One of the hard things about being a chess coach is trying to understand your students’ strengths and weaknesses so that you can tailor your lessons to suit their needs.   I usually only coach promising students who have the potential to become strong players but the other day I faced a new challenge.

My friend Jan has decided to take up chess and although she is an absolute beginner she bravely turned up to the Croydon Chess Club and decided to enter the Croydon Open the following week.  A quick phone call to me then followed with a request for some advice so that she didn’t make a fool of herself in the tournament.  Hmm.  What to do?  Learning how to use a clock and write down your moves sounded like a good first step but how could I stop her from falling into the 4 move checkmate was a bigger worry!   Fortunately she had the white pieces in her first game so I showed her an opening set-up which went for 8 moves and would give her a reasonable position and perhaps fool her opponent into thinking that she was a competent player.   This plan working reasonably well until Jan forgot to recapture in reply to BxB but she held on for 35 moves before losing on time … a creditable result.  In her second game Jan lasted 44 moves although she did blunder her queen when she was “distracted by trying to write down the moves.”   Perhaps she needs a follow-up lesson?

My attention then turned to the games that I had recorded in last Sunday’s RJ Shield for my students Shawn and Atlas.  I played through all their games in an effort to understand what was driving their thinking behind their choice of moves.  I guess that is what I specialise in – trying to improve my students’ understanding and to train them to think correctly.  It soon became apparent to me that Atlas was not paying enough attention to what his opponent was threatening and was himself trying to attack before he was ready.  My solution was to go through one of the games that he lost and after each of his opponent’s moves I would ask “what am I threatening?”  Just about all juniors think about attacking and very rarely think about defending.  My other idea was to play a few games of “progressive chess (snowball chess)” with him.  We played 3 games which I won quickly largely because I adopted a defensive set-up which tried to ensure that he could not checkmate me or win my queen.  Of course Atlas did not think along those lines and when it was my turn to move I usually found a quick checkmate.  I then explained to him why he was losing and the ideas behind my strange piece formations (i.e. I was thinking about defence and what my opponent could do).  By way of example have a look at this week’s diagram from one of our progressive chess games.  It is White to play and I have 5 moves.  Can you find a checkmate?   (For those of you who are new to progressive chess it involves White starting with 1 move, then Black has 2 moves, White has 3 moves etc. except that any check ends your moves.)

My other student, Shawn, has a different problem.  Shawn usually plays opponents who are weaker than him and he has worked out an easy way to win his games.   All he has to do is threaten things.  Sure enough, every few moves his opponent will miss the threat and Shawn will win material or even get a checkmate.  How easy is that!  Unfortunately it won’t make you a better player.   Grandmasters I’m sure have a different plan as they are facing strong opponents so a strategy of making threats and hoping that your opponent will miss the threat isn’g going to work.  Instead, I think that grandmasters are primarily thinking about their pieces and how they can gain control of the position.  They places their pieces on good squares using all their pieces and if they do threaten something it is not so much to win material or get a checkmate as to tie their opponents down to defence.  Once he has his opponent tied down the grandmaster can then calmly improve his position before landing the fatal blow.

How am I going to get this message across to Shawn?  We have a lesson on Sunday so I plan to go through one of his games and have Shawn pretend to be a grandmaster.  When Shawn (the player) makes a threatening move then Shawn (the grandmaster) is going to have to find the alternative grandmaster move and explain to me why it is better than the simple threatening move.   Hopefully the message will sink in.

My next problem?  How can I stop my primary school students from pointlessly moving a piece twice in the opening (usually Ng5 or Nb5)?  I’ve tried threatening to cut off their fingers if they do it again, but perhaps you have a better idea?

“But I really want to go to g5…..”


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