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On Chess: Back to basics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 1, 2011 - Chess has been around for hundreds and hundreds of years, and one of the reasons the game has maintained its popularity for so long is the seemingly endless level of depth and complexity involved. It seems no matter how much you play, there is always something else to learn or a new puzzle to challenge your brain. So how does one improve at the grand old game? Have you been playing for years, decades, scores, and yet you still seem to be losing to the same people?

One of the questions I am often asked at chess competitions is, "How come Grandmaster so-and-so is better than you? How can you achieve his level?" My answer is always, "If I knew, I would be at that level." Improving one's game is difficult, but with a good work ethic, and time, almost anyone can improve dramatically.

Step 1: Don't get frustrated! Getting better at chess takes a long time, and if you try for a week or two and then give up, you're not giving yourself a chance. A lot of my students think I was born a Grandmaster (GM), but to paraphrase President Rutherford B. Hayes, "Every Grandmaster was once a beginner!" I was a beginner for quite some time, and, in fact, improved very little as a young child. I started playing in competitions when I was 6 years old, and after three years of painful losses, I could still be considered a beginner at age 9. Then, as Bobby Fischer once said, "I just got good." I was getting quite reasonable at age 10, and became an expert at 12 and master at 14. Still, I am a slow learner, as it took another 26 years to make GM.

Step 2: Tactics, tactics, tactics - and more tactics. What are tactics? When you make a move and all of a sudden you see your opponent capture one of your pieces and remove it from the board, much to your confusion and disappointment, you have made a tactical blunder. A lot of books and teachers will espouse the virtues of great planning and positional play, but in reality, 99 percent of games are won due to simple oversights. You can make 39 perfect moves, but the fortieth move that accidently gives away a rook will ultimately cost you the game. Tactical puzzles can be found all over the Internet and in thousands of chess books. Learning the main tactics including pins, forks, skewers and discovered attacks can lead to a lot more winning.

Step 3: Never give up. Anyone can make a mistake (or 10). When you have played some bad moves and have a losing position, the game is not over. Fight hard when you are losing, and you will be surprised how often you save bad positions. A friend of mine used to say, "Fight like a man, die like a dog," and I know a few people who fit both descriptions.

Step 4: The play's the thing. The more chess you play, the better you will understand typical patterns. I tell all of my beginning students the same thing, "If you see two beginners, and one has played 100 games of chess, and the other five games, I know who to bet on." Play, play, and play some more. Come down to the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis - it is a great resource right in your city. We have a beginner adult class every Tuesday at 6 p.m., and a beginner class specifically for children 1 p.m. every Sunday. The classes are free to members, and membership costs just $5 a month for students or $12 a month for adults. Come on out and work on your game. Your brain will thank you!

Although I've given you four steps to improve your game, it really comes down to one key tactic: Keep challenging yourself. Well, that and enlist the aid of your friendly, neighborhood GM.

Ben Finegold is the grandmaster in residence at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis.

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