Tracking Improvement

Many of my students have asked me how they were doing in regards to their own improvement on the chessboard. If you think about it, it’s an extremely valid question since it’s often difficult to measure one’s chess improvement when all you see are your losses. In fact, most beginners (and many experienced players) become frustrated because they feel as if they’re getting nowhere when it comes to honing their chess skills. It’s a lot easier to see progress in others than it is to see progress in your own efforts. Again, we tend to see our losses as total losses, after all, a loss just proves you’re not moving forward. Right? Absolutely wrong, so remove that idea from your thinking. I really mean it, remove the idea that a loss is simply an example of your chess playing shortcomings! Great strides in improvement can be found in even the most brutal losses (within reason).

Of course, someone reading this (other than my wife and mother) is going to think, “hey, if I just suffered a brutal loss, doesn’t that mean I’m doing something wrong?” I’d answer this by saying, “you have to lose a lot of games along the road to mastery.” However, there’s more to it than just simply saying you have to lose before you win. Let’s look at a hypothetical situation:

A student attends my chess classes, showing up every day, paying attention to my lectures and then acquiring some of my recommended chess books to study. This student, who was brand new to the game when we first met, also invests in a chess playing program so they have an opponent around the clock. The students reads and takes that new found knowledge with them when they play against the computer. They lose game after game because they set the software’s playing level fairly high for a beginner. The software program records all of the games played. After a few months, the student comes to me nearly in tears saying “I’m just not any good at this so I’m going to give up.” I say to them, as I say to every students who thinks about giving up, “let me take a look at the games you’ve played against the computer and see where you’re at. Don’t give up yet!”

I look at their games in chronological order, from the first game played to the last game played. I see a much different picture. I see improvement from the first game through the last, even if the student in question lost every game they played. It’s not the result of the game that I’m interested in but the application of their chess studies to the games. Here’s what I look for.

Obviously, I don’t have to worry about illegal piece movement and the breaking of rules when students are playing against the computer because the computer will not let you do anything illegal! What I’m really looking for is improvement. What do I mean by improvement?

The game of chess has three distinct phases, the opening, middle and endgame. Each of these three phases require that certain tasks be accomplished, so that’s where I start. I examine each game phase and determine, first, if my students are applying the correct principles for the phase of the game and second, if those applied principles are improving in scope. I don’t expect a student to play a perfect opening at the start of their chess careers. I want to see the basics starting to come to light!

Most beginners are lost during the opening, not controlling the board’s center with a combination of pawns and pieces (especially the minor pieces). Add to this, the idea that beginner’s pieces aren’t coordinated from the start and you can see why they become so discouraged. The first thing I look at in their games against the computer (from first game to last) is whether they’re getting their pieces out towards the board’s center during the first six to eight moves. I give them a point for each minor piece moved towards the board’s center, ignoring piece coordination until I examine later games. As I play through the students games, I look to see if they start coordinating their pieces in later games. One point is awarded to each pair of coordinated pieces (five points for three pieces working together). A point is awarded for castling as well as good pawn structure.

Next, I examine the middle game, a realm in which many beginners have gone down in flames. What I’m look at here is further activity of pawns and pieces, awarding a point for each piece that is further developed to an active square. Points are taken away for premature attacks and capturing of opposition material if it damaged their position. Combinations that lead to tactical plays get five points.

The endgame, if reached (beginners seldom reach a real endgame), is tough for the beginner because they think that less material makes for less thinking! Wrong! While checkmate with a pair or Rooks or a Queen and King score a point, proper pawn promotion earns a whopping five points! I add up the scores for each game played and we look to see if the score increases from game to game.

By going through a student’s collection of games against their computer from the first game to the last, while scoring points for the above mentioned principled play and adding those points up, can give the student a snapshot of their improvement over time. I suggest you try this with your own recorded games. While you may be losing a lot of games, you’ll at least see that you are improving and getting better at the game we love so much in the long run. Don’t become discouraged if you’re not winning many games because you’re more likely improving but that improvement is buried under the stigma of losing. You just have to look beyond the losses and look for the things you’re doing right. Remember, even the world’s top players lose games and they don’t give up. Also, remember to be kind to yourself when assessing your improvement. My first chess teacher fired me as a student because, as he put it, “you really don’t have the intellectual skill set to play chess.” In other words, he thought I was the village idiot. I had the satisfaction of running into him decades later and crushing him on the sixty four squared jungle. While I try to be a gracious winner, I did kind of dance around the table yelling “ha ha ha, whose the idiot now.” Not my finest moment as an adult! 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).