Lessons from Losses

Each month, we have an Academic Chess tournament in which the program’s students compete with one another to test out their chess skills. While my older students are off playing in the upper divisions, I work with the youngest players, serving as an arbiter. Parents and teachers alike have commented that this is the most difficult group to manage during a tournament because the children’s chess skills are still developing. This means that mistakes are made and the situation must be rectified carefully and considerately. While this would seem simple enough, we have to add an additional factor to add to the equation, emotions. Young children can often burst into tears when losing a game, which is why I keep a box of tissue and a funny story close at hand. I try to meet with all the younger players who have had the hardest time at the tournament during their breaks. After a few well placed tissues and a funny story or two, we talk about the lessons to be learned from our losses.

We live in a society in which winning is placed on a pedestal. Some over eager parents teach their children that winners go on to greatness which can imply that those that don’t win fall into the void of mediocrity. Some parents live vicariously through their children, rewriting personal history often at their child’s expense. Society places a premium on winning that can spoil a child’s love of chess if that child doesn’t approach losing in the right way. Therefore, my students are taught to look at a lost game as an opportunity to improve, a lesson to be learned. There are no losers when you take this approach.

The first thing I do with my young students is to teach them the language of chess, algebraic notation (covered in a previous article). Once the students are able to accurately record their games we move on to game analysis. It should be said that it takes a fair amount of time and maturity to analyze chess games. However, starting students off early helps the development of this important chess habit. While our game analysis is extremely basic, it allows young beginners to discover where they went wrong, avoiding making the same mistake in future games.

Beginner’s analysis starts by breaking a game down into its three phases, the opening, middle and endgame, and reviewing each phase’s goals. I have my students use a pencil and paper to jot down notes about each move. We start with the opening. Our goal during the opening is to develop our pieces to active squares that set up our middle game. The opening game analysis is simple: Does each move made during the opening conform to one or more of our opening principles? If a student starts the game with 1.e4, I ask that student to list the opening principles that apply to this move. The principles that apply include, controlling the board’s center with a pawn, allowing the King-side Bishop and the Queen access to the board via the vacated e2 square which (in the case of the Bishop) allows for minor piece development. Minor piece development early on means early castling (King safety and Rook development). With each subsequent move we continue our list. 2.Nf3 allows minor piece development to an active square and preparation for castling (and so on). We continue the process for both players (white and black) for the next few weeks. Often, students find that one of their opening moves is the culprit that leads to the snowball effect. Let me explain this idea.

In theory (or my active imagination), if you take a fist sized ball of snow and roll it down a snow covered mountain, that snowball will gather snow, growing in size until it is a huge unstoppable mass mowing down everything in its path. In chess, a bad move can have a similar effect, making a position worse and worse until the game is hopelessly lost. A bad move can allow your opponent to build up positional momentum, with the opposition pieces mowing down everything in their path. Anyone who has played chess has probably been on the receiving end of the snowball effect. Therefore, if you can find where you went wrong, you can stop the snowball effect in future games.

The opening isn’t the only place a single move can lead to disaster. It can happen in the middle or endgame as well. When analyzing the middle game, beginners might not be able to analyze subtle positional moves but they can see when an attempted attack falls apart. I have my students answer the question, why did your attack fall apart? Students count attackers and defenders to see if they were simply outnumbered during their attack (or defense). They also look at the squares they left undefended when launching their attack. By moving a pawn or piece, did that pawn or piece lose its control over a critical square or squares? In short, my students learn to become chess detectives, looking for clues that led to their losses. I tend to use the “chess detective” analogy because it can turn the examination of a painfully lost game into a fun game of its own.

When examining the endgame, I have to remind myself that these are very young students who don’t know the finer points of endgame play because their games more often than not end in early checkmates. Therefore, I try to keep the analysis simple. The questions my students ask include the following: Did I make any silly checks such as chasing the opposing King around the board with a lone Rook while yelling “check?” Was my King an active participant in the endgame action or did it sit on the sidelines watching the action? When moving my pawns towards their promotion squares, did I sufficiently protect them with the King or other pieces? Did I remember to keep the Kings in opposition when trying to promote a lone pawn?

Obviously, there are hundreds of questions that a chess player must ask during a post mortem. However, the students I work with are extremely young and are just being introduced to game analysis. As they become better chess detectives, they’ll ask more questions. Of course, many of my students don’t realize that we analyze games during each class. When I present a game to my students, we talk about each move (analysis). Even though my students are young, I ask them what they think about the move in question. My chess detectives put on their imaginary Sherlock Holmes hats and go to work. Here’s a game to ponder. There is no commentary. Instead, I ask that you try a bit of basic game analysis and see if there’s a move that may have started the snowball effect. 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).