Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Space, The Crucial Frontier

Space is a critical factor in chess, both the space your forces have to move through and the space those forces control. Simply put, the more space you control, the less space your opponent has which means they’ll have trouble launching meaningful attacks. At the the start of the game, the opening, both players engage in a space race to see who can control the board’s center first. As we move towards the middle game, more astute players continue to activate their pawns and pieces so that they control more space and/or specific squares. Beginners, on the other hand (due to a lack of experience) tend to stop their quest for spacial control as soon as they’ve fulfilled the basic opening principles regarding controlling the board’s center with a pawn (or two), developing their minor pieces towards the center and castling. More often than not, they start attacking immediately after finishing what they think of as the opening which usually leads to disaster. If the beginner continued the development of his or her forces before attacking, the results would be more favorable. They miss the transitional phase that allows them to gain an advantage in the middle game, namely the continued acquisition of space.

During the opening, you have to develop your forces towards the board’s central squares. However, you have to make sure you don’t block in your pawns and especially your pieces while doing so. Of course, you’ll block the c2 pawn in when your develop your white Queen-side Knight to c3. Some blockage cannot be helped. More often than not, there’s a trade off to every move. Developing the Knight to c3 is a solid move during the opening but the trade off is the blocked c2 pawn. Of course, developing the Knight is more crucial than developing the c2 pawn in many openings so the trade off is minimal. On the other hand, moving the white f1 Bishop to d3 while there’s still a pawn on d2 creates a traffic jam that hems in the c1 Bishop. In this case, the developing move does more harm than good. Beginners must learn to develop their pawns and especially their pieces in a manner that minimizes the blocking in of other material.

What separates advanced players from beginners is the more experienced player’s ability to keep developing their pawns and pieces after the opening is finished. This is a lesson beginners need to embrace. Just because you’ve developed your minor pieces towards the center on each of those minor piece’s first move doesn’t mean they can’t be further developed. Always consider further development before attacking. Once you’ve optimized your pieces on their most active squares, those squares that allow greater control of the board, then you can consider attacking. Beginners sometimes think controlling territory on the boards means squares on their side of the board. While you want to protect your side of the board, it’s more important to control your opponent’s side of the board. Why? Because if you control key squares on the opposition side of the board, it’s going to be difficult for them to launch any attacks without paying a material price. Therefore, develop your pieces in a manner that allows them to control squares on your opponent’s side of the board. As for your side of the board, this is where pawns come in handy.

Pawns have the lowest relative value which means they can keep the pieces off of specific squares because no one really wants to trade a piece for a pawn (unless it leads to checkmate of course). Therefore, you can use your pawns to protect key squares on your side of the board. With that said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you shouldn’t go crazy and make too many pawn moves. You just want to make pawn moves that protect specific squares your opponent can exploit. The classic example is stopping the black Queen-side Bishop (c8 square) from pinning the white Knight on f3 to the white Queen on d1. Moving the h2 pawn to h3 prior to the pin can stop the Bishop dead in his tracks. Just keep in mind that the trade off is an opening on the now vacated h2 square. There’s a trade off with every move.

Always try to maintain pawn chains when using pawns to control space. Pawns are better suited for the job of protecting pawns. Using a piece to protect a pawn early in the game means that piece is not being used to control space. It’s as if it isn’t in the game. Always try to create and maintain good pawn structure when using pawns for defending your side of the board. If protecting a key square with a pawn means having to use a piece to protect that pawn, consider another option.

Connect your Rooks! Too many beginners let their Rooks sit dormant throughout the game. Going into and through the middle-game, Rooks can be extremely useful for supporting pawns and pieces. While I previously mentioned that you shouldn’t tie a piece down to a pawn’s defense, it’s perfectly fine for a Rook to serve this role. Why? Because we normally make our Rooks more active much later in the game. However, you have to get your Rooks out of their respective corners. This is another good reason to castle. To connect your Rooks, simply move the Queen up (or down for black) one rank. It should be noted that Rooks are connected when their starting rank is free of other pieces so develop those minor pieces early.

The control of space is the precursor to a solid attack. When you control space on your opponent’s side of the board, you make their positional life difficult. You force them to pay a price (material loss) in order to make inroads towards your King. Always ask yourself, do I have my pawns and pieces on their most active squares, before considering an attack. Of course, if your opponent’s position has a real weakness you can exploit with an early attack, take advantage of it. However, it’s better to carefully build up your forces before sending them into battle. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

The Order of Battle

In chess, as in warfare, there’s an order in which you send your forces onto the battlefield. Modern battles tend to start with ground troops, otherwise known as the infantry. Thankfully, you don’t see armies starting battles with their biggest weapons, nuclear missiles. If they did, I wouldn’t be writing this article and you wouldn’t be reading it because our lives would have been ended with the first nuclear strike. While war usually ends up being an exercise in chaos and carnage, it tends to start with a methodical plan. First into battle, the foot soldiers, followed by artillery, followed by armored vehicles, then bombs and so on. The same should hold true in chess. Yet beginners tend to think “why waste all those resources when I can drop a bomb, in the form of bringing their Queen out early, and end the war with a quick victory.” It may sound great in theory (to the beginning player), but in reality, the battle typically ends with the beginner no longer having his or her most powerful attacking piece in the game. To teach my students thew correct order in which to bring out their forces on the chessboard, I simply point out a few things regarding the placement of the pawns and pieces.

The starting position of the pawns and pieces dictates the order in which members of the army enter the battle. Also contributing to this order is the relative value of the pawns and pieces. With the exception of the Knights, which can enter the game immediately due to their ability to jump over any material in their way, pawns have to be moved in order to get the majority of the pieces into the action. Pawns have the lowest relative value and therefore can keep an opposition piece off of a specific square because of higher value of the pieces. Fortunately, beginners quickly learn to move pawns first in order to get their pieces into the game. However, they often make too many pawn moves, either thinking that it’s safer to use the least valuable members of their army which are also more plentiful or they’re not comfortable with the movement of the pieces so they resort to pawns. I tell my students that bringing too many pawns into the game when your opponent is moving stronger pieces onto the board is akin to sending out foot soldiers with sticks to fight off armored tanks. It simply won’t work. You have to have some force behind your foot soldiers. So who do we use for this force?

Young beginners are infatuated with the Rooks and the Queen. They tend to think of both as super powered weapons. The problem with trying to bring out the Rooks early is that the beginner will move the “a” or “h” pawns two squares forward, then move the Rook two squares forward, planning to aim the Rook at the enemy King along the “e” file after moving the Rook again towards this central file. Sadly, either the opposition ignores the flank activity and builds up a strong center, capturing the Rook soon after, or they capture the Rook with a Bishop after developing a centralized pawn. Either way the power hungry beginner loses a Rook, a lot of tempo and the right to castle on one side of the board. Then there’s the Queen. Since the Queen combines the power of the Rook and Bishop, she’s a nuclear missile in the eyes of the beginner. Why fight a long war, muses the beginner, when I can aim a missile at my opponent and end it quickly? The problem with bringing the Queen out early is twofold. First, your opponent can nicely develop their forces while chasing your Queen around the board. All you have to show for your troubles is a running Queen while your opponent has complete control of the board’s center. The second problem is that you King is unsafe because you haven’t been able to castle due to the attacks on your Queen.

I point out to my students that it makes much more sense to develop the Knights and Bishops before the Rooks and Queen. When the Knights are developed initially to the “c” and “f” files they’re controlling the board’s center squares and bringing you one step closer to castling. Developing the Bishops towards the central squares helps lock down your control of this key area as well as bringing you closer to castling. Think of the Knights and Bishops as support artillery for your ground troops, the pawns. In battle, artillery is used to both gain greater control of the battlefield, repel the enemy and support the soldiers on the ground (the pawns). The minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) are well suited to this task.

Of course, when you develop your minor pieces on the King-side, for example, you can then castle. While castling is designed to place your King in a safety net of pawns and pieces, it does something equally important, getting one of your Rooks out of the corner. While I advised against bringing the Rook into the game early, you don’t want to leave it stuck in the corner where it does absolutely nothing. After castling, a Rook can then move over to the “e” file and stare down the un-castled enemy King at the other end of the “e” file. Rooks like to sit on open and half open files during the game. Think of them as a battleship that can hurl huge shells at the enemy from a long distance.

Lastly, there’s the Queen. She’s best left alone until later in the game when there are fewer Knights and Bishops around to go after her. Of course, one early move you can make with the Queen is to move her up (or down in the case of black) one rank so your Rooks are connected. This isn’t bringing your Queen out early and will give your Rooks more freedom.

The easiest way to remember the order in which pawns and pieces enter the game is by considering the relative value of the pieces, starting from low to high. Pawns have the least relative value (one) so they’re first into the fray. Knights and Bishops, both having a relative value of three come next. Rooks have a relative value of five so they come after the Knights and Bishops. However, this means making them more active not throwing them into the actual battle (save that for the endgame). Lastly comes the Queen who have a relative value of nine. Try to keep her around for a checkmating attempt when you head towards the endgame. Moving her up a rank is fine, just don’t drag her out onto the board during the opening. When in doubt, use the relative value of the pawns and pieces as your deployment guide. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Elitism in Junior Chess

In an article in the November British Chess Magazine, GM Aleksandar Colovic bemoans the declining standards in junior chess.

Colovic starts by considering various projects involved with putting chess on the curriculum in schools. I share his reservations about this, but not for the same reasons.

“…there is one thing”, says Colovic, “that bothers me. … “It is the fact that all these activities are not aimed at producing the next Garry Kasparov or Judit Polgar. … Chess is seen as part of a person’s culture, not as a possible future profession.”

This is where I have a problem. Junior chess has, over the past 30 years or so, become increasingly elitist, and this attitude is one of the reasons for this. In my view the main purpose of any competition-based junior chess programme should not be to produce professional chess players, but to develop chess culture and produce hobby players with a lifelong passion for chess. Specifically, it should be to maximise the number of young people reaching, say, 1500 strength, not to maximise the number of young people reaching 2500 strength. I like to consider the chess playing population as a pyramid. At the top you get the likes of Garry Kasparov and Judit Polgar, Magnus Carlsen and Hou Yifan. As you go down you get grandmasters, international masters, national masters, down to the mass of 1500 strength (or below) players at the bottom. Unless there are amateur hobby players putting their time and money into chess the whole edifice will collapse.

Hobby players are just as important as professional players. They put money into chess: they join clubs, enter competitions, subscribe to online chess sites, buy boards, sets, clocks, books, software and DVDs. They take lessons with professionals, either online or in person. They put time into chess as well. They become club secretaries, treasurers, match captains, administrators, tournament organisers, arbiters. They pass on their passion for chess to their children. Perhaps they volunteer as teachers in their chess club or their children’s school. Some of them will develop an interest in other aspects of chess such as problems and endgame studies. Some will collect chess books or chess sets. Some will become chess historians. Some, if they’re financially successful in their career, will become chess benefactors, sponsoring events which will enable the professionals to earn a living. Without a strong base of hobby players there will be no market for professionals.

I believe we have our priorities totally wrong. We should be measuring teachers’ success, not by the ratings of their pupils, but by the amount of enjoyment they get out of the game and the length of time they continue to play. I’d much rather one of my pupils enjoyed playing chess at 1500 level for the next 50 years than became a disillusioned 2500 grandmaster stuck with chess because he has no other skills or qualifications (and any chess player active in social media will be able to name several of these).

I believe we should also be wary of promoting chess using dubious claims for its perceived extrinsic benefits and instead focus on the game’s intrinsic qualities. Chess is the greatest game in the world. Quite apart from the excitement of playing, or even watching, chess, it possesses an extraordinary aesthetic beauty. It offers its devotees the opportunity for travel and friendship with like-minded people throughout the world. It has an endlessly fascinating history and heritage going back centuries. It has an unrivalled body of literature covering every conceivable aspect of the game. It has no need for dubious and unverifiable it that chess helps prevent dementia. If you promote it as something that ‘makes kids smarter’ parents will take what they can get out of it for a year or two before taking them out of chess and into some other ‘improving’ pastime.

Let’s consider the nature of chess. We all know how hard it is to play chess even reasonably well. What skills do children require to become proficient players? They need exceptional concentration and impulse control: without these skills they will make one-move oversights every few moves. They need to be able to confident at handling and manipulating complex multi-dimensional abstract information. They need to be able to consider the position from their opponent’s perspective. They need the ability to self-reflect: to understand where they made a mistake and work out how to put it right. They need emotional maturity to cope with the demands of competitive play. If they can appreciate the beauty and heritage of chess they’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of the game. All these are skills we associate more with older children than younger children. Everything about chess screams out ‘adult game’, not ‘children’s game’.

Perhaps you see now why I describe junior chess as elitist. The only children who will really understand chess at a young age are the exceptionally bright kids with extremely supportive parents. Yes, it’s among these children that you’ll find your potential Kasparovs and Polgars, but at the same time many of them will drop out, choosing to concentrate on their academic career with will lead to a job more worthwhile and lucrative than being a 2500 grandmaster. And those children who don’t have an exceptional talent, whose parents are, often for the best of reasons, unable or unwilling to support them, will find it hard to make significant progress. If we want to combat elitism in chess we need to promote chess for older children, and not just for children in top academic schools, so that children from all backgrounds can enjoy chess.

Richard James

Wood Shedding

There once was a time when an individual wanting to pursue a particular skill would take on the task knowing that the path to mastery was a long, hard and often difficult journey. However, the person embarking on this journey simply accepted the idea of long, hard work as the cost one paid when striving to be the best at something. For centuries, young apprentices worked under their masters, slowly and carefully learning their craft. Today, thanks in large part to technology, humans have to come to expect things to be done quickly, including things that were once done slowly in an effort to produce the highest quality outcome. Whether it’s learning a language, learning music or learning chess, the novice now finds themselves temped by the idea of rapid of accelerated learning.

The idea behind rapid or accelerated learning is that the process of learning itself is streamlined so you only study what is deemed (by the instructor) to be absolutely necessary. While some streamlined learning does work, garnering fairly decent results, I’ve noticed that there’s no mention of the countless hours of work, much of it repetitive in nature, required even by an accelerated learning program. Case in point, guitar mastery.

I receive at least three emails a week from guitar websites stating that they have created a learning program that will knock years off of the time required to play
“great” guitar. If I was a novice guitarist, I’d probably sign up for one of them. However, being someone that still earns part of my income from playing, I know that these emails fail to mention one critical aspect to improvement, hard work and longs hours on the fret board.

You can cut down on the time spent learning how to play an instrument by eliminating some unnecessary or redundant exercises, such as certain scales. However, the scales you do have to learn take time to master. This means you’re going to be putting a great deal of time into practicing them over and over again. In other words, you’re going to be working extremely hard no matter how streamlined the process. This holds true for chess as well.

I’m in the process of writing a chess book for beginning and intermediate players. In writing this book, I closely examined other books to see how those authors approached the same topics I’m going over. I noticed that some books had titles that used the words “rapid improvement” or “improve your chess in “x” amount of days.” While these certainly help to sell books, I believe the titles might lull the potential buyer into a false sense of just how long improvement is going to take. Chess mastery (something I’m nowhere close to) takes a great deal of time. Also consider the fact that we all learn at different speeds. Some people have a harder time learning than others, who quickly pick things up. However, I’ve found that my students who struggle and have to work twice as hard, often come out with a firmer grasp of the subject than those who pick things up quickly.

Chess, like playing a musical instrument, requires both theory and practice, theory being the study of the game and practice meaning actually playing the game. You have to do both. Reading every book ever published on how to play the guitar does you no good unless you pick up a guitar and play it. The same holds true with chess. The point here is this: Studying and practicing what you’ve learned through your studies takes a great deal of time. Therefore, there is no quick road to true mastery! As the Mathematician Euclid said to a King trying to find an easier way learn geometry, “there is no royal road to geometry.” Mastery comes at a cost and that cost is good old fashion hard work.

Too often, in music, you hear about legendary musicians who spend 12 to 15 hours a day playing their instruments, following the hard road to mastery. What you don’t hear about is how it took them a long time to be able to concentrate for such lengthy periods. They slowly built up their ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Yet, musicians new to playing will attempt the same feat, failing completely. You have to develop the mental muscles that allow you to concentrate for long periods of time slowly. You don’t walk into a gym and immediately start your beginner’s weight lifting class by bench pressing 300 lbs. You build up to it, the slower the better. We must learn favoring quality over quantity. More importantly, we must learn how to take on the mastery of something, in this case chess, in proper increments that allow us to learn and move forward without frustration.

My advice is this: Don’t look for an easy way out. This means you’re going to have to put in hard work over a lengthy period of time. Of course, if you find a teaching system that cuts some of that time down, by all means try it. However, always remember that no matter what the system, hard work on your part will be required. Let’s say you decide that hard work is worth the price of mastery or just improvement. Now you have to create a schedule that allows you to study and practice (playing chess) for greater periods of time over the long run. Musicians call studying and then practicing what you’ve just learned “wood shedding,” and while all musicians strive to be able to practice for extremely long periods of time, they have to build their mental and physical muscles to do so. This takes time. Notice how the word time keeps coming up?

Building up one’s level of mental and physical concentration requires patience. This means setting smaller goals. Therefore, you should, in the case of chess which requires a great deal of mental stamina, start with small blocks of study time, such as thirty minutes a day. Of course, some new students of the game will think that thirty minutes a day over seven days will equal only three and a half hours of work a week, a rather small number compared to the ten thousand hours required to reach a master level of comprehension. Fear not, that small amount of study time per week will grow. The beginner could try studying for two hours a day instead but if they can only fully focus (concentrate) for thirty minutes at a time, an hour and a half of their studies will be wasted. It’s a matter of quality over quantity. The biggest problem with setting unrealistic goals is the feeling of failure when we don’t reach those goals. Better to set and reach smaller goals and have a sense of accomplishment than to overreach and be disappointed.

Thus, if you want to get better at chess, or anything for that matter, start with small goals and take your time. Sure, you’ll hear stories of players who spent all their waking hours studying and playing chess, but these players are few and far between. Some of what you hear is simply myth. The only thing you can be sure of is that if you slowly build up your wood shedding skills, you’ll eventually be able to study and practice for hours on end. Remember, it really is a matter of quality over quantity. That’s the key to solid learning retention. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

When Trouble Comes Knocking

When trouble comes knocking, I’m paid to answer the door! Not only do I teach chess and coach junior chess teams but I deal with the problems that sometimes come with the students I teach and coach. What kind of trouble could possibly occur when your career is teaching chess to young people? Let me tell you a story that occurred last week. It’s straight out of a movie, kind of a cross between To Sir With Love and The Blackboard Jungle (both dealing with unruly teenagers).

Year after year, I teach and work with the same groups of students from approximately ten schools. My schedule remains constant and rarely waivers. However, every once in a while, I am suddenly transferred to a school. When I say suddenly, I get 24 to 72 hours notice. I don’t ask why I’m being transferred because I already know the answer: There’s a problem that could seriously jeopardize the chess program at the school in question. Sometimes it’s as simple as the chess teacher or coach isn’t getting results or not maintaining proper classroom management. Worse case scenario, the students have frightened off the chess teacher. Again, I don’t want any information prior to entering the problem school because the information is often either second hand or skewed due to the emotional state of the former teacher. I need to determine the problem myself. It should be noted that the best teachers can sometimes not resolve issues with problem students.

On the day of the chess class’s new session, I arrive at the school, go to the office and pick up forms and any payments. I notice the office staff looking at me sympathetically. This is a good indicator as to the problem, unruly students. If you teach chess in a school, always make friends with the office staff because they can get you anything you need. I then leave the office and proceed to walk down the hall towards the class which is located around the corner from the office. When I turn the corner, I see a gaggle of parents and school staff who make a fast run towards me. One parent asks, in a loud voice, “is my son going to be safe in there?” Obviously, this group of students isn’t going to be easy for anyone who shows any signs of fear. A few teachers start telling me to use the intercom system if I find myself in any trouble. Really? I get that same line when teaching in the prison system! I gather the parents and teachers in a circle and tell them the reason I was sent there is because I’m the guy who deals with the worst behaved teenagers. I start to walk through the classroom door and notice the entire group of teachers and parents following me in. “Where do you think you’re going,” I say to them. Apparently, they wanted to make sure I’d be alright. Both parents and staff were extremely unhappy when told to go someplace else because they were not allowed in my classroom. In I go to my waiting students.

One of my new students stood up and said “who the F#^K are you?” This is the, and I mean “the” defining moment when it comes to what I do in problem classrooms. This is the moment that makes or breaks me as far as respect from my students goes. The reason I do not allow parents and faculty into problem classes is because I use some unorthodox methods that the school staff doesn’t need to see (nothing bad, just unorthodox). They simply need to be happy with the results. When that student stood up and said what he did, I was extremely happy because I just found the Alpha-male or leader of the wolf pack. Break the leader and you tame the pack. Of course, I don’t mean physical actions in regards to breaking the pack leader. Words and street psychology are my weapons of choice and I know how to use them with great accuracy. Here’s what I said. “You must have me confused with one of those idiots that’s either a teacher or a parent on the other side of that door (I point at the door). Let me tell you something and I’m only going to say it once so close your mouth and open your ears. Do not mess with me. I know you ran the last chess teacher out of here but I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to give you a choice, a one time only deal. You can either get with my chess program and learn something or I will make your life in this classroom a weely nightmare.” Needless to say, he backed down and his friend who also was a problem said. “I kinda like this guy. He doesn’t take any…(fill in the blanks)”

They all wanted to know why they should be stuck in the chess class, which was a fair question. Often, parents will sign their kids up for chess classes to keep them busy and out of the parent’s hair for an hour or two. Some of these kids were enrolled even though they said they had no interest. So I answered the question. I told them that chess makes figuring things out (problem solving) much easier. Fast problem solving gives you more time to enjoy life as opposed to being bogged down by life’s problems. I then told them how much money Magnus Carlsen made last year. I know, it’s a cheap trick but it worked because teenagers love the idea of making money doing something they mistakenly think is easy. I also told them that people who are serious about chess get a fair amount of intellectual respect and respect is a critical issue for teenagers.

It turns out that some of the students actually had a real interest in the game. The biggest surprise of all was that the rudest kid in the class had some great chess skills. I played them all at once on separate boards and beat them at their own trash talking game (they like to talk trash to their opponents which is something I’ll be eliminating in the upcoming weeks).

I needed to find out exactly what they did to run the old chess teacher out of the school which meant gaining their trust. I told them (honestly) that anything they told me would not be repeated to anyone outside the classroom. I also told them there was to be no snitching by anyone in my chess class, explaining that snitching on someone can have very bad repercussions for the person doing the snitching (being a tattletale or informant). They finally told me some of the stunts they pulled and I’d run out of there if I were that teacher as well! Fortunately, I’m not and, I can’t tell you what went on because I made a promise to them not to snitch. We did agree that if someone was going to do something dangerous, then telling someone about that person’s intended actions was more akin to saving their life and not snitching. It turned out to be a pleasant afternoon as far as I was concerned.

My goal is to get these kids into shape on the chessboard and get them to be a top ten team in the Bay Area within 18 months (I better make it happen because I have a sizable bet with another chess coach regarding the matter). When it comes down to it, these kids aren’t really that bad, they’re simply teenagers who (like all teenagers) learn about social relationships and life in general by testing its boundaries. The school did send a teacher in to check on our progress toward the end of the class, using the excuse that she forgot some papers, and she surprised to find my new students sitting quietly behind their chessboards.

I don’t suggest employing my methods when dealing with an unruly group of students. It works for me but might not work for you. The one piece of advice I can give on this subject: You have to be the alpha animal, the pack leader in this type of situation, which requires a lot of inner confidence and strength. If you can do this, you can accomplish the task. If you can’t, find someone who can because you don’t want to have a dreadful experience. This class is a fascinating group and I suspect I’ll be reporting on their progress. I’m hesitant to tell them I’m writing about them because I suspect it would go to their heads and I don’t need another inflated ego, other than mine, in the classroom. Another potentially bad situation made good. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Music to Play By

Music has the ability to evoke a long lost memory from our distant pasts or change our emotional state for better or worse. A rough sketch of our very essence could drawn from the music we’ve listened to throughout our lives. It’s literally a part of every human’s existence. In fact, it’s hard to escape music. Music, having the ability to sway our emotional state, can be a useful tool when it comes to chess. Music as a chess tool? I know, that might not make a great deal of sense at the moment but read further and you’ll understand the idea!

Let’ start with the concept that music can alter our emotional state. For some individuals, that altered emotional state can drive them into a kinetic frenzy. Watch a group of people dancing at a club that plays techno music. The dancers literally pulsate to the rhythms, becoming one with the others on the dance floor as well as the DJ. For other individuals, a specific song or genre of music can bring them to tears or complete joy. The point to be taken here is that music can alter one’s emotional state and having the ability to change one’s emotional state can be of benefit to the process of thinking. There’s a reason that certain songs are played at sporting events and that reason is to pump people up, raising their excitement levels to new heights. It’s a method employed to drive a large group of people into a specific state of mind that, in turn, pumps up the sports teams playing in the stadium. What does this have to do with chess?

Prior to sitting down and playing a serious game of chess, the onus or burden is on you to get yourself focused. The ability to focus is a learned skill. While some individuals have a greater natural ability to hone in or focus on the task at at, they still have to further develop their natural abilities. One thing I have my students do before playing tournaments is to create a play list of songs they can listen to on their cellphones and tablets (using headphones) prior to sitting down at the chessboard. The only requirement is that the songs do a couple of things for the listener.

First, the songs have to take my students to a place they can clearly visualize, in great detail. I have one student that plays a song that, in the mind’s eye, takes him to specific street in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When he listens to that song, he can close his eyes and see the tiniest details of the street scene. With each listen prior to playing, I ask him to hone in on another detail, one previously unnoticed. This forces him to focus on this imaginary scene, looking for that elusive detail he missed the last time around. His mind clears of all other thoughts and focuses in order to find another hidden detail within the scene. I have all my students follow this procedure so they can remove the unnecessary thoughts that clutter their minds which allows them to focus on the task at hand, a game of chess. Visualization, using music to guide you, can help you develop your focusing skills. It’s also the most enjoyable way to exercise the mind in this way.

The other important aspect of using music as a training tool is that a song can really get you pumped up. This being the case, I have my students listen to the one song that gets them pumped up and ready for battle. Its the same idea as the music played at sports stadiums during big games, songs that get you excited and ready for the challenge ahead. My Students listen to their “fight song” before their “focusing song” and then afterwards, listen additional songs that evoke focus and excitement.

Each play list is specifically tailored for the individual and no two play lists are exactly alike. I don’t ever tell my students what to listen to (truth be told, I’d rather not have them listen to anything I’ve recorded because I suspect my songs would have the opposite effect, not to mention they all come with a parental warning label). All I do is give them the parameters of what the play list should do and they take it from there. However, to get them to the point where they’re choosing the correct music, I carefully go over the instructions as to what the music should do, emotionally and mentally speaking. You’d be surprised at some of the choices this youngsters make. There’s nothing funnier than an eleven year old listening to Wagner and then The Ramones!

Try this out but make sure to adhere to the parameters mentioned above. A little music can go a long way towards preparing you for taking on tasks, both those on the chessboard and those in your day to day lives. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. I know one of the two players doesn’t use music as part of his program!

Hugh Patterson

Why Play Chess?

Chess is a bit ironic in that you can learn to play the “Game of Kings” in a matter of a few hours yet spend an often maddening lifetime trying to master its complexity and many mysteries. Those mysteries are elusive and only reveal themselves to those who are willing to dedicate their lives to the quest. However, many people play chess casually and are happy to simply use the game to pass the time of day. Over six hundred million people play chess across the globe, most being casual in their efforts. It’s one of the oldest and most popular games and can mirror real life on the chessboard’s sixty four squares. It’s a mix of science and art with a dash of warfare as well. In the hands of masters, it’s a dramatic battle of the mind, a theater-like event that would make Shakespeare take note. It requires patience and planning, courage and cunning, focus and deep concentration. These attributes being what they are, why should you play chess as opposed to another game that requires less effort?

Chess seems to fit a number of personalities, from the casual hobbyist to the dedicated seeker of chess’s mysteries. The great thing about learning this game are the benefits it provides. However, we first have to dispel the greatest chess myth, the one that claims chess is played by the smartest of people (not to mention the idea that chess will make you smarter). If you want to make a character in a movie or book look brilliant, you set the scene with that character sitting behind a chessboard playing a game against their arch rival. We’ve all seen countless movies in which the hero outwits his or her nemesis by beating them up on the sixty four square battlefield. James Bond appears to be brilliant because he plays chess! However, you don’t have to have the IQ of a genius to play well!

In fact, Albert Einstein was an average club level chess player. It’s more a question of recognizing patterns within a given chess position (the combination of pawns and pieces on the board) rather than shear brilliance that makes a great player. In the end, we’re born with a certain level of brain function and can, at best, hone the brain we’re born with to function at it’s highest level. This brings me to my next point, honing the brain to function at it’s maximum level of efficiency.

Most of us, myself included, think we solve our day to day problems logically and expediently. The truth is, we often simply do things our way which means we solve problems in a manner that is comfortable within the way in which we think. We believe we’re going from point “a” to point “b” in a straight line but in reality, we’re all over the place. Our sense of logical problem solving isn’t always as logical as we think it is. This is where chess offers much needed help!

Playing chess well requires solving a series of continual problems in the simplest, quickest manner. With each move made by both players, a new problem arises that must be addressed immediately by each participant. If you procrastinate, you’ll lose the game. Therefore, chess can be a valuable tool for those trying the break the bad habit of procrastination. However, the real bonus here is the development of sound problem solving skills and more importantly, exercising the mind. Chess forces you to seek a direct solution to the problem at hand and provides specific game principles to guide you in the decision making process. It also teaches you to develop the lost art of patience (something in short supply these days). However, the real gift that chess provides all players, whether casual or professional, is mental exercise.

As we grow older, we tend to think less sharply than we did in our youth. We may have a greater knowledge base, gained through a lifetime commitment to educational pursuits, but our ability to think quickly with accuracy dwindles as we age. Chess provides a way to exercise our brains. Think of it as a mental martial art. I tell my students that chess is “ Kung Fu of the mind.”

In my youth, I was much more apt to make a decision quickly and execute a solution to the problem at hand speedily. Of course, being a subscriber to that old adage regarding, “the folly of youth,” some of my decisions may have been a bit flawed. Yet I solved the problem facing me with some degree of accuracy. Approaching middle age, I found myself becoming stuck when faced with a problem, not for lack of coming up with a viable solution but because my brain was operating in a slower gear. Thanks to chess, I’ve been able to get back some of that youthful mental speed when problem solving. Combined with the ability to apply logic and reasoning to come up with strong solutions, acquired by studying chess, I have regained some of that lost brain power. This gift that chess has given me can be applied to ever part of my life.

As a professional musician, I have to be able to play very specific jazz lines or leads at the drop of a hat (my punk guitar playing requires a bit less music theory). If playing guitar was a hobby, I could take my sweet time ( I seriously miss those days). However, when someone is paying me a pretty penny to sit in a recording studio and come up with guitar parts, time is of the essence. Chess helps to keep my mind sharp, avoiding that “deer in the headlights” syndrome many musicians face when under pressure in the studio. You can think of chess as the oil that keeps your mental engine well lubricated and running at optimum efficiency. Let’s face it, we need our minds to run well just to face the day to day challenges we encounter. Chess helps keep our minds sharp. Again, it’s mental exercise (watching the History channel doesn’t count as mental exercise).

I say that any fun way to pass the time that also keeps your mind working well is well worth pursuing. You can play the game casually or become a disciple of it’s mysteries and spend your entire life trying to master the game. Either way, the benefits are enormous. We worry about our bodies as we grow older but ignore the general condition of our minds, opting to blame our weak thinking on aging. Exercise your mind and you’ll be a happier more productive person. This is why you should play chess! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Educational Benefits of Chess Variants

Chess variants are versions of chess that incorporate changes to the way in which the game is played. These variants range from Fischer Random 960 chess, in which the pawns remain on their same starting ranks and squares but the pieces themselves start off on different starting squares (starting off on their initial ranks; 1st rank for White and 8th rank for Black), to Bughouse (A four player version of chess) to variants made up by imaginative children. The questions I pose is should we include these variants within our teaching curriculum? I’ve spoken with many chess educators and there seems to be a line drawn in the sand with one side supporting variants while the other side claims no educational value to these unique versions of the game. We’ll start by examining Bughouse, a favorite variant that’s even played at rated tournament settings.

For those of you unfamiliar with this variation of chess, Bughouse employs four players and two boards. Players work in teams of two. One team member plays Black and the other team member plays white, both team members sitting side by side. Their opponents do likewise, with one player manning the white pieces and the other the black pieces. What makes this game interesting is that after you capture a pawn or piece, you give that captured piece to your teammate who can either hold onto in or place it anywhere on the board. Pawns cannot be dropped on their promotion squares and pieces cannot be dropped on a square that creates an instant checkmate. Let me further explain how this works for those of you unfamiliar with the game. If you’re playing White and your teammate is playing black (you’re sitting side by side, each with a board in front of each of you), each time you capture one of your opponent’s pawns or pieces (your opposition team sits across from you and your teammate) which are Black, you hand that pawn or piece to your teammate. When it’s your teammate”s turn, they can either drop the newly acquired pawn or piece that you gave them onto the board or hold on to it for later use. When your teammate captures a pawn or piece (which is White because your teammate is manning the Black pawns and pieces), they give it to you to either use right away or later on. Dropping a pawn or piece on the board constitutes your turn, so you have to wait until it’s your turn again to move that dropped pawn or piece. The first team member to checkmate ends the game for all players.

Many chess players ans teachers don’t see any benefit from this version of chess. However, I use it for tactics training. Beginners have a tough time with tactics because tactics require being set up via a combination of moves which is above the skill set of the average beginner. With Bughouse, you look at the board and see a potential fork, for example, and rather than trying to maneuver a Knight across the board in order to exploit this tactic (meanwhile your opponent foils you plan with a counter move), you simply drop the Knight on the square that creates the fork. Of course, you don’t get to execute the fork right away because you used your turn up placing the piece on the board, but you start to visualize tactics and that helps beginners identify the patterns that can lead to tactical plays. Pattern recognition can be developed through this variation. Bughouse is also a great way to learn the art of attacking and defending. In this variation, you can drop (place) a pawn or piece onto a square that allows it to attack the opposition. You opponent can also drop a pawn or piece to block the attack or add another defender to the position. Players have to carefully count the number of attackers versus defenders and decide whether or not they should add more material into the fight. Beginners often lose material due to an inadequate number of attackers or defenders and this version of chess helps them with attacking and defending calculations. Is there a downside to Bughouse besides the high level of noise emanating from the rowdy players?

Honestly, there’s no substitute for the traditional form of the game. Kids love Bughouse because they can have a stockpile of additional pieces making attacks much easier and therein lies one of the problems. Kids will often blindly throw material into their attacks, losing the material in the process without reward, because they can always acquire more material from the teammate. This creates a sloppy way of thinking about attacking (and defending). If you’re already a good chess player, Bughouse can be fun and won’t aid you in developing bad chess habits. If you’re a beginner, it can create some bad chess habits unless those beginners are careful. This means, you the chess teacher (or parent) have to instill the principles used in regular chess into the minds of younger players before they play Bughouse on a regular basis. While it’s a fun way to play chess, it’s no substitute for good old fashion chess. However, lessons can be learned within the format of Bughouse as long as you think in teems of principled play so it has some benefit (besides being fun).

Now for Chess 960 as first introduced by Bobby Fischer. In this version, the pieces all start out on their starting ranks but where they are placed on the rank is different. This means Knights, Bishops, Rooks, Queen and King don’t start off on their traditional starting squares. This means all that opening theory goes partially out the window. However, this is a game that is heavy on tactics and serves as a tactical training aid. It also teaches beginners to attack where the action is. What do I mean by “where the action is?” Beginners tend to miss attacking opportunities because they don’t look at the entire board, only focusing in on where the opposition King is. This means they often miss weaknesses in their opponent’s position, lines where an opening to attack the enemy King can be created. Again, you have to be careful with young beginners when introducing them to this variation because it’s important they employ the opening principles in their regular games and follow sound middle and endgame principles as well. However, it can be used to help with improving a student’s attacking skills.

Children play a number of variations of chess from Suicide Chess to Exploding Chess. These variations should not be encouraged because they don’t aid in student’s chess education. Any variation played should always offer something in the way of training that incorporates the games principles. With that said, I encourage my students to create variations that have an educational purpose. Why? Because it gets them really thinking about the game, it’s principles and has them really examining the game in greater detail than when they simply play it. You should always encourage your students to explore the game as long as it’s a serious exploration. If my students are willing to approach creating a new variation of chess with the eyes of a scientist, I’ll support their quest. Don’t dismiss all chess variants because some of them can actually help improve aspects of your game. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Chess and Rehabilitation

Chess is a game (although devotees will tell you it’s more than just a game) enjoyed by young and old alike. It knows no racial, social, sexual or religious boundaries. It’s inexpensive to invest in the needed equipment to play it and with plenty of free, online sources, one can learn and improve at no cost. However, it can serve a greater cause, changing the future of those who have made bad decisions in their lives. Chess can help to rehabilitate those individuals who have difficultly solving problems in their lives, problems that range from criminality to substance abuse to scattered thinking. Let me explain this idea and give you some real examples of the positive changes chess has brought to a number of individuals.

We’ll start by looking at what chess can do for those individuals with scattered or disorganized thought patterns. We all known someone (maybe even ourselves) who seems to deal with life’s numerous problems in a roundabout way, often going from point “a” to point “b” in an illogical if not haphazard manner. Try as they may, they never seem to have an easy time of solving even the simplest of problems. Chess is a game that requires the ability to create a logical plan and execute it in a straight forward manner. Problem solving in chess comes down to coming up with a series of steps that resolves the issue at hand (a given position on the chessboard) in the most expedient manner possible. In chess, you cannot afford to take the scenic route, instead taking the most direct path to resolution available. This is a learned skill which is developed through both theory (studying the game) and practice (actually playing the game). The organized problem solving methods learned when studying chess can be applied to real life situations. The logic, reasoning and planning required to be a successful chess player can be employed when tackling the many problems we face in our day to day lives. After playing and studying chess, the once scattered thinker can now solve problems using an organized system of thought. Does this mean that chess will make you more intelligent? Sadly no! You’re born with the brain you’re born with but studying chess will hep you to make the best of what lies within your cranial cavity!

In the many schools I teach chess in, I present real life analogies played out on the chessboard and vice versa. I do this so students can more easily apply what they learn from chess to their lives. My students range from prep school children to hardened juveniles and adults who are locked up in jails. When teaching in jails and prisons, the one common thread all the men, both young and old) share is a series of extremely bad decisions they made during the course of their lives. While I’ve never spent time behind the hard iron bars of the prisons I teach in, I’ve made some truly bad decisions in my life that nearly cost me everything. The old adage “there but by the grace of God go I” rattles through my thoughts every time I enter a jail or prison. The only difference between the men I work with in prison/jail and myself is that I was fortunate enough to have found the game of chess before I ended up behind bars and learned a bit about making good decisions and the consequences of bad decisions. You know that other old adage, “sex, drugs and rock and roll?” Lets just say that in my youth I lived that lifestyle to its fullest and that kind of lifestyle is ripe with bad decisions. Because ,for whatever reason, I escaped ending up either dead or locked up in a jail somewhere, I work extremely hard to help incarcerated individuals learn how to stop making the type of bad decisions that landed them in leg irons. I say leg irons because I tend to only work with the worst offenders, many of whom committed murder and are actually moved around the prison in leg irons. On a side note, I will not allow prison guards to be in the room with me when I’m working with one to five of these men. It’s not that I’m some sort of tough guy who can take on five men at once. I simply need to show these guys a certain level of trust and in prison, trusting someone with your life is the highest form of trust there is. Since I’m still here writing this, I may be on to something! In actuality prisoners tend to be on their best behavior with outsiders.

With my incarcerated students, we learn, through the game of chess, how good decisions can make our lives on the chessboard easier and how bad decisions can spiral out of control and leave us in a hopeless situation or position. We apply this idea to their lives. We look to the future because the bad decisions of their past cannot be undone. We learn how, from the moment they start using chess to aid them with solving life problems, their lives can change for the better. The tools used to succeed on the chessboard can be used to succeed in life. Chess is also a way these men can challenge one another without anyone getting physically hurt. As I often say, “chess is the one way you can get into a fight that won’t land you back in jail.” I’ve paired rival gang members against one another on the chessboard and, while there might be a bruise or two to the loser’s ego, no blood is shed. In fact, often, these rivals will become playing partners and even respect one another in the end. Chess has a way of bringing these men closer together.

Then there’s the drug addicts and alcoholics I’ve taught chess to. For someone with a drug or alcohol problem, spending time alone with their thoughts can lead to further substance abuse. Being alone with one’s self can have deadly consequences. The hardest dilemma for the addict is having too much time on their hands when first in recovery because they start thinking (negative thoughts) and early in recovery, those thoughts are as poisonous as the substances they ingest. The addict, early in their recovery, has trouble focusing and when they do, their thoughts are extremely painful, with the addict dwelling on all they’ve lost. They also lack logic and reasoning skills because addiction is an illogical and scattered lifestyle. Therefore, chess is a valuable tool for keeping the addict’s mind occupied and for teaching them to problem solve without the use of drugs or alcohol. Addicts tend to avoid their problems, many deeply rooted within their psyche and extremely painful to relive, by indulging in the drug their choice. They avoid the pain that lives within them, remaining chemically numb because they don’t know how to deal with their pain. They don’t have a point of reference, only scattered thoughts. They’ve lost their ability to function in the world due to the substance abuse. They have no focus. Chess can provide a way in which to learn how to develop focus and concentration as well as how to make sound, logical decisions. However, one of the most important aspects of chess as it related to recovery is the game’s ability to help addicts avoid becoming trapped in their own dark thoughts. Chess keeps the occupied. It keeps the dark thoughts at bay because they’re trying to concentrate on playing. I’ve had good results with many addicts simply by teaching them this game that helps them make better decisions. In closing, chess can be extremely therapeutic as well. When I was diagnosed and treated for an aggressive cancer in 2007, it was chess that kept me from losing my mind. Every moment spent playing chess was a moment I didn’t think about possibly dying. Well, that was a rather grim article anc I thank you for suffering through it. Here’s a game to enjoy until week when I promise the subject matter will be a bit more upbeat!

Hugh Patterson

The Organized Army

Throughout history, most battles have been won by the more organized army. Win enough battles and you win the war. The same hold true with chess. An organized chess army is the army that wins the game. When we first learn the rules of this game we love so much, we concentrate on simply making legal moves with our pawns and pieces. We launch attacks that we’re sure will win the game only to become hopelessly lost in the weakest of positions. What started as a promising attack, with our powerful army leading the charge, ends in defeat. We moved the pieces according to the game’s rules, we launched attacks which you’re supposed to do in order to win games. So what went wrong, muses the novice player. Chances are, there was nothing in the way of organization and organization is the key to success on the chessboard and in life.

Organization really comes down to coordination. In life, those individuals who are organized seem to always accomplished things, seldom becoming bogged down and lost when facing any task, large or small. Disorganized individuals tend to take a lot longer to accomplish their goals and often don’t come close to reaching or meeting those goals. Chess requires having a flexible plan, one that isn’t so rigid that it can’t be adjusted to work within the ever changing positional landscape on the board. If you wish to create a plan that works however, you have to be organized!

Any discussion regarding organization should start with defining a plan. Simply put, a plan is a series of smaller steps that allow one to complete a task. Those steps have to follow a specific order. If you paint a room in your house, you don’t slap paint on the walls before you cover your furniture and floors with a drop cloth. You cover things up and then start painting. Thus most successful plans require the employment of a logical series of steps. However, in chess, there’s an added problem and that’s the creation of a plan that is flexible.

Positions on the chessboard can change drastically from move to move, especially in the games of beginners. Rigid chess plans are those that absolutely depend on one’s opponent making very specific moves that adhere to the plan. Of course, this is unrealistic because, one’s opponent is going to have his or her own plans and will not simply let you execute your plans without a fight. Therefore, you have to create a flexible plan that can change with the changing board positions from move to move. This means, when contemplating a move or plan, really thinking about what your opponent’s best response will be.

If you ask a beginner what their plan is they’ll tell you it’s to checkmate their opponent’s King. This is the goal of the game. The question is how you reach your goal through a series of smaller goals accomplished via plans. During the opening phase of the game, your goal is to control the center of the board by activating (moving) your pieces to active squares (those that control the board’s center) and Castle your King to safety. During the middle-game, your goal is to further activate your forces (pawns and pieces) and look for ways in which to reduce your opponent’s forces through exchanges of material. During the endgame, which many beginners never get to, checkmating your opponent’s King is the goal. These goals are met via short term or flexible plans. The point here is that you have to identify the immediate or short term goal in order to create a plan that allows you to achieve that goal. It comes down to organization. I have my students write down things they do in everyday life that require a plan and the steps they take to solve the problem they have to solve. This serves as an analogy they can use to create an organized plan when playing chess.

I say “organized plan” because I know plenty of people who, when faced with a task, take the long disorganized road to achieve their goal. In chess, time works against you so the longer you take to reach a goal via a disorganized plan, the more opportunities you provide you opponent to stop you from reaching your goal. This is where being organized plays a critical role.

Beginners need to think in terms of “what’s the simplest and quickest way to reach my goal?” When I say “quickest,” I don’t mean making fast decisions. Beginners often make quick moves without putting any thought into why they’re making those moves. We have to separate the idea of reaching our goal quickly with that of simply making moves at a break neck speed. Any move you make should have a legitimate reason behind it. I have my students pretend they’re a famous chess player surrounded by newspaper reporters who ask the question “why did you make that move” after the player’s turn. You need to be able to answer that question prior to committing to a move and if you can’t answer it, you have no business making the move in question.

Executing a plan quickly starts with the organizational skill of identifying the immediate goal. In the opening game, it’s control of the board’s center that fuels our plan. We know we have to achieves this goal during the first ten to fifteen moves and we can use the opening principles as a simple guide. We control the center with a pawn or two, further gain control of the board’s center by developing our minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) towards the four central squares (d4, d5, e4 and e5), Castle our King to safety and connect our Rooks. By using those principles we have an organized method for achieving our opening goal. However, it becomes difficult because our opponent is doing the same thing while also trying to stop us from achieving this goal. Therefore, we have adjust our plans slightly (flexibility) and try to foil our opponent’s plans while still trying to achieve our goal. This can become a confusing idea for the novice player.

The trick here is to always aim for our goals. If our opponent stops us from making a developing move we wanted to make during the opening, such as moving a Knight to f3, why not consider moving the other Knight to c3? You were eventually going to make this move so why not make it now since the move you wanted to make can’t be made immediately. To develop this way of thinking, planning in terms of flexibility, always come up with three possible moves you can make and then commit to one. Thus, if you had planned on developing your Knight to f3 but your opponent makes a pawn move that stops this before you had a chance to make that move, you have other moves you can make that fit in with your plan, centralized control during the opening.

When learning the art of planning and organization, I have my students write out their plans while they play practice games so their goals are clearly defined. They create plans with the fewest number of steps needed to achieve their goals in a logical sequence. On the paper they use for notes is written the phrase “what’s your opponent’s best response (counter move) to the move you’re considering?’ This reminds my students that their opponent is going to fight their plans to the bitter end. Try doing this when playing practice games and eventually you’ll find that you won’t need to write your plans down because you have them committed to memory. Take your time when playing and always have a plan that can change at a moments notice. This type of plan is flexible not rigid. Always remember, your opponent is never going to make the move you want them to make. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson