Classical Games and Teaching

I was talking to a talented young chess player the other day and the subject of classical games came up. He told me that he didn’t look at any games played before the 1940s. I asked why and he replied that he was into modern, cutting edge chess. He said that there was “no life” in antiquated games. I decided not to start debating the issue since our debates have been known to last for hours. However, I did think about his statements in relation to my teaching. Should classical games be used in a teaching program? The answer was a resounding yes! Some (but not all) of the most instructive games of chess were played in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

After you’ve taught the rules and introduced a few basic ideas such as opening principles, combinational teamwork between the pieces and tactical concepts, it’s time to demonstrate how these ideas work in a real game. One of the challenges facing the chess teacher is finding games that clearly demonstrate the principles or ideas you’re trying to convey to your students. These demonstration games have to compliment your lessons. You also have to choose games that won’t go over your students head in terms of complexity. If the game’s positions are too complex, your students will gain nothing from the lesson but further confusion.

Simply playing chess and using tactical software programs to improve your game is not enough. You have to study the games of the masters as well. Within these “master” games is a wealth of information that can be applied to your own playing, if you choose the right games. What makes a good game from which to learn how to play better chess? Find games that address the areas you’re trying to improve. For the beginner, you need to find games that illustrate a little of everything. I search out games that cover basic opening and middle game principles. If you’re wondering why I left out the endgame, it’s because the majority of my students are new to chess so I need to get them coordinated at the game’s start and train them to spot tactical plays first. Most young students don’t get into proper endgames until they gain some experience (junior chess tournaments are full of games that end in pre-endgame early checkmates). However, I do teach them the basics of endgame play but without the use of a full game during the early stages of their chess education. A good chess teacher needs to find games that reinforce and compliment their lessons.

This is where classical games come in, especially those played in the 19th Century. I use many of Paul Morphy’s games in my lessons and lectures. One idea I try to embed in my student’s thought process is the idea of playing aggressively. By aggressively, I mean making moves that are offensive rather than defensive. Beginners, who play too defensively (especially as white) will often find their positions overrun by more aggressive players. Beginners also have a bad habit of not developing their pieces to active squares. Morphy had a gift for not only playing aggressively but finding the most active squares for his pieces. As an added bonus, his games can be understood and appreciated by beginners and advanced players alike.

Another good point about using classical games is that you can introduce some history into your lessons which is very important! Chess history is really a reflection of human history. It also allows a student to see that important chess principles have been used for hundreds of years and still hold true today. We’ll often trace the history of a particular chess opening to its origins and then trace its development into its modern version. Chess history is a treasure trove of fascinating nuggets of knowledge!

I use the Socratic teaching method. I learned about this method by reading one of Bruce Pandolfini’s books. This method allows the student to question the teacher, which I encourage. We use this method in the classroom during key points in my game lecture which can lead to wonderfully spirited debate and a deeper understanding of chess. I always give my students a quick lesson in game analysis for beginners prior to viewing the demonstration game. You don’t have to be a master level player to analyze a game. Of course, you won’t be able to understand complex positions the way a master would but you can walk away with a fistful of useful information. Beginners can start their careers as chess analysts by looking for the key concepts of their lessons within the game. When I play the first move of a classical game, I ask the students if that move falls within the realm of our primary opening principle, gaining control of the board’s center. We then look at the next few moves. Again I ask if these moves are following our opening principles. More often than not, a student will ask about an alternative move he or she sees. As a class, we’ll look at this alternative move, exploring whether it works or not. As the lecture goes on and we enter the middle game, we examine tactical plays which are a huge favorite with my students. If a fork or pin is a move or two away, I announce “we are now in a state of tactical alert.” They know that a tactical play is coming up and it becomes a contest to discover the move that sets it up. I have a rule during my lessons and lectures; you must raise your hand in order to ask a question. This is an iron rule so my students follow it to the letter. This is what allows me to use the Socratic Method in the classroom. Otherwise, bedlam would ensue!

The 19th Century games we examine end often in stunning checkmates. This works well for beginners because when they play in our program tournaments, games usually end with early checkmates. While my student’s checkmates may not be as stunning as those of Paul Morphy, it teaches them that checkmate can occur early on. This helps them keep up their guard against sudden mating attempts. At game’s end we often review the scholar’s mate, especially in beginner’s classes where this form of checkmate rears its ugly head quite a bit!

I decided to tell my students about this article and ask them what game they felt taught them the most. I have shown the games of Capablanca, Steinitz, Marshall and Morphy, to name a few. The one game everyone agreed on was the “Opera House Massacre” where Paul Morphy plays against Duke of Brunswick and Count Isourard at the Paris Opera House in 1858. I teach my students to look at a chess game as a story being told as the game is played. A good chess game is like an exciting book or movie. My students stated that this game had all the excitement of a good action movie. Since my student’s opinions are important to me, I present you the game they chose.

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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).