Category Archives: Children’s Chess

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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General Ignorance

The same thing happens every year. I meet a new intake of Year 3s (7 year olds) at a primary school chess club. There are one or two who know nothing at all about chess: some parents sign little Johnny (or, less often, little Jenny) up for the chess club so that they can learn the moves. I’ll talk more about them another time. There may be one or two who come from a chess playing family and have some genuine knowledge about chess. But in the middle are the children who tell me they know how to play chess, or sometimes, that they’re really good at chess, but in fact know very little.

So I pick up one of the chunky pieces that starts in the corner. “Who can tell me what this piece is called”, I ask. A forest of hands goes up. I ask a child who seems particularly keen to answer. I know what’s coming next. “It’s a CASTLE”, he tells me. I explain that, while some people call it a castle it’s real name is a rook, so that’s what we call it here. (I’ve also seen strong players who know perfectly well what it’s called teach their children it’s a castle. No idea why.) His face falls. His implicit belief that everything his dad tells him is correct has been shattered. I might as well have told him that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

Then I get them to play some games. After a few minutes another child raises his hand. “I’ve won the game”, he tells me excitedly. “I’ve taken his king.” I try to break the bad news to him as gently as possible (not easy when there are several other children round the room waiting to ask me questions). He hasn’t actually won the game at all, and in fact he’s not allowed to capture his opponent’s king. But his dad told him you win by taking the other guy’s king so they don’t understand.

None of this would matter too much if parents were prepared to get up to speed on learning about chess so that they could provide more useful help for their children. In this school I don’t have contact details for parents and very rarely get a chance to speak to them at all. In another school a couple of years ago, though, I had email addresses for parents so I contacted them explaining the rules of check and checkmate so that they could help their children play legal moves. Did I receive any replies thanking me for going to the trouble of telling them how they could help their children? What do you think? Instead I got replies telling me they didn’t want to know, they didn’t have time to help their children, and they themselves hated chess anyway.

One of the major problems for chess teachers here in the UK is that chess is not part of our national culture. Many people know, or think they know, how the pieces move, but they have no idea how to play properly. They use incorrect names for the pieces, they don’t know how to set the board up correctly, they don’t understand check, checkmate and stalemate, they are confused about pawn promotion, castling, and, in the unlikely event that they’ve heard of it, the en passant rule. They’ve never opened a chess book in their lives, never read a newspaper chess column, never watched a chess DVD, never visited a chess website, couldn’t give you the name of any famous chess players with the possible exception of that American guy who played the Russian guy, and they consider him to have been a nutter. Their father probably taught them the moves when they were young, he in turn was taught by his father and so on, like a Generation Game of Chinese Whispers, with less being understood each time round. They have no idea about the complexity of the game, the history, the heritage, the literature. No wonder they consider chess a simple game suitable for young children to play once a week at school without any parental support.

In the BBC TV quiz Only Connect, two teams of three compete to make connections between seemingly random things. The competitors on this programme are amongst the best in the country at problem solving, general knowledge, logic and creativity so you’d expect them to be reasonably well informed about chess, and indeed a few chess players have appeared on the show. In a recent episode one team was asked to find the next item in a sequence starting a1:R, b1:N, c1:B. They thought it might have something to do with cards and guessed that the answer was d1:Y. Their opponents were then given the chance of a bonus point by answering the question themselves. They correctly realised that it was to do with chess, but couldn’t remember which way round the big guys went, so went for d1:K as their answer.

General ignorance indeed. If we want to help young children become proficient players we have to start by educating the parents. But where do we start? My book Chess for Kids is selling very well: parents want to be able to buy a book to give to their kids so that they can teach themselves (not understanding that chess is far too hard for 7-year-olds to teach themselves). But no one is buying The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids because they have neither the time nor the inclination to help their kids. So far, at any rate, there is no interest at all in Chess for Heroes for the same reason. Unless we can break through this barrier chess as a serious adult game in this country will gradually fade away.

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What to Expect From Children

Inevitably, parents ask me how their children are doing with their chess playing at some point during the semester. Its a simple enough question. After all, the parent has signed their child up for one of my chess classes and wants a progress report. However, parents often feel that their child should be making greater progress than they actually are. This is because most parents have unrealistic expectations when it comes to their child’s ability to learn something outside of the normal school curriculum. Rather than comparing the study of chess to the study of music, which requires a great deal of dedication and practice, most parents think of chess as a mere board game akin to Monopoly. Thinking of chess as a simple game sets the parent up to think that it can be learned and mastered in a relatively short period of time. Therefore, a parent thinking in these terms will expect their child to quickly learn a game that in reality can take many lifetimes to master.

Parents enrolling their children in a chess class or club should do a little research regarding what to expect from both their children and the person(s) teaching the class or running the club. Of course, parents have the right to think that their child is exceptional. After all, we’re all proud of our offspring! However, we should always maintain realistic expectations when it comes to our children’s learning experiences for both their sake and ours!

A crucial idea to consider is that children learn slowly. While some youngsters learn subjects more quickly than others in their peer group, the majority of children learn at a slower pace. This means that both parents and instructors alike must exercise patience. I had one of my young instructors comment that his students were three weeks into their chess lessons and they still hadn’t fully grasped the idea of developing their pieces towards the board’s center. His students were 1st and 2nd graders, new to the the game, so it will take them a while to understand and employ basic opening principles, not to mention how the pieces move. Patience is key!

How do we, as chess instructors, help young students understand important concepts? Through repetition and reinforcement. In the opening phase of the game, students have to develop their pawns and pieces towards the center of the board. Children learn this concept of good development repetitively. Good opening moves are practiced over and and over again until the concept of centralized material development is etched into their thought process. However, I’m not talking about merely memorizing moves! When I say “repetitive,” I’m also talking about trial and error! Often, the most important lessons in chess are learned when beginners try to achieve their goal using one method (their method) only to eventually realize that their method doesn’t work. Once the beginner realizes that his or way of thinking doesn’t work, they try the method taught to them by their instructor. This is something children have to go through, trying their way first. During this cycle of repetitive learning, teachers have to reinforce the reasons for using, for example, correct opening principles. This is done by showing students how those opening principles make their game better. If we show our students that centrally developed pawns and pieces control important squares, making it difficult for their opponent to launch attacks, we’re able to visually reinforce the concepts being taught. You cannot simply say, “do these things during the first ten moves of the game because I say so!” You have to show children visually why specific principles work. Don’t assume, because they’re young children, that they don’t need a real explanation when asking them to do something. I don’t like someone answering my question with “because I said so,” and neither do my students! My students are taught to question everything!

Children also learn by mimicking what they see and this can be a double edged sword. When showing young children a game by Paul Morphy in which he makes a seemingly wild sacrifice of his Queen, don’t be surprised if a few students sacrifice their Queens with disastrous results. A child might think, “Morphy sacrificed his Queen and won the game, so I’ll do the same thing and I’ll win my game!” Children learn by example, so if you present a game in which important pieces are sacrificed to win the game, don’t be surprised if your young students try to emulate what they’ve just seen on the demonstration board. It is best to use very simplified examples that demonstrate sound game principles rather than daring gambits and sacrifices, at least until your student’s knowledge of the game improves.

Parents should talk to the parents of other students in the chess class or club to get a better idea of where their children are in relation to other class or club members. More often than not, they’ll see that the majority of the class is on the same page. Parents should also take an active role in their child’s chess education. They should encourage their children by playing chess with them. If a parent doesn’t play chess or is too busy to play, that parent might consider investing in a chess playing program so their child always has an opponent. A fair portion of a child’s chess education lies in the hands of their parents. I offer free chess lessons to parents who want to play with their children but don’t know how!

Learning chess takes a long time. While adults can learn the game’s rules in a few hours, children are another matter altogether. In a perfect world, children would spend about nine months just learning how the pieces move. However, most chess classes have to condense that nine months into eight to ten classes per semester. Sometimes, a parent will say to me “my child is still making illegal moves, so I don’t think their learning the game correctly.” This translates to, “you’re not doing your job because my child is not playing as well as he or she should be playing, in my non chess playing opinion.” Rather than explain to the parent that young children can take up to 12 months to adequately learn the basic rules of the game and taking an 8-10 week class is too short a time frame for proper instruction, I ask them if they play chess with their children or, if they don’t play would they be willing to learn how to play. Sadly, many parents say that they’re too busy. Then there are the parents who are convinced that their child is the next Magnus Carlsen. This brings me to my final thought: Pressure

We’ve all witnessed the horror that is the all out sports parent. You know the type. They mentally brow beat their children into thinking that the game must be won at all costs and if the game was lost it was because their child wasn’t giving one hundred percent of themselves. Every game is a dire do or die situation. Life for adults is filled with too much pressure as it is. Let your child enjoy childhood. There will be plenty of time for them to stress out later on in life. One of my best students has parents who gently nurtured his interest in chess. They followed my instructional advice and didn’t put him under any pressure to perform. He is now one of the top players in his age group here in California and the Northwest. His parents met with me, took notes at all our meetings regarding their son’s improvement and played chess with him. His mother, who hadn’t played before, took lessons from me so she could help her son. Incidentally, his mother, two years later is a regular player on the local chess club scene here. They did all the right things and made a point to not put pressure on their son. Pressure can drain the passion for chess right out of even the most enthusiastic young player. So, remember what to realistically expect from your children when you enroll them in their first chess class or club. Be gentle and nurture their budding love for the game. Here’s game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Fishing Pole

We have a new member in our chess club. A 12-year-old beginner, he’s really enthusiastic and seems to have some talent. His parents, although knowing little about the game, are very keen to do everything they can to help him.

Half a century or more ago, I myself was in very much the same position. I was really enthusiastic about chess. My parents, wanting to support my enthusiasm but knowing very little about the game, bought me a book (The Game of Chess by Harry Golombek since you asked) so that I could teach myself. “If we try to teach you ourselves”, they said, “we might get it wrong and put you off.” I didn’t understand everything in it and got confused by the chapters on the openings when HG said that there were two moves you could play in this position, while it seemed to me, correctly, that there were many moves you could play. But it still stood me in good stead by giving me well-structured and accurate information about chess.

These days, though, children don’t learn through books, they learn through the Internet. And the Internet is, for all sorts of reasons, a dangerous place.

I like to give new members a game, so on his first visit to the club I took the black pieces against him. His first moves were, in order, e3, g3, Bg2, a3, b4, c3, d4. I asked him what he was trying to achieve in the opening. He explained that he was combining the ideas of his two favourite openings, the King’s Indian Defence and the Stonewall. It seemed that he’d come across online lessons on both openings (probably chosen because he liked the names) but completely misunderstood them.

A couple of weeks later he was very much into gambits. He wanted to play the Wing Gambit, the Halloween Gambit (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Nxe5) and, his new favourite opening, the Fishing Pole. Now I’m reasonably knowledgeable about chess history and literature, and one of my colleagues even more so, but none of us had heard of the Fishing Pole. When I arrived home I searched on Google and found this.

So what do we have? 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. 0-0 Ng4. It’s obvious to any experienced player that this move is nonsense. It may not be losing but it’s just a waste of time. 5. h3 h5. Now if White just plays a sensible developing move like d3 he’s going to be slightly better. Black’s just wasted time playing two fairly useless moves and broken a couple of basic opening tenets into the bargain. He’ll only lose if he takes the knight and gets mated.

We’re told this is a common trap in the Ruy Lopez. Is it? There are 14 examples of 4.. Ng4 out of almost 5.8 million games on BigBase2014. The position after 5.. h5 occurred only 8 times. So hardly common. And none of those 8 people fell for the trap by taking the knight (although Black’s percentage score after 4.. Ng4 is actually fairly respectable). Perhaps it has an extremely high success rate if you play it in online bullet games against weak opponents, but not in real games. Note also some of the comments, none of which are critical. “I will definitely try it every chance I get. Chess is wonderful and you don’t have to sweat!!” enthuses bsharpchess. KWash01 also approves: “All and all I like it and will most certainly try to use it.”

I’m disappointed that a very popular and reputable site such as chess.com should publish such misinformation, and that its users should be so uncritical. Of course if you play online blitz or bullet you’ll come across opponents who play junk like this extremely quickly and win games on time or through a cheap tactic, but it’s not real chess and not how we should be encouraging our pupils to play.

There are, I think, two issues. First of all, in chess, as in everything else, there’s a lot of ill-informed and dangerous rubbish out there. There are any number of videos, articles and e-books written by weak amateurs peddling their favourite eccentric opening or theory about chess. So if you’re trying to teach yourself you need to ensure that your sources are reliable. Asking an experienced chess teacher would be a good place to start.

You also need to learn chess in a structured way. If you’re learning openings you start with basic principles, then you learn the major openings before you look at less popular openings. If you want to emulate Abraham Neviazsky and spend the next 50 years of your life opening 1. b4 that’s fine, but I’d advise you to gain experience with mainstream openings first. I’d also suggest that practising tactics, learning about strategy and familiarising yourself with endings is, unless you want to play very sharp lines, more important than studying opening theory.

So we in the chess community need to promote structured chess courses for learners of all ages. We need to promote them actively and aggressively so that newcomers to the game learn correctly right from the start. Once you get the wrong idea about something or get into a bad habit it’s difficult to get out of it.

Richard James

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Space Point Count

You’re playing a game of chess, well into the opening, and you compare your position to that of your opponent. It appears that you both are equal, developmentally speaking. Your pawns and pieces are on active squares, yet your opponent quickly becomes the aggressor which leaves you having to defend rather than attack. You quickly lose the game wondering where you went wrong. If this has happened to you, let me ask you a question, did you tally up your space points (space point count) when considering a move? If you’re wondering what a space point count is, read further!

How much territory you control on the board is critical during all phases of the game. However, nowhere is it more important than in the opening. If you control a greater number of squares than your opponent, your opponent is going to be hard pressed to safely get his or her pawns and pieces into the game. After my students learn the games rules, we move on to the opening principles. We often start with the Italian Opening because it clearly demonstrates these basic principles in action. With any opening, you want to get your pawns and pieces to their most active squares before launching into any attacks. Often, one player will develop their pawns and pieces actively while their opponent develops their pawns and pieces more defensively. While a well seasoned player can develop defensively in such a way that makes it difficult for their opponent to whip up a strong attack, the beginner playing defensively tends to create a traffic jam of pawns and pieces that trap their King on it’s starting square.

If you’re attacking, your opponent is defending and if you’re defending your opponent is attacking. Eventually, you become one or the other during the course of the game! Two players can have somewhat equal positions and suddenly, one of those players gains greater control of the board! In fact, you can take a quick glance at a given board position and it can appear as if both players have equal control of the board. However, if you apply a space point count to the position, you’ll see that one player has a slight edge or greater control of the situation.

A space point count is simply a way to calculate who has greater territorial control of the board. To employ this idea, count the number of opposition squares your pawns and pieces control. Opposition squares are those squares on your opponent’s side of the board. If you’re playing the white pieces, the squares you’re going to count are those squares on the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th ranks (squares on your opponent’s side of the board). If you’re playing the black pieces, you’re looking at opposition squares on the 4th, 3rd, 2nd and 1st ranks. In essence, you’re calculating the opposition space you control, thus the term space point count.

In the above example, the space count points for white are 23 while the space point counts for black are a mere 5. White has a much greater control of black’s side of the board while black is barely attacking anything on white’s side of the board. This is a spatial advantage and spatial advantages lead to winning games!

Beginners have a difficult time with the concept of overall spatial control. This occurs because beginners tend to focus on a specific area on the board, such as the center during the game’s opening. During the opening, the beginner will focus on d4, d5, e4 and e5, moving their pawns and pieces on or towards those squares. Of course, this is what we’ve learned to do during the opening. However, this essentially mechanical way of thinking can leave the beginner ill equipped, transitionally speaking, to enter into the middle game.

By moving pawns and pieces to squares that control the maximum number of opposition squares during the opening, you’ll be setting yourself up for a better middle game. Employing a space count can also help you decide on a specific move. Let’s say you’ve come up with three good moves you can make and now have the task of narrowing it down to the one move you’re going to make. How do you determine which move is best? I suggest doing a space point count for each of the three moves and see which one controls the greatest number of squares on the opposition’s side of the board. Of course, there are exceptions to this but the beginner should stick to the basics and keep it simple!

By counting the number of opposition squares a piece will control after it is moved, the beginner will see the entire board rather than an isolated area such as the center. Many of my beginning students have had major problems with hanging pieces, losing them because they weren’t looking at the entire board. After using the space point count system, those students greatly reduced the number of hung pieces because their board vision was better. Those same students were also able to start making a smoother transition into the middle game.

Try using the space point count method when considering a specific move. It comes in handy when you have a few moves to chose from that are close in their advantages. More often than not, you’ll find that one move garners you a bit more control of the position. However, you have to count those squares to truly know! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Try using the space point count system while playing through this game.

Hugh Patterson

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Cotton Wool Kids

Childhood is very different now from when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s. In some ways it is much better. We are much more aware nowadays of the importance of preventing children from abuse, neglect and persistent bullying, although we are still a long way from getting everything right. We are getting much closer to an understanding of the concept of special needs so we can provide constructive support for children with learning, social, behavioural or physical problems rather than just criticism and punishment. For all this we should be immensely grateful.

However, I can’t help thinking that, in our praiseworthy efforts to try to ensure children avoid suffering high level bad experiences we are also being over-protective in sheltering them from low level bad experiences. This is apparent from the feedback I get when I try to persuade parents and schools to get their children to take chess seriously.

The school head teacher who, years ago, told me he couldn’t enter more than one team in our tournament because his pupils would feel humiliated if they scored less than 50%.

The school chess club, again years ago, which was unhappy that one of their children was a very strong player, because it would make all the other children in the club feel bad.

The parents who tell me they don’t want their children to solve puzzles at home because it might put them off chess.

The parents who tell me they don’t want their children to play for the school because it wouldn’t be fun.

The parents who tell me their children can’t attend the chess club because it might make them too tired.

The chess teacher who tells me her pupils can’t enter a tournament for the same reason.

The chess teacher who tells me his pupils will only play in team tournaments, not individual tournaments.

The neighbour who asks about chess lessons for her son, and, when I show her the Chess for Heroes book, tells me it looks too hard.

At the same time, children seem to think they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do.

Children in school chess clubs don’t want to solve puzzles because it’s boring.

Children at Richmond Junior Club don’t want to score their games because it’s boring.

They tell me that if something’s boring they don’t have to do it.

This all seems to be about the possibility that children might just have a bad experience by taking chess too seriously. They MIGHT be upset because they lose a game. They MIGHT find it boring. It MIGHT make them tired. It MIGHT be too hard for them. So we’d better not do it, just in case a bad experience might damage their self-esteem.

If you take part in chess tournaments you WILL have bad experiences. It’s happened to all of us. You’ll have days where you play badly and lose your games. You’ll have days where your opponents all seem to play well against you. You’ll meet opponents who are unsporting, who distract you, who try to cheat against you. You’ll meet arbiters who rule against you unfairly. But you’ll also have a lot of good experiences which will more than make up for the bad ones. And by working through those bad experiences you’ll become a stronger person as well as a stronger player.

Children NEED to be challenged. They NEED to be bored. They NEED to learn how to lose. They NEED to learn to persevere when they get stuck. They NEED to learn how to deal with difficult people and difficult situations. They NEED to develop determination and resilience. By wrapping children in cotton wool, by only expecting them to do things that are safe, fun or easy, by bringing our children up in a cocoon where they are sheltered from any experience which might possibly be unpleasant, we’re doing them no favours. Playing serious chess isn’t for everyone, but children who enjoy the game can use it for this purpose.

In Chess for Kids, Sam has to work through difficult situations in order to become a good player. He has to learn not to be discouraged when he keeps on making mistakes, not to give up when a concept is difficult for him to understand, to keep going if something is boring.

My new course is called Chess for Heroes partly for this reason. One way to become a hero is by showing physical courage, but you can also be a hero by showing mental courage. Of course we all want to do all we can to prevent children suffering high level bad experiences but we need to expose them to low level bad experiences and, very gently, help our children deal with them.

A failure to understand this is one of the reasons why I find myself teaching children whose parents and teachers want them to play chess but specifically don’t want them to be good at chess.

Richard James

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Focus

One form of chess I have all my students try, both young and old alike, is blindfold chess. Blindfold chess is simply a game of chess without a physical board and pieces. You play the game within your mind. At first, it seems an impossible task but, with some practice, you can improve quickly. Students ask me why I have them learn this form of chess and my answer is because it improves their concentration and ability to focus.

I use blindfold chess to help keep my own mind sharp and increase my ability to focus, an important mental skill to have at any age. As we get older, we tend to become forgetful and our ability to concentrate becomes more difficult. Just as your eyes lose their ability to focus on objects as you get older so too does your mind. Some of my younger students have asked me if blindfold chess involves simply memorizing the game’s moves. The answer is no. To play blindfold chess, you must see the chessboard clearly in the mind’s eye! You are playing a real game of chess, only you have no physical board or pieces. You have to remember the position of the pawns and pieces on the board. In short, you have to see the entire board within your mind!

When I teach blindfold chess to my students, we start with some exercises, mental stretches if you will, to get their brains warmed up. These exercises are designed to help students develop their ability to focus. The first exercise is a tour of the chess board. Close your eyes. Take ten deep slow breaths. Now, visualize a vinyl tournament chessboard as seen from above. The board has alpha-numeric symbols around it’s edges so you’ll be able to easily navigate around the board. In your mind, you can fly like a bird. You are now going to slowly fly clockwise around the four corners of the chessboard, naming each square along the board’s edges as well as the color of each square. Start with the square a1. Next, visualize the board’s center squares and the squares that immediately surrounding them. Say the name of each square out loud. Note each square’s color.

This first step is designed to get students to mentally focus on the landscape of the chessboard. Next we slowly add pawns and pieces to our imaginary chess board. However, before starting this exercise, I place a single pawn on a vinyl tournament chessboard and have my students take a close look at that pawn. The pawn they are looking at is one that has a large scratch running down it’s side. I use this particular pawn because its large scratch is easy to visualize. Then I have my students close their eyes and visualize the scratched pawn on e4. I ask them what square the scratch is facing. Is it facing towards e5 or perhaps f4? We repeat this exercise with a few more pieces (on different squares), all of which have specific physical flaws due to my pet pit bull who has a penchant for chewing on plastic chess pieces.

These two initial exercises are practiced daily for about two weeks. Because I work with beginning and intermediate students, I don’t push them too hard with regard to playing blindfold chess. I ask students to practice these visualization exercises for ten to twenty minutes each day. After this two week period, we move on to their first game of blindfold chess.

Rather than have students try to play a complete game of blindfold chess. I have them start by playing the first five moves of the game, stopping and then starting another five move game. This allows them to become comfortable with visualizing a full set of pawns and pieces in play. Student’s alternate between e and d pawn openings. Once they become comfortable with visualizing their first five moves (and those of their opponent), we add another two moves to each game. We continue this process until a full game of blindfold chess can be played. How long this takes depends on the student.

When students start playing through the first five moves of a game, I have them imagine what the board looks like from the pawn or piece’s viewpoint. I have them follow the path the pawn or piece travels. Are there any opposition pawns or pieces that can be captured? Are any of the opposition’s pawns or pieces able to capture the piece in question?

Interestingly, my students who learn blindfold chess tend to hang less pieces in their regular games because they are seeing the entire board and have a more intimate relationship with the pawns and pieces in play. I suspect the reason for this is because students are playing through the positions in their heads, thanks to the above exercises, while playing the physical game. This translates to them paying more attention to their game. Their memory also improves from such exercises which makes it easier to learn more complicated ideas. A win win situation!

Visualization goes a long way towards developing or improving focus and blindfold chess really helps to develop this skill. However, it takes time to be able to play a complete game. Slow and steady wins this race. Playing blindfold chess is especially helpful to those of us who are middle aged and prone to moments of forgetfulness. Try it out and see if it doesn’t help your memory and focus. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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