is a 5 which is worth another point. You now have two points (1+1=2). The next card up is a 4, so you now have a total of 3 points (1+1+1=3). The fourth card dealt from the deck is a Jack. This card is valued as -1, which means you subtract 1 point from your total (1+1+1-1=2), leaving a total value of two. The next card up is a 8 which has a value of zero so you don’t worry about it (1+1+1-1+0=2). You go through the deck, mentally adding and subtracting as you go along. You’ll get it wrong at first but don’t worry because the idea here is to focus your thought process on this single procedure, clearing all those random thoughts out of your mind as you count. If you really need to see if you’re counting correctly, go through the deck of cards first and write down the value for each card and the final total, carefully keeping them in the order they were shuffled in, and then go back and do it in your head. Compare the two answers.

Again, this is not an advertisement for improving your blackjack techniques or an invitation to take up gambling. Trust me when I say, the house or casino always wins in the end. Most people are NOT suited for gambling, period! However, if you’re looking for a quick way to sharpen your focus, give this a try. Of course, I feel like a bit of a dullard since I didn’t think to try this as a chess tool when I first learned how to do it! It only became a training tool because I was waiting for an opponent who was running late and just happen to have a deck of cards in my car. You know, I think this counting business really works because this is the shortest, most “to the point” article I’ve written to date! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week and remember, chess is not a game of chance so you shouldn’t be taking any!

Hugh Patterson