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A “Sirius” Lesson: Teaching Chess to Howard Stern Print E-mail
By FM Dan Heisman   
April 23, 2010
Howard Stern. Photo courtesy of subject
Take one shock jock, add one unassuming chess instructor, and the result is some of the best publicity for chess in recent years.

In August 2006 my phone rang. “Hi! This is Howard Stern.”

Bass voice ... my brain processing … this could be THE Howard Stern. It was. “How can I help you?”

“I was Googling for a chess instructor. Your name came up and was hoping you could help me find one.”

“I assume you want someone who can teach you ‘live’ in Manhattan?”

“Yes, that would be good.”

“OK, I know some instructors in New York, but if you have a minute I can show you how I teach over the Internet.”


After a download and a quick demonstration, Howard said, “That was easy! I could take lessons from you.”

I thought, “This is great; Howard is very busy, will probably take three-four lessons and that will be it. Hopefully I can help him enjoy chess more, make him a little better player, and will get to tell people that I taught Howard Stern.”

I could not have been more wrong about the timetable, completely underestimating Howard’s growing love for the game and his admirable perseverance. Everyone who comes to me for lessons has determination, but many lack the kind of perseverance it takes to overcome the long and rocky road toward a much better game. Howard has it; like everyone else, when he gets into a slump he gets discouraged, but eventually is able to rise back up and challenge himself to be better than before. In addition, when I constructively point out a mistake where Howard should have known better, he never takes it personally—that’s an important skill in itself! In that sense he is one of the best students I have ever had. Howard was worried that he had no talent for chess because he was not good at math; however, as I have written many times, there are a lot more talents involved in chess than is generally thought. Perseverance, willingness to accept helpful suggestions, and the ability to learn from your losses without despair are certainly among the important ones.

Howard plays with an anonymous handle on the Internet Chess Club (ICC). He is happy to be a public radio figure but much prefers to be a private chess player. In his first game on the ICC, Howard lost to a 700 player. ICC standard ratings are about 150 points higher than USCF ratings, so his opponent was equivalent to about 550 USCF, an inauspicious start. After a couple months he was up to 1000, but he complained that ICC 1100 players were too strong, and he would never get that good—“it was hopeless.”

I encouraged him: “But Howard, you are making basic counting errors and so are your opponents. The only difference is that you are taking less advantage of their basic errors than they are of yours. If you take your time and concentrate on just making fewer basic safety errors and taking more advantage of your opponents’, you will win almost every game against players of that level!” And indeed that did happen; eventually Howard burst through that barrier and kept on going.

Today Howard’s ICC rating is hovering around 1700 and, like all 1700 players, he does not find playing an 1100 player challenging because they would likely just give him free material. What has changed? Howard’s board vision, tactical vision, and thought process have all improved, so that he only rarely allows trades that lose material and, when his opponent allows them, he almost always takes advantage of the situation. Also, his understanding of chess principles has greatly improved; he knows much better how to apply these principles and when one takes precedence over another. He has always been a slow and careful player, but now that extra thinking time is reaping much more effective benefits.

Like most chess players, Howard is fascinated with openings but I have tried to keep this aspect of his study to a dull roar. After some experimentation, we have found an opening repertoire which is relatively easy to learn and results in the kind of positions with which he is comfortable. Most of his homework involves doing basic tactics puzzles, playing through instructional game books (and videos), and reading appropriate Novice Nook articles I have written on Chess Café about various aspects of chess improvement. Howard also enjoys following slow “live” games on the ICC— sometimes he likes following those even better than annotated games. Often the games he watches are amateur games, so he can follow both the blunders and the way the others do (or don’t) take advantage of them—not as much of that in grandmaster games!

In the past three years I have given Howard many lessons, short and long. In that sense Howard is a unique experiment—he has taken lessons at a frequency that usually only a junior apprentice can have with a friendly mentor. There is no doubt that frequent lessons help a student have his concerns identified, clarified, and minimized at a rate that fosters quicker improvement. Most students can “add positives” for homework but don’t get as much opportunity for someone to help them “subtract negatives”—the latter is often necessary to prevent the kind of diminishing returns on your chess time which causes roadblocks. Of course, frequent lessons are not very helpful if the communication is not good but, as mentioned above, we are very often on the same wavelength about what would be fun and helpful—a hobby’s got to be fun. The camaraderie works both ways, as it should for optimum benefit.

Each year Howard donates a trip to The Howard Stern Show at Sirius Satellite Radio to raise money for the Holly Heisman Memorial Fund at the Philadelphia Foundation. This is charity my family started in honor of my late wife, who passed away of breast cancer in 1994, to benefit women in need. Thanks to this generosity, I got a chance to twice appear on the show. Each year I accompanied the winner of the trip (Adam Weissbarth in 2007 and Scott Andreacci in 2008) and we got to talk some chess in front of an audience of millions, giving publicity to the U.S. Chess Federation and the Internet Chess Club. Quite a change from the usual fare for Howard’s audience! To Howard’s credit, he occasionally chats a little about chess even when we chess players are not on the show—despite being the host, he often gets teased by the rest of the cast for his “geeky” hobby, but he defends the royal game admirably: have to keep the brain and body active for optimum health.

Many times I get asked if Howard is the same during lessons that he is on his show. In my wife Shelly’s words, “Howard is charming and gracious.”

Here are three games with light notes illustrating first his early play, followed by very nice tactical and positional wins. I don’t have too many of Howard’s early games, but here is one disaster from his first year on the ICC. Note that despite his auspicious beginning, Howard’s rating was already 1527 (about 1400 USCF) after eight months of play. Pretty good for anyone! One of the important learning points that Howard incorporated was playing both slow games (to work on board vision, thinking process, and positional feel) and fast games (to practice openings, basic tactics, and criticality assessment) is healthy for quick improvement. Even more critical was his ability to set up a “feedback loop” wherein one studies something (adds positives), applies it with careful practice, gets expert help to correct mistakes (subtracts negatives), and then repeats ad infinitum. This loop, which is essentially practiced in every school, is a key for getting better at any complex endeavor, whether it be chess, math, skiing, or pharmacy.


Scotch Gambit (C50)
Anonymous (ICC 1446)
Howard Stern (ICC 1527)
45 45 (45 min. w/45 second increment)
Internet Chess Club, April 2007

1. e4 e5

Like most beginners, Howard began defending 1. e4 with 1. ... e5. I suggest to these players that after a while they should try something different. I recommend this switch because players can not only learn a different pattern of pawn structure, but also most beginners’ opponents have some idea of what to play against 1. ... e5 and often “freak out” when Black plays something else.

2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 exd4

Correctly capturing the central pawn break. In my experience, most beginners see the danger on e5 and automatically “defend” the threat with the passive 3. ... d6. However, defending is only one of five ways to make something safe—the others are capture the attacking piece, block the attack, move to a safe square, and counterattack—and defending is often quite not the most active.

4. Bc4 Be7

However, this is passive play. More thematic is 4. ... Bc5.

5. 0-0 d6 6. c3

White turns the opening into a Scotch Gambit, giving up the pawn for development and open lines. Theory says that the game is roughly even with those considerations roughly balancing.

6. ... dxc3 7. Nxc3 Be6 8. Qb3 Bxc4 9. Qxc4 Nf6 10. Re1 0-0 11. Bf4 Qd7 12. Rad1 Nh5

Up until now Black is doing fine, with White having compensation for the sacrificed pawn. But tactics don’t just happen and now Black allows the alignment of the white rook and black queen on the d-file to give White some possibilities. Better to nip those chances before they occur with a move like 12. ... Qg4. Still, even after 12. ... Nh5 the chances are roughly equal, but Black lets the geometry linger too long.

13. Bd2 Rfe8 14. Qb5 Nf6 15. Bf4

White is holding up a big sign telling Black he wants to play e4-e5, but at this point in his development Howard did not easily see the pinning ideas. Today I think his tactical vision is better developed and he would be more aware of the potential danger.

15. ... b6 16. e5

The move White has been playing for all along. Many weaker players only know certain patterns (in this case Rad1 followed by e4-e5) and just play for them and hope their opponent does not see the punch coming. This is not what I have dubbed “hope chess” (making a move without looking to see if your opponent has any checks, captures, or threats in reply which you cannot meet) but it certainly is being hopeful.

16. ... Qf5?

A big multi-square counting error. White will now be able to make more piece captures than Black and win material. Necessary, but not that easy to find, was 16. ... a6! 17. Qe2 Nh5 when White is better but Black can fight on.

17. exf6 Qxf4 18. Qxc6

White is ahead a piece and Black’s game is in ruins.

18. ... gxf6 19. Nd5, Black resigned.

But that was Howard’s early bad play. Let’s look at two more recent and worthy games, one tactical and one positional.


Budapest Gambit (A51)
Anonymous (ICC 1900)
Howard Stern (ICC 1600)
Internet Chess Club, 2008

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e5

The Budapest Gambit offers Black both some traps and the opportunity to get White out of his comfort zone. It is also fairly easy to learn and understand. What does Howard play if White does not play 2. c4? That I’m not at liberty to say.

3. d5?

Not a good way to meet the gambit. Already Black is OK. As seen in the following game, capturing the pawn is best.

3. ... Bc5

A thematic reply. Black will find comfortable development.

4. h3?

White is afraid of the knight advance ... Ng4, but here the antidote is worse than the poison!

4. ... Bxf2+!

Best according to Rybka. I advise my students, “If you see an unclear sacrifice and the position is otherwise about equal, it is usually a good idea to go for the sacrifice so that you learn and next time it won’t seem so unclear. Also most intermediate players are much better attackers than defenders, so this strategy is often successful in practice.” Interestingly, this type of sacrificial play is not at all consistent with Howard’s normal solid style.

5. Kxf2 Ne4+ 6. Kf3

6. Ke3 is better but already White is in trouble.

6. ... Qh4 7. g4 f5!

Blasting open lines to attack the king is the right idea.

8. gxf5 Rf8

I think here Rybka was already envisioning mates with 8. ... Na6, but creating this type of action on the opposite side of the board is often difficult for mere humans, and the text is plenty good.

9. Ke3 Rxf5

Best is 9. ... Qf4+ 10. Kd3 Nf2+ and Black will win the queen after 11. Kc3 Nxd1+ or 11. Kc2 Qxc4+, but not 11. ... Nxd1?? 12. Bxf4.

10. Nf3

Forcing Black to find the same combination as in the previous note.

10. ... Qf4+ 11. Kd3 Nf2+, White resigned.

Position finesse is harder to learn than tactical vision, so the following game may be more impressive.


Budapest Gambit (A52)
Anonymous (ICC 1766)
Howard Stern (ICC 1685)
45 45, Internet Chess Club, July 2009

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e5 3. dxe5 Ng4 4. Nf3

A famous Budapest trap is 4. Bf4 Nc6 5. Nf3 Bb4+ 6. Nd2 Qe7 7. a3 Ngxe5 8. axb4?? Nd3 mate.

4. ... Bc5 5. e3 Nc6 6. a3 a5

Preventing White from getting a free expansion on the queenside with 7. b4 and also allowing the possibility of a “rook lift” to Black’s third rank in some positions with ... Ra6.

7. Qd5

Perhaps 7. Nc3 is more accurate.

7. ... Qe7 8. Nc3 Ncxe5 9. Nxe5 Nxe5 10. Be2

Natural, but 10. Ne4 was better.

10. ... d6 11. 0-0 0-0

Black has more than equalized. Play continues uneventfully for a while.

12. b3 Re8 13. Qe4 c6 14. Bb2 Be6 15. Qf4 Rad8

I always encourage my students to get all their pieces into play as efficiently and safely as possible but it is amazing how difficult this is for most. Here Howard methodically and admirably makes sure every piece is doing something.

16. Rfd1 Ng6 17. Qg3 Bf5 18. Bd3 Bxd3 19. Rxd3 Ne5

Rybka thinks this is a slight mistake and prefers the more aggressive 19. ... f5. This type of pawn push is much more difficult for intermediate players who don’t think of using pawns as battering rams and also are afraid of weakening their king position.

20. Rd2 Rd7 21. Rad1 Red8 22. Na4 f6

Best. Black is unable to save the bishop with 22. ... Ba7 due to 23. Bc3. White’s advantage is now seemingly undeniable, but ...

23. Bc3

Rybka prefers the positional 23. h4 or the quiet 23. h3.

23. ... b5!!

I was replaying this game downstairs on a nice new set I had just purchased from The House of Staunton. When I saw this move my first reaction was “What? He can’t do that. He is practically forcing White to win a pawn.” Then I stared at the board for a while and thought more deeply about this superficially unsafe move. Eventually my opinion changed; this could be a brilliant positional sacrifice! I ran upstairs to feed the position to Rybka and, after a few seconds, it spit out: 23. ... b5!! as clearly best. Was Howard becoming a positional genius or was this simply beginner’s luck? At his next lesson it turned out the truth was somewhere in-between. Howard had correctly taken some time on this move and felt that he had to play 23. ... b5 for the superficially correct reasons, but then was worried he was just losing a pawn. However, he admitted that he had not looked deep enough to realize that his sacrifice could completely paralyze White. Intermediate players experience this serendipity every once in a while.

24. Nxc5 dxc5 25. cxb5 cxb5 26. Bxa5

Despite the fact that this wins the pawn and attacks the rook, 26. Rxd7 Rxd7 27. Rxd7 Qxd7 28. h3 is somewhat better. The position would then be equal, but it is clear Black has few problems.

26. ... Rxd2 27. Rxd2

Unfortunately for White, this is forced. After 27. Bxd2 Qe6 the pin combined with the queen penetration to the white queenside spells doom for White.

27. ... Rxd2 28. Bxd2 Qd6 29. Be1?

Understandable, but the counterattack 29. f4 was much better. Now Black has a large advantage.

29. ... Qd1 30. f4 Nd3

Black has a bind. Not only do we have the famous case where a queen and knight are better than a queen and bishop, but White is tied up in knots as well. Neither White’s queen, king, nor bishop can do anything.

31. Kf1 Qxb3?

Howard is eager to cash in, but giving up the bind is not worth it. Rybka suggests 31. ... h6 to not only remove threats of back rank mate, but also help run White out of moves. Then the c-pawn would threaten to promote.

32. e4?

Missing Black’s nice next move. After the better 32. Qg4 White has chances to save the game.

32. ... Qc4!

Something’s gotta give. Black is once again clearly winning, this time for good.

33. Kg1 Qxe4 34. Bc3 Kf7 35. h3 c4

35. ... Nxf4 was simpler.

36. Qg4 Qe3+!

Howard said he almost missed this move, but remembered just in time to consider all his checks. The text forces the trade of queens, as 37. Kh1 Nf2+ winning the queen and 37. Kf1 Qf2 mate are clearly not acceptable.

37. Kh2 Qxf4+ 38. Qg3 Qxg3+?

Howard is eager to get the queens off when winning but that has already been forced. Similar his plight after move 31, White has no constructive move, so Black can simply activate his king with 38. ... Ke6. I have noticed that failing to realize the effect of this type of bind is a common error among intermediate players. Despite this, Howard’s technique for the remainder of the game is quite good and requires no comment.

39. Kxg3 f5 40. h4 g6 41. Kf3 Ke6 42. g3 Kd5 43. Ke3 Nc5 44. Bg7 Ne4 45. g4? fxg4 46. Ke2 Ng3+ 47. Kf2 Nh5 48. Bc3 Ke4 49. Ke2 g3 50. Be1 Nf4+ 51. Kd2 Kf3, White resigned.

This is quite a nice positional game for someone who has only played seriously for three years. In this game Howard incorporated many of the skills that everyone needs to improve at chess: solid opening play to safely and efficiently activate all his pieces, taking lots of time on all critical moves, a solid grasp of basic tactics, the incorporation of solid positional principles, and careful technique in a winning endgame. I hope that not only will his solid progress encourage others, but that he has many more years of happiness and fun within the chess world.

On the air chess

(A paraphrased transcript from Dan and Scott’s visit to the Howard Stern Show, May 2009)

Fred played Robin into her news with a Mike Morse song parody. Howard said that his chess teacher and one of his students were also sitting in the studio. Howard said that his chess teacher Dan Heisman and one of his students were also sitting in the studio. Robin asked if he's related to the Heisman family. Dan said that it is his great grandfather’s first cousin who they named that award to.

Scott told Howard he studies about 3-4 hours a night. Howard said that's why he won't play him anymore. He said he doesn't have the time to play that much every night. Scott said he doesn't play as many games as Howard does though.

Howard said Dan was in there with Scott who is one of his students. Howard asked Scott where he’s ranked. He said he was up around 1645. Howard said he and Scott have played and they’re pretty evenly matched.

Howard said that Scott had donated some money to a charity and that’s how he got on the show today. Scott talked about that charity and how they have a chess tournament where they raise the money.

Howard said he lost a game this weekend and he wasn't able to sleep. That’s how into the game he gets.

Stern’s first USCF-rated games

In February, Stern played in his first USCF-rated event, the Super Rated Beginner’s Open at the Chess Center of New York, directed by Steve Immitt—Dr. Frank Brady was also in attendance. Stern scored 2/4; his comments on the event:

• Dr. Brady and Steve Immitt were very helpful.

• He remembered to push his clock but his first-round opponent (who played fairly well) sometimes forgot.

• He was unable to go over his games afterwards with his opponents because the crowd was trying to chat with him afterwards.

• He did not use his MonRoi device because he was insufficiently familiar with it, so he recorded the games manually and made quite a few mistakes on his scoresheet which, for the most part (especially in the first game) we were able to eventually figure out what happened.

• In general he found it a fun experience and hopes to do it again soon.