Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Some Tips on Chess Parenting

Having been a chess parent for eight years as well as a GM and coach, I thought I would offer a few tips on chess parenting. Despite my extensive background in the game itself I have been learning ‘on the job’ to a large extent. Richard James’s insights were very useful, certainly at the start, and I learned more by experience and watching other parents in action, both doing things well and making mistakes.

The first thing to understand is that when your kid becomes interested in chess then basically it’s their show. As I see it a parent’s job is to be quietly supportive in celebrating wins, commiserating with defeats and avoiding lectures or reprimands. It might be that you need to look after their interests now and then if you think they are being unfairly treated. But in this case you also need to listen to your child’s view on the situation.

The second big thing to consider is that becoming a good player and getting the most benefit from involvement with the game takes time and effort. A lot of it. In this our eight year I will be taking my son Sam to around 20 tournaments. He also works on chess at home, probably putting in around 8-10 hours a week on average. This is normal for anyone who takes up a musical instrument but many chess kids tend to do much less than that. As a result they may struggle to go from junior chess to fulfilling their potential, or even getting established in the adult game.

Number three is that they need coaching, and probably a lot of it unless they are autodidacts who can learn on their own. This is why so many of the young players who come through have a chess playing parent who can do the coaching ‘in house’, at least up to a certain level. For parents who can not play chess, or at least not well, they can try to organize enough homework for their kids to develop, or perhaps learn together with them. But I will not hide the fact that it is tough for parents who do not play, and they will need a lot of research and motivation to provide appropriate support.

Number four is that you should look for a genuine involvement with the chess scene rather than be day trippers. Parents who seem to be more successful often involve themselves with organization, providing transport to other players and making friends with those in the chess community. This is then rewarded at many different levels, not least of which is the fact that your kids will find it easier to make friends themselves.

There are other tips too but these are the four main ones that come to mind. Here meanwhile is an interview with a couple of tennis parents, Mr. and Mrs. Federer, who seem to be a perfect model:

Nigel Davies

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Finding a Great Chess Teacher

I was recently solicited by an online company specializing in finding students for private teachers. I told them I’d look at their website before considering a listing. What I found was amazing and appalling at the same time. I have never seen so many listings for chess teachers in my life. I decided to see how many chess teachers were in San Rafael, where I live. The town has a population of rough;y 50,000 and about 200 chess teachers. That sounds great for anyone wanting lessons here but there’s one small problem, the teacher’s qualifications. As with the small print in contracts, most people don’t bother to look at the details. In this case, the important detail is teaching experience. I started reading the profiles of these teachers and was a bit concerned about their actual ability to teach.

Some profiles stated “I have an online rating of 2346” or “I’ve been playing chess since 1982.” To someone with no knowledge regarding chess teachers, this information might be impressive. The first guy has a high rating so he must be good. The second guy’s been playing chess forever, so he must be great. Wrong! While everyone who plays chess has taught the game to others, that doesn’t make them great chess teachers. So what makes a great chess teacher?

There are three qualifications. First, you have to play chess reasonably well. By reasonably well, I mean you have to be able to successfully use what you teach in your own games. If you’re teaching students how to set up a tactical combination, you actually have to know how to create them. Merely showing examples from chess books isn’t good enough. You have to be able to look at a position in one of your student’s games and suggest a tactical option. This only happens if you’re good at tactics. While your chess teacher doesn’t have to be a titled player, they should be a strong club player at the least.

Second, you have to be able to explain complex ideas in the simplest of terms. The best chess teachers aren’t the best chess players in the world. However, they have the unique skill of simple communication. A good chess teacher will take a complex concept and create a simple analogy that easily conveys the idea to the student. This can only be done when the teacher really knows the subject matter. They know the subject matter because they’re good chess players. I’ve been teaching chess for a fair length of time and have built up a repertoire of explanations and analogies because often an explanation that works for one student makes little sense to another. The best teachers have plenty of experience and because of that, they know what works and what doesn’t. Look for teachers that have taught chess in a classroom environment because they tend to have more experience. The best are those teachers who work with kids because their explanations will be easy to understand. I make all my adult students use kid’s chess books when they start for this very reason.

Lastly, you have to be entertaining. That’s right, you have to be an entertainer of sorts. Otherwise, you’ll put your students to sleep. I’m willing to sit through the most boring chess lectures ever because I do this for a living and often pick up great explanations I can use. However, I wouldn’t expect someone learning the game to remain awake during such a lecture. You have to captivate your students to hold their interest. I did a chess lecture once that started with me standing on a table flinging chess pieces out into the audience with a golf club. People paid close attention to my lecture not because they were afraid they’d get hit with a flying chess piece but because I use a bit of humor during the lecture. Humor works wonders. Just keep it within the boundaries of semi-good taste. I once gave a lecture to a chess club and started with the line “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, the games of Bobby Fischer.” During Paul Morphy lessons I sometimes add the line “chess genius and women’s shoe fetishist or should I say, just your run of the mill chess master.” The point is to entertain people listening to me talk about chess. Even hardcore chess nuts like to be entertained.

The first two qualifications should be listed with the chess teacher’s information online. As for how entertaining a chess teacher is, either they throw some clever line in their advertisement or you find out after your fork out money for that first lesson. Speaking of money. Just because one teacher charges more than everyone else doesn’t mean they’re better than the rest. If the guy’s a Grandmaster, yes he’s going to charge more than other chess teachers. However, having a title doesn’t guarantee he’s a great teacher (Nigel being the exception). It only guarantees he’s really really good at chess.

Note how much time you get for your money. I do one or two hour sessions. All the teachers I’ve seen online advertise twenty and thirty minute blocks of time at twenty or thirty dollars each. I suspect they don’t want to tell you they charge sixty to ninety dollars an hour, fooling you with a lower rate instead. Don’t haggle over the price. If someone says “well, how about twenty dollars less per hour?” I reply with “ahhhh…..NO.” A good teacher is worth paying for. However, you have to do the research to find one. It’s like buying a car. You do research rather than buying a vehicle with no prior knowledge. As for the cheapest priced teacher in the group, don’t dismiss them and pick someone in the middle. Check their qualifications. They might charge a lower rate because they’re new teachers trying to get established. They might be the best teacher out there. Do your research.

While I teach my students to be self learners, they use me as a guide. That’s what a good teacher is, a guide who makes an otherwise complicated journey easy. A good teacher will be there for you when you get stuck, explaining what seemed incomprehensible. Speaking of teaching, I have to go teach a class so here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Tactics Training

The use of tactics can give the player who employs them a decisive advantage. While tactics won’t always guarantee a winning game, it will give you potential advantage, materially speaking. Beginners often purchase apps or books with simple tactical problems which is a good way to start their studies. However, those puzzles have the tactic already set up, so all the beginner has to do is spot a single move that delivers the tactical blow. In reality, all tactics are set us using a combination of moves. Creating the combination of move is the really hard part. How does the beginner learn how to do this?

By actually starting with those simple tactical problems in which the tactic is already set up. You have to first learn to recognize tactical patterns before you can consider creating the combinations needed to create a tactical position. Pattern recognition is key to playing good chess. With tactics, certain patterns arise that lead to a tactical exploit. With forks, pins and skewers, you look for enemy pieces lined up on the same rank, file or diagonal. This is the pattern you’re searching for. Doing simple tactics in one move problems, you’ll start to develop an eye for spotting this type of pattern. Do as many of these as you can before moving on to tactics in two move problems. You have to spot a tactical opportunity in order to take advantage of it.

The tactics in two move problems are better that the tactics in one problems because you have to set the tactic up. However, the beginner who has just spent months on the one move problems will have a hard time (at first) because the tactical exploit will require making a move to set it up. To solve these problems, first identify enemy pieces lined up on the same rank, file or diagonal. Next, look for a piece that can deliver the tactic. In two move problems, there’s often an enemy piece stopping you from reaching your goal, getting a piece to the square where it can deliver the tactic. Can you either exchange material to remove the piece or force that piece off of the square its on? What if there’s no enemy pieces line up with one another? Then, the first move in the two move problem has to force the alignment of enemy pieces.

With more complex tactical problems, you have to spend a great deal of time examining the position. Sometimes, you’ll see a move that looks good. However, you’re looking at your pieces and not considering what your opponent can do. Examine the enemy pieces, looking for checks and possible counter forks. If you see that your King can be hit with a nasty check, making sure your potential move is forcing. Also reexamine the enemy pieces around the square your planning on using to set up the tactic to ensure your piece can’t be captured before it delivers it’s tactical blow.

Once you work through enough of these it’s time to start setting up tactical combinations in an actual game. I recommend that beginners start learning how to do this by playing a computer program at a low skill setting. The reasoning for this is simple. Playing programs perform badly at lower levels. This level of poor play will allow you to set up your tactics and see them through. If you try this with a program set at it’s highest level, you’ll never get a single tactic in. Most playing programs are extremely good at tactics and at stopping them so the beginner stands no chance. It should be noted that this low playing level should only be used to develop your combination skills. Eventually you’ll want to increase the level of play as your tactical skills get better.

I highly recommend books of tactical problems. Visually solving problems by playing through the moves in your mind helps develop your calculation skills. With books, you can work on problems while commuting or waiting in line. The best books use positions from real games and often present the tactic within a series of five or six moves. You get to see the full combination (of moves) and learn how to do deeper calculations.

You’ll find that the tactical play of strong tacticians works because their moves are very forcing. A forcing move is one that leaves your opponent little choice in terms of a response. When you limit someone’s reaction, you can force them into making a move that supports your tactical exploit. To create forcing moves you have to come up with the best opposition response to the move your considering. This means playing the position as if you were controlling your opponent’s pieces. Look for any way your opponent can stop or avoid the tactic. If they cannot do so, you have your forcing move. If they can get out of it, it’s time to consider another move.

Becoming a strong tactician is a long journey but a necessary one. You must become good at tactics to play better chess. However, don’t solely rely on tactics to win games. While learning tactics, you should also be studying closed positions. Why? Because you’ll face an opponent who creates positions in which tactic can’t be used. If you only know how to gain an advantage tactically, you’ll flounder in a position in which tactics can’t be used. Remember, the best chess players are well rounded, good at all aspects of the game. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

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Too Much Opening Theory

How much opening theory does the average chess player really need to know? Certainly nowhere near the amount book publishers tell us we need to know. Before you opening theory purists start screaming “what does some aged, long in the tooth guitar player who spent most of his career in a Bacchus induced stupor know about opening theory,” let me remind you that I teach and train young players and specialize in their opening preparation. It’s primarily how I keep a roof over my family’s head. I have club level players who seek me out for opening preparation as well. Why? Because I know a fair amount regarding numerous openings and their variations. However, I only know as much as I know because I teach it. I certainly don’t need to know as much as I do to play decently and neither do my students.

The quest for opening knowledge has become a quest for some insane holy grail. I suspect if you actually knew all there was to know about openings and theory, it would be like the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where the bad guys open the Ark of the Covenant and subsequently melt. My advice? Don’t stare at the text or you’ll melt as well. I wish I had a rating point for every time someone trying to sell a book said “this is the opening that will change your game.” My rating would be over 3000. I was at a chess shop the other day, listening to a conversation between two chess players. “I’m buying that book because it covers everything on opening theory.” I struck up a conversation with the purchaser of the the book (close to 1,000 pages) and discover his rating is around 1300. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with his rating, only his choice of reading material. At a 1300 level, his book choice was above his skill set and mine, for that matter. Books that give you endless opening moves with little explanation don’t work unless you’re willing to figure out why the moves were made which is beyond the grasp of beginning players.

Too many players breeze through the underlying mechanics of opening play and get right into complex theory. They can recite the opening principles verbatim so they consider their studies of basic opening mechanics finished. This way of thinking is like being able to make a decent paper airplane and then deciding doing do gives you the ability to fly a jet fighter. You really need spend a lot of time working through the opening principles exhaustively and only then start to explore the more complex aspects of opening theory via specific openings. Here’s what I have my students:

Before learning a specific opening and some of it’s variations, my students do nothing but work on making moves that adhere to the opening principles. The moves don’t have to be “book” moves, simply moves that follow one of the principles. Of course, some of these principled moves lead to failure. When they do, my students have to figure out why. If a move is principled, why did it lead to a weakening of the position? I have my students play seemingly non principled moves which sometimes work. Why did they work? Were they actually principled moves that didn’t appear to be so? My students have to answer that question as well. The point of this is to explore the opening’s underlying mechanics and really learn why some principled moves work better than others. This means experimentation. When a beginning student naturally discovers the Italian Opening by making principled moves, I don’t tell them that’s the opening they’re playing.

Rather than refer to a book on opening theory, my students try a variety of moves during the opening. Everything should be considered, move-wise. The only rule to choosing a move is it must adhere to an opening principle. We work on this for months until students can consider a move and then opt for another because they know exactly why their first choice won’t work. They know it won’t work because they’ve tried it rather than being dissuaded by a book. They can determine the worth of a move based on principled play. This exercise also keeps them from playing too mechanically. Now we look at specific openings.

One benefit to the system I have my students use is that they start to get a feel for opening positions that work for them. When they crack open a general book on openings, they can more easily find an opening that they feel comfortable with, one that suits they developing style of play. I have them start by learning the mainline only. When the student sits down to play their opening choice in a friendly game against another student, they’re in for a rude awakening. I’ve provided their opponent, another student, with a series of moves to throw in that were not part of the mainline the student learned. Remember, all that business of trying out principled moves, etc? This is where that comes in handy. The student is suddenly forced into unfamiliar territory and must use principles to guide them. There’s a good reason for teaching opening theory this way.

By being hit with moves that are not in line with the mainline, the student has to come up with sound, principled moves on their own. More often than not, the student will come up with a move that is part of a variation. When they do learn the variation, later on, they’ll understand why the move was made as opposed to memorizing variation lines. It’s too easy to memorize openings and variations without understanding the real reasoning behind each move. Sure, you can say “hey, that move follows the opening principles, so that’s why it was made.” However, thinking like this is similar to memorizing all the parts of a car engine and not knowing how they work together to make the car move. If you know how all the parts work, you might just be able to determine why you car doesn’t start one cold rainy morning! Eventually, my students learn openings and variations using a book for reference, but only after they are comfortable with the underlying mechanics.

As for all those endless variations and books that tell you “you need to know these 12,375 moves to play the Ruy Lopez successfully.” Hogwash. If you’re an average player you can determine how much theory you need to know regarding a specific opening by talking to fellow chess players who play your opening. Ask them what variations they encounter. Go online and research the games of average players who play the same opening. Play through their games and see what they’ve had to deal with. In short, narrow it down to real life chess. By this, I mean games played by players just like you and a little stronger. I’m sure you play a great game of chess but do you really need the theoretical knowledge of Magnus Carlsen? Ah, no. At least not yet! Chess is supposed to be fun and it’s a game you’re supposed to be playing. Of course you should study some theory but if all you do is study, with little real play, you won’t get very far. Try moves out and when they fail, feel blessed because we learn most from our mistakes.

As a rule of thumb, any book on opening theory that is large enough to knock you out should it land on your head is probably a bit much for most players. Look for books that give written explanations. Lastly, don’t be a slave to your computer’s opening choices. Explore the uncharted waters of “out of book” moves during the opening. Of course, the majority of your choices will lead to disaster but you’ll learn a great deal about recovering from a bad opening position by doing so. You might even find an odd opening move that does some good. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Passed Pawns

Something I noticed many years ago looking at lower level junior games is that passed pawns in the ending are worth much more than at higher levels. Children will often panic and make unnecessary sacrifices instead of calmly working out how best to stop them.

One of my private pupils recently won an Under 9 tournament and had managed to record two of his games which he brought in to show me. His round 1 game, in which he had the white pieces, had several points of interest, two of which involved passed pawns.

Let’s take a look.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Bc4

Stop here! In lesson after lesson I tell my private pupils not to play this move order, partly because Black might reply with 4.. Nxe4. We often tell the Richmond Junior Club intermediate group the same thing. But every week, every tournament this is what they play. It’s what they know and feel comfortable with, and they don’t want to change. If they really want to play a Giuoco Pianissimo, I tell them, remember PNBPNB: e4, Nf3, Bc4, d3, Nc3, Bg5 in that order. But they never do it. Or, better still, learn a different opening. You’ll only make significant progress if you gain experience of playing different types of position. But most of them never do.

4.. Bc5 5. Ng5

Stop again! In lesson after lesson I tell my pupils not to play Ng5 in this sort of position if their opponent can castle. In lesson after lesson I explain why. But they still play it, hoping that their opponent will fail to see their threat. I guess the only answer is proactive parental involvement: going through their opening repertoire the evening before the event. In this game Black was strong enough to get the next few moves right.

5.. O-O 6. d3 h6 7. Nf3 d6 8. O-O Bd4

A position which has arisen quite often in low level games. On my database Black scores close to 75% after the normal 8.. Nd4 in this position, although White’s OK after either Be3 or h3. In this game, though, Black decides to trade his two bishops for the two white knights.

9. Be3 Bxc3 10. bxc3 Bg4 11. h3 Bxf3 12. Qxf3 a6 13. d4 exd4 14. cxd4 b5 15. Bd3 Nb4 16. e5 dxe5 17. dxe5 Nxd3 18. cxd3 Qxd3

The first blunder of the game. Two moves ago White played e5 to threaten the black knight. Black plays a couple of trades first, and then forgets that his knight is en prise. capturing a pawn instead. This is a very typical type of mistake at this level and age. Children will just look at the last piece that’s moved rather than the whole board, and, because their concentration is not very good, they will forget what happened a couple of moves ago if there have been some intermediate moves.

19. Bc5

White doesn’t notice, or possibly decides, mistakenly, that he’d rather win a rook than a knight.

19.. Qxf3 20. gxf3 Rfe8

Black sees the attack on the rook so moves it to safety. Now, finally, someone spots that the knight on f6 can be taken. 20.. Nd7 would have offered even chances: Black will have a pawn for the exchange and is quite likely to pick up another one in the near future.

21. exf6 Re5 22. Bd4 Re6 23. fxg7 Rg6+ 24. Kh1 Rd8

White should be winning now with his extra piece, but instead he makes an understandable (at this level) oversight.

25. Rad1

It’s natural to protect the bishop rather than moving it again, but now Black could have played Rgd6 (PIN AND WIN!), regaining the piece with a position that should be winning. White failed to ask himself the MAGIC QUESTION “If I play that move, what will my opponent do next?”, and Black failed to look for all forcing moves (use a CCTV to look at the board: looking for Checks, Captures and Threats leads to Victory), instead choosing to prepare to push his passed pawn.

25.. Rc8 26. Rg1 Rxg1+ 27. Rxg1 c5 28. Bc3 b4 29. Bd2 Rd8 30. Bxh6 c4 31. Bg5 Rc8 32. h4 c3 33. h5 Kxg7 34. h6+

34. Be7+ would have won one of the dangerous black pawns.

34.. Kh7 35. Rg4 c2 36. Rg1 f6 37. Bf4 Rd8

An inaccuracy, allowing White to get his rook behind his passed pawn. (RBBPP – Rooks Belong Behind Passed Pawns: the other day I lost a drawn ending by failing to follow my own advice, which I’ve been teaching for the past 45 years or so.)

38. Rg7+ Kh8 39. Kg2

Missing 39. Rc7 with an easy win.

39.. Rd4

White’s still winning, but has to play 40. Be3 Rc4 (otherwise 41. Rc7) 41. Bc1 here. You have to calculate accurately when your opponent has a passed pawn. Instead, White overlooks a tactic, which Black does well to notice.

40. Kg3 Rxf4 41. Kxf4

He doesn’t have to take the rook here: Rc7 is a drawn rook ending. At this level, though, they usually move first and think later.

41.. c1Q+ 42. Kf5 Qh1 43. Kg6 Qb1+ 44. Kxf6 a5 45. Rd7 Qb2+ 46. Kg6 Qc2+ 47. Kf6

White has some threats of mate or perpetual check as well as a passed pawn, but as long as Black calculates accurately he’ll win easily. For instance, 47.. Qxa2 48. Rd8+ when Black can either play 48.. Qg8 and win the pawn ending or 48.. Kh7 and run with his king. But instead he panics and returns his queen at the wrong time. Another recurring mistake at this age/level is to trade off the last pieces without calculating the pawn ending first. There’s a lot about this in CHESS ENDINGS FOR HEROES.

47.. Qh7 48. Rxh7+

No doubt played without thinking, as one does. At this level I’d expect nothing else, but White can gain a vital move by trading on g8 rather than h7: 48. Rd8+ Qg8 49. Rxg8+ Kxg8 50. Ke5 a4 51. Kd4 b3 52. axb3 axb3 53. Kc3 Kh7 54. Kxb3 Kxh6 55. Kc3 Kg5 56. Kd3 Kf4 57. Ke2 and White wins by a tempo.

48.. Kxh7 49. Ke5 Kxh6 50. Kd4 a4 51. Kd3

This loses a tempo, but shouldn’t affect the result: 51. Kc4 b3 52. axb3 axb3 53. Kxb3 Kg5 54. Kc3 Kf4 55. Kd2 Kxf3 and Black just gets back in time to draw.

51.. b3 52. axb3 a3

A fatal miscalculation. Instead 52.. axb3 is an immediate draw. Of course if White’s king was on e3 instead of d3 he’d have been quite correct. I’d guess he’d seen the idea before but chose the wrong moment to use it.

53. Kc2 a2 54. Kb2 a1=Q+ 55. Kxa1 and White had no trouble promoting a couple of pawns and checkmating his opponent.

A game with many mistakes which are very typical for young players at this level.

Richard James

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The Three Cs

There’s an excellent junior chess club in Oldham, Greater Manchester, called 3Cs, which stands, rather prosaically, for Children’s Chess Club.

If I were thinking of starting a children’s chess club and the name hadn’t already been taken I’d consider calling it 3Cs, but my three Cs would stand for something different.

I recently came across a blog post by a young English chess player and teacher, Chris Russell. As it happens, when Chris was a pupil at Norwich School my brother Michael taught him English, which might in part explain why the post is so well written.

Chris writes about the community of chess players:

“Chess is the way we have all chosen to engage with the world and the presence of others helps to give meaning to our journey. I have long ago stopped trying to explain why I spend time on chess to those who don’t. I used to be met with creative variations of “what’s the point?” and never really had a satisfactory answer. Nowadays, I think it is a broader question of networking, support, interest and motivation.”

Chess is the way I’ve chosen to engage with the world, as well. We all need to be part of communities: it’s what makes us human. We can’t always choose our family or our workmates. Sometimes we need to escape and be part of a community of our choice. For some it will be the local pub, or perhaps a place of worship. For others it will be a club or society where they can meet other people with a common interest, people who see the world the same way as they do. Communities of this nature are, by and large, struggling at the moment. Pubs are closing, church congregations are declining, chess clubs are finding it hard to survive. Younger people are spending more time engaging with the world via screens rather than in person. You might, as I do, find this sad. Of course virtual communities also have their benefits: there are communities of those who play chess online, those who discuss various aspects of chess on social media.

So there’s one of my Cs: COMMUNITY.

For many members of the chess community, the main point of chess is to be able to test your skill against other people. Most children and young people enjoy any form of competition, as, of course, do many older people. Competition fulfils a lot of basic human needs. As a society we’re pretty good at promoting physical competition through a wide variety of sports, but less good at promoting mental competition. We should be promoting chess, as well as bridge and other brain games, as outlets for young people’s competitive instincts.

My second C, then, is COMPETITION.

Beyond community and competition, I believe that chess has a cultural significance. Not to the same extent as literature, art and music, of course, but it’s still there. Aesthetic beauty is an inherent part of chess. There’s beauty in a brilliant sacrificial attack, and a very different type of beauty in a subtle ending. Most of us might only dream of playing like that, but at least we can appreciate the artistry of others. There are also specific areas of chess devoted to beauty as opposed to direct competition: the worlds of chess problems and endgame studies, which themselves also include competitions both for solving and for composing. This is only part of the cultural significance of chess. There’s the whole iconography of chess: the beauty of chess pieces of different designs and in different materials, the use of chess in art and literature. I’m very much in favour of introducing children to great music, great art and great literature, and, for this reason I want to introduce children to chess.

My final C: CULTURE.

If chess makes my pupils smarter as well, then so much the better. If they become grandmasters, I’ll be thrilled. But what I really want to give them is COMMUNITY, COMPETITION and CULTURE. These are three basic human needs: to belong, to compete, and to appreciate beauty. Chess can offer all three.

Richard James

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The Silicon Beast

While playing human opponents is the best way to improve your game, not everyone has the time to go down to your local chess club and play. San Francisco has the oldest chess club in the country, the Mechanic’s Institute. The place is amazing, except for one thing, parking! I really don’t enjoy getting into a fistfight with an eighty seven year old woman over the city’s last available downtown parking space. The first time she beat me up, I thought it mere luck. The third time, I realized I was a wimp. While this didn’t really happen (well, once when I was seventeen), it serves to illustrate a point, sometimes you just can’t make playing at a chess club a reality. This is where chess software comes in handy. I’ve been training for a series of corresponding matches and over the board (OTB) tournaments this summer and my sparing partner has been Fritz and Houdini.

I happen to reread a wonderful book by Andrew Soltis, titled Studying Chess Made Easy. Any student of the game should have this book. As much as I’d like to claim the following thoughts as my own, they come from this brilliant book. These thoughts regard how you should set up your software program as an opponent.

Training starts with investing in a real chess playing program. While there are a plethora of chess apps available, most of them aren’t very good. Those free chess apps you can download for your tablet tend to play poorly with Stockfish being the exception. The problem with Stockfish is that it plays too well for beginners and intermediate players. This is where programs like Fritz and Houdini come in. Both give you the ability to find a level that works for you.

You want the program to be playing at a slightly higher level than your rating. If your rating is 1200, try playing against the program set at 1400. If you don’t know your rating or you’re new to chess, try playing the program at it’s lowest level. If you win easily, adjust the rating to a higher level. Repeat the process until the program’s play becomes challenging. When you find the ideal playing level, you should be winning 25% of your games against the machine, not 100% of the games. When you start winning 50% of your games against the computer, crank the program’s rating up a notch. Note that as your rating rises and you set the program’s rating higher, you need to do so in smaller increments.

Soltis makes a great suggestion regarding bad positions. If you end up with a bad position, don’t resign. Instead, switch sides, taking over the program’s position. Then see if you can take advantage of that better position. How do you know your position’s bad? Besides the feeling of dread in your stomach, you can check the evaluation function. It’s found in a window in the lower right-hand corner of the program’s GUI. If the function says -1.00, it’s time to switch sides. Note what makes the program’s position better and determine where you went wrong before continuing the game. The program is a training tool and this is part of the training. Save all your games for future study.

Limit your use of the redo or undo option, that little button that allows you to take a move back. I recommend two or three take backs per game. However, you need to fully understand why your move was bad when you take it back. Obviously, the computer shows you but there’s more to it. You need to go a few moves back and see if a previous move created the problem. Research the problem, don’t simply move on. I have a special rule regarding take backs. If I take back a move, I cannot take back the new move I make. This forces me to really look at the position in greater detail. Of course, if you’re a beginner, it’s going to be hard to analyze a position in detail. Therefore, beginners can use the blunder alert aka “coach is watching” option. This will cause the program to let you know you’ve made a bad decision and let you take back the move. It won’t tell you what move you should make, just that your move is not so great.

I encourage you to try out crazy ideas against the computer. It’s not like the program is going to tell you your out of your mind (well, Fritz might). Try a strange move and see what happens. Use the program to explore ideas. Learning comes from exploration. When beginners first start playing, they make wild moves and try things more advanced players wouldn’t consider. I love playing against my students for this very reason. Not because I’m going to punish them for a weird move but because that weird move forces me to look at the position differently. As beginners improve, they start becoming card carrying members of The Church of Opening Theory. They play book moves and stop taking chances. You know all those guys that have openings and variations named after them. They took chances. Don’t go crazy playing unorthodox moves but do some exploring. Use all the training tools that come with the program.

Chess programs have come a long way and have become much better at playing chess. Opening and endgame play by the program has greatly improved, although I do the greatest damage to Fritz in the endgame. Speaking of which, beginners need to improve their endgame play. Set up endgame positions found in books and play them against the program. You can do the same with middle-game positions. However, be careful when trying to employ tactics against the computer. The computer is a master tactician. If it let’s you execute a fork, for example, be assured it will get that material back in a few moves. Nothing if life or chess is free. Use your chess program as a sparring partner but don’t neglect human play. Using the program’s two dimensional board constantly can throw your game off a bit when you sit down and play on a real board. You can remedy this by playing out your program game moves on a real chess set. Well, there you have it. Some quick advice on computer training. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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Tennison Gambit

One of my private pupils rushed in excitedly to tell me he’d discovered an amazing new opening: he always wins whenever he plays it.

I asked him the name of the opening. “The Tennison Gambit”, he replied.

The what? Unless you’re an expert in obscure gambits you could be forgiven for not knowing what he was talking about.

First of all, it’s nothing at all to do with Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Tennyson the poet was appointed President of the revived British Chess Association in 1883: I guess they were looking for a big name, and in 1883 celebrities didn’t come much bigger than Tennyson. His actual interest in chess, though, seems to have been fairly peripheral, although back in 1862 his 8-year-old son Lionel played chess against Lewis Carroll. I imagine his dad taught him the moves. History doesn’t record whether or not young Lionel played the Tennison Gambit.

So what is the Tennison Gambit? It’s named after the Danish born American amateur Otto Mandrup Tennison (1834–1909) and starts 1. Nf3 d5 2. e4 (or, if you prefer, 1. e4 d5 2. Nf3).

Here’s a game he played in 1891:

1. Nf3 d5 2. e4 dxe4 3. Ng5 f5 4. Bc4 Nh6 5. Nxh7 Rxh7 6. Qh5+ Kd7 7. Qg6 Rh8 8. Be6+ Kc6 9. Bxc8+ Qd6 10. Qe8+ Kb6 11. Qa4 when Black, rather prematurely, resigned instead of trying to struggle on with 11.. Nc6.

How did my pupil discover this opening? It seems like he read somewhere that 1. Nf3 was the Réti Opening, and, under the misapprehension that the idea of the move was to transpose into a king’s pawn opening, decided to try it out. He played a game online starting 1. Nf3 d5 2. e4, which he won. The computer informed him he was playing the Tennison Gambit, and, because he won the game and he knew 1. Nf3 was popular, he assumed this gambit was both popular and strong. He also told me that after 1. Nf3 e5 he’d play 2. e4, transposing into what he knows. “What about playing 2. Nxe5 instead?”, I asked, but he didn’t seem interested. So his idea was that 1. Nf3 is a great move because after 1.. e5 you transpose, but if Black errs with 1.. d5 you play the brilliant Tennison Gambit.

Is the Tennison Gambit any good? It looks like you’re playing a reverse Budapest with an extra move, and the Budapest is certainly playable for Black, at least at club level. But if you stop and think about it you’ll realise that, if you play the Budapest with Black you’re doing to because you think you can take advantage of White’s c4 by playing Bb4+ at some point. The Tennison Gambit doesn’t give you this option.

So, in a word, no, it’s not any good. You’re just giving up a pawn for next to nothing. But if you google ‘Tennison Gambit’ you’ll come across a few videos like this. To save you the trouble of watching, you’re advised to play these moves:

1. e4 d5 2. Nf3 (if you really want to play the Tennison Gambit you’re more likely to get it after 1. Nf3 than 1. e4) 2.. dxe4 3. Ng5 Nf6 (3.. Bf5, which, according to the video, ‘doesn’t look right’, is more accurate while 3.. e5 is another option) 4. d3 (4. Bc4 is probably a better move, when White has some initiative) 4.. exd3 5. Bxd3 h6 (White isn’t actually threatening anything so something like 5.. Nc6 leaves White with little to show for the missing pawn) 6. Nxf7 Kxf7 7. Bg6+ winning the black queen. You may well recognise this, with colours reversed, as a familiar trap in the Budapest. How many times have the moves in this game occurred in my 7 million game database? A big fat zero.

You see why so many kids tell me about the ‘secret opening tricks’ they’ve learnt: this is one of a whole series of videos by the same presenter. Even some otherwise reputable sources have their fair share of videos recommending dodgy opening traps (don’t get me started on the Fishing Pole Trap). If you look at the comments you’ll soon discover that there must be millions of players worldwide who have been taken in by this sort of thing and think the idea of the opening is to memorise traps and spring them on unwary opponents. Facebook groups concerning chess books and chess teachers are bombarded with requests for recommended books and lessons about opening traps.

In this case, no harm was done and some important lessons were learnt. Misunderstandings are an important learning tool, as long as you have a teacher who can put you right. I wonder how many novices, misled by the seductive idea of opening traps, fail to make progress and eventually give up because they have the wrong idea about what you’re supposed to do at the start of the game.

Richard James

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Girl Power 2018

“Everyone has the impulse to be elite”
Alfre Woodard

GM Susan Polgar has been doing incredible work to promote girls chess. This past Saturday we ran our provincial final, qualifying our top girl to the 15th edition of Susan Polgar Foundation Girls Invitational in St. Louis, Missouri. Chess is officially still considered a barbeque side activity in Canada and this is astonishing because we have great talents. I think they keep me and us going. I mean you have to see how a student who walked in the door a while ago comes up with this decent looking plan or combination. To each our own goals. We cannot be all World Champions even if we dream about it. That does not mean we don’t win our personal World Championship every now and then. I guess this is the beauty for us mortals; we win them more than once in our own way. Below is a selection of 3 World Championships won by our girls that day.

Sample #1
Imagine white has won two pawns in the opening, followed by massive exchanges leading into a rook and pawn endgame. The last Black pawn if you can believe it was at some point on f6, hopelessly blocked by an f4-pawn. White gave up the f4-pawn for the a6-pawn a first bad idea, but who could blame her? The endgame was so won, it could almost play itself out. Almost is never good enough and somehow that hopeless pawn reached f3. That is determination you know! Black could simply not be stopped. Do you believe if I told you she learned chess 3 years ago?

Sample #2
Round 2 decided the winner. It was not an easy game for black (the top rated player in the tournament) up to this point. She was under pressure with not a lot of space around. Luckily she reached this position. What happened next is an endgame played in true Capablanca style after rejecting the draw offer with confidence.

Sample #3
No report is worth its value without some tactical fireworks. This was quite a boring game for a while. I guess the girls decided they had enough of that and brought out the guns. One other reason might have been Black running low on time so she had no choice but to do something about it. What followed is something I have not seen in years. Enjoy!

Valer Eugen Demian

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Unsound Sacrifices

It was the last week of term at the primary school chess club. The children had all completed their games the previous week and received their fluffy mascots. At the start of the session we handed out the Megafinal qualification forms to the lucky recipients and then moved onto the traditional end of term simul.

There were 19 players present and six large tables in the room so I appointed the six strongest players as team captains, with one to a table, and distributed the other players into teams, leaving one team with four players and five teams with three players each.

One of the games started like this:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Nc3 Nf6
4. Bc4 Nxe4
5. Nxe4 d5
6. Bd3

I was impressed that they found the right move here, and, when they suggested it, confirmed that it was the best move. At this level most of my opponents play Bxd5, but it’s clearly better to keep the bishop rather than the knight.

6.. dxe4
7. Bxe4 Bd6
8. d3 O-O

At this point I expected them to do something sensible like O-O, the usual move here, but instead they surprised me by playing Nd4. I explained that I could capture the knight. “Yes, we know”, their captain replied. “We want to play this move.”

I then realised what they had in mind, so the game continued:

8. Nd4 Nxd4
9. Qh5

As expected. They were sacrificing a piece for a mate threat, hoping that I wouldn’t notice.

9.. g6

Good enough, but 9.. Nxc2+ was more accurate as White could now have played Qd1.

10. Qh6

Now I spotted that they might be planning Bg5, followed by Bf6 and Qg7#, but I decided I had time to meet that threat and played:

10… Nxc2+, winning easily with my extra material.

I suppose I have to be impressed with the idea, which demonstrates imagination and creativity as well as the ability to think ahead. Unfortunately, that sort of thing isn’t going to work against a reasonably competent opponent. If you want to play for a mating attack on move 8 it would make much more sense to play Ng5 when Qh5 really is a threat, but instead they wanted to bait the trap.

I should add, in case anyone from the school is reading this, that the teams played really well in the simul, two of them totally outplaying me, although I think I might have almost equalised in one game when time was called.

Two days earlier I’d been demonstrating the Aronian-Kramnik game from the Candidates Tournament to a group of rather stronger players (about 800-1000 rating) at Richmond Junior Club.

You’ve probably seen the game already, so will be aware that the first moves were:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5 Nf6
4. d3 Bc5
5. Bxc6 dxc6
6. O-O Qe7
7. h3

I asked the class to guess Black’s next move, telling them it wasn’t an easy move to find.

Several of the class liked the idea of Bxh3. One of the stronger players in the group told me he’d play either Bxh3 or Bg4. Someone else suggested Ng4, possibly thinking of the Fishing Pole trap.

Again, you have to be impressed, up to a point. They’d identified that White’s last move had created a weakness and they wanted to take advantage of it. Most of them have seen games in which the winner successfully sacrificed a piece for a winning attack on the enemy king. I might have been more impressed if someone had suggested the idea of Be6, Qd7 and then Bxh3, which, if White gives you the opportunity, will give you two pawns for the piece and a stronger attack.

As you probably know, Kramnik actually played 7.. Rg8 here, continuing with Nh5 and g5, and winning with a brilliant sacrificial attack against Aronian’s king.

It occurred to me some time ago that I was mistaken in thinking that when players at this level lost a piece they were either playing too impulsively or looking at the board but not seeing. Once you talk to children about their moves you’ll realise that very often they know they’re losing a piece but either think it doesn’t matter, or, as in these two examples, think they’re doing something rather clever.

This is what happened, for rather different reasons, in both these examples.

In the first position, they were simply setting a trap which they hoped I’d fall into. How should we look at this? A failure to consider risks and probabilities? Immaturity of thought, playing a move based on what they hope their opponent will play rather than what their opponent is likely to play? A lack of understanding that Superior Force Wins and how to play endings?

The second example (playing, for example, Bxh3 rather than Kramnik’s Rg8) is a higher level error. These players have seen lots of examples of sacrificial attacks but lack the ability to calculate whether or not the sacrifice works and the experience to estimate whether or not the sacrifice is likely to work. Of course all chess teachers like to demonstrate this sort of game, but as you progress in chess you realise that in real life most potential sacrifices don’t work, and that you’ll reject the majority of the sacrifices you consider.

Returning, for a moment, to the first diagram, according to my database, two players (rated 1855 and 1949, so about my level) have tried 9. Bxh7+ here. If you’ve learnt the Greek Gift sacrifice it’s very tempting, isn’t it? I suspect that if I showed this position to the Saturday group, many of whom will know the idea, a lot of them would suggest the same thing.

In this position, though, it just doesn’t work. After 9.. Kxh7 10. Ng5+ Kg8 11. Qh5 Black can defend comfortably with Bf5 (or, if he prefers, 11.. Bb4+ 12. c3 Qxd3 13. cxb4 Nxb4). It’s important to know basic tactical ideas like the Greek Gift and Légall’s Mate, but you have to understand that they don’t always work. The Greek Gift, for example, is unlikely to work if your opponent can, as in this position, play Bf5 in reply to Qh5.

Richard James

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