Foundations

I’m the type of individual who would rather be good at a handful of things then master of one. I like intellectual variety in my life, probably because I enjoy a bit of chaos (but not a lot of chaos). I had a teenage student ask me how to get “good” at a number of endeavors and I had no concrete answer until I really thought about it. I’m sure some of you may be thinking “you can’t get good at at one, let alone few things, without having some sort of plan.” However, I tend to jump into things and figure out what works in achieving my goals (or what doesn’t), making a note of what does the trick. Intuition from a lifetime of learning simply kicks in. I use a variety of learning techniques depending on the subject matter. Yet, there is one common thread that ties together all my learning experiences and that is a solid foundation.

Building a solid foundation is the real key to learning something, be it chess, music or Mandarin. You simply cannot become good at something unless your knowledge of the subject at hand rests upon a solid foundation! On the first day of my first college class, the teacher stated that we would spend the first week learning how to study. I was amazed and appalled at the same time. After all, we were in college so we should already know how to study. After quizzing my classmates, it became apparent that none of us really knew the fine art of studying. It’s really quite simple. It comes down to time management and reading the texts in manner that allows you to comprehend the material (skimming through a chapter to become familiar with it, rereading it in detail and asking yourself, after each paragraph, exact what points the author was making). Also included in the professor’s instructions regarding studying were finding a quiet place to read and taking good notes.

However, he never really talked about the power of a strong foundation regarding the subject matter. This is where I’ll jump in! How good you get at something depends completely on the foundation of knowledge you build for yourself. Think about building a house. If you live in earthquake country as I do, building even the nicest house on a foundation of sand will lead to disaster when the ground starts to shake. Therefore, you build a house on a solid foundation of concrete (poured onto bedrock). The same holds true with learning. How far you get in your study of a subject depends on the foundation of information you create. Your foundation, in this case, requires a firm and complete grasp of the basics, the essentials.

We all know chess players who employ openings, for example that are beyond their grasp. They memorize an opening move order along with a few variations without having a solid grasp of the underlying principles. Then they play someone who makes a move they haven’t memorized and it’s game over! Before you venture off and play the Ruy Lopez, you need to understand the principles that guild each move. When white plays 3. Bb5, for example, you need to understand how this seemingly non-centralized move helps to control the center (the Bishop on b5 attacks the Knight on c6 who in turn is defending the pawn on e5). If you want to get good at chess you have to know the very basics of the game inside and out. It’s knowledge if the simplest concepts that allow you to learn and understand the complex ideas. There’s no room for partial knowledge if you want to win games against strong opponents. Too many times, a player will try to make a move he saw Karpov make, only to have it backfire and lead to a loss. As a beginner or improver, you can’t play like Karpov so you shouldn’t try. It’s the idea of learning to walk before trying to run! You build your foundation of knowledge as single brick at a time.

Another great example of building a solid foundation can be found in mathematics. If you wish to learn algebra and calculus, you need to have an absolute grasp of arithmetic! Many people dislike mathematics, and while they’re able to get through the basics of arithmetic with little pain, they usually have a little trouble with fractions (unless you live in a country smart enough to use the metric system which bypasses this annoying branch of mathematics). They skim through learning fractions, which weakens their mathematical foundation and then run into trouble when fractions are applied in algebra! Their thinking is this: Fractions are a small part of arithmetic as a whole, so if I do well everywhere else, I’ll be just fine! Wrong! It only takes one poorly placed brick to bring your foundation crashing down.

There’s no taking half measures when it comes to building a solid foundation. In studying Mandarin, I made a point of really working on the most basic aspects of the language, the tones. Some words in Mandarin are spelled identically but have different meanings based on how they’re pronounced. If you gloss over studying the tonal aspects of the language, you’ll never speak it correctly. You’ll proudly walk into a Chinese restaurant, place your order in Mandarin and be swiftly thrown out because you told the waiter his wife was a goat! Like memorizing a chess opening, you can memorize a huge number of words in Mandarin but if you can’t pronounce them, no one will understand what you’re saying (and you’ll never be allowed back into your favorite Chinese eatery).

So how does the beginning chess player build a solid foundation? Obviously through hard work and study. However, you have to progress slowly and not advance from one concept to another until you have a firm grasp of the material you just studied. I advocate over-kill when it comes to learning. You can’t study too much (within reason of course). Opening theory, something I talk about a great deal in my classes, is a great example of an area in which beginners tend to skim through. Patience, is the chess student and chess player’s best friend. When learning how to start a game, the opening, beginners more often than not, study the games of the masters. There is nothing wrong with this as long as you really understand the opening principles. As you play through the game of a master, ask yourself with each move made for either side, how do the opening principles apply here. Too often, a beginner will jump to the next move if her or she can’t figure out what opening principle applied to the previous move. Wrong! You have to determine the principle behind each move before moving onto the next. If you can’t figure this out, go online and do some research. There are millions of beginners out there and you can’t be the only one stumped by a particular move! By doing the research you’ll answer the question which will, in turn, strengthen your foundation. Play through the game you’re studying not once but five or six times. When you can play that particular game from memory you can move on.

The same holds true for tactical play. I use tactical training programs on my computer to improve my skills. However, I do something not everyone does. Most people will look at the screen, solve the problem and move on. Wrong! Tactics don’t appear out of thin air. They are set up. This means you need to look at moves made prior to the execution of the tactic! If the program you’re using doesn’t give you the moves made prior to the tactic in question (many don’t), find it in a database. I know this this takes extra time and you won’t be able to tell your friends that “I did 1,237 tactical puzzles today,” but you’ll learn a lot about how to set up the tactic in question. It’s all about the foundation you build!

Endgame play tends to stump the beginner because they never get to a proper endgame or if they do, they’re playing someone with endgame experience. Learn endgame principles and find someone to play endgame positions with, such as a chess playing program. Play pawn and King endgames until you’re eyes glaze over and then do it again. Slowly add more different pieces into the mix. Take it slowly, one brick at a time.

Going that extra mile, building a simple but solid foundation, will do wonders for your ability to take on more complex ideas (both on and off the chessboard). Like I said, you can’t run until you learn how to walk. Don’t worry about people around claiming to have sped through their studies because they’ll hit the brick wall fast learning soon enough. Of course, for anyone who has read my social media posts regarding my fast acceleration in learning Mandarin, it’s only happening because I build a solid foundation of the basics, which took a great deal of time and work. However, that work in fully grasping the simplest concepts is paying off. 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).