Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Executive Stress

Here’s a position from a London League game I played back in 1978.

I was White and had to play one more move before the time control. I don’t remember how much time I had but I suspect it was enough to avoid making a blunder. What I do remember, though, is that I had a heavy cold and didn’t feel fully switched on during the game. This was the main reason why, instead of playing something sensible to consolidate my slight advantage, I grabbed the e-pawn, overlooking that after the trade of bishops my opponent had the deadly fork Qh1+.

Feeling unwell is something that will inevitably affect your executive function skills. Perhaps you will find it harder to make a decision and run short of time. Perhaps you will play impulsively and make an oversight. Perhaps your decision making skills will be impaired.

But what exactly do we mean by ‘executive function’?

Wikipedia, as usual, is your friend.

“Executive functions (also known as cognitive control and supervisory attentional system) are a set of cognitive processes – including attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, as well as reasoning, problem solving, and planning – that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.”

Well, chess is very much about reasoning, problem solving and planning, as I’m sure you’ll agree. To play chess well we need attentional control, otherwise we’ll get distracted by external or internal stimuli. We also need inhibitory control, otherwise we’ll play our moves impulsively, without thinking about the consequences, and make lots of oversights as a result. Working memory is not just short-term memory but involves manipulating the information stored in your short-term memory: without that skill we’re not going to be able to consider alternatives and look ahead, and if we try to do so we’ll quickly become very confused. Finally, we also require cognitive flexibility: the ability to switch between thinking about different ideas, and to think about two different ideas at the same time.

Wikipedia again:

“Executive functions gradually develop and change across the lifespan of an individual and can be improved at any time over the course of a person’s life. Similarly, these cognitive processes can be adversely affected by a variety of events which affect an individual.”

So we’d expect children’s executive functions to improve as they get older, but on occasion an individual may be affected by a particular event, such as, in my example above, having a heavy cold, which, in a game of chess, might increase the likelihood of making mistakes. It was reputedly Tartakower who first said that he’d never beaten a healthy opponent.

“… executive functioning in preadolescents is limited because they do not reliably apply these executive functions across multiple contexts as a result of ongoing development of inhibitory control.”

Quite. You can teach young children all the chess you want but, unless their executive function skills are in place they will find it very difficult to put it into practice. Which is why young children will often get stuck, find themselves not making progress, get frustrated and give up. The younger they start chess the more likely this will happen. The children get frustrated, their chess teachers get frustrated with them, their parents get frustrated both with the children and with their chess teachers.

“Many executive functions may begin in childhood and preadolescence, such as inhibitory control. Yet, it is during adolescence when the different brain systems become better integrated. At this time, (young people) implement executive functions, such as inhibitory control, more efficiently and effectively and improve throughout this time period. Just as inhibitory control emerges in childhood and improves over time, planning and goal-directed behavior also demonstrate an extended time course with ongoing growth over adolescence. Likewise, functions such as attentional control, with a potential spurt at age 15, along with working memory, continue developing at this stage.”

Precisely. Which is why it’s so much easier to teach older children than younger children, and one of many reasons why most young children fail to make progress at chess.

It’s difficult to teach executive functions to young children, but I guess playing games of skill would be one way to develop these attributes. I would also guess that simpler games would be much more effective and probably enjoyable than an exceptionally complex and difficult game such as chess.

Some children will have these skills in place at a very early age, and I’ve been lucky enough to have known and worked with quite a few. Current Richmond Junior Chess Club member Nishchal Thatte, for example, shared first place in the U160 section of the most recent Richmond Rapidplay at the age of 7, and was up with the leaders most of the way in the European Under 8 Championships which finished the other day. But most of the children I’m asked to teach are far too immature to make much progress because they have the typical executive function defects which you’d expect from their age.

Thinking back again to the position at the top of this article:

“Psychologists Don Norman and Tim Shallice have outlined five types of situations in which routine activation of behavior would not be sufficient for optimal performance:

1. Those that involve planning or decision making
2. Those that involve error correction or troubleshooting
3. Situations where responses are not well-rehearsed or contain novel sequences of actions
4. Dangerous or technically difficult situations
5. Situations that require the overcoming of a strong habitual response or resisting temptation.”

In that position I had to make a decision. I had to correct the error in my decision making, but failed to do so. The backward diagonal attack on my rook after Qh1+ might be considered part of a novel sequence of actions. I was in a dangerous situation but failed to realise it. I had to resist the temptation of capturing the pawn but failed to do so.

Who was my opponent in that game? None other than the aforementioned Tim Shallice, who has been a strong chess player for more than half a century and is still active today.

“The work of influential researchers such as Michael Posner, Joaquin Fuster, Tim Shallice, and their colleagues in the 1980s (and later Trevor Robbins, Bob Knight, Don Stuss, and others) laid much of the groundwork for recent research into executive functions.”

Tim Shallice is not only a strong chess player but an influential researcher into executive functions. If you were paying attention recently you might recall another name from the same sentence. The winner of the game I demonstrated last week, Trevor Robbins, was a very strong chess player in his teens and early twenties but chose to concentrate on his academic work in the field of executive function.

Given the importance of executive function in playing chess it’s perhaps not surprising that two of the leading experts in the field should also be strong chess players.

We need to stress the importance of executive function in the development of young chess players, but at the moment we’re not really doing so.

Richard James

Before You Make That Move

You would never drive your car blindly into oncoming traffic because the results would be disastrous, right? Yet, how many of you have blindly made a move on the chessboard without putting much thought into that move because you became frustrated regarding exactly what to do? I’ve been guilty of doing this from time to time in the past. However, because I teach and coach chess full time, I tend to make fewer of these thoughtless moves due to long term training on my part. However, the novice player can easily become frustrated and throw caution to wind, making a move without thinking it through. This occurs because the novice or beginning player hasn’t yet developed an ordered mental check list for determining what move to make in response to the opposition’s last move. Players with greater experience have a large number of game principles not only committed to memory but in a sequential order that makes accessing the right principle for the given situation a very easy task.

When you first seriously study chess, you’re hit with a plethora of useful information in the form of books, DVDs and software. Sometimes, far too much information. In actuality, it’s not that it’s too much information, it’s just too much information at once. The beginner picks up a book or watches a DVD that gives them a great deal of knowledge on opening, middle or endgame theory. A number of principled ideas are presented with actual game examples. The beginner works through the examples carefully, learns the concepts presented and then sits down to play a game employing his or her new found knowledge. Suddenly, they’re hit with bits and pieces of the various principles just learned, all at once, rather than the single principle they need for the situation at hand. Confusion ensues and the beginner loses the game in question. Where this situation really rears its ugly head is when the beginner is faced with a position (similar but not exactly the same) that wasn’t in the book or DVD, which happens more often than not! Beginners tend to think that a position they’ve studied in a book is exactly how that position will appear in their games. It almost never is! This means the beginner may be faced with a position they’ve encountered in their book or DVD studies but doesn’t see it for what it is because the pawns and pieces are slightly different in arrangement than in the example they studied. To the beginner, the position seems foreign.

We’ll address this problem first because it’s key to everything else being discussed! Book and DVD examples come from real games. In a book about endgame play, the beginner might be studying Pawn, Bishop and King endgames. They’ve learned (book/DVD studies) how to promote their Pawn with the King and Bishop being on very specific squares (those found in the book/DVD examples). However, in their real life game, the King and Bishop they need to help promote their Pawn with are on squares not identically positioned as in the initial (book/DVD) example, maybe both King and Bishop are on the other side of the board and the pawn is on a different file. The beginner looks at his or her position and has a very slight recollection of what to do, based on the initial example. However, in the book or DVD example, the King and Bishop were much, much closer to their target squares. The beginner might automatically disregard any thoughts regarding the key concept they need to employ because the position isn’t exactly like the one found in the book or DVD, or they cannot see the pathway (in moves) that will get them to that exact position. Therefore, our intrepid beginner tries to think about another example from the book or DVD. The key point to take away from this is: A key idea or concept found in instructional material, such as a book or DVD, doesn’t rely on an exact position arising but rather on a similar position. Of course, coming to this conclusion does you no good if you can’t pull the idea from you memory palace (Hannibal Lecter’s name for his mentally stored thoughts) in an orderly manner.

Here’s what I mean regarding “orderly manner:” We all collect bits and pieces of information throughout our lives, some of it useful, some of it trivial. If you sat down one day and made a list of everything you knew, you’d be surprised at just how jumbled and eclectic the list was, seemingly out of order with mismatched topics bleeding into one another. It would be a confusing pile of information that would be extremely difficult to make heads or tails of, especially if you needed one specific piece of that information in a hurry (such as when faced with a chess clock counting down the seconds)!

Therefore, you have to employ a system for organizing that vast treasure trove of information into an ordered mental file cabinet or mental database. This is the seemingly daunting task faced by the novice chess player, organizing all those principles you’ve studied in the numerous chess books you’ve read and DVDs you’ve watched. The information you’ve gathered has to be accessible instantly. Of course, for experienced players, this information is extremely well organized within their memory and and can be thrown into their thought process at a moment’s notice. For the beginner, this is, again, a daunting task. Fear not though, because you can achieve this ability relatively quickly and it starts with a few pencils and a small stack of index cards. It’s that easy!

Acquire a stack of index cards and a few well sharpened pencils. I recommend pencils over pens because you can erase something written in pencil and you’re apt to do a fair amount of erasing when you first start this process!

You’ll start with three index cards, one for the opening, one for the middle-game and one for the endgame. Don’t worry about the remaining stack of blank index cards. Those will become filled with notes later on. It’s important that the beginner slowly build up their knowledge base one index card at a time. On your “opening” index card, you’re going to list the opening principles: Controlling the center of the board with a pawn, development of your minor pieces towards the center and castling. Then, you’re going to write down things you shouldn’t do on the back of the card, such as not making too many pawn moves, not bringing your Queen out early, not moving the same piece twice during the opening, etc. While there are more things you can have on your index cards regarding opening theory, as a beginner, you don’t want to have too much information yet, just the bare basics. When you’ve committed the above list of principles to memory and can recognize when to use them easily, only then should you make the list bigger.

For your middle-game index card write down piece activity to start. Too often, beginners launch premature attacks before fully developing their pawns and pieces to active squares. Next, write down attackers versus defenders, having more attackers than opposition defenders when attacking and more defenders when defending against opposition attacks. Also jot down the value of the pawns and pieces so you can determine whether an exchange of material is advantageous. Lastly write down the word “tactics” and the question “are there any potential tactical plays to be made.

For your endgame index card, write down “Kings before Pawns” so you know the King has to be in front of the Pawn you’re trying to promote in a King and Pawn versus King endgame. Another item to add is “watch and stop the passed Pawn” and “can my King reach the opposition’s Pawn before it promotes. Also write in bold letters “King opposition is key to pawn promotion when only Kings and Pawns are present.” On the back of the card, you might note a few methods of checkmate, such as two Rooks versus lone King and Queen and King versus lone King, etc.

Add the information you gather from your books and DVDs onto index card, but do so slowly. Make sure to put the key concepts in your own words. Simply copying a definition verbatim (exactly as it’s written) doesn’t mean you really understand it. By putting the definition in your own words, you’re insuring your complete understanding of the concept.

Just having a few key principles for each phase of the game written on index cards will help you recall crucial information quickly with little confusion and before long you won’t need the cards to guide you because the information will be committed to memory. Memory is a muscle to be developed over time. Of course, you can’t use these cards during tournament games and you’ll have to ask opponents, when playing casually, if they mind your index cards before you refer to them while playing. Of course, when playing a chess software program, you opponent has no say in the matter. As time passes and your knowledge base increases, you’ll have more and more information written down. However, much of it you’ll have committed to memory already so the task will not seem so daunting. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Child Genius

While it was good to see the UK’s impressive haul of medals at the Rio Olympics, it did raise the issue of sponsorship. There are those who have expressed concern that while we’ve been providing welcome financial support for many sportspeople who were seen as potential medallists, other sports, and, more generally, sports at grassroots level, were losing out. If you have funding available, whether it’s for physical sports, the arts or chess, should you use it to support professional exponents in these fields so that they can achieve even more success, should you use it to identify young talents and help bring them up to professional levels, or should you use it to support mass participation?

Let’s suppose, for a moment, that your fairy godmother offers you a million pounds to identify young chess talents and train them to reach international levels. How would you go about it? You might well decide that top grandmasters these days always start young, so if you want to produce strong grandmasters you’ll need to identify young children with the necessary qualities.

If you know little about chess, you might, I suppose, look at a television programme such as Child Genius. UK readers will be able to watch the recently completed 2016 series here.

Of course these programmes are always edited to tell a story, but there’s a very clear division.On the one hand there are kids with an exceptional natural talent (usually an eidetic memory combined with quick and accurate computational skills) who have, we are told, entered themselves into the competition. Their parents, while being extremely supportive, seem bemused by their children’s extraordinary gifts. On the other hand there are kids who are portrayed, fairly or unfairly, as being reasonably bright, but who are being pushed too hard by over-competitive parents whose teaching techniques border on emotional abuse. What they all have in common, though, is a very high level of parental involvement.

If you’re looking for potential sports stars you’re going to look for kids with specific physical attributes. It would be futile training a very short person to be a basketball player or a very heavy person to be a jockey. Likewise, if you’re looking for kids who might excel at chess at an early age you’ll be looking for specific mental attributes.

In my experience, kids who start playing good chess at secondary school age can come from any background: sometimes you’ll be surprised at the kids who take an interest in chess. But the kids who excel at primary school age all have four things in common.

1. They all have exceptional cognitive skills, specifically excelling at subjects requiring logical-mathematical intelligence.

2. They all have extremely supportive parents who are prepared to give up their weekends and holidays to take their offspring to chess competitions.

3. They all have regular access to a strong chess player who is able to develop their chess skills while also being tuned in to their emotional needs. This may either be a family member or friend, or a professional chess tutor.

4. They all have exceptional maturity for their age, or, to put in in more scientific terms, executive function skills. A lot of the children I teach have the first three attributes, but not the fourth, which is one reason why I’m sceptical about starting children too soon.

Some children are strong academic all-rounders who will, in all probability, gain top grades in all their public examinations before getting a degree from a top university. Some of them will give up chess and spend the rest of their life on activities which are more lucrative (hello, Demis Hassabis) while others will still play occasionally (hello, Luke McShane). Others will be single-issue obsessives (hello, Bobby Fischer) some of whom will be diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, and some will go on to have problems related to mental health or addiction later in life.

Some children will come from chess-playing families (hello, Magnus Carlsen), while others will have parents who decide to use chess as a project at which their children can excel (hello, Judit Polgar and sisters). Sometimes parental support can turn into physical or emotional abuse (hello, Gata Kamsky’s dad Rustam). Hugh Patterson wrote an excellent article on this subject recently, which, if you haven’t already done so, I urge you to read.

Next time I’ll take a closer look at what exactly is meant by executive function, but as it’s been a few weeks since I’ve demonstrated a game for your enjoyment, here’s an entertaining king hunt from the 1972 Oxford-Cambridge university match. You need outstanding executive function skills to play a game like this.

Richard James

Chess Forum Survival Guide

A new adult student asked me for some good advice regarding the exploration of chess forums. I gave him a one word answer, “don’t!” “What do you mean don’t?” He replied. I diplomatically explained to him that while joining a chess forum could provide a conduit to a great deal of useful information, in most cases, he’d more likely end up falling down the endless rabbit hole of absolute madness found on many chess forums, never to be heard from again. He looked at me as if I was mad, so I sat him down to have a heart to heart chat about the subject. By conversation’s end, he looked just like a small child whose been told that there is no Santa Claus, Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy. I, on the other hand, felt like a bit of an old fashioned heel. Here’s the gist of what I told him:

Forums can be, and in many cases are, a great resource of practical information, allowing the forum user to save countless hours researching a topic on their own. Of course, I’m speaking purely theoretically, along the lines of “in a perfect world…” As I’m fond of mentioning, there’s a huge difference between theory and reality with chess forums (any many other types of forums to be fair). In theory, the chess forum should be your one stop chess shop when looking to acquire information regarding the game we love so deeply. In fact, you’d think that because we love chess so much, that chess forums would close to perfect in regards to useful information. They would perfect if the worst of human behavior didn’t cloud the numerous postings and threads. What behaviors are those you may ask? Ego and stupidity come to mind!

Now if I sound a bit harsh, let me state that there are a large number of chess forum contributors who really do present useful chess information. Many of these contributors are titled players who offer sound advice, regarding opening theory, for example. However, anyone on a forum can proclaim themselves an expert regardless of their qualifications. This means you might end up taking the advice of a player who barely understands the ideas behind the opening principles when preparing for an important game. Be cautious when taking forum advice regarding playing unless it comes from a qualified individual. With this said, I’ve seen some great explanations of difficult concepts from non-titled players. Like shopping for a car, you have to do your due diligence rather than simply buy the first car you see.

Forums also become a place where individuals can beat a subject to death, the old idea of flogging the dead horse. A subject is posted on the forum and, rather that providing a definitive and simple response, large numbers of people either confuse the issue or hijack the forum and send it in a completely different direction. You spend an hour reading through the threads and forgot what it was you were trying to get out of the posting in the first place. It can start out as a discussion regarding endgame theory and end up as an argument over who sells the best leather wingtip shoes in the greater London area. Unless you’re planning a trip to London and buying shoes while there, you may feel a bit cheated. Many a night I have sent out angry emails to forum members demanding back the hour of my life lost reading their dribble. My tip: If you scan through people’s postings regarding chess theory and you don’t see any algebraic notation within the comments, move on.

Of course, forums allow people to stand proudly at the bully pulpit and spew venomous rhetoric across the internet. Sadly, you find this on many chess forums. What starts as a seemingly Innocent discussion about a specific chess player, chess book, etc, turns into a free for all verbal slug-fest with the least qualified individuals throwing the hardest punches. You’d be surprised at how many people who cannot write to save their lives complain on forums about those who do write. Of course, constructive criticism is important but simply saying a chess book is garbage without offering some solutions to make it better is just old fashion bullying.

You also see chess enthusiasts complain about moves made during important, professional matches. This would be all well and good if the person complaining was a seasoned Grandmaster. However, the biggest complaints come from players whose ratings are on par with their shoe size (and IQ for that matter). “He should of played Bxd4 on move 27. What a dummy.” This from the guy who holds the world record for losing chess games to Scholar’s Mate.

Lastly, there’s the long winded types (which is why I’m trying to keep this to 1,000 words or less). Does it really require 124,375 words to make a point that could have been made employing 27 words (some of you are envisioning me)? Do you really need to use arcane words that we all have to look up in the dictionary? Great, your a wordsmith, but tone it down a bit. You must be a hoot at the local pub’s University Challenge night…

Since the thousand word limit I set for myself is nearing, I fear I must sign off. Enjoy your chess forums but heed my warning because I come this way but once (to quote Professor Harold Hill from The Music Man). My advice: If you put the time you spent reading chess forums into studying the game you’d become a lot better, a lot faster. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. These guys don’t need no stinking forums….

Hugh Patterson

T’ain’t What You Do

As we now know, chess, at least using the CSC model, doesn’t make kids smarter. However, a recent article in the Daily Mail, citing research involving 12,000 Australian teenagers, suggests that playing video games might make kids smarter.

According to Alberto Posso, from RMIT University in Melbourne, students who play online games almost every day score 15 points above the average in maths and 17 points above the average in science.

“When you play online games you’re solving puzzles to move to the next level and that involves using some of the general knowledge and skills in maths, reading and science that you’ve been taught during the day. Teachers should consider incorporating popular video games into teaching – so long as they’re not violent ones.”

Well, that poses many questions, one of which is: what are you going to drop from the curriculum to make room for these ‘popular video games’? In the EEF/CSC study, some schools dropped a maths lesson for chess, while some dropped a humanities lesson. It might seem strange to drop a maths lesson for chess when you’re trying to make kids better at maths, but there you go. At the London Chess and Education conference we’ve heard about studies claiming that kids who replace one of their weekly maths lessons with chess do better at maths than those who don’t. You know what? If I were a primary school headteacher and I thought my pupils needed to improve their numeracy, I’d take a long hard look at the methods used for teaching maths in my school rather than introducing chess to make kids better at maths. So perhaps schools should drop a humanities (history, geography etc) lesson instead? You know what else? If I were a primary school headteacher I think I’d consider making sure my pupils understood their place in the world and how they got there was even more important than making them good at maths.

For the past few weeks, a particular area of my local park, alongside a tall structure known locally as the Shot Tower, which was part of the gunpowder works which were there until the late 1920s and next to a footbridge taking you onto a nature reserve recommended by David Attenborough, has been full of mostly young males, often on bikes, staring intently at their smartphones. What are they doing? They’re playing Pokémon GO: according to some of my chess pupils there are a lot of Pokémon there.

The reason why these games are so addictive is that you always want to get to the next level. So you have an incentive to improve your knowledge and skills. Now, some of the ‘slow’ chess courses which have achieved positive results in terms of ‘making kids smarter’ do something similar in that they use the ‘building blocks’ principle, using a series of mini-games and puzzles to enhance kids’ cognitive and chess skills. Kids learn maths in very much the same way. Now if you turn learning chess or maths into a video game children can go at their own pace. If they have the time and the talent they might reach a high level quickly, but if they go more slowly it really doesn’t matter. There’s a lot of chess software around already which approaches the game in this way. I’m sure there’s even more maths software around as well. But there are many of us concerned about the amount of time kids spend in front of screens. At least Pokémon GO gets you outside.

One of the problems with education both here in the UK and in the US is that decisions are made by people who think that all children should reach a certain level in maths or English by a certain age, that children who don’t reach this level have failed and that teachers whose pupils don’t reach this level have failed. In my opinion this is dangerous nonsense. Children should be encouraged to develop at their own pace. Some children start well but their progress stalls. Other children are late developers. The tortoise sometimes beats the hare.

Perhaps what it is that ‘makes kids smarter’ is not the subject itself but the method of teaching it. So, instead of commissioning studies to research whether or not x, y or z ‘makes kids smarter’, maybe we should be looking at what teaching methods we should use to ‘make kids smarter’, and how these methods could be developed using software and other media. In the words of the song: “T’ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. That’s what gets results”. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather listen to Ella Fitzgerald than anyone making unsubstantiated claims about chess ‘making kids smarter’.

Richard James

The Scotch Opening

Beginners who play with the White pieces often play timidly at first, pushing a pawn one square instead of two on their first turn. They worry that pushing a pawn to e4, for example, will leave that pawn stranded without protection whereas as pushing a pawn to e3 affords that pawn protection by it’s fellow pawns on f2 and d2. However, if you’re playing White you should aggressively go for control of the board’s center immediately. The Scotch Opening is a good opening for teaching aggressive play from the start. The classical Scotch comes into play after the moves 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. d4…exd4, 4. Nxd4…Nf6 and 5. Nc3, White immediately contests Black’s attempt to control the board’s center, a crucial concept (central control during the opening) as far as opening principles are concerned, while Black fights back to equalize the position. It should be noted that because black is a move behind, he or she should play to equalize or keep the position balanced rather than play for a fast attack during the opening.

The point the beginner should embrace is the idea that, because White moves first, White can gain control of the center before Black does and should therefore aim for central control from move one rather than making passive moves that allow Black to gain central control, turning the position around. The first two moves for both White and Black, 1. e4…e5 and 2. Nf3…Nc6, are the first two moves in a number of openings. Why? Because they fight for the center in a sound way. Move three of the classic Scotch, 3. d4…exd4 demonstrates the idea of White aggressively attacking Black’s own plan for control of the center. One of the reasons I teach this opening to beginners is because it clearly demonstrates the the opening principles in action, especially playing aggressively. A Scotch Opening might proceed a bit further like this:

Let’s review each move in terms of opening principles. Move one, for both players, 1. e4…e5, follows our first opening principle, controlling the center with a pawn. The pawns on e4 and e5 both control key central squares. The Queens and King-side Bishops are given room to develop. On move two (2. Nf3), White correctly develops (with tempo) the King-side Knight to its most active square, f3 where it attacks the e5 pawn while putting pressure on the d4 square. Tempo comes about because the Knight is attacking the pawn on e5, forcing Black to defend it which Black does with 2…Nc6. Black’s last move is a sound and logical choice because it develops a minor piece that not only protects the e5 pawn but also attacks the d4 square. Remember, Black needs to try and equalize the position and this move does just that! On move three, 3. d4, White attacks Black’s centralize pawn on e4, forcing Black to capture the d4 pawn. Does Black have to capture back?

If Black does something other than capture, instead developing the King-side Knight to f6, White can further gain tempo by playing either 4. d5, attacking the Queen-side Knight which forces it off of c6, or playing 4. dxe5 which attacks the King-side Knight, forcing it off of f6. Either way, White gains tempo and dislodges one of Black’s Knights off of an important square. Therefore, Black has to capture the pawn in order to avoid becoming further behind in tempo and sound position.

After Black captures the d4 pawn with 3…exd4, White can capture the pawn with 4. Nxd4. This moves works because the White Knight on d4 is protected by the White Queen on d1. If Black were to capture the White Knight on d4, the White Queen would simply capture it back which wouldn’t be good for Black from a positional point of view. Remember, as Black you want to keep things equalized. Therefore, Black plays 4…Nf6, attacking White’s e4 pawn. White develops a minor piece with 5. Nc3 which protects the pawn. Notice that White develops rather than attack the Knight on f6 with 5. e5. Attacking the Knight with a pawn would be silly since the c6 Knight would simply capture the attacking White pawn. Think development rather than all out attacking during the opening. Of course, White moving the pawn to d4 earlier is an attacking move, but one which was made to contest or stop Black’s attempt to control the center. There’s a difference between the two!

Black now plays 5…Bb4, pinning the c3 Knight to the King on e1. This move by Black stops White’s c3 Knight from being able to protect the e4 pawn due to the absolute pin. Black develops a new piece into the game while preventing White’s previously developed minor piece from doing its job, acting as a bodyguard for the e4 pawn. White plays 6. Nxc6. This does break an opening principle, not moving the same piece during the opening, but there’s a reason for breaking this principle. It should be duly noted that principles are not rules and can be broken if the reason is sound. Here, removing the Black c6 Knight, doubles up Black’s pawns on the c file after 6…bxc6. Note that using the d6 pawn to capture back on c6 would lead to a potential trade of Queens in which the Black King would have to capture back, forfeiting the right to castle. It also allows White to play 7. e5, attacking the f6 Knight. This last move by White is dangerous because Black moves the attacked Knight to e4 (7…Ne4) where it teams up with the Black Bishop on b4, attacking the pinned Knight. There are a few ways to deal with this last move by Black, such as 8. Qd4 which not only adds a second defender on the c3 Knight but protects the vulnerable f2 square from a potential fork by the Black Knight on e4.

Then there’s a more modern approach in which White goes after Black sooner. Take a look:

In this variation, which I first met on a wonderful Andrew Martin DVD on the Scotch, White immediately goes after the center with 2. d4 rather than developing the Knight on move two. After Black captures the d4 pawn (2…exd4), White develops the Knight with 3. Nf3. When Black plays 3…Nf6, White hits back with 4. e5, forcing the Black Knight off of the f6 square. When Black plays 4…Ne4, White captures the pawn on d4 with the Queen (5. Qxd4), attacking the Black Knight and covering the f2 square so Black can’t sacrifice the Knight by capturing on f2 which would fork the King-side Rook and Queen.

All in all, the Scotch is a great way to teach aggressive play to beginners. I highly recommend playing around with this opening, really experimenting with it, seeing what works and what doesn’t. You should always tinker with openings. While learning the mainlines and variations is sound, experiment a little. Be a scientist and explore the board. While you’ll find that many of your ideas can be refuted, you might find a little something in the way of a move that will surprise your opponent. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

I’ve Got a Little List

Firstly, a quick correction from last time. The study I referred to last week was actually commissioned by the EEF, who paid CSC to conduct it.

Most English chess players will be aware that, before doing anything of any importance in chess you should consult an organiser from Twickenham of below average height. So if CSC wanted to consult me, here’s what I’d tell them. (To be fair, they consulted me several years ago at the start of the project, but more recently I’ve only been speaking informally to some of my friends who work for CSC over a pint or a curry.)

Regular readers will know that I’ve always been sceptical about the research concerning chess making kids smarter. Apart from whether or not ‘making kids smarter’, whatever that means, is as desirable an aim as it sounds (I think it’s not) I have two problems.

1. Can we be sure that the improvement in kids’ maths or problem-solving skills is long-term rather than short-term? One possible interpretation of the failure of the EEF/CSC project to achieve positive results might be that the effect is indeed only short-term. It’s possible that if they’d tested the kids immediately after completing the chess course they might have produced different results.

2. Can we be sure that, if chess does actually improve kids’ performance at maths or problem solving, that the same, or even better, results, could not have been achieved using other games, perhaps simpler games which wouldn’t need investment in chess sets and the involvement of professional chess tutors? While I’m sure most kids will benefit, socially as well as academically, from playing a wide range of games, perhaps some kids will find chess too hard and would gain more benefit from simpler games.

There are, I think, several reasons (apart from making kids smarter) why you might wish to promote chess for kids. I’ve got a little list.

1. You might want to teach lots of kids how the pieces move.

2. You might want to get as many kids as possible playing low level competitive chess.

3. You might want to get as many kids as possible playing adult standard competitive chess.

4. You might want to produce champions and future IMs or GMs.

At the moment there are various projects designed for 1, 2 and 4, but little or nothing designed for 3. It’s not just because I’m an adult competitive player who has never had any ambition to become an IM or GM, that I consider number 3 to be the most important. But before you start any project you have to decide what your aims are and how you’re going to get there.

There also several methods you could use when promoting chess for kids. I’ve got another little list.

1. You can put chess in the classroom specifically as a non-competitive learning tool. Children will be playing simple games and solving puzzles using subsets of chess, not playing actual games of ‘big chess’. Many of the projects that have reported positive results have used this method. This will certainly achieve point 1 above. Whether or not it will achieve the other aims will depend on the local and national chess infrastructure into which kids who want to take things further can move. However, it will only work in schools that are fully committed to the project.

2. You can put chess in the classroom as a low-level semi-competitive activity, teaching kids the moves quickly and then encouraging them to play complete games of chess. This is the model that has been encouraged by CSC, although it’s possible some tutors and schools will have taken a slower, less competitive approach. They run inter-schools competitions, some schools take part in international competitions via the Internet, and kids are invited to visit the London Chess Classic, where they can get some instruction and watch the likes of Magnus and Vishy in action. This way, you’ll be achieving both the first and second aims, possibly at the expense of ‘making kids smarter’.

3. You could promote chess in secondary schools through a network of inter-school and inter-area competitions. If you’re linking up with adult chess clubs and competitions this will achieve our third aim above, but at the expense of the first two, and possibly also the fourth. At the moment, though, because of the nature of ‘adult’ chess clubs and competitions, as you’ll have seen if you’ve read my two recent articles about the Thames Valley League, are not really suitable for kids of secondary school age.

4. You could follow my suggestion. What I’d do is identify the areas I wish to work in, which, for several reasons, would be more deprived areas of the country, and this is what CSC are doing at present. I would establish a professionally staffed Junior Chess Club within the Borough which would meet at weekends and possibly also some evenings. This club would run courses for both beginners and intermediate level players as well as providing competitive chess, possibly including competitions for all ages as well as just for kids. This club would also provide outreach for schools within the Borough who wanted to run chess within their school. This could be non-competitive chess on the curriculum as a learning tool using mini-games, a quicker course on the curriculum (as CSC are doing at the moment), or a chess club which might be before school, at lunchtime or after school. Of course it doesn’t have to be just a junior chess club. There could be a section for adults, classes for adult beginners, for parents who want to help their kids, clubs in libraries, clubs for seniors and retirees, clubs for immigrants, using chess to help them integrate into their new community and much else.

To be fair to CSC, I’d add two points. Firstly, I understand that something like my proposal above is already happening in the London Borough of Newham: what’s happening there sounds great to me. Secondly, CSC has already had some success in producing young players through its schools who are excelling in both national and international competitions. This is great news which should be celebrated.

So my advice to CSC in the wake of the negative result of their study would be this. Concentrate on providing opportunities for competitive chess and move away from the idea of chess making kids smarter. Concentrate more on chess in the community than chess in schools. And bear in mind, most of all, that ‘big chess’ is just too hard for most kids of primary school age. They’ll learn the moves, sure, but will find it very hard to get much further. I’ll consider this in more detail next time.

Richard James

Parental Warning

This is more of a cautionary warning directed at chess parents and potential chess parents. I had an article written about the Scotch Opening all ready to submit, but a posting on Nigel’s Facebook page this weekend derailed my plans. What kind of social media posting could yield such power? A posting about a young chess player (eight years old) who was hit on the head for losing a junior level tournament. This absolutely caused my blood to boil. I told a friend of mine, who’s a former bank robber having made the FBI’s big time wanted list (he’s a college professor now, teaching writing not robbing) what he thought. He thought this to be a worse crime than armed robbery. Saying I was extremely angry regarding this issue was an understatement. So once again I am writing one of my open letters to the parents of young chess players. Think of it as a public service announcement regarding adults behaving badly, which alarmingly is becoming the norm at junior chess tournaments rather than the exception.

I suspect the root of this problem, parents and/or coaches verbally or physically belittling chess children, has to do with the adult in question’s shortcomings. In my experience as a coach who has spent a great deal of time in tournament halls watching my students/ teams play, I’ve noticed that one of the worst offenders is the parent who played chess in their youth. Typically, the adult in question was a decent junior player back in the day. They played many junior tournaments, laying claim to many a trophy. However, when they finally made it to the big regional tournament they went down in flames or worse yet, earned second or third place rather than first. For them, it was a matter of coming close but not close enough to take home the big prize. No matter though because they now have a son or daughter who can restore their family honor by making it to the regional tournament and grab that first place trophy. Yes, dear parent, you couldn’t do it so you’re now going to get your child to do it at all costs! Of course, you could substitute the parent who didn’t get first place in their elementary school’s finger painting competition with the parent who didn’t win the chess tournament as well. The point here is that some parents live vicariously through their children, forcing their children to right some silly wrong from their childhood. The result is the same, humiliation and suffering on the part of the child so the parent can rewrite their own history. This is how we lose potentially good players early on!

I’ve seen some adult behavior at tournaments that was borderline abuse and it angers me like nothing else. In my mind, it’s on par with beating an animal. Real adults simply don’t act this way. Case in point: I was at a junior tournament with one of my teams and had the opportunity to watch a parent as well as a coach have a complete meltdown when their team ended up in third place. Just placing at a large tournament is grounds for celebration but not for the team in question. Both the parent, who was acting as assistant coach, and the coach himself preceded to scream at the third place team. “You know why you’re losers? Because real winners come in first place, not third.” That was one of many memorable comments made by adults to a group of children ranging between nine and twelve years of age. Of course, there were lots of tears to be had by the third place team and not one of the other parents said anything to defend their children. Yes, I had something to say to say to the coach and parent in question (something I cannot repeat here due to rather colorful language, but not said within earshot of the children). Essentially, I told the two adult miscreants that they aught to be ashamed of themselves and they probably wouldn’t try the same tirade with other adults for fear of getting punched in the face. This is just the tip of the iceberg regarding things I’ve seen at junior tournaments.

Here’s the deal parents. You are not your children and should not try to rewrite your own competitive history by using your children as personal pawns so to speak. Let them find out about winning and losing in their own way. Belittling a child does absolutely nothing to support their interest in chess, in fact, just the opposite. A fair number of potentially good junior players learn to hate the game of chess thanks to their parents and coaches. Just because you lost the regional junior chess championship doesn’t mean you get behave like an insane dictator out for revenge. You lost so you have to accept it. Give your son or daughter a chance to win or lose on their own. They might not win this year but there’s always next year. Kindness and understanding will go a lot farther towards fostering a life long interest for chess.

Then there’s the parent who plays a little chess at their local chess club and insists on doing your job for you. This, coincidentally, is usually the same parent who lost the junior regional championship in their youth. When your car breaks down, you take it to the mechanic to be repaired. The mechanic is the expert at fixing cars which is why you pay him. You don’t stand around and tell him how to go about his business (if you do I guarantee he’ll charge you more). Therefore, if you’re a parent and you’re paying a professional chess coach to provide lessons, don’t tell the coach how he or she should teach. I have this problem from time to time.

The biggest problem with the “I’m going to help you teach chess” parent are the bad habits they’ve instilled in their children. I had a student whose father made a career of winning games against weaker players by employing tricks and traps in the opening. This translated to my student only being able to spring dubious traps on unsuspecting opponents in order to win. When the young man faced off against stronger players he lost because he was more interested in being a trickster rather than learning principled play. Many of my student’s bad habits come from well meaning family members. I probably spend just as much time breaking my student’s bad habits as I do teaching them good chess habits. It’s much easier to develop good habits than it is to break bad habits. Parents should leave the chess teaching to the professional. Seriously parents, you wouldn’t tell your surgeon how to take your appendix out during an emergency appendectomy so don’t do your chess teacher’s job.

Parents, you are the immediate role model that sets the standard for your children. When you act like a uncouth Barbarian your child thinks it acceptable. Don’t be that parent! Of course, the majority of my chess parents are wonderful, always being supportive of their children, win, lose or draw! They let their children learn life’s lessons on their own. To those winning is everything parents I say this: Your son or daughter might have what it takes to become a Grandmaster. However, you’ll never know if your behavior drives them away from the game. Treating your children badly because they don’t take home the first place trophy only makes you look bad. You had your chance now give your child a chance. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week when I’ll post my Scotch Opening article!

Hugh Patterson

Chess Doesn’t Make Kids Smarter

Perhaps you saw the recent headlines here in the UK. It’s now official that chess doesn’t make kids smarter. Before I look at this more closely I’d like to take you back in time to 1993.

At a concert in leafy suburban Richmond, the then Mayor of Richmond, Anne Summers, met a successful local businessman, Stanley Grundy. Stanley had just read an article claiming that chess made kids smarter, based on this paper. He offered to provide financial support for a project to encourage chess in schools in Richmond, and so the Richmond Chess Initiative was born. If you have any experience in reading and assessing scientific papers you’ll be able to pick lots of holes in the validity of the research, but for now we’ll let that be. In Richmond, unlike in other parts of the world, there’s comparatively little scope for making kids smarter. It’s an affluent area of London with many bright kids with parents who are prepared to support them academically and ambitious for them to be successful. The RCI was successful for several years. More schools started after-school chess clubs, players from Richmond schools excelled nationally in both individual and team events, we ran an annual inter-schools championship which attracted several hundred players, and even ran two international events. Looking at the overall standard of play in the school clubs, though, it didn’t seem to me that chess was making kids smarter. Stanley wanted to run a study in Richmond, but the resources were not available. He was unwilling to listen to my objections that there’s a very big different between putting chess on the curriculum and running after-school clubs for kids who, for the most part, already know how the pieces move. Eventually the RCI started to wither away: schools became less interested, numbers of participants in our tournaments declined and Stanley’s money was running out. But we’re still there, running Richmond Junior Club and putting chess teachers into after-school clubs in the area.

Since then there has been much more research on the subject, with most studies showing positive results for chess improving kids’ mathematical abilities. You’ll find a very useful summary here.

Moving forward, the chess education charity Chess in Schools and Communities decided to commission their own study, the results of which have just been published. To their surprise, but not entirely to my surprise, the results were negative. This was how the press reported it.

Well, there’s a lot to say. First of all, it’s evident that the Daily Telegraph journalist hadn’t actually read the report. The survey had nothing at all to do with ‘pushy parents sending their children to chess classes’ but involved kids in deprived areas learning chess on the curriculum. I was in fact responsible for the original CSC curriculum, although it was never the curriculum I would have chosen to write, but I’m not sure to what extent if any this was used in the study.

So why wasn’t I surprised that the results showed no correlation between chess instruction and academic performance? Firstly, many of the studies showing positive results were not based on kids learning how the pieces move fairly quickly and then playing semi-competitive games, but involved kids using subsets of the board, pieces and rules to develop thinking and problem solving skills. While there is much that is excellent about CSC, there has always, it seems to me, been a conflict between two very different aims which would involve approaching chess in very different ways: chess as a non-competitive learning tool and chess as a competitive activity, and they’ve been trying to do both at the same time instead of just concentrating on one aim. The second reason for my lack of surprise was that the testing took place a year after the completion of the study, rather than immediately afterwards. It seems reasonable to me to assume that, because most of the kids enjoy their chess lessons, this will make them happier and more confident in the short term, but that this effect would gradually wear off.

Perhaps now we can take a different approach to chess and stop making dubious claims about chess making kids smarter. I’d go along with the two education experts quoted by the Daily Telegraph. Christopher McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, with whom I agree about both Mozart and chess: “Children should play chess and listen to Mozart for pleasure and as an antidote to the widespread addiction to digital technology and social media sites. Parental encouragement of their offspring should stretch beyond concerns about test marks to a love of what it means to be civilised and that includes Mozart and chess and lots of other things.” Or Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, the charity which carried out the report: “Teach chess for its own sake – for its intrinsic value and the enjoyment pupils gain from it.”

Next time I’ll consider how chess organisations might take a different approach to promoting chess. If you’ve been following my articles over the past couple of years you’ll have heard a lot of it before, but now seems a good time to repeat it.

But before then, your homework for the week is to go away and read the complete report, which you’ll find (although I’m puzzled as to why the first two conclusions, at least at the time of writing, appear to be identical) here.

Richard James

Know Your Enemy

Actually, your opponent! Here’s what I mean: When given the chance you should learn a bit about your opponent or potential opponent’s playing abilities. Professionals do this to a high degree. Why should you? Think of it like this: Imagine you’re going to drive in an automobile race of some sort. You’re given no details whatsoever and show up with your old 1983 Honda only to discover that it’s a Formula One race. In chess, we study our opponent’s game so we know what we’re going up against. Why should you bother as an average player? Read on!

Professionals players carefully study the games of those they’re going to play. They learn what openings their opponent’s are going to employ, type of position (open, closed, etc) favored by the opposition and so on. The professional does research. They do so in order to increase their ability to win when facing a particular opponent of equal or greater strength. We all do this outside of chess. When you’re facing a test in school, you study or prepare for it. When you drive somewhere you’ve never been before, you prepare by studying a map.

Of course, it can be a bit more difficult for beginners to prepare for a game against other beginners because of a lack of recorded games. Serious players play in rated tournaments which mean that their games are recorded. By accessing those games, one can study the playing style of a potential opponent. Since beginners often don’t record their games, it’s more difficult to assess their playing abilities. However, there are a few things you can do to get to know your opponent.

The first thing to do is to hang out at a place they play, be it a chess club or local cafe, and watch their games. Of course, you don’t want to march up and announce “I want to play you so I’m here to study your games.” However, it’s not unusual for people to stand around watching chess games, so don’t feel uncomfortable doing so. I watch potential opponents play before I sit down with them. It’s called doing your homework or due diligence.

Watching an opponent playing is only half the battle. The other half is determining the details, such as the openings they favor for both black and white. Make a mental note of the opening they employ. Then go home and study that opening. This gets you prepared from move one. Most beginning or novice players tend to keep it simple, playing openings that don’t require a lot of preparation. However, if they try to tackle more complex openings such as the Ruy Lopez or Sicilian Defense, they often leave themselves vulnerable due to their lack of knowledge regarding the complexity of these openings. This translates to potential mistakes on their part. Note their weaknesses, such as when they make an off or bad move during the opening and how the opposition responds. Every small crumb of knowledge can be put together to create an advantage.

During the middle game, watch to see if they employ sound tactics. This can be a telling sign! If the player your watching is better at tactics than you, plan on trying to keep the position closed in order to remove any potential tactical positions. The key here is to close the position. Too often, novice players who find tactical plays can only do so when the position is wide open because they tend to favor long distance pieces such as the Bishops, Rooks and Queens. Make a mental note of what piece or pieces they favor. Every chess player has a piece of two they favor because they know how to use them well. It’s all in the details!

Endgame play is an area most novice players have limited experience with because most of their games conclude long before the endgame. I’ve seen players take down a stronger opponent in the endgame because of this. Novice players tend to concentrate on middle-game tactics. Therefore, if you get the opportunity to trade down to an endgame, provided you’ve done some endgame studies, do so.

Then there’s the psychological aspect to the opposition. Is your potential opponent a show off who takes wild chances? You’d be surprised how many novice players can succumb to their egos by taking big risks. The premature attack is a common mistake made by novice players. They launch an attack on the f7 (or f2) pawn thinking that trading a Bishop and Knight for your f pawn and Rook (after castling King-side) is good for them during the opening. Don’t be afraid to make that trade of material because you will have the minor piece majority which is crucial during the opening. If your potential opponent launches early attacks, make a mental note of the pieces used so you can look for this pattern early when you play them.

Watch for tricks and traps when observing games. Tricks and traps are the bread and butter of beginning or novice players. When you see a player executing a trick or trap, note the set up. When you get home, research it and see how to avoid it. More often than not, the player employing the trick or trap will use it repeatedly so expect it when you sit down to play them. I don’t suggest learning your own tricks and traps to use against them because good principled play trumps tricky play. However, you should know how to defend against tricks and traps.

You can learn a great deal from watching the games of others, not just top level games but the games of those players you encounter. Just because someone isn’t a titled player doesn’t mean they can’t come up with some stunning ideas that will help you. You have to keep your eyes open! I watch the games of my students not just because I’m their teacher and coach but because they sometimes come up with great stuff that I can use in my own playing. So your homework for the week is to go out and do some scouting. Go to your local chess haunt and observe someone. See what you can learn from a game or two of theirs. Do some prep work and then challenge them. You’d be surprised at how much it will help. Here’s a game until next week!

Hugh Patterson