Category Archives: Richard James

Quality Control

The other day we decided to show a video to the Richmond Junior Club Intermediate Group. As our subject for the day was opening tactics we chose this video from chesskid.com.

I should start by saying that chesskid.com is an excellent site and their curriculum is one of the best I’ve seen. However, I have a few problems with this video.

You may or may not like the idea of using seemingly random positions like the one you see at the start of the video. I don’t much like this myself, but I understand that you may well disagree with me, so we’ll move on.

My first problem is the confusion in terminology. The first confusion is between the words ‘attack’ and ‘threat’. I try to differentiate: an attack is something you could do and a threat is something you want to do (which, at low levels, will be capturing a piece for free, capturing a more valuable piece with a less valuable piece or delivering checkmate). There’s also a problem with the exact definition of the word ‘fork’, and here writers and video producers differ. My definition is ‘a move which creates two threats in different directions with the same piece’. If you don’t make this clear children will play something like 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Ng5 and excitedly tell you they’ve played a fork.

For example, after the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Bc4 Bc5, 3. Qh5 is, in my opinion, a fork, creating two threats with the queen, although one of the threats is only operational because the bishop on c4 is a backup attacker. If I wanted to use this example I’d go on to explain that it’s not a dangerous fork as Black should have no problem finding a move which defends both threats.

By this definition, any piece can make a fork. Other teachers, illogically in my opinion, make some sort of differentiation depending on which piece is making the double attack, and that is what seems to be happening here. We’re told that forking is like a double attack, but done by knights and sometimes by pawns (it depends who you ask). According to my definition, queen forks are the most common, followed by knight forks, and pawn forks often happen in lower level games. As queens and knights both move in eight directions it’s quite understandable that they are the pieces most likely to create forks. There’s a whole section on queen forks in the opening in both Move Two! and Chess Openings for Heroes. I consider this seemingly arbitrary distinction to be confusing.

Continuing with the video, after a couple of minutes we see some double attacks with the rook, one of which is also described as a fork. In fact, according to my definition, the first rook moves we see are forks, but the one that’s described as a fork is no such thing, because, as is pointed out to us, the knight is defended, so that move only creates one threat.

We then continue with a practical example and learn about the Two Knights Defence, and how White can play Ng5, threatening the most common fork in kids’ chess. Excellent – and very important. But we see the move 4… Bc5, which, as you’ll probably know, is the Wilkes-Barre variation. There’s no mention of this, though, and we’re told that after this move we should continue with 5. Nxf7 Qe7 6. Nxh8. In fact I’d probably continue with 5. Bxf7+ because I know it’s the safer option, and I also realise that after Nxf7 my opponent will probably play Bxf2+, and I don’t know enough about the theory to survive.

When I’m teaching this knight fork I prefer to give Black 4… h6 rather than Bc5 to avoid the confusion over the Wilkes-Barre. Dave Rumens, one of the great characters of English chess, whose death was announced as I was writing this column, used to encourage his pupils to play this with black. Whether or not this is a good opening to teach is another matter entirely, and one I’m not going to discuss here.

The next example is slightly strange in that it appears that White has played five moves to Black’s four, but it’s White’s move. Perhaps Black played Qe7 followed by Qf6: I can’t imagine why, but we’ll let it pass. I’d also expect Black to play Kd8 rather than Kf8 after Nxc7+ to try to trap the knight on a8, but my computer has a slight preference for Kf8, so again we’ll let it pass.

I really like the last example, the final position of an endgame study, although I think it’s more an example of how beautiful chess can be rather than something of very much practical use. It looks, though, as if they’d forgotten about the f5 square and only referred to it at the end as an afterthought. In fact the whole video looks in many ways as if it was rushed.

Now you may think I’m being Mr Picky here, but chess is a complex game, and it’s very easy for young children to get confused, to misunderstand ideas or to take them out of context. If you’re talking to, or writing for, young children you need to be very clear in terms of using vocabulary which will be understood within context, using consistent and unambiguous terminology and choosing examples which avoid any possible confusion. Of course I frequently get it wrong myself!

Richard James

Misunderstandings

Something I remember from nearly thirty years ago. My friend and colleague Ray Cannon is going through the solution to a tactics puzzle on the demo board. I’m watching at the back of the room together with some parents. One of the dads asks me: “Why is he doing this? They’re never going to reach that position in their games.” I try to explain the reasons: that children need to learn how to calculate tactics, and that, although they will probably never reach that exact position they may reach an analogous position where a similar idea works.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago. I was teaching a private pupil, not much more than a beginner. His grandmother, whom I’ve known for nearly twenty years, came to pick him up. She’s a passionate educationalist who has founded no less than three schools. I talked to her about the importance of children solving tactics puzzles. She was astonished. “Puzzles? Why do they need to do that? Chess is just memory.” Again, I tried to explain. “Oh, you mean like those square things in The Times every day, but at a much lower level?” “Yes, exactly!”

Richard Teichmann is alleged to have claimed that “Chess is 99% Tactics”. Well, I think ‘calculation’ is a better word than ‘tactics’ (since strategy involves a different type of calculation to tactics) and I think 99% is something of an exaggeration, but, even so, calculation is the single most important skill in chess. Yet most non-players and most of those who know the moves but nothing else, I suspect, have no understanding that this is the case. The general public’s idea of chess is, I suspect, that it’s mostly about memory.

Well, memory is a complicated subject. It’s hard to become a proficient chess player if you have a weak short-term (working) memory. Long-term memory is also important, and the stronger you get the more important it becomes. You’re going to have to remember opening theory, how to play typical endings, middle game strategy and standard tactical ideas. But without understanding, and without calculation, you won’t get very far.

Here’s something else that happened the other day. When I visited one of my youngest private pupils he and his parents had a specific request for the content of the lesson. He wanted to know the best way to play when he’d lost his queen. Further questioning as to exactly what he meant confirmed that he didn’t want to learn how to play queenless middlegames or endings, but the best way to play after he’d blundered and was a queen behind. Of course the answer is easy: don’t lose your queen! He loses pieces every few moves in his games because his concentration and impulse control are not yet fully developed.

Week after week, my younger pupils argue with me that it doesn’t matter if you lose a piece because you can still win. At their level this is true, but to raise your game to the next level you have to understand that good players, by and large, don’t leave their pieces en prise or move them to unsafe squares. Yes, if Chelsea have a player sent off they might still beat Manchester United, but they are much less likely to do so. Good players might sacrifice a piece because they’ve calculated that they can achieve checkmate or gain a material advantage by doing so. They might play a positional sacrifice because their assessment of the position, combined with their knowledge and experience of chess, that the positional advantage they game provides adequate compensation for the material they’ve lost, but this is a very hard concept for beginners.

Chess is basically this: other things being equal superior force (usually) wins. An advantage of two or more points is, with a few exceptions, enough to win, and an advantage of even one point will often win. Very strong players will sometimes resign even if they’re just a pawn down. Chess is mostly about calculation: looking ahead (I go there, you go there, I go there) to work out how you can get checkmate, win pieces, get your pieces on better squares or get your opponent’s pieces on worse squares. If, by some unlikely combination of circumstances, I find myself sitting opposite Magnus Carlsen in my first Thames Valley League match next season, if I don’t make any mistakes I won’t lose, and, if Magnus makes a mistake, I’ll win.

Yet most non-players have a totally mistaken idea about what chess is and the skills you require to play the game well. Even many strong players and teachers, to whom chess comes naturally, are unaware of the importance of teaching calculation skills and concentrate purely on passing on their knowledge of chess to their pupils.

You need to do just three things to play chess well:
1. Put your pieces on good squares
2. Calculate everything that moves
3. Avoid careless mistakes

How can we get this message across to parents and teachers, so that they can be more proactive in helping their children play chess?

Richard James

King and Rook Checkmates

What I often do when playing young children who are lacking in confidence is head for an overwhelmingly won ending and turn the board round to let them win.

I was playing a boy at a school chess club the other day and duly turned the board round when I had a rook and lots of pawns against a few pawns. On swapping the positions my king soon captured my opponent’s pawns and, when I captured his last pawn we reached this position, with Black to move:

I explained to my opponent that he could mate me in two moves by playing a king move, and, more by luck than judgement, he was able to find it.

At the end of the club at this school I usually do a quick 10-minute lesson on the demo board for children who have finished their tournament games. I set up this position and asked if the students could find the mate in 2 (being careful to explain exactly what a mate in 2 was). There was one boy, the strongest player in the club, who had just missed out on qualifying for the Delancey UK Chess Challenge Gigafinals at the weekend, had some idea how to go about trying to work out the answer, but the rest of the class were unable to do anything other than making wild guesses.

I then changed the position slightly:

Again, they had the same difficulty trying to find the mate in 2 for Black. When they eventually found the answer I made another slight change:

When our strongest player found Rc6 I asked the whole class how many different answers there were to this question. At first they just made random guesses (2? 3? 22?) and I told them it wasn’t a guessing game: they had to work it out. Finally, someone found Re6 and it dawned on them that there were in fact five ways for Black to force mate in 2 moves in this position.

I would have liked, if I’d have had time, to have rotated the positions by 90% and 180% to see whether they would realise the answer was, in effect, the same, or whether they would go back and try to solve the puzzles from first principles. But it was the end of the session and the parents were waiting outside to collect their children. Another time, maybe.

The teacher who was in the room with me at the time, not a chess player herself, told me the lesson was very hard for them, and was impressed with their answers as well as with their enthusiasm and concentration during the lesson.

For chess players these examples are very simple and very basic. We know that, in order to play even reasonably good chess, we need to think “I go there, you go there, I go there”, but this type of thinking, even when “you go there” elicits only one possibility, is very hard and very unnatural for most young children, especially if they are not used to playing simple strategy games at home.

I suspect it’s because this sort of exercise introduces children to a totally new thinking skill that scholastic chess in the classroom might have a short-term effect in ‘making kids smarter’.

I also suspect that teaching kids how the pieces move in half an hour and putting them into a competitive environment will have no effect at all in ‘making kids smarter’. A ten-minute lesson of this nature after they’ve finished their tournament game will also have little effect unless the thinking skills are reinforced. Otherwise most of them will have forgotten it by the following week.

Richard James

Under Pressure

Over the last few days I’ve been reading with interest the reports of the English contingent’s progress at the European Schools Championship in Montenegro.

The reports are written by Malcolm Birks, whose son Joe is taking part in the Under 9 section. After Round 5 he wrote “The tension is palpable and not all of it is fun”.

After Round 7 Malcolm went into more detail:

Being strong, even extra strong, is important in these competitions, because the lurking feeling that hangs around in the corners of the playing hall is fear.

Some of the children participating are undoubtedly fearful which is sad and worrying. Fearful of their parents’ reaction, fearful of their coaches and fearful of the great expectations upon their small shoulders.

I’m glad to say that I don’t think that this applies to the England players in our team, who all seem to have a healthy attitude and supportive parents and coaches. Indeed, a friendly parent from the Israeli delegation kindly observed: “I knew it must be players from the England team because they were smiling”.

It’s disturbing, but not altogether surprising, to read this, although good to be reassured that the English parents and coaches have been supporting their children in a healthy and positive way.

By and large, most English chess parents, in my experience, are great. We’ve been very lucky in the parents we’ve had at Richmond Junior Club over the years. However, I’ve witnessed parents shouting at children who have lost games, and heard reports of parents physically abusing children. I’m not sure that the whole concept of children having to score well in one tournament to qualify for the next tournament, or for the England squad, is helpful in this respect. The last time I visited the London Junior Championships I witnessed several children in tears because they hadn’t scored enough points to obtain a norm for the England Junior Squad.

Of course competitive chess, like any competitive activity, is, by its nature, tense and pressurised, and, because it’s a solo activity you can’t blame anyone other than yourself if you make a careless mistake and lose the game. Some people thrive on that sort of pressure, but there are others, including me, who don’t enjoy it.

Malcolm’s report poses a lot of questions, and it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. When Luke McShane was selected for the World Under 10 Championship in 1992 at the age of eight, there were those in the English junior chess establishment who were opposed to his selection, believing that Luke would be too young to cope with that sort of pressure, and citing a boy who had had a bad experience in this event in the past. But those of us who knew Luke and his father well were confident that he had the maturity to take part, and, as we know, he went on to win the tournament.

These days anyone who works with children has to be aware of child abuse, and aware of the long-term damage that physical and emotional abuse, as well as sexual abuse, can do to children. While many children gain a lot of benefit from taking part in junior international chess tournaments of this nature, they do create an environment in which abuse can occur. In events like this, especially when they involve very young children (the World Schools Championship includes U7 and U7 Girls sections), organisers need to be sensitive to the potential for abuse, and national chess federations need to provide guidelines for parents and coaches with regard to appropriate conduct.

There’s one more point. This is a relatively low profile event, much smaller and weaker than the World and European Youth Championships. A large proportion of the competitors are from Russia, with significant participation also from Turkey and Israel. There are 13 English players (plus a member of Richmond Junior Club representing Russia in the U7 section), five Spanish players and one Swedish player. Other West European countries, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, are conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps they’ve decided their players will get more benefit, or better value for money, by playing in open Swiss events against players of all ages. I understand this, but we have very few suitable tournaments in this country. Perhaps they know something we don’t. Perhaps we should ask them and find out.

Richard James

Aftermath

Don’t worry. Although this might start off like a post on politics, it’s actually about something else. Most things, in my experience, are not about what most people think they’re about. If it really was a post on politics, Nigel, quite rightly, wouldn’t publish it. After all, this is a chess blog.

In the aftermath of the recent General Election it’s been interesting to read articles from a variety of viewpoints on what will happen next with regard to both UK politics in general, and, more specifically, Brexit.

Adam Swersky, for example, is a local councillor in Harrow (North West London) representing the Labour Party. In his day job he leads an initiative helping people with health problems and disabilities to find employment. He wrote an interesting article proposing a Grand Coalition to solve the UK’s political and social problems.

A couple of hours later I came across an article in the Sunday Times suggesting that the election result might open the way for a soft Brexit. The article was written by the newspaper’s economics correspondent Tommy Stubbington, who had previously worked for the Wall Street Journal, and, before that, for Dow Jones Newswires.

You might by now be asking yourself what this has to do with chess. But 22 years ago, back in 1995, Tommy and Adam were sitting across the chessboard from each other in Round 4 of the Richmond Chess Initiative Championship. Tommy was the more experienced player so the game resulted in a comprehensive victory for the future Sunday Times over the future Harrow Labour Party.

Both Tommy and Adam were strong, but not outstanding, players at primary school age, both achieving grades in the 120s before giving the game up to concentrate on their academic work. If you’re bright enough to understand chess at a higher level at that age without intensive coaching there’s a fair chance (although it’s not true for everyone) that you’ll find other things to do with your life that are more lucrative, such as being a top financial journalist, more worthwhile, like helping people with health problems find work, or just more interesting than chess.

This is one of the problems with children starting competitive chess young: those who do well will be the children with a very strong general intellgence (David Didau believes there is such a thing: you may disagree) who will often choose to do other things with their lives.

Looking back at the 29 players in that 1995 tournament, there is, as far as I know, one (older than most of the players in this event and also older when starting competitive chess) still playing regularly and another, who also started relatively late, playing occasionally. I’m aware that another competitor, now a Brussels-based Eurocrat (not sure what effect Brexit will have on him) plays online to a high level. So we’re getting at most 10% of our stronger players remaining active 20 years later – and don’t forget that these were the strongest RJCC players, and the RJCC players in turn were the strongest primary school players. The followthrough from primary school to adult chess has been for 20 or 30 years at the most 1% (probably more like 0.1% now), even in an area like Richmond with a strong and active junior chess club acting as a bridge between the two worlds.

Children who start competitive chess at secondary school age, however, do not need precocious skills – and it’s those who are more likely to continue playing chess as adults. The younger children start to play competitively the more likely they are to become grandmasters, but the older children start to play competitively the more likely they are to continue playing as adults.

If you look at the pattern in other Western European countries you’ll find that, although chess is very popular with young children, just as it is here, it is also, unlike here, popular with teenagers, and, again unlike here, many young people come into competitive chess for the first time in their teens. There are several possible reasons for this, which I’ve touched on in many articles here and elsewhere over the years. Perhaps the educational and social ethos in this country, something I alluded to last week, also has something to do with it. What do you think?

Richard James

Knowledge and Skills

A few weeks ago a poster on the English Chess Forum posed a question about whether chess education should be based on skills or knowledge. I was tempted to answer but before I got round to it the discussion on that thread had moved onto something else, so I decided to write a blog post instead.

Well, it all depends what you mean by ‘skills’, doesn’t it?

When you think about chess skills you might interpret it as the ability to put knowledge into practice. For instance, I may know the basic procedure for delivering checkmate with bishop and knight against king, but not necessarily have the skill to put it into practice with my clock ticking in a quickplay finish. We’re talking here about domain-specific chess skills.

You might also think about the cognitive and executive function skills you need to play chess well: the ability to handle complex abstract logic, concentration, impulse control.

But I suspect the poster meant neither of these type of skills, but rather the skill of, if you like, thinking like a chess player. How to consider what will happen next. How to choose between alternatives. How to make decisions. How to solve problems. And this is precisely what the worldwide scholastic chess movement is aiming to do, claiming that using chess in this way will ‘make kids smarter’. Compare the knowledge of history or science with the skill of thinking like a historian or a scientist. (‘Scholastic chess’, in this sense, means using subsets of chess as a learning tool in the classroom, and has nothing at all to do with competitive chess as played in clubs and tournaments. Its proponents, however, will hope that many children will want to move onto competitive chess later, and, having learnt both the basic rules and the required thinking skills,

You’re probably aware that there’s been a continuing debate over many decades about the respective merits of ‘traditional’, knowledge based learning versus ‘progressive’ or ‘child-centred’, skill based learning, particularly within primary schools. My views, as they do on many subjects, occupy what I’d like to consider the sensible middle ground. Yes, I can see the merits of ‘traditional’ education where children sit in rows of desks facing the teacher, and there’s an emphasis on rote learning, facts, worksheets: after all it’s what I grew up with, and it served me well enough at least in my early years. But some children, in some subjects, will benefit from a more progressive approach where children sit round tables working in groups to develop skills and solve problems, because, after all, the traditional education I had eventually failed me. But that’s a story for another time and place.

The countries that regularly top the international league tables, though, tend to take an extreme view. Finland, for example, considered by many to have the best education system in the world, uses ‘progressive’ methods. Here’s a recent article outlining a proposed move away from a subject-based curriculum to a project-based curriculum. On the other hand, the East Asian countries which excel at maths use extremely ‘traditional’ methods.

The scholastic chess movement, it seems to me, is much more suited to ‘progressive’ than ‘traditional’ education. It ties in very much with the idea of children working together to solve a problem and aims to promote the skills of a chess player, as opposed to chess playing skills. On the other hand, worksheet based courses, such as the Steps Method, or the methods used in the former Soviet Union, focus mainly on domain-specific chess skills. There are many other courses, such as my old chessKIDS academy course, which are specifically knowledge based.

The education blogger David Didau is very much in favour of traditional education. Although I don’t agree with everything he writes, his posts are always entertaining and thought-provoking. Here he’s discussing ways of reframing the debate between the two methods. You might think he’s actually presenting three different false dichotomies, but it will certainly make you think. Here he visits the controversial Michaela School in North West London, which favours fairly extreme traditional teaching methods. Didau is no fan of educational fads and has in the past been critical of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, Edward de Bono’s Thinking Hats, Brain Gym and VAK (Verbal Auditory Kinaesthetic) teaching. He’s never written about chess in the classroom, and, while I wouldn’t want to put words into his mouth, I rather suspect he’d be sceptical.

My view is this: either type of teaching can be successful, but it’s much easier to teach effectively using traditional, rather than progressive methods. To be successful, though, a school has to decide what it’s doing and stick with it, not being swayed by the latest fads, not reacting to parents knocking on your door telling you should do this or that, and trying not to be affected by the ever changing diktats of different education ministers.

Furthermore, there’s a general misunderstanding of the nature of child-centred teaching. There’s been for several decades now, both here in the UK and perhaps also in the US, a rather vague ‘niceness’ about much of primary school education, an obsession with ‘fun’ rather than serious, rigorous work. Many people feel that, unless you make a subject ‘fun’ and ‘relevant’ you won’t get children interested. It seems that parents no longer ask their children “What did you learn in school today?” but “Did you have fun in school today?”. And it was probably wishy-washy liberal baby boomers like me who were responsible for this. Which is why, when I suggest to parents of children in school chess clubs, that they should do some serious work on chess at home, they reply that they don’t want to do that because it wouldn’t be ‘fun’. But we all know that primary school age children who receive proactive parental support can do very well, but those who lack that support will make little progress and soon give up. It seems to me that one reason why we’re lagging behind the rest of the world in junior chess is the mistaken ethos supported by both teachers and parents, that education for young children should be ‘fun’.

To return to the original question, chess is, like maths, by its nature a knowledge-based discipline. Most non-players are unaware of the amount of knowledge, accumulated over centuries, that exists, and fail to understand that a player with some of that knowledge will almost always beat an equally talented player who is making it up as he or she goes along. You might want to use chess to teach both non-chess skills and chess-related cognitive skills, although that will depend on your educational philosophy. Children will only do well at chess if, as well as those two skill types, they are putting a serious effort into acquiring domain-specific chess skills.

Richard James

The Ultimate Chess Addict

In his column in the May 2017 issue of CHESS, John Saunders regrets the demise of the ‘fun’ chess book. The sort of book that Reinfeld, Chernev and Horowitz, amongst others, used to produce. These books might include, for example, entertaining short games or combinations with light annotations, some accessible problems or studies, lists, records, history, anecdotes and trivia.

John writes: “… I find that my last chess book to fall squarely into this category of chess literature is Mike Fox and Richard James’s splendid The Even More Complete Chess Addict, of which the second edition was published in 1993.” He goes on to speculate as to whether this type of book has gone out of fashion, and, if so, why. He proposes two reasons: that these books require a higher than average degree of writing expertise, and that there is now so much material of this nature available on the internet.

There’s a lot to be said for both those reasons, and perhaps there are other reasons as well. There days there are fewer adults with a genuine interest in chess culture, as opposed to self-improvement. There still seems to be a market for chess improvement books, whether they’re aimed at weaker club standard players, or stronger players aiming to reach genuine chess mastery. The quest to improve your chess, as witnessed also by the title of this blog, is to be welcomed, but do the players who just want to enjoy chess still exist? I’m not sure: perhaps they don’t.

The most recent book of this type I have on my shelves is The Joys of Chess, by Christian Hesse, which was slated by Edward Winter for plagiarism and inaccuracy. These days we have a rather different relationship to truth than we did even 30 years ago when Mike Fox and I were writing The Complete Chess Addict. It’s no longer enough to use secondary sources, cutting and pasting dubious unsubstantiated anecdotes from earlier chess trivia books. We’re all historians now: these days only fully researched and assessed primary sources will do, and, if we copy anything from someone else who has already done the spadework we’ll be accused of plagiarism. And that someone else will probably be Edward Winter whose diligent research is to be found on the chesshistory.com website as well as in various books. Do we really need more books retelling the same tired anecdotes? In these puritanical times, is it really appropriate to make fun of the drinking habits or mental health problems of great chess players? Now that top players rarely compete outside supertournaments we no longer witness great players duffing up lesser lights with a cascade of brilliant sacrifices: instead we get subtle (or dull, depending on your perspective) Berlin Wall endgames. so perhaps it’s harder to find the sort of games beloved by the likes of Chernev.

In the early years of this century, Mike Fox and I had been vaguely discussing producing a new edition of our book, provisionally entitled The Ultimate Chess Addict. We had a lot of new material based on our Addicts’ Corner column in CHESS, and believed we could produce a bigger and better book. But, alas, it was not to be as Mike died too young in 2005. Since them I’ve often been asked (and have been asked twice on social media within the last few days) if I was planning to write anything else on the same lines. Well, part of me feels that the whole Chess Addict project was very much tied up with my friendship with Mike, and that I had to move on and do other things with my life. Part of me also feels that perhaps, as John Saunders suggests, there’s no longer much of a market for this sort of book. But, on the other hand, it would be a lot of fun to do. I asked a friend a few years ago if he might be interested in working with me, and just the other day someone I only know in cyberspace, who had enjoyed reading the original as a boy and was now reading carefully selected extracts to his daughters, also expressed an interest. I could, I suppose, start by returning to the Chess Addict website, which was abandoned in mid sentence after Mike’s death.

At present, though, I’m concentrating on working on the Chess Heroes project and won’t really be able to start anything else for the next year or two. After that, who knows? You can help: do feel free to let me know whether or not you think there’s still a market for this type of book. Like John Saunders, I’d be sad to think that chess books designed to entertain readers rather than improve their rating were a thing of the past.

Richard James

Chess Endings for Heroes

I’m currently writing a series of books for children (or adults) who have learnt the moves and would like to reach a good enough standard to play adult competitive chess successfully.

Chess Endings for Heroes will give readers the knowledge and skills they require to reach this level.

You’ll certainly need to be quick and efficient at mating with king and queen against king, and with king and rook against king. Learning how to mate with two bishops and with bishop and knight is not yet necessary as they are much less common but will be covered in brief more for the sake of completion than anything else. At this level, many students will also find the bishop and knight checkmate difficult to grasp. If you want to get beyond this level, though, you will need to know it. The world is very different now from when I was learning chess more than half a century ago, when most league games and some tournament games would be adjudicated at move 30. These days, if you’re at all serious about playing at a high level, you need to know endings like bishop and knight against king, and rook and bishop against rook (and I write this having just been directed to a game in which a 2015 rated player spent more than 75 moves making less than no progress with bishop and knight against king, despite having started with the opposing king on the edge of the board).

Beyond this, what you need to know more than anything else at this level is pawn endings. When you start to learn chess one of the first things you learn is the value of the pieces. We teach about favourable, equal and unfavourable exchanges, so children understandably tend to think, for example, that whenever you trade rooks it’s an equal exchange – 5 points for 5 points. But of course, we, as experienced players, know that very few exchanges genuinely are equal. The point count is very much like stabilisers when you’re learning to ride a bike or water wings when you’re learning to swim: very useful for beginners but once you’re fluent it’s more of a hindrance than a help.

At this level, one of the most frequent mistakes is to convert a probable draw into a loss by trading your last piece into a lost pawn ending. As pawn endings are, by and large, the easiest to win, if you’re a pawn down you should do your best to avoid trading your other pieces. If you’re ahead on material trade pieces but not pawns, if you’re behind on material trade pawns but not pieces.

So we start with king and pawn endings. First, you’ll need to know the result of any position with king and pawn against king. You’ll then need to know the how to win simple positions with an extra pawn: create a passed pawn and, if you can’t promote it, rush your king over to capture some pawns on the other side of the board. With pawns on only one side of the board you’ll need to be a lot more subtle, and have a fairly sophisticated understanding of the opposition.

We then look at other common ideas in pawn endings: the outside passed pawn, the concept of the spare move, the sacrificial breakthrough to create a passed pawn, calculating races where both players are aiming to promote their passed pawns and so on. The lessons are reinforced by quizzes based on games from the RJCC database.

Looking at pawn races leads us onto the important ending of queen against pawn on the seventh rank, which you’ll need to know at this point. This in turn brings us to queen endings: all you need to know at this point is a few basic principles.

At higher levels rook endings are the most important type of endgame. At this level, you’ll need to know the Lucena and Philidor positions along with a few basic principles, such as keeping your pieces active and placing rooks behind passed pawns. You’ll probably also need to know a bit about rook versus pawn.

Positions where you’re a minor piece ahead in the ending can prove tricky at this level. You can’t just trade off all the pawns and mate so you have to win some enemy pawns first. One technique is to target pawns that can’t be defended by friendly pawns (backward or isolated) and attack them with both your minor piece and your king. Another technique is to play for Zugzwang and force the enemy king back so that your king can infiltrate. We’ll also look at bishops against knights, and discuss good and bad bishops. The ending of bishop and wrong rook’s pawn against king is essential knowledge.

And that, really, is all you need to know to reach say 100 ECF or 1500 Elo. Chess Endings for Heroes, coming, with any luck, sometime fairly soon.

Richard James

How Good is Your Endgame?

Many readers will be familiar with the popular magazine feature, known in various places as How Good is Your Chess? and Solitaire Chess, in which the reader is invited to predict the next move in a master game, and is awarded points for selecting good moves.

Some time ago I showed you a couple of lessons based on shorter and lower level games suitable for use at intermediate level (up to about 100 ECF/1500 Elo).

As part of the Chess for Heroes project, which I’ll come back to in more detail, quite possibly next week if nothing else interesting happens in my life in the meantime, I decided to produce a few lessons using king and pawn endings, with the games taken from the Richmond Junior Chess Club database.

Here’s the first one, which was tested successfully at RJCC the other day.

Set this position up on your board. At various points in the game you will be asked to select a move for either White or Black. Sometimes you will have three moves to choose from, and sometimes you will have a free choice. In this position it’s Black’s move.

If you find a winning move you’ll score up to 10 points. If you find a drawing move you’ll score up to 5 points. If you find a losing move or an illegal move you’ll score no points.

Choose a move for Black:
a) Kc6 b) Kd6 c) g5

10 points for Kd6 – head to the king side to attack White’s weak pawns
5 points for Kc6 – the wrong direction for the king
0 points for g5 – loses to an en passant capture

1… Kc6

Choose a move for White:
a) a4 b) f4 c) Kg3

5 points for Kg3 – get your king into play
0 points for a4 or f4 – creating targets for the black king

2. f4 Kd5
3. Kg3 g5 (Ke4 was one of many winning moves)

Choose a move for White (free choice)

10 points for hxg6 – a winning en passant capture
5 points for fxg5 or Kf3 – both these moves should draw
0 points for anything else

4. fxg5 fxg5
5. f4 gxf4+
6. Kxf4 Ke6

Choose a move for White:
a) a3 b) Ke4 c) Kg4

5 points for Ke4 – taking the opposition (a4 and b4 also draw)
0 points for a3 or Kg4 – both of these moves should lose

7. Kg4

Choose a move for Black:
a) b5 b) Kd5 c) Ke5

10 points for Ke5 – Black will be able to approach the white pawns
5 points for b5 – this should lead to a draw
0 point for Kd5 – this will lose after Kf5

7… b5

Choose a move for White:
a) a3 b) b4 c) Kf4

5 points for Kf4 – the only move to draw by keeping the black king from advancing too far
0 points for a3 and b4 – both these moves should lose
8. a3 a5 (Black had the same choice as on the last move. Again Ke5 was winning.)
9. b3 (Again, White had the same choice as on the last move. Kf4 was still a draw, as was b4.)

Choose a move for Black (free choice)

10 points for a4, b4 or Ke5 – all these moves should win
5 points for Kf6 – this move should lead to a draw
0 points for any other move

9… b4
10. axb4 axb4
11. Kf4

Choose a move for Black (free choice)

10 points for Kf6 – Black wins by taking the opposition
5 points for Kd5 – this leads to a race in which both players promote
0 points for other moves – White will win the h-pawn

11… Kf6
12. Kg4 Ke5
13. Kf3

Choose a move for Black (free choice)

10 points for Kf5 – taking the opposition
5 points for all other moves

13… Kd4

Choose a move for White (free choice)

5 points for Kf4 – leading to a drawn position with black queen against white pawn on h7
0 points for anything else

14. Ke2 Kc3
15. Kd1 Kxb3
16. Kc1

Choose a move for Black (free choice)

10 points for Ka2 – the quickest way to win
8 points for Ka3 or Kc3 – these moves are less efficient
5 points for Ka4 or Kc4 – both these moves lead to a draw

16… Ka3

Bonus question 1: what would you do if White played Kb1 here?
a) Ka4 b) Kb3 c) b3

10 points for Kb3 – winning by taking the opposition
5 points for Ka4 or b3 – both these moves lead to a draw

17. Kc2 b3+

Bonus question 2: what would you do if White played Kb1 here?
a) Ka4 b) Kb4 c) b2

10 points for b2 – winning as White has to play Kc2
5 points for Ka4 or Kb4 – both these moves draw as long as White plays correctly

18. Kc1

Choose a move for Black (free choice)

10 points for Ka2 – forcing promotion
5 points for other moves – all of which are only drawn

18… b2+
19. Kb1 and the game was eventually drawn

At the end of the exercise you’re assigned a Chess Hero rating:

95-120: Chess Superhero

70-94: Chess Hero

45-69: Trainee Hero

Below 45: Future Hero

If you teach chess at this level, please feel free to use this yourself. I may well decide to change the marking scheme in future, perhaps awarding 5 or 0 points rather than 10 or 5 in questions where there are only winning and drawing options: I’m still thinking about this.

Richard James

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

Hans Renette, in his biography of Henry Bird which I reviewed last week, reports that, on about 1 June 1874, three weeks before Staunton’s death, Staunton, Bird and Ignaz Kolisch discussed the Sicilian Defence over dinner.

“Ignaz who?”, you might ask if you’re not familiar with 19th century chess history. There’s another relatively new (2015) McFarland chess history book that will tell you all you need to know: Ignaz Kolisch The Life and Chess Games, by Fabrizio Zavatarelli.

Kolisch was a stronger player than Bird, and, from the limited information we have available, seems to have been one of the best players in the world in the mid to late 1860s. He was born on 6 April 1837 in what was then Pressburg, a city belonging to the Kingdom of Hungary. Now we call it Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. In 1845 his family moved to Vienna, and young Ignaz soon learnt the moves of chess

He first came to the attention of the chess public in 1857, winning a match against Eduard Jenay, one of the leading Viennese players of the day. He travelled to Italy, then to France, where he drew a match against Adolf Anderssen, and then to England, where he played in two small knock-out tournaments run by the British Chess Association. In Cambridge in 1860 he beat the American Charles Stanley in the final. The following year in Bristol he was knocked out by the only other strong player in the competition, Louis Paulsen, in the first round. He spent much of the autumn playing a match against the same opponent. Paulsen won 7 games, Kolisch won 6, with no less than 18 draws, a remarkable number for the time.

At some point in the early 1860s Kolisch decided to cut back on his chess and enter the world of finance. By 1867 he was living in Paris, where an international tournament was taking place. He went along to watch, but after the event had already started decided to enter. He eventually won first prize (5000 francs and a Sèvres vase, which he immediately sold), ahead of the newcomer Winawer and probably the two strongest active players at the time, Steinitz and Neumann. Gustav Neumann, by the way, is another forgotten name who deserves a modern reassessment.

Rod Edwards gives Kolisch a rating of 2700 at the end of 1867, behind only the inactive Morphy, so, although there’s not much evidence to go on, you could argue that Kolisch was, if only briefly, the strongest active player in the world at the time.

But that was the end of his competitive chess career. He devoted the rest of his life (he died on 30 April 1889) to his business interests, investing wisely and becoming extremely wealthy. He continued his interest in the Royal Game, becoming a generous chess sponsor.

Zavatarelli considers Kolisch the first truly ‘universal’ player, equally at home playing dashing gambits and brilliant sacrifices in odds and coffee-house games, as he was playing the more modern positional chess which he preferred in most of his more serious encounters. His brilliancies deserve to be as well-known as those of Morphy.

Just as with the Bird book, if you have any interest at all in 19th century chess history you’ll find this an essential purchase. The chess and historical research appears to be meticulous, and if Edward Winter is impressed with its accuracy I’m not going to argue. It might be churlish to point out a couple of things. One of Kolisch’s earliest opponents, Karl Mayerhofer, an opera singer who might be considered for the Musicians team in any future edition of The Complete Chess Addict, is described on p12 as both a bass and a tenor. In fact he was a bass-baritone. We’re also told that the Duke of Brunswick’s father (yes, the Duke played Kolisch as well as Morphy) was killed at the Battle of Waterloo. He actually died in the Battle of Quatre Bras, two days earlier, so my Almey cousins from Earl Shilton, about whom more at another time in another place, just missed seeing him die. Curmudgeon that I am, I’d be tempted to deduct half a star because Zavatarelli’s English, unlike Renette’s, is not entirely idiomatic.

Here’s a game from Paris 1867. White’s 36th move is a blunder. Contemporary sources give Bc3, Qc3 and Qe3 as improvements. The engines concur, giving all three moves as likely draws with best play.

Richard James