I’m currently involved in two after-school clubs in local schools, catering for children in Years 3 to 6 (ages 7 to 11).
In each school I have a new intake of beginners (mostly aged 7, a few aged 8) in September. They all tell me they can play chess. I give them some very simple checkmate worksheets but they haven’t got a clue. I ask them to define checkmate. The boys give me various vague or incorrect definitions. The girls (three in one school, one in the other) look at me blankly, as if I’d asked them to define a word in Ancient Greek. It’s interesting to note that the boys always seem to know more than the girls when they join.
When I watch them play, children raise their hands and tell me they’ve won the game because they’ve captured their opponent’s king. I have to explain, as gently as possible, that not only have they not won the game, but that they are not allowed to take the king. They look mortified. I have to tell them that their opponent’s last move was also illegal, and ask them if they announced “check”. They shrug their shoulders – they’d been taught by their parents that you win a game by winning your opponent’s king and have never been taught about check. The concepts of check and checkmate, not to mention stalemate, are abstract and therefore difficult for young children to understand, but by this time I have several older players who have finished their games and want to know what to do next. I know I’m being too abrupt with them, but I don’t have time for the slow and patient explanation they need.
In other games I see a pawn sitting at the far end of the board. I ask what it’s doing there. They explain that when you get a pawn to the end you get one of their pieces back and they point out their rook on a1 which their opponent had previously captured, but they’d got it back by getting a piece to the end of the board.
So you see what happens. Parents show their children the moves quickly. They make vague statements like “You win the game by taking your opponent’s king” or “When you get a pawn to the end you get a piece back”, either because they don’t know any better themselves or because they don’t have the time or the expertise to explain it correctly. They play two or three games against them, and, as their children seem to have picked up most of the rules, decide they are brilliant at chess and sign them up for the school chess club.
Ideally, I’d like to run two groups at these schools: one for children who can’t play and one for children who can play, but the numbers are insufficient to make this financially viable. It’s hard partly because the beginners see the other children playing and naturally want to join in rather than playing mini-games and solving worksheets. The big problem, though, is the children who think they can play, or whose parents think they can play, but who cannot play because while they might know how the pieces move they don’t know all the rules.
The other, more general, answer is to encourage schools to put chess on the curriculum, using the course being developed by Chess in Schools and Communities which is now available to every primary school in the country. This will ensure all children get a good start in chess: they will be taught the rules correctly, understand the game’s logic and learn the associated thinking skills. Schools can then identify children with a particular talent for or interest in chess, and feed them through to after-school clubs, and from then into regional Centres of Excellence.