Some Words of Advice

When you teach and coach chess long enough, you’ll know what works and what doesn’t. I keep a journal regarding teaching methods that work and those that don’t. I recently had the opportunity to start teaching chess to a group of older students who are all intellectually gifted but had played little if any chess. I decided that our first class would start with some words of advice regarding their study of the game, based on what I’ve learned as a teacher. I gave my pep talk to this group of students because they’re used to learning things quickly and easily. Learning to play good chess is a slow process that can be difficult at times no matter how smart you are. Here’s what I said:

I wish you all slow and steady progress. While we live in a world that measures success in terms of how quickly you achieve your goals, success in chess requires a commitment of time and patience. Chess is a game that rewards those who exercise patience and punishes those who don’t. Chess is a game built upon a foundation and how solid that foundation is depends solely on you, the builder of that foundation. If you build your foundation poorly, your game will collapse like a house of cards. Build it on the bedrock of hard work and careful study and it will weather the worst of positional storms. In short, you have to carefully grasp each game principle completely. This is the slow and steady process, taking one principle, dissecting it until you know it’s true meaning and only then moving on to the next principle. Mastering any skill takes a huge commitment of time. Those of you who play a musical instrument know that you don’t simply pick it up and suddenly create beautiful music. You have to practice.

Some people learn faster than others. However, this doesn’t mean that those who learn faster are necessarily better or smarter. We all learn at different speeds and frankly, those who have to work a little harder than others to learn something have a better grasp of the subject matter when all is said and done. Slow and steady wins the race! Don’t worry if everyone else seems to understand a game principle and you still feel a bit lost. At least eighty percent of those people claiming to “completely understand” that elusive game principle probably don’t understand it as much as they think they do. Embrace struggling with learning because you have to put in more effort which will help solidify your grasp on the subject matter. From today on, you’re going to stop worrying about how quickly your classmates are learning and put that energy into your own efforts on the chessboard. Use your intellectual energy wisely!

Ask questions. I am suspect of any student that sits in my class and doesn’t ask a question. Either they’re secretly a Grandmaster or they’re not paying attention. People who don’t ask questions in life suffer the fate of fools. I implore you to question everything! If I present a concept and my explanation doesn’t make sense to you, ask me to explain it again. The only stupid question is the one not asked. Otherwise, all questions are good. If you don’t ask questions in my class, I’ll question you about your grasp of the concepts I present. If everyone else seems to understand a concept and you don’t, ask for another explanation. Trust me, I’m going to be more impressed with you, the person asking for a different explanation, than I am with everyone else nodding their heads as if they know the idea presented inside and out. Heading nodding will get you nowhere. Actually, it will probably inspire me to ask you to explain to the class, the idea you’re nodding your head about.

Don’t short cut your studies. I will ask you to play through an opening and a number of its variations as homework. Some of you will play through every single move three times while others will speed through the assignment. Again, slow and steady wins the race. If you’re the person slowly playing through the opening and its variations three time and you face off against one of those speedy learners, my money’s on you to win the game. Like music and martial arts, two things I’m very much into, chess requires study and practice. Some of you know I’m a musician. Some of you have seen me play and at least one of you said “you make it look easy.” When you see me play guitar, you’re seeing the end result, the result of decades of work. By playing for so long, my fingers have been trained to know where to go when I play (most of the time). Just because something looks easy doesn’t mean it is. It only looks easy because the person doing whatever it is has spent a good part of their lifetime studying and practicing. Chess is the same way. When you play an opponent who seems to do amazing things on the board, they didn’t wake up one morning being able to play great chess. They put a lot of time into developing their chess skills.

You can think of learning chess as starting a garden. You start with a patch of bare earth. You work the soil, plant the seeds, water the seedlings and eventually you have wonderful flowers, etc growing. When planting a garden, the end result takes time. You can plant seeds and expect them to fully mature into blooming flowers overnight. It takes time and so does learning chess. There are no short cuts. If you see an advertisement for a book that guarantees instant results, run in the opposite direction.

If you tend to be impatient, let learning chess be a way to nurture and improve your patience. Embrace the idea of learning something slowly. Rather than becoming impatient because your not playing like Magnus Carlsen after two weeks, treat each principle you learn as an achievement in itself. Set your immediate goal as mastering one principle at a time rather than the entire game. Did you know that having patience will add years to your life. When your impatient, you become upset or stressed. Stress is a killer. Be smart and live to one hundred by developing patience through chess.

Learn to love losing! I know society places little stock in losses but you’ll learn more from losing a game of chess than winning a game. This is the only class you’ll take that makes losing a cause for celebration. I wish you many losses because from those losses you’ll learn to be a better chess player. Loose a soccer game and you might get booted from the team. Loose a chess game and you’ll improve. How, you ask? A good chess player will play through that lost game, figure out where they went wrong, correct the problem and learn something in the process. You learn from your losses!

So throw out your brainy notions of rapid learning and instant success. Slow down and embrace the idea of taking on one concept or principle at a time. Take the Zen approach not the winner gets all Western approach to life. Feel free to make mistakes, to stumble and fall. It’s all alright because we’re going to take a different road on the journey of life. We’re going to take the slow road to chess enlightenment! With that said, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).