Friday, August 10, 2007


Knights Errant

I am joining the Knights Errant. The Knights Errant FAQ explains what it is all about. In the side navigation bar there is now a Knights Errant Section that lists other Knights.

From the FAQ:
The Knights Errant are a group of bloggers that are trying to improve their tactical pattern recognition using a method known as the Circles. The Circles program involves working through a large (usually 1000+) set of tactical problems multiple times until they can be solved without a lot of thought.

I will be using Personal Chess Trainer 2007 to assist in this progression and repetition.

14. This seems like a very narrow approach to chess. Isn't there more to chess than tactics?
This is the most common criticism of the Circles. Jeremy Silman voices it quite stridently in a review of de la Maza's book here. Clearly, chess is more than just tactics. Strategy, opening theory, and the endgame are important aspects of the game.

A common misconception, in my view. Chess is not more than tactics. Chess is tactics. If we could calculate tactics perfectly, instantly to any depth there would not be any talk of "strategy." Strategy is the application of an accumulated common experience as a (poor) substitute for perfect tactical skill. The same is true of opening theory.

That said, we still work on strategy and opening theory and endgames. But they are not in any way superior to tactics -- they are a poor substitute for tactics. We work on those areas and concepts because as mere humans with limited tactical skill it helps us create favorable positions. Favorable for what? Tactics that benefit us, of course!

A special thanks to Blue Devil Knight for bringing my attention to the Knights!

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Sunday, July 29, 2007


ISAM: Inspect, Select, Analyze, Move

A simple mnemonic I use while playing slower games of chess is ISAM. I pronounce it like "I, Sam." And, no it has nothing to do with that ISAM.

Inspect, Select, Analyze, Move.

When it is my turn to move I inspect the position. I quickly examine all possible moves for each side in the immediate position to get a sense of threats and opportunities.

I then select some of my possible moves as candidates.

I analyze those candidate moves and determine the best move. "Best" may be determined by tactical considerations or positional but at least some tactical consequences must usually be considered.

Then, I write down that move on my score sheet and make one last check of it on the board and then finally make that move on the board. Writing down the move before playing it has helped me to reduce blunders. Sometimes one gets caught up in the analysis of possible future positions and I find this last step of recording the move and looking at the board in the present is a useful last step before playing the move.

This process is iterative in nature. As I am analyzing moves I may realize there are additional candidate moves I should consider. Or, as I am analyzing one move I may realize I need to reconsider something in a move already analyzed. I prune the analysis tree in depth and breadth where ever I can to keep the analysis simple and within my ability to calculate and manage.

The above is what I do on my move. On my opponent's move I consider positional and more general issues. I think long-term. I consider the board with just pawns and kings -- am I winning, losing or drawing that possible pawn ending and how should that impact my play? Do I want the Queens to stay on or to be traded? What is my best piece? My worst? How can I improve it? What is his best piece? How can I trade it or reduce it effectiveness? What is his worst piece? How can I keep it bad? What about the center? I may also keep analyzing tactics if that is the dominant feature of the position.

Update: As Blue Devil Knight points out in comments it is no longer legal to write down your move before playing it in USCF events. See Move First, Write Later, A New Year's Resolution?. So I guess my procedure will change to touching the scoresheet and fixing my move in my mind as if I had written it down, etc. and actually record the move after the fact. Or something like that.


Saturday, July 28, 2007


Learning Chess: The Rules

You're going to learn how to play chess or help someone else learn. Where do you start? You start with the basics: the board, the names of the pieces and the rules of the game. A great book for children for this purpose is "Chess Rules for Students" by John Bain. You can get it from Chess for Students. For older children or adults Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess has a section at the beginning that covers the rules. There are many introductory chess texts but these are two I am familiar with and can recommend.

If you are reading this online you have access to some excellent online resources. Two of my favorites for teaching the chess basics are The Magic Theatre and Chess Kids Academy. They both go beyond just the rules and are fun and interactive. These two are free and available right now. Click 'em and take a look. Go ahead, we'll wait.

So which should you choose? That probably depends on the age and aptitude of the student. A variety of materials and media helps keep things interesting. Of course, if an experienced parent or teacher or sibling or friend or coach is involved that can help dramatically. On the other hand, a motivated 9 year old can certainly learn the rules from these resources.

Have fun!


Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Pandolfini's Endgame Course

Pandolfini's Endgame Course is a great endgame book for novices and up to about USCF Class A or Expert. The information is in small digestible chunks with easy to remember names and themes. It explains in a simple manner essential endgame knowledge. If I am using the book to teach endgames to a beginner I'll skip around some (learning how to checkmate with a Bishop and Knight, as an example, is material I would study/teach last but it is near the beginning of the book).

Unfortunately, there are a number of typos that can be confusing, especially to someone who is trying to learn the material (and isn't that the point?). I think the book is just fantastic except for those typos! That is why I created and maintain Pandolfini's Endgame Course errata. It would be nice if a new edition is printed with corrections, but until then use the book with the errata and if you spot any major flaws not covered in the errata please send them in.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Simple Opening Repertoire for Black: The King's House

David Bronstein is one of top chess players of all time to never be a world champion. His book Zurich International Chess Tournament 1953 is considered one of the best tournament books ever. My copy is literally falling apart -- it is held together with a rubber band! He is known for innovating in the openings and being one of the game's great thinkers. In The Sorcerer's Apprentice he recommends an opening strategy for novices for both White and Black based on what he calls building the "King's House." That is the basis for our simple opening repertoire for black:

1. ...d6
2. ...Nf6
3. ...g6
4. ...Bg7
5. ...O-O

Unless White attacks in the first five moves by moving a piece or pawn past the fourth rank these are Black's first five moves. The king is safe, Black can play a later ...e5 or ...c5 to challenge White's center and his setup is flexible and solid.

From this building block we can later add specific lines from the Pirc when White starts with e4, the King's Indian Defense when White starts with d4, and etc. We can even add the Moron Defense to this (see the Moron game links to the left and see here, here, here and here) when White's first two moves are d4 and c4.

This move sequence defuses the Scholar's Mate a powerful weapon among novices. If White is intent on a Scholar's mate style "attack" the game might proceed: 1.e4 d6 2.Bc4 Nf6 3.Qf3 g6 4.d4 Bg7 5.e5 (White wants to drive the knight away to play Qxf7+) dxe5 6.dxe5 Bg4! (now White has to be careful to avoid ...Qd1#) 7.Qd3 = or 7.Bxf7+ Kxf7 8.Qb3+ Be6 9.Qxb7 Bd5 -+.

For more on typical setups and plans see: Understanding the Pirc Defense and Understanding the Classical King's Indian.

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Simple Opening Repertoire for White : e4d4

At some point a new player will want or need to learn some openings. My earlier post with Simple Chess Opening Guidelines is a starting point. But what about the specifics? The guidelines are great but should I play 1. d4 or 1. e4 or 1. c4 or 1. Nf3 as my first move? Those are all fine moves and the guidelines do not restrict me from playing either.

For new players I want to direct them to simple openings with simple ideas. I also want to lead towards open attacking positions as White to help develop tactical awareness and skill. Hence, this simple Opening Repertoire for White that I call "e4d4":

1. e4
if black plays 1. ...d5 then 2. e4xd5
if black plays 1. ...f5 then 2. e4xf5
if black plays 1. ...Nf6 then 2. e5 followed by d4
against everything else:
2. d4

This is consistent with the Simple Opening Guidelines and is an easy system to "learn." Play 1. e4 and then play d4 right away unless your pawn at e4 is attacked. This is also deliberately side-stepping the main lines of double king pawn openings and the main lines of the Sicilian on purpose to force "booked-up" opponents out of their books.

How do you continue from there? Well, just apply the Simple Opening Guidelines or, when the time is right, learn an opening line or two just a few moves deep and build from there.

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Simple Chess Opening Guidelines

How do we select moves in the chess opening? There are four things to keep in mind during the opening moves of a game of chess that can help you pick good moves:
Tactics (Think!)
The Center
King Safety

Let's talk about each one of those.

Tactics (Think!)

What do we mean by tactics? On every move you must pay attention to see what your opponent is threatening. If he or she can checkmate you, then you must prevent that at all costs even if it seems to violate one of the other guidelines! If he or she moves a pawn to attack one of your pieces you probably need to protect your piece from capture. If you can checkmate your opponent or win his or her queen you should do that instead of castling your king away to safety. Always think about your opponent's most recent move - is it threatening something of yours or did it uncover an attack? Can your opponent put you in check and if so, is it something to be concerned about?

But we also turn that around. Are you threatening to take something? Can you give check and is it a good idea if you can? Can you create a double attack (fork) with your Queen or Knights?

Always be on the alert for your and your opponent's tactical opportunities.

The Center
We mean the four squares in the center of the board: e4, d4, d5 and e5. In the opening you should build your center and attack your opponent's center. You can do this by moving pawns into the center of the board to stake out territory. You can also move pawns near the center so that they are attacking one of the center squares. For example, White can move a pawn to c3, c4, d3, e3, f3, f4 in addition to e4 and d4 and attack a center square. Pieces can also participate in the fight for the center directly and indirectly (by attacking the opponent's pieces that are attacking the center).

You want to develop (move) each of your pieces to a good square. What's a good square? First, remember the two guidelines above. A "good square" is not good if your opponent can just take it! A piece on a good square attacks, protects or influences the center. A good square for a piece in the opening is one where it has lots of options (mobility) and serves a useful purpose. You want to develop all of your pieces so you should not move a piece twice until you have moved each piece once unless you have a good reason. A goal in the opening is to move each piece just once but to pick the perfect square for it the first time! Because your opponent gets to move too and he or she can make threats that you must defend and make mistakes that you want to take advantage of you will often have a good reason to move one piece twice before moving all of them once. That is perfectly fine as long as you have a reason.

Sometimes the game will unfold in such a way that a piece is on a good square without ever moving. If that is the case just leave it there until moving it makes sense.

The knights will most often be best at c3 or f3 for white (c6 and f6 for black). From there they attack two center squares and a total of eight squares. In their initial squares they only attacked three squares so this is an improvement of 5 squares. Knights are short-range pieces; to attack the center they must be near the center.

Bishops are harder to figure out where they should be. That is part of the reason that people say you should develop knights before bishops -- let a little of the game unfold to see where the bishops belong. Bishops often participate in the fight for the center by attacking an opponent's knight. A Black knight at c6 or f6 is attacking the center so a White bishop attacking it (and maybe taking it) from b5 or g5 is participating in the fight for the center. A White bishop at c4 or f4 is directly attacking the center. Sometimes a bishop will need to be at d2 or e2 to protect your knight that is attacked by the opposing bishop and pinned to your king or queen. Bishops can also be fianchettoed by moving the the b or g pawn and playing Bg2 or Bb2 (Bb7 or Bg7 for black). From there they attack two center squares and are on the longest diagonals on the board. Bishops are long-range pieces; they can attack the center from a long distance away.

Rooks want to be on open files (no pawns on that file) or half-open files (one pawn). If those open or half-open files are in or near the center that is even better. Rooks are long-range pieces; they can attack the center from a long distance away. In the early opening they usually stay on the first rank and just move left or right towards the center. One of the rooks will move towards the center when you castle and the other you will have to move by itself. Sometimes even early in the game you will want to double your rooks (put one in front of the other on a file) in order to control an open file or to attack a target in the enemy camp.

The queen is the most powerful piece. If anything attacks her she usually needs to run away because she is too important to trade for a rook, bishop, knight or pawn. So, she usually stays close to home until some of the other pieces have been traded off. Otherwise the little guys can chase her all over the board. Sometimes she will make early forays into the enemy camp but be sure she does not get trapped or has to beat a hasty retreat. Her first move is often a modest one to d2 or e2 (d7 or e7 for Black). If you see a clear reason to bring her out, go ahead, just make sure that you have thought it through.

Where should the king move? We'll talk about that under king safety.

King Safety
The king should be castled in most games. Attacking the opponent's king and protecting your own are what the game is about. A castled king is usually harder to attack. In games with open lines in the center a king in the center is very vulnerable. Get him out of there by castling as soon as you can. Likewise, if you can prevent your opponent from castling by making the king move or attacking a square he needs to castle through then you have a fixed target -- go for him!

Think on every move and consider the immediate tactics. In addition to the tactics consider the center, piece development and the long-term king safety in making your opening move selection and you'll do great!

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Sunday, July 15, 2007


Danish Gambit

The Danish Gambit is exciting and aggressive but quite simple at the same time. There is not a ton of theory to distract one from just thinking (an often overlooked skill in learning openings). The main line ends with a position that is useful for study with each side having a pawn majority. It strikes me as a great first gambit for a young player to learn.

Searching online for good material on the Danish Gambit I ran across this Lesson on Gambits from ChessKids Academy. Very nice.

I have a pgn file of short Danish Gambit games you can download called Danish Minis.

Some other online Danish Gambits are at Danish Gambit, Danish Gambit Games 1-0, and Understanding the Danish Gambit.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007


Learning Chess Openings

Earlier this month I started playing around with software intended for serious opening study called Bookup. I had heard of it before but for some reason I had never used it.

It allows you to record and study your "opening book." I created a few for some openings I play and Bookup has really helped me learn these openings better. Learning and knowing the ideas behind the opening moves is critical but so is having quick and reliable recall of the correct moves. Especially in some of the popular highly tactical lines. They also have various opening books you can purchase that plug into Bookup. It comes with an analysis engine and can be used to study any phase of the game.

There is a free version, an express version and a professional version. I bought the express version after downloading and using the free trial version. You can get the trial version here.

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Learning Chess

Recently, I have been helping a five year old learn chess. We are starting at the beginning with the board, the names of the pieces and how they move, basic checkmates, simple endings and so on. I have found several useful online resources to help.

First, there is Magic Theatre which has a great variety of instruction and movies perfect for a child first learning chess. They recommend ChessBase Light which is free and you can download it from here.

At the moment I prefer Pawn 2.86 which is also free and easy to use chess game with a child friendly interface. I can save stored positions that he can practice against on his own playing against the computer. Pawn talks and helps him see and make legal moves. We will eventually start using ChessBase Light but for now we are using Pawn.

Another resource is USA Chess which has summer chess camps in many cities including Houston, Katy and The Woodlands.

Begin Chess also looks good but is more advanced than my student at the moment.

If you have favorite web sites for chess beginners that I have not listed in the side bar please send me a note.


Thursday, May 06, 2004


Pandolfini Endgame

From Ray Cheng:

Dear Sir,

Please refer to Pandolfini's Endgame Course, Endgame 100. ...
Yep, there is a problem with that one. The errata (link in the side bar) is now updated for Endgame 100.

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Sunday, March 16, 2003


Pandolfini's Endgame Course Errata

I just added a link at the left to the errata I compiled for Pandolfini's Endgame Course. I love the format and content and find it a great resource and study guide for players up to about expert strength. Unfortunately the book suffers from a number of typos. Hence, the errata, which lists the major errors I have discovered.

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