Pandolfini's Mailbag: Teaching Stuff

Pandolfini's Mailbag: Teaching Stuff

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Topic for next month: Losing

(Please start submitting questions concerning the above topic for the next column. Questions outside of that theme should be submitted to other departments. If I get the opportunity to answer a different kind of question, I may do so in the comments at the bottom of the page. We will continue to see how it goes. -- Bruce P)

Question 1 (submitted by silvester78):

Many tactics books suggest that you must solve the puzzles directly from the book; others suggest you must use a board, without moving the pieces. What method do you suggest to your students? Thanks. 

Answer 1:

The reason many teachers prefer working directly from the book, instead of having students first set up positions on the board, is that it counteracts the tendency to reach out and grab the pieces. Not only does the precaution of working straight from a book fight against the proclivity to touch pieces carelessly in real games, where the penalty for impetuosity can be devastating -- it also compels students to stretch their mental muscles so that they foster their analytic faculties. After all, in actual games, players are not going to allow one to move the pieces around to see if an idea works. To be sure, skill in analyzing and calculating future moves is vital to being a competent chess player.

In some of my classes we don’t even use chessboards and pieces, nor do we work directly from books. Rather I hand out photocopied sheets, with large, clear diagrams.  We analyze from those sheets, which of course prevents students from moving the pieces, since they can’t. I may work from photocopied sheets in my private sessions as well, though most individual lessons are in fact conducted with a board and pieces. Naturally, even though I stress not moving the pieces in those lessons, students, being human, will still reach out impulsively now and then. 


The remedy is simple. If they touch a piece, even if their move is correct, they are automatically marked wrong. But if they analyze without touching the pieces, even if their move is wrong, they’re not marked wrong, because they can still change their minds, as in real games. You’d be surprised how effective this tactic can be. For more than 40 years, even when working with some extraordinary students, I’ve used this approach very successfully. So I have to say the method works. Students going through this rigorous training rarely get called for touch move, and they quickly develop their analytical aptitude. 

Off the question, but a related piece of advice is this. During a tournament game, suppose a student is called for “touch move.” What should he or she do? Most untrained students will be traumatized into playing instantly, often with dire aftereffects. Unfortunately, even veteran youngsters may fall victim to a possible touch move call, so I recommend they do something in particular to safeguard themselves. 

If called for touch move, as long as a student hasn’t yet taken his hand off the piece, the shaken student should put the piece back on its starting square, step back for a moment, and think about it. After all, just because the piece has been touched doesn’t mean there’s not a best move with it. One is not likely to find that best move if in a state of shock, in consequence of having been called for touch move. 

Once the student puts the piece back where it started, with the idea of thinking it over, it’s likely the opponent will say again at that point “touch move” or something like it. The student should then reply in turn, “I know. Don’t worry. I’m going to move it, but I want to think about it.” Nothing is illegal about this comeback, as long as the touched piece is eventually moved. That type of sangfroid immediately takes control of the situation, putting some of the anxiety back on the other player, who now has to wait and see where that touched piece is going to wind up. I can’t tell you how many of my students have saved key games that way.

Getting back to your question, I’m not going to pretend that doing chess without a board doesn’t have other benefits. It often does –- surely for the student, but also for the teacher. I recall a lesson I gave many years ago, in the early 1970s. I arrived at a luxurious apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for my weekly lesson with a gifted student. It turned out he had a terrible head cold and was about to give it to me. The kid was coughing and sneezing and wiping his nose all over the place. Since chess pieces are notorious for their contaminating capabilities, there was no way I was going to touch anything he touched. Nor was I about to sit near that proficient germ spreader, as much as I liked him as a student. Actually, I wanted to yell at the father for not calling me ahead of time to reschedule the lesson. He was away on a business trip, which in its own way was giving me the business.


I happened to have some photocopied tactical problems with me. So I handed the boy wonder a couple of the diagramed sheets and had him sit about 20 feet away from me, in what was ostensibly a capacious drawing room. For the hour we talked chess, straight from the diagrams. He objected at first (practically every kid in the universe would), but after a few minutes, proud of what he was surprisingly able to do in his head, he got into it and did fantastically well. What a boon that method proved to be. If ever I needed an additional reason for developing a student’s analytic skills, and for not relying on an actual chessboard and pieces, suddenly I had found one: the avoidance of pernicious germs.

Question 2 (submitted by DrSpudnik):

When you come across someone who is just terrible, who asks for some "pointers," what do you point to first?

My comment above is actually pretty commonplace. I run a small chess club and at least every few months someone comes in who says something like "I've been playing chess since high school (looks about 10 years ago) and I can't seem to make any progress." So I ask them to play so I can see what they're doing and the game goes most often like this: 1.e4 e5 2. Nf3 d6 3. Bc4 h6....and in 10 moves they are either down tons of material or mated. I start going over the game from memory and by the time I get to the position above, they think I'm some kind of brainiac genius who can repeat moves from memory. I usually just go over some pointers on development, weak squares and such but they look completely overwhelmed. What does one do with someone this in the dark?

Answer 2:

Maybe you are a brainiac genius. Even so, you’re probably doing fine with these club visitors, but possibly you’re expecting too much. You don’t have to make them into world beaters, nor is that expected of you. Just continue to show them your club is an inviting place to play chess and you would have done your job. It takes a long time to become a strong player, and most of us are never going to do it, so I wouldn’t fret about it. Just keep helping them the best you can, which is what a good host should do. 

Still, I realize you’re striving to do an even better job, and so you’d like me to make some general recommendations. I’m a little reluctant to do that. I’ve given too many lessons through the years. All of that experience tells me that everyone should be treated individually, even though each person also fits into an amorphous class. Nevertheless, I will play along and offer a few ideas (some pointers), in the spirit of this column.

First of all, if you really want to help them, you’re going to have to do more than play them (if you can). But before we even go there, why are you taking White in those games? After all, it’s not about beating them. It’s about gauging them and helping them, right? You can tell more if they start de novo, without any cues from you and your own play. So, if you’re going to play them for diagnostic reasons, let them play White, even if they object (and even if you object). 

Moving forward, after each move they make, you should be asking questions. I for one ask hundreds of questions during an introductory interview because I want to learn a lot about the student. The more I learn, the more I can help. What sorts of questions in particular? Let’s say a student plays e2-e4 (or whatever) for a first move. I might ask: Do you always start that way? If they say “yes,” I’d ask them why they start that way. If they say “no,” I might ask them why they started that way here and now. Did they think it a good time to experiment? Were they trying to trick me in some way? Or did they simply move on impulse, without any thought at all? I want information, and their answers -- not just their answers, but the nature of their answers -- will tell me volumes. Over time, as they repeatedly hear me ask the same kinds of questions, they gradually absorb the process and begin thinking and asking similar questions in their own minds, during their own games. That is, eventually, they learn how to think for themselves.

Anyhow, after they’ve played e2-e4 (or whatever), and after my initial questions, I might counter with a dumb move, just to see how they’d respond. Maybe I’d play a7-a6 or worse, say a7-a5. Another investigative tack is to repeat moves, developing a black knight, for instance. On the next move I’d undevelop the same knight. Then I’d develop it again, undevelop it again, and so on. In the meantime, do they seize the center and develop all their pieces? Do they play for an attack against f7? Or what? I want to know if there’s a logic to their play or if they’re residing in a mindless void. 

Whatever they do, I’d ask questions and more questions, continuing to fuel the exploratory process. I’d do this not just to see if they play with some coherence and intelligence, but also merely to find out if they’re listening (or capable of listening). I’m not going to take it any further than that for now, but I think you must get the idea. I’d ask a zillion questions, with the goal being to form a true picture of the newcomer. And the questions might not necessarily be only about chess. I’d want to know about other interests. What they watch, what they read, what they do on a daily basis -- all of that could provide worthwhile information. Somewhere, amid it all, there might materialize an unexpected analogy the student feeds off to assimilate more chess.

What chess ideas would I try to impress upon an adult student who already knows the moves and rules in that early encounter or two? (Actually, depending on the student and how expeditiously you are able to proceed, it could take as many as several sessions. Moreover, children should be approached differently, based on age and other factors.) 

For the most part, in the course of such maiden meetings, I’d try to touch upon much of the following (as well as some topics not mentioned here). Nor am I implying that this particular order has to be fully charted in this ensuing way, or that the categories don’t overlap in presentation. But it’s a list, and every list has shortcomings (as does every list maker). Anyway, I usually try to acquaint the student with much of what follows in the first couple of get-togethers, say in the first four sessions for certain. Let me add, for the most part, these are the very same elements I’ve brought up with all of my very best young students before they became who they became, whoever the Dickens they presently are.


image via PBS

1.  The Center: I’d address its importance and what it means to “play for it;” that under the right circumstances one is trying to occupy it, guard it, and influence it, directly and indirectly; I’d also commence talking about space and mobility, how centralization tends to increase scope (even reviewing the mobility of the king, which foreshadows an eventual segue into endgame conversation); how actual centralization doesn’t automatically enhance the power of the rook, which is a piece that can do beautifully from a distance, as long as it’s posted on an open file; I’d talk about fianchettos and hypermodern chess, and I’d probably also show a few short games to illustrate central concepts. 

2.  Development: I’d formulate the principle of development; how principles are different from rules, which in turn are different from rules of thumb; why teachers advocate merging the center and development into a single principle; I’d also bring up provisos against imprudent development, such as not overusing the queen, not moving the same piece repeatedly, and not playing a move just for the sake of development; in particular, I’d go out of my way to dissuade the student from playing pointless checks; I’d exemplify how such checks can often be punished, and I’d also attempt to make it clear that it can sometimes be wiser to save the possibility of checking for a more propitious time, when the check works or is actually needed; I’d also make sure to get around to opening schemes and the profit of developing in accordance with a select plan, suitable for that structural alignment; I’d certainly show a few short games to back some of these ideas as well.

3.  King Safety: I’d discuss the differences between kingside and queenside castling, and the merits of preparing to castle early (though not necessarily automatically); I’d point out that robotic castling is not always wise, and that sometimes it’s better not to castle at all (impressing upon the student, once again, not to make a move just to make a move); I’d get onto the other side of the coin too, that is, the worthiness of trying to stop the opponent from castling, possibly by prudent sacrifice; I’d talk about the problem of allowing the center to open with the friendly king still uncastled; also brought up would be the wisdom of not moving the pawns in front of the castled king without definite desirability or necessity, and what it means to castle by hand, how that might be a way to repair a menaced or broken situation, and how to turn a weakness into a strength (for example, if one has castled kingside, by moving the friendly king from the g-file to the h-file, one can often turn the g-file into a line of attack against the enemy king); I’d make certain the student gets a chance to appreciate all aspects of the castling rules, such as when one can castle and when one can’t; I’d also try to show how principles reflect the game’s particular phase, so that it’s typically appropriate to move the king out of the center in the opening, but how in the endgame it normally becomes imperative to activate the king, bringing it back toward the center or to some other crucial place on the board.   

4.  Relative Values: Playing off the relativism of principles, I’d also discuss the relative values of the pieces, how those values are somewhat subject to the flow of play; I’d go over an effectual method for calculating the material situation, making sure the student doesn’t go about it by counting up all the material sitting off the board, on the side; I’d admonish them for saying “points” when describing the values; I’d want students to start looking for differences rather than totaling things up, and I wouldn't allow them to call pawns pieces; I’d underscore the distinctions between trading and losing material (or winning material), the requirement of taking back when taken, the value of trading when ahead, which is likely to meet up with the student’s natural aversion (his or her insuperable resistance) to trading queens, where the student won’t trade queens even when logic convinces the student to do it, with students adhering to their queens as firmly as Freud cited patients clinging to their neuroses.


5.  Open Lines: I’d go over the different types of open lines and the value of seizing those lines for control and active use; I’d again and again point out that rooks and bishops are long-range pieces and that rooks in particular should be placed on open files, or half-open files, or files that are likely to become open through pawn advance and possible exchange; I’d talk about batteries of doubled rooks and queen and rook, the appeal of the seventh rank (making sure the student doesn’t confuse the concept of the “seventh rank” with the notational reference to it, where the number two written on the side of the board perplexes more than it helps), how use of open files may lead to back row mates, and how sometimes a back row mate can be averted by creating luft

6.  Time: This element would probably be introduced when first talking about development; I’d explain the concept of the initiative and other aspects of time in chess, equating moves with tempi; I’d underline that one should not waste time or moves, especially eschewing unnecessary pawn moves or fruitless attacks that are likely to be rebuffed, with time loss; gaining time, losing time, sacrificing to gain time, opening gambits, all of that would also be surveyed and reviewed; I’d point out that by exchanging pieces wisely one can often keep control of the initiative, whereas moving away aimlessly may lose time; I’d certainly talk about the differences in appraising time in the opening and how time is assessed in the endgame; I’d talk about pawn grabbing and how it may not be worth it (unless it is!) – yes, I would point out that all such advisories and admonitions are virtual two-headed monsters, where sometimes they don’t quite work (in fact, the opposite approach may suddenly be the right one, which is just another reason chess is so wonderful). Here, elsewhere and often, I'd make sure to talk about chess as an art, not forgetting to adduce some reasons the modern-day study of it is approached scientifically, with state-of-the-art technology.

7.  Pawn Structure: After explaining what most weaknesses are based on, I’d place accent on trying not to incur them, especially making sure to avoid improvident pawn moves, while endeavoring to inflict them or entice the opponent into accepting them; I’d go over a few plans, where one tries to occupy weakened squares inside the enemy position, the importance of focusing one’s attack against enemy weaknesses in general, some words on central formations and how they influence planning, the significance of playing with a plan in general, making sure to highlight how to develop pieces so that they blend in superbly with pawn alignments; I’d distinguish doubled pawns, isolated pawns, the backward pawn, and some of the other pawn weaknesses and strengths;  I’d discuss majorities, pawn islands, how a passed pawn is created typically, and the minority attack; I’d show the contrasts between good and bad minor pieces, and how playing to get the right minor piece, in harmony with the game’s pawn configuration, can be cardinal in many situations. I'd make it clear that though pawns are only pawns in the game, each one worth only a pawn, that the spirit of pawn play is integral to good chess. I'd make sure to discuss Steinitz, his theory of positional play, and I'd make lots of statements along the way about chess champions and other great players. It's the least I can do for them.


8.  The Endgame: Much of this may have already been brought out earlier, but I’d go over it all in context of the final phase; I’d want to make sure the student can mate with king and queen and king and rook, the two most important of the basic mates; I’d be concerned with the student’s understanding of the value of having an extra pawn, in fact, that the theory of the endgame revolves around it; I might discuss “the opposition,” explaining its significance to pawn promotion, but not extensively; perhaps I’d mention a bit of “critical square theory,” but again not much; I’d certainly reinforce the importance of using the king intelligently as it becomes clear the game is headed into the decisive phase; I’d talk about the power of the cutoff, the outside passed pawn, (rooks belong behind passed pawns), offering maybe one or two other catchy phrases as well, and I’d drive home the worth of piece centralization as a principle. I'd also be certain to insert a few light anecdotes to spice up the final phase's presentation.

9.  Planning: First of all, I’d go over the differences between strategy and tactics, in and out of chess. I’d stress the importance of planning in chess, how it’s often based on pawn structure and the central pawn formation in particular (as discussed under the seventh rubric above and elsewhere); I’d discuss the most general plans of all, such as simplifying or complicating, and all of what’s entailed by those two ideas; I’d bring up the value of asking questions, such as “Capablanca’s question” (What would I like to do here if I could?), along with some of the other admonitions concerning plans, such as not changing plans frivolously, and its opposite, adhering to a plan in the face of irrefutable evidence against it. 

10.  Analysis: I’d test their ability to analyze without moving the pieces; I’d be particularly interested to see if a student could keep as many as three half-moves in his or her mind; if they look at their opponent’s moves; if they understand the disposition of the threat concept; if they work with a plan; how well they stay with a plan; if they look for options or settle for the first move that comes to their mind (really accentuating that much of good chess thinking has to do with comparing and evaluating reasonable alternatives); I’d want to see if they routinely try to answer threats by combining defense with counterattack; if they work efficiently at the board, including using their opponent’s time well; and I’d want to see if they understand the value of eliciting information from the position by asking internalized questions. One query I’d like them to play with is “Lombardy’s question.” That is, after a lengthy analysis of an uncertain variation, before actually embarking on it, the player might ask: Is there anything I missed that could overturn this analysis (such as a check, a capture, or an unexpected threat?). If in a good mood, perhaps I'd finish talking about candidate moves, Kotov and his trees. What would life and chess be like without trees?


Those are just a sampling of the ideas that may be brought up during the first four sessions. Naturally, not everything above is microscoped in every lesson, and everything that's brought up would have a good deal of chess history blanketing it. Moreover, some things not mentioned above may also be tapped into profitably. But certainly, over a block of four hours, I more often than not, at least superficially, introduce and explain all of the above and more. Perhaps some of it might be of value to you in your own introductions. After a time, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Good luck! May everyone you introduce to your club join it and revel in it!

[Got a question for Bruce? Please start submitting questions about losing in chess for the next column.]

Question 3 (submitted by LesuhAn):

I have a 12-year old son who is rated 1300 USCF. He read your book, Weapons of Chess, and really liked it and felt it helped improve his game. Thanks, for writing in such an accessible way that engaged him and gave him ideas he could implement.

Considering my son's age and rating, I'd love your advice on what areas he should concentrate on to improve, and what type of study schedule would you suggest.  

Answer 3:

Thank you for your thoughtful question. Without sitting across from your son directly, without being able to question him on various aspects of chess to see how he responds, it is hard to say what to recommend for him specifically. Nevertheless, I've been making generalized statements for much of my life, so I see no reason not to offer a few more now. 

Let me say up front that many teachers claim the two best ages to improve are ages 5-6 and ages 12-13. There are lots of plausible explanations for those periods of growth and afflatus, but I’m not going to get into theoretical stuff at this point. Suffice it to say that your son is well poised to make significant advances based on his age group.

Now one thing you should do is establish definite times during the week when your son turns to the chessboard (or chess interface). It ensures that he will be doing chess regularly, and it also sets the right tone, implying that he (and you) intend to take chess study sincerely. That translates to this: no matter how he does chess during such time frames, whether studying games, solving puzzles, playing speed chess, or whatever, he and you know that chess time is every Friday at 5 p.m. (for instance). This is comparable to a writer who sits down to write at the same time every day, and who stays so fixed for several hours, even if very little gets on the page. For the writer, it means he or she is an artist or professional. For your son, it means he’s a serious student of the world’s greatest game. 


So definitely pick out a number of times during the week for your son to learn and practice chess. How many sessions are we talking about? At least two, but it can’t hurt his chess to do four or even more. I suspect it won’t impair his school work either, despite what critics and anti-chess beings say.  

How long should sessions be? At least an hour, though if more time can be made free for such purpose, please make it available. What should he study? This is where it gets tricky. Rather than focusing on one particular component of the game, why don’t you strive for a certain balance, encouraging him to study a number of facets of chess, though all at moderately the same level.

Now I could lay out a course of study, but I don’t think that’s a good idea. It implies that your son is just like everybody else. He isn’t! So rather than saying he should do this or that, I’m going to recommend you do this: take your son to a really fine chess teacher, someone with a track record who actually cares about kids and loves the art of teaching. Have him or her assess your son’s present strength and, accordingly, lay out a regimen to be completed over say a two-month period. Then go back to that same chess teacher to review what’s happened and to extend the course of study, with new topics and planned follow-up. It’s a great way to cut the cost of study and to inspire your boy to develop his own good study habits, which will have value for almost everything else. Hey, if ever you happen to be in New York, and the timing works out, I would be happy to arrange a meeting with your son and provide such an evaluation free of charge. It would be my pleasure. Be well, and I hope that proves helpful.

Question 4 (submitted by j2009m):

What methods have you found most effective at increasing children's stamina so they can endure longer chess games without losing focus.

Answer 4:

If we’re talking serious students, and I think you are, I always encourage them to be as athletic and physical as they can be. I really do believe in the concept of a strong mind in a strong body. To inspire them a bit, I will even occasionally take part in a sporting activity with them. If I value such things, perhaps they might value them too. Actually, for a chess teacher, they tell me I’m not a bad athlete, so I shudder to think how badly Ben Kingsley looked throwing a ball in Searching for Bobby Fischer.


But I don’t think that’s exactly what you’re referring to in your question. Without neglecting the corporeal side to things, I think you’re talking mental toughness more than physical. I can’t help remembering what Raymond Weinstein once said to me as we were analyzing a difficult position from one of my early tournament games. He kind of grit his teeth and said: “You have to fight like Botvinnik.” I never forgot his words, or the way he said them, and I try to convey to my students the importance of finding similar inner strength, hoping that very same game-face is adopted by them in their own tournament games. 

If anything, I try to fortify the resolve of my students by forcing them to analyze throughout all their sessions, for much of the entire time spent at the board. An hour of uninterrupted analysis, especially at first, is going to drain most young students. To be sure, you should see them at the end of such sessions. They are often depleted. 

But as the months pass by, little by little, students become more inured to it and gradually build up their capacity to keep focused. Now while analyzing, whenever they lose the position, so that they're not certain where things are, I make them start all over and go through the steps again. That repetition consumes them but also reinforces the position and certain techniques, especially the analytic process, thanks to the questions I ask when they’re having trouble. 

Thus, for example, if they are thinking of moving to a square that’s guarded and therefore unsafe, I will ask simply: “Is that square guarded?” The mere asking of the question implies it is and they look again until their faces light up with realization. In fact, as a general rule, if a student asks me a question, I often just turn it around and ask the student the same question. I almost never answer a question directly. They don’t need answers as much as they need the competence (and encouragement) to figure out the answers by themselves, which often hinges on coming to believe their own capabilities. That’s assuredly one of the purposes of going to a chess teacher, to learn how to reason. Besides, I may have to explain or clarify an answer a bunch of times before it settles in, and students might still not fully grasp it. But let students solve a problem on their own, with no more than a little nudging, and they have the idea for life. 

My brain tells me it’s time to stop. I hope that answers your question a tad. Thanks for writing, and thanks to all of you for participating. There are a couple of questions that came up this month that haven’t been answered here. I apologize about that. We’re trying to restrict it to three questions a month. I know, this month we answered four, with very long, book-like answers. (Hey, I don’t want to write any more books. I can’t stand the ones I’ve already written.) Three or four, less or more, I will attempt to satisfy the unanswered questions in the comments, as the month goes on. I'm beginning to feel somewhat lost.

Topic for next month: Losing

(Please start submitting questions concerning the above topic for the next column.)

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