How to Start in Chess

Traditionally, we start with moves. However, it seems that the method is inefficient and doesn’t contribute to a fast learning curve and development of an adequate board vision.

How chess mind works

Chess brain (from

There’s already enough evidence to suggest that we rethink how we go about it. The evidence comes from:

(a) cognitive neuroscience and psychology which tell us how our own minds work, how we acquire new knowledge and behave in general (supported by empirical findings from neuroimaging MRI techniques – here are two studies on pattern recognition in chess [1] [2] both stressing spatial and functional relationships between objects as the key factor differentiating chess experts from novices)

(b) theory of complex systems (and chess is one of them) which shows that a system is as much successful as its components interconnect and interact effectively in a purposeful fashion. [3]

Both (a) and (b) explain why experts are superior over novices. They agree that novices focus on perceptually available static elements, whereas experts integrate structural, functional and behavioral components of the system.

Structural (or spatial) component in chess is represented by a network of contacts established between pieces, and pieces and squares on the board at any given time. Functional component comes from four basic roles pieces serve: attack, protection, restriction and blocking, evaluation and understanding of which determines how we act and make decisions on the board.

If this is a hard evidence that how pieces interconnect spatially and functionally is the most important aspect of understanding a complex system, then the question is: why we don’t start teaching with the contacts, not individual  moves as with the traditional approach. Logically, it would ensure a faster learning curve.

To further back the contacts method (extensively advocated on this blog), here’s the first chess lesson by Aron Nimzovich from his article “How I became a grandmaster,” in Russian chess newsletter Shakhmatny Listok, 1929 [4], as published in November/December 2011 issue of Georgia Chess Magazine [5], and in The Introduction to the Contacts method, in The Chess Journalist of America, Fall 2011.

The first chess lesson by Nimzovich from Shakhmatni Listok 1929

Aron Nimzovich. Relationships between pieces should be learned first, not individual piece movements

The First Chess Lesson by Aron Nimzovich

Let’s begin at the beginning, that is, by criticizing my very first lesson. I was “shown the moves”. Was that the right thing to do? “Well of course it was,” my esteemed reader will say. “You cannot do without that.” But my whole point is that, in this case, the reader is mistaken: this approach is fundamentally false. You cannot take a boy who is completely new to the game and immediately confound him by showing him that the rook moves like this and the bishop like that, and the pawn crawls forward at such a ridiculous snail’s pace, that the night leaps eccentrically all over the place, that the queen can go anywhere she pleases, that the rook moves and takes in straight lines, but the pawn moves straight forward and takes diagonally, etc.

Dreariness will be the only result from all these demonstrations. Information of this kind, which the beginner absorbs, is purely formal, without a trace of vitality and devoid of meaning, and by flooding him with all this mass of material, he may only sink into depression.

No, one should not teach first principles this wise, but quite otherwise. A bit less formal ballast and a bit more substance, that is the basic principle! But let us show concretely how we think that the first two or three lessons should be conducted.

First lesson: Familiarization with the board, understanding of the demarcation between White and Black, and the center of the board.

The Rook. Understanding about ranks and files, drills and exercises:

White rook on e1 (the student always has white pieces), black pawn on e6. In this position the rook is attacking the pawn.

Exercise: ask the student to attack the pawn. Then ask the student to attack it sideways, and, finally, from behind.

Next, form some obstacles on the board: white rook on h1, pawns on g2 and h4, king on f1, black pawn on d6. White attacks the d6-pawn by playing Rh1-h3-d3. Then a black rook is introduced to take the role of the defender of the d6-pawn.

This gives us a primitive basis to set up some basic combinations. For example: White has Ra1, Black has Rh8, Pc7, Pe5. Ask the student, “How many moves does it take for the rook to attack both pawns at the same time?” Let’s play: 1.Ra5 Re8 2.Rc5 Re7.

We move on by explaining the natural tendency for rook to reach the seventh rank. Set the white rook on g1, the enemy king on h8 and explain to the student that the king attacks one square diagonally. “Let’s go with the rook invade the seventh rank!” We play: 1.Rg7 Kxg7. The student is given a pawn on h5. “Let us defend the entry point on the seventh rank!” 1.h6 and then 2.Rg7.

In this way, the student will spend an hour or two without getting bored and will intuitively grasp the basic concepts, as well as the basics of combinatorial chess.

Notice how the entire first hour of chess actually uses a single rook as pawn while the king’s movements are mentioned just in passing. At the same time, a lively play drives out all formal approach. The rook is to attack the student’s pawn; if the student manages to save it, student wins.

The reader will, I hope, have got our basic idea: from the very start we are playing – fighting, battling – and have no intention of giving precedence to any formal approach. And we are inclined to ascribe a decisive significance to the initial impression formed by the student after the first lesson. One’s interest must be appealed to, one must feel from the onset that this is a game in which victory is both possible and gratifying.

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As you can see Nimzovich’s approach here is nothing but contacts [6]. He starts with the attacking contact. Then he explains the restricting and protecting contacts when he talks about the rook’s penetration on the seventh rank. At the same time, he clearly and strongly opposes the traditional approach with moves first.

May the contacts method possibly catch on one day? Albert Einstein understood the difficulty of paradigmatic shifts: “It’s harder to crack a prejudice than an atom.”

* * *

1. It Takes Two–Skilled Recognition of Objects Engages Lateral Areas in Both Hemispheres, PLoS ONE scientific journal

2. The Neural Basis of Intuitive Best Next-Move Generation in Board Game Experts, Science, 21 January 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6015 pp. 341-346

3. More on complex systems in: What is the first thing to teach an absolute beginner in chess? Part II post

4. GM Ray Keene included “How I became a grandmaster” in his Aron Nimtzowitsch: Reappraisal, Batsford, 1999, without the first chess lesson which, however, can be found in many Russian sources (I translated it here from Moya sistema, Fiskultura i Sport, 1984). So this might turn out, to the best of my knowledge, to be its first appearance before the reading public in the West.

5. Georgia Chess Magazine has won the Chess Journalists of America “Best State Magazine” award 7 of the past 10 years, including the past two years consecutively.

6. More on contacts and their place in the chess emergent structure of hierarchy levels

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