Category Archives: Children’s Chess

A Low Maintenance Chess Style

It’s not always easy for players to continue playing through busy periods in their lives. Going off to tournaments is time consuming in itself, and then there’s the issue of preparation. It’s this latter consideration that I would like to address here.

Players who like playing sharp openings in order to gain an early initiative are going to struggle to find time for maintenance. Opening theory is constantly changing and they will struggle to stay up to date with sharper lines. The obvious solution would be for them to switch to quieter lines when they find themselves with less time. But the problem with switching is twofold. First of all they may not understand the new stuff as well. And it can also be out of tune with their entire approach.

For this reason it can make sense to adopt a more solid approach from the start. Instead of teaching just gambits, tactics and attacks, why not focus on solid openings, strategy and endgames? Many junior coaches will argue that kids find such things boring. I would argue that it depends how they are taught.

One player who seems to have adapted well to a busy lifestyle is GM Jonathan Parker. Playing quiet openings and relying on middle game skill is serving him well in the few games that he plays. Here’s an example from a couple of years back:

Nigel Davies

The Death of Competition

Competition drives civilization. While it’s really the ideas formed in the minds of our species greatest thinkers that advance civilization, it’s what is then done with those ground breaking ideas that sets the course humanity repeatedly embarks upon. To simply come up with a great idea and leave it just that, a brilliant thought rattling around the cerebral cortex, amounts to nothing. The idea must be made a reality and this means turning that idea into action be it the automobile or home computer. When the idea becomes reality it is introduced to the rest of the human species. In the case of the home computer, they were manufactured, sold to millions of consumers and then improved upon. Driving all of this was the idea of competition, one manufacturer creating a better model that would outsell those models introduced by other manufacturers. Sports is also the realm of competition, where individuals and teams compete to see who is the best in their given sport. In short, we are all touched by competition.

However, there has been a recent trend, when it comes to competition between children, whose aim is to remove competition from the equation, opting to create an environment within sports type endeavors in which everyone is a winner just for participating. This means, for example, that if your show up to an event in which traditionally, only the top three participants are rewarded for their performance, you’ll be rewarded for simply showing up and participating. It’s the parenting theory of “every child is special and should be rewarded just for that.” Some call it the “special snowflake” syndrome. This is where parents tell their children that they are special (which of course every child really is) and then steer those children away from a competitive environment. I really understand this point of view because we love our children and don’t want to see them suffer in any way, including their discovering that they’re just not good at something. I suspect some parents think that their child’s lives will become irreversibly damaged should they enter a competitive event and come in last. Again, I understand that you want to shield your child from the horrors of the world, but eventually they’re going to go out into the world and have to deal with competition. It’s everywhere and the sooner you prepare your child to deal with it, the better off they’ll be in the long run.

Everyone has something their good at and can take pride in. For some, it takes longer to find than others. When I was growing up, I was introduced to music and the arts in general. My parents didn’t have to keep me out of competitive sports because even I knew I’d be terrible at any sport (I really was). This is something parents need to understand. You’re children are a lot smarter than you think and intrinsically know their limitations. My parents greatly aided my dream of becoming a professional musician, knowing that it is one of the most competitive businesses around. They left dealing with the issue of competition to me, only making sure they’d be there if it all became too much for me to handle (a good way to approach this). I’ve been in this competitive business almost 40 years and it does require a tough outer layer of emotional skin to survive it. I, as you know, also teach and coach chess. I’ll never be the best chess player in the world (not even close) and I’m fine with that! Just because I’m not the best doesn’t mean I can’t pursue this game I love so much. As for guitar playing, I’m highly rated and very competitive, always aiming to out play the competition. This spurs me on to practice more than most players. I reap the rewards of such diligence. I mention these two things I do to make a point and that is: You don’t have to be the best at something to enjoy it, making it an important part of your life, and if you do find something your really good at, why not shoot for the stars (within reason). I think parents mistakenly steer their children away from chasing their dreams, which change with great regularity.

Children should be allowed to follow their dreams and be taught that there will be others who aspire to the same dream, thus creating an environment of, you guessed it, competition! When we try to avoid situations of competition in our child’s lives we shelter them from the inevitable, the plain and simple fact that life itself is competitive. Children eventually leave their mothers and fathers, setting out into a world that can be fierce and unforgiving. Better to be prepared than not.

I was at a chess tournament thrown by a school a while back and noticed that they had a huge number of trophy’s displayed on the stage. Upon asking why there were so many of them, I was informed that every child playing in the tournament would receive one simply for showing up. I felt a bit uneasy about this idea because some of my students were playing in that tournament and those students spent countless hours working on their game so they would have a chance at winning one of the normally coveted top place trophies. One of my students also found out that everyone was getting a trophy and while he was glad there wouldn’t be anyone going home empty handed, he felt slightly cheated because he had worked so hard to prepare for what was not really a straight forward competition. Do we need to reward everyone for simply showing up? Imagine if this idea of “everyone’s a winner” was applied to the competitive world of technological businesses. Would we see all of the rapidly developed technologies that have changed our lives for the better come about in such a lightning fast way? Would we see once expensive computers we use in our daily lives come down to an affordable cost. I suspect not because competition drives advances and affordability. Yes, you’re a winner for trying, for giving it a shot, but if you want to truly be the best at something, you have to compete against other like minded individuals who also want to be the best at something. The only way to determine one’s level of skill is by comparison, namely comparing your skill to the skills of others who share your interest in that endeavor. This is done, using chess as an example, by playing another person.

One of the tough things about competition and chess is that chess comes down to you and your brain against your opponent and his or her brain. You might say that it’s a battle of brains and when we lose, we tend to take it a bit personally. Is the person you just lost to smarter than you? Absolutely not but people think that chess skills go hand in hand with one’s IQ, meaning the better the chess player the smarter he or she is. Wrong! I’ve heard parents say that “wow, that little boy that won first place sure is smart.” Does this mean that the parent’s son that came in 19th place is less smart? Absolutely not! It means the little boy that won first place may have been playing longer or had better pattern recognition skills. You can’t take your child losing a chess tournament or any other competition as a sign there’s something wrong. You also can’t shield them from what they’re going to meet head on when they mature, competition. So what should you do?

Tell them that the very fact they tried counts for a lot and even if they don’t do well in this endeavor, there is something out there that they’ll be great at. The adventure for the child is finding that. Competition should not be avoided but embraced in a healthy way. I mention this because there are parents who, upon finding their child’s uber talent, become slave drivers who force their children to improve at all costs. Let the child develop the interest and if they’re really into it, they’ll put in the time. Accept competition. Now that you’ve suffered through my rant, I give you a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

You Made Me Lose

It was in the very early days of Richmond Junior Club, 40 or more years ago. One Saturday morning a boy approached me accusingly. “Mr James, you made me lose!”, he said.

I soon discovered what had happened. The previous week I’d demonstrated Legall’s mate to him. A few days later he had a school chess match and was presented with the opportunity to move his pinned knight, following up with a check when his opponent captured his queen. Sadly, there was no mate there: the position was similar but not the same. Of course this is one reason why chess is so hard. you learn an idea: there will be many similar positions where the same idea will work and, equally, many other similar positions where it won’t work. You can’t just use memory. You have to calculate as well.

I was reminded of this the other day by something one of my private pupils said to me. When he arrived for his lesson his mother told me that he had a tournament coming up in a couple of weeks time so could I teach him some openings? At his level chess is about not making oversights and understanding what’s happening at the start of the game, not, as many parents assume, about learning some moves off by heart before a competition.

I printed off what I’ve done so far on Chess Openings for Heroes, which takes a very different approach to the begnning of the game, and decided I should start by making sure he knows how to stop Scholar’s Mate. In this sort of tournament there are always kids who will try it on. We’ve done this several times before, but unless it’s reinforced at home, children will forget. I played the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Qh5 Nc6 (he argued with me that Nf6 was better because he seemed to remember someone once told him that was the move to play) 3. Bc4. To his credit he played Qe7. I told him that was fine, but that he could also play g6. He looked horrified by this suggestion and told me his chess teacher at school, who is a much stronger player than me as well as a very experienced chess coach, said that this was a bad move. No doubt he was told not to play 1. e4 e5 2. Qh5 g6 but had remembered the advice without understanding the reason and was unable to differentiate between the two positions.

At this level children remind me of Eric Morecambe’s attempt to play the Grieg Piano Concerto in the famous Morecambe and Wise sketch: they play all the right moves, but not necessarily in the right order.

There was also a boy at a school chess club more than 20 years ago who had remembered that after 2. Qh5 you could defend by putting one of your big pieces on e7, but couldn’t remember which piece to use. So week after week he played 2… Ke7 and week after week lost game after game in three moves.

Children who try to memorise moves without understanding and without calculating will inevitably become confused and frustrated. But memory is much easier than calculation and understanding for young children, and their parents often suffer from the mistaken belief that chess is mostly about memory.

It’s not just the moves that can leave children confused: it’s also the rules of the game. A few months ago another of my private pupils played in the Megafinals of the UK Chess Challenge, just failing to qualify for the Gigafinals. He told me that in one of his games he was winning and decided to castle. When doing so he accidentally knocked his king over. His opponent claimed a win on the grounds that my student had resigned. His father then came up (I don’t know why he was in the playing hall at all) and explained that the result was correct: if you knock your king over you forfeit the game.

I’ve seen children cheat in this way but you can also see how a misunderstanding might arise. You’re watching a video of a game between two grandmasters. One of them turns his king over to indicate that he’s resigning. Your child asks why he did that and you reply that if you knock your king over it means you resign.

Some years ago, another pupil was playing in the Megafinals. In one game he was winning but his opponent moved his king next to my pupil’s king and claimed a draw. My student, thinking this was a rule he didn’t know about, accepted the result. Again, you can guess what might have happened. The other player witnessed a board with the kings on e4 and e5. He asked the reason for this and was told that if two kings stand next to each other it means the game is drawn. Taking it out of context, he assumes that if you move your king next to your opponent’s king at any time you can claim a draw.

Most children are resilient and get over this sort of experience pretty quickly, but a few aren’t, and don’t.

You see misunderstandings at a more basic level when children first join school chess clubs. They’ve been told ‘you win the game by taking your opponent’s king’ and ‘you castle by swapping round your king and rook’: maybe because their dad really believes that these are the rules, but more likely because he doesn’t explain checkmate and castling clearly and make sure that his children understand.

How can we avoid these misunderstandings and ensure that children are well prepared before they join a chess club and before they play in their first tournament?

Richard James

Opening Studies for the Beginner

Learning the game of chess, beyond the basic rules, is perhaps the most daunting endeavor any beginner undertakes. Of course, it’s the idea of having to learn or master something from the very beginning (from scratch), all the while traveling along an often bumpy road that leads to mastery, that seems herculean in effort not matter what the subject being studied. However, there’s a second and third factor that makes learning difficult and those factors are, the approach taken and the material actually being studied. With a subject such as organic chemistry, learning is very straight forward (not easy but straight forward). What I mean by this is that the overwhelming majority of organic chemistry textbooks are written for college classes that follow a structured curriculum. Also, organic chemistry is the study of carbon based molecules and the curriculum is designed to start with simple carbon based structures and move on to more complex ones, with the previous chapter of the textbook laying the foundation for the current chapter being read. It’s a very a, b, c, d or straight forward approach. However, trying to learn the game of chess (beyond the rules) can be extremely difficult for the novice player. With so many learning options and approaches available to the beginner, our novice player can become hopelessly lost and ultimately discouraged before they even have a chance to really learn something. Therefore, we’re going to look at how the beginner should approach, for example, learning various chess openings.

The first questions beginners should ask themselves are what methods of study are appropriately suited for my (beginner) skill level, what materials within that chosen method (books, videos, software programs) are specifically written for my skill level and lastly, how can I maximize the time I spend studying? We’ll look at each one later on, but first we have to talk about the importance of understanding the game’s opening principles.

The opening principles are a simple series of ideas or concepts that have been proven to really help players lay a solid foundation for the rest of their game. As I mention to my students, the house you live in is only as solid as the foundation that house is built upon or in chess terms, your game is only as good as the foundation its built upon and that foundation is built during the opening phase of the game, the first ten to twenty moves.

Thankfully, for the beginner, there is a set of opening principles to guide them as they study the opening. These principles are simple: Control the board’s center (d4, d5, e4 and e5) with a pawn (or two), develop (move) your minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) toward the center and Castle your King to safety. We always want to fight for the center of the board during the opening, which means moving pawns and pieces towards their most active opening squares as soon as possible, those that control or influence the board’s center. Therefore, we want each move we make to employ a principle. There are things we don’t want to do such as bringing our Queen out early, making too many pawn moves and moving the same piece over and over again (during the opening). Employing these principles will ensure that the beginner builds a much better foundation for the rest of their game. If this isn’t reason enough to employ the opening principles, consider this thought: You will never understand why various moves are being made when you sit down to study a specific opening unless you know these opening principles!

All good chess openings employ the opening principles and use them to their fullest advantage. If you know these principles, you’ll understand why certain moves were made during a specific opening. Of course, deciding which of the many openings is right for you is another story altogether. There are over a thousand openings and the next task the beginner faces finding the right one for them. Some teachers have suggesting choosing an opening that fits the player’s personality. However, just because you’re a chaotic person doesn’t mean you should pick a chaotic opening, such as The Benko Gambit, to learn first; especially when you’re just starting your chess career. This would leave you in a world of hurt because the opening is far above the beginner’s skill set. You need to start with simpler openings such as the Italian Opening. Many teachers consider the Italian too passive but I think it’s better suited for the novice player because the opening principles are clearly defined within the opening’s moves and the opening can transpose (change into) a couple of other openings (The Evan’s Gambit and the Fried Lived Attack) which allows the beginner to broaden their opening studies a bit using the same starting moves. In other words, the Italian Opening serves as the foundation for the other two openings mentioned above. Only after the beginner has done some work studying opening theory should they move on to more complex openings. Start simple and then move on to more advanced ideas.

Beginners have a choice regarding their method of study, such as books, DVDs and software programs. Which method a beginner chooses depends on what type of learner they are. If you’re a visual learner, then DVDs or software programs will be more suited for your needs. However, before investing in DVDs or software training programs, consider a book that provides an overview of the opening principles and the many openings played by contemporary chess players. I would recommend Chess Openings for Dummies by James Eade. This book (which I’ve read twice because I don’t recommend books unless I’ve read them) carefully explains the opening principles and gives you an overview of a number of different openings from both White and Black’s perspective. The explanations are clear and concise and the opening principles are pointed out throughout the books many and varied openings. I’m often asked by those who start reading this book, which of those many openings in the book should I start my studies with? The answer is simple: Start with the opening that made the most sense when you played through one of the sample games provided within the book. When reading this book (or one of the other fine books on openings for beginners), you’ll find openings that don’t make sense from a beginner’s perspective, such as the Ruy Lopez or Spanish Opening. This is an opening you must eventually learn but later on when you really have a solid grasp of the principles. Stay away from these until you know more about opening theory. Eventually, as your understanding of theory increases, that opening that didn’t make sense early on will now make perfect sense. When you find an opening and can say to yourself, that makes sense (regarding the moves within the opening), you’ve found an opening to study in more detail.

General opening theory books often give you a game in which White wins and a game in which Black wins, centered around the specific opening being discussed. Play through and study both perspectives (White and Black). You may find an opening that you love and will use every chance you get but remember, you may have to play against that very opening so you need to know how to defeat it! Always study both sides of the board when it comes to openings.

When working through the opening, don’t move on from one move to the next until you know exactly why that move was made. Skipping over moves because you don’t understand them will lead to further confusion because one move during an opening often sets up the following move. Take your time when studying opening theory, especially as a beginner. Patience is your new best friend. Go through the entire book, even if you’ve found an opening you love early on. You want to at least have a feel for the many openings played. You don’t have to memorize every opening in the book, just be able to look at the first few moves of a variety of openings and understand why (in terms of opening principles) those moves were made. Speaking of memorization: Avoid simply memorizing openings as opposed to understanding the underlying mechanics. If you don’t know why a move way made, you’ll become lost very quickly. Opening principles are the beginners lifeline so hang on to them for dear life!

When you study an opening, learn some of the variations to that opening as well. When the beginner sees an opening being played out in a book, they’re seeing a specific game in which specific moves were made. However, in real life, other moves are often substituted into the opening mainline (the way it is traditionally played), creating what are called variations. Again, use the opening principles to guide your studies.

You could spend a life time studying openings. However, I suggest that the beginner choose an opening for White and one for Black (remember, you can’t always play the White pieces so you need to know openings for both sides of the board) and study them, starting with the mainline and working outward towards the more popular variations. Start with a book covering the principles and a sampling of openings for both White and Black. When you feel comfortable, then try DVDs and training software. I have my students hold off on these training tools until they’ve gotten a solid grasp of the opening principles. Also, take it slow, starting with small blocks of time set aside for studying. A solid twenty minutes during which you’re concentrating fully is worth a great deal more than two hours of your mind starting to wander because you’ve lost focus. It takes a lot of time to build up your mental stamina so you can sit for three or four hours and concentrate on your studies. Keep it simple and streamlined. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. These guys know their opening theory!

Hugh Patterson

Darkest Before the Dawn

There’s an old adage about it being darkest before the dawn. What this translates to is the idea that things are toughest before they get better. In short, you have to work the hardest right before you reap the rewards of a break through in any challenge. Be it music or chess, the road to mastery is a tough and often long journey. You have to work to master anything in life because, after all, if mastery was easy, everyone would be a master of their chosen field of study. I mentioned in a previously article that one’s training regime has a major impact on whether or not they make advances in their studies. With the right plan, one can make enormous strides and with the wrong plan, one becomes frustrated because they don’t seem to get anywhere. The journey to mastery requires breaking through a number of ceilings or barriers that must be broken through to continue making educational gains (improvement).

I realized that I needed to address a couple of concepts in greater detail than I did in that article, namely patience and old fashioned hard work. These two ideas go hand in hand when it comes to the mastery of anything. You cannot have one without the other when it comes to reaching one’s educational goals. The study of chess is similar to, for example, the study of chemistry. In chemistry, which I majored in (one of a few degree programs I went through), my time was spent both studying theory, reading lengthy textbooks, and practicing that theory in a laboratory. While you could jusr read and learn the concepts of chemistry, you’d only have a partial knowledge of the subject because you didn’t experience the theoretical first hand, reproducing experiments in a laboratory. The same holds true for chess, theory or study and practice or playing. Doing both requires patience and hard work!

I’d say that patience is the most difficult skill to develop. After all, we live in a fast paced world in which a job well done is a job done quickly. Trades, such as wood working are dwindling because it isn’t economically feasible to pay someone to hand carve wood details for an architectural project when you can have a plastic cast piece made for a fraction of the cost of the hand carving. As the old adages goes, “time is money” so we plow through our lives at a rapid pace. Patience requires taking your time and working through problems no matter how long it takes. The first golden rule all novice chess players should utterly embrace is that you have work through each phase of your training, each new problem you encounter, slowly. You have to learn to do it right from the start no matter what the cost in time. When you think you’ve learned something, go back and learn it again. In short, take your time. Don’t set a rigid time table to your studies.

While you should have a time table such as studying a specific chess concept for thirty minutes a day for the next two months, don’t think that you’ll absolutely meet your goal within the set time frame. It make take longer. The patient learner will set a goal and if he or she doesn’t achieve that goal, they’ll expand their time frame out until that goal is met.

For those of you who become impatient, you can develop patience skills outside of your chess studies that will make you a more patient learner when you study the game we love so much. In our day to day lives, we tend to rush through chores we don’t have a real interest in. I suggest engaging in that chore but instead of rushing through it to get it done, work through the task at hand at a slower, even pace. You can learn a lot about patience simply doing the dishes. Rather than plow through the stack of plates, pots and pans as if in a race for your life, wash each of the items individually as if each item was the only thing you had to clean and you had thirty minutes to clean it. Of course, I don’t mean spending thirty minutes washing one dirty dish. What I mean is to pick up a dish, for example, thoroughly clean both sides of it, dry it and carefully place it where it belongs. Take you time. This way of thinking slows you down. The key point is to slow down your endeavor and do it properly. I can tell when someone is impatient in the dish washing department when I dine at their home and find the previous night’s meal still encrusted on the dinner plate! Try taking your time elsewhere in your activities and you’ll benefit from it in your studies. Patience requires slowing your pace.

We all learn at different speeds and often we’ll find that we’ve been moving along progressively only to hit a point in our studies at which we hit an educational wall, a key concept or idea we can’t fully grasp. This concept or idea is crucial to the next step in our studies so to ignore it or only partially learn it will greatly hamper our understanding of what comes next. This is where patience becomes extremely useful and hard work enters the picture. We easily work through the first part of our studies only to become bogged down by something we can’t get a handle on, educationally speaking. If you simply gloss over the subject giving you trouble and move on, you’ll find that you’re going to start having real problems with more advanced concepts or ideas. You can avoid this by getting in a patient mode, accepting the fact that you’ll have to work though the problem at hand, no matter what the cost in time, before moving on.

This requires hard work. Mastery’s cost is hard work and lots of it. No one is born with a gift that allows them to instantly master a subject. You have to work at it, long and hard. The people who are masters of their chosen field will all tell you that they put in countless hours of work and didn’t skip over things they didn’t understand. When you think of having to work hard for countless hours, it can discourage you from engaging in your studies. Therefore, I suggest small bursts of hard work. Rather than sit for three or four hours attempting to work harder than you ever have, try thirty minute bursts of hard work. While I can work out on the guitar for four or more hours at a time, I’ve been doing it for longer than many of you have been alive. I can do it because I’ve slowly built up my ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Hard work really translates to the ability to concentrate or focus on your studies for an extended period of time. Like the muscles in your body, you have to build your ability to concentrate or focus. You cannot sit down for the first time and engage in hard mental work for hours on end. Build up to it!

When you do work through that educational barrier and are ready for the next step along the road to mastery, make sure you really understand what you just learned. One way to do this is to explain what you just learned (in your own words) to someone else. See if you can give them an explanation that they fully understand. One thing I love about teaching chess is that I have to explain concepts to my students in a way they can understand them. This ensures that I fully understand the concept. In closing, be patient and slowly methodical in your studies. Embrace hard work but build up to long work sessions but starting off with shorter bursts of hard work. Come to love the hard work and view it as something you’ve proudly done. Always remember, it’s darkest before the dawn! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Practice Makes Perfect?

I recently read a social media post stating that kids were studying chess up to four hours a day. It went on to question the validity of such an effort. I thought about this and realized that just because you study something for hours on end each and every day doesn’t mean you’re going to master that subject or even improve much. Quantity doesn’t guarantee any kind of mastery or improvement unless there is a high degree of quality to one’s studies. I know about this all too well.

We’ve all heard the old adage that states “to master an art you must put in at least ten thousand hours of study.” That’s a great deal of time to dedicate to any endeavor, especially in a world that becomes impatient after three minutes. Think about it. Your internet is running a bit slow, a matter of milliseconds, and you thrown a fit because you can’t download a pop tune in under sixty seconds. There was a time when getting online took a lot longer than sixty seconds. I mention this because those individuals who actually attempt to master something via the ten thousand hour method have a lot of natural patience. However, there’s a crucial missing statement that should be firmly attached to the ten thousand hour party line and that’s, “it only works if you have an excellent training structure or program.” In other words, you can waste ten thousand hours trying to master something and get nowhere because you didn’t employ a sound method of training (quality). To demonstrate that I know what I’m talking about here, I’ll give you my typical training day as a musician.

I play guitar for up to four hours a day (sometimes more). In the right hands, this amount practice each day will have any musician greatly improving within a short period. In the wrong hands, bad playing and the bad habits thus developed will lead to no improvement and a lot of frustration. With music and chess, it all comes down to the structure of your training program more so than the time spent training. I play for such a long period of time each day because I’m studying some extremely complex and difficult to learn jazz guitarist leads (what they call a “professional’s advanced class). This is akin to preparing an opening for a high level chess tournament. Too many improving guitarists and chess players have dreadful training methods that aren’t structured to optimize their studies. This is why they don’t get the results they’re after.

Here’s the way my typical guitar training sessions go. I start with a good thirty minutes of jazz scales. Why scales when I can work on playing actual songs? Because my fingers need to warm up before trying to play extremely complicated guitar leads. If I try to play a lead with no warn up, my fingers don’t work as well and I get frustrated. If I become frustrated, I might not feel like playing. Therefore, I warm up with scales. I then play a series of ten bebop (jazz) leads on my guitar, with each lead becoming more complex as I move through them. I play each lead a minimum of ten times. I should mention that if I hit one off note, I add another five times to the total workout of each lead. Bad habits form when you hit a bad note and continue anyway. You need to stop and start again, correctly. These lead guitar riffs are specifically designed to prepare my fingers for the more complex work I’ll be doing towards the end of my session. Next I move on to twenty Wes Montgomery leads. He was an amazing guitarist and learning to play his music is extremely difficult. Each of the twenty leads is done ten times with the same off or bad note penalty. Sometimes, I’ll play a leads perfectly and then my fingers get stupid (more likely it’s my brain but I hate to admit that) and I can’t play the lead through a second time. I stop and immediately take a break. Trying to continue when you’re frustrated will only make matters worse. It’s time to walk away and play a quick game of chess. I keep a board set up in my studio. In fact, when my bands rehearse there is always a game being played during those rehearsals, with some moves being made while the musicians are playing! The point here is to stop when frustration sets in because you’ll waste more time by not taking a break. Notice that there’s a structure to my studies? This is the only way you can improve.

After my jazz workout, I do some old school country guitar, called “chicken picking.” This is a string bending work out in which I’m using my fingers to “pick” the strings so I’m playing multiple notes at once. Only now do I actually run through both my band’s sets (roughly 18 songs each). Yes, I know the songs because I wrote almost all of them but I like to refine them ever so slightly.

In short, I have a very structured training work out. I’ve also done well over ten thousand hours of playing and am considered (by my peers, not by myself) to have mastered my instrument. However, there is no last stop on the road to improvement. It’s a road than only ends when you die. This is why you have to keep at it. A chess training workout doesn’t have to be as long as my guitar workout to be beneficial. The workout I described above is as long as it is because of solo and song lengths. With chess, you’re workout can be much shorter. Remember, just because someone else is studying chess for four hours doesn’t mean they’re going to play better than someone putting an hour or two into their studies. It’s about quality not quantity.

As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, you should set realistic goals regarding how long you study. I can play guitar for four hours because I’ve developed the concentration and stamina to do so over the last thirty five plus years of playing. If you’re new to chess, you need to study for shorter periods of time until you build up your mental stamina. Otherwise you’ll burn out quickly. Try thirty minutes daily to start and forty five minutes daily, three months later. Trying to study chess for four hours will give the beginner a solid thirty minutes of good studying followed by three and a half hours of glazed eyes and nothing accomplished. Take it slow. You have to be patient to improve. Getting good at sometime takes time and you cannot rush the process if you want to gain the most from your studies. Don’t be impatient. Take it nice and easy.

As for what to study? Make a list of everything you think is wrong with your chess playing and be honest (after all, you’re the only one seeing the list). Categorize the issues into opening, Middle and endgame problems. If you don’t have access to chess books or training software, go online and search for your particular problem. If you have trouble with your opponent hitting you with tactical plays that seem to come from nowhere, type “how to spot tactics in chess” into your search engine. Do this with each of the problems on your list. Do note that the internet allows everyone to be an expert so you have to watch out for people who don’t know what they’re doing. Look for know chess player’s online writings to avoid this. Look for web pages and sites that have positive reviews.

You’ll also want to go online and look up chess training programs. However, I suggest you try working through your list first and using that to start your training because if you’re brand new to chess, you won’t know a good training program from a bad one. Trust books written by Bruce Pandolfini. His writings on chess improvement form the foundation of my own chess teaching and coaching program. He writes in a clear and concise manner and is beginner friendly (many books are too advanced for beginners even though they’re supposed to be for the novice player) Go onto chess forums and see what people recommend in the way of training. You have to do the research.

In closing always remember that when it comes to improvement, quality always trumps quantity and patience wins the war. It comes down to a well thought out training program. That is how you improve. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Concentration for Kids

In coaching Juniors, the hardest task I face is getting my players to completely focus on the task at hand, sitting down to play chess. Because it’s a tournament as opposed to a friendly game with nothing at stake, my team members must be able to fully concentrate on their games. While this is difficult enough for adults, the task becomes doubly difficult when dealing with children or teenagers. Over the years I’ve tried many techniques, some panning out better than others. To help you avoid trying methods that don’t work, I’ll share with you some of the techniques I employ, methods that actually work!

You have to keep in mind that young minds tend to become distracted very easily. In our youth, we’re explorers of the world around us, a world in which everything is seemingly new. It’s “seemingly new” because youngsters are often experiencing things for the first time. Add to this the simple fact that children and teenagers haven’t learned the art of self discipline and you have a recipe for scattered and disjointed thoughts. This translates to a lack of focus and chess is a game that requires absolute focus. We cannot blame youngsters for lacking the ability to totally concentrate on a specific task, especially for long periods of time which is required when playing in chess tournaments. However, we can help them develop concentration skills that will serve them well in chess and more so if life!

The first problem I have to solve is one that most parents overlook which is their child’s diet. Many youngsters with take in high levels of sugar which causes them to become hyperactive. An active mind is crucial to chess. However, a hyperactive mind is a mind that is thinking in a disjointed way, seemingly in seven different directions at once. This means that the ability to focus becomes extremely difficult. Then there’s the simple fact that this high level of artificial energy will wear off quickly, leaving one feeling very tired (usually when the brain is needed most). Then there’s the individual who eats foods like hamburgers and french fries which leave them feeling lethargic which means their brain is struggling to go in even a single direction. Therefore, my students are given strict dietary guidelines for tournaments and I make sure their parents enforce them. The rule is simple: No sugar with the exception of fresh fruit. Meals prior to and during the tournament must be light. You cannot expect to concentrate unless your feed your brain wisely. I carefully explain to my students and their parents that the brain’s reaction with certain substances can lead to dreadful results due to the end product of that sugary biochemical reaction. Since most of my kids love science, they find this of great interest.

The next thing I have my students do to get into the zone of absolute concentration is either Yoga, Tai Chi or some form of physical exercise such as martial arts. Physical activity stimulates the flow of blood throughout your body, carrying much needed oxygen to your brain. Exercise helps to wake you up. Therefore, my students engage in some physical activity prior to their tournaments. I highly recommend Tai Chi because it really helps when it comes to centering yourself. Being centered means being having control of both body and mind. The forms used in this softer martial art require focus and concentration but in a very natural way. If you engage in an activity that requires too much concentration prior to the chess tournament, you may find that you’ve expended some of your ability to concentrate and focus before you really need it (when playing chess). Even simple exercises can be employed as long as you don’t overdo it.

Now for the brain warm up. Of course, my students will play practice games prior to their tournament games. However, I make them do a series of brain games to hone their ability to focus and concentrate. The first thing they do is play a few rounds of Solitaire, that old standby game found on most computers. The reason I have them play Solitaire is because it requires a small amount of focus, specifically in the area of pattern recognition. I build up the level of focus through the series of brain games my students engage in. Next I have my students count cards. That’s right, counting cards as in Black Jack. Of course, I don’t tell them it’s part of being able to successfully play Black Jack. With card counting, you assign three sets of numerical values to the various cards in the deck and keep track of the numerical count. I don’t want to turn this into a card counting lesson so you can look this up online. The point is that my students will have to focus and concentrate a little harder than when they were playing Solitaire. Again, it helps with pattern recognition.

Lastly, I have my students do a series of chess puzzles. The puzzles start off easy and get harder as we go along. The puzzles I use will require the students to look at the entire board. It’s important that they don’t start their games with tunnel vision, looking only at the part of the board where all the action is taking place. They need to see the entire board and do threat assessments, looking for potential threats such as hanging pieces, etc. The puzzles I use cover these issues.

We end our warm up sessions with a talk about good sportsmanship. Being a gracious winner and even more gracious loser is an absolute must with me. Act poorly and you are off the team. I tell my students that if they win they should consider the simple fact that their opponent probably isn’t feeling great about losing and thus ask themselves how they would feel if they lost and the winner was jumping up and down, screaming with joy. Shake hands and say good game! When losing I tell my students that becoming upset and crying only serves to make the victor’s win more sweet (there are a lot of sore winners on the junior chess circuit here). In short be kind no matter what the result.

So this is the basis of how I get my students to concentrate going into their tournaments. It works for adults as well! As for results, my students have owned many local titles for the last three years so I must be doing something right. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Novice Versus Amateur

One genre of chess book I find useful involves games between masters and amateurs. This originated with a series of books by Max Euwe and Walter Meiden in the 1960s, and there have been a few others since. I’ve always thought that you can probably learn more from the play of those rated, say, 300-400 points above you than from the top players. If I see a game played by a 2200 strength player I’ll be able to understand it and think ‘Yes, I could play like that’, while a game played by Carlsen will be over my head.

So perhaps there’s scope for a book for novices which uses games played by amateurs as teaching materials. The games would have to be simple to understand and free from obvious oversights. As it happens, one of the books in the Chess Heroes project, Chess Games for Heroes, will be similar to this, but as it uses the ‘How Good is Your Chess’ principle the games are, of necessity, short.

Here’s a training game I played against one of my pupils which might be useful.

1. e4 d5

I usually play e5, which is what he’s used to, but wanted to see what he’d do when faced with unfamiliar problems. Of course the natural move is to take the pawn, but he noticed I had a threat and chose to defend instead.

2. Nc3 c6

I decided to transpose to a Caro-Kann. How would he cope with that? Rather illogically, perhaps, he now decided to trade pawns.

3. exd5 cxd5
4. d4 Bf5
5. Bf4 Nf6
6. Nf3 e6

Rather careless. I’m trying to develop my king side pieces first, but not considering possible replies. White now has the opportunity to play 7. Bxb8 Rxb8 8. Bb5+ when I’d have to play the uncomfortable Ke7 as Nd7 would lose immediately to Ne5. White has another interesting option in Nb5, which was also possible last move. I’d have to reply with Na6 when the knight on b5 will be safe for some time to come. I really should have played Nc6 by now.

7. Bb5+ Nbd7
8. O-O Bb4

With a positional threat. We haven’t yet spoken much about weak pawns so here’s an opportunity to teach him a lesson. The engines prefer h6 here, to prevent White playing Nh4 and trading off my light squared bishop.

9. a3

Just what I was hoping for. Now I’m going to trade on c3 when White will have backward doubled pawns on the half-open c-file as well as an isolated a-pawn. In an analogous position type where Black has a c-pawn rather than an e-pawn White might be happy with his two bishops, but here I’m hoping to tie him down to defence by targeting the front c-pawn with my major pieces.

9… Bxc3
10. bxc3 Rc8

I could also have played Ne4 here, but I would have had to analyse lines like 10… Ne4 11. Ne5 Nxc3 12. Qh5 Bg6 13. Bxd7+ Qxd7 14. Nxd7 Bxh5 15. Ne5 Ne2+ to justify it.

11. Qd2

He spots my threat and chooses the most natural defence. There were better alternatives, but at novice level it wouldn’t be possible to find them for the right reasons.

The simplest option is 11. Nh4 Bg6 12. Nxg6 hxg6 13. Qf3 Ne4 14. c4.

White can also give up the c-pawn for counterplay:
11. Qb1 Rxc3 12. Qb4 Rxc2 13. Ne5 with more than enough compensation, although Black shouldn’t take the second pawn.
11. Rb1 Rxc3 12. Bd3 Bxd3 13. cxd3 b6 14. Qa4 with compensation for the pawn.

11… O-O

After playing this move I realised that I could have played Ne4 at once, although my move is also strong. Around this point my pupil became stuck, and was unable to find reasonable moves. Understandably so because his position is very difficult to play and he probably doesn’t have any reasonable moves. Some of his moves, including the next one, were my suggestions.

12. Bd3

I’d suggested that he might want to trade off my dangerous bishop. I have no intention of taking it, though, as I don’t want to give him control of c4 and e4. After he’d played the move I realised that Ne4 was very strong.

12… Ne4
13. Bxe4 Bxe4

The wrong recapture. I didn’t want to double my pawns (as I was trying to teach my pupil about the weakness of doubled pawns) or block in my bishop, but dxe4 is excellent as it drives the white knight back to e1.

14. Qe3

If I’d noticed it left the c2 pawn en prise I’d have suggested that he played an alternative. My computer thinks Ne5 is the best try, but Black’s still a lot better.

14… Nb6
15. Nd2 Bxc2

The rest of the game is just a matter of technique for an experienced player. I offered my pupil the chance to switch sides and see if he could win with Black at several points but, to his credit, he preferred to play it out and see how I beat him.

16. Rac1 Bg6
17. Bg5 Qc7
18. Bf4 Qc6
19. Rfd1 Nc4
20. Nxc4 Qxc4
21. Bd6 Rfd8
22. Be7 Rd7
23. Bg5 b6
24. Rd2 Qb3
25. Bf4 Qxa3

A second pawn falls.

26. Rdd1 a5
27. Re1 Rc4
28. Qd2 Rd8
29. Re3 Rdc8
30. h3 b5
31. g3 b4

The third weak pawn falls. White finds a good tactical try but I manage to calculate the win.

32. Bd6 bxc3
33. Bxa3 cxd2
34. Rd1 Rc1
35. Bxc1 Rxc1
36. Rb3

Another good tactical try, threatening mate but allowing an amusing finish. My pupil shows admirable tactical imagination as well as tenacity which will stand him in good stead in the future.

36… Rxd1+
37. Kg2 Rg1+
38. Kh2 Rh1+
39. Kg2 Be4+
40. f3 Bxf3+
41. Kf2 g6
42. Rb8+ Kg7
43. Kxf3 d1=Q+
44. Kf4 Qxd4+
45. Kf3 Rf1+
46. Ke2 Rf2+
47. Ke1 Qd2#

I guess you might find this a useful example of how an amateur can beat a novice by creating weak pawns, attacking them and winning them. This is not the only training game of this nature I’ve played recently so I guess learning about pawn weaknesses, how to avoid them, how to create them and how to exploit them, is a useful lesson for novices who want to become amateurs. There may be more on this topic in Chess Openings for Heroes.

Richard James

Knowing The Opponent’s Plan

This article is aimed at beginners only. Almost at all levels of chess, players try tricks to trap their opponents, the only difference being the level of difficulty. So when do you have better chances of making a fool out of your opponent? The simplest answer is when you know their plan.

Here is a nice miniature to show you the importance of knowing opponent’s plan in order to create a successful trap.

[Site "London"]
[Date "1864"]
[White "Andrews"]
[Black "Janssens"]
[Result "1-0"]
[ECO "C55"]

1. e4 e5 2. d4 exd4 3. Nf3 Nc6 4. Bc4 Nf6 5. O-O Be7 (5... Nxe4 6. Re1 d5 7.
Bxd5 Qxd5 8. Nc3) 6. Nxd4 Nxd4 7. Qxd4 d6 8. f4 b6 (8... O-O {is fine here, but
why b6? It is always been good to look for the reasons behind opponent's
{Answer is that Black would like to
play Bc5 to win White's queen. So now you know your opponent's plan and it is
time to create web around it. In the game White did this.}) 9. e5 {Of
course White can remove the queen or king from the diagonal but he used Black's
greed to win the game.} (9. Kh1)(9. Qd3) 9... d5 10. Bb5+ Bd7 11. exf6 {wins a
piece.} (11. Bxd7+ Qxd7 12. b4 c5 {is good for Black.}) 11... Bc5 {Finally
Black has achieved what he planned. But what did he miss?} (11... Bxb5 12.
fxe7 Qxe7 13. Rd1 {White wins.}) 12. Re1+ Kf8 {This allows mate in 2.} (12...
Be7 13. Rxe7+ Kf8 14. Bxd7 {wins}) 13. fxg7+ Kg8 14. gxh8=Q# 1-0

Ashvin Chauhan

Feedback and Follow-ups

This week, some feedback and follow-ups on recent posts.

But first, something rather less recent. It was great to hear from Dr Robert Samuels, a chess player and senior lecturer in music at the Open University, concerning my articles on chess and music last year. I pointed him in the direction of The Even More Complete Chess Addict, which he is enjoying reading. He has just started his own blog on chess and music which you can, and should, if you’re interested in both chess and music, read here.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the European Schools Chess Championship in Montenegro and mentioned the reports by an English parent who was concerned that some of the participants were fearful of the reactions of their parents and coaches if they lost.

Shortly after publication I came across this article from the Jewish Chronicle last year, written by Dana Brass, mother of leading English junior Ezra Brass. Her experience has been very similar:

The reaction of the Russians, who had sent the largest delegation, was perfunctory. A win was simply an expectation met, a job done. A loss would unleash a myriad of expletives at the poor offspring very publicly (again, my Russian proving useful).

Meanwhile, there were problems with parents at the recent PanAm youth Youth Championships in Costa Rica, according to a Facebook post by Paul Truong:

Some chess parents and coaches are embarrassing the chess community, again! After receiving so many complaints, the organization of the 2017 PanAm Youth Championships addressed the complaints and announced a new procedure this morning.

They are allowing all parents, coaches, family members, and head of delegations, etc. 5 minutes to take photos of their players. After the 5 minutes are up, they are asked to leave the playing hall. Once everyone was out of the room, play began.

The reason for this is a number of parents and coaches instead of taking pictures of their players, took pictures of all the opening positions of potential rivals. Some got so aggressive that they got in the way of other parents / family members / coaches who really want to take pictures of their own players.

When this announcement was made, a huge round of applause erupted. At one time years ago, parents were allowed to be in the playing hall. Because of a few parents and coaches who cannot behave, rules had to be changed.

Chess is a game. The time for serious preparation is at home. Young players need their parents and coaches’ support at tournaments but some lines should not be crossed.

In the same article I asked why other Western European countries were not represented in the European Schools Championship. This elicited a reply from Helmut Froeyman, whose son Hugo is Belgian U8 Champion, explaining that, in his case at least, it was a matter of time and money: his national chess federation offers no financial support for this type of event, and he and his wife both work full time. In addition, this particular tournament clashed with Hugo’s school exams. I took the opportunity to read Helmut’s chess blog and ask him more about junior chess in his country. His reply confirmed my understanding: perhaps I’ll return to this some other time.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how many parents misunderstand the nature of chess. Here’s another story.

The other day I was filling in for a colleague who had to leave early in the RJCC Beginners’/Novices’ group. There were a few children who were too young and immature for chess, but others who were really enthusiastic and keen to learn. Some of them were still there with me more than half an hour after the scheduled end of the session. Among the children left at the end were a sister and brother who had come along for the first time that day. Their mother was also watching with interest. I set up this position and asked them how White could get checkmate in two moves.

This is a good question as it tests children’s understanding of both pawn promotion and stalemate as well as their ability to look ahead and their knowledge of typical king and rook checkmates. I was planning to move onto the positions discussed here, but first wanted to see whether they could solve this.

One of them eventually realised that promoting to a queen was stalemate and they finally discovered that the problem was solved by promoting to a rook instead.

The mother watching was incredulous, though. How could it possibly be better to promote to a rook rather than a queen? There’s nothing a rook can do that a queen can’t do. True, but there’s something a queen can do that a rook can’t do: in this case, control the h6 square. She seemed unaware of the concept of stalemate, and of the idea of looking at what your opponent’s next move might be. She told me that when she was a girl her family lived on a boat, and she was taught chess by a man with a fondness for ‘a certain substance’. At least, unlike most parents, she was doing the right thing by taking her children to Richmond Junior Club, where, as we have a separate group for novices, her children will learn to play correctly.

I’d advise her, though, not to read How to beat Anyone at Chess, by Ethan Moore. Simon & Schuster were the first publishers of Fischer’s My 60 Memorable Games, but now they’re publishing a book, which doesn’t quite make the same impression.

Here’s the blurb:

Learn to take the king like a pro!

Whether you’ve played a few matches or are completely new to the game, How to Beat Anyone at Chess helps you master leading strategies for one of the hardest games out there. Each page guides you through important moves with easy-to-understand explanations and tips for staying ahead of your opponent. From utilizing the queen’s power to slaying your rival’s king, you’ll learn all about the traps, squeezes, and sacrifices that give players an extra edge and how you can use these techniques to beat the competition.

The ultimate guide to conquering the classic game, How to Beat Anyone at Chess will show you how to become a grandmaster in no time!

Who, you might ask, is Ethan Moore? Perhaps he’s this guy, with a rating of 883. Who knows? Quality control, indeed!

Finally, shortly after writing this post I read another article about Brexit by a former RJCC member, Jonathan White. Jonathan still finds time to play chess in between being a professor at the London School of Economics. Perhaps one reason is that, unlike Adam and Tommy, he started competitive chess at the age of 13, when he joined RJCC from Westminster School along with his friend, Ben Yeoh.

I’ve said this many times before, and I’ll say it again now: children who start competitive chess at secondary school age are much more likely to play as adults than those who start at primary school age.

Richard James