Category Archives: Hugh Patterson

Why Teach Chess?

It’s a question I’m asked often by people who know me from my other career, music. I suspect they ask this question because they know me from one world, a world in which chaos and living on the edge are king while logic and reason are foggy notions. People tend to think that musicians have one interest and one interest only, music. They don’t consider the idea that, like every other human on the planet, musicians have multiple interests. I’m fortunate in that the two things that interest me the most are both careers and,more importantly, those careers pay the bills. A professor once said to me “Find something you passionately love to do, find someone to pay you for doing it and you’ll always love your job and your life.” However, there’s much more to it than simply making money via something you love to do. It’s the end result of what I do that’s my real reason for teaching chess to children.

When I first starting teaching chess in the schools, I was attracted to the pay, the hours (I could sleep in until ten in the morning if it were not for the sad reality that I’m a workaholic) and the fact that I’d be getting paid to do something I love. I wish I could tell you that it was my life long mission to teach chess to children but I’d be lying. The job literally fell into my lap when a friend called me with a teaching opportunity. The same thing happened with my musical career which was accidental at best. With music, I was in the right place at the right time. With chess, it was a similar story.

It wasn’t until after I started teaching that I realized how important my new career was. It wasn’t important regarding the training of a new generation of chess players, even though that was part of it. What was crucial was the idea that I was helping my students develop logic and reasoning skills. Why is this so important?

I’m 56 years old (or young, as I like to think) and I’ve had my chance to make my mark on the world through my music. I had my day in the sun and, while I still write new songs and push the boundaries of music (mostly through a lack of talent), I know in my heart that it’s up to a younger generation to really turn music on it’s head and take it into uncharted waters. This idea holds true for everything from science to the arts. It’s the children that I teach who will take up the torch and move civilization forward. By teaching chess, I’m able to give my students the tools they’ll need to change the world. What are these tools? Simply put, the thought process. To change the world, you need to think differently than others and this requires a well honed thought process.

Chess is a fantastic tool for developing and honing your thought process. Too often as adults, we’re encapsulated by a myriad of problems, all demanding our attention at once. It can be work related or personal. In either case, we sometimes freeze like a deer suddenly faced with the glare of a car’s headlights. We get stuck and can’t find a way out, a solution to a seemingly endless parade of problems. We try to take on everything at once rather than one problem at a time. While children rarely have this dilemma, as they grow older, they will face the same situation. Too many problems hitting them all at once. Chess teaches us how to tackle problems in a logical manner. We learn how to look at a series of problems and determine which one needs to be solved first. We learn to deal with things with order and reason. Chess also teaches us patience, something that’s in short supply these days among the human species. Patience is key to problem solving. To prepare children to face life’s problems I teach them logic and reasoning skills. Employing logic and reason helps them to avoid that dreadful feeling of helplessness you get when it seems you can’t find a way out of the plethora of problems we often face in our day to day lives. These skills cut straight through the situation like a hot knife cuts through butter.

Chess also helps children develop the basic skills needed to do well in school. These skills include problem solving and discipline. Chess is a great introduction to big picture problem solving. A little picture problem, for example, is doing a simple arithmetic problem such as adding numbers together. A big picture problem is having homework in multiple subjects, such as math, science and writing, and determining which subject to work on first and managing your time to finish them all on schedule. Chess helps develop big picture thinking. Chess is also a good way to develop the type of thinking required for advanced mathematics such as algebra. Just remember, chess will not make you smarter. You’re stuck with the brain you were born with but chess will help it function at maximum efficiency.

One of the things I’ve done in my teaching program is to incorporate my student’s classroom curriculum into their chess class. We look at ideas their regular teachers present to them and create analogies on the chess board. This allows students to think about a particularly difficult problem they’re tasked with solving in terms of chess. When they can visually see the problem via the chessboard they often have an easier time solving it.

I look at my chess classes as a way to not only teach my students a game they can play and enjoy for the rest of their lives but as preparation for the many problems they’re apt to face in life. If they have a method of problem solving that is based on logic and reason they’ll be ahead of everyone else. Chess really does help develop young minds and helping them to do so is my contribution to the future of civilization. Remember, that little kid sitting at a table in a restaurant across from you, making a rude face in your general direction, may become the surgeon that saves your live one day. You better hope he studied chess. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Thank You

I spoke to a childhood friend last night for the first time in decades. He knew about my career as a musician. However, a great deal of time had passed since we last spoke and he had no idea that I had carved out a modest career teaching chess. We both played in our youth. He had aspirations of becoming a Grandmaster while I was more keen on a life of rock and roll. He became a successful scientist and has raised a small army of kids. His dreams of becoming a professional chess player were traded in for a fascinating career and wonderful family. He was amazed that I had managed to figure out how to make a living through the game of chess. Of course, I’m as amazed as he was regarding my chess career! While talking about what I do and how I do it, I was reminded, once again, at how fortunate I am. I was also reminded that any success I’ve had can be attributed to those who support my efforts, my students, the readers of my weekly column at The Chess Improver and my wife who also plays. To those who have supported and helped me with turning my passion for chess into a career I love, I thank you!

I often wonder why anyone in their right mind would consider seriously studying the game of chess. It’s an extremely ironic game in that you can learn its rules in an afternoon but spend a lifetime not even coming close to mastering it. It’s a maddening game at times, drawing your every thought into an obsessive mindset while purposely tripping you up so you fall headlong into the rabbit hole of its complexity. It’s a world within itself and only those who delve head on into its alluring waters will understand just how obsessed you can become. Yet there are those of us who take the plunge and find the waters warm and inviting.

We who love the game to the point of spending countless nights hunched over a computer screen or chess book think this type of behavior as normal. Why do we do it? To get better of course! However, if it were just that, many of us would have given up long ago! I think what keeps us going is the simple fact that chess reveals its deepest mysteries to those who delve deepest! Every once in a while, after long hours of study, I’ll have one of those insightful moments, suddenly understanding a concept that had been elusive and mysterious up until that point. This in itself is greatly satisfying!

Chess is a game that rewards hard work. Of course, you can play casually when on vacation or at a family get together, or you can aim for the stars and attempt to master the game. I say aim for the stars because I don’t think anyone can completely master a game with so many possible positions on the board at any given time. However, like those who choose to climb mountains that claim human lives on a regular basis, lovers of chess love a challenge and chess certainly is that.

I want to thank everyone who plays chess, both casually and professionally because it’s you that inspire me to improve my game and write these articles. Through the game of chess, I’ve made literally thousands of friends, some of whom I actually like (just kidding – I have to live up to my snarky reputation after all). Those friends come from all over the globe and have taught me a great deal about their country’s customs and traditions. My global friends make life interesting and our common bond is chess. Thank you global chess friends for being you, lovers of chess.

I’d like to personally thank the game of chess for keeping me in check (no pun intended). I tend to be an over achieving type and used to have a problem with losing. Of course, nobody likes to lose but some people take it better than others. I discovered through chess that one can learn a great deal from their losses. Chess also keeps my ego in check. It humbles me on a regular basis which makes me a better human being.

Then there’s Nigel Davies! He is one of my favorite chess players and instructors. Prior to meeting Nigel on Facebook, I knew him only through his DVDs. He’s got a warm way of presenting ideas and concepts that makes you feel comfortable when delving into the murky waters of theory. I have to thank him for giving me the opportunity to write about chess. Social media has allowed me to connect with some amazing chess players, Nigel being on the top of my list, so thanks social media sites.

This holiday season, I’m very thankful for all that chess has done for me and will continue to do for me as I sail off into my twilight years (whatever that means). I wish everyone, even non chess players (ha ha ha), the happiest of holidays. Here’s a tip for those doomed to have political discussions during Christmas dinner (especially in the United States): Avoid the conversation and instead, fight with your family members on the chessboard with a nice glass of Brandy. Nothing says “your candidate is one step above the village idiot” more than “Checkmate Uncle Bob.” Happy Holidays everyone and here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Online Learning

Learning online, be it earning a college degree or learning how to fix a leaky pipe in your bathroom, has become a mainstay in our lives. Prior to the introduction of the internet, those who wished to improve their personal knowledge base were forced to seek education via a traditional system, such as books or schools. Now, from the comfort of our homes, we can learn how to do anything easily because online learning works around our schedule. In the case of chess, you once had to acquire chess books to improve your game, many of which had text and diagrams that required a PhD in code breaking and linguistics to understand. Now, you can simply go to Youtube and get visual instruction that takes the mystery out of learning. However, the negative side to online learning via sites like Youtube is that anyone can fancy themselves a chess teacher. This means, you’re apt to get some very bad advice regarding chess improvement if you’re not careful.

When learning the game of chess and using the internet to do so, you need to weed out bad teaching from good teaching. In other words, you need to find qualified instructors! What qualifies a person as a great chess instructor? You might think that a great chess instructor has to be a highly rated, well known player. However, this isn’t always the case. There are plenty of brilliant chess players who are terrible teachers and plenty of great teachers who are mediocre chess players. Then there’s the dreadful though looming over online learners; anyone can call themselves an expert in a specific field and, because of the anonymity factor (you don’t really know who you’re dealing with online). How do we determine who really is good at helping beginning chess players improve?

We’ll start by looking at Youtube. If you enter “chess instruction” into the site’s search bar, you’ll be given roughly 68,100 results. These results will not give you a series of video titles such “How Beginners Can Improve at Chess.” You’re more likely to see titles such as “The Sicilian Defense” or “Intermediate School Chess Lessons The Three Golden Rules.” I entered the above search and these are two video lessons that came up. First of all, The Sicilian Defense is an extremely complicated opening for black, one that beginners shouldn’t be learning immediately. Yet a beginner might not know this and decide to watch the video only to feel as if chess is game far above their intellectual pay grade after viewing it. The second video, which I watched, was something I might teach to my intermediate students but not to beginners. This problem of ending up with videos that won’t help you can be avoided by narrowing down the search (I’m doing this as I write).

Try typing in “Chess Lessons for Beginners.” The results are now narrowed down to roughly 39,100 results, but “The Sicilian Defense” is now found as the first offered video. Are you starting to see that there’s a problem here? Further down the Youtube list is a series of videos entitled “ Lessons 1-10 Chess for Beginners. I started to click the link to the videos but suddenly noticed one of the videos titled “Blindfold Chess for Beginners.” Blindfold Chess requires a great deal of skill, since you’re playing chess without a physical board and pieces using your mind only, and beginners simply are not at this skill level. Next?

Then I saw Grandmaster Varuzhan Akobian’s video, “Beginner’s Openings and Tactics.” Upon clicking the video link, I pleasantly found that the video is part of a series produced by the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center’s “Sunday Kids’ Class”. That’s right, a kids’ chess class. If you’re an adult thinking “I don’t need a video geared towards kids, you’re absolutely wrong. The most effective chess teaching I’ve done with adults uses chess lessons designed for kids. Why does this work (I really do know what I’m doing when it comes to this topic)? Because the lessons simplify complex ideas and concepts by using very easy to understand (so easy a child could fathom it) examples. Trust me, when learning the finer points of chess, you want things simplified.

As it turns out, The St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center has an excellent if not brilliant series of video chess lessons for children that I have all my adult students watch. If you want to improve, this is the way to go. Of course, there are plenty of other choices regarding videos to be found under this Youtube search but, as they say in Latin, caveat emptor, which roughly translates to “let the buyer beware!” I’ll spare you the horrors of watching an instructional video only to ponder whether or not the video poster/host is out of their mind or just doesn’t know how to play chess. As a coach and instructor, I can tell the difference between a good instructional video and a poor one very quickly. If you’re new to the game, you might not be able to tell the difference and worse yet, commit the video’s ideas to memory and find yourself losing games and having people around you wondering if you’ve lost your mind.

Watching videos geared towards children is a safe bet for the most part. However, remember, that anyone can claim to be a chess teaching guru. Therefore, try researching the presenter’s name before investing time in watching the video. Of course, it takes time to do the research but you’ll be better off in the end! If you want to save yourself grief, watch the plethora of beginner’s videos offered by The St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center. They use top notch players who are great at teaching children. If you want to venture into the unknown realm of Youtube, stick with names known for great teaching such as Andrew Martin and any of the ChessBase DVD authors. In fact, you can often find samples of their teaching on Youtube.

The point here is to shop carefully for online instruction. Here’s a link to one of the many Saint Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center’s Youtube channels. I think you’ll enjoy the great lessons from Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan. Again, they’re lessons geared towards children but you’ll get a lot of them as a beginner. You could spend a few years just going through the club’s amazing collection of videos.

There’s no game to enjoy until next week because I’d like you to watch the videos instead. I challenge any novice players reading this to watch each of the beginner’s videos over the next few months and let me know how they helped you. I have! You’ll improve your playing immensely and the only cost to you is a little time. Now that’s a bargain! See you next week!

Hugh patterson

Your Opponent’s Move

I’ve written about this subject before, but feel it’s so important that we must revisit it in greater detail! When I coach a group of students, I go from board to board, watching each individual game. I make notes regarding problems I see within each game such as poor development in the opening, poorly thought out exchanges in the middle-game and the bane of the beginning player, one sided plans. What’s a one sided plan, you may be wondering? An affliction that everyone who has ever learned the game of chess has suffer from. Let’s first briefly review the concept of planning:

Chess is a game in which the plans of both players clash. They clash because the immediate plan of one player is often thwarted because of a specific move made by their opponent, a move that stops that plan. Of course, the game’s constant clash of plans is what makes the game so spectacular. Most beginners think the plan is to checkmate their opponent’s King. That is the game’s goal. That goal is achieved by employing a number of immediate plans rather than a single long term plan meant to work for the entire game. It’s unrealistic for beginners or advanced players to create a single plan that takes them from the opening to the endgame because a position can drastically change from one move to the next. This means that, if you had a single long term plan, one or two moves by the opposition could destroy that plan, leaving you in the dark regarding just what to do.

Plans must be flexible, able to adjust to the ever changing position on the chessboard. Flexibility is the key to good planning in chess. Your plan should always take into account a number of possible opposition moves, not just one move. However, there’s something even worse than an inflexible plan that depends on your opponent making a single anticipated move. This dreadful mindset is one sided thinking!

What do I mean by one sided thinking. Many of us have heard beginning players state that “I’m thinking four moves ahead of my opponent right now” going into or during the middle-game. The top chess players in the world have a little trouble realistically thinking this many moves ahead, with absolute accuracy during the middle-game, because there are so many possible positions to be considered (I’m talking about a staggering number that only a computer could fathom). What is the beginner really saying then?

The beginner isn’t lying about seeing four moves ahead. They are seeing four move ahead in their mind. Unfortunately, one sided thinking is clouding their judgment and derailing their plan without them even knowing it. One sided thinking is making a move and expecting your opponent to make the move you want them to make, which allows you to make your next move in the plan followed by your opponent making another move you want them to make. You plan only works if your opponent makes the moves you want them to make. However, your opponent has his or her own plan and you can be sure that they’re going to make moves that go against your plan. After all, your opponent is also trying to win the game. The beginner’s thoughts might sound like this: “I’m going to put my Queen here and my opponent is going to move a pawn there. Next, I’ll move my Bishop here and my opponent will his Knight there and I’ll checkmate on the next move. If this sounds familiar to beginners reading this, it should because it’s The Scholar’s Mate (four move checkmate). Take a look at the example below.

We’ll look at one siding thinking first, our beginner’s thought process from the above paragraph where the opposition makes the moves our beginner wants them to make, and then see what happens when our beginner (playing white) plays against an opponent that has his or her own ideas as to what to do!

In the above example, both players start out making extremely reasonable moves, 1 e4…1e5. Both players control the board’s center with a pawn and allow both the Queens and King-side Bishops access to the board. Our one sided thinker knew that black would play 1…e5. Now, he (white) decides to do something your should never do, which is bringing your Queen out early with 2. Qh5. This move loudly announces (white might as well jump up and down screaming “Scholar’s Mate!”) that white is going to try and checkmate black in four moves! Because our beginner commanding the white pieces is employing one sided thinking, he simply knows that his opponent will play 2…d6 (wow really?). Our beginner smiles as he sees his perfect plan playing out before his eyes and plays 3. Bc4. White obviously has the ability to control his opponent’s mind, because that would be the only explanation for black’s pitiful response, 3…Nc6. White grins from ear to ear as he makes move four, 4. Qf7#. Now let’s look at what actually happens when our beginner tries to employ his one sided thinking against an opponent playing realistically.

White starts off with 1. e4 while black counters with 1…e5. Our brave beginner now brings his Queen to h6 once again, 2. Qh6. “So far, so good” thinks the beginner. “My Queen is lined up for the attack. Now all black has to do is move their d pawn and wait! This isn’t the move black is supposed to play!” Black, instead of playing 2…d6, plays 2…Nf6 and white’s hopes of a fast checkmate are crushed. White retreats the Queen to f3 (3. Qf3) in the hope that the f6 Knight will magically disappear. Black develops his Queen-side Knight with 3…Nc6. Remember, every time you have to move a piece more than once during the opening, you’re essentially giving your opponent a free game turn. Black takes advantage of this fact by developing a new piece. White, determined to somehow salvage the situation, plays 4. Bc4, thinking somehow the chess gods will look down on him with positional pity and grant him his wish! Black counters with 4…Nd4, attacking the Queen who has to move again. In this example, white faced an opponent who didn’t make the moves our beginner wanted them to make but rather made his own, well thought out moves. Beginners will never face an opponent who makes exactly the moves the beginner wants them to make. Thus, one sided thinking is a sure fire way to lose every game of chess you play.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t address how to you can anticipate your opponent’s moves. Of course, you can’t anticipate every possible move your opponent makes. However, you can use a logical system to at least prepare for the opposition’s best possible responses. This is accomplished by simply trading places with your opponent, not literally of course, but in your mind. In other words, you have to look at the board from the opposition’s point of view, looking for the best response to the move you’re planning on making, as opposed to thinking about your opponent’s best response after you’ve made your move. Think first before making any move, otherwise you’ll pay a steep price.

The secret really is putting yourself into your opponent’s shoes, pretending to be in charge of the opposition’s forces. Of course, to find the best and most likely opposition move, you’ll need to examine each pawn and piece. This doesn’t mean looking at them as if you were in a museum looking at a piece of art. You have to look at each pawn and piece and determine whether or not that pawn or piece can be moved to a square that disrupts your plan. During the opening phase, the opposition moves you’ll be looking for are those that gain greater control of the center. Use the opening principles to guide you. If you see that an opposition piece can gain a strong foothold in the center, ask yourself if there’s a move you can make, with a pawn for example, that will deter the opposition from making that move. Take your time and examine everything , material-wise, on the board (board vision).

During the middle-game, tactics are the name of the game for more advanced beginners and improvers. Look at the opposition’s pawns and pieces (yes pawns, because they can fork pieces) and see if there’s a tactical play to be had, such as a fork. Chances are that if you saw it and your opponent is a stronger player, he or she will have seen it as well. Can you use a pawn to keep the forking piece off of its target square? Can you use a piece of lesser value to stop a piece of greater value from making a tactical play? Look for ways to keep your opponent’s pieces away from your side of the board. This can be accomplished by further activating your pawns and pieces.

Again, think about your opponent’s best move as if it was his or her turn, before considering making your move. All you have to do is put yourself in your opponent’s place. If you insist on employing one sided thinking, you’ll be doomed to live out your days in the land of lost chess games. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week. There two players didn’t use one sided thinking when planning their moves.

Hugh Patterson

Hanging Piece Syndrome

One of the bigger problems every single beginner and many “improvers” face early in their chess careers is losing material due to hanging pieces. A hanging piece is one that’s not only unprotected but can be captured en prise or freely, meaning the hanging piece is captured without any loss of material to the player doing the capturing. Unlike an even exchange of material where one piece is exchanged for another piece of equal value, such as a Knight for a Bishop, capturing a hanging piece costs the attacker nothing! You capture the unprotected piece and the piece you used to capture it lives on to fight another battle.

Hanging a piece can have a devastating effect on your game. Of course, if you hang a pawn or minor piece as a beginner playing against another beginner, you may not face an immediate loss and even go on to win the game. However, if you lose your Queen because you brought her out early and left her unprotected, your ability to win will be greatly diminished. The Queen is a piece that most beginners can’t seem to live (or win a game) without (personally, I dislike the Queen).

Of course, the beginning chess player will hang pieces simply due to a lack of playing experience and board vision (the ability to closely examine the entire board/position). Therefore, the beginner shouldn’t be too hard on themselves when they hang a piece. However, they should start working on ways to avoid this problem and the best way to do this is by using training software that has program modules dealing with spotting hanging pieces. Peshka/ChessOK has a software program titled Easy Ways of Taking Pawns and Pieces. It has 5,800 problems that revolving around finding hanging pieces, categorized into groupings based on a specific piece (purchase the hard copy rather than downloading it because some players have had past problems with downloading from their site).

The goal is to find the hanging or undefended piece and capture it. While this program deals with opposition hanging pieces rather than your own hanging pieces, it gets you, the beginner, employing a technique that is critical to chess success, seeing the entire board by using Board Vision. Too often, beginners lose or hang pieces because they’re not looking at the entire board but where the immediate action is (such as the center during the opening). By not scanning the entire board, especially your opponent’s side, you’re apt to miss opposition pieces aimed at your unprotected material. Board vision takes time to develop but working with a software training program will help speed the process up.

When doing the software’s exercises, you’re forced to look at the entire board because often, the piece that’s hanging will be on one side of the board while the piece that can capture it is on the other side. Sometimes, you’ll be given a choice of two identical pieces to capture. You have to look closely because one of those pieces is protected, which means it’s not truly hanging while the other is free for the taking.

Of course, it’s another thing to avoid hanging pieces in an actual game of chess! It becomes more difficult because unlike the software’s problems, which are stagnant and set up, the arrangement your of pawns and pieces (as well as that of the opposition) will change with each move. This means you have have to constantly check the vulnerability of your material before considering making any move. You have to be patient (a lost art in our fast paced, technological world).

The idea of having to check every single pawn and piece on the board (both yours and your opponent’s) before each move seems like an absolutely daunting task to the beginner, which it is. However, with time, the beginner will do this automatically and systematically. You have to get in the habit of doing this which is the hardest hurdle to cross. To simplify this process and make it less maddening to execute, you have to follow some sort of logical, systematic order when examining your opponent’s material for threats.

Start with the pawns. Pawns have the lowest relative value which means they can easily push a piece of greater value back. Look at each opposition pawn and first, make sure it’s not attacking one of your pieces. Then see how many moves it will take for any opposition pawns to reach and attack your pieces. You’ll also want to know what opposition minor pieces will have access to the board if any pawns blocking those pieces in moves forward. In other words, “if my opponent moves the c pawn forward two squares, will a piece originally blocked by that pawn be able to attack one of my pieces.”

Next look at each opposition piece and trace its line of attack across the board, noting any places (squares) where enemy pieces intersect with your pieces. Obviously, if you find one of your pieces can be captured En Prise, you better move that piece or defend it. What happens if the piece being attacked (your piece) is already defended? First, determine the value of the attacking piece and compare it to the value of your piece. If your piece is worth more that the attacking piece, get your piece out of the line of fire! If the value of both pieces is even, you have to consider how the exchange will effect your position. For example, if trading minors with your opponent leads to you having doubled pawn or your opponent being able to launch a nasty attack, you may want to avoid the exchange.

As a beginner, you have to get good at discovering any hanging pieces before your opponent does. Again, there are various software programs and apps for this type of training. The advantage to the above mentioned program is the large number of problems your have to solve. The more you put into it, the better your results. I recommend that my students do the entire program twice. While the program does deal exclusively with opposition hanging pieces, it develops your ability to examine the entire board which means you’ll notice any potentially hanging pieces belonging to you. You’d be surprised at how quickly you start to see everything on the board once you start doing the exercises. You’ll be able to spot any pieces your opponent hangs automatically after putting some effort into it (doing the program’s problems). It should be noted that you should slowly work through the problems and see if you can find a good counter move for the opposition after you make the correct move that solves the puzzle. This will heighten your learning greatly. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

The Politics of Chess

Of course, many of you readers are expecting this to be an article regarding infighting within the world of professional chess. However, this assumption is actually farthest from the truth! This article came about thanks to the recent Presidential election here in the United States (or should I say un-united states). How, you may ask, can a political election possibly serve as the inspiration for a chess article? It has to do with the subject of civics, an area of study schools here have deemed unnecessary as a practical course. This has led to a generation that has no idea how Democracy works, let alone how to vote (sadly, many simply choose not to vote and then complain about the state of politics after the election). I decided, rather than taking up the art of violent protesting which serves no real purpose, to introduce my chess students to the world of civics and politics via the game of chess. Here’s the gist of my lessons regarding chess and civics/politics. This lesson is taught to older students only because young children would end up having nightmares and be sent to a therapist due to my harsh approach.

We start the lesson by defining key ideas such as voting, The Electoral College (who are more mysterious that the Free Masons) and diplomacy as well as the role of the President, Congress and the Senate. I ask students questions regarding the above concepts during the lessons to make sure they understand the subject matter. Then the narrative starts:

Chess is a war between two countries. Our two countries both see an opportunity to expand their global control and will do whatever it takes to achieve this goal. Sadly diplomacy has failed and our two countries, Blacklandia and Whitelandia have decided to face off on the battlefield. Both Congress and the Senate have voted for a declaration of war. This is a fight to the death. You are the President of your country and now must face the hard decisions the Commander and Chief deals with during times of war, namely the loss of life. You cannot avoid the loss of life in war so you must try to minimize it. This means that the pawns and pieces (soldiers) you send out onto the field of battle must be carefully deployed to minimize loss. Your fellow countrymen have voted you into office and their fate lies in your hands. Don’t let them down. At this point, we discuss the role of the military during times of war as well as how it effects the economy.

The battle starts when one side strikes the first blow. In the game, members of the Whitelandia army decide to attack first. As with all wars, it’s not the King that goes out onto the battle field but the lowly foot soldier, the pawn. The pawn comes from small towns scattered throughout the country and is at the bottom of the military food chain (and the economic food chain as well). However, just because the pawn is low man on the Totem Pole doesn’t mean he can’t do great things. The history of warfare is littered with exceptionally brave acts and won battles thanks to the pawn. Treat him with care and always have him work with his fellow pawns (pawn chains) and provide support for the more specialized warriors who we’ll meet next. Pawns are the first to walk onto the battlefield so respect their bravery.

As with all military forces, there are specialized units that can greatly effect the outcome of a battle, but only if they’re used correctly. During the early stages of a battle, the opening game, it is crucial that your troops are carefully placed. You job is to corner the enemy King who, at the start of a game, is on a central file. The most direct route to victory is through the center of the board during the opening. Therefore, you should develop your forces towards the four central squares (d4, d5, e4 and e5). You cannot waste time because the other side is trying to achieve the same goal. So who do we deploy? The minor pieces of course!

We don’t want to waste time because the citizens of your country want this war won quickly and with minimal loss of life (pawns and pieces). Thus, you should try to develop a new piece with each move, only launching an attack on the enemy King once you’ve achieved maximum development of your military forces. What happens if you don’t do this? You approval ratings go down and you become an unpopular President. We briefly discuss the Vietnam War and it’s affect on Presidential approval ratings at this point.

Of course, you have to keep your King safe, the King really being you the President because if you’re taken down, the war ends and you lose. Therefore, Castling early is a sound idea. Unlike our political leaders who never actually fight on the battlefield, the King gets his hands dirty in the endgame!

To minimize the loss of life, you don’t want to attempt an early attack against the enemy. If you do and that attack fails, your fellow countrymen will want to know why you behaved in such a risky manner, allowing other countrymen to die. Build up your control of the battlefield, trying to maximize the activity of your forces before attacking. Remember, wars are not won in a single battle. They are won through many smaller battles. In chess, these smaller battles are called tactical plays. A brief discussion of the American Civil War reinforces this point as well as the great cost of life that war causes. Once you’ve developed your forces, only then should you consider striking at the enemy.

This is where your specialized forces come into play. The name of the game here is tactics. If the battlefield is crowded with soldiers from both sides we can can use our Knights to reek havoc because Knights can jump over other pieces. They’re like the Air Force! If the field of battle is wide open we use our long distance artillery, the Bishops and Rooks. We briefly discuss the idea of supply lines, something all armies need to survive, using examples from World War Two. I also interject a dialog about the cost of war and how it effects the National economy. In chess, keeping an open supply line means pawns and pieces supporting one another. If your material is chaotically placed across the board, you forces may end up being captured. This means a loss of life and there go your approval ratings as Commander and Chief!

Only now should you consider bringing in your special forces, the Queen. The Queen is your special ops (operations) force. Unlike a real army in which there are many members of the Special Forces, you only have one Queen, so use her awesome and deadly power wisely. If you don’t, the enemy will use their forces to hunt her down!

Eventually the time to attack comes. Are your pieces aimed at the enemy King? Are your forces deployed to active squares? Are your pieces coordinated and your supply lines open? These are all questions every Commander and Chief asks themselves before launching that final assault needed to win the war. It’s here that you must be patient and careful, often having to make adjustments in your position to ensure success. If everything is in place, it’s time to strike and deliver checkmate!

The game of chess can be used to teach a number of external concepts and is an entertaining way to do so. I teach the above ideas regarding politics over a few classes so that students can really grasp and thoroughly understand the concepts being discussed. Of course, the Electoral College still remains a bit of mystery since people know more about the doings of the Free Masons than the rather mysterious Electoral College. It should be noted that there’s nothing educational about this college. Here’s a game played by two members of the Electoral College to enjoy until next week. Just kidding. Those guys don’t play chess, they mysteriously elect Presidents and leave the rest of us dumbfounded…

Hugh Patterson

Tracking Improvement

Many of my students have asked me how they were doing in regards to their own improvement on the chessboard. If you think about it, it’s an extremely valid question since it’s often difficult to measure one’s chess improvement when all you see are your losses. In fact, most beginners (and many experienced players) become frustrated because they feel as if they’re getting nowhere when it comes to honing their chess skills. It’s a lot easier to see progress in others than it is to see progress in your own efforts. Again, we tend to see our losses as total losses, after all, a loss just proves you’re not moving forward. Right? Absolutely wrong, so remove that idea from your thinking. I really mean it, remove the idea that a loss is simply an example of your chess playing shortcomings! Great strides in improvement can be found in even the most brutal losses (within reason).

Of course, someone reading this (other than my wife and mother) is going to think, “hey, if I just suffered a brutal loss, doesn’t that mean I’m doing something wrong?” I’d answer this by saying, “you have to lose a lot of games along the road to mastery.” However, there’s more to it than just simply saying you have to lose before you win. Let’s look at a hypothetical situation:

A student attends my chess classes, showing up every day, paying attention to my lectures and then acquiring some of my recommended chess books to study. This student, who was brand new to the game when we first met, also invests in a chess playing program so they have an opponent around the clock. The students reads and takes that new found knowledge with them when they play against the computer. They lose game after game because they set the software’s playing level fairly high for a beginner. The software program records all of the games played. After a few months, the student comes to me nearly in tears saying “I’m just not any good at this so I’m going to give up.” I say to them, as I say to every students who thinks about giving up, “let me take a look at the games you’ve played against the computer and see where you’re at. Don’t give up yet!”

I look at their games in chronological order, from the first game played to the last game played. I see a much different picture. I see improvement from the first game through the last, even if the student in question lost every game they played. It’s not the result of the game that I’m interested in but the application of their chess studies to the games. Here’s what I look for.

Obviously, I don’t have to worry about illegal piece movement and the breaking of rules when students are playing against the computer because the computer will not let you do anything illegal! What I’m really looking for is improvement. What do I mean by improvement?

The game of chess has three distinct phases, the opening, middle and endgame. Each of these three phases require that certain tasks be accomplished, so that’s where I start. I examine each game phase and determine, first, if my students are applying the correct principles for the phase of the game and second, if those applied principles are improving in scope. I don’t expect a student to play a perfect opening at the start of their chess careers. I want to see the basics starting to come to light!

Most beginners are lost during the opening, not controlling the board’s center with a combination of pawns and pieces (especially the minor pieces). Add to this, the idea that beginner’s pieces aren’t coordinated from the start and you can see why they become so discouraged. The first thing I look at in their games against the computer (from first game to last) is whether they’re getting their pieces out towards the board’s center during the first six to eight moves. I give them a point for each minor piece moved towards the board’s center, ignoring piece coordination until I examine later games. As I play through the students games, I look to see if they start coordinating their pieces in later games. One point is awarded to each pair of coordinated pieces (five points for three pieces working together). A point is awarded for castling as well as good pawn structure.

Next, I examine the middle game, a realm in which many beginners have gone down in flames. What I’m look at here is further activity of pawns and pieces, awarding a point for each piece that is further developed to an active square. Points are taken away for premature attacks and capturing of opposition material if it damaged their position. Combinations that lead to tactical plays get five points.

The endgame, if reached (beginners seldom reach a real endgame), is tough for the beginner because they think that less material makes for less thinking! Wrong! While checkmate with a pair or Rooks or a Queen and King score a point, proper pawn promotion earns a whopping five points! I add up the scores for each game played and we look to see if the score increases from game to game.

By going through a student’s collection of games against their computer from the first game to the last, while scoring points for the above mentioned principled play and adding those points up, can give the student a snapshot of their improvement over time. I suggest you try this with your own recorded games. While you may be losing a lot of games, you’ll at least see that you are improving and getting better at the game we love so much in the long run. Don’t become discouraged if you’re not winning many games because you’re more likely improving but that improvement is buried under the stigma of losing. You just have to look beyond the losses and look for the things you’re doing right. Remember, even the world’s top players lose games and they don’t give up. Also, remember to be kind to yourself when assessing your improvement. My first chess teacher fired me as a student because, as he put it, “you really don’t have the intellectual skill set to play chess.” In other words, he thought I was the village idiot. I had the satisfaction of running into him decades later and crushing him on the sixty four squared jungle. While I try to be a gracious winner, I did kind of dance around the table yelling “ha ha ha, whose the idiot now.” Not my finest moment as an adult! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Chess Problem Solving

One of the best ways a beginner can improve their game is by doing chess puzzles. Of course, there’s no substitute for playing and gaining experience that way, but chess problems are an excellent choice for improvement because they can be done during your down time, even if it’s only five minutes. However, beginners often have trouble when they first start doing basic chess problems, not because the basic problems are difficult but because the beginner doesn’t fully understand what they’re being asked to do.

The first key to solving a chess problem is to fully understand what you’re being asked to do. First determine which color is making the move. With problems found in books, you’ll be told whether it’s white to move or black. With some software programs, they don’t tell you via actual words but using a color indicator, either white or black, on the right or left side of the chessboard. Always start with knowing whose move it is!

There are different types of problems ranging from mates in one, two, three or four, as well as tactical and material gains. Here, you really have to pay attention. With mate in one problems, your job is to find the single move that delivers checkmate. This means you make one move and the game ends. With mate in two, you will be making two moves, the second of which delivers mate. The key to solving this type of problem is to look for pairs of pieces that attack a key square. This square is one adjacent to the enemy King (or near, in the case of a back rank mate). Mate in three and four will eventually involve two pieces but often require an exchange or two to get to the two piece solution. The trick to all chess problems is to look at all your pieces in relation to the opposition King and the opposition’s pieces in relation to your pieces (and King). Only then determine the best course of action. This course of action can only be considered after a close examination of all the material on the board (which helps to develop your board vision). Remember, the key is to take your time even if there’s a clock counting the seconds away, as found on many chess problem software programs and apps. It doesn’t matter if you solve the problem in thirty seconds or thirty minutes. Either way, you’ve solved it.

Then there are the tactical problems which can leave the beginner completely lost. When trying to solve one of these problems, consider the word tactic. In chess this can be a fork, pin, skewer, etc. However, the majority of beginner’s problems will revolve around forks. The first step towards solving the problem is to mentally note that this is a tactical play not a mate in one (unless otherwise noted). This means that you’ll be winning material. Beginner’s tactics usually only require you to make one move that forks the key pieces in the problem. Start by looking at the most popular forking piece, the Knight. The Knight is a powerful piece when it comes to forking because you cannot block a Knight’s attack due to its ability to jump over other pieces. Take a look at the example below:

In our example, White has two Rooks, one on b1 and the other on d1, as well as a Knight on e5. Black has a Queen on a8. White has to use a tactic to win material and ensure an easy victory. It’s White to move. The key here is for White to win material and since the only material to be won is the Queen, that’s the piece we target. This problem requires a fork. First we look at our material, the two Rooks and the Knight. We aim for finding the fastest way in which to accomplish our task. Look at the Knight first. The White Knight could move to d7 and check the King, but that’s a check not a fork. We look at the black Queen on a8 and think “if only the Queen were on b8, then we could fork King and Queen, winning the Queen.” How do we get the Queen onto the b8 square? Take a look at the Rooks, specifically the Rook on b1. If the b1 Rook moved to b8, black would be forced to use the Queen to capture the Rook, allowing the white Knight to then move to d7 forking King and Queen. That’s how you want to think through a puzzle.

Beginner’s tactical puzzles tend to be either one move tactical plays or two move combinations. The two move combinations are much harder because they require setting up the tactical play by making a first move that sets the stage for the tactic. The above example was a combination of moves leading to the tactic, a fork. I highly recommend working through tactical puzzles, starting with the simplest one move tactical problems. These puzzles will help you immensely when it comes to finding tactical positions during your games.

So the the secret to solving chess puzzles is to first understand exactly what is being asked of you. Then you have to methodically analyze the situation or position in this case. This analysis starts with looking at every single pawn and piece belonging to both you and the opposition. See where those pieces can move to and what the results of that move would be (from a tactical standpoint). Just working out problems, even if it takes you hours, will greatly improve your game. Try working through as many chess puzzles and problems as you can and you’ll see a positive difference in your improvement. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

The Unexplored Territory

With the advent of computer technology, have we completely and successfully explored the seemingly endless array of positions within a single game of chess? Have we reached the zenith of game theory? Are there any unknown chess mysteries left to solve? Some might simply say no because, after all, computers would have been able to calculate into the dark void of possible positions, so if there was anything unknown it would have been found by the Silicon beast. I say rubbish to that! I firmly believe that there is a vast array of uncharted territory and that territory might lead to some astonishing discoveries that might change the way we play the game. Sorry, my Hyperbaric therapy sessions have thrown my brain into overdrive so I’m stuck dwelling upon such thoughts. To appreciate what I’m getting at, we have to look at the huge number of potential positions that can arise in a single game of chess. The number is so staggering that after first hearing it mentioned, I thought the gentleman rattling off this number was full of…well, you know what I was thinking.

At the start of the game, each player has a choice of 20 first moves. That seems easy enough to digest since each of the eight pawns can move one or two squares on move one (16 possible moves) and each Knight can make one of two moves (4 moves total). As we move forward into the game, the number then jumps to 400 possible positions to be found on the board. So far, this seems reasonable. With another pair of moves made, the number now jumps to197,742. Then the number jumps up to roughly 121,000,000. It only gets worse, large number-wise, from here! The number of ways of playing the first four moves per side in a single game of chess is approximately 318, 979, 564,000. You can look up the theoretical total number of potential positions in a single game of chess online by googling the Shannon Number. Make sure to have a mirror close by so you can watch your jaw drop upon grasping this enormous number.

Rather that get into the Shannon number and the associated mathematics behind these calculations, I want you to think about a number that is far larger than the total number of atoms in your body combined with the number of individual grains of sand on our planet multiplied by a gigantic number and ask yourself, are there still deeper mysteries to explore within the game we love so much, especially considering the huge number of potential positions?

One of the problems that keep us from being able to discover these potential mysteries is that the fact that the very principles that help us to play better, preventing us from taking a side trip into the realm of positional chaos, a place in which principles hold no sway and games are lost. We learn specific game principles that tell us we need to do this or that during a specific phase of the game. Doing otherwise, will lead to a loss and since we’re trying to win more than we lose, we take the path more traveled rather than venture into uncharted waters. It’s slightly ironic that we’re given this vast uncharted territory to explore but can’t take the journey because doing so would lead to positional ruin (and losing games). However, I really believe that there’s something out there in the vast unexplored territories. It’s kind of like believing in UFOs. Mathematical theory tells us the chances of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is most likely. Yet, a large number of people simply think intelligent life elsewhere (as if we’re actually an intelligent species) is ridiculous. With a number of potential positions in a single game so large my arm would fall off trying to write it out, has the game been fully explored? Theory says no!

Then again, who is going to explore it while trying improve their rating level? Not anyone paying a high entrance fee at their local rated tournaments! It’s the great double edged sword of irony. The question more aptly might be, can we actually explore the unknown in chess?

Because the numbers are so large, we’d need computer assistance. However, you’d have to consider a more specialized program than your high end chess software. After all, it’s designed to come up with the best way to win a game, not take a dip in the dark waters of positional chaos. Chess computers give you the potentially best moves rather than open a portal into the realm of the unknown. A more specialized computer program would be needed. An unconventional path would have to be taken!

I’m going to get together with some mathematicians and computer programmers next month and see if we can seriously look at this problem, finding a way into the rabbit hole (and hopefully a way out). I will be addressing this subject in greater detail in the near future (articles), but wanted to simply throw the idea out for debate. I suspect every chess player has wondered if there was additional life out there on the outer edges of the chess universe. I think it’s a subject worth further study. Until then, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Oxygen

Those of you who read my social media posts know that I’ve been going through hyperbaric (oxygen) therapy in preparation for a major surgical procedure in November. With this type of treatment, you’re placed in a sealed Acrylic tank, pressurized to thirty feet below the ocean’s surface and bombarded with 100% pure oxygen. Each dive, as it’s called, lasts roughly two hours. By employing the use of a pressurized environment, oxygen is forced into your body, down to the cellular level. In the simplest terms, the treatment is akin to having a cellular make over that has some amazing effects. Physically, I feel as if I’m in my twenties again (I’m 55 years old). My mind/body coordination is better than when I was in my teens. And then there’s the effect on my mind which is the most amazing of the many benefits of hyperbaric therapy.

One problem most of us have when playing chess is maintain a high degree of focus. We can zero in on a position and see the smaller picture easily. An example of visualizing the smaller picture would be seeing a potentially strong attack (for you) early in the game, becoming fixated on the attack and failing to see an even more lethal counter attack by your opponent. The problem with seeing the smaller picture is that you miss the bigger picture which turns out to be of greater overall importance. This occurs because our focus isn’t highly trained. In my last article I recommended a card counting technique to help develop your immediate focus. While this will help with reeling in scattered thoughts prior to playing, you still have to maintain that focus, something I had trouble with, at least until very recently.

A neurologist became interested in what happened to me after I started my hyperbaric treatments because he realized he could measure the effects of oxygen on the brain via chess playing. Having a patient who played and taught chess gave him a perfect test subject. Here’s what I’ve noticed so far in regards to my treatment and it’s implications regarding chess:

Those scattered thoughts that haunted me but also allowed me a certain level of creativity have nearly vanished. There’s no dithering around when it comes to decision making. The problem, be it a leaky kitchen sink, math equation or chess position, presents itself and I act upon it immediately. While I do enjoy becoming lost in thought, it’s great to be able to not waste time “spacing out.” When faced with a problem, I think with a greater degree of logic, being able to break the problem down and then solve it in a straight forward manner. Prior to the treatments, I had to focus my mind just to acknowledge the problem in the first place. Then I would take a slightly round about way in my journey towards solving the problem at hand. Now, the problem quickly comes into focus and the solution lays itself out very clearly. With chess, I’m finding it much easier to see the small and big picture simultaneously, clearly seeing a given position from both sides of the board. Of course, this doesn’t mean I’ll be challenging Magnus Carlsen anytime in the near or distant future, but my game is much better. I’ve been playing a number of computer programs at a level where the silicon beast normally crushes me. Not so much as of now! I see the board with greater clarity!

Oxygen will not make you smarter, something many people have asked me about. You have to work with what you were born with! What the oxygen does is to help your brain operate at a higher level. It comes down to focus. I had to drive up to my dad’s place yesterday, traveling through an extremely bad storm. He has an extremely steep driveway leading up to the house. I parked my car and noticed his copy of The New York Times sitting at the bottom of the driveway which was littered with slick and subsequently slippery leaves. Normally, I would stagger down the driveway, hoping I didn’t slip on the leaves and break my leg. However, I found myself quickly moving towards the newspaper, my mind focusing on spots where there were no leaves, guiding my feet to those safe places which allowed me to avoid slipping. This is what I mean about focus. Driving around San Francisco, I see architectural details I never noticed before even though I had taken the same route year after year.

This ability to see things in a different, more focused way, is allowing me to view various positions on the chessboard in a more enlightened fashion. My brain is finding it easier to see the board from my opponent’s viewpoint, thus allowing me to determine their best response to my potential moves. While you could say that I’m playing better chess I think it’s more a case of being able to play more clearly. By clearly, I mean seeing things with greater clarity. Unique details are recognized by your brain. The world looks slightly different these days.

Obviously, most people are not going to be presented with the opportunity I’ve been given, hyperbaric therapy. However, as Nigel pointed out via a social media posted article )http://www.normalbreathing.com/Articles-breathing-maximum-brain-oxygenation.php), you can increase your oxygen intake without a machine which will give you (although not as quickly or drastically as in my case) a greater ability to focus. Because we must breath in order to live, and we do it day in and day out without putting much thought into it, we tend not to give oxygen intake much thought (unless we suddenly find ourselves without air). We tend to think of physical improvement as a byproduct of eating healthy and getting exercise. Of course, both of these endeavors will help in our quest to live a long and healthy life, but something as simple as controlled breathing can be a game changer.

I must admit that I was not happy with the idea of having to lay in a tube for two hours a day, five days a week for eight weeks, even though I had 500 cable channels at my disposal and an extremely comfortable but small bed inside the tube. However, the benefits far outweighed my complaints. Memory is also increased. On Friday, I watched a documentary my doctor had seen numerous times. While I had only seen it this one time, my doctor pointed out, after we had a discussion about the film, that I had been able to recall the most minuet details of the nearly two hour documentary. This ability to remember smaller and smaller details comes in handy when it comes to studying chess theory, especially opening and endgame theory. How easy would a college class be?

I’ll be officially starting the neurological study this week (tomorrow) and will keep a journal, the highlights of which I’ll publish here. For those of you who would like to have their brains function at a higher level, consider, breathing exercises, physical exercise and of course, diet. While it may not have as strong an effect on your body as a pressurized oxygen tank, you’ll still see a difference and that difference could translate into better ratings points or better yet, a healthier, happier life. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson