Bucket List

Getting the Christmas gig means inevitably that I get the January 1st gig as well, when you’ll all be too busy recovering from seeing in the New Year to read this article.

It’s the time when many people make resolutions and I’m sure many of you will have made chess resolutions this year. Perhaps you’re going to learn a new opening? Take time out to sharpen your tactical skills? Brush up your knowledge of rook and pawn endings? All admirable resolutions if you want to boost your rating.

Some of you might also compile a bucket list of things to do before you die, or, if you’re younger than me, before you reach a certain age. I’ve compiled a bucket list myself, but there are only two items on it.

The first item is to finish writing my family history, which will eventually become my own life story, including the story of Richmond Junior Club, which, as anyone who knows me will be aware, has been a very important part of my life.

The second item is to finish writing my chess course for children (or indeed older learners) who have learned the moves and would like to play serious competitive chess. A series of books will cover the basic knowledge and skills you require to reach 100 ECF/1500 ELO. Work is currently in progress on this project under the working title Chess for Heroes.

One of the principles of Chess for Heroes is that you can’t understand the middle game until you understand the ending. If you don’t understand the ending you will have no idea when to trade pieces or which pieces you should trade. If you don’t understand the middle game you’ll have no real idea what you’re doing in the opening. Although you need some understanding and appreciation of opening theory: what happened before you came along, just memorising moves isn’t enough.

Understanding my life, though, is very much the opposite. Chess for Heroes is the endgame of my life and will be very different from anything else on the market. To understand what it’s all about and why I do it you have to understand the effect chess had on my life. You also have to understand what was happening at Richmond Junior Club between 1975 and 2005, why it was so successful, and why, although it seemed to me the obvious way to run a chess club for children, I know of no other club run in anything like the same way. The opening of my life is what happened in my childhood, and how that influenced the way RJCC operated. What happened before I was born is, if you like, the opening theory that you need to be aware of before you try to understand me. Where did I come from? Whose DNA did I inherit? Who were my parents, and where did they come from?

I’ll write more about this in the weeks to come, along with some thoughts from the 2016 London Chess & Education Conference, and perhaps demonstrate some of my recent games.

For the moment, though, I’ll just take this opportunity to wish all readers of this column, their families and friends, all the best for 2017.

Richard James

Why Teach Chess?

It’s a question I’m asked often by people who know me from my other career, music. I suspect they ask this question because they know me from one world, a world in which chaos and living on the edge are king while logic and reason are foggy notions. People tend to think that musicians have one interest and one interest only, music. They don’t consider the idea that, like every other human on the planet, musicians have multiple interests. I’m fortunate in that the two things that interest me the most are both careers and,more importantly, those careers pay the bills. A professor once said to me “Find something you passionately love to do, find someone to pay you for doing it and you’ll always love your job and your life.” However, there’s much more to it than simply making money via something you love to do. It’s the end result of what I do that’s my real reason for teaching chess to children.

When I first starting teaching chess in the schools, I was attracted to the pay, the hours (I could sleep in until ten in the morning if it were not for the sad reality that I’m a workaholic) and the fact that I’d be getting paid to do something I love. I wish I could tell you that it was my life long mission to teach chess to children but I’d be lying. The job literally fell into my lap when a friend called me with a teaching opportunity. The same thing happened with my musical career which was accidental at best. With music, I was in the right place at the right time. With chess, it was a similar story.

It wasn’t until after I started teaching that I realized how important my new career was. It wasn’t important regarding the training of a new generation of chess players, even though that was part of it. What was crucial was the idea that I was helping my students develop logic and reasoning skills. Why is this so important?

I’m 56 years old (or young, as I like to think) and I’ve had my chance to make my mark on the world through my music. I had my day in the sun and, while I still write new songs and push the boundaries of music (mostly through a lack of talent), I know in my heart that it’s up to a younger generation to really turn music on it’s head and take it into uncharted waters. This idea holds true for everything from science to the arts. It’s the children that I teach who will take up the torch and move civilization forward. By teaching chess, I’m able to give my students the tools they’ll need to change the world. What are these tools? Simply put, the thought process. To change the world, you need to think differently than others and this requires a well honed thought process.

Chess is a fantastic tool for developing and honing your thought process. Too often as adults, we’re encapsulated by a myriad of problems, all demanding our attention at once. It can be work related or personal. In either case, we sometimes freeze like a deer suddenly faced with the glare of a car’s headlights. We get stuck and can’t find a way out, a solution to a seemingly endless parade of problems. We try to take on everything at once rather than one problem at a time. While children rarely have this dilemma, as they grow older, they will face the same situation. Too many problems hitting them all at once. Chess teaches us how to tackle problems in a logical manner. We learn how to look at a series of problems and determine which one needs to be solved first. We learn to deal with things with order and reason. Chess also teaches us patience, something that’s in short supply these days among the human species. Patience is key to problem solving. To prepare children to face life’s problems I teach them logic and reasoning skills. Employing logic and reason helps them to avoid that dreadful feeling of helplessness you get when it seems you can’t find a way out of the plethora of problems we often face in our day to day lives. These skills cut straight through the situation like a hot knife cuts through butter.

Chess also helps children develop the basic skills needed to do well in school. These skills include problem solving and discipline. Chess is a great introduction to big picture problem solving. A little picture problem, for example, is doing a simple arithmetic problem such as adding numbers together. A big picture problem is having homework in multiple subjects, such as math, science and writing, and determining which subject to work on first and managing your time to finish them all on schedule. Chess helps develop big picture thinking. Chess is also a good way to develop the type of thinking required for advanced mathematics such as algebra. Just remember, chess will not make you smarter. You’re stuck with the brain you were born with but chess will help it function at maximum efficiency.

One of the things I’ve done in my teaching program is to incorporate my student’s classroom curriculum into their chess class. We look at ideas their regular teachers present to them and create analogies on the chess board. This allows students to think about a particularly difficult problem they’re tasked with solving in terms of chess. When they can visually see the problem via the chessboard they often have an easier time solving it.

I look at my chess classes as a way to not only teach my students a game they can play and enjoy for the rest of their lives but as preparation for the many problems they’re apt to face in life. If they have a method of problem solving that is based on logic and reason they’ll be ahead of everyone else. Chess really does help develop young minds and helping them to do so is my contribution to the future of civilization. Remember, that little kid sitting at a table in a restaurant across from you, making a rude face in your general direction, may become the surgeon that saves your live one day. You better hope he studied chess. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Chess Goals for the New Year

With the New Year coming, it is a great time to review our current plans for chess improvement and perhaps set new goals. In this article, I’d like to offer a few ideas you want to consider when planning for the New Year.

Take Stock

Before setting some goals for the New Year, it is important to figure out your strengths and weaknesses as well as what went well and what didn’t go so well last year. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What aspect of your game improved this year?
  • What was your weakest area this year?
  • What training or study method worked really well for you?
  • What training or study method didn’t really help you?
  • What chess books did you finish?
  • What parts of your opening repertoire do you need to improve?
  • What middlegame concepts did you have trouble with?
  • What endgame positions or principles do you need to study more?

Write down your answers to these questions and any others you may have for yourself. The general objective here is to get a picture of what you should focus your time on in the coming year. For beginning and intermediate players, increasing your knowledge and generally learning more about chess will be the order of the day, but there may be a specific area that lags behind the others.

Focus on Process Goals

We may all have outcome goals such as improving our rating by 100 points or playing the endgame better. Nigel Davies discusses outcome and process goals in another article. These are not bad things to have, but to get there, we need to take action. It is important to develop a process or schedule to achieve these goals. By focusing on the process rather than the outcome, we focus on what we can control.

Using some of the answers from our previous step, we can come up with some process goals.

There are two parts of process goals. First, you have the action to be taken. Second, you have the frequency or schedule. This makes it very easy to know if you’re on the right track or not. I use an Excel Spreadsheet to track key process goals that I have. Here are some of them:

  • 10 minutes of meditation and visualization daily.
  • 7 hours of sleep daily.
  • Tiger Chess courses Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of each week.
  • Review missed Chessity and Chess Tempo problems on Friday of each week.
  • 20 Chessity problems daily.
  • Some form of exercise daily (including active or scheduled recovery days).

Track Your Progress

As I mentioned above, I track my completion of my daily and weekly process goals. I wrote a more detailed article about measuring and tracking your chess, but the general idea is that what you measure will improve. Part of it is psychological – e.g. you want to see “high scores” when you track things.

Here are a few examples of things tracked and my progress. These aren’t meant to impress you, but to illustrate the power of measurement and tracking.

  • I have currently done my tactics training for 70 straight days.
  • I have slept at least 7 hours for 3 straight days, but only about 50% of the days this month. I also average 6 hours of sleep on the days I don’t sleep at least 7 hours.
  • When I started using Chessity in October, my tactics rating was 1774. It is currently 1957, and I’ve crossed over 2000 on three separate occasions, all this month.
  • Since starting Tiger Chess, I have yet to miss my training during the week, but several times the training was completed a day after it was scheduled.

You don’t have to go into as much detail as I do, because I’m kind of a statistics nerd, but the idea is to get an idea of how your doing. It’s also very motivating. For example, I don’t want my tactics training streak to end, so I end up doing it almost first thing when I wake up each day.

Keep a Positive Attitude

After you have set your goals and have started working on your plan, make sure that you stay positive and confident in your progress. Sometimes, we have peaks and valleys when we try to improve at anything. The key is to stay positive during the valleys and remember that we will peak again soon enough.

There has been much research into the power of self-confidence and its effects on performance. With this in mind, here are just a few ideas for you to consider trying.

  • Keep a database or notebook with good moves that you’ve made. Review it regularly or when you need your confidence boosted. Remember that YOU made those moves and you’ll make good moves again.
  • Keep focusing on your process and schedule and remember that the consistency in your training now may not seem to be doing anything, but they will pay dividends. It’s like running a marathon: you may not be able to see the finish line but every step you take must bring you closer to it.
  • Observe and be mindful of how you talk to yourself and what you think about yourself. Think about what you are saying to yourself and ask yourself if this is something you would say to a beloved friend or to your mother – unless you don’t get along with your mother, in which case choose someone else.
  • Forgive yourself for any mistakes or failures you made in the past. Learn from any short-comings, but move on from them emotionally. Stop beating yourself up.

Final Thoughts

As you begin this new year, remember that now is an opportunity to wipe the slate clean. In fact, whether you had a great year or one that you would like to forget, it is a new year whether you like it or not.

I hope you find the advice in this article useful. As you may have noticed, I’ve shared some of my own personal goals and process. If you have a different method or way of organizing yourself, go for it! My way works for me and I’m continually improving and changing parts of it. The key is to get started!

I wish you the best this year and beyond. Hopefully, some of the ideas here will help make this coming year your best yet!

Bryan Castro

Studying Old Games (Part 10)

Moving on from some Ruy Lopez classics, this time we’ll look at a game in the Queen’s Gambit Declined. I’ve long held that this is a great opening to play for learning positional play as the planning tends to be much clearer than with more modern openings. If you want to learn something it’s good to start with straightforward examples rather than diving into incomprehensible material.

With an opening such as the QGD, old games are indispensable. This is because the theory was largely developed in the early part of the 20th Century by such giants as Rubinstein, Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine and Euwe. And Rubinstein in particular developed many new plans and ideas.

Here’s a game in which Rubinstein shows a number of concepts which may mistakenly be associated with more modern times. First of all he plays the ‘trendy’ 5.Bf4, around 50 years before Victor Korchnoi popularized it when he played it against Anatoly Karpov. And then he allows Black to shatter his pawn structure with 11…Nxf4, rightly assessing that the resulting grip on e5 was more than enough compensation:

Nigel Davies

The Comeback Trail, Part 5

Building on my last article about opening selection, there’s another factor to consider. Rather than creating an entirely new repertoire should someone play their old stuff? Or is it better to build a stronger repertoire on what you already know?

This is a thorny issue, and one for which there is no single answer. If a player has previously played dodgy gambits there’s a good case for them starting afresh. On the other hand a player with a deep understanding of some typical middle games might want to harness that and play either their old openings or ones which are closely related.

An example of this from my own practice was at the point where I found myself moving away from the Modern Defence with 1…g6 (this is definitely a young person’s opening!). I discovered that the Kan Sicilian actually led to middlegames which were quite similar to certain lines of the Modern, but without some of the other difficulties. And my record with the Kan became very good.

Here’s a game I played against the strong Greek GM, Vasilis Kotronias. Playing Black against such a dangerous opponent can be quite a tall order, but the Kan proved to be a reliable weapon:

Nigel Davies

How We Almost Drew It

Merry Christmas everyone! The Sicilian Najdorf, poisoned pawn variation stung another victim in 2016. This is a bit surprising since it is analysed to death. There are several lines leading to a draw and 2 years ago I played one of those as Black in correspondence chess, ending in a 25 moves perpetual without breaking a sweat and just following theory.

This one was a team vote game between us (95 players) facing team Ireland (21 players) and the last part of it is very instructive. The opening was pretty straight forward and by move 17 we diverged from the only available game played during the 39th Olympiad. We continued doing a lot of maneuvering in the middle game (moves 17 to 38), without being able to achieve much. This was a clear failure for us and the poisoned pawn looked more and more like a self inflicting wound.

What can we learn out of it? I think everyone should remember Edmar Mednis principles:
1.If a player is down material he should look for drawing chances in an endgame with only the bishops and pawns
2. With major pieces (queen or rook) on the board, having bishops on opposite colors favors the side with an attack
Both are easy to remember and can become useful guides in over the board. Attacking requires first a desire to play like that and then to obtain initiative. Long term initiative comes from a good position, so always look to setup good positions and you will be rewarded. If you have any games and/ or positions you would like me to look at, please do not hesitate to let me know. I will gladly include them in my column for everyone’s benefit. Looking forward to your messages!

Valer Eugen Demian

Provoking a Weakness

Provoking a weakness is often worthwhile even if it loses a tempo. Here’s a game I played at this year’s Manchester Summer Congress in which my 19.Nc5 looked as if it lost time but when Black drove it back with 19…b6 he could no longer defend the c7 pawn with another pawn.

Black’s position started to deteriorate as the pressure increased and a blunder (23…Ra7) gave me a winning combination.

Sam Davies

A Time of Gifts

It appears to by my turn for the Christmas gig this year, so I’m sure nobody will read this. You’ll all be far too busy opening your presents and stuffing your turkey to read internet chess columns, and quite right too.

If you’ve been teaching chess (or, indeed, teaching anything) as long as I have you might receive gifts at any time of the year. A gift that costs nothing to give but means a lot to receive. Let me explain.

A few months ago I was doing some private chess tuition at Hampton Court House. I walked across to the other side of Bushy Park to catch the bus home, checked the timetable, and discovered I had a few minutes to go back into the park and take some more photographs of the sunset. I held the gate open for a young man on a bicycle. He thanked me, then turned and looked at me again. “Are you Richard?”, he asked. “I’m Ralph.” Ralph had been a member of Richmond Junior Club about fifteen years previously.

A week or so later, I was on the bus one evening returning home from a concert. A man sat next to me. “Hi Richard”, he said, “I’m Alban”. Alban had, along with his three brothers, been a member of Richmond Junior Club about thirty five years ago, and his older brother’s son is currently a member, and by no means the only second generation member we have at the moment.

More recently I was at an amateur opera production where I met the parents of two former Richmond Junior Club members, again from about fifteen years ago. Time and time again, it’s humbling to be reminded, by both parents and former members, in how much affection Richmond Junior Club was, and I hope, still is held.

This is exactly why I do what I do. I’ve never been interested in making money from teaching chess, but because we are where we are, I have no option but to charge a reasonable rate. I’m just interested in making a difference to children’s lives, and perhaps giving them a long-term interest. I’d happily pay, rather than be paid, for the privilege.

The best gift I ever received, though, was a cheap plastic pocket chess set which Santa delivered 56 years ago. I’m sure many children throughout the world will receive the gift of chess today. I hope that, for some of them, as it was for me, it will be a gift that lasts a lifetime. It really doesn’t matter whether they reach 3000 strength, 2000 strength or even 1000 strength. Many parents, unaware of the complexity, beauty, history and heritage of the game, just see it as a way of providing their children with short-term extrinsic benefits rather than as a potential long-term passion. Perhaps we in the chess community should do more to promote the real reasons why they should give their children the gift of chess.

Remember: chess is not just for Christmas, chess is for life!

Richard James

Thank You

I spoke to a childhood friend last night for the first time in decades. He knew about my career as a musician. However, a great deal of time had passed since we last spoke and he had no idea that I had carved out a modest career teaching chess. We both played in our youth. He had aspirations of becoming a Grandmaster while I was more keen on a life of rock and roll. He became a successful scientist and has raised a small army of kids. His dreams of becoming a professional chess player were traded in for a fascinating career and wonderful family. He was amazed that I had managed to figure out how to make a living through the game of chess. Of course, I’m as amazed as he was regarding my chess career! While talking about what I do and how I do it, I was reminded, once again, at how fortunate I am. I was also reminded that any success I’ve had can be attributed to those who support my efforts, my students, the readers of my weekly column at The Chess Improver and my wife who also plays. To those who have supported and helped me with turning my passion for chess into a career I love, I thank you!

I often wonder why anyone in their right mind would consider seriously studying the game of chess. It’s an extremely ironic game in that you can learn its rules in an afternoon but spend a lifetime not even coming close to mastering it. It’s a maddening game at times, drawing your every thought into an obsessive mindset while purposely tripping you up so you fall headlong into the rabbit hole of its complexity. It’s a world within itself and only those who delve head on into its alluring waters will understand just how obsessed you can become. Yet there are those of us who take the plunge and find the waters warm and inviting.

We who love the game to the point of spending countless nights hunched over a computer screen or chess book think this type of behavior as normal. Why do we do it? To get better of course! However, if it were just that, many of us would have given up long ago! I think what keeps us going is the simple fact that chess reveals its deepest mysteries to those who delve deepest! Every once in a while, after long hours of study, I’ll have one of those insightful moments, suddenly understanding a concept that had been elusive and mysterious up until that point. This in itself is greatly satisfying!

Chess is a game that rewards hard work. Of course, you can play casually when on vacation or at a family get together, or you can aim for the stars and attempt to master the game. I say aim for the stars because I don’t think anyone can completely master a game with so many possible positions on the board at any given time. However, like those who choose to climb mountains that claim human lives on a regular basis, lovers of chess love a challenge and chess certainly is that.

I want to thank everyone who plays chess, both casually and professionally because it’s you that inspire me to improve my game and write these articles. Through the game of chess, I’ve made literally thousands of friends, some of whom I actually like (just kidding – I have to live up to my snarky reputation after all). Those friends come from all over the globe and have taught me a great deal about their country’s customs and traditions. My global friends make life interesting and our common bond is chess. Thank you global chess friends for being you, lovers of chess.

I’d like to personally thank the game of chess for keeping me in check (no pun intended). I tend to be an over achieving type and used to have a problem with losing. Of course, nobody likes to lose but some people take it better than others. I discovered through chess that one can learn a great deal from their losses. Chess also keeps my ego in check. It humbles me on a regular basis which makes me a better human being.

Then there’s Nigel Davies! He is one of my favorite chess players and instructors. Prior to meeting Nigel on Facebook, I knew him only through his DVDs. He’s got a warm way of presenting ideas and concepts that makes you feel comfortable when delving into the murky waters of theory. I have to thank him for giving me the opportunity to write about chess. Social media has allowed me to connect with some amazing chess players, Nigel being on the top of my list, so thanks social media sites.

This holiday season, I’m very thankful for all that chess has done for me and will continue to do for me as I sail off into my twilight years (whatever that means). I wish everyone, even non chess players (ha ha ha), the happiest of holidays. Here’s a tip for those doomed to have political discussions during Christmas dinner (especially in the United States): Avoid the conversation and instead, fight with your family members on the chessboard with a nice glass of Brandy. Nothing says “your candidate is one step above the village idiot” more than “Checkmate Uncle Bob.” Happy Holidays everyone and here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

The Limits of the Chess Engine for Improvement

Chess Engines: Tool or Trap?

Using chess engines for chess analysis and practice has become very commonplace. Whether you are on an online chess server, internet forum, or even at the tournament hall, discussion of which chess engine one uses or what the latest version of Stockfish is seems to pop up frequently.

However, I think we must be very careful in using our silicon friend too much lest our conversations start to sound like this:

Peter Patzer: Move 23 in the Najdorf Sicilian Sozin line you played is busted. Why do you play this trash?

Wilson Woodpusher: What are you talking about? Blockfish 44.18 says that it’s only +0.32.

Peter Patzer: Oh, my friend, don’t you know? Blockfish is terrible at assessing lines played by Nakamura. You need to use Slomodo 96.32a especially calibrated to analyzing such complex lines. It says it’s +1.2 if you let it run to at least 33 ply!

Wilson Woodpusher: Ah…you are so wise, my friend. What is your rating again?

Peter Patzer: 1500, but Slomodo 96.32a has a rating of 3700!

Wilson Woodpusher: Oh yeah? Let’s have our chess engines play each other.

Peter Patzer: Challenge accepted!

Am I saying that you should never use a chess engine to assist you with chess analysis or practice? No. They can be very useful to check for blunders as well as practicing positions – such as endgames – when you don’t have a partner. However, we should be aware of their limitations and what they can’t do to help you improve your chess.

Chess Engines Don’t Teach

When you look at chess engine analysis, you see a lot of move variations and evaluations of the resulting positions. However, for amateur players, much of this analysis is near useless unless the position involves a tactical blunder or forced win or material.

For example, the engine doesn’t tell you:

  • What pawn levers you are preparing.
  • What positional elements should be prioritized in the position.
  • Why you should trade a specific minor piece or keep another.
  • What the typical plans are in a particular pawn structure.

This knowledge is much more important for you to understand and learn than to know that 23.Bxf6 is +0.13 better than 23.Nxf6 at 33 ply.

Chess Engines Pick Moves THEY Like

When looking at the suggested moves from the output of a chess engine, we must remember a couple things.

The computer doesn’t take into account the sharpness of the position, only the resulting position at the end of its horizon. So although a top move for a computer may end up in an advantageous position with best play, the types of moves that are required to get there may be incredibly difficult for a player – particularly an amateur player – to handle.

As an example, let’s say there are two paths to an advantage:

  • One move leads to an intensely sharp position requiring 5-6 “best” moves that results in a +3.5 evaluation. This might involve
  • One move leads to a comfortable position with several variations that lead to similar positions resulting in a +2.0 evaluation.

Both moves should be sufficient for victory, but which one should you choose? If you’re a computer (or GM Hikaru Nakamura), you might opt for the first choice. If you’re not a computer , you might choose the second move.

Also remember that the computer engine won’t tell you which path is which!

The Engine Won’t Be At Your Side

Finally, if you are mainly an OTB or tournament player – as opposed to a correspondence player – the chess engine won’t be sitting next to you when you are playing. Using the engines too much in analysis will dull your own analytical muscles.

Your ability to calculate and evaluate positions is a perishable skill. If you don’t use it, you will lose it. This is a skill that must be continually developed and practiced – especially for amateurs. However, this is often hard work which is why clicking the chess engine button is so tempting. I urge you not to give in – at least too early.

As I’ve heard taught in many endeavors including music, martial arts, and academics – you will perform the way you practice. If you practice analyzing positions with high effort, you will be able to put out that effort in your games. If you constantly rely on the engines to analyze your positions, you won’t have the habits and technique when it comes time for your most challenging positions.

A Place for Engines

As I said earlier in this article, chess engines have their place. To finish up, where are a few ways I think chess engines can be very helpful.

  • They can be tireless defenders when practicing specific positions, such as technical endgames. Positions that require more practice than memorization, such as King, Bishop, and Knight vs. King (KBN vs. K) work especially well.
  • After you have analyzed a position or game on your own and feel like you’ve exhausted your own abilities, having the chess engine check for obvious errors can be very helpful. Of course, you need to understand why it is an error as well and how you can improve your analysis next time.
  • In discussing this topic with GM Nigel Davies, he noted that he and other strong players use engines for high level opening preparation. However, I would caution amateurs in doing too much of this work, as masters like Nigel have an incredible foundation of knowledge and skill to assist them in understanding and evaluating chess engine output.

The chess engines are here to stay for better or for worse. They can useful in your chess training if used properly, but when in doubt, try not using it and think on your own. Your chess skill will be the better for it.

Bryan Castro