Truly Understanding Chess Concepts

When we study any subject, be it in a classroom environment, book, video or training app, how much do we really comprehend? As a chess teacher, student comprehension is my number one priority. However, in the end, it’s up to the student master the concept or idea being presented. I’ve learned to have at least three different explanations for every idea I present to my students because learning is not a “one size fits all” affair. We all learn in different ways.

When I have a classroom full of new students I’ve never worked with before, I have to categorize their individual comprehension pathways. A comprehension pathway is the way in which a student best learns a subject. Is the student a visual learner, descriptive learner or somewhere in between? It dawned on me that self learners may not ask this question of themselves when deciding to learn chess. They may just go out and buy a book, thinking this is how you learn the game. Chess books can be problematic because they tend to minimally descriptive and less visual in nature. I’ve seen many books on opening principles that give a brief written description of the principle being presented and then thrust the reader into the cold, dark sea of opening theory with a sub-minimal amount of text describing the principle being applied. Both the visual and descriptive learner would have trouble learning in this situation.

Unfortunately, the chess student has to work with the materials that are available which are so vast and different from one another that the student becomes overwhelmed. Therefore, I suggest employing the following tips for getting the most out of the the ideas and concepts you learn. These tips are really steps that will ensure you get the most out of your chess education, be it in a class or via self study.

The first step is to determine what Kind of learner you are. Are you visual, meaning that you need to see ideas and concepts in action graphically, or do you do well reading something and then intellectually digesting it? Or are you a combination of the two? Knowing this will help you find the right material to aid in your studies. If you’re a visual learner, you can use training software and videos, narrowing down the choice of training material. If you’re a reader, you face a bigger challenge, namely finding books that are right for your skill set.

As I previously mentioned, most chess books are difficult to get a lot out of, with the exception of books written for absolute beginners, because they tend to be light when it comes to visual and descriptive explanations. This is not the fault of the authors. It has to do with the fact that most books are written for chess players within a broad ratings range. A book might be written for players with a rating between 1200 and 1600. The 400 point difference can be huge for a lot of players. 1200 is considered a beginner’s level while 1600 is an up and coming club player. While the 1600 rated player might fully understand the information contained within the book, the 1200 rated player might miss out on a great deal of potential knowledge, struggling to comprehend the material presented. What should the lower rated player do? Dig into the book and try the following:

The hardest part of learning more advanced concepts is truly understanding them. Sure, you can memorize a game principle, siting the author’s words verbatim, but that doesn’t mean you really know the idea. Therefore, you have to try and put that explanation in your own words. Try teaching that idea, in your own words, to another person. If you can successfully explain the concept you just learned to another person, you’re guaranteed to really know that concept. However, that’s half the battle!

Chess is a combination of theory and practice. Theory is the study of the game while practice is actually taking what you’ve just learned and working it out on the chessboard. Too many students try to learn a large number of the game’s principles at once and then use them in their games immediately. This can become overwhelming for the student, with bits and pieces of the idea being recalled from memory as they play. The problem with these bits and pieces is that they’re not complete thoughts regarding specific principles. Take the first three opening principles, controlling the center of the board with a pawn, developing minor pieces towards the board’s center and castling.

The student can easily remember that these are the things you need to do during the opening. However, the devils in the details as they say. Which pawn do you develop towards the center? There are four, the c, d, e and f pawns. Moving the f pawn can lead to disaster. The c pawn signals the English opening which most beginners can’t successfully play. As for development of the minor pieces, which minor piece do you move first? As far as castling goes, many beginners will blindly castle either too early, losing a developmental edge, or into an attack. These pitfalls can be avoided if the student takes on one principle at a time. Let’s say you’re new to chess and studying the opening.

Start with principle one, developing a pawn towards the center of the board. Look at games via instructional videos. Even though you’ve just learned this principle, go online and watch a few videos on the opening principles. These videos will show you why certain pawns are better to move at the game’s start than others. They’ll show you what happens when you move the wrong pawn. Even though you’re a book learner, the information you’ve intellectually digested will make more sense when you see it in action. Only when you’ve visually seen the outcome of different opening pawn moves should you move onto the next principle, following the same method for retaining your new found knowledge. Play a game or two after learning each principle. Don’t worry about losing, just worry about applying the principle correctly.

Be patient when studying chess. Don’t try to take in everything at once. Learn one concept inside and out and only then move onto the next. The patient learner is the student who gets the most out of their education. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson


Author: 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).