Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Know Your Students

Sometimes, I’ll go into a school, get the school started with a chess class and then hand the class over to another of our instructors six months later. When I check in with that instructor and ask them how the class is going, they always say the same thing, “those students are really loyal to you.” My students, be they children, teenagers or adults, are loyal to me. It’s not because I’m the greatest chess teacher in the world but because I make a point to get to know each of my students, and this goes a long way towards teaching those students chess.

Every student you encounter may share a common interest, in this case chess, but has different interests outside of your class. Students also have varied personalities. We’ve all seen the disastrous effects of “one size fits all” teaching in the school system. Each of us has a unique personality and because of this, we tend to absorb information in different ways. However, even using a teaching approach that takes this into consideration only goes so far. To maximize the student/teacher relationship, you have to know something about your students.

When I meet students for the first time, I interview them. I do this with all my students. I do so because I want to know how my students approach life. To determine this, I ask them about their interests. What are their favorite subjects in school and which subjects do they detest? One of their least favorite subjects, for example, is mathematics because many of my young students are leaving the cloistered safety of arithmetic and jumping into the waters of algebra. Knowing this, I can use chess notation to help them make the transition. After all, chess notation is based on alphanumeric thinking, something introduced when you first learn algebra. These same anti-mathematic students often have a passion for the creative arts and approach life differently because of this passion. These students need to learn the game from a visual perspective so pattern recognition is going to be their gateway learning tool.

Of course, pattern recognition is critical for all students of the game. However, with creatively inclined or visual learners, you have to emphasize pattern recognition even more so than mathematically inclined students. Student’s outside interests play a key role in getting them to play more chess. I always ask students if they play a musical instrument or partake in sports. Of course, this is a loaded question, as they say, because as soon as the student says “yes, I play the piano,” I hit them with “I bet you have to practice a lot.” Once the student admits to putting time into practicing I mention that chess works the same way. You get better only if you practice by playing a lot of chess! The same holds true with sports, for those that play sports rather than an instrument.

In addition to improving your ability to effectively teach, knowing your students helps build their respect for you because you’re listening to them. I treat my students, no matter how young, as adults. By this, I mean that when they speak to me I listen and give them the attention they often don’t get from other adults. What they say matters to me. When my students come to class, I’ll ask them how they are and what they’ve been up to. My students will gladly provide me with a plethora of information that helps me adjust my teaching methods to help them maximize the retention of information I’m providing. More importantly, the lines of communication are open and a student who might not ask subject related questions during class feels more prone to do so because he or she feels more comfortable with me. Respect is something not automatically given to you as a teacher because you’re a teacher. Respect is earned, no matter how young your students are.

I’ve had every kind of student, from well behaved to juvenile delinquent and, in the end, earning their respect goes the longest way towards helping them learn. It should be noted that earning respect can be a slippery slope. I’ve seen many instructors fail to earn their students respect because those instructors try to be something their not. They try to be more like a student than teacher. If you’re an adult, you’re not going to gain your student’s respect if you try to behave as they do. I maintain a higher level of discipline in my classes than the schools do in their regular classes. My students know that there are certain rules that cannot be broken. However, they also know that if they adhere to these rules, they’ll have fun. Just because you maintain an orderly class doesn’t mean your students are going think anything less of you, as long as you make a point of knowing them. Because I’m strict, when I do have a moment of being goofy, it makes it that much funnier!

Getting to know your students is also helpful for other reasons. Many students go through their academic life with learning disabilities that are not diagnosed. This happens because many schools are overcrowded, teachers don’t have the time to know every student or the teacher in question is burned out. If you, their chess teacher, can discover that a student has a learning issue, you can bring this to the attention of the school and help change that student’s life for the better. Then there’s the chess benefits.

Many of my classes have a waiting list, not because I’m a great chess teacher, but because my students and I are invested in one another so they take the class year in and year out. Seventy percent of my classes are filled with students who have been with me for two or more years. This only happens because I know my students! The longer you work with a student, the better their chess education!

The same idea holds true for adult students. I teach a few well known musicians who have very demanding schedules and very diverse lives. When they signed on for lessons, I got to know them by asking questions. The same questions I use for my younger students were asked of my adult students. What subjects did you like in school? What are you passions or hobbies outside of your profession? Knowing who a person is away from the chessboard is tantamount to helping them improve on the chessboard. If you don’t ask questions and get to know your student, you’re depriving them of the one thing you’re offering, knowledge. Do note that I had to figure all this out through trial and error. Figuring out how to teach, now that’s hard work. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


The Belt System

Teaching students in the school system presents a number of challenges regarding the measure of a student’s improvement. In a perfect world, the student’s progress would be measured in terms of rating’s points earned through tournaments. However, because my classes only take up seven or eight months of the school year, students don’t have the opportunity to play in many rated events. Therefore, I just recently started using the martial arts belt system for measuring my student’s progress. Like a martial arts class, students earn belts based on what they’ve learned and how they employ that knowledge, in this case, on the chessboard. This is a new teaching method for me and one that I’ve just started using so we’re still in the testing phase!

So far, this system has had positive results because students tend to put more into their studies when they know that their efforts are rewarded with a belt, which in this case is actually a program certificate. The belt order I use, from lower to higher skill levels is white, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown and black. The certificate has a color image of the belt, the student’s name, achievement and the date of passing their test.

My students have always had a healthy interest in the martial arts, many of them having taken classes. Running a chess class like a martial arts studio or dojo has advantages because you can work discipline into you teaching program. Since chess improvement requires discipline, this is an excellent way to help students develop this much needed skill. Chess classes don’t work unless students are fully engaged, otherwise, you’re simply working as a babysitter! Running a chess class like a martial arts studio keeps my students actively involved. While I use the belt system as a means to measure my students progress, and students have to pass tests for each belt, I’ve incorporated one other condition into their ability to progress from belt to belt. The more experience students must help the less experienced students improve. Students wishing to move up to the next belt must tutor students of lower belts. Teaching fellow students helps to improve one’s true understanding of the ideas and concepts being taught. It also helps solidify the idea that our class is a team and a team is only as strong as its weakest member. We work together for the common good of the dojo.

If you’re looking for a way to manage and measure your student’s progress, the belt system works well (so far) because often, in school based chess classes, you have a mix of students with different skill levels. If you try to present a game with intermediate concepts, the advanced students will become bored and the beginning students lost! It is very difficult to employ a one or two sizes fits all approach. What I started doing recently was presenting a game and pointing out concepts based on my belt system. When a key point for absolute beginners comes up, I’ll announce “white and yellow belts pay attention. All other belts be prepared to explain this concept to your students” When an advanced idea is presented, I’ll say “white and yellow belts this is an advanced idea which we’ll discuss later, one on one, so don’t worry about it if you don’t understand the idea right away.” It is now important for advanced students to pay attention to ideas they already have a basic understanding of since they’ll need to teach them to less experienced members of the group and it’s more important for less experienced students to know that they’re not expected to understand more advanced ideas right away. I’ve been using this system since the start of the this session less than two weeks ago with good results, so far.

So now we’ll look at qualifying for belts. All students who are brand new to chess start out as a white belt. To earn their yellow belt, they must know how the pawns and pieces move, castling, check and checkmate. White belts are expected to help other white belts learn these rules. To pass the yellow belt test one must also know the rules of promotion, capturing en passant, piece value and chess notation. Yellow belt candidates must also tutor at least one white belt to earn their belt.

Orange belts must learn and master three opening principles, starting the game with a centralized pawn move, development of minor pieces to active squares and when to castle. They must demonstrate that they’ve used these principles correctly during the three games I grade them on. I watch Orange belt candidates play three consecutive games and base their grades on the application of these three primary opening principles. Of course, they must tutor at least one yellow belt to advance.

The green belt test includes the three primary opening principles plus some additional principles regarding what you don’t want to do in the opening. I thought about including this in the orange belt test but wanted to make the student’s progression through the belt system easier at the start and more complex as they move up the ranks. The things they cannot do during the opening are making too many pawn moves, moving the same piece twice unless necessary (which requires a full explanation by the student) and bringing the Queen out early. Again, they also have to tutor at least one orange belt to advance.

The blue belt is more complex in that there are two levels within this belt. Students have to have taken classes with me for at least six months. This belt is all about introductory tactics. Students must learn and employ forks, pins, skewers, discovered attacks, etc. I watch as they play a number of games and while playing, when they execute a specific tactic, I grade them on it. They pass if they are able to set up and successfully execute each tactic. To pass the first belt level, students must simply set up and execute the tactic, one per game. To pass the second level, at least two tactical plays must be made in a single game. There is no limit to the number of games required to pass level two. They might meet the requirement in two games or twenty. Of course they have to tutor a student who holds a belt below theirs.

The brown belt requires learning basic middle and endgame play. This belt requires that the student has been taking chess classes with me for at least nine months. A brown belt candidate must demonstrate the ability to improve piece activity during the middle game, before attacking, and employ tactics during this game phase. Their endgame work requires the ability to deliver checkmate using their King and pawn, as well as the King and a combination of pieces. Their is also a test in which they play a pawn and King endgame against me, demonstrating ideas such as King opposition and using their King to promote a pawn. They also work with lower belt students.

Finally, the black belt requires two years of working with me. We work one on one, going through opening theory, advanced middle and endgame ideas, etc. Students, through hard work have the opportunity to work with their instructor (me) directly, playing a game and analyzing it afterward. Black belt candidates work with brown belt candidates.

Since this system is new for me, I’m working with yellow and orange belts only but expect to see more advancement towards the end of the year. Because I have a new crop of students, I thought this would be the right time to test this teaching method out. I’ll keep you posted regarding what works and what doesn’t. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


The Journey

Chess is a lot of things to a lot of people. For some it’s simply a game to pass the time while to others it’s a way of life. Chess is a battle in which we use our brains as our weapon. I tell my students that chess is an intellectual martial art, Kung Fu of the mind. As a student of both Tai Chi and Wing Chun, I see great similarities between chess and the martial arts. In fact, chess and martial arts are the two things that make me who I am. Without them, I’m not whole and I’m not happy. Let me explain:

Western society places a high premium on winning so many people study chess to get better at it so they win more games, demonstrating to themselves that they possess the superior mind. Wrong! Our goal in life should not be one of winning but one of improving our minds and bodies to their greatest potential. How you feel during your day depends on the state of your mind and body. When we’re sick our bodies ache and we don’t feel very well. We drag through our day looking forward to sleep. If we live a life without exercise, when we do have to do something physical we feel the wrath of a sedentary life, a life spent in front of our computer. If we watch television all day and then have to use our brains to solve a problem, our brain strains under the pressure and we become tired. Our lives become dreadful and we physically and mentally shuffle from one day to the next. I was this person, having the worst physical and mental habits you could have. I was dying a slow death each and every day. I wanted nothing more than to sleep because at least while I slept I felt no pain!

I’ve written about chess having gotten me through addiction and a life threatening disease which it did by strengthening my mind to battle the mental demons that manifested themselves in both situations. So chess holds a special place for me, not because I want to be a winner but because I want to maintain a healthy mental outlook. I also suffered all my life from dyslexia, something chess was able to eliminate from my life. How did chess do this? By forcing my brain, through pattern recognition, to visualize things correctly. Chess also helps one’s memory, something that weakens with age. Because chess has helped my mind so much, I view it more in Eastern terms as a way to balance my internal life which also aids my external life. While I enjoy winning my games, I take losses with a grain of salt, as something that is part of the journey. Losses are simply a reminder that we can always improve.

Of course, there are two components to one’s being, the mental and the physical. You have to have a good balance of both if either is work. For decades, I walked with a limp using a cane. A small flight of stairs was a painful obstacle. Doctors prescribed pain medications, a dangerous drug in the hands of a recovering addict. Fortunately, I knew enough to have my wife dole them out. However, I didn’t want to be enslaved to medication, not to mention the medication took away from my mental abilities. When faced with such a dilemma, you have to be proactive. I decided to try exercise but became bored easily when at the gym. I turned to Tai Chi and it was a game changer. It was slow and difficult at first because I felt as if I was getting no benefit from it. However, one day realized I was walking around without my cane and had no idea how long I had been doing so. People started commented that my limp was gone as well. The noticeable break through for me was that my chess playing got better because my mind was clear.

Over time, I started to feel more balanced, both internally and externally (with the world around me). I started talking on challenges I never would have in the past. This led me to wanting to study Kung Fu. I knew that I still had physical limitations due to the many reconstructive surgeries on my right ankle so I talked to a number of different martial artists who suggested I try Wing Chun. I found a teacher by accident. He was filling in for his brother driving his cab and I was a passenger. He said he always wanted to play western chess. When I found out he taught Wing Chun we decided to trade lessons. I look at the set of circumstances that led to this chance encounter, not as chance, but as an opportunity that presented itself because I was being proactive in my life. I opened my mouth and engaged in conversation with this man which led to a great opportunity. If you sit at home and wait for opportunity to knock, you’re apt to wait a lifetime. Opportunity presents itself to those who seek it.

As my body’s condition improves so does that of my mind. This means that my chess improves as well. If you want to attain your maximum potential as a chess player, you have to look at the bigger picture which includes your physical state. The physical and mental go hand in hand.

I now teach my young students that chess is a way in which they can strengthen their minds. Of course, they’re kids so they have a desire to win. However, by teaching them that there are lifelong benefits to playing chess, I remove some of the Western competitive thinking from their thought process. I’ve been restructuring my teaching program to approach chess from an Eastern point of view, treating the class like a martial arts studio. Students spare with one another on the board, learning to appreciate good moves made by each other regardless of the outcome. When a good move is made by one student, his or her opponent will compliment that move. I also encourage my students to engage in physical activities and teach them the balance between body and mind.

So my fellow chess players, play to improve your mind not just to win. Anyone can win but the person who can lose and learn from that loss is the true winner. Take care of your bodies because you only have one. Trust me when I say that a little bit of physical exercise will go a long way towards making you a happier person and a better chess player. You don’t have to go crazy and take up kick boxing. Try walking. My journey has taken me from very near death to feeling pretty darn good. I do suggest avoiding the near death part because it’s not much fun but take a cue from me; good mental and physical health makes for a better life and better chess. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Take a healthy walk, then play through the game!

Hugh Patterson


Getting the Most out of DVDs

As self improving chess players, we seek out educational tools to help us improve our game. Back when I first started playing, you had one choice if you wanted to get better at chess on your own, books. You’d go to the library or purchase a copy of the book you wanted, study it and apply your new found knowledge on the chess board. Back then, there were nowhere near as many chess books available as there are now and it was much easier to figure out which book would apply to your skill level. Now, we have an overwhelming number of chess books, most of which go over the heads of the average player. Then there are instructional DVDs.

DVDs are a great way to learn for those who don’t want to plod through often dryly written chess books. DVDs are visual and animated which helps with comprehension and pattern recognition. However, the DVD market is flooded with titles and it’s often difficult to determine which DVD is right for you. So, before we discuss how to get the most out of a chess DVD, we should briefly learn how to choose the correct DVD.

If you’re a beginner or improver, you’ll want to look for titles that include key words such as beginner, basic and introductory. Stay away from titles that use words such advanced or the term club player. Also avoid DVDs that concentrate on the games of a particular master because they’re often geared towards players with a solid grasp of more advanced principles. You’ll also want to consider the source. Remember, anyone can put out a chess DVD and these days it seems like everyone is. Plenty of titled players put out their own instructional DVDs but it takes a special talent to teach chess. This means that not all titled players are great or even just good teachers! Two DVD series I would recommend are the Chessbase series and the Foxy series. Both, use top notch teachers such an Andrew Martin, Nigel Davies and Daniel King, to name just a few! These titled players also teach so they know how to explain the subject matter in a manner that the viewer will understand. Now let’s look at how to get the most from your new DVD.

Let’s say you’ve decided to learn the Caro Kann opening and have purchased Andrew Martin’s Chessbase DVD, The ABCs of the Caro Kann. Before viewing the DVD, you should study the opening a bit. While Andrew’s DVD explains the opening in detail from move one, it’s to your advantage to do some preparation before actually viewing the DVD. Why should you do this? The answer is very simple. You’ll want to do some preparatory studying so you understand the underlying mechanics of this specific opening because the more basic knowledge you have of this opening prior to watching the DVD, the more you’ll get out of viewing it. Too often, players who use DVDs for their training don’t bother to prepare themselves prior to viewing. While they can learn from the DVD, they won’t learn as much as if they did some simple preparation. Here’s what I mean.

Get a general book on openings for your chess library if you don’t already have one. If you’re a beginner, get a book like The Dummies Guide to Chess Openings because its easy to understand. Read through the section on the Caro Kann. When reading that section, look at each move playing in this opening and examine the mechanics or principles behind that move. Does each move adhere to the opening principles? Play through the example games. The author presents a game in which black wins and one in which white wins. Take notes. Yes, take notes. Have a notebook dedicated to the Caro Kann. You should write the game you’re playing through down in your notebook and comment on every move. Your commentary should explain, in your own words, why a move works, why it doesn’t, etc.

Then go online and look up the Caro Kann. Read a few beginner’s articles and watch a few videos. This sounds like a lot of work just to watch a DVD but you’ll be rewarded in the end. Take notes on the articles you read and any videos you watch. Now it’s time to watch The ABCs of the Caro Kaan!

Common sense tells us to start at the beginning of an instructional video and work our way through sequentially. You’d be surprised how many chess players will skip around in no real order when watching such a DVD, cheating themselves out of a series of strong, well thought out lessons. In the case of Andrew’s DVD, the presentation is designed to be watched sequentially and that’s how you get the most out of it. Take notes as well. The great thing about these DVDs is that you can rewind them and watch parts again, parts that you may find confusing the first time around. If you can rewind a section that you don’t understand and re-watch it, why take notes? Because when you take notes, you’re writing the concepts down in your own words which helps you retain those ideas in your head. Its also much easier to carry a notebook around (and safer) than a laptop.

Go through each individual video a few times before moving to the next video. In other words, don’t simply go from one game to the next (one video to the next). Watch Andrew’s presentation of a game two or three times, then move on to the next video. Often, ideas demonstrated in one section will form the backbone of the next section (video). After you’ve gone through the entire DVD, practice what you’ve learned in some casual games. After playing the opening yourself, go back and watch the DVD again. You’ll learn more from the DVD, having played the opening yourself.

Take your time when watching chess DVDs. You will not retain everything offered through this instructional tool in one sitting. Watch it over and over. Take your time. If you really want to get the most out of self learning using DVDs, try this approach. I use this method (I wouldn’t ask you to try something unless I did so myself) and it works. Here’s game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Tournament Prep for Older Players

I met a chess player a few weeks back who was about to enter his first tournament in three weeks. He’s in his late forties and sought my advice for getting ready, both for this tournament and future tournaments. “You should consider Tai Chi or another martial art and get cracking with it!” His look of bewilderment said it all. My chess playing friend was of the opinion that chess was a completely mental effort and no physical conditioning was needed. Wrong. If you don’t believe me ask Boris Spassky who blended his chess studies with physical activities! I recommend Tai Chi to my students now because it helps immensely with stamina, concentration, focus and patience. Exercising your mind for many hours cannot be done simply by building your mental muscles because using your brain can be physically draining. We’ve all had a bad case of “brain drain” in which we’re physically exhausted after a long match. You increase your brain function physically as well as intellectually. It’s a case of Yin and Yang.

“Since, I’m not going to become a martial arts master in the three weeks left before my first tournament, what can I do?” Expecting me to say “not much, good luck,” he was taken back when I gave him some ways to increase his stamina in this short time period. Here’s what I suggested:

Change your eating habits to start. Start reducing the amount of sugar and caffeine you take in. While these might give you a boost of energy, that energy is short lived. As they say, what goes up must come down and this is true when ingesting sugar and caffeine based products. Eat fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as anything else deemed healthy. Consider the time of day when you’ll be playing to determine the appropriate food to eat. Heavy foods make you sluggish which translates to being sleepy (not good for the tournament player). Eat light and healthy. “Should I start now?” Absolutely! I told my friend that he must start now so his body can adjust to the lack of sugar and caffeine. Sugar and caffeine are treated by the body the same way drugs are which means there is a period of withdrawal. When you introduce a chemical to your body and it’s a substance your body naturally produces, your body will stop producing it. Therefore, when you stop feeding your body that substance, it takes a while for the body to start producing it again. Healthy eating and natural forms of energy acquisition make for better levels of concentration.

Next, I told my friend to regulate his sleep so he is getting the necessary amount of sleep each night. I heard people say they do their best work on little sleep. This is a ego driven myth. We need sleep and most of us don’t get enough due to life’s many surprises. Rather than just getting a good night’s sleep just prior to the tournament, I told my friend that each time he got a good night’s sleep before the tournament was like putting money in the bank of focus and concentration. The longer you put money in, the greater the amount available later on (focus and concentration) when you need to cash out! He needed eight full hours of sleep per night. I asked when the tournament started and he said 10:00 am. Since it was a local tournament less than 30 minutes from his house, I suggested going to bed at 11:00 pm and getting up at 7:30 pm. He mentioned that this added up to 8 ½ hours. I reminded him that it takes people a bit of time to actually fall asleep. Sleep isn’t sleep unless you’re actually sleeping.

Time for some exercise. I didn’t expect him to do ten three minute rounds of boxing with me (something I do three times a week in addition to my other physical activities) but I did expect him to get the blood flowing through his body, feeding a greater amount of oxygen to the brain. I suggested taking long walks every single day, rain or shine. Sitting around hunched over the chess board while studying opening theory looks impressive but you mind can wander easily when you start to get tired. Walking is a good way to get the blood flowing to your brain and isn’t as boring as sitting in a gym doing repetitive exercises (yes, martial arts requires repetitive exercises but they’re a lot more fun than a stair master). I told him to walk two miles a day, downloaded an app to measure his progress and reminded him that I would check the app. Of course, I had to say, quoting a friend, a Chinese Judge who says to young people who stand before her in court in regards to cheating on his exercise “You shame your family honor if you don’t walk the full two miles.” I suspected he was having second thoughts about asking for my advice.

“Well, what about the chess part of this preparation?” My reply was “stick with what you know.” At this point, he got a bit agitated “What?” I explained that he should employ the openings he felt comfortable with rather than trying out something new. If you want to play a new opening at a tournament, you need to put at least six months of serious work into that opening before testing it out in tournament play. “What if my opponent plays an opening I’m not familiar with?” In these case, let the opening principles guide you but not in a mechanical way. Always make moves to improve your position rather than going for premature attacks. If your opponent is tactical, close the position down. Always work with your pawns with an eye towards the endgame. Play both sides not just your own. Pretend to be your opponent and find his best move before he does. Then you can calculate an appropriate response.

“Sometimes my mind wanders while my opponent is thinking about their move.” That comment was worthy of a “shame your family honor” rebuttal, which he got! The time in which your opponent is thinking of possible moves is a gift to you! You should be looking at every single one of the opposition’s pawns and pieces, figuring out where they could move to to create problems for your position. When you have this free “opposition time,” you should use it wisely, examining the position carefully. If you do it right, you’re actually using your opponent’s own clock time against them. I recommend reading The Art of War to get into this way of thinking.

Get to your tournament early which means leaving early. Rushing into a tournament means you’re going into it with added stress. Tournaments can be stressful enough so don’t add to an already stressful situation. So far, my friend is taking my suggestions to heart. While he may not take of Tai Chi, the cure all for everything in my book, he’ll at least avoid some of the pitfalls many players experience when they sit down to play. All this advice is simple common sense but there seems to be a global lack of it these days. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


King Opposition

As I’ve said in previous articles about the endgame, beginners seldom know what to do when in this game phase. Of course, most beginner’s games end well before a proper endgame so I can’t fault them for lacking practical experience. However, one problem beginner’s face when they do end up in an endgame, in which Kings and pawns are the only material left on the board, is the use of their Kings. Beginners tend to leave their Kings sitting inactively on their starting ranks. King activity is absolutely a must in King and pawn endgames!

The beginner who has gained a small modicum of experience knows to defend their King in the game’s first two phases, the opening and middle-game. During the opening, the beginner castles his King to safety and develops his or her pieces actively. During the middle-game, our beginner keeps a watchful eye out for opposition attacks on their King while launching their own attacks on the enemy King. Then, if they reach the endgame, the beginner often attempts to advance pawns across the board to their promotion squares. However, they often do so without the assistance of their King. When the majority of you and your opponent’s material is off the board, you need to employ the power of the King!

When students ask me to analyze their endgame, asking who has the better chance of winning, I first look at the balance of material. If they have a superior force that can corral opposition pawns while helping to promote one of their own pawns, they’ve got the opportunity to win. If the position is equal, material-wise, I look at King activity. If their opponent’s King is active and their King is not, the opposition has better opportunities to win. Again, you have to get your King into the game if you’re going to deliver a successful checkmate!

King opposition is a key factor in endgame play! Simply put, Kings in opposition are Kings facing one another on a rank, file or diagonal with a single square separating them. You’ll want to have the opposition to gain the advantage. What do I mean by having the opposition? You have the opposition when the other King has to move. In other words, if you’re playing the white pieces in such a position and it’s black’s turn to move, you have the opposition. When the black King moves, he gives the white King the right of way so to speak. Look at the example below:

In this example, it’s black to move. The black King moves to f6. The white King now has two choices. He can move to f4, maintaining the opposition, or he can move to d5, outflanking the black King. Outflanking means getting past something by moving around its side. A key point beginners should embrace is the idea that the opposition King can never move to squares controlled by their King. This means that you’ll want to use your King to control squares you want to keep the opposition King off of. This becomes a critical idea when using your King to aid in the promotion of a pawn. Now let’s see these ideas employed in an endgame situation in which both players have their Kings and a pawn each.

It’s black to move, so white has the opposition. The black King moves to d7 (1…d7) in an effort to protect his pawn and go after the white pawn on f5. However, getting the white pawn will prove difficult. It is too soon for the white King to outflank the black King so white keeps the Kings in opposition with 2. Kd5. Black moves his King to e7 (2…Ke7) to prevent white from placing his King on e6. So far, white is dictating the play in this endgame! Only now does white outflank the black King with 3. Kc6. Timing is everything in an endgame scenario such as this. The white pawn on f5 cuts off the e6 square and, combined with the white King’s control of d6 and d7, the black King cannot get onto a good square. Note that the white King is on the same rank as the back pawn, preparing to go after that pawn. In our example, black plays 3…Ke8 which merely puts off black’s demise by a few moves.

White then plays 4. Kd6, heading toward the poor black pawn. One point that should be made about pawn and King endgames is that you should always consider your opponent’s best response to your move before you make it. When white moved his King to d6, he knew that black would play 4…Kf7, trying to protect the pawn. As a beginner, you should note that this type of endgame position relies completely on the Kings. Since the pawns are locked in place, it is up to one of the Kings to free his pawn by capturing the opposition pawn. White plays 5. Kd7 and this is the critical move, placing the King’s in opposition. Since it’s now black’s turn to move, white has the opposition and, because of the position of the Kings and pawns, black is forced away. Black plays 5…Kf8 and white will win.

The game continues with 6. Ke6. White is now next to the black pawn so black tries to hold onto it with 6…Kg7 but white has anticipated black’s move and now plays 7. Ke7. The black King cannot go to g6 because of the white pawn on f5 so he is forced away from the defense of his f6 pawn, playing 7…Kg8. White will now capture the black pawn with 8. Kxf6.

It is at this point in the position that I would tell a student playing white to slow down and think very carefully about the next few moves. Experienced players might say “oh, but this is such an easy win!” The problem is that beginners often see the end result, checkmate, and become so excited that they play quickly which leads to a blunder which leads to stalemate.

Black now plays 8…Kf8. Black is hoping to somehow block the white pawn’s advance but white should fear not because white has his King in front of the pawn. When trying to promote a pawn with the aid of your King, you want your King facing your opponent’s King, in opposition. You don’t want your King behind your pawn which leads to a draw. This means that white has to think carefully about the next move. White plays 9. Ke6, outflanking black’s King. This allows white to control two key squares, e7 and f7. Black plays 9…Ke8, trying to maintain opposition. After 10. f6, black plays 10…Kf8, desperate to stop the advancing white pawn. After 11. f7, black is lost because he has to move off of the white pawn’s promotion square (f8). Black plays 11. Kg7. Here white moves his King to e7 with 12. Ke7, which protects both the white pawn and its promotion square. With nothing better to do, black plays 12…Kh7 followed by white promoting his pawn to a Queen with 13. f8=Q. Needless to say, white will win!

You should always use the ideas of King opposition and outflanking in endgame play. Always bring your King into the endgame and always take your time during this phase. Rather than give you a game to enjoy, here’s some homework: Set up five endgame positions, using Kings and pawns, with your computer or human opponent. Play through them and practice the ideas I presented above. Enjoy your homework!

Hugh Patterson


Chess Games for Heroes (2)

Here’s another Chess Games for Heroes offering in which students are shown a game, asked to find the best move in certain situations, and are rewarded with points for making good choices.

Game 2
Howard Staunton – Alfred Brodie
London 1851

This game was played in the first ever international chess tournament, held in London in 1851. Howard Staunton, the winner of this game, was one of the strongest players in the mid 19th century as well as the organiser of the tournament. Alfred Brodie was an amateur drafted in at short notice when some of the expected players failed to arrive on time. Can you play as well as Staunton?

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6

Choose a move for White

3. d4

5 points for this move, Nc3, Bc4 or Bb5. 3 points for c3 or Be2. This is the SCOTCH GAME.

Choose a move for Black

3… exd4

5 points for this move, Black’s only good reply. 2 points for d6, Nf6 or Nxd4.

Choose a move for White

4. Bc4

5 points for this move, Nxd4 or c3. Nxd4 is the main line of the SCOTCH GAME. 4. c3 is the GÖRING GAMBIT. 4. Bc4 is the SCOTCH GAMBIT. White plays for quick development rather than stopping to take the pawn back.

Choose a move for Black.

4… Bb4+

3 points for this move. 5 points for Nf6, Black’s safest reply, which is a variation of the TWO KNIGHTS DEFENCE. 3 points also for Bc5, Be7 or d6.

Choose a move for White

5. c3

5 points for this move, gaining time by attacking the bishop. 2 points for Bd2.

5… dxc3

Choose a move for White

6. 0–0

5 points for this move, bxc3 or Nxc3. White again goes for quick development but taking the pawn on c3 was also good.

6… Qf6

Choose a move for White

7. e5

3 points for this move. 5 points for Nxc3, probably the best move. 3 points also for bxc3, Bg5, Qc2 or Qb3. White sets a trap, hoping Black will capture the pawn.

Bonus question 1: what would you play if Black played Nxe5 here?

5 points for Nxe5.

Bonus question 2: what would you then play if Black played Qxe5?

10 points for Re1.

7… Qe7

Choose a move for White

8. a3

2 points for this move which is a bit slow. 5 points for Nxc3 or bxc3, taking a pawn back.

8… cxb2

Choose a move for White

9. Bxb2

No points: this is the only sensible move. Otherwise Black will capture the rook on a1 and get another queen. Lose 5 points if you played anything else.

9… Bc5

Choose a move for White

10. Nc3

5 points for this move, getting the knight out onto a strong square. 2 points for Qc2 or Qd3.

10… d6

Choose a move for White

11. Nd5

5 points for this strong move, attacking the black queen. 2 points for exd6.

Bonus question 3: What would you play if Black played Qe6 now?

10 points for Nxc7+, a FORK winning the queen.

11… Qd8

Choose a move for White

12. exd6

5 points for this move. This capture opens two lines of attack for White: the e-file and the long diagonal. 3 points for e6 and 2 points for Re1.

12… Bxd6

Choose a move for White

13. Bxg7

5 points for this move, capturing a pawn and trapping the rook in the corner. No points for anything else.

13… Bg4

Choose a move for White

14. Re1+

5 points for this move, moving the rook to the open file, checking the black king and setting a trap. 5 points also for Bxh8: capturing the rook must also be good.

14… Nge7

Choose a move for White

15. Nf6#

10 points for this move. White spots a clever checkmate. 5 points for Bxh8 which will also win easily.

Howard Staunton won this game by developing his pieces quickly and opening lines for an attack on the enemy king. Black played a risky opening, accepting the gambit pawns. He then made two mistakes. He should have played Ba5 rather than Bc5 on move 9, to capture the knight if it went to c3. His 10th move, d6, was also a mistake, allowing Staunton to open the e-file.

Finally he overlooked the checkmate but he was going to lose his rook on h8 anyway. It would still have been easy for Staunton to win the game.

If you didn’t score well on this game think about how you can develop your knights and bishops quickly. Exchanging pawns will help you open lines for your pieces. Castle quickly and then use your rook in the centre of the board.

Richard James


Endgame Preparation

A student at last week’s summer chess camp asked me when he should start preparing for the endgame. He was a bit shocked when I suggested he start his endgame preparation at the start of the game, during the opening. “Isn’t a game of chess divided into three phases, with the endgame coming last?” he asked. “It certainly is,” I replied. I went on to explain that too often novice players don’t consider the endgame until they’re in it and by that time their position going into this game phase is dreadful. As you advance in your playing abilities, you’ll find that games stop ending during the middle game (or earlier) and go into a real endgame! This means you have to prepare early and the player who prepares from the start will be better off at the end of the game!

Probably the biggest endgame offense beginners make is that of pawn structure. The novice players lives in the here and now, not thinking ahead. Thinking ahead requires experience which the beginning player only gains through theory and practice. While the beginner may follow the opening principles and use central pawns to stake a claim in the board’s center, they often give up non-centralized pawns in an effort to trade material. When the endgame starts, our novice player often faces a pawn majority on one side of the board or the other. If their opponent has twice as many pawns at this point, it is likely that they’ll be able to promote one of those pawns and win the game. The first idea the beginner should embrace is to never capture material unless it improves their position!

Novice players consider pawns expendable since their relative value is the lowest of all the material and there are eight of them at the game’s start. Using simple arithmetic, the beginner sees trading a one point pawn for a three point minor piece as a good deal. In many circumstances it might be a winning exchange. However, if it weakens your position, you might reconsider such an exchange. A more experienced player might be happy to trade a minor piece for a pawn if doing so gives them a better position or substantial pawn majority going into the endgame.

We should always think about pawn majorities, having a greater number of pawns on one side of the board than our opponent has, throughout the game. At some point, minor and major pieces will be traded off leaving both players going into the endgame sometimes with only pawns and their Kings. If your opponent has three pawns on the Queen-side and you have only one, your opponent will most likely be able to promote one of those pawns into a Queen.

Be wary of isolated pawns, those who have no potential protection from their fellow pawns. Pawns are like Sparrows in that they may be small but when they work together they get things done. I watch a group of these wonderful birds in my backyard each morning and when the larger Crows show up to raid the Sparrow nests, the little Sparrows fight back as an angry mob and the Crows give up. You don’t see a lone little Sparrow going out to fight. They, like your pawns work best together. Employ pawn chains to keep you pawns safe during the opening and middle-games. Pawns can do an excellent job of protecting one another, leaving your pieces available for attacking duties.

If you have a passed pawn, send it towards its promotion square. Even if you may not be able to promote it, your opponent will have to deal with it, tying down one of his or her pieces to do so. Remember the saying “Rooks belong behind passes pawns.” If you have a Rook sitting around doing nothing on its starting rank, put it to work as a body guard for a passed pawn! Your pawns and pieces are not in the game if they’re idle. Your material must work!

Another endgame misconception beginners have is the idea that with fewer pieces on the board, a player has to do less thinking. Wrong! Just because you have fewer pieces on the board during the endgame doesn’t mean you can mentally relax, in fact, it’s just the opposite. During the endgame you have to calculate further than in the opening or middle-game. The good news is that with fewer pawns and pieces skulking around the board, calculations are a bit easier to make (but still difficult for the average player). Since you have fewer pawns and pieces going into the endgame, you cannot lose material because the smaller your army, the more disastrous the position becomes when your material is taken away. If both you and your opponent have two pawns and a King each, and suddenly you blunder away one of your pawns, your opponent now has a two to one pawn majority and that’s a winning percentage!

To think or calculate ahead in the endgame, start by considering your opponent’s best response to your potential move. Pretend you’re playing his or her side of the board. You should be doing this through the entire game. Often, you’ll see that what appeared to be a reasonable move can be easily refuted by the opposition. In doing this, you’ll see the best possible moves your opponent can make. Make a mental note of them. If you can’t find an opposition move that thwarts your candidate move, take it one step further and ask yourself If I make move “x” and my opponent responds with move “y”, what is my next move? Go through the response sequence once more. Beginners should start by trying to think through two complete game turns when calculating their endgame positions. While master level players think many, many moves ahead during the endgame, the beginner has yet to train their brains to do this. Therefore, take it slow and build up your calculation abilities.

Another bad habit beginners have when it comes to the endgame is striping their opponents of everything but the King, thinking that leading the mating attacking with an overwhelming force will easily win the game. I have seen so many junior level games end in stalemate because of this. Consider leaving your opponent with a movable piece or pawn to avoid this scenario.

Speaking of Kings, activate yours going into the endgame. While we avoid exposing our King during the opening and middle-game, he becomes a deadly fighter and defender during the endgame. Don’t let your King sit on its starting rank during the endgame. Use him to help get those pawns safely to their promotion squares! Kings must be active in the endgame!

In conclusion, you should always be thinking about the endgame, even during the opening because with fewer pawns and pieces on the board at the game’s end, every bit of material counts. Practice playing endgames with your friends by setting up a board with your Kings and a few pawns each. Then add a minor or major piece to the mix. While there are concepts and principles I didn’t mention, because you could fill a book or three with them, these basic ideas should point you in the right direction. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Chess Games for Heroes (1)

Last week I introduced you to the concept of Chess Games for Heroes: short games for use by chess teachers in clubs, small groups or one to one, where students have to guess the next move (or rather select what they consider to be the strongest move) and receive points for good suggestions.

Here, as promised is the first game.

Game 1
Gioacchino Greco – NN
About 1620

This is one of the earliest surviving games of chess. Gioacchino Greco was an Italian chess player born in about 1600. In 1625 he published a book of games, which were probably his opening analysis. Here’s one of them. Can you find his moves?

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6

Choose a move for White.

3. Bc4

5 points for this move, Nc3, d4 or Bb5. 3 points for c3 or Be2. This is the ITALIAN GAME.

Choose a move for Black.

3… Bc5

5 points for this move, the GIUOCO PIANO, or Nf6, the TWO KNIGHTS DEFENCE. 3 points for Be7 and 2 points for d6.

Choose a move for White.

4. c3

5 points for this move, d3, Nc3, 0-0 or b4 (the EVANS GAMBIT). White plans to play d4, controlling the centre.

Choose a move for Black.

4… d6

2 points for this move. 5 points for Nf6, the best move, attacking e4. 3 points for Qe7 or Bb6.

Choose a move for White.

5. d4

5 points for this move. 3 points for 0-0, d3 or b4. White has two strong pawns in the centre.

5… exd4

Choose a move for White

6. cxd4

5 points for this move, keeping his two pawns in the centre.

6… Bb4+

Choose a move for White

7. Nc3

5 points for this move, or for Kf1 (it’s usually better to block in this sort of position but Kf1 creates various threats here). 3 points for Nbd2 or Bd2.

7… Nf6

Choose a move for White

8. 0–0

5 points for this move, d5 or Bg5. 3 points for Qd3 or Qc2. Black can now win a pawn but White is getting his pieces out quickly and Black hasn’t castled yet.

Bonus question 1. Suppose White plays 8. d5 here. Choose a move for Black in that position.

5 points for Bxc3+

Bonus question 2. Now suppose that after 8. d5 Black plays Ne7. Choose a move for White in that position.

5 points for Qa4+, a FORK winning the bishop. This is why Black had to play Bxc3+ after d5.

8… Bxc3

Choose a move for White

9. bxc3

No points for this obvious recapture. Also no points for d5. If you played anything else you lose 5 points.

9… Nxe4

Choose a move for White

10. Re1

5 points for this move, putting a rook on the open file and PINNING the knight. 3 points for d5, Qc2 or Nd2.

10… d5

Choose a move for White

11. Rxe4+

5 points for this interesting sacrifice. 5 points also for Ba3, stopping Black from castling. White has lots of good moves here: 3 points for Bxd5 (after Qxd5, Ng5 will win the piece back because of the PIN), Bg5, Bd3, Nd2 or Ng5.

11… dxe4

Choose a move for White

12. Ng5

5 points for this move, threatening to capture on f7.

Choose a move for Black

12… 0–0

No points for this move, which, as you’ll see, loses. 5 points for Ne5 (White can’t take the knight because he’ll lose his queen). 2 points for Rf8 or Be6.

Choose a move for White

13. Qh5

5 points for this move, giving White a winning attack.

Bonus question 3. What would you play if Black played g6 here.

5 points for Qxh7# – CHECKMATE ends the game.

13… h6

Choose a move for White

14. Nxf7

5 points for this move, giving White a winning attack. 2 points for Bxf7+.

14… Qf6

Choose a move for White

15. Nxh6+

5 points for this move, a DOUBLE CHECK leading to mate. 2 points for Bg5 which wins the queen.

15… Kh8

Choose a move for White

16. Nf7+

5 points for this move. 2 points for Nf5+, Ng4+ or Ng8+, which take longer.

16… Kg8

Choose a move for White

17. Qh8#

5 points for this move: it’s CHECKMATE!

Black played a natural but not very good move on move 4 after which he was always in trouble. White occupied the centre with his pawns, developed his knights and one of his bishops quickly (he didn’t need to use the other bishop), castled quickly and put his rook on the open e-file. Black tried to castle to make his king safe but this gave White a winning attack.

Richard James


Unrealistic Expectations

Over the last 13 months, I’ve had the opportunity to interview people who stopped playing chess after a serious attempt on their part to study the game. The point of my interviews was to find out why they gave up on the game they once loved so much and, to see if there was anything I could do to help my students avoid such a fate. While there were a wide range of reasons sited, the overwhelming single answer was frustration because they weren’t progressing.

Of course, whenever you attempt to learn any skill, there will be bumps along the road to mastery. To succeed, you have to be able to ride over those bumps in order to arrive at your destination, in this case, playing good chess! However, the height and difficulty of those bumps in the road are more often than not, determined by the person traveling that road. We create these seemingly impassible obstacles by creating unrealistic expectations regarding our overall goal and it all boils down to becoming frustrated because we cannot meet our goal due to our approach.

One problem that creates an air of frustration is the need to learn how to do something as quickly as possible. Western society places a high premium on learning to do things quickly. Of course, I can’t fault someone for wanting to master a skill quickly. After all, if given the choice between being able to learn a skill in one month or one year, we’d all opt for the one month time line! However, chess, like music, requires a slow but steady course. You can’t buy a piano and expect to be playing like Mozart a week later. The same holds true for chess. Chess, like music, requires a careful balance of theory and practice. Like music, you can study all the theory in the world but unless you spend hours and hours actually playing, theoretical knowledge won’t get take you very far. Chess also requires practice, in the form of playing other people to hone your skills.

However, before you can find that balance between theory and practice, you need to have a long hard look at your expectations and reality. By this, I mean that our expectations are often greater than the reality they’re based in. So often, I hear beginning students say “I’m going to get my rating up to 1200 in six months time, then 1800 within the next eight months.” In their minds, they’ve created a very reasonable plan. However, reality can be a cruel mistress. With the mastery of any skill, those first steps go along quite smoothly. With chess, the beginner can make great strides very quickly. This comes about because the beginner has no knowledge at the start of their chess career so each basic concept learned can be quickly applied to their game, garnering them seemingly instant results.

In my daily classes, my beginners learn the basic opening principles. When I start with these beginners. They thrust flank pawns out onto the board, put their Knights on the rim and leave their King’s exposed. After learning the three primary opening principles, they are now opening with a central pawn move, developing their minor pieces towards the board’s center and castling their Kings. This happens quickly and they are rewarded for their efforts. They start winning a few games or at least don’t lose as quickly. They pick up a few tactical ideas and endgame principles and things are moving along quickly. Then they hit their first bump in the road. They play opponents with a bit more experience and they stop winning any games at all.

This is where frustration rears its ugly head. At the start of their studies, they gained knowledge that allowed them to see their game improve quickly. I tell my students from the start that they will make that initial rating jump quickly but it slows down after that. As they develop their skills and their rating goes up, they’re facing stronger opponents who have more playing experience. What my beginners see is that their newly acquired knowledge is no longer pushing them forward. While I now teach them further piece activation and how to transition into the middle game, they are still frustrated that progress is not coming at a faster pace.

This happens because they base their expectations on their experience, which in the case of chess, is limited because their still beginners. As you develop your skills, the knowledge you must embrace and understand becomes more complex, which means that improvement will be slower. The best approach to take is that of taking things slowly and not expecting too much. Measure progress in small increments not giant leaps and bounds. Take your time for Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a Grandmaster.

One of the root cause of chess frustration for the serious beginner is setting impossible studying schedules. The overenthusiastic beginner will think “I’ll study chess for four hours a day, seven days a week to improve quickly.” Chess requires enormous concentration and concentrating for too long can drain you, causing you to simply waste that time because you’re struggling to think. While a player with years and years of experience can study for many consecutive hours, they can do so because their brain is conditioned for it. They’ve built up their mental muscles! The beginner’s mind simply cannot concentrate for longs periods of time. Start slowly, maybe thirty minutes, four days per week. Yes, employing a lighter study schedule seems like it would take forever to raise one’s skill level. However, a beginner who attempts to study for three hours straight will find that their mind will start to wander after thirty minutes. This means they would spend two and a half hours trying to keep their concentration up. Start with short periods of concentrated study and you won’t waste time!

The beginner should also consider when and where they study. Study some place quiet and study when you’re least tired. Studying while sitting in busy train station after being up all night will get you nowhere! Quality must always come over quantity. Better to spend a week of thirty minute study sessions learning a single opening principle than trying to learn them all in one long study session. Remember the fable of the Hare (rabbit) and the Tortoise, slow and steady wins the race.

The trick here is to not have unrealistic expectations regarding your progress. Be happy with slow but steady advancement and you’ll avoid frustration. Learn one idea thoroughly and then move onto the next idea. Don’t be too critical of the speed at which you learn because we all learn at different speeds. Record all your games from the start because when you get frustrated at your lack of progress, you can play through your early games and see that you really have improved. Relax, take your time and remember, slow and steady really does win the race. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson