Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Dunning-Kruger

Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? This has its basis in a paper published in 1999 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology, Cornell University. I came across it the other day and considered how it might apply to chess.

From Wikipedia:

“The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.

“Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

fail to recognize their own lack of skill
fail to recognize genuine skill in others
fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy
recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill”

So with regard to playing chess, unskilled chess players have no understanding that they are unskilled. By ‘unskilled’ in this context I mean failing to know all the rules of chess and failing to understand basic tactics and strategy. In my part of the world, most children are taught the moves by parents who are unskilled chess players, who know how the pieces move and think that’s all there is to chess. Which might explain why, when I offer to help them or give them advice on chess they either ignore me or tell me they don’t want my help. They might recognise and acknowledge their own lack of skill if I provided them with training, but as they don’t recognise their incompetence they are not prepared to expose themselves to training.

Of course the idea of ‘unskilled’ is relative. Children who are aware that I can beat them very easily, and also parents who are aware that I can beat their children very easily, often assume that I must be a grandmaster because they perceive me as being unbelievably brilliant at chess. By Magnus Carlsen’s standards, or even by Nigel Davies’s standards, though, I’m a pretty bad player. Competent, perhaps, but no more than that. Competent enough to recognise my own lack of skill, and, up to a point, to appreciate how skilful Carlsen and other grandmasters are.

The Dunning-Kruger effect applies to teaching as well as playing chess. In fact teaching is a whole range of skills. Teaching a group and teaching an individual are very different skills. Teaching elite junior internationals is very different from teaching beginners. Teaching younger children, teaching older children and teaching adults are all very different skills. But many strong chess players assume that all you have to do to be a chess teacher is stand in front of a class and tell them what you know. This might work in some environments, but not, for instance, with a class of 7-year-olds in a primary school chess club.

These teachers may look impressive but if you actually test their pupils to find out what they do and don’t know, or talk through a game with them and ask them what they’re thinking about you’ll discover just how effective they really are.

Dunning and Kruger also concluded that those with genuine ability in a particular domain tended to underestimate their own competence and assume that something they found easy would also be easy for others. So strong players who teach beginners tend to go too fast, assuming that because chess comes easily to them it will also come easily to their pupils, and assuming that children have understood something when in fact they haven’t. It’s very easy to get frustrated when a pupil hasn’t picked up something which is second nature to you.

There are cultural differences which also need to be explored. From Wikipedia again:

“Studies on the Dunning–Kruger effect tend to focus on American test subjects. A study on some East Asian subjects suggested that something like the opposite of the Dunning–Kruger effect may operate on self-assessment and motivation to improve. East Asians tend to underestimate their abilities and see underachievement as a chance to improve themselves and get along with others.”

I’ve written before about different attitudes to parenting and childhood: what I call the ‘Eastern’ approach: children are seen as small adults and are expected to aim to excel at everything they do, and the ‘Western’ approach: childhood is when you have fun: children are expected to work hard in school but extra-curricular activities are often seen as not being very serious. Perhaps this is part of the same thing. People with a ‘Eastern’ mindset are more likely to be searching for self-improvement as well as being more likely to expect their children to excel at music, chess or whatever.

Of course these are crude generalisations. Many Western parents will take an ‘Eastern’ approach while many Asian or East European parents will take a ‘Western’ approach. Most parents will, to a greater or lesser extent, take a ‘Western’ approach to some subjects and an ‘Eastern’ approach to other subjects.

But it seems to me that the fundamental problem with after-school chess clubs is parental ignorance about all aspects of chess. One way of countering this is to put chess on the curriculum so that all children are taught to play properly. Another way is to promote chess clubs in secondary schools when children are old enough to teach themselves if they’re interested rather than in primary schools.

I’ve spent the last 15 years or more telling anyone who wants to listen that primary school chess clubs in their current form are destroying chess as an adult game in this country. The Dunning-Kruger effect explains why most children don’t get anywhere and also why most teaching in primary school chess clubs is ineffective.

Let’s try to do something about it.

Richard James

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Strategy or Tactics

Students often ask me which is more important, strategy or tactics? It’s a good question, one worth exploring. It’s been said that chess is 99% tactics and the beginner might agree with this since many beginner’s games are won through the deployment of accidental tactics, such as a fork or pin. I say accidental because tactics require a combination of pieces to be in the right place at the right time. This means setting up a specific position which is generally beyond the scope of most beginners. Many beginners stumble onto tactical plays which helps solidify their belief that tactics are the primary key to chess success. However, tactical positions don’t simply appear out of nowhere. This is where strategic thinking comes into play.

Many chess students invest in training software programs that are a collection of tactical problems. While these programs help you to spot tactical opportunities and develop your board vision, which is a good thing, they don’t address a key issue. That issue is how tactical positions come about in the first place. It’s all well and good to be able to spot a tactical opportunity but unless you can create one from scratch while playing, it does you little good. This is one problem with purely tactical studies. Beginner’s spot tactical puzzle solutions but don’t know how the position was arrived at. This is where the study of strategy comes into play.

When beginners start playing chess they look for the big plays, such as fast checkmates and attacks that garner them substantial material. Its all about making moves that either win the game or win pieces. The beginner’s style of playing is based on clumsy brute force thinking. It takes time and practice to develop a more strategic way of playing. When beginners play one another, one often wins because one player stumbles upon a fork, for example, that allows them to win them a Rook or Queen. Their opponent suddenly feels as if they’ve lost a critical piece of material and continues the game as if waiting for the hangman to come and dispatch them from this mortal coil! I’ve seen many students lose a major piece (Rook or Queen) and subsequently lose their will to win. Tactical plays don’t simply appear magically. They require a combination of moves that are based on strategic principles. Without strategy, tactics would be impossible.

The beginner might think that strategy requires many years of carefully honing one’s chess skills, and they’d be right. However, this doesn’t mean that the beginner will not be able to employ tactics until they completely mastered the art of strategy. There are a few basic strategical ideas the beginner can employ to bring them one step closer to creating tactical plays. The most important idea the beginner must learn when walking the road towards tactical mastery is the idea of piece activity.

My students get their first introduction to piece activity when they learn the second of the three primary opening principles, developing your pieces during the opening. During the opening, beginners are taught to move or develop their minor pieces towards the board’s four central squares, d4, d5, e4 and e5 (the squares directly surrounding those four central squares are introduced in later lessons). Then the Rooks are connected by moving the Queen off of her starting rank (but not too far away). Beginners often decide that getting their four minor pieces developed towards the center and connecting their Rooks ends the piece activity phase of the game. They then start launching attacks and looking for, you guessed it, tactical plays such as forks, pins, skewers, etc. Disappointment soon follows because there are no tactical plays to be had (in most cases)!

Piece activity is critical and the greater your piece activity, the greater the opportunity for tactics. This means you have to think strategically or long term. Once you’ve developed your pieces during the opening, you should always be looking to improve a piece (or pawn’s) activity. Active squares are those that influence, control or nail down space in the center or on the opponent’s side of the board. If you control a greater number of squares on your opponent’s side of the board than he or she controls on your side of the board two things are going to happen. First, your opponent is going to have a difficult time safely getting his or her own pieces into the game and second, you’ll have a better chance of employing tactics. So, is piece activity the only key to the successful employment of tactics? No, you need to develop your ability to create combinations.

A combination in chess is a series of connected moves that lead to a positional set up. That positional set up allows you to execute tactical plays such as forks, pins, skewers, etc (or checkmate). When you look at a beginner’s tactical puzzle, which is often solved with a single move, you’re not seeing what lead up to that amazing fork or pin. You see the end result of a combination of moves that lead up to that winning tactical move. Combinations are difficult for beginners because the novice chess player is still looking only one move ahead. Worse yet, the beginner thinks they see a few moves ahead but what they’re really seeing is their move and the response they want their opponent to make. Then, when their opponent makes exactly the move our beginner wants them to make, our novice player hits them with a daring tactical move. “If I make this move and my opponent makes that move, I’ll be able to fork their King and Queen, winning the Queen.” It sounds great except for one slight problem. Your opponent isn’t going to simply make a bad move in order to allow you to win their Queen.

This is a case of wishful thinking and wishful thinking is a sure fire way to lose chess games. What the beginner needs to consider is the best possible move their opponent can make in response to their own move. I teach my students to consider their opponent’s move as if they were suddenly playing their opponent’s side of the board. Doing this allows you to find any flaws with your own potential moves, as well as avoiding the fallout of a bad blunder. Your opponent isn’t going to make it easy for you to win just like you’re not going to make it easy for your opponent to win!

Always think about your opponent’s best response before making a move. This will go a long towards helping you develop winning combinations. When trying to create a combination, define your goal, such as forking the opposition’s Rook and Queen. If employing a Knight fork, note where your Knight needs to be in order to fork those two pieces. Look at the square your Knight is currently on and ask yourself, how can I get the Knight to the square it needs to be one in order to execute the tactic? How many moves will it take to get to the target square? Consider that first move. After considering that move, determine the best possible response from your opponent. What would you do if you were playing as your opponent? After determining the best opposition response, and if your candidate move appears to be sound, consider the next move in your combination. Ask the same questions. If all seems sound then start the combination.

I know, I’m asking the beginner to do a lot of basic calculation and the novice player may not be able to successful anticipate the best opposition responses. However, employing this method of thinking, the beginner will improve and tactical skills will start to develop. While tactics are wonderful, you cannot employ them until you gain some strategical knowledge. Beginners should stick to two move combinations to start, only going for a tactical play if it can be executed within two moves, As they become more strategically experienced they can move on to three move combinations, etc. Chess requires hard work and for my beginning students, strategical thinking can be difficult. However, those that put in the effort are rewarded tenfold. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Kirk Versus Spock

Being a life long Star Trek fan, the passing of Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) hit me hard. My band’s long time drummer posted a video clip of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock playing chess on my Facebook page yesterday. Spock announces he will checkmate Kirk on the next move. Well, it’s Kirk’s move and the Captain checkmates Spock. Spock wasn’t very happy, although he had to keep up his Vulcan appearance and avoid any display of emotion. This scene got me to thinking about two very distinct chess types, the player who employs sound logic (Spock) and the player who takes chances (Kirk). What if Spock went back in time and played Paul Morphy. Would the logical playing style of Mr. Spock beat out the swashbuckling and daring of Morphy? I’ll answer this question later.

On Star Trek, Captain Kirk is the taker of great chances while Mr. Spock is the voice of pure reason and logic. When we learn how to play chess, we’re taught sound logical principles, principles that Mr. Spock would approve of. He’d approve of these principles because they have been tested over time and have proven to be sound in nature. We all learn opening principles such as moving a pawn to a central square on move one, developing minor pieces to active, centralized squares and castling our King to safety. Mr. Spock would approve of these principles because they’re logical and sound.

Then there are the opening principles that guide us regarding what not to do. Don’t make too many pawn moves, don’t bring your Queen out early and don’t move the same piece twice before developing the majority of your other pieces. Here’s where Captain Kirk comes into play. Mr. Spock would logically reason that bringing the Queen out early would allow his opponent to develop pieces to active squares while attacking his exposed Queen, forcing that Queen to keep moving at the cost of proper development. Spock would be correct from a logical standpoint. However, our swashbuckling Captain might be able to create some threats by bringing his Queen out early against a less skilled opponent. In the end, logic wins out because bringing your Queen out early only works against the weakest of opponents.

What about not moving the same piece twice before developing your other forces? Here things get a bit murky. Mr. Spock would calmly follow this principle, carefully and thoughtfully developing a new piece with each move. Captain Kirk, on the other hand, might consider moving a piece twice during the opening if it meant he could launch an attack. After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Nf6, our daring Captain (manning the White pieces) might play 4. Ng5, moving his King-side Knight a second time. While this goes against the logic of the principle, it does create a problem for Mr. Spock (manning the Black pieces). The c4 Bishop and g5 Knight are both attacking the f7 pawn who is only protected by the King. Mr. Spock would calmly play 4…d5 and the game would go on with the good Captain having to reevaluate his early attack. Seems simple enough. What would happen if, in another game, Mr. Spock found one of his minor pieces attacked by a pawn in the opening? Remember, Mr. Spock follows the opening principles to the letter. He’d now be faced with having to move a piece twice during the opening. Would he do it? Yes, because he would compare the value of the pawn to that of the minor piece and conclude that it would be better to bend an opening principle as opposed to losing a valuable piece.

Mr. Spock would look at opposition moves, no matter how illogical they seemed, with a watchful eye. However, his adherence to logic might cause him to dismiss an illogical move as a mere human blunder. Of course, the Captain would be likely to make a seemingly illogical move if he could launch an attack with it. It is just this kind of move that throws many beginners off, the seemingly illogical placement of a pawn or piece.

The beginner who is serious about chess follows the game’s principles as if their life depends on it. They become Spock-like in their thinking which is good up to a point. They think that if they’re employing sound game principles so should their opponent. If their opponent makes a seemingly illogical move, the beginner will dismiss it as a blunder rather than looking at the move to determine whether it has real merit. This dismissive thinking is the driving force behind the success of many opening traps. The trap’s victim often sees the moves leading up to a trap as unsound or unprincipled. Mr. Spock might very well dismiss this type of move as illogical and therefore harmless. Captain Kirk would look at a seemingly illogical move with suspicion because he isn’t as driven by pure logic as Mr. Spock. No matter what your opponent’s move, be it logical or illogical, you have to carefully examine that move from your opponent’s perspective to determine it’s merits.

Captain Kirk is an attacking player, going in for the kill as soon as possible, meaning he takes chances. But does he really take chances? Not so much a case of taking chances but playing aggressively. While Spock might be more comfortable building up a strong defensive position, Captain Kirk likes to go into battle with both guns blazing. Beginners should learn to do both. However, the beginner should start by learning the art of attack. Activate your pieces early on and, when you have more attackers than defenders, and attacking won’t weaken your position, be Captain Kirk. Attack! I suspect Spock would also launch an attack with more attackers than defenders with the prospect of weakening his opponent’s position while strengthening his. He’d say it was the logical thing to do!

The point here is that playing good chess requires being able to balance principled play with the ability to think outside of the box, the box being the game’s principles. Kirk did a great job thinking outside of the box when he cracked the Kobayashi Maru, a supposedly unbeatable Starfleet Academy training exercise. Had he only employed principles in his thinking he’d never have succeeded. A good chess player has to be both Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. As for Mr. Spock and Paul Morphy going head to head on the chessboard, I suspect it would close but in the end Morphy would probably get the best of “that pointy eared Vulcan.” Live long and prosper. For any non Star Trek fans reading this, I promise I won’t mention Star Trek again for at least a year. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Weak Squares

If you ever have a desire to create an instantaneous atmosphere of depression in a room full of eager chess students, say the following: “No matter how good a move seems, there is always a negative side to that move that has the potential to undermine your position.” That will instantly wipe the smiles off their collective faces, leaving you with a room full of students demanding to know how this could be possible. My students tend to groan after hearing such a statement but give it careful thought because they’ve seen a few of my lecture games in which this very idea occurs. If I was new to chess, I might wring my hands in despair upon hearing such a statement and consider a career in checkers, but you should read further.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all moves will lead to dreadful positional problems. What it does mean is that you should examine the square you’re moving a pawn or piece off of before examining the square that pawn or piece is about to occupy.

A chess move can be likened to a coin, which obviously has two sides. When we pick up a coin, we examine both sides if for no other reason than to see what is etched on either face. If beginners would only take this approach when considering a move! The beginner tends to look only at the square the pawn or piece is moving to which can lead to positional problems. Even if the beginner carefully examines the square a piece is about to move to, taking into consideration possible opposition attacks against that piece, noting if the piece will increase it’s activity or seeing a potential capture or increase of attacking possibilities, they still ignore a key factor. That key factor is the weakness created upon moving that piece from the square it was on, the square you leave behind. This applies to both pawns and pieces.

One idea I teach my students early on is that you shouldn’t capture material if doing so weakens your position. The employment of this concept alone will go a long way towards improving your game. By capturing not for the sake of capturing but to increase the strength of your position, you avoid creating weaknesses within that position, but it isn’t enough. You have to take another step and that step is to carefully examine the square you leave behind when making any move.

I first became aware of “the square you leave behind” concept while watching a DVD by Grandmaster Maurice Ashley. When he discussed this concept I was honestly shocked because I realized that I was paying more attention to the square I was moving to and almost no attention to the square I moved from. The square you leave behind is the square vacated by a pawn or piece when you make a move. Even though I’m a full time chess teacher and coach, I’ll forever be a student of the game and this astounding idea of the square you leave behind left me feeling as if I’d been punched in the stomach. How could I miss this concept in my own training? Needless to say, I took note and started employing Grandmaster Maurice Ashley’s method of looking at a potential move. Here’s how you can employ this method: When considering a move, you obviously want to look at your opponent’s pawns and pieces to see if they control the square you want to occupy. If the square is controlled by opposition pawns and/or pieces, do you have a greater number of pawns and/or pieces also controlling that square? If you have a larger number of forces controlling the target square, next consider how moving to that square will affect your position. This is where it is absolutely critical to look at the square you’re leaving behind, the square that will be vacated by you pawn or piece when it moves. Take a look at the example below.

After 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6, 3. Bc4…Nd4, Black has moved the same piece twice during the opening phase of the game. This is something beginners are taught not to do, moving the same piece twice before developing the majority of their material during the opening. Remember, the opening is a race to see who gets control of the board’s center first. The beginner playing the White pieces sees that the pawn on e5 is hanging and his Knight on f3 is under attack by Black’s d5 Knight. The beginner weighs his or her options and decides to preserve the King-side Knight by capturing the undefended e5 pawn. Not once, did the beginner consider the square the White Knight gives up, f3. After White plays 4. Nxe5, Black plays 4…Qg5, forking the Knight on e5 and the pawn on g2. By moving the Knight off of the f3 square, White has weakened the position greatly. The person playing White should have considered the square left behind, f3, and the squares defended by the Knight on f3, the h4 and g5 squares. Always consider the square you leave behind before considering the square you’re moving to. Take a look at the next example from a student game (both beginners).

Here, White plays the King’s Gambit, 1. e4…e5, 2. f4. Rather than accepting the gambit with 2…exf4 (followed by 3. Nf3), Black plays 2…Bc5. White plays 3. d3 (allowing the Bishop on c1 to defend the pawn on f4 – dreadful business), failing to notice the weakness on f2. When discussing this weakness with my beginning students, they often comment that there are no pawns or pieces on f2 so what is the weakness? A pawn on f2 forms a wall with the pawns on g2 and h2 that help protect the White King when castling on the King-side. That pawn, once on f2, is now on f4. Furthermore, the Bishop on c5 is controlling the f2 square and more importantly, the g1 square. White will not be able to castle on the King-side, since you cannot castle into check, as long as the Black Bishop remains on c5. Again, we must look at the square we leave behind when considering a move. Of course, that Bishop can be dislodged from c5 but that requires additional work on the part of the person playing White which means expending additional moves to do so (a loss in tempo). This example is extremely simplified but the idea behind it still remains true, examine the square you leave behind before making a move.

Of course, there are times when you have to move a pawn or piece and doing so will weaken your position to varying degrees. You will find a downside to any move you make. However, you can minimize that downside by weighing the positive and negative aspects of that move and determining whether the positive outweighs the negative. Just carefully examining the square left behind will go a long way towards helping you avoid the positional nightmare that comes from only looking at one side of the coin. Yes, a chess move is like a coin in that it has two sides. You must look at both. In chess, looking at the square you abandon with a critical eye will before examining the square you’re going to will help you avoid heartache and checkmate! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. See if you can find any weak squares left behind!

Hugh Patterson

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Burn’s Right

“He who combinates is lost.” I have a vague memory, many years ago, of seeing this attributed to Amos Burn, but have never been able to track it down. Google only comes up with an old Addicts’ Corner column on a very old Richmond Junior Club website, which, for some reason, still exists out there in cyberspace, in which we asked for help on this subject.

As someone who has never been very good at combinating this has always had a lot of resonance for me. My experience is that more games are lost by unsound than are won by sound combinations and sacrifices. And then there are all the combinations and sacrifices you consider and, usually correctly, reject.

As teachers and writers, though, we like to demonstrate games which are won by brilliant combinations. There are all sorts of valid reasons why we should do this, but, at the same time, kids often get the wrong idea of chess: that all sacrifices work and that making sacrifices is the usual way to win a game. Therefore they often go round making random sacrifices without having worked anything out.

There are essentially two types of sacrifice. We might sacrifice because we’ve calculated that we can force checkmate or win back the sacrificed material, probably with interest. If we’ve miscalculated, though, we’ll just find ourselves behind on material and looking foolish.

We might also make a positional sacrifice, giving up material because using our judgement and experience, we believe the strong position we get in return is more than worth the material investment. To play the first type of sacrifice just involves the ability to calculate, but positional sacrifices require more abstract considerations, which are difficult for young children.

When Morphy was playing the Aristocratic Allies in the Opera House he made a positional sacrifice of a knight for two pawns to gain a strong position, and he was entirely justified in doing so. At the end of the game he sacrificed his queen because he had performed an accurate calculation and worked out that by doing so he would force checkmate.

Let’s see what happened to a few guys who got it wrong.

Our first example shows an unsound positional sacrifice. Black, observing that White had left his king in the centre and advanced some king-side pawns, decided to play a random sacrifice of a bishop for two pawns on g4. It didn’t work out well for him, though, and, although White didn’t play optimally and he had some drawing chances at one point, he eventually lost the game some 50 moves later. Don’t try this at home, kids. if you go round doing this sort of thing you’ll lose far more games than you’ll win.

In this position White saw the opportunity for a rook sacrifice leading to checkmate and played 1. Rd7 Qxd7 2. f6, hoping that Black wouldn’t be able to find a defence to Rg7+. But he was mistaken as Black had two ways to meet the threat. He could just have played Rxf6, returning the rook, when White has no mate and the black a-pawn will soon decide the game in his favour. Instead he played 2… Qd1+ 3. Qxd1 Kxg6, which was even better. He now had two rooks for his queen, White had no attack at all, and his a-pawn was going through. White’s rook sacrifice just made him look extremely foolish. This is what happens if you miscalculate. Get it right. Every time.

In our final example White had already made a random rook sacrifice to reach a totally wild position. He should have tried Bd2, which would have given him some practical chances but instead sacrificed another piece with 1. Ng6 Nxg6 2. Qxf5, hoping that Black wouldn’t be able to meet the threats to his knight and king. But again he’d failed to calculate accurately and after 2… Ne7 3. Qf7+ Kd8 Black’s king was perfectly safe and White had nothing to show for his missing pieces.

I’ll repeat this again and again, kids. You really have to learn to calculate accurately if you want to be good at chess. You can’t just make random sacrifices and hope for the best.

I think you’ll agree that the three losers in these games played pretty badly. But who were they? Were the games played in some fairly low level junior tournament, or in one of the lower sections of a weekend congress?

Far from it. If you follow top level chess you’ll probably have recognised the positions. They all came from rounds 3 and 4 of the recently concluded Grenke Chess Classic played in Baden Baden, Germany. The first example was World Champion Magnus Carlsen losing to Arkadij Naiditsch after punting a rather dubious positional sacrifice. The second example saw Carlsen the beneficiary of a miscalculation by former World Champion Vishy Anand, who, to be fair, had probably switched to desperation mode after losing his a-pawn while trying to build up a king-side attack. The third example was played by the only slightly less stellar David Baramidze, who, rated a long way below the other competitors, decided to go for broke and went wrong in an extremely complex position giving Naiditsch another victory.

If players of that level can misjudge or miscalculate perhaps Amos was right and he who combinates, more often than not, is lost. Or maybe chess is just too hard for mere humans. But let’s get the right message across to our pupils: 90% of the time that sacrifice you’re considering is really not going to work.

Richard James

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Confessions of a Self Learner

Teaching and coaching chess, my own game improves steadily. However, I put a minimum of two to three hours a day into studying chess because I practice what I preach, which is the idea that getting better at chess requires hard work. If you want to become a better chess player you have to roll up your sleeves and take action. Thinking about improving your own game does no good unless you actually do something such as studying. Action, in this case, is the act of creating a plan of improvement and following it.

I must confess that I can be the world’s laziest person when it comes to things I don’t want to do. My weed covered backyard attests to this fact! However, when I love something, I throw myself into it full throttle. Yet even my great love of chess doesn’t completely stop laziness from rearing it’s ugly head from time to time. I have to maintain self discipline to get through it and self discipline takes time to develop. Here’s my typical training day.

I start my day with a series of tactical mate in one exercises using a software program on my laptop. Typically, I’ll do sixty problems while having my first cup of coffee at 6:00 am. I prefer exercises that require me to look at the entire chessboard which helps improve my board vision. One tip I would offer in solving these problems is to look at all your pawns and pieces to determine which of them cover the enemy King’s escape squares. These pawns and pieces should remain where they are, leaving you to find the pawn or piece that can move and deliver checkmate. Approaching mate in one problems this way will help you avoid missing potential checkmates in your own games. You’d be surprised at how many potential checkmates players miss. Checkmate exercises help reduce the number of missed opportunities.

Once my brain is warmed up, it’s time to play a few games of Blitz against the computer. I start with a few Blitz games because I have commitments in the morning and often don’t have enough time to play an hour long game. I use my laptop’s chess program as an opponent. Blitz games that are five to ten minutes long are a good way to check your instinctual play. By instinctual, I mean testing out what you have retained in your memory (opening principles, tactics, etc). Blitz helps me play more aggressively and less defensively.

Because I have breaks throughout my teaching day, I often have thirty minute blocks of time to fill. This is when I study openings. I use an chess Ebook app on my tablet that has a small built in board so I can play through specific openings while reading the book. Teaching requires that I know quite a few openings so these thirty minute blocks of study time allow me to keep up with the numerous openings my students play. When I study openings, I approach them from the standpoint of how I would play against them. I take this approach because too often, we plod through the opening moves mechanically, looking at the opening from the viewpoint of the side the opening is designed for. We tend to pay just a little less attention to the opposition’s response. Paying just a little less attention can be disastrous when you use that opening in a game and don’t remember what the best opposition move was in a given position. When you look at an opening, say the Ruy Lopez for example, from Black’s perspective you not only learn more about White’s moves but Black’s critical responses as well. Openings are a two sided affair, so look at both sides, especially opposition responses.

During my classes, I make a point of playing as many students as possible. What I love about playing my students is their unpredictability. My students have been known to make some unorthodox but reasonable moves during our games. This gives me a chance to explore responses to those moves, forcing me to think outside of the box. While we learn chess in a somewhat mechanical fashion, purely mechanical thinking will lead to lost games. Learning how to deal with the unexpected will go a long way towards improving your play. Try non book/theory moves against the computer just to see what happens! You may get crushed but you might just find something interesting and useful. Be an explorer of the game!

After work, when I’m home in a quieter environment, I study the endgame. I have thirty minutes dedicated to this. Endgame studies require developing the ability to see many moves ahead which requires concentration. I tend to concentrate best in my office so that’s where I do my endgame work. I use software training programs and work through the positions very slowly. These are not mate in one problems, but mate in four, five and six moves. This means you have to take your time. Fewer pieces on the board means that the tables can turn on you very quickly if you lose a piece or even a single pawn. Endgame problems are a matter of quality over quantity.

After dinner I play a longer game against my computer, using what I’ve learned that day. It is during these games that I work on my middle game skills. What I’ve found in my studies is that we should start our middle game by building up small advantages rather than aiming for one large tide turning advantage such as a quick mating attack. Small advantages, when put together, make a large advantage. Because this large advantage is made up of smaller individual components, it will be more difficult for your opponent to thwart that overall advantage. Piece activity is a key consideration. The question you should ask yourself is whether or not your pieces are on their most active squares. Tactical combinations appear only when pieces are fully active!

The crucial aspect to self learning is getting into the habit of daily study. Like physical exercise, you have to do it regularly and not sporadically. If you do a little work every day, you’ll not only improve but be more apt to sit down and get to work on a daily basis without grumbling. I am fortunate in that I have a great deal of time to study chess. However, you may not. This means that you should put in a reasonable amount of time into your studies based on your schedule. To determine how much time you can put into your chess studies, take a look at your daily schedule and see if there is any down time, such as having to wait for a bus or train. If you have to wait for twenty minutes until your bus or train arrives, use that time to study. Sitting down for an hour at a time might seem a bit daunting. However, if you break it up into three twenty minute sessions, it may seem a bit more palatable. Use the time in between daily activities to improve your chess.

Sometimes you might not feel like studying chess. There’s nothing wrong with this. We all need a break now and again. In fact, I’d say taking time away from your studies can be good thing. Just make sure that you don’t stay away too long. Burn out is an occupational hazard so walk away when you need to. Remember, in chess, as in life, you get out of it what you put into it. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Teaching Kids the Ruy Lopez (5)

Returning to my series of articles on introducing kids to the Ruy Lopez, let’s start with the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4.

What could be more natural or logical than playing 4… b5, driving the bishop back again and negating the potential pin on the a4-e8 diagonal? Children are more interested in creating threats than putting pieces on good squares, and, at low levels, you’ll win a lot of games because your opponent doesn’t notice your threats.

You won’t read a lot about this sequence in openings books, though, because it’s not popular with stronger players, and on the rare occasions they play it they follow up with Na5, immediately trading off the white bishop at the cost of a tempo. Mamedyarov, Morozovich and Agdestein have all started this way a few times, when play usually continues 5. 0-0 d6 6. d4.

It’s very natural again, though, especially for children who are probably more familiar with the Italian than the Spanish, to continue with a developing move like Bc5 or Nf6 just as they would after 3. Bc4. The position might look similar but the analysis is very different. If you’re playing chess at lower levels, particularly in junior tournaments, though, it’s good to know what’s happening.

By and large, the differences favour White, mainly because the bishop is safer from immediate attack on b3 than it is on c4.

Let’s take a closer look.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 b5 5. Bb3 Bc5 as in the Giuoco Piano.

The first point is that White can play, if he chooses, the Fork Trick with 6. Nxe5. You can’t do this in the Giuoco Piano, of course (although kids sometimes try) because 6… Nxe5 will hit the bishop on c4 and you’re not going to get the piece back.

Alternatively, White can continue in Italian fashion with 6. c3 Nf6 7. d4 exd4. We have two strong options here. 8. cxd4 Bb4+ 9. Bd2 Bxd2 10. Nbxd2 is very pleasant for White. In Italy Black can equalise with d5 hitting the bishop on c4, but in Spain we can meet d5 with e5 giving us a nice space advantage. We could also choose 8. e5, which again is well met by d5 in Italy, while in Spain Black has to move his knight to an awkward square.

So perhaps Black should play Nf6 instead. The stats favour White in many of these variations, mainly because a lot of the games feature stronger players beating weaker players, but the engines seem to think Black’s position is not unreasonable.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 a6 4. Ba4 b5 5. Bb3 Nf6. Many kids like to play Ng5, going for the Fried Liver Attack. After 6. Ng5 d5 7. exd5 Nxd5 8. Nxf7 seems even stronger for White than the Fried Liver proper, but Black can do much better with 7… Nd4 to trade off the bishop when necessary. Regular readers will be aware than in Italy Nd4 seems to give White a slight advantage if he knows what he’s doing, but in Spain it’s absolutely fine for Black.

Instead, White might want to try 6. d4 here. The engines seem happy with d6 or Nxd4 for Black. 6… d6 seems rather passive but 6… Nxd4 leads to interesting complications. White plays 7. Nxd4 exd4 8. e5 and Black has to give up his knight because of tactics with Qf3 or Qd5. Instead he can play the strange looking computer move 7… c5, trapping the bishop with c4 when the knight moves away. 7. Bxf7+ has also been played, which looks scary to me but not to the engines.

If Black knows the Two Knights Defence, though, he’ll probably play the Italian move 6… exd4. Now White, as in the line above, can play 7. e5 as d5 is not an option for Black. Black is quite likely to play Ne4 when either O-O or the immediate Bd5 are possible for White. We’re now in a position which can arise from a variety of move orders. For some idea of White’s prospects in this sort of position, consider the following short game in which a strong player suffers a painful defeat.

There are one or two loose ends which I may or may not tie up later. One of the ideas of this series of posts was to make the point that most opening books are written by and for very strong players. They have little relevance for those of us playing club standard chess and no relevance at all for kids just starting out in competitive chess. Opening books for kids should be based on what happens in kids’ games, not what happens in grandmaster games. I’ve been asked many times to recommend a good opening book for kids at this level. My answer has always been the same: I haven’t written it yet, but at least I’m now working on it.

Richard James

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Teaching Kids the Ruy Lopez (4)

Today we’re going to look at two important and interrelated tactical ideas which can arise from the Ruy Lopez. One of the ideas is a way for White to win material, while the other idea will win material for Black.

Suppose Black decides to chase the white bishop back with a6 and b5. Black will often do this straight away in kiddie chess. Kiddie players love to create threats in case their opponent doesn’t notice. Now if Black plays d6 there are some potential white square weaknesses around the d5 square. If Black plays Nxe4 a bishop move to d5 might fork the knights on e4 and c6, or, if the knight on c6 has moved away, the knight on e4 and the rook on a8.

Better still, a queen landing on d5 might also threaten mate on f7, backed up by the bishop on b3.

Let’s have a look at a few games to see how this works out in practice.

In our first game Black defends weakly against the Fork Trick. 8… Bd6 would also have failed because of the Qd5 idea: he should have played 8… Bxd4 instead.

Playing natural developing moves doesn’t mean you won’t lose quickly if you’re not careful. Black had to play the ugly 8… Bd6 instead. Note that if 10… Ng4 to defend f7, White just takes it off.

Black, who from his rating isn’t a bad player, comes up with a losing 6th move. He should either take on d4 or play d6 instead of Be7. This just goes to show how devastating an early d4 can be against an unwary opponent.

Again, a player with a reasonable rating plays a careless move (any other capture on move 7 would have been OK) and this time Qd5 pins and skewers everything in sight.

Another Fork Trick where Black goes wrong very quickly. This time White finds a different target: a bishop on e5. Note that, as mentioned last week, in other Fork Trick lines (7…) Bd6 is often the best move but in the Ruy Lopez it usually leads to a quick disaster. Again he should have played Bxd4 instead.

In this game White manages a record-breaking quadruple queen fork.

A typical example of a position where White wins a piece by playing Bd5.

Now for the black trap. This is sometimes known as the Noah’s Ark Trap, allegedly because the trap is as old as Noah’s Ark.

What happens is this: White plays d4 (without c3). Black trades pawns and knights on d4, forcing White to take back with the queen. Black then kicks the queen with c5, followed by c4, trapping the bishop on b3.

Study this game very carefully, paying full attention to the notes, and you’ll see how it works. Both players have to look several moves ahead to see whether or not it’s going to work and recognising the patterns will help you do this. Estonian chess great Paul Keres, who won this game, was one of the strongest players never to become world champion.

Richard James

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Teaching Kids the Ruy Lopez (3)

Back to the Ruy Lopez this week.

We’ll start by travelling back 25 years to watch the 6-year-old Luke McShane in action. It was seeing his early games and results with this opening that first alerted me to the advantages of teaching the Ruy Lopez at a relatively early stage of children’s chess development.

In this game Black allows the familiar discovered check to win the black queen.

The second game features a less common idea: a rather unusual rook fork wins Luke another queen.

In this article we’re taking a break from 3… a6. It’s very natural, especially if Black is more used to facing Bc4, to play a simple developing move such as 3… Nf6 or 3… Bc5. Of course Nf6, the Berlin variation, is very popular at all levels at the moment, while Bc5, while not played so often at GM level, is a frequent guest in amateur events. Both, of course, are perfectly reasonable moves.

Against 3… Nf6, or indeed 3… Bc5, it’s not unreasonable to play, as Luke did, the immediate exchange. f6 is not necessarily the best square for the black knight in the exchange variation. Instead, though, I’d recommend White to play 4. O-O against either of these moves. Making the king safe and giving the rook access to e1 in case the e-file gets opened can’t be bad. What we’re not going to do is transpose into a Four Knights by playing Nc3 and d3.

Games at this level often go 3… Nf6 4. O-O a6 when White can trade on c6 and capture on e5, transposing into our article from two weeks ago. If you want to play a6 you have to do so on move 3, not on move 4. Every move we’re going to work out whether or not it’s safe to win the black e-pawn. Otherwise, we’re going to play a quick d4, not bothering too much if it loses a pawn, and, if the e-file is opened, put our rook on e1.

If they play 3… Bc5 instead we have a choice. We’re going to castle next and then we can, depending on Black’s reply, play c3 followed by d4 (and possibly d5 hitting the pinned knight) or go for the Fork Trick with Nxe5 followed by d4, using a pawn fork to regain the piece.

Let’s look at a few more short games to see how these ideas work out in practice and learn some tactical ideas.

See how easy it is to win a piece. In this game Black plays five obvious and natural moves – giving him a lost game. You see how strong the c3 and d4 idea can be against an opponent who plays Bc5. The only square for the bishop on move 6 is b6, which interferes with the b-pawn so Black cannot unpin with a6 followed by b5.

In this game we learn another important tactical idea. Black makes the mistake of playing 3… Nf6 4. O-O a6 and then allows a classic pawn fork. Pawn forks in the centre happen over and over again at this level. e5 will fork a bishop on d6 and a knight on f6 while d5 will fork a bishop on e6 and a knight on c6. Another typical tactical idea when Black has bishops on c5 and e6 is to play c3 and d4, hitting the bishop on c5, followed by the fork on d5.

Here White is successful with the fork trick. Bd6 is usually the right way to go in Italian fork trick positions but here it’s not good. Black’s 8th move just loses a piece and his 10th move just loses a king. 8… Bd6 would have saved the piece but left him way behind in development.

Finally for this week we return to Luke McShane to see how he handled the Berlin Defence as a GM. 5. d4 is more often played but Re1 is a simpler way of regaining the pawn which also contains a drop of poison.

Richard James

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Developing Focus

The best chess players in the world have a great ability to focus on a position, using this well honed skill (their ability to focus) to concentrate on finding the winning move. Seasoned players can maintain focus for extended periods of time. The beginner, on the other hand, has trouble staying focused for any length of time. The ability to maintain focus eludes even the most enthusiastic and obsessive chess novice. The ability to focus must be learned like anything else, making it a skill. Can the ability to focus really be considered a skill? Absolutely! Like any skill, it requires training and practice. Here are some ideas to help develop your ability to focus, most of which take place away from the chessboard.

First off, don’t confuse memory with focus. Many beginners think that having a well stocked chess memory will give them an advantage, which it does to some extent. However, unless you can focus on the position at hand, a head full of memorized chess positions does you little good. It’s as if you have the pieces of the puzzle in your hand but you can’t put them together because you mind cannot clearly see them as individual components of the puzzle. Lack of focus equates to fuzzy thinking.

We’ll start our exploration of focus with a loose definition. I’m not going to site the Oxford Dictionary for the definition of focus but instead, give you an example of the level of focus you want to achieve. When I was seventeen, I was sitting in my bedroom reading a book. Suddenly, I found myself in the story. Instead of sitting on my bed reading, I was in the scene described in the book. I could see the most minute details described by the author. In short, I was part of the story. This is an example of a momentary high degree of focus. I’ve had the same experience watching certain movies. While this moment is often fleeting, it serves as an example of the type of focus I want you to strive for. Don’t simply play the game externally, be part of the game internally. Be one with the game. Absolute focus allows you to do this.

A wise chess teacher said that when you sit down to play chess, you should leave your day to day thoughts off of the board and concentrate only on the game. While this is true, it is difficult to do, especially when you haven’t developed a strong ability to focus. While we can run away from external situations that distract us we cannot run away from the internal distractions, namely our own thoughts. So how can we develop our focusing skills?

Start by reducing your sugar and caffeine intake. Sugar and Caffeine, friend to many a chess player, may artificially raise your energy level, making you feel as if your brain is functioning at a higher level (greater focus), but what goes up must come down. Once the sugar or caffeine effects start to wear off, you crash, which means your ability to concentrate becomes weaker (less focus). Stick to healthy foods prior to playing chess. Get plenty of rest because a brain deprived of sleep is not conducive to good chess.

The environment in which you play is also important. Quiet environments are the best places to develop you focusing skills. Environments with the least amount of external distractions, such as computers, televisions, etc, give your thought process fewer avenues of escape. Ideally, an empty room with only a table, chairs and chess set would be the best choice. However, it is unrealistic to ask you to empty out an entire room in your home for such a purpose. Libraries are nice and quiet. So are churches! I have sat in the back of a well known church here in San Francisco to work on my game just for this reason. Even the Vicar approved of the idea once I explained my reasoning!

Of course, environmental controls are a small part of this equation. No matter how well suited the environment, you still have to deal with all those noisy thoughts rattling around in your brain. Consider the ability to focus as a circle whose diameter is constantly changing. The greater the circle’s diameter, the broader and less concentrated the focus. The smaller the diameter, the more concentrated the focus. Our goal, as chess players, is to narrow the circle of focus down to a circle so small it appears as a dot! The smaller the circle, the greater the focus.

If you walked in the door after a long day of work or school and immediately started playing chess, it would be somewhat difficult to instantly narrow your focus to only the events on the chessboard. Instead of immediately sitting down to play, try some simple exercises before playing. Start by employing some breathing exercises. Take twenty or so long deep breaths. Take your time. You’ll find that to do this correctly, you have to concentrate on your breathing. Guess what? Because you’re concentrating on your breathing above all else, you’re focusing and unclogging your thoughts a bit.

Next, play solitaire on your computer or better yet, with a real deck of cards for ten minutes. Seriously? This does two things. First, it allows your brain to wind down a bit and concentrate only on the card game, developing your focus and second, it helps you with your pattern recognition skills. I use simple card games with my students to foster these two skills and it has helped immensely.

The next suggestion I have is to sit at the chessboard, position your head so that only board takes up your complete field of vision, and look at each pawn and piece, silently naming the squares each of those pawns and pieces is on. The idea here is to get your focus aimed at the board!

For overall, general improvement of your focus, take up a physical activity if you’re not already involved in one. It can be any physical activity, such as golf, Tai Chi or even bird watching. Why such an activity? I like to bird watch. To get to many of the locations where the birds are at requires some walking. Walking is excellent exercise and exercise helps your brain function at a higher level. While exercise will not make you the next Einstein, it will help you increase your brain’s ability to function optimally. What does bird watching have to do with concentration? To identify a bird in the wild, you have to focus in on the bird’s size, shape, feather coloring, etc. These are all variations of pattern recognition. Because you generally have a very small time frame in which to identify the bird before it flies away, you have to focus your attention very quickly and maintain a high level of focus and concentration while identifying the bird. Learning to focus in small increments makes maintaining focus over a longer period a bit easier.

The point to all of this is simple: The better your focus, the more apt you are to find that winning move. Focus development techniques can be found in many of the things you do away from the chessboard. The more you do in the way of honing your ability to focus, the better your playing will be. Make a list of five things you do each day that help you with your focus. You should be able to come up with at least five. If not, find five things you can do to increase your focus. They can range from card playing to riding a bicycle. Get focused. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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