There are three basic types of chess students that I’ve encountered in my teaching career. The first is the casual student who simply wants to play chess without putting much time into studying the game. The second type is the serious chess student who wants to improve and is willing to put a fair amount of time and effort into their studies. The third type is one who starts off as a casual student only to end up becoming a serious student because they develop a love of the game. Whether or not my students becomes serious about learning the game of chess depends on my actions as their instructor. My job is to present relevant information to my students in a clear concise way.

Experienced players know the game’s principles well and can draw upon those principles when trying to work through a complicated position for example. Because I teach chess, I have the game’s numerous principles embedded in my thought process. When you lecture about a plethora of chess principles year after year, you can’t help but commit them to memory! The beginner, unfortunately, doesn’t have that luxury because they lack practical playing experience. The beginner gets hit with an enormous amount of information either from chess classes, books, DVDs or software training programs. While technology has given chess students a huge advantage regarding training materials, it can be overwhelming.

The problem facing the serious student is twofold. The first part of the problem has to do with the amount of information the beginner needs to retain in order to play decent chess. If you include only the most basic ideas, covering the opening, middle and endgame, the number of principles the beginner needs to employ during their games is huge, at least to the beginner. The second part of the problem is applying these principles in a logical order. Experienced players don’t have this problem because they’ve been playing chess a lot longer than the novice player and know exactly when to apply a specific principle. Beginners, due to a lack of experience, often try to apply the wrong principle at the wrong time. So what can the confused beginner do to eliminate this problem? Use checklists.

One technique I started using with my beginning students is the use of checklists. I have my students use small index cards to write down important principles they need to remember. When I start teaching my students opening principles, for example, I hand out index cards to everyone in the class. I have my students write down “Opening Principles Must Do List” on one side of the index card and “Opening Principles Don’t Do List” on the other side of the card. As I talk about the opening principles, I have my students write down key concepts they must know in order to play a decent opening game. Here’s what my students put on their opening principles index card:

Opening Principles Must Do List:

1. Open by placing a pawn on a central square or a square that controls one of the four central squares.
2. Develop your minor pieces to active squares that help control the center.
3. Castle your King to safety.
4. Connect your Rooks.

Opening Principles Don’t Do List:

1. Don’t bring your Queen out early.
2. Don’t make too many pawn moves
3. Don’t move the same piece twice until you’ve moves 70% of your forces into the game.

On a single index card, my students have a list of key opening principles they can refer to until they have them committed to memory. While these are very simple principles, they’re structured in such a way that my young beginners can refer to them as they play casual games. I have my students refer to this list before making each move during their opening. Because they refer to their list before each move, they quickly memorize the principles and if they suddenly draw a blank during a game, they can refer back to their checklist.

We create similar lists for the middle and endgame as well. The trick is to keep each phase of the game, or tactical/positional concept, restricted to a single index card. On the middle game list of principles, we include the idea of counting attackers and defenders, pawn structure, never capturing unless it improves your position, etc. However, each of these ideas has it’s own index card that can be accessed when more detailed information is needed.

The index card checklist is also applied to subjects such as pawns and pawn structure. I have my students list specific types of pawns such as the passed pawn and the backwards pawn. A definition of pawn chains and pawn islands is also included.

The overall idea is to have a small collection of index cards that can be referred to as the beginner plays chess. By referring to the index card checklists, beginners can make good moves based on sound principles. Constant referral to these principles also helps the beginner to commit them to memory. Whether your new to chess or have played for a few years, try creating a few index card checklists. They can be very helpful when trying to work through a complicated position that is a bit over your pay grade (translation: a bit over your head). Here’s a game to tide you over until next week!

[Event “Cairo Egyptian op”]

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).