Category Archives: Children’s Chess

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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Deliberate Practice

There is now a general understanding that to achieve mastery in any worthwhile field you require deliberate practice. Sadly most parents and schools either fail to understand that this is true of chess or fail to understand exactly what deliberate chess practice might involve.

I asked a class of children aged 8-10 at a local primary school chess club if they practised chess. A lot of them told me they did, so I asked them how they practised. Some told me they played their mum or dad. Others said that they played their computer or on a website. No one mentioned anything other than playing games. I them asked how many of them had piano lessons. Many hands went up. They all told me they practised their scales as well as the pieces they were learning. Again, I asked how many played tennis. Again, a lot of hands were raised. They told me they practised different shots: backhand, forehand, topspin. So they, or their teachers, have a good idea of what deliberate practice looks like in music and tennis, but not in chess. Playing games is only useful practice if you’re getting constructive feedback. Playing every day against a parent who doesn’t know the correct names for the pieces or play by the correct rules isn’t much good. Nor is playing against a computer program that beats you every time without telling you why.

One thing you need to do in many disciplines is develop fluency – speed and accuracy – in simple skills. If you’re learning maths you need to be fast and accurate with basic arithmetic. If you’re not, you’ll find anything else difficult. At the age of 6 or 7 we all sat in rows chanting our times tables until we learnt them off by heart. These days the primary school maths curriculum is much broader, less boring and more ‘fun’, but has this come at the expense of the rigour of learning your tables off by heart? If you’re learning the piano you’ll be expected to practice your scales and arpeggios over and over again even though you may well find it boring. If you’re learning golf you’re going to practice simple short putts over and over again until you’re confident you can hole them every time. In chess you develop fluency by solving puzzles. At one level this means solving simple (to you) puzzles quickly and getting them right every time. It also means challenging yourself to solve harder puzzles. By solving puzzles you’re doing lots of things. Yes, you’re developing speed and accuracy. More specifically, you’re improving your chessboard vision: the ability to glance at a position and take in where every piece is, what it can do both now and in the future, to identify all the attacks and defences, to see every possible check. You’re also learning pattern recognition. You’ll see the same ideas over and over again, learning to recognise them and use them in your own games. Once you move onto two-move puzzles you’re learning to think ahead, to visualise the next moves without moving the pieces: one of the most vital chess skills to acquire. As you graduate to harder puzzles you’re learning to look further and further ahead. You’re learning concentration and impulse control – many children fail to make progress because they lack these vital skills. Puzzles are also use to develop non-cognitive skills such as persistence: not giving up if you find a puzzle difficult to solve.

We’ve known for the past 30 years about the importance of puzzle solving. It’s how Laszlo Polgar taught his daughters. It’s the basic idea of the Dutch Steps Method. It’s what children at chess academies in Baghdad and Baku have to do for homework. If you compare learning chess with learning an instrument or a sport it becomes obvious.

Many non-players or non-competitive players, though, don’t understand the point of solving puzzles. I remember many years ago standing at the back of the room watching my colleague Ray Cannon demonstrate a tactical puzzle on the demo board. A parent who was watching with me asked me “Why is he doing this? They’re not likely to reach that position in their games.”. But of course that’s not the point. Parents are often reluctant to make their children do chess homework solving puzzles. They often don’t understand the purpose of solving puzzles, think it might not be ‘fun’, it might be ‘boring’. But most children enjoy solving puzzles so doing this sort of work can be presented in a positive light.

Deliberate practice at chess will also involving learning and honing new skills. At lower levels this might be learning specific endings: practising the king and queen checkmate, for example. At higher levels this will involve learning more complex endings, learning and practising new openings, possibly by playing games online, learning and practising how to play typical middle-game structures such as IQP positions. It also involves, at higher levels, targeting specific weaknesses: concentrating on skills which you’re not so good at in order to improve them. If you’re tactically weak you might work on improving this by playing blitz games online using sharp openings. Or if you’re positionally weak, playing games using positional openings to improve this side of your play.

The point of Chess for Heroes is that it provides opportunities for deliberate practice. The first volume gives children a lot of very simple puzzles to solve. I’m currently working on an endgame book which, as well as puzzles, will include positions to play out to develop your skill at winning simple endings. Further books on tactics and other aspects of chess are also planned so that children will have a complete programme of practice materials taking them from learning the moves up to the point where they can compete in low level adult competitions.

Richard James

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Middlegame Planning

Once the beginner has a grasp of the opening principles and some basic endgame knowledge, they often feel confident that their chess has improved enough to start winning games. However, they often run into trouble during the phase that comes after the opening and before the endgame, the middlegame! The middlegame generally starts after both players have connected their rooks, which means moving the Queen up a rank or two, allowing the Rooks to patrol along their starting rank. Planning in the middle game can be difficult because both players have no concrete information regarding what pawns and pieces will be remaining on the board when this middle phase starts. So how do we formulate a plan? There are five points to consider when creating a middlegame plan.

The first point to consider is material. Before starting your plan, ask yourself if you’re ahead or behind in material. To determine where you stand, count both your material and your opponent’s material, noting who is ahead or behind. The player who is ahead in material will generally plan to trade or exchange material with their opponent to reduce that opponent’s counterplay. So, if you’re ahead in material you might consider a series of exchanges that will further reduce your opponent’s ability to fight back. If you’re behind in material, your opponent having more pawns and pieces than you have, you’ll want to avoid those trades in order to maintain some force on the board. If you have less material than your opponent, you need to hang on to what you have.

Pawn structure is the next consideration. I constantly tell my students that good pawn structure must be maintained throughout the game, starting from their first few moves. Look at the board and note how the pawns are positioned for both sides. You’ll want to note any doubled, isolated or backwards pawns. If you have any of these dreadful pawn problems, you need to look for a way to rectify these issues. However, don’t move on to the next planning point until you ask yourself, “is there any way I can give my opponent doubled, isolated or backwards pawns?” These types of pawns lose their mobility and effectiveness which takes away their ability to be useful during the game. If your opponent’s pawn structure can be damage, you may want to consider moves that create problem pawns and the subsequent damage they bring with them.

Our next point to consider is mobility. Mobility is a key factor in all three phases of the game. How active are your pawns and pieces? Too often, beginners develop their minor pieces early on and then stop overall pawn and piece development to launch a premature attack. Pieces that have better mobility have greater control of the board. Greater board control makes for better attacks. Look at every pawn and piece and determine whether or not it is on its most active square. Don’t simply look at your pawns and pieces. Look at your opponent’s pawns and pieces. Note what squares they control and then compare them to your own pawns and pieces. Before asking yourself “what can I do to increase my pawn and piece activity,” determine what your opponent can do to improve his or her pawn and piece activity. Can you slow down their control of the board with a specific move? Beginners tend to think in terms of what their best move is without considering their opponent’s best potential move. It takes two to play a game of chess. Only considering one player’s position, namely yours, will lead to lost games.

King safety is next. I mentioned in my last article that castling should be delayed, if possible, in favor of greater development. However, King safety always trumps development if a possible checkmate by the opposition is in the air. Ask yourself whose King is safer. If your King isn’t safe then castling and a good defense should be considered. If your King is safe and you’re considering an attack against the enemy King, it’s time to look at your opponent’s position, namely the pawns and pieces protecting the opposition King. Can you weaken the position? How long will doing so take? However, you better first take a look at your own pawns and pieces surrounding your King, determining if you opponent can do likewise.

Lastly we must look at threats. Beginners have a bad habit of launching attacks when their position is under threat. A threat assessment must be made before formulating a plan of action. Before considering any threats you can make, ask yourself “what are my opponent’s threats?” Look carefully at all of your opponent’s pawns and pieces and examine what those pawns and pieces can do on the opposition’s next move as well as the following move. A good threat can force pawns and pieces into defensive rather than offensive positions, which help with a potential attack by the aggressor!

Now that you’ve gone through the planning checklist list, its time to think about a plan. During the middle-game, positions can drastically change from move to move. This means that plans should be flexible and short term. By flexible, I mean plans that have the ability to change fluidly as the board’s position changes. Therefore, long term plans are too stodgy and lack flexibility. Make plans that address the next few moves rather than the next ten moves.

Plans must have a specific short term goal. While this might seem to contradict the idea of a flexible plan, you don’t want to try and do everything at once. Don’t think in terms of doing too much at once or you’ll lose the game. Your plan should consist of simpler, short term goals, such as reducing the mobility of a single piece, the isolation of a pawn or the weakening of a key pawn or piece (or even square) that supports the enemy King. Keep your plans short term during the middlegame and consider the five points discussed above. Keep it simple. Play for flexibility and fluidity during the middlegame. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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My last post have considered how most parents have little or no knowledge of what chess is all about. They want their children to ‘do’ chess because it ‘makes them smarter’ or, in my part of the world, because it will help their application to the secondary school of their choice, and will drop chess once they’ve got what they wanted out of the game. Many parents specifically tell me they don’t want their children to be good at chess, they are not prepared to support their children in any way and they don’t actually like chess themselves.

Some schools and parents are suspicious of excellence in any field, but many schools in my area who pride themselves, not just on their academic excellence but also on their sporting and artistic excellence, have no interest at all in promoting chess excellence and are quite happy with a low level club which doesn’t take part in competitions and where most of the children play to a very poor standard.

It seems to me there’s a general lack of understanding of what chess is: a highly competitive and extremely demanding mental sport played in most countries of the world.

But this isn’t the image most parents and teachers have about chess. The recent sad coincidence of the deaths of two players on the last day of the Chess Olympiad led to a series of negative articles about chess and chess players. The public perception of chess players – and one that is emphasized by articles in the press – is that chess players are introverted nerds with no social skills. They are often overweight, have a poor diet, drink too much, have a disregard for personal hygiene, dress badly, carry their packed lunch in a carrier bag and – this seems to be a new one – are likely to die young.

Now there’s an element of truth in this at lower adult levels. Those who continue playing chess even though they are not very successful are often those who don’t have a family life, or those who may have difficulty getting a job. But I’m sure this is true of many other pastimes, not just chess. It’s certainly not true at the top, though. The ages of the world’s leading players range from late teens to mid forties. There are, admittedly, one or two (Ivanchuk, for example) who might be considered slightly eccentric, but by and large they come across as well adjusted and well presented: excellent role models for our children. In these days of internet coverage of all major events, where players are interviewed after the game, where there’s money to be made from broadcasting, producing DVDs and teaching, excellent communication skills are as important for chess players as knowing the latest theory in the Sicilian Najdorf.

The media still churn out articles on the ‘all chess players are loonies’ theme from time to time, complete with the usual suspects and the same unsubstantiated or exaggerated anecdotes as evidence that chess sends you mad: Morphy collecting women’s shoes, Steinitz giving God odds of pawn and move, Carlos Torre taking his clothes off on a bus, Fischer, well, being Fischer. Nothing more recent than Fischer, mind you, and you might also share my concern about making fun of people with mental health issues.

I also can’t help thinking that it may not do the game any favours to promote chess as a game suitable for mass participation by young children. If you’re implying chess is so easy that young children have no problem mastering it to the point where they can play in competitions you’re putting it into the same category as Top Trumps. If chess really is that easy and that trivial, adults who devote their lives to it must be pretty sad, and high level competitive chess will not be attractive to potential sponsors.

The chess establishment really needs to stop the petty bickering, rivalries, jealousy and obsession with ancient disputes and promote chess for what it is. A game which, while it can be enjoyed at any age, is, at the top level, a game for young adults, both male and female, who are physically fit and emotionally strong as well as being intelligent and hard working. A game that, while it can also be a fun game for children, at the top level requires the pursuit of excellence and hours of deliberate practice, exactly the same qualities you need to excel at, say, tennis or golf, or at playing the piano. We need to get parents and schools to respect chess as a fantastic, endlessly fascinating and extremely difficult game, not just as a learning tool or a cheap after-school child-minding service.

Richard James

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When to Castle

One mistake that beginners often make is not castling their King to safety. Leaving your King exposed on a central file makes it easier for your opponent to launch a successful attack that leads to mate. This is why beginners are encouraged to castle their King to safety early in the game. However, beginners often take the idea of castling early literally and castle as soon as possible which can create problems later on. While King safety is crucial, the beginner can castle too early, ignoring further piece development and end up in a positional bind. So when should the beginner castle?

Before learning when to castle, the beginner should fully know the rules of castling which are fairly simple. To castle there have to be no pieces between the King and the Rook on the side you’re castling on. Thus, on the King-side, you have to move the King-side Knight and Bishop off of their starting squares prior to castling. On the Queen-side, you have to move the Queen-side Knight, Bishop and Queen off of their starting squares. This means you have to develop two minor pieces on the King-side prior to castling or two minor pieces plus the Queen on the Queen-side prior to castling (on that side of the board). You cannot move your King prior to castling, If you do, you can’t castle at all. If you move a Rook prior to castling, you cannot castle on that side of the board. Move both Rooks prior to castling and you’re out of luck (no castling for you). You cannot castle if you’re in check. Lastly, you cannot move your King through or onto a square controlled by an opposition pawn or piece. Looking at this list of requirements, you can see why beginners often panic and castle at the first chance they get!

One important idea, often lost on the beginner, is the idea of Rook activation. I see so many of my beginning students activate their minor pieces to decent squares during the opening and middle games only to ignore their Rooks throughout the entire game. Castling allows you to do two important things. The first is getting your King to safety. The second, which is extremely important, is to activate one of your Rooks. Rooks who sit on their starting squares are inactive pieces. The player with the most active pieces usually has an easier time controlling and subsequently winning the game. Moves that allow you to do two good things at the same time are the type of moves you want to make.

While castling is crucial, timing is everything. During the opening game, both players are fighting to control the center of the board. The only way to dominate or at least equalize control of the board’s center is to carefully but rapidly deploy your pawns and pieces to active squares, those that control the greatest amount of centralized board space. Therefore, before castling, beginners should ask themselves two questions.

The first question: Is my King in present or future danger? Present danger means that it’s your turn, your opponent’s pieces are in attack formation and ready to start checking your King immediately. If so, castling is a good idea. When I say future danger, I mean that an attack on your King is possible during the next one or two opposition moves. Advanced players have a bit more leeway regarding future danger and just when to castle. Future danger translates to “ within the next few moves can my opponent’s pieces attack my King, either forcing it to move, in which case my King loses the right to castle, or force me to weaken my position when I have to defend the King?” Of course, a potential immediate checkmate from the opposition within the next few moves should prompt you to castle if doing so saves the King! If the answer to this question is yes, then castle your King!

If you answered “no” to the first question, then its time to ask the second question, “are my pawns and pieces developed enough to control the board’s center more so than my opponent’s pawns and pieces? Most beginners consider castling before completing their development so the answer to this question is almost always “no.” Time to look at your development.

Many beginners learn the Italian Opening because it provides a relatively clear example of the game’s opening principles. For example, after 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6, 3.Bc4…Bc5, both players can castle on the King-side. This is where beginners get into trouble. They’ve been told by their chess instructors or by reading beginner’s books that you should castle early. Beginner’s take things literally, which often inspires them to castle as early as move four in the above opening move sequence. However, the opening is a fight for territorial control and the player that has it has a greater advantage. Advantages, both big and small, win games.

If your King is in no immediate danger, further development is in order. Keep developing pieces to active squares in order to shut down your opponent’s chance at staking a claim to those very same squares. In the opening, it’s all about the center. Just because you’ve developed your minor pieces on one side of your King is certainly no reason to ignore the pieces on his majesty’s other side. Keep bringing those remaining minor pieces into the game. Pieces on their starting squares are not in the game. Those pieces are inactive and activity is the name of the opening game.

Then there’s the question of which side of the board to castle on. Beginners tend to castle King-side because its easier since you don’t have an additional piece to move (the Queen). However, Queen-side castling can be extremely effective. Why would you castle Queen-side? Here’s a good reason: If your opponent has aimed his or her forces at your King-side, castling there is going to put your King directly in the line of fire. Castling on the opposite side of the attack will force your opponent to redirect his or her pieces, which has a price. That price is tempo or time (wasting it). While your opponent is redirecting pieces, you can be strengthening your position or building up an attack against your opponent’s King. Don’t make your opponent’s job easier by castling into an attack or potential attack!

The next time you consider castling, ask yourself those two questions before doing so. If your do, you’ll know if you’re castling at the right time. Castling too early can make a position worse. Castling too late will send your King to an early grave. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Notice how White finds a great way to solve a potential positional problem by castling!

Hugh Patterson

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Excuses Excuses

They always have excuses.

The other day I was talking to the mother of one of my pupils. He’s 11 years old and has just started at a very popular and successful selective boys’ school. (Here in the UK most children change schools at this age.) Although there are a lot of strong chess players at the school they don’t play in the local secondary schools’ chess league, nor in any other competitions. Her son is disappointed so she went in to complain (as several other parents, to my knowledge have over the past few years) and was told that they couldn’t take part in these events ‘for funding reasons’. Now the school is in an affluent area so most parents would be only too happy to pay, and, if there were any children who genuinely couldn’t afford it, they’d be happy to pay extra. No: it’s just an excuse: there’s no teacher with a particular interest in chess so they can’t be bothered. There are plenty of ways round this. When he started a new teaching job years ago, my brother was told that part of his job was to transport the school fencing team to competitions, even though he knew nothing about fencing. If the will is there, things can be made to happen.

Primary schools also have excuses.

They can’t run chess clubs because they have enough clubs already. They can’t have children sitting opposite their opponents because it would take too long to move the tables round. They can’t make homework compulsory because a few parents might not like it, but if it’s optional no one will do it. They can’t provide a teacher to keep order and deal with administration while the chess tutor is doing chess things because they’re all too busy. They can’t give their chess tutor contact details for parents because it would breach safeguarding rules. They can’t allow children to use chess sets outside the chess club because it would need supervision and nobody can be bothered to supervise them. They won’t enter team tournaments because there isn’t a teacher prepared to supervise them, or because the children might score less than 50% and as a result suffer permanent damage to their self-esteem. They won’t enter online tournaments because they’re too busy to look at the website and register their school. They won’t let children play in individual tournaments, or even in representative county competitions because they clash with school football matches and children selected for their school football team are not allowed to pull out. They won’t play matches against other schools because the logistics are too difficult. School A says to School B: “We’d love to play a chess match against you if you come to our school on Monday”. School B replies: “We can’t possibly come on Monday because we have Gym Club on Mondays. You’ll have to come to our school on Tuesday instead”. But School A can’t possibly do Tuesdays because they have Running Club on Tuesdays. And never the twain shall meet. Now I appreciate as much as anyone that teachers do a fantastic job, are very busy, very hard-working and very stressed, but it seems to me that they just don’t respect chess the same way that they respect football or music.

There are several preparatory schools (fee-paying) in this area that value academic excellence: they are proud of the number of pupils who gain scholarships to leading selective secondary schools whose names are listed on honours boards. They also value sporting excellence: photographs of their football, cricket and rugby teams line the walls. They value artistic excellence as well: their concerts and drama productions are of a high standard and pupils who excel in these spheres are rightly valued within the school community. While some of these schools also run successful chess clubs, others have clubs where the standard of play is very low, where children do not take part in competitions, where the school offers no support to the chess tutors, where the game is not valued within the school community.

So why is it that many schools do not afford chess the respect it deserves? Why do they not value it in the same way that they value other extra-curricular activities?

My next post will consider one possible reason.

Richard James

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