Confessions of a Self Learner

Teaching and coaching chess, my own game improves steadily. However, I put a minimum of two to three hours a day into studying chess because I practice what I preach, which is the idea that getting better at chess requires hard work. If you want to become a better chess player you have to roll up your sleeves and take action. Thinking about improving your own game does no good unless you actually do something such as studying. Action, in this case, is the act of creating a plan of improvement and following it.

I must confess that I can be the world’s laziest person when it comes to things I don’t want to do. My weed covered backyard attests to this fact! However, when I love something, I throw myself into it full throttle. Yet even my great love of chess doesn’t completely stop laziness from rearing it’s ugly head from time to time. I have to maintain self discipline to get through it and self discipline takes time to develop. Here’s my typical training day.

I start my day with a series of tactical mate in one exercises using a software program on my laptop. Typically, I’ll do sixty problems while having my first cup of coffee at 6:00 am. I prefer exercises that require me to look at the entire chessboard which helps improve my board vision. One tip I would offer in solving these problems is to look at all your pawns and pieces to determine which of them cover the enemy King’s escape squares. These pawns and pieces should remain where they are, leaving you to find the pawn or piece that can move and deliver checkmate. Approaching mate in one problems this way will help you avoid missing potential checkmates in your own games. You’d be surprised at how many potential checkmates players miss. Checkmate exercises help reduce the number of missed opportunities.

Once my brain is warmed up, it’s time to play a few games of Blitz against the computer. I start with a few Blitz games because I have commitments in the morning and often don’t have enough time to play an hour long game. I use my laptop’s chess program as an opponent. Blitz games that are five to ten minutes long are a good way to check your instinctual play. By instinctual, I mean testing out what you have retained in your memory (opening principles, tactics, etc). Blitz helps me play more aggressively and less defensively.

Because I have breaks throughout my teaching day, I often have thirty minute blocks of time to fill. This is when I study openings. I use an chess Ebook app on my tablet that has a small built in board so I can play through specific openings while reading the book. Teaching requires that I know quite a few openings so these thirty minute blocks of study time allow me to keep up with the numerous openings my students play. When I study openings, I approach them from the standpoint of how I would play against them. I take this approach because too often, we plod through the opening moves mechanically, looking at the opening from the viewpoint of the side the opening is designed for. We tend to pay just a little less attention to the opposition’s response. Paying just a little less attention can be disastrous when you use that opening in a game and don’t remember what the best opposition move was in a given position. When you look at an opening, say the Ruy Lopez for example, from Black’s perspective you not only learn more about White’s moves but Black’s critical responses as well. Openings are a two sided affair, so look at both sides, especially opposition responses.

During my classes, I make a point of playing as many students as possible. What I love about playing my students is their unpredictability. My students have been known to make some unorthodox but reasonable moves during our games. This gives me a chance to explore responses to those moves, forcing me to think outside of the box. While we learn chess in a somewhat mechanical fashion, purely mechanical thinking will lead to lost games. Learning how to deal with the unexpected will go a long way towards improving your play. Try non book/theory moves against the computer just to see what happens! You may get crushed but you might just find something interesting and useful. Be an explorer of the game!

After work, when I’m home in a quieter environment, I study the endgame. I have thirty minutes dedicated to this. Endgame studies require developing the ability to see many moves ahead which requires concentration. I tend to concentrate best in my office so that’s where I do my endgame work. I use software training programs and work through the positions very slowly. These are not mate in one problems, but mate in four, five and six moves. This means you have to take your time. Fewer pieces on the board means that the tables can turn on you very quickly if you lose a piece or even a single pawn. Endgame problems are a matter of quality over quantity.

After dinner I play a longer game against my computer, using what I’ve learned that day. It is during these games that I work on my middle game skills. What I’ve found in my studies is that we should start our middle game by building up small advantages rather than aiming for one large tide turning advantage such as a quick mating attack. Small advantages, when put together, make a large advantage. Because this large advantage is made up of smaller individual components, it will be more difficult for your opponent to thwart that overall advantage. Piece activity is a key consideration. The question you should ask yourself is whether or not your pieces are on their most active squares. Tactical combinations appear only when pieces are fully active!

The crucial aspect to self learning is getting into the habit of daily study. Like physical exercise, you have to do it regularly and not sporadically. If you do a little work every day, you’ll not only improve but be more apt to sit down and get to work on a daily basis without grumbling. I am fortunate in that I have a great deal of time to study chess. However, you may not. This means that you should put in a reasonable amount of time into your studies based on your schedule. To determine how much time you can put into your chess studies, take a look at your daily schedule and see if there is any down time, such as having to wait for a bus or train. If you have to wait for twenty minutes until your bus or train arrives, use that time to study. Sitting down for an hour at a time might seem a bit daunting. However, if you break it up into three twenty minute sessions, it may seem a bit more palatable. Use the time in between daily activities to improve your chess.

Sometimes you might not feel like studying chess. There’s nothing wrong with this. We all need a break now and again. In fact, I’d say taking time away from your studies can be good thing. Just make sure that you don’t stay away too long. Burn out is an occupational hazard so walk away when you need to. Remember, in chess, as in life, you get out of it what you put into it. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

This entry was posted in Articles, Children's Chess, Hugh Patterson on by .

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).