External Pattern Recognition Exercises

Parents often enroll their kindergarten aged students in a chess class with the idea of introducing their children to logic and reasoning skills early on. When teaching children of such a young age, conventional chess teaching approaches have to be reconsidered. I have one class that is made up of both Kindergarten and First Grade students only. I’ve had this class for roughly nine months and we’ve made some remarkable progress in the development of their chess skills. One technique I’ve used to help develop their chess playing is external pattern recognition exercises. These exercise have worked so well that I’m recommended them to older students as well.

Let me start by explaining the difference between internal and external pattern recognition in terms of my curriculum. Internal pattern recognition is finding or seeing patterns on the chessboard during a game. While this is a goal all chess players strive for, it should and is strengthened by external pattern recognition exercises. External pattern recognition exercises take place far from the chessboard, often in within our daily lives. External pattern recognition exercises lay a solid foundation for recognizing patterns on the chessboard. By employing these external exercises, your ability to recognize specific patterns on the chessboard (internal) will increase at a faster rate.

Because I teach students of all ages, I have to create external pattern recognition exercises appropriate to specific age groups. While all the exercises work well for older students, very young students require exercises that they can comprehend. If they can’t comprehend an exercise, they won’t get anything useful out of it. Therefore, I’ll start with exercises for the youngest of my students.

The idea of pattern recognition can be completely foreign to a Kindergarten or First Grade student. Thus, the definition I give them is “things that match.” I have my young students create a simple list of things they see in their daily lives that match, such as a pair of socks or four tires on a car. This is external pattern recognition (away from the chessboard), Each week, my young students give me their list of things that match. We then look at a chessboard, set up to play a game. I ask them to show me everything that matches on the chessboard, such all the White pawns, all the Black pawns and so on. At this point, I ask them to create a new list, this time looking specifically at nature for examples. When looking at a grouping of similar trees, is there one that has more branches than the others or is leaning in the opposite direction than the others? We increase the scope of their pattern recognition with each passing week. We always go back to the chessboard where I ask them to further explore patterns such as the diagonals, ranks and files. This continues throughout their chess classes for at least six months (no matter how good their chess playing gets).

For older students, I use card games to help build their pattern recognition skills. We start with Solitaire, namely the computer program version of the game. The student plays a three card draw version of Solitaire rather than the single card at a time version. The reason for this is simple. While trying to match the appropriate cards, they have to keep track cards they need within the three card set they’re trying to play. I recommend playing this card game for ten minutes each day because it helps to focus the mind towards recognizing specific patterns. If you want to try this, set the game options so it isn’t timed. Then, once you get used to playing it on a regular basis, use the timer. Solitaire can be an excellent way to enhance pattern recognition.

For adult students, I recommend playing draw poker, specifically the apps designed for tablets. Draw poker has some useful advantages for the novice adult chess player. First, it teaches pattern recognition in a very visual way. You essentially have five cards on the screen and are given the choice to hold those cards or to exchange them for new cards from the deck (exchanging one to five cards per hand). The app always gives you the odds of specific hands such as a pair, three of a kind, four of a kind, etc. Another advantage to using this draw poker game for training is that it forces you to play more scientifically, ultimately (if you’re playing correctly) taking less chances. How does draw poker playing apply to chess?

I spoke of wishful thinking in my last article. Wishful thinking is hoping your opponent will make the move you want them to make as opposed to the best move they can make independent of your ideas. In draw poker, for example, novice players will play a pair of twos rather than hold onto a Ace. If you look at the odds chart that comes with the game, you’ll see that it’s better to hold the Ace. While it is tempting to play the pair, hoping the computer program behind the app will bend to your will, it’s wishful thinking!

Speaking of programming, I introduce my older students to the idea of playing the program’s algorithm, the mathematical instructions that tells the computer how to respond to the card hand you play. Because this version of poker is based on a mathematical formula, it will respond to specific situations in a calculated way (it’s programming), not just responding to your card hand based on odds. You play the algorithm by noting patterns in the hands being played. For instance, if you win two hands, one with a pair of Queens, the next with three Queens, holding a Queen in the next or third hand dealt might not work. The computer program behind the app is designed to respond in a specific way to the cards you play. I have been researching the algorithm behind a specific draw poker app with a group of students and we have been able to win quite a bit by playing the program not just the odds.

The point to all this is to use external methods to improve your pattern recognition because you can literally find patterns everywhere you go and the more you study patterns off of the chessboard, the better your pattern recognition becomes on the chessboard. Games such as Scrabble are also wonderful for pattern recognition. Try some of these exercises and you’ll not only improve your chessboard pattern recognition but see life in a more interesting way. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

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).