How to Improve at Chess

There are a plethora of books, DVDs and software programs designed to improve one’s chess skills. Some of these have titles that suggest rapid improvement if you follow the prescribed method of study. Chess players are always seeking ways to get better so many of the titles promising rapid improvement become top sellers. However, when the player starts working the prescribed program he or she finds that they’re not getting the results promised by the program. Sadly, we live in a society that looks for a fast track to success. In chess, as in mathematics, there are no shortcuts. This reminds me of something the mathematician Euclid once said. He had a King as one of his mathematics students and that King, becoming frustrated by the amount of work required to master geometry, asked Euclid if there was an easier way to learn the subject at hand. Euclid dryly replied that there is no royal road to geometry. The same holds true with chess.

The parents of my young students often ask me how their children can get better. What they’re really asking is if there’s an easy way in which their children can quickly improve. Mastery of any subject requires putting in a large amount of time into the study of that subject, roughly 10,000 hours. However, we could spend this enormous amount time trying to master a subject and fall short of our goal. This can happen if we don’t study the right way. How you study a subject becomes the determining factor in your success with that subject, be it music, science or chess.

When parents ask me how their children can get better, I ask the parents if they play chess. Parents can speed up the improvement process if they’re willing to become involved. Involvement starts with sitting down and playing chess with their children. If the parent doesn’t play chess, I offer to sit down and teach them the rules of the game. If they’re willing to do this, I teach them the rules of the game and provide them with handouts that cover the ideas discussed during each class. They can use these handouts to go over the weekly lessons with their children, reinforcing the ideas covered in my lectures. I stress the importance of being proactive in their children’s chess. There is an additional benefit to playing chess with one’s children. The game itself forges a bond between parent and child, a bond that will help hold their relationship with their children through the passing years. What about parents who don’t have the time to play chess with their children?

This is where training software, DVDs and books come into play. However, before I delve into this method of study, we should talk about what should be studied and how much time should be allotted to studying chess. Good chess players are all around players. This means they’re confident in opening middle and endgame play. Too often, I see young players at tournament who are proficient in the opening but get crushed in the middle game because their tactical skills are not honed. I also see young players who are good at tactics but get punished in the opening and never get to demonstrate their tactical skills. Children should study each of the game’s three phases, the opening, middle and endgames. Let’s start with the opening:

Rather than concentrate on specific openings, concentrate on opening principles (see my previous article on opening principles). Until you understand the principles, you’ll never understand the mechanics of different types of openings. A beginner who understands the opening principles will do much better than a beginner who simply memorizes opening lines and variations. Opening principles such as controlling the center with a pawn, minor piece development and castling will give the young beginner a fighting chance when facing off against a stronger opponent. Children do well with learning by repetition so these principles must be gone over again and again. Parents should keep this in mind and not become discouraged if their child doesn’t get it immediately.

Middle games studies for children should start with tactics. Children love tactics such as forks, pins, skewers, discovered attacks, etc. Tactics also allow them to develop board vision (seeing the entire board rather than an isolated area) because they’ll scourer the board looking for tactical opportunities. It’s best to hold off on delving into open and closed positions until they’ve spent at least six to nine months developing their tactical skills. However, you can introduce the basic idea of both types of games. For example, when playing an e pawn opening, I often mention that the use of the e pawn on move one can lead to an open game. When asked what an open game is, I simply explain that it is a game in which the pieces have a lot of room to move as opposed to a closed game in which the pieces are very close to one another making movement difficult. Leave it at that for the moment.

The endgame may be the most frustrating phase of the game for young beginners. Children think that with fewer pieces on the board it is easier to play chess. However, just the opposite is true. Beginners should start with the most basic of checkmates, two Rooks and a King against a lone King. This particular mate, in which the Rooks work together to isolate the opposing King to one of the board’s edges, teaches piece coordination and eliminates the employment of silly or pointless checks. Then move on to Queen and King versus lone King, Rook and King against lone King and, only then (after at least three months) move onto minor piece mates. While introducing these basic mates, introduce the most basic of pawn promotions, King and pawn versus lone King.

Parents reading this are probably starting to think “you want me to do what?” or “wait a minute, I don’t play chess and I don’t have the time to learn.” Don’t worry; I’m not going to leave you with this grandiose plan without some help! I am going to suggest a software program that will make your parental chess life a bit easier. I know chess software can be expensive but I have a solution that is relatively inexpensive. The software is called Chessmaster Grandmaster Edition. It is designed for both adults and children and all ages in between. It contains two primary tutorial programs that cover everything I’ve discussed, a plethora of computer opponents (at levels from absolute beginner to Grandmaster), a database of games and a great kid’s section.

How much time should my child spend studying chess? Young children have short attention spans so forcing them to study long after their attention has waned can have a negative effect. Start with fifteen minute blocks of time for each phase of the game, the opening, middle and endgame. Try this twice a week. The remaining time should be spent playing against human opponents, one to two games each day. If playing chess with your child, make sure to reinforce their classroom lessons. This can be offset with play against a computer program (set at a level a little higher than the child’s skill set). You have to balance theory (studying the game) with practice (playing the game) to ensure a well rounded chess education. Here’s game to play through that I rather enjoy.

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).