A Challenge for UK Chess

I’m very grateful to my Facebook friend Paul Swaney for directing me to a recent interview with Boris Gelfand on chess24.com.

Paul, who is well aware of my views on junior chess, pointed out this extract:

“Now almost everyone is focused on an immediate result – largely because there are too many championships and tournaments for children. Trainers teach the youngsters traps and psychological ploys, but not the essentials. The main task of a trainer is to instil a love and interest in chess.”



Not to make kids smarter. Not to produce champions. But to give them a genuine life-long passion for chess.

The old system in the Soviet Union, which Gelfand and his generation would have grown up with, was very much to do with skills development rather than playing in competitions. There were no kiddie tournaments in the way we know them. Tournaments only existed, as far as I understand the system, to check that children had learned the appropriate skills and were able to put them into practice before moving onto the next level.

This system still exists in some countries today. You may recall that my friends’ son learned his chess in Baku using this method. The same concept is what drives the Steps method used extensively in the Netherlands and also popular in other Western European countries.

But here we take precisely the opposite approach. Our kids have many opportunities to take part in tournaments but instruction within school chess clubs is very basic and very much involved with teaching Scholar’s Mate and other traps rather than developing chess skills. The result is that, while a small number of children, those who are getting proactive parental support at home, will do well, the vast majority will make little or no progress, will quickly forget most of what they’ve been taught, and will drop out of chess within a year or two.

My view lies, as you might expect, between the two extremes. Children enjoy playing in competitions and gain a lot from them both socially and in terms of emotional development. But unless you can find a way of linking up tournaments with skills development you won’t produce kids with a long-term ‘love and interest in chess’.

Meanwhile, the big chess news here in the UK is that the very popular and successful UK Chess Challenge is in trouble. IM Mike Basman, who started the event and has been running it for two decades, has been declared bankrupt and is faced with a bill for £300,000 in unpaid tax. While bankruptcy is not something I’d wish on anyone, I can’t help feeling Mike’s been extremely foolish in the way he runs the event and in not seeking financial advice. Laws are laws, whether or not you happen to like them or approve of them.

For those of you not familiar with the event, here’s how it works. Between January and March, schools run an internal competition in which players receive small prizes. The most successful players, including the top boy and the top girl within each year group, qualify for the county stage which takes place in May. Here, they compete against other children of their age from other schools in their part of the country. The top children from these events then compete in semi-national events in July. Finally, in August, the top boys and girls from across the country in all age groups come together to compete for a £2000 first prize.

Superficially, the whole concept is wonderful, and the final is a really great event. The kids in my primary school chess clubs enjoy taking part in the competition and winning prizes. What’s not to like? And yet, and yet. My view is that perhaps the major reason for the decline in British junior chess in the past two decades is precisely the nature of primary school chess, putting kids into too many competitions too soon, before they’ve really understood the basics of chess, prioritising competition over skills development, failing to provide any meaningful system whereby children can improve and failing to get the message across to parents that they need to be actively involved in their children’s learning process. It seems crazy to me that we’re putting kids into competitions at school before they’ve learned all the rules of chess, and putting them into county level competitions before they’ve learned very basic skills. This, in my opinion, is one of the main reasons why there are so few teenagers and young adults playing chess.

So here’s a challenge for anyone who wants to improve chess in the UK. Can we find a better way of running chess in primary schools? I have a possible solution. I’ve had the solution sitting in front of me for the best part of 20 years, but neither Mike Basman nor anyone else involved in UK junior chess has taken any interest.

I’ll tell you more next week.

Richard James


The mark of a good teacher, be it in chess or economics, is their ability to take a complex concept or idea and explain it in a manner that makes sense to the student. Too often, a teacher will simply recite an explanation from a textbook, word for word, and call it a day. That’s not teaching. Good teaching is taking a complex subject and simplifying it, often using an analogy that students can relate to. I have a new high school student who was having trouble grasping some game principles, namely the idea of bringing pawns and pieces into the opening in a specific order. By order, I mean that we first control the center with a pawn or two, then introduce our minor pieces and so on. He asked me why follow that specific order if you could start controlling the board’s center by moving a Knight towards it on your first move? His reasoning was sound, in that a Knight moved to c3 or f3 (c6 or f6 for Black) controls two center squares as opposed to a pawn move which controls only one center square, the central squares being d4, d5, e4 and e5. I tried a couple of explanations but he still thought moving the Knight first made more sense. Of course, you can start the game by moving one of your Knights toward the center. However, when first learning the game, you should learn to start the game with a pawn move for a number of reasons.

One thing I do when working with a student for the first time is to find out what their interested in other than chess. Why do this? Because I can often develop analogies based on the student’s interests and provide them with explanations of key concepts that make sense because the analogies relate to something the student already understands. It turns out that my student is a budding military history buff which made my job that much easier. Here’s why:

Chess is many things, including a game of war. In fact, it’s really an excellent example of classical warfare and that’s the analogy I used. From the military formations employed by Roman soldiers in ancient times to the battles of the American Civil War, the theory of classical warfare is alive and well on the chessboard. In fact, the guerrilla warfare style of fighting seen in Vietnam and then in the Middle East can be found on the chessboard in the form of tricks, traps and tactics. Being a Buddhist, you might ask why I’d choose such a violent analogy. The answer is simple. I use analogies that best suit my students (within reason). While I abhor violence, I am a bit of a student of military history myself (specifically, the American Civil War) which is probably why I consider myself a “bad” Buddhist (or militant pacifist)! So let’s look at my student’s question regarding pawn and piece development in the opening from the vantage point of classical warfare.

Prior to the advent of truly mechanized warfare (tanks, planes, etc), fighting battles was mainly done by individual soldiers. During the American Civil War, for example, the majority of the fighting was done by large formations of troops (troop meaning a single soldier and troops meaning multiple soldiers). These troops fell into formations or lines of men with their rifles loaded and ready to fire. Fire upon what? Advancing enemy troops. Eventually, members of the opposing army would make it through the field of fire and hand to hand combat would ensue. During the battle of Gettysburg, tens of thousands of men were engaged in savage hand to hand combat in one of the war’s bloodiest battles. When I was describing this battle, which I had studied in great detail, I could see my student caught up in my retelling of this horrible historical event. From a teaching point, I had my student where I wanted him; using his imagination to take him to the front lines, smelling the acrid stench of gun powder, hearing the screams of wounded men and the deafening sound of hundreds of cannons as the sky turned dark because of the smoke of the many fires that burned across the battlefield. It was at this point that I stopped my story and uttered a single word, Pawns.”

“Pawns?” He replied. Yes, Pawns. All those men wearing either the colors of the blue or gray in the American Civil War were the battle’s pawns. Pawns are the game’s foot soldiers, like the Roman Legionnaires or American Grunts of World War Two. In any army, the overwhelming majority of its members are foot soldiers who individually are of little value but, when united together in large numbers, become a decisive force that can change a battle’s outcome. In classical warfare, it’s the foot soldier who goes out onto the field of battle first. In chess, pawns are your foot soldiers and, while they may be of the lowest relative value when considering them on an individual basis, they can work together and push back the enemy.

In classical warfare, generals would use their foot soldiers in an attempt to weaken the opposition’s army before bringing in more sophisticated weaponry such as archers or cavalry, in the case of the American Civil War. The point I made to my student was that you needed to weaken the enemy first and then bring in heavier weaponry. I emphasized the fact that the Knight in chess was the equivalent to the cavalry in classical warfare and that you simply wouldn’t send in the cavalry against a huge formation of foot soldiers until you weakened those foot soldiers with your own foot soldiers. The same holds true in chess. If you sent your Knights onto the field of battle (the chessboard) they could easily be driven back by Pawns. Why? Because a Pawn has a relative value of 1 point while the Knight’s worth 3 points. No one is going to trade a Knight for a Pawn (unless it leads to a huge positional advantage)! My student was starting to see the merits of employing Pawns first, then the minor pieces. We looked at another reason foot soldiers had to be the first into battle, namely because the rest of the army stood behind them!

In many classical battle formations, which were highly organized, you had an overwhelming majority of foot soldiers in the front, followed by archers, then cavalry and lastly any special weaponry. While the archers could shoot over the heads of the foot soldiers in front of them (and did to reduce enemy numbers), the rest of the army couldn’t get onto the battlefield until the foot soldiers had moved. I pointed out to my student that, with the exception of the Knight, the rest of his forces were trapped until some of his foot soldiers (Pawns) took to the field (the board). My analogy was really starting to sink in. My student is a highly intelligent young man but we have to remember that a “one size fits all” approach to teaching doesn’t work because no single explanation will work for every single individual. Analogies, analogies, analogies!

We looked at the other pieces in terms of our analogy and decided that Bishops were more like archers in a way because they could control important squares on the board from a great distance. However, unlike the archer who can shoot arrows over the heads of the foot soldiers, Bishops needed the Pawns to move out of the way in order to engage in the battle. Rooks became cannons in our analogy, more powerful than the Bishops (archers) because they’re not limited to squares of one color (as the Bishops are). The Queen was either a Gatling Gun (an early large, rapid fire machine gun) or a Weapon of Mass Destruction. I preferred Weapon of Mass Destruction, only to be used carefully and at the right time. Losing the Queen is on par with losing your biggest, baddest weapon while the enemy maintains theirs. As for the King? In Vietnam, the Vietcong would often have snipers try to shoot at American commanders, with the idea of removing the leader which would leave the troops unable to function (cutting off the head of the snake).

By using analogies you can reinforce key ideas and concepts, putting them into terms you understand. I highly recommend, when learning a new chess idea or concept, that you put it into terms you can understand. If you’re a lawyer, create a legal analogy. If you’re a carpenter, put it in terms of a construction project. If teaching chess, discover your students interests to help create meaningful analogies. Use analogies to guide you and you’ll really understand the subject matter you’re trying to master. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Opening Repertoire Strategies

One of the most challenging aspects of chess (among many) is developing an opening repertoire. There are many ways to choose an opening repertoire. For example, some play the openings of their favorite players. Others try to go their own way, experimenting with various openings until settling onto a few favorites. Still others gain guidance from a coach or author.

Like many things in chess and life, there are many good ways to go about the task. In this article, I’m going to highlight a few of the strategies used to develop opening repertoires and some of their pros and cons.

Based on your chess goals, style, and personality, you may decide that one of these strategies are for you. Or, as I have over the years, you can mix and match.

Offbeat and Surprise Openings

This type of repertoire depends on surprising opponents with rarely played – and thus rarely studied – variations. Although these openings are generally not highly regarded, they often have some practical bite for unsuspecting or unprepared opponents. Among these openings are certain gambits as well as “odd” openings such as 1.b4 (the Sokolsky) and 1.g4 (Grob’s Attack).

Some advantages of this opening repertoire strategy:

  • You will probably be more familiar with the opening ideas than your opponent.
  • Your opponent may underestimate the danger and play complacently.
  • Unprepared opponents may fall into a tactical or positional trap, leaving them with practical problems to solve at the board.

Some disadvantages of this strategy:

  • Some of the openings are unsound if your opponent doesn’t fall for the traps, leaving you with an inferior position.
  • Your opponent doesn’t necessarily need to play the main line or the best responses to achieve equality or better.
  • It may be difficult to find high level examples of play within your opening for instructional purposes.

As an example of this strategy, I found an interesting game involving Sokolsky himself playing the opening that bears his name (although it is also known as the Orangutan or Polish opening). Although the opening move (1.b4) seems to break general opening principles, it trades a wing pawn for some central control and an active bishop on b2. His opponent was a strong player as well, IM Yakov Estrin (who surprisingly has a few losses against 1.b4).

Set-up or System Openings

There are some openings that focus on playing a single formation or move order against almost anything their opponent can put up. Some of these openings fall into the off-beat category, but some of them are quite well-known. For example, the King’s Indian Defense falls somewhat into this category, and has been played by two of the greatest players ever – Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. Other examples of this include the London, Colle, and King’s Indian Attack for White.

Advantages of playing opening systems:

  • At least for the first few moves, you don’t have to memorize much theory. (NM Jim West is a big fan of the King’s Indian Attack, and discusses that it allows you to focus on studying the middlegame instead of memorizing opening moves as he discussed in my interview with him).
  • With some exceptions, many of the strategic ideas are applicable in many positions, making it easier to find a plan.
  • With the exception of openings like the King’s Indian Defense, many of these openings does not have a lot of developed theory, so you don’t have to worry about falling into a long theoretical line with your opponent.
  • Similar to offbeat openings, many of these opening systems – again with the exception of the King’s Indian Defense – will not be heavily studied by your opponents.

Disadvantages of this strategy:

  • Although some of these openings are quite sound and well respected, by nature of being a “system” there are some variations that do not press aggressively for an opening edge (this isn’t such a big deal for most amateurs).
  • Playing a narrow set of positions (with a narrow set of plans and strategic ideas) may hinder overall chess development.

The London System is a popular opening both at club level and is making more appearances among the world’s elite, including US chess star Gata Kamsky.

Mainstream and Fashionable

The mainstream approach is just as it sounds – e.g. following the opening variations and the latest developments of the top players. There is a lot of scope within this category, as the top players have a wide variety of opening choices, from the solid choices of Magnus Carlsen to the aggressive options that a player like Nakamura prefers.

The advantages of these opening choices:

  • The quality of the variations have been vetted by the best players in the world, and are unlikely to be refuted anytime soon.
  • The rich strategic complexity of these openings can be very instructive for players’ overall development. (I discuss this with IM Greg Shahade in our article about developing an opening repertoire).
  • You will be able to find recent games by high level players with the most recent developments in your chosen variations.
  • It can be fun playing the openings of your favorite players.

The disadvantages of this opening strategy:

  • Fashionable openings change fairly often, as the strategic battles among the world’s elite can often suddenly change the landscape of the opening – requiring constant maintenance.
  • The complexity of the opening may be difficult to understand for amateur players at times.
  • A lot of time is required because of the first two points, but also because the amount of theory developed in these lines can be enormous.

The nature of fashionable openings is that variations that were once rare can be revived very quickly when championed by one of the world’s elite. One of the most striking examples of this is the Berlin Defense against the Ruy Lopez. Vladimir Kramnik resurrected this defense in his World Championship Match with Garry Kasparov. In that match, the Berlin defense allowed Kramnik to hold key games with the black pieces, allowing him to capture the title from Kasparov after winning two games with White. His revival of this opening had long-term ramifications, as every 1.e4 player who plays the Ruy has to decide whether or not they want to face it and many of the world’s current top ten include it in their repertoire with both colors.

Other Opening Repertoire Strategies

Besides the three I listed above, there are a couple other strategies that can be employed. As with the strategies above, there are pros and cons to each.

Here are a couple examples:

  • “Almost” Mainstream Openings – Playing strong openings that may have been fashionable at one point and are still sound, but are not as popular as they once were. This includes openings played by strong players who are not quite on the main stage of the chess world – such as strong IM’s and “ordinary” GM’s.
  • Modeling a Player – Simply copying the opening repertoire choices of a favorite player. For example, playing 1.e4 with White and the Gruenfeld or KID and Sicilian Defense as Black and studying the games of Bobby Fischer. This can provide some cohesion to your repertoire, but needs to be updated with the latest developments – particularly in sharp openings.


I hope you found this discussion helpful. For most amateurs, all of the main openings are sound and you shouldn’t fear experimenting with different openings. As your skills develop, you can employ one of these strategies to pick openings that meet your needs and ambitions as a player.

Good luck and as always, Better Chess!

Bryan Castro

Truth is Beauty

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
– John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

The Colorado Open was played this past weekend. I did poorly, winning three Blacks and losing two Whites. I’ve been rehashing my White openings, which led to several learning experiences about how we make chess decisions.

An inexplicable (at the time) and losing mistake from a dominant position yielded the ephiphany that we don’t really calculate, not as a computer does, except in the simplest forcing sequences. It’s aesthetics, not calculation: various components of our chess psyche vote on our next move.

The game provided this week exhibits the most clarity I mustered in the Colorado Open. Its moves possess the beauty of truth. The coherent Black position threatens to keep an extra pawn where every trade leads towards one or another won ending. White thrashes in the net and loses the midgame instead.

Jacques Delaguerre

Rook on the Seventh

Seven is heaven for rooks. Because when a rook gets to the 7th rank the opponent’s vulnerable points are easily accessible. A rook on the 7th rank often helps win material or create a mating attack. It also often forces the opponent’s forces to take passive positions if he tries to defend what this rook is attacking.

How can someone fight against a rook on the 7th rank? Basically you don’t want to give it any targets; without targets the 7th rank doesn’t have particular significance. If you can’t do this then make sure that weak points are sufficiently defended. You might also try to exchange the rook on the 7th for one of your own rooks or if this is not possible then at least try to hamper it’s stability on the 7th.

Here are some entertaining examples from real games that demonstrate the power of a rook on the 7th rank:

Sergei Rublevsky against Pentala Harikrishna in 2006

Q: Black’s last move was Rb8-a8 with an idea of Rxa7 followed by Qa8. What did white miss?
A: Rook has denied leaving the 7th rank with queen sacrifice which led to heavy material surplus.

Game continued as follows:

1.Rxb7!! Qxa1 2.Rxa1

Further material loss can’t be avoided. Black resigned after few more moves.

Louis Paulsen against Samuel Rosenthal

Q: White had already the Rook on 7th rank. How would you make use of it?
A: White come up with the following idea:


This sets up crucial targets on the 7th rank for the rook.


1…dxc5 leads nowhere after Rxc7+ followed by Rxg7


With the same idea.


Black avoided the following variation: 2…dxc5 3.Rxc7+ Kb8 4.Rxg7+ Kc8 5. Rxg6 when further pawn loss can’t be avoided.


Black resigned after 4 more moves.

Ashvin Chauhan

Learning From Your Students

Life teaches us plenty of lessons along the way. One such lesson is to be open minded and actually listen to the feedback your students give you. Here is a simple scenario: you present a puzzle for solving and the students get started; some will do it seriously, excited by the challenge in front of them. The vast majority will start pestering you with questions from the simplest ones (who moves first?) to the most challenging (is this first move the solution?…); of course a small percentage will simply do not care and wait for the solution to be presented.

Paying attention to the questions asked is key in my experience! When I started teaching chess I was pretty much decisive: “No, that is not it. Have another look!”. That does not help anyone and of course could be done by anyone. Hey, the software does that too when you try solving puzzles on your own. I am not a piece of software!

Here is a mate in 4 puzzle I challenged by students to take upon during their summer vacation to stay in touch with chess until we resume classes. Give it a try as well!

I chose it as appropriate for the next level we are going to study together in the upcoming school year. Now some of the students have failed to pass the graduation test back in June and will have to take it again in September when we start again. This is a good opportunity to use the knowledge they have so far and practice for the test. One of the students who is in that boat has emailed me his solution:

You already know that is not it, right? What do we do with the kid though? He moved the white King back and forth; that is of little value. Hmm, he got aggressive with the black King, right? Hey, if you look careful that is actually a nice help mate, ain’t it? Don’t you think the kid has some ideas running through his mind? I do! Here are a couple of pointers;
1. The kid actually achieved a mate in 4
2. His solution shows ingenuity; help mates require effort and out of the box thinking. Here we can actually think the first 2 white moves were in a way done similar with gaining the opposition, don’t you think?
3. There clearly is desire to do the work
Would you give him a second chance? Probably it depends if you found the solution by now. Have you?

Valer Demian

Opening to Middle Game Transitions Again

In last Monday’s problem, GM Plaskett played 1.Bg5!

If Black plays 1…h6 , White replies with 2. Bxf6 Bxf6 3.Qe4

In the game Black tried 1… g6 and White came up with 2.Ba6 with a winning advantage.

In this week’s problem, White has developed almost all his pieces and castled, and now has to think of a plan as the middle game has started.

What should he play? 1. Bd2 is far too dull.

Steven Carr

Executive Stress

Here’s a position from a London League game I played back in 1978.

I was White and had to play one more move before the time control. I don’t remember how much time I had but I suspect it was enough to avoid making a blunder. What I do remember, though, is that I had a heavy cold and didn’t feel fully switched on during the game. This was the main reason why, instead of playing something sensible to consolidate my slight advantage, I grabbed the e-pawn, overlooking that after the trade of bishops my opponent had the deadly fork Qh1+.

Feeling unwell is something that will inevitably affect your executive function skills. Perhaps you will find it harder to make a decision and run short of time. Perhaps you will play impulsively and make an oversight. Perhaps your decision making skills will be impaired.

But what exactly do we mean by ‘executive function’?

Wikipedia, as usual, is your friend.

“Executive functions (also known as cognitive control and supervisory attentional system) are a set of cognitive processes – including attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, as well as reasoning, problem solving, and planning – that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.”

Well, chess is very much about reasoning, problem solving and planning, as I’m sure you’ll agree. To play chess well we need attentional control, otherwise we’ll get distracted by external or internal stimuli. We also need inhibitory control, otherwise we’ll play our moves impulsively, without thinking about the consequences, and make lots of oversights as a result. Working memory is not just short-term memory but involves manipulating the information stored in your short-term memory: without that skill we’re not going to be able to consider alternatives and look ahead, and if we try to do so we’ll quickly become very confused. Finally, we also require cognitive flexibility: the ability to switch between thinking about different ideas, and to think about two different ideas at the same time.

Wikipedia again:

“Executive functions gradually develop and change across the lifespan of an individual and can be improved at any time over the course of a person’s life. Similarly, these cognitive processes can be adversely affected by a variety of events which affect an individual.”

So we’d expect children’s executive functions to improve as they get older, but on occasion an individual may be affected by a particular event, such as, in my example above, having a heavy cold, which, in a game of chess, might increase the likelihood of making mistakes. It was reputedly Tartakower who first said that he’d never beaten a healthy opponent.

“… executive functioning in preadolescents is limited because they do not reliably apply these executive functions across multiple contexts as a result of ongoing development of inhibitory control.”

Quite. You can teach young children all the chess you want but, unless their executive function skills are in place they will find it very difficult to put it into practice. Which is why young children will often get stuck, find themselves not making progress, get frustrated and give up. The younger they start chess the more likely this will happen. The children get frustrated, their chess teachers get frustrated with them, their parents get frustrated both with the children and with their chess teachers.

“Many executive functions may begin in childhood and preadolescence, such as inhibitory control. Yet, it is during adolescence when the different brain systems become better integrated. At this time, (young people) implement executive functions, such as inhibitory control, more efficiently and effectively and improve throughout this time period. Just as inhibitory control emerges in childhood and improves over time, planning and goal-directed behavior also demonstrate an extended time course with ongoing growth over adolescence. Likewise, functions such as attentional control, with a potential spurt at age 15, along with working memory, continue developing at this stage.”

Precisely. Which is why it’s so much easier to teach older children than younger children, and one of many reasons why most young children fail to make progress at chess.

It’s difficult to teach executive functions to young children, but I guess playing games of skill would be one way to develop these attributes. I would also guess that simpler games would be much more effective and probably enjoyable than an exceptionally complex and difficult game such as chess.

Some children will have these skills in place at a very early age, and I’ve been lucky enough to have known and worked with quite a few. Current Richmond Junior Chess Club member Nishchal Thatte, for example, shared first place in the U160 section of the most recent Richmond Rapidplay at the age of 7, and was up with the leaders most of the way in the European Under 8 Championships which finished the other day. But most of the children I’m asked to teach are far too immature to make much progress because they have the typical executive function defects which you’d expect from their age.

Thinking back again to the position at the top of this article:

“Psychologists Don Norman and Tim Shallice have outlined five types of situations in which routine activation of behavior would not be sufficient for optimal performance:

1. Those that involve planning or decision making
2. Those that involve error correction or troubleshooting
3. Situations where responses are not well-rehearsed or contain novel sequences of actions
4. Dangerous or technically difficult situations
5. Situations that require the overcoming of a strong habitual response or resisting temptation.”

In that position I had to make a decision. I had to correct the error in my decision making, but failed to do so. The backward diagonal attack on my rook after Qh1+ might be considered part of a novel sequence of actions. I was in a dangerous situation but failed to realise it. I had to resist the temptation of capturing the pawn but failed to do so.

Who was my opponent in that game? None other than the aforementioned Tim Shallice, who has been a strong chess player for more than half a century and is still active today.

“The work of influential researchers such as Michael Posner, Joaquin Fuster, Tim Shallice, and their colleagues in the 1980s (and later Trevor Robbins, Bob Knight, Don Stuss, and others) laid much of the groundwork for recent research into executive functions.”

Tim Shallice is not only a strong chess player but an influential researcher into executive functions. If you were paying attention recently you might recall another name from the same sentence. The winner of the game I demonstrated last week, Trevor Robbins, was a very strong chess player in his teens and early twenties but chose to concentrate on his academic work in the field of executive function.

Given the importance of executive function in playing chess it’s perhaps not surprising that two of the leading experts in the field should also be strong chess players.

We need to stress the importance of executive function in the development of young chess players, but at the moment we’re not really doing so.

Richard James

Before You Make That Move

You would never drive your car blindly into oncoming traffic because the results would be disastrous, right? Yet, how many of you have blindly made a move on the chessboard without putting much thought into that move because you became frustrated regarding exactly what to do? I’ve been guilty of doing this from time to time in the past. However, because I teach and coach chess full time, I tend to make fewer of these thoughtless moves due to long term training on my part. However, the novice player can easily become frustrated and throw caution to wind, making a move without thinking it through. This occurs because the novice or beginning player hasn’t yet developed an ordered mental check list for determining what move to make in response to the opposition’s last move. Players with greater experience have a large number of game principles not only committed to memory but in a sequential order that makes accessing the right principle for the given situation a very easy task.

When you first seriously study chess, you’re hit with a plethora of useful information in the form of books, DVDs and software. Sometimes, far too much information. In actuality, it’s not that it’s too much information, it’s just too much information at once. The beginner picks up a book or watches a DVD that gives them a great deal of knowledge on opening, middle or endgame theory. A number of principled ideas are presented with actual game examples. The beginner works through the examples carefully, learns the concepts presented and then sits down to play a game employing his or her new found knowledge. Suddenly, they’re hit with bits and pieces of the various principles just learned, all at once, rather than the single principle they need for the situation at hand. Confusion ensues and the beginner loses the game in question. Where this situation really rears its ugly head is when the beginner is faced with a position (similar but not exactly the same) that wasn’t in the book or DVD, which happens more often than not! Beginners tend to think that a position they’ve studied in a book is exactly how that position will appear in their games. It almost never is! This means the beginner may be faced with a position they’ve encountered in their book or DVD studies but doesn’t see it for what it is because the pawns and pieces are slightly different in arrangement than in the example they studied. To the beginner, the position seems foreign.

We’ll address this problem first because it’s key to everything else being discussed! Book and DVD examples come from real games. In a book about endgame play, the beginner might be studying Pawn, Bishop and King endgames. They’ve learned (book/DVD studies) how to promote their Pawn with the King and Bishop being on very specific squares (those found in the book/DVD examples). However, in their real life game, the King and Bishop they need to help promote their Pawn with are on squares not identically positioned as in the initial (book/DVD) example, maybe both King and Bishop are on the other side of the board and the pawn is on a different file. The beginner looks at his or her position and has a very slight recollection of what to do, based on the initial example. However, in the book or DVD example, the King and Bishop were much, much closer to their target squares. The beginner might automatically disregard any thoughts regarding the key concept they need to employ because the position isn’t exactly like the one found in the book or DVD, or they cannot see the pathway (in moves) that will get them to that exact position. Therefore, our intrepid beginner tries to think about another example from the book or DVD. The key point to take away from this is: A key idea or concept found in instructional material, such as a book or DVD, doesn’t rely on an exact position arising but rather on a similar position. Of course, coming to this conclusion does you no good if you can’t pull the idea from you memory palace (Hannibal Lecter’s name for his mentally stored thoughts) in an orderly manner.

Here’s what I mean regarding “orderly manner:” We all collect bits and pieces of information throughout our lives, some of it useful, some of it trivial. If you sat down one day and made a list of everything you knew, you’d be surprised at just how jumbled and eclectic the list was, seemingly out of order with mismatched topics bleeding into one another. It would be a confusing pile of information that would be extremely difficult to make heads or tails of, especially if you needed one specific piece of that information in a hurry (such as when faced with a chess clock counting down the seconds)!

Therefore, you have to employ a system for organizing that vast treasure trove of information into an ordered mental file cabinet or mental database. This is the seemingly daunting task faced by the novice chess player, organizing all those principles you’ve studied in the numerous chess books you’ve read and DVDs you’ve watched. The information you’ve gathered has to be accessible instantly. Of course, for experienced players, this information is extremely well organized within their memory and and can be thrown into their thought process at a moment’s notice. For the beginner, this is, again, a daunting task. Fear not though, because you can achieve this ability relatively quickly and it starts with a few pencils and a small stack of index cards. It’s that easy!

Acquire a stack of index cards and a few well sharpened pencils. I recommend pencils over pens because you can erase something written in pencil and you’re apt to do a fair amount of erasing when you first start this process!

You’ll start with three index cards, one for the opening, one for the middle-game and one for the endgame. Don’t worry about the remaining stack of blank index cards. Those will become filled with notes later on. It’s important that the beginner slowly build up their knowledge base one index card at a time. On your “opening” index card, you’re going to list the opening principles: Controlling the center of the board with a pawn, development of your minor pieces towards the center and castling. Then, you’re going to write down things you shouldn’t do on the back of the card, such as not making too many pawn moves, not bringing your Queen out early, not moving the same piece twice during the opening, etc. While there are more things you can have on your index cards regarding opening theory, as a beginner, you don’t want to have too much information yet, just the bare basics. When you’ve committed the above list of principles to memory and can recognize when to use them easily, only then should you make the list bigger.

For your middle-game index card write down piece activity to start. Too often, beginners launch premature attacks before fully developing their pawns and pieces to active squares. Next, write down attackers versus defenders, having more attackers than opposition defenders when attacking and more defenders when defending against opposition attacks. Also jot down the value of the pawns and pieces so you can determine whether an exchange of material is advantageous. Lastly write down the word “tactics” and the question “are there any potential tactical plays to be made.

For your endgame index card, write down “Kings before Pawns” so you know the King has to be in front of the Pawn you’re trying to promote in a King and Pawn versus King endgame. Another item to add is “watch and stop the passed Pawn” and “can my King reach the opposition’s Pawn before it promotes. Also write in bold letters “King opposition is key to pawn promotion when only Kings and Pawns are present.” On the back of the card, you might note a few methods of checkmate, such as two Rooks versus lone King and Queen and King versus lone King, etc.

Add the information you gather from your books and DVDs onto index card, but do so slowly. Make sure to put the key concepts in your own words. Simply copying a definition verbatim (exactly as it’s written) doesn’t mean you really understand it. By putting the definition in your own words, you’re insuring your complete understanding of the concept.

Just having a few key principles for each phase of the game written on index cards will help you recall crucial information quickly with little confusion and before long you won’t need the cards to guide you because the information will be committed to memory. Memory is a muscle to be developed over time. Of course, you can’t use these cards during tournament games and you’ll have to ask opponents, when playing casually, if they mind your index cards before you refer to them while playing. Of course, when playing a chess software program, you opponent has no say in the matter. As time passes and your knowledge base increases, you’ll have more and more information written down. However, much of it you’ll have committed to memory already so the task will not seem so daunting. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Finish of English Counties and District Correspondence Chess Championships Division Two

Last season my Hertfordshire team were relegated from Division One, the Ward-Higgs Trophy, to Division Two, the Sinclair Trophy in the English Counties and District Correspondence Chess Championships. I am very pleased to announce that we are nearing the end of this season’s play and now stand second, with a score of 10.5 / 15 to West Wales ‘A’ team 13 /15. The Surrey ‘B’ team have a score of 10.5 / 16 but our team will win on board count whatever happens in the final game. So we will finish in the top two and should be promoted back to Division One!

Our non-playing captain, Dr Graham Williams, has done a great job inspiring our team and our final push to grab second spot from Surrey ‘B’ was well worth the effort. It just shows that you should never give up in chess! The organizer of the event was Neil Limbert who worked extremely hard throughout.

I scored 1.5  / 2 on top board and here is my win with White in an interesting Scandinavian Defence: –

John Rhodes