Category Archives: Children’s Chess

The Draw

I started our yearly summer program last week that runs until August. Every year, we do eight one week training camps for junior chess players. We divide the students into two groups, beginners and more advanced players. At the end of each week we have a non rated, informal tournament for each group to test their knowledge and our teaching program. I’ve kept records for the last four years of these weekly tournaments, including detailed information on the games themselves in an effort to see where I need to provide more educational information. For example, in the beginner’s section, there are a large number of games won employing the scholar’s mate. Thus, I know that our teaching staff needs to further reinforce defending against scholar’s mate. This last week, we had a large number of draws in our beginner’s section. While I expect a few draws here and there, the number we had was large enough to sound an alarm bell! Something was wrong!

From years of playing, teaching, coaching and working as a tournament arbiter, I’m pretty good at determining whether a position is drawn or not. With my advanced students, real drawn positions are reached. With my beginning students, what they consider a draw is often far from an actual draw. Let’s look at ways in which games can be drawn.

Perpetual check occurs when one player checks their opponent’s King repeatedly which can lead to a draw. You see this a great deal in the games of beginners who haven’t learned that pieces must work together, such as a King and Rook or King and Queen against a lone King. Beginners have a bad habit of checking the opposition King with their lone Queen as opposed to using their Queen with another piece (such as their King). The King gets checked and moves out of check. The King gets checked again and moves out of check and so on. Dozens of moves later and checkmate is no closer. Perpetual check actually leads to either a draw by threefold repetition or a draw under the fifty move rule (both discussed later on).

Stalemate is another way to draw the game. It occurs when one player’s King is the only piece that can move (the player in question can’t move any of their pawns because they’re stuck or immobile) but any square it moves to would place it in check. This is an extremely frustrating position for the beginner to be in because they often have the material necessary to win the game but don’t use that material correctly.

Then there’s having insufficient material to deliver checkmate. This problems arises when both players either trade all their material off the board, leaving just the opposing Kings or they only have their Kings and a Bishop each or a Knight each. This occurs in many young beginner’s games because they’re concentrating on capturing material. You can often hear young beginner’s say “I’m winning because I have more material!” This thinking leads to this kind of drawn game.

A draw by repetition means that both players make identical moves that produce the same position over the course of three complete game turns for both players. So one player makes a move followed by his opponent’s move and these exact moves are repeated two move times. Thus the term Draw by three fold repetition. Beginner’s who are not accustom to this rule often fall victim to it because, due to a lack of experience, they cannot find another way out of the position.

The fifty move rule is one that, surprisingly, I hear many of my young beginner’s claim as the reason for a draw. The rule states that if fifty consecutive moves have been made without a capture or pawn move then the game can be claimed drawn. Young beginners often translate this incorrectly, thinking that if no checkmate has been made in fifty moves the game is drawn. However, they often capture pieces and move pawns so the rule cannot apply.

Drawing the game by agreement is the young beginner’s way of saying “I can’t figure out how to checkmate my opponent and he or she is no closer to mate as well.”

With a few basic definitions provided we’ll now look at what happened with my beginning students and see how these rules actually applied. It should be noted that when many of these players started their summer session with me they only knew how to move the pawns and pieces, the most basic rules of the game.

In one game, one player had a Queen and King against an opposition Rook and Queen. Because I had two instructors watching the two sections for me, beginner and advanced, I caught the position when a draw was requested. The first question I asked was “why do you think this game is a draw?” Both of my young (1st grade) students replied that they didn’t think they could deliver checkmate because every time one of them checked, the other would simply move the checked King. Because our tournament was not rated, I offered a suggestion to both, you cannot checkmate with a lone Queen or lone Rook. Teamwork, pieces working together, is the only way to deliver a checkmate. While both players took this idea to heart, making an effort to coordinate their pieces rather than attempting further solo piece checks, they eventually requested a draw which I gave them. The fact that they tried counted for a lot!

In another game, when the request for a draw came up, one player had a Queen and a King against a lone King. Of course, this is an easily winnable endgame for the average player but remember, I’m working with very young children new to the game. I had given a lesson in basic endgame checkmates earlier in the week and suggested to the student with the Queen and King to think back to the lesson before considering a draw. “A lone piece cannot deliver checkmate. It has to work with another piece.” Both students went back to their game. When I walked by the board a bit later, I noticed some solid progress as King and Queen worked their way towards the lone opposition King. Sadly, the game ended in a stalemate. However, this was a legitimate draw.

There was a claim of the fifty move rule early on. I told my students that I wanted to see them play for a while longer so I could make sure they understood the true meaning of this rule. Not surprisingly, both players captured pieces and moved pawns only to then claim they’d adhered to this rule. When I asked them for their definition of the rule, they said “if you don’t deliver checkmate in fifty moves it’s a draw.” When I explained that they got the rule wrong, one student said his father told him the above so it’s true! Diplomatically, I explained the correct definition. Eventually, after they played for a while longer, I declared the game a draw because they would have ended up with a three hundred move game that got no where.

The overall reminder I got from this experience was that children new to chess don’t have the playing experience and knowledge required to know if a game really is drawn. They often reach a position beyond their scope of knowledge and don’t know what to do, which leads them to think the game cannot go on and is thus a draw. While this is the first time I’ve had a large number of draw requests in the beginner’s section it serves as a strong reminder that teaching programs must be flexible. These same students who I’ll work with during the coming week will start that week with a full two days of basic endgame situations and a thorough examination of what leads to a drawn game. While we did cover this during the previous week, obviously we have to provide further training. Teaching is an evolving process, one that can always be improved upon. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Teaching Kids Through Classical Games (13)

Morphy,Paul – Meek,A
USA, 1857

This is really good game to show students the importance of a space advantage and how to use it.

1.e4 e6 2.d4 g6 3.Bd3 Bg7 4.Be3 Ne7 5.Ne2 b6 6.Nd2 Bb7 7.0–0

This seems to be an unorthodox way of developing pieces but it has the advantage of leaving White’s f-pawn free to advance.

7…d5 8.e5

Gaining space on Kingside

8…0–0 9.f4

In chess a space advantage gives you more room for manoeuvre your pieces. And in general you should attack on the side where you have a space advantage.

9…f5 10.h3

Preparing the g4 lever. 10.exf6, taking on en passant, wouldn’t give much after 10…Rxf6.

10…Nd7 11.Kh2

The idea is to use the g-file for his rooks later on.

11…c5 12.c3 c4

It is not a good idea to shut the side of the board where you have space. Here it gives White a free hand to expand on the kingside.

13.Bc2 a6 14.Nf3

Improving the knight’s position and aiming to join the kingside attack.

14…h6 15.g4 Kh7 16.Rg1 Rg8 17.Qe1 Nc6

It would be better to play 17…Qe8 as moving the knight from e7 invites White to sacrifice on g6.

18.Nh4 Qf8??

Let’s check some other alternatives too:

(1) 18…Nf8 19.gxf5 gxf5 20.Ng3 is a stunning knight sac which if taken leads to an immediate win: 20…Qxh4 (20…Ne7 21.Nhxf5 exf5 22.Nxf5 Nxf5 23.Bxf5+ Kh8 24.Bc2 with the idea of f5 is horrible for Black but it is still comparatively better than the text move) 21.Nxf5 Qxe1 22.Nd6+ Kh8 23.Nf7#.

(2) 18…Qe8 19.Nxg6 Qxg6 20.gxf5 Qe8 21.f6+ is just winning for White.

19.Nxg6 Kxg6 20.gxf5+ Kf7

If 20…Kh7 21.f6+ Kh8 22.fxg7+ Rxg7 23.Qh4 and White is winning

21.fxe6+ Kxe6 22.f5+ Ke7 23.Qh4+

White is also winning with f6.

23…Ke8 24.f6 Bxf6

If black tries to save the piece with 24…Bh8 then 25.Qh5+ Kd8 26.Bxh6 is winning.

25.exf6 Rxg1 26.Rxg1 Nxf6 27.Bg6+ Kd7 28.Bf5+ Ke8 29.Bxh6

29.Rg6 is better than the text move and after 29…Ng8 30.Bd7+! Kxd7 31.Qg4+ Ke7 32.Qe6+ etc.

29…Qh8 30.Rg7

Attacking both the knight and bishop.

After 30…Ng8 there follows mate with 31. Bd7+ Kf8 32. Qf4 Nf6 33. Qxf6#, so Black resigned.

1–0

Ashvin Chauhan

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Children of the Revolution

Here’s a question for you. What’s slow, green and free range? Sounds like a children’s riddle, doesn’t it? A dinosaur egg, perhaps?

Before I tell you the answer, though, I have another children’s riddle for you. Why is it that, when children’s lives should be better than ever before, children in the Western world increasingly see themselves as unhappy and increasingly suffer from a range of physical and mental health problems? (I could give references and may well do so at another time and in another place.)

There is a growing movement towards a different approach to education: an approach promoting ‘slow’ child development, starting formal education later rather than earlier, a ‘green’ childhood, restoring children’s connection with nature and the outdoors, and a ‘free range’ childhood, teaching children self-reliance by giving them more freedom and independence in their spare time.

Child psychologist David Elkind’s book The Hurried Child was first published in 1982. From the blurb to the 25th anniversary edition: “…by blurring the boundaries of what is age-appropriate, by expecting – or imposing – too much too soon, we force our kids to grow up too fast, to mimic adult sophistication while they secretly yearn for time to act their age.”

It may well be that your life is so busy that you’re not aware of the ‘slow movement’. The concept of slowing down in all aspects of our lives was popularised by Scottish born Canadian journalist Carl Honoré in his 2004 book In Praise of Slowness. In his 2008 book Under Pressure, Honoré considers a slow approach to parenting and education. He asks (quoting again from the blurb) “whether we are going wrong in some fundamental way”.

You will probably know that, here in the UK, children start formal schooling at the age of five. In many other countries, children don’t start formal education until six or even seven. The 2011 book Too Much Too Soon?, subtitled Early Learning and the Erosion of Childhood, edited by Richard House, comprises a series of essays by experts on early years education questioning the idea that the earlier children start learning to read, for example, the better they do. Of course some children are ready to learn to read very young (I was one: I could already read fluently before I started school not long after my fifth birthday) but many are not.

Richard Louv’s seminal book Last Child in the Woods was first published ten years ago. According to the blurb in my edition, Louv “directly links the absence of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation to some of the most disturbing childhood trends: the rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression”. There are many who share his concern about children’s increasing disconnection with nature. David Bond’s 2013 film Project Wild Thing, for instance, tackles the same subject.

Parents are, quite understandably, concerned for their children’s safety so they either keep them at home staring at a screen or sign them up for a continual frenzy of ‘improving’ activities. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 60s experienced a very different childhood. New York journalist Lenore Skenazy was accused of child abuse after writing a column about how she let her 9-year-old son ride home alone on the subway. As a result of this she founded the “free range kids” movement, encouraging parents to give their children more independence and self-reliance.

Of course this is only one side of the argument and there are many experts who take the opposite view but, speaking personally, I find their views of considerable interest. None of them are advocating a return to the sort of childhood I experienced 50-60 years ago: they are all looking at how latest research can inform parents and teachers how to help their children live in the 21st century. You may well disagree completely and think our current parenting and teaching methods are fine as they are. You may well think their views are impractical and idealistic, but maybe the world needs, and has always needed, impractical idealists.

The answer to my riddle then, is that perhaps we’ll see a revolution in the whole concept of what childhood should mean in the 21st century. Perhaps we shouldn’t be encouraging our children to do too much too soon. (And you might understand why I wasn’t impressed when a fellow chess teacher asked about Under 6 tournaments in his area, and why he wasn’t impressed with my reply.) Perhaps we should do more to ensure that children spend time outdoors and find ways to connect with nature. Perhaps we should give children more freedom and independence. Perhaps the childhood of the future will be slow, green and free range. Perhaps it will be more holistic, with schools seeing children as individuals, identifying their particular talents and interests and finding activities which they might like. It’s not just about being ‘progressive’, though. For many children there’s a lot to be said for old-fashioned concepts such as academic rigour and discipline as long as it’s placed within the context of the children’s lives.

Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with these ideas, in which case your homework for this week is to read some of the authors I’ve mentioned here. You might expect educationalists who hold these views to be sceptical about encouraging mass participation in chess by very young children. They might also be sceptical about the whole business of promoting chess (or anything else) as something that ‘makes kids smarter’. You might also want to ask yourself what part chess will play in the lives of the Children of the Revolution. Perhaps more children will start chess later rather than earlier (yes, a few children will be ready to start early just as I was ready to start reading early). We might see children taking up fewer extra-curricular activities but taking them more seriously. We might see parents and teachers encouraging children to play chess because they want to become good at it rather than because it might make them smarter. In the short term we might see fewer children playing, but more children will continue to play into their teens and on into adulthood. I just wonder how much of this will happen in my lifetime.

Richard James

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The Ceiling

Whether you’re a beginner or a titled player, you reach a point in your chess career in which you stop moving forward and get stuck. You go through a period of of often rapid improvement, then hit a ceiling. For some the ceiling seems to be made of steel while for others it’s made of glass which is much easier to break through. It’s the ability to break through this ceiling that allows us to advance or improve. What is it that allows some players to break through and get better while others remain stuck? It all boils down to identifying the problem or problems that hold us back and solving them.

While you’d think beginners would have a harder time breaking through the ceiling and advancing their skills further, the intermediate player often has a harder time. Beginners generally have more obvious problems and because they’re obvious, they’re easier to identify and thus solve. If you’re a beginner and have become stuck in your advancement, you problems are easy to identify. You should first try to determine in which phase of the game you’re having problems. Rather than jumping around the opening, middle and endgames in no particular order, start by looking at your opening play.

Every move you make during the opening game should adhere to a principle. Remember, your opening game goal is to set up pawns and pieces for action in the middle game. You do this by starting your battle for control of the board’s center by using a pawn or two to control a central square. Next you develop your minor pieces, Knights and Bishops, to squares that also exert control over the central squares. King safety is critical so castling is next. Then you connect your Rooks by moving the Queen up a rank. After that, you keep developing material until you have pawns and pieces on their most active squares, those that control territory (especially on your opponent’s side of the board).

Often beginners develop some pawns and pieces and consider their work in the opening done. Then they launch a premature attack, lose material and weaken their position. Don’t launch early attack unless they really turn the tide. Always examine your pawn structure. Don’t bring your Queen out early. Don’t move the same piece over and over again neglecting the development of other pieces. Don’t make to many pawn moves early on. Use these ideas as the basis for your questions as to why you’re not doing well in the opening.

In the middle game, beginners will see an opportunity to start attacking. Don’t attack unless it strengthens your position or greatly weakens your opponent’s position. Early attacks can backfire and leave you with a losing position. Count the number of attackers versus the number of defenders. You need to have more attackers than opposition defenders and, when defending, more defenders than opposition attackers. If considering a move, ask yourself what your opponent’s best response would be. Pretend you are your opponent and think about what you would do if faced with the move you’re considering. Watch your pawn structure, because when going into the end game phase, you’ll need those pawns for promotion purposes. Be patient and build up your position. Again, take these ideas and pose them to yourself as questions. If you’re not following these ideas, you’ve found your problem.

During the end game, when there is a limited amount of material on the board, bring your King into the game. Too many beginners leave their King on its starting rank and watch in horror as their opponent’s King comes alive and hunts down their pawns. The King must be activated. Use your King to safely escort your pawns to their promotion squares. Ask yourself if you’re doing this!

These basic ideas should allow the beginner to determine where they’re having problems and how to fix those problems, employing these game principles. With intermediate players, it can be a bit more difficult. Intermediate players know basic game principles and apply them correctly. So how does the intermediate player find the problems that keep them from breaking through the ceiling?

Start by going through the ideas I’ve presented for beginners. If you’re a bit surprised by this, don’t be! I’ve seen quite a few intermediate students start to neglect principled play. They think that they’ve mastered the basics and now its time to bend the principles. Unfortunately, what they consider bending the principles is actually breaking the principles which creates positional problems. Bending a principle, for example, could be placing a piece towards the edge of the board rather than towards the center because this piece is doing something useful. 3.Bb5 in the Ruy Lopez indirectly effects the center because the Bishop attacks the black Knight on c6 which is protecting the black pawn on e5. On the other side of the coin, Moving the White Knight from f3 to g5, then using it to capture the black pawn on f7, while neglecting the development of your other pieces is breaking a principle and will leave you with a bad position. Even if you have a Bishop (as white) on c4 to co-attack the black f7 pawn, you’re opponent can still develop a solid position while you throw all your eggs into one attacking basket. Start with the same questions beginners should ask when determining where they’re going wrong first.

If you’re using the principles correctly, move on to the next set of questions, starting with pawn structure. They wouldn’t be so many books on pawn structure, not to mention numerous videos, if players didn’t have problems in this area. Many intermediate players are good at basic tactics and use tactical ideas to win games. However, they often do so while neglecting pawn structure. Why is pawn structure so important? Well, if you’re facing an opponent who is equally versed in tactics, you’ll most likely make it to the end game. They player with the better pawn structure going into the end game has an advantage. If you have isolated pawns and too many pawn islands, you’ll have to deal with those issues which means a lot of defending. Meanwhile, you’ll opponent, with the better pawn structure will be able to get one of his or her pawns to its promotion square. Intermediate players should consider the moves they make and how they’ll effect the end game.

Intermediate players should also look at their positional play as opposed to their tactical play. In the average scheme of things, intermediate players first get good at tactics which allows them to win a fair number of games. However, they eventually face off against the positional player, the player who worships Petrosian, and find the life slowly being strangled out of their position. The intermediate player should aim towards positional play, employing tactics if they come up and only if they don’t weaken the position. The intermediate player should be a balanced player, being equally good at the opening, middle and end games. Being great at one phase and not so great at the other two phases doesn’t win games.

So to break through that ceiling and get better, ask questions, starting with the simplest. Often you’ll find that a simple problem may be holding you back. Be systematic in your questioning. Here’s a game in which one player breaks a few opening principles and gets hammered for it. Enjoy.

Hugh Patterson

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Teaching Kids Through Classical Games (12)

Capablanca,Jose Raul – Fonaroff,Marc
New York , 1918

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6 4.0–0 d6

4…Nxe4 5.d4 Nd6 6.Bxc6 dxc6 7.dxe5 Nf5 8.Qxd8+ Kxd8 is the so called Berlin wall, but that’s another story.

5.d4 Bd7

5…exd4 6.Qxd4 Bd7 7.Bxc6 Bxc6 leaves White with more space in the center.

6.Nc3 Be7 7.Re1

It is always been a good idea to ask what the opponent’s plan is. In this position White is threatening to win pawn, for example after 7…0–0 8.Bxc6 Bxc6 9.dxe5 dxe5 10.Qxd8 Raxd8 11.Nxe5 white is a pawn up, and if
11…Bxe4 12.Nxe4 Nxe4 then 13.Nd3 f5 14.f3 Bh4 15.g3 Nxg3 16.hxg3 Bxg3 leaves White a piece up for two pawns.

7…exd4 8.Nxd4 Nxd4 9.Qxd4 Bxb5 10.Nxb5

What has more space.

10…0–0 11.Qc3

Q: Please explain the logic behind Qc3.
A: It vacates the d4 square for White’s knight which can then head for f5. A very straight forward approach.

11…c6 12.Nd4 Nd7 13.Nf5

Checkmate is threatened.

13…Bf6 14.Qg3 Ne5 15.Bf4 Qc7 16.Rad1 Rad8

Q: Black has only one weakness on d6. How can you exploit it?
A: After 17.Qa3 Nc4 18.Qb4 the pawn on d6 is lost. But Capablanca had a different approach in mind.

17.Rxd6

17…Rxd6 18.Bxe5

Pause for the moment and see how you can save Black.

18…Rd1??

Here the computer suggests 18…Qa5 as the only move which can save the game, but Capablanca’s opponent failed to see it. The threat is to take both the rook and bishop, so 19.Bc3 forced after which 19…Bxc3 20.bxc3 Rg6 21.Ne7+ wins the exchange back.

19.Rxd1 Bxe5

Q : How white can finish off his opponent (hint – there is a possible back rank weakness)?

20.Nh6+!! Kh8 21.Qxe5 Qxe5 22.Nxf7+

Th point of whole combination that started with 17. Rxd6. Black resigned as he is piece down. And if 22… Rxf7 23.Rd8 and mate follows or 22…Kg8 23. Nxe5

1–0

Ashvin Chauhan

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A Modest Proposal

I’ve written many times about the problems facing junior chess here in the UK. Two weeks ago I considered GM Simon Williams’s critique of what’s happening at top levels of junior chess. Last week I looked at some contradictions in the public perception of chess.

Today I want to highlight the one thing that is really not working and see how we might go about putting it right.

A lot of what we do is great.

Promoting chess in secondary schools is great, and the ECF is quite rightly putting a lot of effort in this direction. At present, though, it’s not easy to get that much interest outside single-sex selective schools.

Junior Chess Clubs are great, especially for parents who want to fast-track their children, for children who are doing well at school and want to take things more seriously, and for children who want to learn the basics in a non-competitive environment.

We run some great tournaments, at least they would be great if more of the participants were developing their skills in tandem with gaining experience in competitions.

There are a number of very devoted parents out there, doing a wonderful job in encouraging their children to play chess, and, in many cases, doing a lot of voluntary administration as well. Only a small number, though. We need to make it much larger.

Putting chess on the curriculum is great: more children will learn chess, they’ll learn the basics correctly rather than being taught at home by parents who are unaware of their own ignorance. It might also make them smarter. We can then feed them through to competitions and junior chess clubs when they’re ready.

There’s a lot of great work going on in junior chess in this country, and yet the whole set-up is ineffective. If you look at what actually happens in primary school chess clubs in my part of London you’ll see why.

There are some school clubs which are reasonably successful, where there’s a member of staff who is committed to chess, who is present in the classroom to ensure children are quiet and well-behaved, and who encourages children to take part in both team and individual competitions and to join junior chess clubs, but these schools are very much in a minority.

A few weeks ago I spoke to a friend and colleague, an IM who has, for some years, been running an after-school club at a primary school very local to Richmond Junior Club. I asked if he had any players who might be good enough to represent Richmond in national competitions. No, he told me. It’s just a low-level fun club, although there was one boy who might be good enough next year.

A year or so ago I emailed another friend and colleague, another IM, about the players at another local primary school where he’s been running the chess club certainly since the last century. I asked if any of his players were going to take part in our forthcoming individual tournament. He replied that his members were only interested in taking part in team tournaments where they represented the school, not in individual competitions.

Now my two friends are both outstanding players, brilliant chess coaches and great guys. The two schools are among the highest rated state primary schools in the country. So we have two fantastic teachers working in fantastic schools, who, at least in these two schools (I’m well aware that they both get better results elsewhere) produce very few if any children who reach a reasonable level of chess proficiency or take a long-term interest in the game. IMs and GMs, along with many others, including myself, are trying to make a living providing low-level entertainment for children who are not serious about chess and whose parents don’t want them to be serious about chess. It would be a much more productive use of their time if they were teaching smaller numbers of children who were ambitious to succeed, but, the way things are at the moment, they can earn more money doing what they’re doing, and who can blame them?

We first need to make sure that more children learn chess. I can’t see chess on the curriculum in the UK being made compulsory in the near future, and, personally, I wouldn’t be in favour. So let’s put together an attractive package for a potential sponsor. We’ll put a couple of chess sets in every junior classroom (Year 3/2nd Grade upwards) in the country. (Yes, a project of this nature was started by the ECF a few years ago but turned out to be a complete fiasco.) Just putting chess sets into schools without accompanying instruction won’t work, though. We’ll also produce some attractive, colourful, child-friendly posters to go round the room showing the rules of chess. We’ll encourage children in Year 3 to play mini-games so we’ll also produce some mini-game posters. We’ll encourage teachers to get those children who wish to do so to play chess before school and at break times. We’ll provide an information pack for class teachers. We’ll produce a booklet giving the rules of chess, some mini-games, some basic advice on tactics and strategy, and links to recommended resources, email this to schools and ask them to forward it to all parents.

Let’s then set up a network of chess academies providing individual and group tuition, competitions, and time and space for children who enjoy chess to socialise with each other. In more affluent areas parents should be happy to pay for this. These academies will also provide tutors for schools who are ambitious to excel at chess.

We also need to flood the media with positive stories about competitive chess, particularly as played by older children and young adults, both male and female. At present chess has a good reputation among the general public for ‘making you smarter’ but a poor reputation as a hobby, which is one reason why many parents want their children to ‘do’ chess but not to be good at chess. Last week’s post considered the image of chess players. They are seen as geeks who either dress too formally or too informally, have poor social skills, will probably go mad (like that Fischer chap), are almost all male (wasn’t there a player who said women were useless at chess the other day?), are either very young or very old, and are so unhealthy that they will probably drop dead at the board. Getting away from these stereotypes and promoting a positive image of chess should be a top priority.

While I continue to support primary school chess clubs because it’s better for schools to have a club than not to have a club, the current model of the primary school chess club led by a professional chess teacher is, in my opinion, demonstrably not fit for purpose. By continuing to support it we are letting down both the children and the wider chess community. Surely we can come up with a way of using our talented chess coaches to teach children who want to learn and improve rather than just running low-level children’s entertainment.

Richard James

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The Sinking Ship

Every chess player has found themselves in a position so seemingly bad that it’s as if they were on a sinking ship. I say seemingly because often appearances can be deceiving. Beginners, who lack playing experience, tend to give up hope when hitting the smallest bump in the positional road. Of course, there are positions where one should simply resign, but there are also many positions that look worse than they actually are. I have seen countless student games in which one player will resign even though they have a completely playable position. They resign because not only can’t they find a way to improve things but they have no way in which to accurately measure the position’s true nature. Can it be saved or is resignation in order? To answer this question, one must look at a position objectively, questioning that position by using principled elements to arrive at an answer.

For beginners, it’s best to start with the simplest questions, such as do I have more or less material than my opponent? Taking stock of material balance issues can be a good first step in determining just how much trouble you’re in. With beginners, an early deficit in material, being down a pawn or two or perhaps a minor piece, can be overcome. However, being down a Queen can have devastating consequences. Beginners love to bring their Queens out early, often losing them in the process. Therefore, I have a training rule to prevent this. If you bring your Queen out early and lose it during a practice game, you have to resign. Needless to say, this curbs early Queen play! You should always try to maintain a material balance. If you do find yourself with less material, consider the material you’re missing and how that affects the position. In the opening and middle game, minor pieces are critical. If you’re down a minor piece or two, you’ll have play more defensively because you don’t have key pieces that can aid in potential attacks. When in this kind of trouble, hang on to your material and play to reestablish material balance. Your opponent may try to trade material which means they will have a greater advantage in the endgame. Avoid trades if possible, when down material, and aim for equalization.

Development is another principled consideration. Beginners have trouble with good development when they first start playing. They often move the same piece again and again while their opponent follows principled play, bringing a new piece into the game with each move. Development is critical during the game’s opening phase and going into the middle game. You should examine whether or not your opponent has better development, pieces being on their most active squares, when determining how much trouble you might be in. If your opponent has better development, they have greater control of the board which makes it difficult for you to launch successful attacks. Beginners often panic when faced with an opposition position in which their opponent controls the board. However, before throwing in the towel and simply resigning, remember that position’s are fluid, they sometimes change drastically within a few moves. Look to improve your own position by challenging your opponent’s control of board space. Use pieces of lesser value to challenge pieces of greater value. Doing so will force your opponent to give up some control, allowing you to gain it!

Potential attacks against your pawns and pieces is another consideration when trying to work your way out of a bad position. Beginners hang pieces or lose a series of exchanges because they don’t carefully consider the number of attackers versus the number of defenders. If you have a pawn or piece under attack and your opponent has three attackers to your one defender, you’ll more than likely have to give up that pawn or piece. It’s a lost cause and trying to defend a lost cause will only make the position worse. Look for a counter attack elsewhere. If you can attack an opposition piece of greater value, your opponent will first have to deal with your threat. This could change the dynamic of the position, giving you room to regroup. Know when to give up material to an overwhelming opposition attack. You can’t hope to put out a raging fire with a thimble full of water!

Timing is everything. For example, since White moves first, White has a free turn. White starts off one move ahead of Black. If you move the same piece over and over again while your opponent brings a new piece into play with each move, you’re essentially giving your opponent a free turn with each move of the same piece. How far behind are you in tempo? If your opponent is ahead by five tempi, you have a lot of catching up to do. If behind, try to catch up but don’t try to catch up by launching an all or nothing attack. Think pawn and piece activity.

Determine the safety of your King. Beginners learn the reason for King safety the hard way by not Castling and getting checkmated. You’ll want to see if your King is facing a mating attack and determine what kind of damage will result when having to avoid such an attack. Questions one should ask are will my position be irreversibly weakened or damaged defending against an attack and will I lose so much material in avoiding mate that winning is no longer an option? Of course, one should ask if checkmate is unavoidable? Beginners often have trouble with this last question because they are still learning mating patterns and sometimes can’t see a mate in three or four.

Are your Rooks activated? I see so many junior level games in which both players Rooks are sitting on their starting squares gathering dust! Beginners will wring their hands in despair, thinking a position is lost because they can’t move a pawn from its starting square because it will be captured upon doing so. Why not use a Rook that is still on its starting Rank to protect that pawn?

These basics ideas are all interrelated, one being intimately tied to the others. Each move you make should have purpose. If someone asked you why you made a specific move, you should be able to provide a sound explanation. Just this idea alone will go a long way towards keeping your positional ship afloat! When you find yourself in a troublesome position, determine why you’re in that undesirable situation. Determine the basic cause of the problem and see of you can work your way out of it. Not every position can be fixed but panicking and giving up before looking for a solution will not help you improve your game. Trying to think your way out of a bad position will help improve your game, even if you don’t end up winning the game after working your way through the problem at hand. We learn from our losses. However, don’t assume a position is hopeless until you ask a few questions. Sometimes a sinking ship can remain afloat long enough for a rescue to ensue! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Teaching Kids Through Classical Games (11)

Gruenfeld, Ernst – Alekhine, Alexander,
Karlsbad 1923

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 d5 4.Bg5 Be7

4…Nbd7 can also be played here as White can’t win the pawn on d5: 5.cxd5 exd5 6.Nxd5 Nxd5 7.Bxd8 Bb4+ wins piece.

5.Nf3 Nbd7 6.e3 0–0 7.Rc1

A well known tempo struggle begins; White wants to develop his bishop when he captures the pawn on c4 while Black refrains from taking on c4 until White’s light square bishop has moved.

7…c6 8.Qc2 a6 9.a3 h6 10.Bh4 Re8 11.Bd3 dxc4

Gaining a tempo, but now White has a majority in the center. It is truly said that chess is a generalized exchange.

12.Bxc4 b5 13.Ba2 c5

Freeing Black’s game with the c5 lever. 13…Bb7 14.0–0 c5 is also playable.

14.Rd1 cxd4 15.Nxd4 Qb6 16.Bb1 Bb7 17.0–0 Rac8

With a threat of Be4.

18.Qd2 Ne5

Improving the position of this piece by heading to c4. The knight was not doing much on d7.

19.Bxf6 Bxf6 20.Qc2 g6

Though the pawn structure around Black’s king is slightly weakened by this there is no way White can exploit it. A weakness is only a weakness if it can be targeted.

21.Qe2 Nc4 22.Be4 Bg7

22…Bxe4 23.Nxe4 Bg7 is also possible.

23.Bxb7 Qxb7 24.Rc1 e5 25.Nb3 e4!

Creating a nice outpost on d3 which can be used by knight.

26.Nd4 Red8 27.Rfd1 Ne5 28.Na2 Nd3 29.Rxc8 Qxc8

“Grünfeld, completely outplayed by his mighty opponent, correctly seeks his last chance in destroying Black’s powerful fore post on d3. Note that a protected knight on d3 or e3 (respectively e6 or d6) is normally worth an exchange because of its ability to paralyze the opponent’s activity and to participate in dangerous combinations.”
– Kasparov

30.f3?

Here Kasparov suggests 30.Nc3 as an improvement which might lead to pawn down queen endgame for White. If you have Chessbase you can check the variations given by Kasparov.

30…Rxd4! 31.fxe4

Black’s rook can’t be taken because of 31.exd4 Bxd4+ 32.Kf1 Nf4 33.Rc1 Qxc1+ 34.Nxc1 Nxe2 35.Nxe2 Bxb2 which gives a winning endgame with two extra pawns.

Pause for a moment and try to find the winning continuation for Black

31…Nf4!! 32.exf4 Qc4!

White is at least losing a piece.

33.Qxc4

33.Re1 Qxa2.

33…Rxd1+ 34.Qf1 Bd4+

And mate on the next move.

0–1

Ashvin Chauhan

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Schrödinger’s Game

You will no doubt be aware of Schrödinger’s cat, which is simultaneously both alive and dead.

It occurs to me that public perception of chess is full of similar paradoxes.

Times journalist Tom Whipple, writing about Nigel Short’s views on women’s chess, chose to tell us the reason why he game up competitive chess in his teens:

“No, the reason I quit aged 15, at a time when my friends (or rather, given I played competitive chess, tormentors) were starting to go to the pub, was something else. It was because I looked round one day and realised I was myself in a minority: I was the only person in the immediate vicinity not wearing a bow tie.”

He then, by way of further explanation, that he quit because chess was ‘too geeky’. A quick search of the ECF grading database reveals that his grade at the time he quit was a not terribly impressive 74. So I’d suggest that he quit because he just wasn’t very good at the game. Or perhaps he’d never been taught to play well.

Perhaps Mr Whipple played chess in a different universe to me. There was one junior a few years ago, now an IM, who used to wear a bow tie regularly. Another junior, now a GM, was wearing a bow tie the first time I met him, but that was because he’d just been to a party. I wouldn’t say that bow ties were de rigeur in the Thames Valley League, though.

But there’s a different stereotype, isn’t there? Chess players are often portrayed in the media as scruffily dressed, wearing anoraks, unwashed T-shirts and torn jeans, with their sandwiches in a carrier bag.

So there you have Schrödinger’s chess player, who simultaneously is geekily well-dressed and sporting a bow tie, and is badly dressed with an anorak over his T-shirt.

You might have thought a highly regarded journal of record (well, not everyone has a high regard for their chess correspondent) would encourage its writers to avoid lazy stereotypes.

I think the paradox stems from the perception that chess is for geeks, and that there are two public, and rather contradictory, views of geeks: the bow tie wearing eccentric mathematician and the scruffy trainspotter. But serious competitive players are, in one sense, anything but geeks. You need a lot of mental toughness to succeed in chess at a high level. We should be celebrating our best players, male or female, juniors, seniors or inbetweeners, for that quality as well as for their talent, hard work, commitment and dedication to chess.

I don’t think is the only paradox in the public perception of our game.

On the one hand chess is seen as something which requires genius level intelligence, an astronomically high IQ, to master. On the other hand it’s portrayed as a game so easy that it’s suitable for mass participation by very young children. Schrödinger’s game, very easy and very hard at the same time. This always reminds me of what the great Artur Schnabel said about Mozart’s piano sonatas: too easy for children and too difficult for artists. So parents are often totally confused about what chess really is. The answer to this question is, as CEM Joad would have said, it depends what you mean by chess.

If you mean learning how the pieces move, then, yes, it’s easy for most young children. If you mean playing ‘real’ chess, considering alternatives, thinking ahead, that’s something very different. You don’t need a very high IQ to do this but you do require a certain amount of cognitive and emotional maturity which most young children don’t have. Parents who have some knowledge of ‘real’ chess understand this, which is why, for instance, Magnus Carlsen’s father dropped the game for a few years when his 5-year-old son found it hard to get beyond the moves of the pieces. Parents who don’t understand ‘real’ chess, which, here in the UK must be about 80-90%, have no understanding that their children aren’t really playing chess because they don’t know how to play real chess themselves. You can tell when you ask kids joining a school club to name the rook and they tell you, as they nearly always do, it’s called a castle. You know they’ve been taught the moves by someone who has never read a chess book, and who was taught the moves himself by someone who had never read a chess book.

And this perhaps explains another paradox.

The other day I received my six-monthly royalty statement from my publishers. It’s gratifying that Chess for Kids is still selling well, and providing me with a significant amount of money every year: the only book I’ve written which has done this. However, The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids isn’t selling at all. Unless something remarkable happens it’s never going to get anywhere near paying off its advance.

In a sensible world it would be the other way round. If you really do see chess as a very hard game you’re going to need a guide on how to teach it. If you’re not a proficient player yourself you need to learn enough to help your kids. Even if you are a proficient player you’ll appreciate that some guidance on how to go about teaching something so difficult wouldn’t come amiss. All parents wanting to teach their kids chess should read a book on the subject first. And there’s really no other book on the market which will help you in this way.

There are, on the other hand, plenty of attractive books on the market teaching the rudiments of the game to kids. Once you’ve read my book on how to teach chess you’ll then, when you think your kids are ready, want to buy them a book. You might choose mine, but you might prefer one of the rival volumes which teach very much the same material in different ways. It’s up to you: it doesn’t really matter too much which one you prefer. In a world where chess was recognised for what it really is, my book for parents would sell many times more copies than my book for kids, rather than the other way round.

The right, non-confusing message we’re putting out about chess should be that, although it’s fairly easy to learn the moves, it’s really a game for older children and adults at which some exceptional younger children with exceptionally supportive parents can excel, a game which requires mental toughness as well as intelligence.

Richard James

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Logic and Reasoning Skills

One of the thought processing skills that chess helps develop is logic and reasoning. It’s the understanding and employment of logic and reasoning that allows a chess player to determine the best course of action within a given position. The problem that many novice players face when examining a position on the board is not so much finding the solution but determining the the correct questions to be asked that lead to that solution. After all, if you ask the wrong questions, you’ll identify the wrong problem and you won’t be able to determine the correct solution because you’re not seeing the real issue at hand. To solve any problem, you must first ask the correct questions, using logic and reasoning as your guide. This is why I teach my students problem solving skills they can use away from the chessboard first, only then applying them to the game of chess, once they’ve be mastered.

To teach logic and reasoning, I give my students some geographical problems to solve. The first of which has to do with travel. I tell them I’m taking a trip. I’m leaving from San Francisco to a destination that is roughly 3,000 miles away. Their job is to ask the appropriate questions in order to determine the right answer. Our overall goal is to ask the fewest possible questions to achieve the correct answer, which takes practice. From San Francisco, you can go roughly 3,000 miles in any direction and arrive at some destination. Therefore, the first question you might consider is which direction am I traveling? North, South, East or West? Let’s say I’m traveling East. You might then ask, how wide is the United States? It’s roughly 3,000 miles wide. Just two questions have now brought you close to the answer. Because there are many large metropolitan areas within 3,000 miles of San Francisco, you might ask what State am I traveling to and I’d answer New York. Here, many students jump the gun so to speak and say “you’re going to Manhattan, the Big Apple.” I’d say sorry, wrong answer but you’re on the right track. You might ask, is it close to Manhattan? I’d say “yes, just a subway ride away and there’s a bridge named after it.” If you said Brooklyn, you’d be correct. These questions follow a logical sequence rather than a random sequence, forming a pattern leading towards the answer.

Next we gear up the challenge. I tell my students my new destination is roughly 5,500 miles away. The parameters have now changed. With greater distance comes a greater number of possible destinations. Students know from the first problem that direction of travel is a key question to be asked. North, South, East or West? I tell them East. They know from the first problem that the United States is roughly 3,000 miles wide. This means that the first 3,000 miles leads them to the Eastern side of the United States. However, they now have to consider the remaining 2,500 miles. My more astute students will ask for a world atlas with the idea of determining the width of the Atlantic Ocean. I allow them to use an atlas, which I keep with me when we do these exercises. Once they determine that the Atlantic Ocean is close to 2,500 miles wide, it’s time to hone in on my destination a bit further. Because there are two large bodies of land, Europe and Africa, those could be destination points, so their next logical question is which of the two continents is it? Europe, I reply. Here things can get a bit tricky because there are a number of destinations near the Atlantic Coast of Europe that could be my target. Older students who have worked through these problems before, might narrow it down by asking for rough coordinates or longitude and latitude. They might also ask if my destination is on an Island, narrowing the field down quite a bit. The point here is that my students are logically narrowing down my destination sequentially through their questions. I’ll either give them my target’s rough longitude and latitude or perhaps tell them it’s an island. Working through the exercise, employing the right questions, they conclude my destination is England. Where in England? Here I tell them to narrow it by considering my destination to be a metropolitan center for chess in the UK. Many students don’t at first realize that London is the target. However, by asking further questions such as, does this metropolitan center also serve as the country’s Governmental center? Does it have a famous Bridge? It my target address 44 Baker Street? (Yes, a shameless plug for the London Chess Center) Eventually they deduce the correct answer!

You might ask, what does a geography challenge have to do with chess? The answer is simple: As I said early, beginning players often have trouble with positional problems on the chessboard because they’re not fully identifying the actual problem. They might identify “a problem” but is it the correct problem. If you identify the wrong problem, even a good answer to that identified problem does you no good if it’s not the answer to the real or underlying problem. The exercises we employ help students with their chess playing because they learn how to ask the right questions which will ultimately lead them to discovering and addressing the real problem being faced. It’s an introduction to logical thinking and the application of reasoning to problem solving. If you ask the right questions, you’re more likely to discover the real problem. Here’s how this might work when a beginner is trying to identify a positional problem on the chessboard (note, this is a very broad example):

Often beginners apply the opening principles correctly and find themselves going into the middle game with a decent developmental position. So far so good. Then, their opponent makes a few moves that create noticeable problems for our novice player. The problem with multiple problems within a given position is identifying those problems and then deciding which problem needs to be addressed first. If one problem’s solution avoids material loss and the other avoids checkmate, avoiding being mated takes precedence.

Beginners have great trouble identifying a single positional problem let alone multiple problems. The key again is asking the right questions. One reason I use geographical problems in my student’s training is because chess positions are geometrical in nature. Geography is geometrical in nature! In a middle game position, for example, my students use a mental checklist to identify positional problems. They follow a logical sequence of questioning learned via my geography exercises. Imagine trying to determine a problem using random questions. With enough random questions asked, you might eventually identify the real problem. However, if you’re on the clock, your time might run out long before you identified the real issue at hand! Therefore, your questions should be sequential in nature. My students will look at the position and start narrowing things down using the right questions, starting with the most obvious ones. Are any opposition pieces attacking my pieces? If so, are those attacking pieces of greater or lesser value than the pieces being attacked? If the attacking piece is a Knight and the attacked piece a Rook, we might consider moving that Rook. However, before moving the Rook, we should ask if doing so weakens our position? Will moving the Rook cause a ripple effect, weakening our position so much that its moving (the Rook) would create a greater number of problems? Can we launch a counter attack of an opposition piece of equal or greater value? While this is a very generalized example, it serves to show how one can employ basic logic and reasoning skills to determine a problem and its solution. In our example, we would continue to work through our questioning. If we move our Rook out of harms way can we move it to a square that allows us to maintain our positional strength? If so, what square should we move it to? The idea here is to use logical questioning to discover the true nature of the problem and only then trying to solve it.

Once we look at the opposition’s pieces we look at ours. We might ask, if I make this move, what’s my opponent’s best response (move)? The key is always to ask questions that illuminate the biggest problem at hand, starting with an examination of our opponent’s pawns and pieces in relationship to our pawns and pieces. We examine each of our opponent’s pawns and pieces and question its relationship to our pawns and pieces which often reveals the problem. Logically, we’d start by examining the opposition pawns and pieces closest to our own material and work our way outward, using logical questions to guide us.

Again, if you don’t ask the right questions, you won’t get the right answer. With practice my student’s questions become very precise, with each question bringing them closer to the correct answer. I have my students keep a small notebook to write down questions they should ask and the order in which they should be asked. Every time a good question is asked, one that brings my students closer to the answer, they write that question down in their notebook. They refer to their questions when analyzing a position, eventually committing those questions to memory. Try some geography problems to sharpen your logic and reasoning skills and you’ll be rewarded when faced with a tricky positional problem. This is an extremely shortened version of how the process works (I could fully describe it in about twenty pages) but it will give you an idea of how to get started. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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