Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Three Strategic Concepts for Beginners

One of the most difficult ideas beginners must understand in order to improve is the concept of strategy. It’s difficult because it’s not as cut and dry as other forms of principled game play. With the opening principles, we know we have a specific goal to accomplish during the first ten to fifteen moves and a relatively easy (well, at least for more seasoned players) way to meet our goal. During the opening, we know that the three key tasks we must undertake to reach our goal of a sound opening game are controlling the board’s center early on with a pawn or two, developing our minor pieces towards the center and castling. We’re even given a list of things we don’t want to do such as making too many pawn moves, moving the same piece twice during the opening (unless absolutely necessary) and bringing our Queen out early. The point here is simple; we have an easy to grasp list of what to do and what not to do. The same holds true with middle-game play; further piece activation, tactics and good exchanges of material, and endgame play (pawn promotion, mating with specific pawn and/or piece combinations). However, the idea of strategy and maintaining a strategic plan throughout the game baffles our intrepid beginner. If you’re a beginner and you find yourself a bit in the dark when it comes to strategy, fret not because this concept alluded me for a long time (due to embarrassment, I won’t tell you how old I was when it finally sunk in, but I did have gray hair at the time). Let’s see if we can’t sort this out and shine a bright light on strategy and strategic thinking. It will help your game greatly.

Three words, actually concepts, can be employed during any phase within a game of chess and those words are material, safety and freedom. While these might be commonplace words to non chess players, they become important strategic ideas or concepts to those wishing to play quality chess. I use these three ideas when I introduce beginners to strategic thinking. However, before we delve into these three key concepts, lets start by defining the word “strategy” and compare it to the definition of “tactics.”

While seasoned players know the difference between strategy and tactics, many beginners don’t understand the difference which is critical to good chess playing. Strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve a major or long-term goal. In military terms, strategy is the art of planning and directing the overall operations and movements of an army’s troops. It’s the greater plan used to win the battle. Tactics, on the other hand, are the methods employed or actions used to achieve a specific goal or plan. In a military example, the strategy might be to cut off the enemy’s supply line, forcing them to retreat or starve. However, the way in which you do so, such a as carefully orchestrated attack on the supply line itself, undertaken by special forces late at night when enemy security is at its weakest, is a tactical effort. The strategic plan that meets your goal (taking out the enemy supply line) is executed through a series of tactical efforts.

Now to our three key ideas or concepts, material, safety and freedom. These are ideas to keep in mind throughout the game, meaning they should be considered during the opening, middle and endgame, thus why they’re strategic in nature. These three things help you to maintain strategic goals from start to finish.

Material is just that! When we say material, we’re talking about the pawns and pieces. To see who has the material advantage or the larger army of pawns and pieces, we should always do a pawn and piece count throughout the game. Unlike a real army who might not miss a foot soldier or two, our chess army can be greatly weakened even when we have one or two fewer pawns (foot soldiers) than our opponent.

While experienced players know the relative values of the pawns and pieces and keep a constant tally of just how much material both players have, the beginner often doesn’t understand the idea of the relative value of material. When you can can add up the value of your forces with the ease of an accountant, you’ll always know where you stand, materially speaking!

Our foot soldiers, the pawns, have a relative value of one. The minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops, have a value of three each. The Rooks have a relative value of five, while the Queen has a relative value of nine. The King’s priceless! The value of the pawns and pieces are based on their power. Therefore, the Queen is your most powerful piece and your pawn the least valuable of your material. However, it should be noted that these values are relative which means they can fluctuate depending on their relationship to the position at hand. Pawns, for example, might start off the game with a relative value of one. Yet pawns, upon reaching the opposite side of the board, can promote into a Queen, Rook, Knight or Bishop. Therefore. A pawn one square away from promotion is worth far more than one on its starting square!

You can compare pawns and pieces you’ve captured to those captured by your opponent and know where you stand, materially speaking. You can also add up the value of the pawns and pieces still on the board, both yours and those of your opponent. The bottom line, however, is that you should always know where you stand regarding material because this greatly effects the strategic decisions you make from one move to the next. I say this because strategic thinking and planning can change from move to move depending on what your opponent does. Your strategic thinking or planning should always be flexible because the game can change from one move to the next, meaning plans often have to change and change quickly.

Being able to put a value on the material on and off the board allows you know where you stand in regards to your planning. If you’re down a lot of material, you don’t want to sacrifice your Queen (unless of course it leads to checkmate). Remember though, just because you have more material than your opponent doesn’t mean you’re winning. You have to deliver checkmate to win the game! Having less material means you have to wisely use what you have left in the game. Knowing where you stand from a material viewpoint allows you to employ a smarter strategy, such as not throwing everything you have left at the opponent’s King but trying to use tactics to even the balance of material left in the game! When planning an attack, add up the values of the pawns and pieces being exchanged. The value of the material you capture should be greater than that of your opponent.

Now for safety. Safety really comes down to the position of both your pieces and those of your opponent! The most important piece regarding safety is the King! With your pawns and pieces, not including the King, you might lose some material but the game will continue (at least for a while). However, if you follow a few guidelines, you won’t lose pawns and pieces as easily. Since an attack from which the King cannot escape, checkmate, ends the game immediately, King safety is a crucial task from the game’s start to its finish. Kings who are left in the open are doomed to be checkmated. Therefore, castling is part of our overall game strategy, more specifically when and where to castle. The reason castling is such a fantastic idea is because our King is surrounded by pawns and pieces that keep the opposition from getting within striking distance (when done right).

With some openings, such as The Italian Opening, white has the opportunity to castle on move four. However, should white castle or continue building up forces in or around the board’s center? If the King is safe, castling can be delayed. You just don’t want to delay it until it’s too late. To know whether or not you’re reaching that point, you need to examine the opposition’s pawns and pieces and see if they’re making any threats. Doing this throughout the game has the added bonus of allowing you to see if any of your pawns and pieces are being attacked. All you have to do to determine your material’s safety, is to simply look at each opposition pawn and piece and see if it’s attacking anything of yours either immediately or in another move or two.

If you suddenly realize, after looking at your position, that there’s a great deal of material bearing down on a valuable piece such as the Queen, or worse yet, the King, you need to change your plans (your strategy) and fight off the assault. Of course, if, after every opposition move, you’re looking at each of your opponent’s pawns and pieces to see what threats they’re making, you’ll avoid being in this situation! This situation, being suddenly assaulted, is why you have to have a flexible strategy. A seemingly winning position can change violently against you in a matter of a few moves. Therefore, keep your strategy flexible. Beginners too often have rigid plans base on what they want their opponent to do, not what the opponent actually is doing which is employing their own plans.

Lastly let’s touch upon the concept of Freedom. If you had to spend twenty four hours in either a small box in which you could barely move or a large room with a comfortable couch and lots of room to move, which would you chose? The bigger space. You’re pieces feel the same way. They want and need room to move. There’s a term we use in chess to describe a pawn or piece’s room to move and that term is mobility!

In chess, freedom is mobility and pieces with no mobility might as well not be in the game! For a piece to be active, the key ingredient when it comes to attacking, it must be able to move to an active square and this requires mobility. Beginners tend to move pawns and pieces to awkward squares. By awkward squares, I mean squares, upon which moving a pawn or piece to, block in other pawns and pieces. This creates a traffic jam and, like real life traffic jams on the motorway or freeway, it takes time to extricate yourself from the problem. Time, especially at the start of the game, can work against you in the most vicious of ways. After all, the player who gains control of the board first can not only launch great attacks but keep their opponent from launching any attacks of their own. When considering a move, always check to see of moving a pawn or piece to your target square will hamper the efforts of your other pawns or pieces. Mobile pieces are happy pieces.

So keep these three ideas in mind when creating your game plans and you’ll be playing better chess. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Boris is a brilliant strategic planner!

Hugh Patterson

Chess for Babies

Last month’s London Chess Conference supported by Chess in Schools and Communities was, as always, a mixture of the inspiring, the fascinating and the somewhat disturbing.

We learned quite a lot about methods used for introducing chess to very young children, much of which seems to emanate from Italy and Spain.

Now this doesn’t mean playing complete games of chess against Karpov, like young Mikhail Osipov, whom I wrote about a few weeks ago. It doesn’t involve playing any competitive games at all. FIDE are now promoting a course, originally developed in Italy, for five and six year old children using a giant chessboard to help children develop psychomotor (physical) skills. By playing movement-based games on the board children learn about directions: vertical, horizontal and diagonal. They also learn about listening, following instructions, working as a team, letters (a to h, I suppose) and numbers (1 to 8).

You can find out more about it here. The videos of the lessons are in Italian, but even if it’s not one of your languages you’ll get a pretty good idea of what’s going on.

We also heard from Pep Suarez, from Minorca, who is teaching chess to even younger children using song and dance. Each piece has a different song which describes its moves, and a dance to go with it. He explained that some strong chess players are horrified by this approach to chess. At first he was only getting a small number of children moving onto playing full games, and only a few of those would go on to play competitive chess, but recently his small island (population under 100,000) has produced several national age-group champions.

The people behind these schemes are very much involved with the FIDE Chess in Schools Commission. Their mission:

o Chess for Education (CFE) not Education for Chess (EFC).

o Using chess within the educational framework to improve educational outcomes rather than using the educational environment to produce chess players (although that is an inevitable and very welcome by-product).

o The main focus of CiS is a social educational programme in primary and secondary schools, with particular emphasis on the ages 7-11.

o ‘CiS’ will this year provide a social educational programme for pre-schoolers at home or in kindergarten (see Psychomotricity).

o ‘CiS’ is also important at third level, in further education, especially aiming to encourage research and to develop the professionalization of chess teaching.

The fourth item here is presumably the Italian programme mentioned above.

This is very much the way chess education is moving internationally, although here in the UK we take a rather different approach geared much more towards competitive chess.

My feelings about this are very mixed. Yes, of course it’s important that young children learn through music and movement. If, like me, you grew up in the UK in the 1950s, it’s quite possible your school would have used a BBC Radio (we called it the wireless in those days) programme called precisely that: Music and Movement. If you really want your primary school to go into chess in a big way, then it would probably be a good idea to do this sort of thing to ensure that kids who joined your chess club knew all the moves.

On the other hand, there are all sorts of reasons why you might have concerns. There are no doubt many other ways of teaching children these skills. I can see that the nature of the chequered board has a number of advantages, but I’d be interested to hear from early years teachers as to the effectiveness of using chess for this purpose. It would also only be effective if the teacher was fully engaged and enthusiastic about the lessons, and of course it wouldn’t need a chess tutor at all.

I can also see the objections raised by some strong players who see this as dumbing down chess by turning it into an activity for very young children. But if it works in terms of producing significant numbers of young people with a lasting interest in chess then why not? It’s not something I’d want to be involved with myself, though.

Whether we like it or not, and, personally, I have a lot of reservations, it’s the way children’s chess is heading at the moment. Chess is being used as a tool to improve educational outcomes, and, if it also produces chess players, so much the better. My priority would be very much the other way round, but it’s where we are at the moment.

But how much evidence is there that chess really does improve educational outcomes (‘making kids smarter’)? We learned something about that as well, and I’ll return to this theme next time.

Richard James

Are Databases Important for the Beginner?

There was a time in the not so distant past, when we had to keep track of important games, both our own and the games of others, by carefully copying each move into a paper notebook. If you were serious about improving, you’d often find yourself copying dozens of games into that notebook that were centered around a specific opening you were trying to learn or a tactical idea you were trying to master. This was a daunting task at best. Incorrectly writing down a move from one of those games made the game worthless! Thanks to huge advances in technology, you can now purchase software that gives you immediate access to millions of games with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger. You can easily have ten thousand examples of a specific opening or a huge collection of games representing many different openings neatly stored on your computer. You can compare an individual move you might be considering to hundreds of thousands of previously played games to see if that move has any merit. The database is an extremely powerful and useful tool for anyone wishing to improve their game. However, do you really need a database as a beginner and when should you invest in one?

Before investing in a database program, which can be quite costly, you have to determine whether or not it’s really going to help your game, in other words, help you improve. While the database is an essential tool for serious/professional players as well as coaches and instructors, the beginner should understand that a database is not an instructional tool in the way a training DVD or software program is. With a training DVD or software program, actual lessons are being taught aimed at helping you learn the topic at hand. For example, a DVD on how to play the Ruy Lopez is just that. The DVD teaches you how to play this opening and is written and presented by an individual who has expertise with the Ruy Lopez. A database, on the other hand, might have a collection of ten thousand games featuring the Ruy Lopez opening, which is far greater than the number of example games featured in the DVD. However, there’s no instruction within the database so you just have the games themselves with perhaps a little annotation that is far above the beginner’s comprehension level. Therefore, the database expects you to already know the opening, or at least a bit of it’s mainline and variations. If you’re new to chess and don’t fully understand the opening principles, for example, you’ll quickly become lost and frustrated trying to figure out what’s going on within the database’s games. A database may show the opening principles in action but it doesn’t teach them.

Now, this isn’t to say that beginner’s can’t benefit from a database, but the beginner is better off spending their hard earned money on instructional material and, once they’ve improved, acquire a database program. I rely on my database program for teaching and coaching for very obvious reasons. I give at least ten chess lectures per week. I give roughly four hundred lectures per year (I work year round). Since I rarely show the same game twice during an academic year, I need to have easy access to a large number of games. All I have to do is consult my trusty database to find the games I use. The other advantage to databases, such as ChessBase 14 which I rely upon, is that it allows me to compare lines from a plethora of other games to the game I’m presenting to my students. For a teacher or coach, it’s an indispensable teaching tool. It should be noted that in order to get the most out of a database such as the one I use, you have to do a lot of reading and tinkering with the database. The user manual for ChessBase 14 is 487 pages long and you have to read quite a bit of the manual to get the most out of the software program. This alone, is too much for the beginner to deal with. Is there a happy medium for our intrepid beginner regarding the database? There sure is!

Cost is very prohibitive for many of us who love the game. I can write all chess related chess equipment off on my taxes. However, if you’re not teaching chess for a living and don’t have a good accountant, spending three or four hundred dollars on software can take food off the tables of many of my fellow chess players. Would you be happy if I told you you could either download a free database program or spend roughly twenty to fourty American dollars on an all in one chess program? I’d be happy!

Let’s look at the free database program first. It’s called ChessDB and can be found here: http://chessdb.sourceforge.net/ This is the homepage, so read the page and follow the instructions for downloading, which is a link button in the upper right hand corner of the page. The Beta version with the endgame tables is only 36 megabytes in size so it won’t put a strain on your computer’s available memory.

ChessDB is a great little database program because not only is it free, but it comes with a small database of 27, 681 games. I say small because my latest database has over 6,800,000 games. However, the beginner doesn’t really need six million games to have a decent database (I don’t even need that many games). Beginner’s just need games that they use for a reference for their own studies. If you want to add a larger database of games, you can add an additional 3.5 million games (see the ChessDB website for more on this) The only real downside to this program is that you’ll have to do a bit of studying to learn how to navigate the program and take advantage of its many features. However, you’d have to do that with any database and the good news is that you don’t have to pay any money for this program.

If you’re willing to pay around twenty to fourty American dollars for a program that not only has a large database (600,000 plus games), but a built in playing program and roughly one hundred hours of training and instructional material, try Chessmaster’s Grandmaster Edition or Chessmaster 10th Edition (both are essentially the same with the Grandmaster Edition having one additional section, Josh Waitzkin analyzing a series of games). This is an excellent program for the beginner wishing to not only improve but to have access to a decent database. I highly recommend this program to all my beginning students. It’s a great all in one program. Seldom do you find all in one programs that are great all around programs since most of these tend to be be weak in one area or another. While this is not the best program for more experienced players, it’s first rate for those new to the game. You can’t beat the price either! While not free, it’s close to it considering the fact that a beginner will be able to get a great deal of training in a single software package. Note, you’ll have to do a bit of searching online to find it for the price listed above because, original versions of this program, brand new, in the box and unsealed can sell for as high as three hundred American dollars. Just search around and you’ll find one for a decent price. The company that put out the game no longer makes it so you’ll have to buy it used or find a new copy someone has lying around in their closet. However, the search is well worth it. You can find free demo downloads (do not download full versions online because it’s internet piracy which is illegal) online to try it out. However, always exercise caution when downloading any program onto your computer (which is why I will not provide a downloading source. That risk is yours and yours alone).

So there you have it, a few ideas on acquiring a database should you feel the need for one. As a beginner, don’t worry about having a fancy database even if all your chess playing friends have one. It’s better to invest your money into training materials because, after all, if you really improve your game and beat your friend who’s always bragging about their fancy database program, you’ll have the last laugh. You might find yourself thinking, after beating your friend, “I guess those six million games didn’t do as much for you as my wise investment in my own training.” However, if you want to delve into the world of databases, try one of the above suggestions. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. These guys are old school. They had to write down thousands of games into their notebooks which just goes to show you that technology doesn’t necessarily mean you have the advantage on the chessboard or off the chessboard in life!

Hugh Patterson

Why Teach Chess?

It’s a question I’m asked often by people who know me from my other career, music. I suspect they ask this question because they know me from one world, a world in which chaos and living on the edge are king while logic and reason are foggy notions. People tend to think that musicians have one interest and one interest only, music. They don’t consider the idea that, like every other human on the planet, musicians have multiple interests. I’m fortunate in that the two things that interest me the most are both careers and,more importantly, those careers pay the bills. A professor once said to me “Find something you passionately love to do, find someone to pay you for doing it and you’ll always love your job and your life.” However, there’s much more to it than simply making money via something you love to do. It’s the end result of what I do that’s my real reason for teaching chess to children.

When I first starting teaching chess in the schools, I was attracted to the pay, the hours (I could sleep in until ten in the morning if it were not for the sad reality that I’m a workaholic) and the fact that I’d be getting paid to do something I love. I wish I could tell you that it was my life long mission to teach chess to children but I’d be lying. The job literally fell into my lap when a friend called me with a teaching opportunity. The same thing happened with my musical career which was accidental at best. With music, I was in the right place at the right time. With chess, it was a similar story.

It wasn’t until after I started teaching that I realized how important my new career was. It wasn’t important regarding the training of a new generation of chess players, even though that was part of it. What was crucial was the idea that I was helping my students develop logic and reasoning skills. Why is this so important?

I’m 56 years old (or young, as I like to think) and I’ve had my chance to make my mark on the world through my music. I had my day in the sun and, while I still write new songs and push the boundaries of music (mostly through a lack of talent), I know in my heart that it’s up to a younger generation to really turn music on it’s head and take it into uncharted waters. This idea holds true for everything from science to the arts. It’s the children that I teach who will take up the torch and move civilization forward. By teaching chess, I’m able to give my students the tools they’ll need to change the world. What are these tools? Simply put, the thought process. To change the world, you need to think differently than others and this requires a well honed thought process.

Chess is a fantastic tool for developing and honing your thought process. Too often as adults, we’re encapsulated by a myriad of problems, all demanding our attention at once. It can be work related or personal. In either case, we sometimes freeze like a deer suddenly faced with the glare of a car’s headlights. We get stuck and can’t find a way out, a solution to a seemingly endless parade of problems. We try to take on everything at once rather than one problem at a time. While children rarely have this dilemma, as they grow older, they will face the same situation. Too many problems hitting them all at once. Chess teaches us how to tackle problems in a logical manner. We learn how to look at a series of problems and determine which one needs to be solved first. We learn to deal with things with order and reason. Chess also teaches us patience, something that’s in short supply these days among the human species. Patience is key to problem solving. To prepare children to face life’s problems I teach them logic and reasoning skills. Employing logic and reason helps them to avoid that dreadful feeling of helplessness you get when it seems you can’t find a way out of the plethora of problems we often face in our day to day lives. These skills cut straight through the situation like a hot knife cuts through butter.

Chess also helps children develop the basic skills needed to do well in school. These skills include problem solving and discipline. Chess is a great introduction to big picture problem solving. A little picture problem, for example, is doing a simple arithmetic problem such as adding numbers together. A big picture problem is having homework in multiple subjects, such as math, science and writing, and determining which subject to work on first and managing your time to finish them all on schedule. Chess helps develop big picture thinking. Chess is also a good way to develop the type of thinking required for advanced mathematics such as algebra. Just remember, chess will not make you smarter. You’re stuck with the brain you were born with but chess will help it function at maximum efficiency.

One of the things I’ve done in my teaching program is to incorporate my student’s classroom curriculum into their chess class. We look at ideas their regular teachers present to them and create analogies on the chess board. This allows students to think about a particularly difficult problem they’re tasked with solving in terms of chess. When they can visually see the problem via the chessboard they often have an easier time solving it.

I look at my chess classes as a way to not only teach my students a game they can play and enjoy for the rest of their lives but as preparation for the many problems they’re apt to face in life. If they have a method of problem solving that is based on logic and reason they’ll be ahead of everyone else. Chess really does help develop young minds and helping them to do so is my contribution to the future of civilization. Remember, that little kid sitting at a table in a restaurant across from you, making a rude face in your general direction, may become the surgeon that saves your live one day. You better hope he studied chess. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

A Time of Gifts

It appears to by my turn for the Christmas gig this year, so I’m sure nobody will read this. You’ll all be far too busy opening your presents and stuffing your turkey to read internet chess columns, and quite right too.

If you’ve been teaching chess (or, indeed, teaching anything) as long as I have you might receive gifts at any time of the year. A gift that costs nothing to give but means a lot to receive. Let me explain.

A few months ago I was doing some private chess tuition at Hampton Court House. I walked across to the other side of Bushy Park to catch the bus home, checked the timetable, and discovered I had a few minutes to go back into the park and take some more photographs of the sunset. I held the gate open for a young man on a bicycle. He thanked me, then turned and looked at me again. “Are you Richard?”, he asked. “I’m Ralph.” Ralph had been a member of Richmond Junior Club about fifteen years previously.

A week or so later, I was on the bus one evening returning home from a concert. A man sat next to me. “Hi Richard”, he said, “I’m Alban”. Alban had, along with his three brothers, been a member of Richmond Junior Club about thirty five years ago, and his older brother’s son is currently a member, and by no means the only second generation member we have at the moment.

More recently I was at an amateur opera production where I met the parents of two former Richmond Junior Club members, again from about fifteen years ago. Time and time again, it’s humbling to be reminded, by both parents and former members, in how much affection Richmond Junior Club was, and I hope, still is held.

This is exactly why I do what I do. I’ve never been interested in making money from teaching chess, but because we are where we are, I have no option but to charge a reasonable rate. I’m just interested in making a difference to children’s lives, and perhaps giving them a long-term interest. I’d happily pay, rather than be paid, for the privilege.

The best gift I ever received, though, was a cheap plastic pocket chess set which Santa delivered 56 years ago. I’m sure many children throughout the world will receive the gift of chess today. I hope that, for some of them, as it was for me, it will be a gift that lasts a lifetime. It really doesn’t matter whether they reach 3000 strength, 2000 strength or even 1000 strength. Many parents, unaware of the complexity, beauty, history and heritage of the game, just see it as a way of providing their children with short-term extrinsic benefits rather than as a potential long-term passion. Perhaps we in the chess community should do more to promote the real reasons why they should give their children the gift of chess.

Remember: chess is not just for Christmas, chess is for life!

Richard James

Thank You

I spoke to a childhood friend last night for the first time in decades. He knew about my career as a musician. However, a great deal of time had passed since we last spoke and he had no idea that I had carved out a modest career teaching chess. We both played in our youth. He had aspirations of becoming a Grandmaster while I was more keen on a life of rock and roll. He became a successful scientist and has raised a small army of kids. His dreams of becoming a professional chess player were traded in for a fascinating career and wonderful family. He was amazed that I had managed to figure out how to make a living through the game of chess. Of course, I’m as amazed as he was regarding my chess career! While talking about what I do and how I do it, I was reminded, once again, at how fortunate I am. I was also reminded that any success I’ve had can be attributed to those who support my efforts, my students, the readers of my weekly column at The Chess Improver and my wife who also plays. To those who have supported and helped me with turning my passion for chess into a career I love, I thank you!

I often wonder why anyone in their right mind would consider seriously studying the game of chess. It’s an extremely ironic game in that you can learn its rules in an afternoon but spend a lifetime not even coming close to mastering it. It’s a maddening game at times, drawing your every thought into an obsessive mindset while purposely tripping you up so you fall headlong into the rabbit hole of its complexity. It’s a world within itself and only those who delve head on into its alluring waters will understand just how obsessed you can become. Yet there are those of us who take the plunge and find the waters warm and inviting.

We who love the game to the point of spending countless nights hunched over a computer screen or chess book think this type of behavior as normal. Why do we do it? To get better of course! However, if it were just that, many of us would have given up long ago! I think what keeps us going is the simple fact that chess reveals its deepest mysteries to those who delve deepest! Every once in a while, after long hours of study, I’ll have one of those insightful moments, suddenly understanding a concept that had been elusive and mysterious up until that point. This in itself is greatly satisfying!

Chess is a game that rewards hard work. Of course, you can play casually when on vacation or at a family get together, or you can aim for the stars and attempt to master the game. I say aim for the stars because I don’t think anyone can completely master a game with so many possible positions on the board at any given time. However, like those who choose to climb mountains that claim human lives on a regular basis, lovers of chess love a challenge and chess certainly is that.

I want to thank everyone who plays chess, both casually and professionally because it’s you that inspire me to improve my game and write these articles. Through the game of chess, I’ve made literally thousands of friends, some of whom I actually like (just kidding – I have to live up to my snarky reputation after all). Those friends come from all over the globe and have taught me a great deal about their country’s customs and traditions. My global friends make life interesting and our common bond is chess. Thank you global chess friends for being you, lovers of chess.

I’d like to personally thank the game of chess for keeping me in check (no pun intended). I tend to be an over achieving type and used to have a problem with losing. Of course, nobody likes to lose but some people take it better than others. I discovered through chess that one can learn a great deal from their losses. Chess also keeps my ego in check. It humbles me on a regular basis which makes me a better human being.

Then there’s Nigel Davies! He is one of my favorite chess players and instructors. Prior to meeting Nigel on Facebook, I knew him only through his DVDs. He’s got a warm way of presenting ideas and concepts that makes you feel comfortable when delving into the murky waters of theory. I have to thank him for giving me the opportunity to write about chess. Social media has allowed me to connect with some amazing chess players, Nigel being on the top of my list, so thanks social media sites.

This holiday season, I’m very thankful for all that chess has done for me and will continue to do for me as I sail off into my twilight years (whatever that means). I wish everyone, even non chess players (ha ha ha), the happiest of holidays. Here’s a tip for those doomed to have political discussions during Christmas dinner (especially in the United States): Avoid the conversation and instead, fight with your family members on the chessboard with a nice glass of Brandy. Nothing says “your candidate is one step above the village idiot” more than “Checkmate Uncle Bob.” Happy Holidays everyone and here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Thinking Skills Test 2 (Part 2)

Last week I introduced the first four questions in my second Thinking Skills Quiz. This week I’ll take a look at how children answered the last four questions

Question 5 is another standard tactical idea which comes up in many openings, and where the correct move is often overlooked. The complex thought processes which enable the children to find a3, the only move to avoid losing a piece, are too hard at this level, unless they’ve seen the idea before. Several of my sample chose to castle, wanting to unpin the knight and expecting to be able to save it next move. Again, a typical thinking error with young children, thinking “I go there, then I go there” rather “I go there, then you go there”.

Question 6 is a random mate in 2 position. Can they find a fairly simple mate in two if they’re not told specifically that it’s a checkmate puzzle? A few of them managed to find the correct answer: Nf6. They recognized the typical King and Rook v King checkmate position and saw that they could get checkmate next move by moving the knight out of the way. In some cases this was, I suspect, a lucky guess. You have to control g8 to stop the black king escaping, and blocking off the black bishop also speeds up the mate, but I’m not sure that they were all aware of these points.

Question 7 is another defensive question, and another typical opening idea. When faced with two threats children will automatically react to the first threat they see without stopping to see if there’s another threat that should take priority. So in this position most children will spot the threat to the knight on e5 and move it to the most obvious square, f3, where it threatens the black queen. Even when I prompted some of them to find a knight move which defended f2 some of them found it hard. Eventually they noticed that Ng4 fitted the bill, but didn’t stop to ask whether or not the move was safe. The question you should be asking (and you really had to ask yourself before playing Nxe5 the previous move) is “Do I have a knight move which defends f2 and is also safe”. But this is a complex cognitive operation which is too hard for most young children with little experience of chess.

Finally, Question 8. Several of the students didn’t get this far in the time allocated for the exercise, but those who attempted the question played 1. Qc6+, expecting something like 1… Nd7 2. Nxd7 Qxd7 3. Qxa8+. They probably hadn’t noticed the bishop on h3. It’s often been pointed out that backward diagonal moves are the hardest to spot. In fact the bishop on h3 is the key to this puzzle. White can trap the bishop by playing the rather unusual discovered attack g4.

Again, these puzzles exemplify some of the typical thinking errors made by less experienced younger children.

  • They only consider one criterion when choosing a move, and choose the first move meeting that criterion.
  • They either fail to look more than one move ahead or think ‘I go there, then I go there, then I go there’ rather than ‘I go there, you go there, then I go there’.
  • They are unable to see relationships between pieces in different parts of the board.
  • They fail to notice their opponent’s threats.
  • They overlook discovered attacks.

Now this poses a couple of questions. Can we teach young children more efficiently by concentrating on these areas? Or do we put it down to their cognitive development and expect them to improve naturally? Should we be repeating and reinforcing typical tactical ideas in the opening such as Questions 2, 5 and 7 in this quiz and Questions 6 and 7 in the previous quiz?

And what about less experienced or lower rated adult players? Do they make the same type of mistake or is there a difference? Young children learn mainly through memory and mimicry rather than through genuine understanding, but it should be easier to teach older children and adults to understand abstract concepts and more complex cognitive skills. I don’t know as I have very little experience teaching adults. If you have any views or experience on this, please let me know.

Richard James

Online Learning

Learning online, be it earning a college degree or learning how to fix a leaky pipe in your bathroom, has become a mainstay in our lives. Prior to the introduction of the internet, those who wished to improve their personal knowledge base were forced to seek education via a traditional system, such as books or schools. Now, from the comfort of our homes, we can learn how to do anything easily because online learning works around our schedule. In the case of chess, you once had to acquire chess books to improve your game, many of which had text and diagrams that required a PhD in code breaking and linguistics to understand. Now, you can simply go to Youtube and get visual instruction that takes the mystery out of learning. However, the negative side to online learning via sites like Youtube is that anyone can fancy themselves a chess teacher. This means, you’re apt to get some very bad advice regarding chess improvement if you’re not careful.

When learning the game of chess and using the internet to do so, you need to weed out bad teaching from good teaching. In other words, you need to find qualified instructors! What qualifies a person as a great chess instructor? You might think that a great chess instructor has to be a highly rated, well known player. However, this isn’t always the case. There are plenty of brilliant chess players who are terrible teachers and plenty of great teachers who are mediocre chess players. Then there’s the dreadful though looming over online learners; anyone can call themselves an expert in a specific field and, because of the anonymity factor (you don’t really know who you’re dealing with online). How do we determine who really is good at helping beginning chess players improve?

We’ll start by looking at Youtube. If you enter “chess instruction” into the site’s search bar, you’ll be given roughly 68,100 results. These results will not give you a series of video titles such “How Beginners Can Improve at Chess.” You’re more likely to see titles such as “The Sicilian Defense” or “Intermediate School Chess Lessons The Three Golden Rules.” I entered the above search and these are two video lessons that came up. First of all, The Sicilian Defense is an extremely complicated opening for black, one that beginners shouldn’t be learning immediately. Yet a beginner might not know this and decide to watch the video only to feel as if chess is game far above their intellectual pay grade after viewing it. The second video, which I watched, was something I might teach to my intermediate students but not to beginners. This problem of ending up with videos that won’t help you can be avoided by narrowing down the search (I’m doing this as I write).

Try typing in “Chess Lessons for Beginners.” The results are now narrowed down to roughly 39,100 results, but “The Sicilian Defense” is now found as the first offered video. Are you starting to see that there’s a problem here? Further down the Youtube list is a series of videos entitled “ Lessons 1-10 Chess for Beginners. I started to click the link to the videos but suddenly noticed one of the videos titled “Blindfold Chess for Beginners.” Blindfold Chess requires a great deal of skill, since you’re playing chess without a physical board and pieces using your mind only, and beginners simply are not at this skill level. Next?

Then I saw Grandmaster Varuzhan Akobian’s video, “Beginner’s Openings and Tactics.” Upon clicking the video link, I pleasantly found that the video is part of a series produced by the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center’s “Sunday Kids’ Class”. That’s right, a kids’ chess class. If you’re an adult thinking “I don’t need a video geared towards kids, you’re absolutely wrong. The most effective chess teaching I’ve done with adults uses chess lessons designed for kids. Why does this work (I really do know what I’m doing when it comes to this topic)? Because the lessons simplify complex ideas and concepts by using very easy to understand (so easy a child could fathom it) examples. Trust me, when learning the finer points of chess, you want things simplified.

As it turns out, The St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center has an excellent if not brilliant series of video chess lessons for children that I have all my adult students watch. If you want to improve, this is the way to go. Of course, there are plenty of other choices regarding videos to be found under this Youtube search but, as they say in Latin, caveat emptor, which roughly translates to “let the buyer beware!” I’ll spare you the horrors of watching an instructional video only to ponder whether or not the video poster/host is out of their mind or just doesn’t know how to play chess. As a coach and instructor, I can tell the difference between a good instructional video and a poor one very quickly. If you’re new to the game, you might not be able to tell the difference and worse yet, commit the video’s ideas to memory and find yourself losing games and having people around you wondering if you’ve lost your mind.

Watching videos geared towards children is a safe bet for the most part. However, remember, that anyone can claim to be a chess teaching guru. Therefore, try researching the presenter’s name before investing time in watching the video. Of course, it takes time to do the research but you’ll be better off in the end! If you want to save yourself grief, watch the plethora of beginner’s videos offered by The St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center. They use top notch players who are great at teaching children. If you want to venture into the unknown realm of Youtube, stick with names known for great teaching such as Andrew Martin and any of the ChessBase DVD authors. In fact, you can often find samples of their teaching on Youtube.

The point here is to shop carefully for online instruction. Here’s a link to one of the many Saint Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center’s Youtube channels. I think you’ll enjoy the great lessons from Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan. Again, they’re lessons geared towards children but you’ll get a lot of them as a beginner. You could spend a few years just going through the club’s amazing collection of videos.

There’s no game to enjoy until next week because I’d like you to watch the videos instead. I challenge any novice players reading this to watch each of the beginner’s videos over the next few months and let me know how they helped you. I have! You’ll improve your playing immensely and the only cost to you is a little time. Now that’s a bargain! See you next week!

Hugh patterson

Thinking Skills Test 2 (Part 1)

I recently returned to the original Thinking Skills test for children which I wrote some years ago. I decided I could produce a lot more of these, and have had the opportunity to submit the Richmond Junior Club Intermediate Group to another eight questions. These questions are designed for players who have learned the basic principles but are below about 100 ECF/1500 Elo strength. It’s always interesting to note that children who, when playing games, will make most of their moves instantaneously, will spend a long time on this exercise.

If you teach children at this level please feel free to use them yourself and let me know what results you get.

Question 1 is, like last time, a basic king and pawn v king position. Will they push the pawn hoping to get it to the end of the board safely or will they, correctly but perhaps counter-intuitively, take the opposition with Ke6? In my small sample, several of the children knew the answer to this, in some cases specifically mentioning the word ‘opposition’, but without being able to spell it correctly. Others, as expected just pushed the pawn, hoping for a safe promotion.

Question 2 is a very frequent position type in games at this level. Black goes for a quick attack on f2 and White correctly meets the attack by castling. After Black captures with the knight on f2, what should White do? The most popular answer in my sample was Qe2. They see their queen is attacked and move it to a safe square. At least it’s better than Qe1 or Qd2 when a knight move will hit the queen as well as discovering check from the bishop. Surprisingly few make the correct move, capturing the knight on f2, winning two minor pieces for rook (and pawn) and giving White a clear advantage. I’ve also used the position where Black has played Bc5xf2+ instead of Ng4xf2. Here, again, many children at this level will play Kh1 rather than Rxf2, telling me that they don’t want to lose a rook (5 points) for a bishop (3 points). Because they lack the basic skill of being able to look ahead they fail to see their next move, capturing again on f2.

Question 3 is a basic tactical idea which is usually missed at this level. If they haven’t seen the position type before they’ll find it too hard to take in the bishop on b3 pinning the pawn on f7 as well as the potential capture on g6. If they look at Qxg6 at all they’ll reject it because they think the pawn is protected. Being able to see the relationship between five pieces (Bb3, Qf6, Pf7, Pg6, Kg8), one of which is a long way from the other four, is just too difficult. Instead, they’ll stare blankly at the position for some time before doing something like putting a rook on d1 or playing a4 to threaten the enemy queen.

If you look through games played by children at this level you’ll notice very quickly the very large number decided by Qxh7# or Qxh2#. Here’s an example, I think from a German junior game I found on MegaBase. I changed the position slightly: the black pawn you see on f5 was actually on e4, when Black was winning anyway because of the attack on f2. It’s very tempting for White to think it’s a ‘which capture should I make?’ question and just decide which way to take off the bishop on c5. As you’ll see, g3 is the only good defence for White, as the f2 pawn is pinned, but at this level many children will fail to notice Black’s threat. Again, they find it difficult to process information from both sides of the board (the queen on c7 and the knight on g4) at the same time. Children sometimes assure me that castling is a bad move because whenever they castle they get mated. Sometimes this will be in a position like this, sometimes perhaps a back rank mate later in the game. So in future they always leave their king in the centre of the board. Generally speaking, defensive questions such as this are hard for young children, partly because of their egocentric view of the world. There are some more examples in the second half of this quiz, which I’ll discuss next week.

Richard James

Your Opponent’s Move

I’ve written about this subject before, but feel it’s so important that we must revisit it in greater detail! When I coach a group of students, I go from board to board, watching each individual game. I make notes regarding problems I see within each game such as poor development in the opening, poorly thought out exchanges in the middle-game and the bane of the beginning player, one sided plans. What’s a one sided plan, you may be wondering? An affliction that everyone who has ever learned the game of chess has suffer from. Let’s first briefly review the concept of planning:

Chess is a game in which the plans of both players clash. They clash because the immediate plan of one player is often thwarted because of a specific move made by their opponent, a move that stops that plan. Of course, the game’s constant clash of plans is what makes the game so spectacular. Most beginners think the plan is to checkmate their opponent’s King. That is the game’s goal. That goal is achieved by employing a number of immediate plans rather than a single long term plan meant to work for the entire game. It’s unrealistic for beginners or advanced players to create a single plan that takes them from the opening to the endgame because a position can drastically change from one move to the next. This means that, if you had a single long term plan, one or two moves by the opposition could destroy that plan, leaving you in the dark regarding just what to do.

Plans must be flexible, able to adjust to the ever changing position on the chessboard. Flexibility is the key to good planning in chess. Your plan should always take into account a number of possible opposition moves, not just one move. However, there’s something even worse than an inflexible plan that depends on your opponent making a single anticipated move. This dreadful mindset is one sided thinking!

What do I mean by one sided thinking. Many of us have heard beginning players state that “I’m thinking four moves ahead of my opponent right now” going into or during the middle-game. The top chess players in the world have a little trouble realistically thinking this many moves ahead, with absolute accuracy during the middle-game, because there are so many possible positions to be considered (I’m talking about a staggering number that only a computer could fathom). What is the beginner really saying then?

The beginner isn’t lying about seeing four moves ahead. They are seeing four move ahead in their mind. Unfortunately, one sided thinking is clouding their judgment and derailing their plan without them even knowing it. One sided thinking is making a move and expecting your opponent to make the move you want them to make, which allows you to make your next move in the plan followed by your opponent making another move you want them to make. You plan only works if your opponent makes the moves you want them to make. However, your opponent has his or her own plan and you can be sure that they’re going to make moves that go against your plan. After all, your opponent is also trying to win the game. The beginner’s thoughts might sound like this: “I’m going to put my Queen here and my opponent is going to move a pawn there. Next, I’ll move my Bishop here and my opponent will his Knight there and I’ll checkmate on the next move. If this sounds familiar to beginners reading this, it should because it’s The Scholar’s Mate (four move checkmate). Take a look at the example below.

We’ll look at one siding thinking first, our beginner’s thought process from the above paragraph where the opposition makes the moves our beginner wants them to make, and then see what happens when our beginner (playing white) plays against an opponent that has his or her own ideas as to what to do!

In the above example, both players start out making extremely reasonable moves, 1 e4…1e5. Both players control the board’s center with a pawn and allow both the Queens and King-side Bishops access to the board. Our one sided thinker knew that black would play 1…e5. Now, he (white) decides to do something your should never do, which is bringing your Queen out early with 2. Qh5. This move loudly announces (white might as well jump up and down screaming “Scholar’s Mate!”) that white is going to try and checkmate black in four moves! Because our beginner commanding the white pieces is employing one sided thinking, he simply knows that his opponent will play 2…d6 (wow really?). Our beginner smiles as he sees his perfect plan playing out before his eyes and plays 3. Bc4. White obviously has the ability to control his opponent’s mind, because that would be the only explanation for black’s pitiful response, 3…Nc6. White grins from ear to ear as he makes move four, 4. Qf7#. Now let’s look at what actually happens when our beginner tries to employ his one sided thinking against an opponent playing realistically.

White starts off with 1. e4 while black counters with 1…e5. Our brave beginner now brings his Queen to h6 once again, 2. Qh6. “So far, so good” thinks the beginner. “My Queen is lined up for the attack. Now all black has to do is move their d pawn and wait! This isn’t the move black is supposed to play!” Black, instead of playing 2…d6, plays 2…Nf6 and white’s hopes of a fast checkmate are crushed. White retreats the Queen to f3 (3. Qf3) in the hope that the f6 Knight will magically disappear. Black develops his Queen-side Knight with 3…Nc6. Remember, every time you have to move a piece more than once during the opening, you’re essentially giving your opponent a free game turn. Black takes advantage of this fact by developing a new piece. White, determined to somehow salvage the situation, plays 4. Bc4, thinking somehow the chess gods will look down on him with positional pity and grant him his wish! Black counters with 4…Nd4, attacking the Queen who has to move again. In this example, white faced an opponent who didn’t make the moves our beginner wanted them to make but rather made his own, well thought out moves. Beginners will never face an opponent who makes exactly the moves the beginner wants them to make. Thus, one sided thinking is a sure fire way to lose every game of chess you play.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t address how to you can anticipate your opponent’s moves. Of course, you can’t anticipate every possible move your opponent makes. However, you can use a logical system to at least prepare for the opposition’s best possible responses. This is accomplished by simply trading places with your opponent, not literally of course, but in your mind. In other words, you have to look at the board from the opposition’s point of view, looking for the best response to the move you’re planning on making, as opposed to thinking about your opponent’s best response after you’ve made your move. Think first before making any move, otherwise you’ll pay a steep price.

The secret really is putting yourself into your opponent’s shoes, pretending to be in charge of the opposition’s forces. Of course, to find the best and most likely opposition move, you’ll need to examine each pawn and piece. This doesn’t mean looking at them as if you were in a museum looking at a piece of art. You have to look at each pawn and piece and determine whether or not that pawn or piece can be moved to a square that disrupts your plan. During the opening phase, the opposition moves you’ll be looking for are those that gain greater control of the center. Use the opening principles to guide you. If you see that an opposition piece can gain a strong foothold in the center, ask yourself if there’s a move you can make, with a pawn for example, that will deter the opposition from making that move. Take your time and examine everything , material-wise, on the board (board vision).

During the middle-game, tactics are the name of the game for more advanced beginners and improvers. Look at the opposition’s pawns and pieces (yes pawns, because they can fork pieces) and see if there’s a tactical play to be had, such as a fork. Chances are that if you saw it and your opponent is a stronger player, he or she will have seen it as well. Can you use a pawn to keep the forking piece off of its target square? Can you use a piece of lesser value to stop a piece of greater value from making a tactical play? Look for ways to keep your opponent’s pieces away from your side of the board. This can be accomplished by further activating your pawns and pieces.

Again, think about your opponent’s best move as if it was his or her turn, before considering making your move. All you have to do is put yourself in your opponent’s place. If you insist on employing one sided thinking, you’ll be doomed to live out your days in the land of lost chess games. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week. There two players didn’t use one sided thinking when planning their moves.

Hugh Patterson