Chess and Chopsticks

We live in a fast paced society in which success is often measured by how little time it takes to reach a specific goal. Gone are the days when Quality stood above quantity. It’s all about accelerated productivity. Children are exposed to these concepts early on. Children, who once stopped to explore everything around them, slowly taking the world in, are now running on life’s fast track. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a beginner’s chess class. Young beginners often make moves on the chessboard the way they many adults go through life, quickly and with little thought put into their actions.

I evaluate each student in my chess classes on a regular basis. I start by walking around with a stopwatch and recording the average time it takes them to make each move during a game. Not surprisingly, some of my new students are pushing pieces out onto the board at an alarming rate of a piece every ten seconds. I have to remember that my students are children and they are exposed to lightning fast video games where playing quickly is the key. While this may work within the world of video gaming, it has the opposite effect in a game of chess. The idea of taking your time when considering a chess move has to be taught from the start. Patience may be the most difficult lesson to teach a beginner (at any age).

Children (and some adults) tend to play very quickly when they first start. They want to get their pieces out onto the board and start the battle! However, simply thrusting pieces onto the board and hoping for the best doesn’t make for good chess. A good chess player examines his or her options carefully. To plant the seeds of patience into the young student’s mind, I suggest they try to find three good moves before committing to their initial idea. I then remind them of some key concepts we’ve discussed in prior chess classes. I mention using the three primary opening principles; control of the board’s center, minor piece development and castling early in their decision making process. I also remind them not to bring their Queen out early or move the same piece twice during the opening game. If in the middle game, I mention the idea of moving their pieces to more active squares or strong outposts as well as getting their Rooks off their starting squares. As for the endgame, our fast handed students have usually slowed down by then. Again, all of the above mentioned ideas have been gone over in detail (in earlier classes) so the students are familiar with them. With beginners you have to emphasize the most basic principles and how helpful those ideas are.

Regarding the idea of finding three good moves before committing to one of them requires some further discussion with the student. Impatient beginners will often rattle off three moves regardless of quality just to get on with the game. The teacher must patiently point out the potential folly of any bad moves, demonstrating the end result of each move and steer the student towards making good moves, again mentioning the basic principles mentioned above. Young students often become overwhelmed by the position on the board, panicking because they feel the need to think ten moves ahead. Therefore, we look at the position as if it were a simple chess puzzle. Rather than trying to think many moves ahead, we look at how the opponent might react to a single move. I usually remind my students of our lesson on hanging pieces. While the majority of my students tend to slow down and consider their moves carefully after a Socratic discussion, there are always one or two students who just can’t help playing quickly.

I had one student in particular who played a standard game of chess as if he had one minute left on his clock. He would thrust his pawns and pieces out onto the board quickly and more often than not eventually lose the game. One day during a lunch break I sat down to watch him play chess, trying to decide how I was going to break him of the habit of moving too quickly. I had a pair of chopsticks left over from lunch and had an idea: What if my student had to move his pieces with chopsticks? That would slow him down. He might even think about where he was moving his pieces because of the effort required to move them with a pair of chopsticks.

My student was a bit hesitant but I suggested it might be fun and that I’d try it myself. After demonstrating how to use chopsticks, I handed them over to my fast-handed student. Before grabbing a piece with the chopsticks, he paused and looked at the board. I asked him about it and he told me that using chopsticks to move pieces was difficult and he didn’t want to go through all that work only to make a bad move.

The next day, everyone tried playing with chopsticks. Interestingly, the children had a great time and more thought was put into each of their moves. Teaching chess is a lot like playing guitar on stage which I did for decades. You often have to improvise and when you do, you occasionally get great results.

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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).