Category Archives: Lessons

Lessons on different aspects of chess.

Chess Teacher vs. Chess Coach

Teaching Comes First

Teaching imparts knowledge and skills to the student that they are lacking.

Coaching helps the student use his/her knowledge and skills more effectively.

Over many years working with students in New York City, I primarily referred to myself as a chess teacher.

I have always believed that knowledge is power in chess … and most of my students needed to increase their knowledge in order to improve their results. It wasn’t only a matter of doing things better.

Knowledge must be shared in a way that is both memorable and useful. Don’t assume your student knows more than they actually do!

 

You Must Be a Teacher

classroom teacher

A good teacher must be well-prepared and engage their students.

Nowadays most players, no matter their age, don’t read chess books. They especially don’t study middlegame and endgame textbooks like I and generations of players before me did. The names Euwe, Fine, Nimzowitsch, Pachman, Romanovsky, Shereshevsky, etc. mean little, if anything, to them.

Solving tactics (recommended) and trying to learn openings through YouTube (not recommended) has somehow become a substitute for taking out a board and pieces, or at least using ChessBase.

Of the thousands of students I taught over the years, only a handful were interested in reading books, watching DVDs, or using ChessBase. If they won’t do this, we have to fill in the gaps during classes or lessons. Otherwise, the student will have gaps in their chess understanding everywhere.

This is where chess teachers earn their money! I have never *expected* my students to do intensive work between lessons unless they expressed an interest in reaching a certain rating level or aimed to win a particular tournament.

If you want your students to improve, quickly … find their weaknesses and eliminate them through thoughtful lesson planning. This is where being well-versed in classic games really comes in handy. I can turn any student weakness into a strength in 3-8 lessons.

 

A Shortcut to Coaching Success

World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik believed the surest path towards improvement is in learning from your own games and opening analyses. I can’t disagree with him.

I offered the next best thing: to analyze my students’ games for them (with extensive text comments — not computer analysis!) and send them PDFs of my work for them to study between lessons … at no extra cost.

Few of my NYC students ever took me up on this … but the ones who did so consistently saw massive improvement, and fast. This was the biggest secret to my coaching success! Well, that and diligent lesson preparation in general.

It took me hours to analyze and comment on my students’ games … but I didn’t mind. I was immersed in chess and derived great satisfaction from their quick progress.

 

Conclusion

If most players are spending the lion’s share of their time on tactics, how do you separate yourself? Sure, you can do the same things your peers do, a little better … but ultimately, you need to create a competitive advantage — to borrow a term from economics.

Coaching, at least good coaching, will help you become more efficient and beat yourself less often. Not having critical knowledge will leave you trying to reinvent the wheel every game … that’s where good teaching comes to the rescue.

Chess Castling

Chess Castling! The best move in the Royal Game, and one of its three special rules. The others are pawn promotion and en passant.

Let’s cover everything you wanted to know about castling, but were afraid to ask.

Chess castling

Black has just castled, and white is ready to do so on either side. Photo: Vera Kudryashova

Why is Castling a Big Deal?

In the starting position:

The rooks are stuck firmly in the corners and are usually the last units to enter the game. When we remember rooks are the second-most powerful pieces in the game (after the queen), it becomes clear that getting your rooks into play first can provide a big, often decisive advantage.

At the same time, castling also allows the king to flee the often-dangerous center for the calmer side of the board, and get out of the way! Still, the bigger reason for castling is getting the rooks into play, in my view.

The Mechanics of Chess Castling

  • Only with castling is a player is allowed to move two pieces on the same turn — the king and one rook.
  • The king moves exactly two squares towards one of his rooks, and the rook lands on the square between the king’s starting and ending squares.

Before:

After:

Correct Procedure

All chess moves are performed with one hand only, including capturing and castling. Use the same hand to move both pieces (and press the clock, if using one).

Castling is defined as a king move. Start by picking up only the king and move him two squares towards his rook. Then put down the king. Next, pick up the rook and move it to the square between the king’s starting and ending squares.

Do not pick up the rook first, and do not pick up both pieces at the same time.

Restrictions to Chess Castling

  • To castle, all squares between the king and rook must be empty.
  • Castling is not allowed if the king is in check.
  • Castling is also not allowed if the king crosses or lands on a square that is attacked.
  • If the king has moved at all, castling is not allowed for the entire game.
  • If one of the rooks has moved, castling is not allowed with that rook for the entire game.
  • Castling is allowed if the rook is attacked.

Casual players can stop here. Tournament players, read on…

Tournament Stuff

  • Castling is not allowed if a player touches their rook first. Only the rook can then be moved!
  • Notation. A white king castling towards his rook on h1 is kingside castling, written 0-0. A black king castling towards his rook on a8 is queenside castling, written 0-0-0.
  • Bonus Round: Repetition Claims! To claim a draw by repetition (the same position has occurred, or is about to occur, for the third time), the same moves and captures must be possible in all three positions. That includes castling and en passant.

Did I leave anything out? Post your questions or thoughts!

Pawn Promotion in Chess

Pawn promotion is one of three special rules in chess. The others are castling and en passant.

First, I discuss some basics about pawn promotion for players just learning the game. Then, a section for tournament players. If you play in FIDE-rated events, don’t skip the last section!

Things to Remember about Pawn Promotion

This is one way to think of pawn promotion!

This is one way to think of pawn promotion!

  • Only pawns can promote.
  • When a pawn reaches the end of the board, it must become a different piece.
  • You must promote to a queen, rook, bishop, or knight. You cannot get a second king, and you cannot leave a pawn on the last rank.
  • The queen is the most powerful piece in chess, so she is chosen most often by far. That is why promotion is sometimes called queening a pawn.
  • The pawn is completely removed from the board, and the new piece replaces the pawn on the queening square, not a starting square!
  • Captured units have nothing to do with your choice of promotion piece. If you still have a queen, you can get a second queen. You could have three rooks or five bishops, for example, if you promote enough pawns.
  • Replacing a pawn with an upside-down rook (“inverting a rook”) is understood to be a new queen. But see below if you play in tournaments!

Casual players can stop here. Tournament players, read on…

Pawn Promotion in Tournaments

  • You are allowed to stop clock and get a tournament director or arbiter to assist you in locating your desired promotion piece if one is not nearby.
  • How to Notate. A white pawn moving from e7 to e8 to become a queen is written e8Q.

Special Rules for FIDE-rated Events

As I recently learned, promotion rules in international play have been updated:

  • If you promote a pawn, leave it on the last rank without replacing it, and press your clock, this is an illegal move. Your opponent receives two additional minutes on their clock, and the pawn is replaced with a queen.
  • Remember: a player loses the game on a second illegal move!
  • The promotion piece is determined when it touches the boardliterally. If you place a rook on the board upside down (intending it to be a queen), the arbiter will turn it right-side-up and it will become a rook!

That pretty much covers it. If you have questions or comments, don’t be shy! I will provide as much assistance as I can.

The Canal Trap

The Canal Trap arises from the Italian Game (1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4):

This has been extremely popular at high level for many years now. The consensus among top players seems to be that black’s strongest reply is 3…Bc5, entering the Giuoco Piano:

From there, White typically plays the modest pawn pushes c2-c3 and d2-d3 and develops quietly. This, the Giuoco Pianissimo, has become perhaps the mainline of the open games:

Instead, White can develop a knight to c3 and go for piece play. The Canal Variation comes about after 4.d3 Nf6 5.Nc3 d6 6.Bg5:

Black has some different choices, and that can be a problem. After the sequence 6…h6 7.Bxf6 Qxf6 8.Nd5 Qd8 9.c3 (other moves will be analyzed in the notes below):

Black should play 9…a6 which preserves the dark-squared bishop from exchange from white’s d2-d4 or b2-b4 pawn advances. Instead, he loses after the normal-looking 9…Be6? 

Can you see why? This is the Canal Trap.

Use the Canal Variation (and maybe the Canal Trap) to win games!

Sound, Solid, Infrequently (Well-)Played…

Three characteristics of an opening line to consider! By my count I am 3-0 in tournament play with the Canal (all against lower-rated players, so take that for what it’s worth). More important, my students score quite well with it, and always get good positions out of the opening. Since it’s a forgotten line, their scholastic opponents don’t know the subtleties of defending it.

How to Read Descriptive Notation

Why bother learning Descriptive Notation in the first place?

My dad bought me The Soviet School of Chess after finding a copy in Strand Bookstore for $1. It was my second chess book, so I had to learn Descriptive Notation early on!

I had to learn Descriptive Notation early on; my dad saw The Soviet School of Chess in Strand Bookstore near his job. Not great for a beginner, but it was $1!

There isn’t much use for Descriptive Notation (1. P—K4, 2. N—KB3) these days. Chess books long ago moved to Algebraic Notation (1.e4, 2.Nf3), not to mention chess websites, magazines, and apps.

If you want to read classic chess literature, however, learn to read DN. A lot of instructive books from the past have not been “translated” into AN. Some classics that have been reissued in AN were mangled badly in the process! The new edition of Basic Chess Endings is more exception than rule.

If you want to read great authors of the past like Euwe or Znosko-Borovsky, you need to learn this old “language.”

Naming the Pieces and Pawns in DN

They’re the same as in algebraic, except we name the pawns as you will soon see.

K=King, Q=Queen, R=Rook, B=Bishop, N=Knight, P=Pawn.

In some books, Kt is used for Knight, instead of N.

Special Moves

As with algebraic notation, “x” is used for a capture, castling is written 0-0 or 0-0-0, and “+” is check. Some old books will use “ch” for check; no big deal.

Files in Descriptive Notation

Take the starting position:

The file where the kings start is called the King (K) file.

The file where the queens start is called the Queen (Q) file.

Not too bad, right? Let’s continue.

Both sides have two each of bishops, knights, and rooks. How do we not mix them up? The files closest to where the queen starts get the prefix “Queen,” and the files closest to where the king starts get the prefix “King.”

The file in green is the Queen Rook (QR) file.

The file in yellow is the Queen Knight (QN) file.

The file in red is the Queen Bishop (QB) file.

Similarly:

The file in green is the King Rook (KR) file.

The file in yellow is the King Knight (KN) file.

The file in red is the King Bishop (KB) file.

The trickiest part

I think the main reason people get confused with DN is the orientation of the chessboard.

With algebraic notation, the 1st rank is white’s back rank, and the 8th rank is black’s back rank.

In descriptive notation, both sides have a 1st rank and 8th rank! This means every square has TWO addresses, not one!

In the starting position:

White’s king starts on his own K1 square, and black’s king also starts on his K1 square.

White’s king is on black’s K8 square, and black’s king is on white’s K8 square.

Another example:

The square in red has two names:

From white’s perspective it is the Queen Bishop 5 square (QB5).

From black’s perspective it is the Queen Bishop 4 square (QB4).

Let’s Practice

We’ll reach a typical opening position, one move pair at a time.

1.P—K4 P—QB4

White’s pawn has moved to it’s K4 square, and black’s pawn has moved to its QB4 square.

2.N—KB3 N—QB3

White has moved a knight to KB3. writing “B3” is not enough, because he also has a QB3 square. For black it’s the same, in reverse. You have to specify which B3 square the knight moves to if there is a choice.

3. P—Q4 PxP

White moves a pawn to Q4, the only one that can go there. Black captures with a pawn. We can just say PxP because black has only one pawn that can capture, and white has only one pawn that can be captured. We don’t need to say, for example, “BPxP,” “QBPxP,” or “PxQP.” Sometimes, with more than one possible capture, we need to be more, well, descriptive!

4.NxP N—B3

White has only one knight that can capture one possible pawn, so writing NxP is enough.

Black has only one knight that can go to a B3 square as the other B3 square is already occupied, so we can write N—B3 instead of N—KB3.

5.N—QB3 P—Q3 

Here we have to be specific and write N—QB3 because N—B3 is ambiguous: the N on Q4 could move back to KB3 as well!

Black has only one pawn that can go to Q3.

6.B—KN5 P—K3

White has two bishops that can go to a N5 square. We name the square, rather than the piece if possible. So we write B—KN5 and NOT QB—N5, because we are choosing one of two destination squares, as the two bishops cannot reach the same squares.

With rooks or knights, however, it’s common to name the flank the piece comes from when there’s a choice of pieces that can go to one destination square. For example, QN—Q2 vs. KN—Q2, or QR—K1 vs. KR—K1.

7.Q—Q2 B—K2

Nothing ambiguous about these two moves.

8.0—0—0 0—0

Castling is notated the same as in algebraic. Some really old books will write “Castles” or, if there is a choice of which side to castle on, “Castles K” or “Castles Q.” These are pretty self-explanatory, though.

Conclusions about Descriptive Notation

Look, I understand why DN isn’t used anymore…it’s clunky and a relic from the past! Still, some people have an irrational fear or hatred of DN, and I hope this guide helps more people read classic chess literature. Play through a handful of games and you will pick up DN!

Chess Lessons, Part 2: What to Look for in a Chess Teacher

After considering the issues raised in Part 1, you’ve decided to take chess lessons. In Chess Lessons, Part 2 let’s discuss what to look for in a chess teacher.

Classroom ready for a chess lesson.

Classroom ready for a chess lesson.

Finding the right chess teacher is more art than science

There are no magic credentials to look for in the selection process.

A coach’s rating, title, experience, fees … even successes with other students … don’t guarantee a perfect fit for your situation.

Where do I start?

First, get a feel for who the chess teacher is as a person. Do you like this person? Do you think your child would like this person? Would you feel comfortable having them over for dinner? If the answer to any of these questions is no, look elsewhere!

Also: do you think the coach would enjoy working with your family? Not just the student, the family. Be honest! Sure, some coaches will take your money anyway, but do you want to hire someone who doesn’t really want to be there? They won’t give 100% and will rush out the door when the hour is up.

I love visiting my students and their families. I’m interested in their lives outside of the game, which makes me a better teacher. There’s more to life than just chess.

If you’re not sure what to make of a coaching candidate, try a lesson or two and see how it goes. Let the coach and your child know that it’s just a trial. If the coach is too insecure to agree to a trial without you committing long-term, cross them off your list.

Ratings and Titles

Coaches shouldn’t lie about their rating or titles. Not only is it unethical, it’s easy to look them up online. You can search US Chess Federation players here, and FIDE (International Chess Federation) players here.

I would advise against making a spreadsheet of coaches’ ratings and titles, and simply choosing the highest one. Most children can’t tell the difference between a club player and a master, nor do they care. Find a coach who has a good relationship with your child and is steadily helping them to improve.

If you want to hire a master or even a grandmaster, go for it. No matter who you choose, make sure you’re happy with the coaching you’re getting, and don’t be afraid to make a change if you’re not satisfied. It’s your child, and your money.

How important is a chess teacher’s track record?

In my opinion, not very. Why? Because every situation is different.

If you’re thinking of hiring a coach whose students made amazing rating gains or won important tournaments, be careful. Is your child and your family willing to make the same efforts as these “success stories?”

What if this coach requires students to do two hours of chess work every day? Play in a tournament every weekend? Have 2-3 hours of chess lessons per week? To make chess a focal point in your family’s life? Are you willing to do that?

Talk to the coach about their results with families who gave a similar commitment to chess as you plan to give. Otherwise, it’s an apples to oranges comparison. Even better, talk to other families directly if you can.

Pricing of chess lessons

What you pay for lessons has no bearing on their quality. “You get what you pay for” doesn’t necessarily apply; there are too many variables as discussed above and in Part 1.

If money is no object, hire who you and your child like best. Stick with them as long as you’re happy with the results.

If money is an object, eliminate coaches out of your price range and then, as above, hire who you and your child like best. And if you really like a coach out of your price range, meet less often rather than settling for another coach you’re not in love with.

Conclusion

Take your time finding a good teacher. Listen to input from others, but don’t let them make a decision for you. Hire the teacher you’re most comfortable with … you can always make a coaching change in the future. Don’t forget: it’s your child, and your money.

Chess Lessons, Part 1: Should I Hire a Teacher?

Chess lessons. I offer them, as do many others.

So let’s discuss some issues, shall we? Starting with: should you hire a teacher in the first place?

The comments below apply to anyone, but I’m focusing on scholastic players because they most commonly take chess lessons.

Expectations for chess lessons

Why are you thinking of hiring a coach in the first place?

“I want my child to improve in chess” is an obvious but incomplete answer. Identify what you really want; it will influence who you hire and the work ahead.

If your child wants to aim for a National Championship, let potential coaches know this. You can then have an honest conversation about what is required of coach and student. Conservative estimate: 3-4 hours of chess study every day, three tournaments a month, and at least 2 hours of private lessons per week. To even have a chance.

Staircase of chess improvement

What do you REALLY want out of chess lessons?

Some coaches might be reluctant to take on such an ambitious student, because it would be very time- and energy-consuming. You want to know this before hiring them!

On the other end of the spectrum, your child might simply enjoy chess and not even want to play tournaments regularly, or at all. Again, let the coach know this; some don’t like working with students they don’t consider “serious.” Miscommunication can lead to a miserable experience for everyone.

Personally, I enjoy working with “less serious” students — we can bond over chess without obsessing over tournament results or ratings. They improve while enjoying a well-rounded life! And, chess lessons are more interesting and fun when we don’t need to “optimize” for results.

Chess lessons outside the box

There’s no rule that says lessons are “one hour a week, every week.” Coaching doesn’t even have to be a long-term arrangement.

I’ve worked with students who brought me in to spar with them for a few weeks before big tournaments, playing blitz and/or longer games. We can also agree on the openings we’ll play so that the student can sharpen their repertoire. I loved it!

Short “modules” are a good option, too. If a student is struggling in endgames, for example, I can turn this common weakness into a big strength over the course of a few months. This approach is also great when changing openings.

Of course, individual lessons can also be dedicated to special topics — just ask!

The right FIT is the most important factor in chess coaching

Ask for what you need. It’s your child, and your money.

A coach has the right to decline a particular student or the conditions you want, for whatever reasons. If this happens, don’t be upset; it wouldn’t have worked out anyway. Hire someone else. Some parents are determined to hire or keep a particular coach, and it ends up being a train wreck.

I know examples where the student doesn’t really like their coach, or the coach doesn’t like the student, or the coach and the parents can’t get along! I mean…what’s the point?

When I start with a new student, I have a conversation with the parent(s) and the child, to make sure we’re on the same page. A coaching arrangement could be a bad fit even if neither coach nor family have done anything “wrong.” Mismatched expectations are the usual cuprit.

To be continued…

The En Passant Rule

En Passant means “in passing” in French, and you’ll soon see why the rule is named this way. It should be the last of the three special moves taught to a new player, after castling and pawn promotion. Players are often confused by en passant, but I promise to make it clearer!

USCF Official Rules of Chess, 7th edition

USCF Official Rules of Chess, 7th edition

Things to Remember about En Passant

  • En passant involves pawns capturing pawns. No other pieces can capture or be captured.
  • The capturing pawn must be three squares from his starting line. So a white pawn must stand on the 5th rank to make the capture and a black pawn must stand on the 4th rank.
  • The pawn-to-be-captured must jump two squares from its starting position, ending up next to the capturing pawn.
  • The capturing pawn, standing next to the enemy pawn, moves diagonally behind it and removes it from the board.
  • If the chance for en passant appears, you must do it immediately or you lose your chance with that combination of pawns.

En Passant examples

Now, let me show you what I mean. Take the following position:

I’ll show en passant for both sides. First for white:

Example 1

For black:

Example 2

Let’s say you pass up your chance for en passant. Well, you might get a different opportunity later, even with the same pawn! How? The following position will show what I mean.

Example 3

The en passant rule is not so bad, is it?

Summary

  • Pawns capture pawns
  • Capturing pawn three squares from starting line
  • Enemy pawn moves two squares from the starting line at once, standing adjacent to the capturing pawn
  • Must capture immediately if desired