Chess and Jazz

Because I spend the majority of my time teaching chess, I often forget that I’m a musician. I play guitar as well as other instruments. How good am I? Well, my professional guitar playing peers consider me an excellent guitarist, although I always think I need improvement. I have a fairly large fan base for the kind of music I play and have been sited by bands such as Social Distortion and Green Day as being influential regarding their own playing. I mention this because the Grammy’s, those folks that do that yearly award show, just cut a check to pay for the last of my medical expenses. A few months ago, their Board (Music Cares) met and decided (for the second time) that I was worthy of help. I qualified because I am a recording artist who has sold records. Why am I mentioning all this? Because, upon getting the news, I felt guilty about not playing and recording in a while and decided to go back to playing music professionally (as long as it doesn’t get in the way with my chess teaching which is a stipulation in my current record contract). Enter Jazz guitar.

I honestly became bored with playing rock and roll, not because I don’t like it but because it wasn’t technically challenging. I decided to do a Jazz band that focused on Jazz from 1959. I asked a fellow guitar player who the toughest Jazz guitarist to emulate was and he said Wes Montgomery. That was who I’d study. I found some charts of Montgomery’s songs and within ten minutes of starting to learn them I knew I was in over my head. That made me smile because it was the type of challenge I live for. What does this have to do with chess?

You cannot get better at anything unless you take on a challenge that is above your skill set. For example, playing stronger opponents will lead to improvement. Learning Jazz guitar leads when you’ve mainly played rock and roll is like learning a complicated opening. You sit there staring at a sequence of notes or chess moves feeling as if you have no clue as to what’s really going on. However, if you stick with it and work hard, it eventually becomes clear. You slowly master it. You only master it when you put in a great deal of time. Push your boundaries and venture outside of your comfort zone.

One of the aspects of Jazz guitar I really enjoy is the seemingly endless choice of guitar solos. Rock tends to be Blues based so lead guitar work can (but not always) be limited. On the other hand, Jazz, because of it’s broader range of rhythmic drum beats and early prolific experimentation, allows for a greater range of soloing. In chess, you want to explore the many openings and playing styles available before settling on one. In short experiment! Openings are like a specific genre of music. Some have greater complexity than others which requires working harder to master them. Some provide greater options in regards to the direction your game goes in. Some lead to open games while others lead to closed games. Which you chose depends on your personality and how much effort you want to put into theory and study. Again, challenge yourself, aim for the stars and if you fall short of your goal, you’ll still be light years ahead of where you would have been had you simply set a small overall goal. There’s nothing wrong with practical goals that can be easily reached but you should try setting tougher goals that force you to work harder than you ever have. I like openings that give me options. Of course, if you’re a beginner you want to learn the basics first. When first learning to play guitar, you start with basic chords and simple leads. That doesn’t mean you can’t dream of playing like Hendrix! However, you have to build up your playing skills before you arrive at that destination.

Music is an art and so is chess, at least it should be! I’m of the opinion that computer software and technology in general have taken some of the art out of the game. Let me give you an example of how technology has taken a lot of the art out of music:

When I was coming up in the music world, you had to learn to play your instrument if you stood a chance of getting anywhere. While I literally learned to play while standing on a stage in front of people, an opportunity only afforded me thanks to punk rock, you were expected to get better if you wanted to survive. Back then, we didn’t have guitar effects that would essentially make us sound better even if we weren’t good musicians. Today, you can purchase an inexpensive set of effects that make you sound like a technical genius. You can also use effects to make your singing voice sound pitch perfect. What’s so bad about this technology? Some of the best recordings are flawed recordings in which wrong notes and bad tones actually make the musical composition better. Art is created by those who take chances, go against the societal grain and sometimes hit the wrong, right note! With chess, so many younger players strictly adhere to what their chess engines and databases tell them to do. Play through the games of chess’s romantic era, the 1800’s, and you’ll see dangerous and daring art. The same holds true with players like Tal and Spassky, who created art on the chessboard. If Tal played guitar he would have been a Jazz innovator.

Of course, you don’t want to play chess haphazardly, but you do want to experiment a bit. Try new things out, take a chance or two. You might find you like the outcome and even if you don’t, you can at least say you tried. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a student say “well, Houdini says I should make this move,” I’d be writing this article from my villa somewhere on an island I owned!

Jazz, or any music as long as it inspires you, is good to have playing in the background when you play chess. I know some people need silence to play but I find that music can push me further on the chessboard. I have a play list of songs, mostly Jazz from 1959, that inspires me, pushes me one step further in my playing. Well, there you have it, a little music and a little chess. Often, you can find the answers you seek regarding one endeavor in another seemingly unrelated subject. Of course, music and chess are very much related since a few brilliant chess players have also bee professional musicians. I know many musicians who play a lot of chess when on tour. They may be rock and roll animals when on stage but become quiet studious players when they sit down at the chessboard. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. This guy could really rock the piano, classically speaking!

Hugh Patterson


Author: 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).