A Foundation for Beginners Seventy Six

I realized that I’d been suggesting that readers practice what they’ve learned in this series of articles playing against chess apps or software. I thought this to be good advice, since you can always stop a game and try again with no penalty. While there is no substitute for siting down and playing against another human being, chess playing programs have a valuable place in training. Unfortunately, in my zeal to get you to test out your newfound knowledge on the silicon chess board, I left out an entire discussion about setting the playing level against your computer-based opponent!

Since chess playing software and apps first appeared on the scene, there have been many sometimes-heated discussions regarding what level a beginner should play against, especially in the realm of children’s chess. Nearly every chess app or software program offers you a set of playing levels, ranging from easy to hard. The difficulty of these levels varies between app or program. One app’s easy level might be more of a mid-level setting on another app. There are too many reasons to cover for this specific problem to include a breakdown within this article. Besides, you don’t need to deal with this problem to effectively use any app or software program as a training aid.

One problem I encounter with my younger students centers around the easiest setting on their chess app. Parents will often download a chess app for their children to play to help them improve. The student will start, as many of us have, by playing the easiest level. To their surprise, they’ll win easily. Then they’ll play the next level up and continue this rise in difficulty levels until they reach the level at which they’re beaten. Sometimes, they’ll go back to the lowest level and stay there, feeling like a seasoned Grandmaster because they beat the computer every time. We all like winning more than losing, so why lose against the program or app when you can win all the time?

The short answer is that you’ll never get better at chess! The only way to improve by pushing your skill set to its limits, forcing yourself to do deeper calculations and delve deeper into a position. You want to play at a level that challenges you, not at a level where you easily win all the time. There’s another huge problem with playing at lower levels: At the lowest levels, a chess app or program will make incredibly bad moves that go against every principle you spent hours trying to learn. This is particularly troublesome for younger students.

I’ve tested apps and programs out that my students use and at the lowest levels, the Queen is brought out early and often left hanging. Minor pieces are moved away from the center of the board. Every principle I teach my students is ignored. If you spend enough time playing at this dreadful level, you’ll end up picking up bad habits and winning none of your games. Besides, as you get better at playing in real life, so do your opponents. Those opponents are going to use the same principled knowledge you’ve learned in their games. So what level should you use when practicing the principles you’ve learned?

Don’t play the highest level to start out. Try starting somewhere in the middle and work up or down (the level scale) from there. Find a level where you lose a few games, then win one. This is only a starting point. You always want to be playing at a level that gives you a real challenge because we learn more from our losses than our wins. However, you need to look at your computer opponent’s moves and be able to determine why they made those moves. If the level is set too high, it will be impossible to figure out why certain moves were made.

You have to spend some time finding that “perfect” level to play against. There’s a learning curve when it comes to using any chess app or program and most people don’t put enough time into finding the best level to aid with their training. Here’s a quick analogy. I am a Ham Radio guy. I just got a new radio for my birthday. Having four other radios, I know what the settings mean on the new radio. However, I am having to learn how those settings apply to this specific radio. To get the clearest communication signals, I must find the sweet spot or combination of knob twirling and button pushing to achieve my goal. Therefore, I try one setting and if that doesn’t work, I try another setting. Chess apps or programs are the same way.

It takes time to find that initial starting level but putting a little extra effort into doing so will greatly help your improvement. Another point to remember is that, while you should try to play the game all the way through, when working on opening principles or specific aspects of a set of principles, there’s no shame in resigning and starting over again. Chess playing apps and programs can be a great asset in your training, just make sure not to become the King of the lowest level. Strive to be the master of all levels, one level at a time. There’s no game to play through this week but will be when we next meet!

Hugh Patterson

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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). View all posts by Hugh Patterson

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