Fast Forward Focus

I’ve always had trouble focusing my mind quickly because my thoughts tend to be akin to a pinball wildly bouncing around a full tilt gaming machine. This can be troublesome when trying to sit down and play a game of chess! For the last three years, I’ve been studying the game of blackjack from a mathematical standpoint. In my studies, I’ve also learned the art of card counting which any good blackjack player will tell you, drastically improves your chances of doing well against the casino (reducing the odds). I should note that this article is not in any way an endorsement for either card counting or gambling. To be able to card count at a blackjack table takes years of practice and is only a small part of mastering the game, mathematics being the lion’s share of the work. However, I will say that taking a single, well shuffled deck of cards and counting it (using the basic Hi-Low system) is an excellent way to focus your ability to quickly concentrate. Again, don’t think that simply doing this is going to make you a high roller at the casinos (they frown upon card counters and you don’t want to visit the casino’s pit boss in his dark, smokey and frightening back office)!

When you watch a Hollywood film about blackjack card sharks, you tend to see either one or two character types. You have your rain man type, savants who can’t string two words together but seem to be able to instantly count the exact number of tooth picks that fall out of a container and onto the floor. The next character is the guy who walks up to the blackjack table and a though bubble appears over his head filled with calculus equations. From these two highly exaggerated examples, people think you have to be a gifted idiot or rocket scientist to pull off card counting. The good news? If you know how to add, subtract, divide and multiply, you have the prerequisite skills required. Learning card counting is easy but mastering it extremely difficult (especially when faced with a six decks, 312 cards, a standard in Las Vegas). Doesn’t this sound like a familiar game we all love? However, to do this concentration exercise you just need to learn the basics.

Because you have to concentrate heavily while doing the counting, it focuses your mind, narrowing the thought process down and in doing so, helps to point your thinking in a single direction rather than a scattered one. I now count a single deck of cards before sitting down to play chess (whenever possible) because it gets rid of the scattered thoughts that damage my ability to singularly concentrate on one thing. Here’s how it works:

A deck of card has four suits, diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades. These are completely ignored in the count. It’s all about the card numbers! There are thirteen numerically valued cards within each suit, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, Jack, Queen, King and Ace. You might be thinking, with thirteen different types of cards, how am I supposed to keep track of them all? The good news is that we’re going to divide all of those cards into one of three numeric values: +1, -1 and 0 or the neutral card.

Any card with a value of 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 is assigned a value of +1. This means they’re worth one point. The 7, 8 and 9 have a value of zero. The Jack, Queen, King and Ace are worth -1. This means they’re subtracted from the positive numbers. Let me clarify this with an example:

After shuffling the deck, you flip over the first card and it’s a 2. This means it’s worth 1 point. The next card up is a 5 which is worth another point. You now have two points (1+1=2). The next card up is a 4, so you now have a total of 3 points (1+1+1=3). The fourth card dealt from the deck is a Jack. This card is valued as -1, which means you subtract 1 point from your total (1+1+1-1=2), leaving a total value of two. The next card up is a 8 which has a value of zero so you don’t worry about it (1+1+1-1+0=2). You go through the deck, mentally adding and subtracting as you go along. You’ll get it wrong at first but don’t worry because the idea here is to focus your thought process on this single procedure, clearing all those random thoughts out of your mind as you count. If you really need to see if you’re counting correctly, go through the deck of cards first and write down the value for each card and the final total, carefully keeping them in the order they were shuffled in, and then go back and do it in your head. Compare the two answers.

Again, this is not an advertisement for improving your blackjack techniques or an invitation to take up gambling. Trust me when I say, the house or casino always wins in the end. Most people are NOT suited for gambling, period! However, if you’re looking for a quick way to sharpen your focus, give this a try. Of course, I feel like a bit of a dullard since I didn’t think to try this as a chess tool when I first learned how to do it! It only became a training tool because I was waiting for an opponent who was running late and just happen to have a deck of cards in my car. You know, I think this counting business really works because this is the shortest, most “to the point” article I’ve written to date! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week and remember, chess is not a game of chance so you shouldn’t be taking any!

Hugh Patterson

Strong Character for Strong Chess

The human element, the human flaw and the human nobility – those are the reasons that chess matches are won or lost. 
-Viktor Korchnoi

Chess is a game of the mind. Not just because it is game of logic, memory, and analysis, but also because chess tests your very character. Chess is played with 32 pieces and pawns on a board with 64 squares, but it is also played in our heart and soul. To me, this is what is beautiful about chess – that it is an expression both of our intellect and reasoning, but also of our creativity, desire, and determination.

In this article, I want to discuss four character traits that I believe are essential to becoming a really good chess player. In addition, I offer suggestions on how you can enhance and develop these.


The first quality that you need to cultivate as an aspiring chess player is desire. You need to want to improve. One of my favorite motivational speakers Eric Thomas says, “You need to want to succeed more than you want to breath.” Maybe that’s a little extreme for the average amateur chess player, but you need to want to improve enough so that you will do some chess study rather than say watching some television or a video game.

A good question to ask yourself is why you want to get better at chess. If your answer is something external like winning prize money or impressing your friends, then it is unlikely that you will sustain the necessary dedication to succeed.

However, if your desire to become better at chess is derived from an internal motivation such as trying to improve your mental capabilities or a deep appreciation for the logic and aesthetics of the game, then that combined with some of the other character traits I will mention may help drive you up the chess ladder.

To improve or stimulate this quality within yourself, I suggest you write down the reasons that you want to get better at chess on a piece of paper or index card. You can make it a short essay or perhaps a few bullet points. It can also be a simple sentence.

After you’ve done this, review it regularly. Doing this will do one of two things. It will either increase this desire for improvement within you…or you’ll realize you don’t really want to improve that much at chess and you’ll cease this exercise.

Your desire to improve will drive you to make positive decisions about your chess.

However, desire alone isn’t enough.


Perseverance means sticking with something despite delays and difficulties in reaching it. This quality is especially important for chess players as becoming really good at chess takes a long time (for most people). Even if you are particularly talented and pick chess up very quickly, it might still take you at least five years to become a master.

I started “trying” to become really good at chess about 20 years ago. During that time, I’ve gotten married, had three children, a couple career changes, as well as the other struggles that life brings. A couple times, I’ve stopped playing chess altogether for several years at a stretch.

However the call of Caissa is a sweet one and once you’ve heard it, it is hard to turn your back on her forever. I’ve returned to playing chess and my desire is back stronger than ever, so now I have to back it up with perseverance.

How can I do this? I think it is important to examine your beliefs because what you believe will affect your attitude and your willpower to persevere. Consider the following questions:

  • Do you believe you have the potential to get better or do you think you’ve reached the highest point of your chess ability?
  • Is mastering chess is a matter of talent alone or the result of a long process of improvement?
  • Does your age factor into your ability to improve? Is getting really good at chess for young people only? Can you guess that I’ve been mulling this over lately?

Your beliefs about yourself and about the reality that mastery takes time is key to your persevering through the struggles of life as well as struggles at the chessboard.

Finally I suggest that you simply refuse to give up. Although life may happen and you may need to take a break from the game, remember that you can always come back. You only fail if you don’t come back.


While perseverance is about sticking with it for the long haul, consistency is about the regularity and frequency of your training.

Each time I came back from a layoff from chess, it took a little while to get back to where I left off. I had to brush up on my openings as well as sharpen my tactical skills. This could have been avoided if I had stayed consistent.

Developing consistency is essentially making chess training a habit. As I write in my article Developing Good Habits for Life and Chessthere are a few steps to create a new habit:

  • Identify the habit you are trying to develop.
  • Break down the habit into smaller parts or behaviors.
  • Progress slowly and gradually increase the frequency, intensity, or volume of the habit.
  • Keep it easy – e.g. increase the habit gradually enough that your perceived effort is similar to before.

Developing consistency is also understanding that shorter training sessions done over several days is more effective in general than one long training session every once in a while. A problem I in my early days was trying to keep up a schedule when I trained or studied for 4-5 hours per day. Other parts of my life suffered as my daily activities were out of balance.

Now, I do an hour or two a day and on the busy days, I get in 20-30 minutes of tactics or studying a mastery game. I realize that eating an apple a day is much more effective for keeping the doctor away than trying to eat seven apples in one day!


The final ingredient that I will discuss today is resilience. Resilience is bouncing back from set-backs. Similar to perseverance and aided by desire and consistency, resilience brings you back to the chessboard after a disappointing performance or frustration with your progress.

Like the other traits I mentioned, I believe that this can be improved. Here are a few steps you can take:

  • Keep a positive view of your chess abilities. Like I mention in my article on game analysis, it is important to note not only your mistakes but the good moves you made. Review these whenever you feel frustrated with your progress.
  • Keep things in perspective. Remember that a loss is but one game of hundreds or thousands that you will play in your lifetime. Use a loss or set-back as fuel for your training.
  • Stay in contact with your chess friends or perhaps your coach when you are feeling down about your play. They will help you keep things in perspective and a coach can help you find any systematic or regular mistakes you may be making.
  • Embrace mistakes and losses as a chance to learn and grow. As Capablanca said, he learned a lot more from his losses than he did from his wins.

One great example of resilience was Kasparov’s comeback after going down 4-0 in his 1984 World Championship match where he challenged the champion at the time Anatoly Karpov.  Despite a crushing deficit in which Karpov only needed to win two more games, Kasparov held on, playing to sixteen straight draws before losing again! Kasparov finally won his first game of the match in game 32. He also won games 47 and 48, bringing the match to 5-3. Unfortunately, the match was controversially stopped due to various reasons. I believe Kasparov would have eventually won, and in the return match he edged out his rival to become the World Champion.

Here’s the score of the 32nd game – Kasparov’s first victory in the 1984 match.


Today’s article was about character traits. Some people believe that you either have these or you don’t. After studying the topic and observing others, I tend to believe that although you may gifted with an abundance of one or more of these traits, that you can develop them.

The beautiful thing is that once you develop these traits with regard to your chess improvement, you can apply them to other parts of your life (and vice versa). Understanding the power of desire, you an foster these in your work and family life. Similarly, developing consistency as a habit need not be limited to your work on your chess. Finally, life is full of set-backs. The greatest stories are those of people overcoming their set-backs in life through resiliance and perseverance.

In a way, chess becomes a training ground for life, and our life experiences can contribute to our chess success as well. Combine this with some tactical skill and strategic acumen (and perhaps a solid opening repertoire) and you’re well on your way to success in chess and life!

Bryan Castro

Collecting Lint

Amalgamated Lint–up 3 points! – Gomez Addams

My game certainly has collected lint lately.

Every Gruenfeld player with Black likes nothing better than White to play e3 … Be2 without moving the queen bishop out to f4 nor otherwise offering challenge Black’s quick rush to the center. Yet in recent weeks I lost two .. two .. games with Black in that, the easiest of lines.

First it was a three week’s pneumonia, but the second game has no such excuse. Chess just stopped for me for a week. My psyche refused to step through the looking glass into Chess’s 1.x-fractal-dimensional world. Perhaps I was sated artistically with tremendous progress in a software system I am currently designing and coding. Perhaps I was merely bored.

In any case, I managed this week, with great difficulty, to eke out a win against a player 400 points below me. I wouldn’t mention it except for the worst move of the game, which is quite instructive. It’s not in the notation, it’s in the comments: 22. Ra2 { draw offered }.

After a mediocre opening which left Black on the kinfe edge of disaster, White could have tried to set up a battery on the a-file and pawnroller on the queen side, but White was looking for a draw. After a few feeble attempts at strategy, and seeing that Black had nothing, White duly offered said draw.

That was a Mistake. Of course, I did not want a draw. Indeed I sensed the hated draw looming. But to offer the draw after some half-hearted wood-shifting gave away White’s secret: he didn’t understand the position nor did he have a plan. That was all Black needed to formulate a plan in a sterile position: to wit, the certainty that White would aimlessly trade if given the chance. After 27. Bxc4, Black’s bishop became dangerous and fortunately White did not grasp how dangerous, allowing a subsequent win of the exchange and the game.

Jacques Delaguerre

Thinking Outside The Box

Humans tend to form rules in order to make life easier, but these rules are not always true. Chess is not an exception here. To play better chess, we need to form some general rules. These sets of rules are called strategies and they can be applied to different phases of the game. Yet sometimes they are so imprinted that we forget that rules are just tools which don’t always apply.

Accordingly I am not advocating a complete ignorance of the rules but rather supporting rules by calculation (the primary skill). If you try to find the exceptions to the rules you might find the winning move (admittedly this is another general rule!). Here are some instructive examples:

Alekhine against Rubinstein in 1912 – Black to Move

There’s one rule that tells us to capture towards the center, though this does not apply in all cases. Here Rubinstein broke the rule and recaptured with the f pawn, and this turned out to be the move of the game:

15 fxg6!

Rubinstein correctly weighed the value of the open file against the rule to capture towards the center.

16.Nb3 g5 17.Be3 0-0 18.Nf3 Qd7

Here 18…Rxf3 was already an interesting choice after which 19.gxf3 Ne5 20.Qe2 Qd7 would reach a position similar to the game but with a different move order.


“White pays insufficient attention to the scope of his opponent’s threats. A better course was 19.Nfd4 (19…Nxe5 20.Bxg5) seeking to establish equality.” (Tartakower)

19…Rxf3 ! 20.gxf3 Nxe5 21.Qe2

We reached to the position discussed above. The difference is that White could have prevented this on move 19.


Black went on win after few more moves. Here are rest of the moves in case you’re interested.

22.Nd2 Ng6 23.Rfe1 Bd6 24.f4 Nexf4 25.Qf1 Nxh3+ 26.Kh1 g4 27.Qe2 Qf5 0-1

The next example has been taken from the Book “Inner game of Chess” by Soltis.

Christiansen against Shirov in 1991 – White to Move

Q: Here white played 1. h3 and game ended in draw after few more moves. What did White miss?
A: White missed 1.g3!! because it opens lines in front of his own king. And we have learned that we should not open lines in front of our own king whilst under attack.


Threatening Qh7 and h4.


2.hxg4 Qxh4 3.Bxg4

This is winning because 3…Qxg4 is not possible due to Be3.

Ashvin Chauhan

Dvoretsky to Lucena Connection (part 2)

“The Lucena position is one of the most famous and important positions in chess endgame theory, where one side has a rook and a pawn and the defender has a rook. It is fundamental in the rook and pawn versus rook endgame. If the side with the pawn can reach this type of position, he can forcibly win the game… The position is named after the Spaniard Luis Ramirez de Lucena (c. 1465 – c. 1530), although he did not analyze it or publish it.”
Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Last week we were looking at a position which led to a won endgame. We stopped at move 48 where instead of playing the winning move 48… f3, I started to wander around chasing pawns with 48… Rh3. Hopefully meantime you have managed to see the win and now you are curious to see what happened next.

It took me about 40 something moves to have a clear win after missing the easy one at move 48. What can we learn out of it? Here are a few pointers:
1. Endgames are the ultimate challenge, true test of how good you really are
2. Anyone makes mistakes and the difference is made when you do not give up
3. You need to know where you are going
4. A plan on how to do it is a must
5. Recognize the destination when you reach it
One might find it extremely difficult to play like this, mentioning it really took another 46 extra moves until white resigned. I say the high number of moves is totally misleading. The guiding ideas, plan and destination were clear and nowhere nearly as complicated or overwhelming. Piece of cake, right?

Valer Eugen Demian

Winning Pieces Without Taking Them

This week’s problem is about how to be a piece up without taking more of your opponents pieces than he has taken of yours.

The solution is that you bury one of your opponent’s pieces alive so that it can never enter the game.

How can Black to play ensure that he is , to all intents and purposes, playing with an extra piece?

The solution to last Monday’s problem is that White plays 1.f5! and then Black will have a weak pawn on e6 for White to attack.

Steven Carr

The Castlie

If Stephen Moss, a player with a perfectly respectable grade (slightly above average club strength) considers himself a rookie, perhaps we need a different word for those who really are rookies.

Just before the start of term I received an email from a parent of a boy at a school where I run a chess club asking me if I had any vacancies. She told me her son was 10 years old, was passionate about chess, and had been playing regularly against his father at home for several years. As it happened I had some vacancies so invited him along for the first week of term, and offered him a game to find out what he knew.

He started off by setting the pieces up incorrectly, reversing the black king and queen, which was clearly how he had been taught at home. When I asked him the name of the chunky guy in the corner he shrugged his shoulders, looked bemused, and proposed “the tower?” – not unreasonably as he’s Italian. He started the game with 1. h4, explaining that he wanted to play Rh3 next move. When I asked him about the values of the pieces he thought that the bishop and knight were both worth four points. A nice boy, friendly and enthusiastic, but not (yet) a chess player.

The same day the school asked me if I was prepared to take a 6-year-old boy, two years or more younger than the other boys (sadly, no girls there) in the club. They told me his mother claimed he was a brilliant player, and that he was mature enough to cope in an environment with older children. They were right about the second point, but not the first. He was playing white against one of the stronger players in the club, and when his opponent moved a knight from d5 to capture a pawn on b6, he protested that his opponent was playing an illegal move because knights didn’t move like that.

Now if I’m told that a 10 year old is a passionate footballer I’d expect sensible answers from questions like “Which position do you like to play in?”, “Who’s your favourite player” or “Who do you think will win the Premier League this season?”. But if I ask most kids who claim to be passionate about chess similar questions, like “What’s your favourite opening?”, “Who’s your favourite player” or “Who’s going to win the world championship match” I’d get no more than a blank stare and a shrug of the shoulders.

Most kids who play chess at home, and, for that matter, most adults who play chess in this country, have little idea about competitive chess, would be hard pressed to name very many famous chess players, wouldn’t be able to give the name of any opening, would probably think the best first move is a4 or h4, would be completely unaware of the en passant rule, and would think that rooks were called castles.

If Stephen Moss is a rookie, we need a new name for players like this. There seems little point in calling them rookies anyway, as they wouldn’t understand the pun. Perhaps we should call them Castlies instead. As Stephen wrote in his book, chess has slipped under the radar in this country, and I don’t see much hope of it returning to anything like its post-Fischer popularity in the near future.

Of course we have to realise that most kids in school chess clubs just want to play games with their friends, with someone there to help them if they’re not sure whether or not it’s checkmate. It would help a lot, though, if they all knew the very basic stuff that any adult who already knows the moves could pick up in half an hour or so. I’ve tried a lot of strategies to encourage parents to help their kids in this way, but none of them have had any effect: most parents just don’t want to know. The general view of chess seems to be that learning the moves is very hard, and that if your young child manages this he’s a genius, and that playing chess is about little more than playing random legal moves. I once asked a school chess club whether they thought chess was a game of luck or a game of skill. Most of them voted for a game of luck.

If you can think of any good way of getting through to the adult Castlies and giving them a few pieces of very basic knowledge about chess, please let me know. I’ve tried writing a book: no one buys it. I’ve tried offering free consultations for parents and children: I’ve had no takers. I’ve tried sending emails out to parents: they reply telling me they don’t want their children to be good at chess. I wish I knew what the answer was: perhaps you, dear reader, can help.

Richard James

Common Ground

One of the key points I make to new chess teachers is the idea of getting to know your student’s interests outside of chess. There’s a very good reason for this and it has to do with your ability to convey knowledge in the most efficient way. Your job as a teacher is explain something in terms that the student will fully understand. Teaching is not a one size fits all affair in which everyone learns in the same fashion. Some people are more visual learners for example. Visual learners need to make learning connections visually. A child who is a visual learner would have an easier time understanding the basics of addition if they were able to use physical (visual) objects such as wooden blocks to represent the quantities involved in the problem they’re trying to solve. They could easily see that if you had two blocks to start and added two more blocks to the pile, you’d now have four blocks. However, you’ll never know whether or not a student is a visual learner unless you get to know a little about the way in which they think.

Knowing how a student thinks means getting to know something about them, namely their interests outside of the subject you’re teaching them. What a student is interested in or has a passion for can tell you a great deal about how they think in terms of learning, more specifically what sparks their thought process. A person’s thought process is ultimately what allows them to learn a subject. Connect with this way of thinking (thought process) and you’ll be able to tailor your lessons for that student.

Case in point, I have a high school student who loves studying diseases (he loves The Addams Family as well). He is a walking encyclopedia of every dreadful microbe known to humankind. Through my own amateur microbiology studies, I can hold my own with this young man when it comes to discussing Ebola, for example. One day, we were talking about the idea that a single bad move can lead to a slow positional death on the chess board. Wanting to drive this point home, I suggest that a bad move was comparable to being exposed to the very microbes that cause the common cold or flu. When you get exposed to a bug (microbe), you don’t get sick immediately. The illness comes later on after the virus that causes the cold or flu has had a chance to do its damage behind the scenes. He suddenly got it. Like the virus that slowly sets up shop within the human body, making things worse and worse until you’re stuck in bed day’s later, sick as a dog, bad moves can slowly do cumulative damage. I use sports analogies for those students who are sports fans when trying to explain an idea on the chessboard. It doesn’t matter what the student’s interest is. What matters is first discovering that student interest and then creating an analogy based on it. You’re now speaking in terms the student can understand.

This is why you should make a point of getting to know what your students like to do away from the chessboard. Providing them key chess ideas via familiar territory, something the student already knows and understands, allows them to soak up the information in a familiar environment. This allows them to strengthen their new found knowledge because it’s built on an already established intellectual foundation. Difficult concepts make sense when there are familiar landmarks to guide one’s thought process.

I’ve always been a student, perpetually taking colleges classes all my adult life. Just as important as learning is knowing how to learn. Successful learning comes down to finding the learning techniques best suited to your brain’s wiring. Again, we all learn differently. Fortunately, chess is a very visual game with pattern recognition being a key factor. However, this visual nature doesn’t automatically make it an easy game to master. Because I teach chess five days a week, I’ve gotten fairly good at recognizing patterns. I mention this because I sometimes catching myself wondering why a student isn’t seeing something I see so clearly. Then I remember, I’ve had more experience in this department than my student. Teachers should always be on guard when it comes to going over a student’s head, knowledge-wise, or expecting them to easily understand something you know inside out.

You can simply approach teaching pattern recognition as an exercise in basic geometry. However, some students don’t think in this way. You need to determine how they’re seeing the situation and what interest they have that you can turn into an analogy. This means asking questions and honing in on a teaching solution. Plenty of my students love American Football. Therefore, if I can turn the geometrical aspects of pattern recognition into game plays made by opposing football teams, I can make the recognition of patterns easier for my students. All it takes are a few simple questions to create an analogy your students will understand.

The other important reason for getting to know your students interests is to keep them engaged during your classes. I regularly ask students how a given chess concept would apply to something they’re interested in off of the chessboard. I use a Socratic method of teaching where a chess lecture can turn into a five way discussion regarding the issue. Common ground allows you bring your students into the lesson rather than simply having them sit through it (they get enough of that from their so called teachers during the day). Talk to your students. Get to know what interests them and you’ll find a more successful path towards chess enlightenment (for both you and your students). Here’s a game to mull over until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Studying Old Games (Part 2)

Continuing my review of some older games, here’s one that I consider to be very instructive, a strategic masterpiece by Akiba Rubinstein. The blockade of the hanging pawns was straightforward enough, but what I found remarkable was the way in which Rubinstein consolidated his position before trying to convert his advantage. Moves like 16.Rf2 and 19.Bf1 look slow if not pointless, but they are a key part of White rendering his position invulnerable to a sudden counterattack.

With White’s king position thoroughly secured Rubinstein resumes his siege of Black’s weak pawns on the queenside. The culmination is the tactical win of a pawn with 27.Rxc6, but after this we get further consolidation with 29.Qc5 and 30.Kf2.

It’s the quiet moves that should be studied here because Anatoly Karpov only learned to play like this more than sixty years later.

Nigel Davies

Studying Old Games (Part 1)

People sometimes ask if studying old games can help them. There are different views on the matter, mine is a qualified ‘yes’. There are many games from the past with a very high instructional value whilst others may not teach much at all.

Over coming days and weeks I’ll be posting some games which I think are very useful. Here’s the first, a classic example of a Queen’s Indian with White having doubled c-pawns and Black managing to launch a thematic attack on White’s king with a pawn storm. As for the finish it’s a real beauty:

Nigel Davies