A Foundation for Beginners Thirty Six

While I promised that we would continue playing through the beginner’s game we started a few weeks ago, I’ve decided to address a subject that is key to all phases of the game and is absolutely necessary for improvement. The subject matter of this article came up this past week as I took over a class of chess students who were advanced beginners. Their first instructor was a teacher who volunteered his time to create a chess club at the school. However, he reached a teaching wall and couldn’t seem to get his students playing better.

I often go into similar situations in which an after school chess club or class is having problems with their members improvement. You have to be extremely diplomatic when you find yourself in such a position because you don’t want to overshadow the person running the class or club. I also never want to belittle a teachers work with their students by completely taking over the class. Fortunately, the teacher I was working with was more than happy to hand the class over to me. I told him that he should remain their instructor or coach and let me fine tune things. He asked me how long it would take and I replied that it really depended on exactly where his students were having problems.

When I get called in to improve a chess class or club, I often feel like Gordon Ramsey when he goes into a restaurant that needs his help, only to find those asking for help unwilling to take his advice. To make matters worse, when my advice is not taken and things get worse, I end up getting the blame. Fortunately, I’ve done enough of these emergency improvement sessions that I can generally avoid being the sole recipient of any blame. It usually takes me a few weeks to figure out where things are going right and where things are going wrong. This time around, determining exactly what was going wrong was easy.

After the twelve students were paired off and started playing one another, I walked around with a note pad and a pen and wrote down my first impressions of the student’s playing. I quickly scanned the six boards as students played through their openings, looking for problems. They followed their openings to the letter, employing the opening principles as prescribed. However, there was a very mechanical feel to their play. While the opening and specific openings can be mechanical in nature, it was as if the students had memorized their openings. I made this observation after noticing that every opening played was a classical mainline. While I wouldn’t expect advanced beginners to play obscure variations, I noticed that after the first six or seven moves, the students were becoming lost.

It wasn’t as if they suddenly started making bad moves. Yet, it seemed as if they were making the first move they saw. I had set a time limit of thirty minutes for their first game. When the thirty minutes had passed and their games stopped, I gathered them together so I could ask a few questions. The first question I asked regarded their thought process when it came to making a move. I asked “after exercising the first three opening principles (controlling the center with a pawn, developing your minor pieces towards the center and castling) how do you approach making a move?” The answers ran from “I look for a move that creates a threat” to I look for the first good move that further develops my pieces.” What I didn’t hear was anything regarding the creation of a choice of moves. It seemed that these students, who all played decently for their skill set, jumped at the first opportunity that presented itself.

I then told them what I tell all of my students: “A good move is just that, a good move that will help your game. A great move is one that will help you win. You will never find a great move unless you dig deeper into the position and look at all of the possibilities.” The way you dig in is by trying to find at least three good moves you can make and then comparing them to each other, working through the pros and cons of each. The students in this class knew many of the game’s most important principles which helped them make generally good moves, but they didn’t dig deep enough into the position to find that potentially great move. To dig into a position and find the best move, you need to find at least three potential moves and compare them to one another!

Beginners, even advanced beginners, have trouble trying to analyze a position because there is so much going on at once, especially when transitioning between the opening and middle-game. The secret is to not look at everything at once but to break the analysis of the position down into mentally digestible bites. You start by looking at your opponent’s pawns and pieces closest to you to determine whether they are threatening any of your pawns and pieces. If so, the move you make will either defend the attacked material or move that material. Then you look at your opponent’s more distant pawns and pieces and make a similar threat assessment. Finally, you look at any threats your pawns and pieces are making towards your opponent’s material and decide whether those threats are greater than your opponent’s threats. Once you have this information within your thought process, only then can you consider moves.

Now that you’ve analyzed the board, you can start considering your three candidate moves. I taught the students I was working with to base those three moves first, on any problems they might be facing, such as one of their minor pieces being attacked. I set up a position on my demonstration board in which a Knight was under attack. I asked them to come up with three possible moves that dealt with the attack of that Knight, considering the pros and cons of each move.

One student said, “oh, that’s easy enough,” to which I replied “that’s only the start of the process. Before simply defending the Knight in our example, I asked them to see of they could create a bigger threat than than the attack against their Knight. I had set up a counter threat within the position I showed them in which they could turn around and attack the opposition’s Queen. They used the three move system and eventually found it. The problem these students had was not digging deep enough and finding three potential moves. This is a problem than plagues beginners which is why I brought it up now.

When we do play through the student game we started a few weeks ago, I want you to do exactly what I described in the paragraphs above. Look at the position, break it down and then come up with three moves both players could have made (during each game turn). However, consider ideas like counter threats. Don’t just fixate on the defense of a piece, coming up with a defensive move. Look to see if you have a counter attack that creates a bigger threat. One of the problems with teaching and learning chess is that we have principles driven into our thought process which makes it hard for beginners to bend principles like stronger players do. We stifle our ability to think outside of the box. While I don’t recommend crazy sacrifices for the beginner, I do suggest expanding your skill set by looking at all your options. Try thinking outside of the box. You may end up losing a game or two but you’ll learn a lot along the way.

I am going to continue to work with these students and will give progress reports as time passes. I will say that when those students played again, after my short lecture, their games started to show signs of more well thought out play. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week when we will get to that student game!

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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