A Challenge for UK Chess

I’m very grateful to my Facebook friend Paul Swaney for directing me to a recent interview with Boris Gelfand on chess24.com.

Paul, who is well aware of my views on junior chess, pointed out this extract:

“Now almost everyone is focused on an immediate result – largely because there are too many championships and tournaments for children. Trainers teach the youngsters traps and psychological ploys, but not the essentials. The main task of a trainer is to instil a love and interest in chess.”

I’ll repeat that: THERE ARE TOO MANY CHAMPIONSHIPS AND TOURNAMENTS FOR CHILDREN.

I’ll repeat something else as well: THE MAIN TASK OF A TRAINER IS TO INSTIL A LOVE AND INTEREST IN CHESS.

Not to make kids smarter. Not to produce champions. But to give them a genuine life-long passion for chess.

The old system in the Soviet Union, which Gelfand and his generation would have grown up with, was very much to do with skills development rather than playing in competitions. There were no kiddie tournaments in the way we know them. Tournaments only existed, as far as I understand the system, to check that children had learned the appropriate skills and were able to put them into practice before moving onto the next level.

This system still exists in some countries today. You may recall that my friends’ son learned his chess in Baku using this method. The same concept is what drives the Steps method used extensively in the Netherlands and also popular in other Western European countries.

But here we take precisely the opposite approach. Our kids have many opportunities to take part in tournaments but instruction within school chess clubs is very basic and very much involved with teaching Scholar’s Mate and other traps rather than developing chess skills. The result is that, while a small number of children, those who are getting proactive parental support at home, will do well, the vast majority will make little or no progress, will quickly forget most of what they’ve been taught, and will drop out of chess within a year or two.

My view lies, as you might expect, between the two extremes. Children enjoy playing in competitions and gain a lot from them both socially and in terms of emotional development. But unless you can find a way of linking up tournaments with skills development you won’t produce kids with a long-term ‘love and interest in chess’.

Meanwhile, the big chess news here in the UK is that the very popular and successful UK Chess Challenge is in trouble. IM Mike Basman, who started the event and has been running it for two decades, has been declared bankrupt and is faced with a bill for £300,000 in unpaid tax. While bankruptcy is not something I’d wish on anyone, I can’t help feeling Mike’s been extremely foolish in the way he runs the event and in not seeking financial advice. Laws are laws, whether or not you happen to like them or approve of them.

For those of you not familiar with the event, here’s how it works. Between January and March, schools run an internal competition in which players receive small prizes. The most successful players, including the top boy and the top girl within each year group, qualify for the county stage which takes place in May. Here, they compete against other children of their age from other schools in their part of the country. The top children from these events then compete in semi-national events in July. Finally, in August, the top boys and girls from across the country in all age groups come together to compete for a £2000 first prize.

Superficially, the whole concept is wonderful, and the final is a really great event. The kids in my primary school chess clubs enjoy taking part in the competition and winning prizes. What’s not to like? And yet, and yet. My view is that perhaps the major reason for the decline in British junior chess in the past two decades is precisely the nature of primary school chess, putting kids into too many competitions too soon, before they’ve really understood the basics of chess, prioritising competition over skills development, failing to provide any meaningful system whereby children can improve and failing to get the message across to parents that they need to be actively involved in their children’s learning process. It seems crazy to me that we’re putting kids into competitions at school before they’ve learned all the rules of chess, and putting them into county level competitions before they’ve learned very basic skills. This, in my opinion, is one of the main reasons why there are so few teenagers and young adults playing chess.

So here’s a challenge for anyone who wants to improve chess in the UK. Can we find a better way of running chess in primary schools? I have a possible solution. I’ve had the solution sitting in front of me for the best part of 20 years, but neither Mike Basman nor anyone else involved in UK junior chess has taken any interest.

I’ll tell you more next week.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.