Wishful Thinking

The beginner makes a move with high hopes that his or her opponent will make the counter-move the beginner has anticipated. Of course, their opponent makes a move but it isn’t the move our beginner anticipated. Our beginner is now faced with a weak position that degrades further and further with each subsequent move. Where did our intrepid beginner go wrong? Our beginner employed the same idea many desperate gamblers use, wishful thinking. My Uncle, who was quite a good gambler, used to say “scared money never wins.” Employing wishful thinking nets the same result, a journey on the road to ruin. What is wishful thinking in chess?

Wishful thinking is making a move that only works if your opponent makes the exact move you want them to make and that opposition move is a poor one! Good chess means both players are making the best moves in an effort to execute their individual plans. Wishful thinking chess means playing one sided chess. One sided chess is only considering what you can do, not what your opponent can do. This is a huge hurdle for the novice player.

Beginners are generally overwhelmed by the large number of game principles and theory thrown at them through instructional material in the form of books, DVDs and software. They often halfheartedly learn these principles and try to bend or break them before they have a true understanding of those principles. A general life principle might tell you it is dangerous to walk on the edge of a cliff because you could slip, fall off and meet a dreadful end. Our beginning chess student certainly wouldn’t walk next to the edge of a cliff because it’s dangerous. However, that same student would take a chance by bending a game principle. Our student would exercise logic and reason when faced with a physically dangerous situation but wouldn’t employ the same logic and reason on the chess board. He might consider taking a chance on the chessboard. Chance has no place in chess because it’s akin to wishful thinking!

Logic should be the driving force behind the moves a beginner makes. Logic is the science of the formal principles of reasoning. Thus, to employ logic you employ specific principles when making a decision. Of course, this is an extremely simplified definition but one that will serve to guide the beginning chess player. Chess principles are ideas that have been tested and retested over time, always found to be sound in nature. If you’re a beginner you should seriously consider the idea that these principles work and they should be learned and employed by you from day one. When you play thought a game by a Grandmaster who breaks or bends a game principle successfully, remember that the Grandmaster first had to master those principles. Mastering game principles means completely understanding them and employing them. When you learn how to play a musical instrument, you spend many years mastering basic musical principles. Only after you gained a fair amount of knowledge, can you start to explore the idea of breaking protocol or principle. You have to learn how to walk before you run!

Two sets of principles, opening and endgame principles, are the most maligned by beginners. When I teach beginner’s classes, I teach basic principles for both these phases of the game. I keep it simple. For the opening phase, I teach the three primary principles, moving a pawn that controls the board’s center on move one, development of minor pieces towards the center and castling. For the endgame phase, I teach basic mating combinations and pawn promotion. My classes spend a great deal of time working on these principles, yet there are always a handful of students who insist on employing wishful thinking, doing things their way rather than the principled way.

There is something to be said about trail and error learning. Sometimes, we need to fail repeatedly to truly learn a lesson. However, this method of thinking can discourage the novice chess player. Therefore, when teaching the game’s principles, the chess teacher must carefully and thoroughly explain each principle in great detail! One of the best ways to teach a principle is to demonstrate what happens when that principle isn’t employed, namely the dire consequences that result. If I have a student who is having trouble embracing game principles, we sit down and play a few games. As I make principled moves and my student makes unprincipled moves, I explain the consequences carefully as we play. The student sees the consequences of not using correct principles on the board as he or she plays.

This easiest way to get students to employ principled play is to teach them to use simple logic as a guide when determining the correct move. I teach my students that logical thinking in chess is weighing the good against the bad. For example, we’re all taught that moving the e pawn to e4 is the best move for an absolute beginner. If a student simply moves the e pawn because everyone says it’s the best move, then they’re not really learning anything in the way of logical thinking. If the student is taught that control of the center is key in the opening, then they have a logical reason for playing 1. e4. However, you have to provide more information such as saying “this moves allows the Queen and King-side Bishop instant access to the board.” You can also further expand on this idea by saying that the opposition’s King is on a central file and he is the ultimate target. Additionally, pieces are more powerful when centrally located. The more information provided, the greater the logical reinforcement. The more information a teacher provides regarding why a principle is sound, the more likely a student will apply that principle. A student should always think about what makes a principled move sound rather than blindly making that move.

Once the principles have been ingrained in the student’s mind, it’s time to stamp out wishful thinking once and for all. This happens when you carefully consider your opponent’s best response to your potential move. Often, a beginner will try to chase a long range piece (Bishop, Rook or Queen) with a short range piece (Pawn, Knight or King). Of course, the long range piece simply races away. If you consider your opponent’s best response to such an idea, you’d never make that move in the first place! To think about your opponent’s best response to your move, put yourself in your opponent’s shoes. Pretend your playing you opponent’s pieces when considering a move. What would you do to stop the move your considering. One exercise I have my student’s do it is switching sides during a game on every move. You start making a move for White and when your opponent makes Black’s move, you switch sides. This is very effective in destroying wishful thinking.

You have to play both sides of the board not just your side of the board. You have to use the principles and basic logic to guide your moves. If you don’t you’re not playing a game of thinking but a game of chance. Remember, when playing a game of chance, the house always wins and sadly you’re not the house. Here’s 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).