Author Archives: Richard James

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.

Adventures with 1…e5 (1)

So, as I explained last week, I’ve decided to play more positively and make some changes to my opening repertoire. In particular, I’m switching from c5 to e5 in reply to e4. You might think c5 is the more aggressive choice, but not in my case. I preferred the relatively stodgy Kalashnikov Sicilian, but in most cases my opponents preferred to avoid the main lines, as generally tends to happen at club level. As I teach 1.. e5 to my pupils I know rather more about it than I do about 1.. c5, but in the past I’ve been scared of the tactics.

Since 2001 my only competitive games have been played for my club, Richmond, in the Thames Valley League. I currently play about 20 games a year. I’ve never in my life played a FIDE rated game but if I had a rating it would be somewhere in the region of 1900. The season started with two matches between our A and B teams, which are both in Division 1 of the league. My first black of the season was in the second of these matches when I found myself playing on board 2 for Richmond B against Jochem Snuverink, who has a FIDE rating of 2341. Playing an opponent about 450 points stronger than me would at least give me the chance to learn something.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bc4

So he’s going Italian rather than Spanish. My main choices are Bc5 and Nf6, against both of which White has sharp options where Black has to know the theory. I guess I could play defensively with Be7 if I didn’t want a theoretical battle. Of course, whatever Black chooses, White has the option of playing for a closed position with d3.

3.. Nf6

3.. Bc5 is probably the theoretically stronger move but Black has to be prepared to counter both the Evans Gambit (4. b4) and 4. c3 Nf6 5. d4. Both absolutely fine as long as you can remember the analysis. 3.. Nf6 is more fun for Black to play, though.

4. Ng5 d5

Black’s alternative here is 4.. Bc5, the scary Traxler (or Wilkes-Barre) variation. 5. Nxf7 is totally wild and unplayable for either side unless you know the theory. 5. Bxf7+ Ke7 may not give Black quite enough play for the pawn, although things are never so easy in practice.

5. exd5 Nd4

This is the next big decision for Black. The obvious recapture 5.. Nxd5 gives White a pleasant choice. The famous Fried Liver Attack with 6. Nxf7 is very popular and successful in junior chess. An alternative preferred by some authorities is 6. d4, when 6.. Nxd4 7. c3 b5 is a fairly recent try for Black. I would have said that Nxd5 was no longer played at higher levels but it was tried in Shirov-Sulskis (Tromso Olympiad 2014) when Black, who seemed unaware of ancient theory, lost quickly. I would have thought Shirov was the last person you should play 5.. Nxd5 against, but I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

5.. Na5 is, and has been for a couple of hundred years or so, the main line. I’ll return to this in a later post.

5.. b5 is the Ulvestad Variation, which usually transposes into my choice, the Fritz Variation. This was very popular for many years at Richmond Junior Club and scores well in practice (54% for Black on BigBase 2014), so it was a natural choice for me.

6. c3

Generally accepted to be the best move. A trap which I’ve used successfully online (and in games against small children at Richmond Junior Club) on several occasions goes 6. d6? Qxd6 7. Nxf7? Qc6 8. Nxh8? Qxg2 9. Rf1 Qxe4+ 10. Be2 Nf3#

6.. b5
7. Bf1

Looks strange, but again considered the best move here.

7.. Nxd5
8. cxd4 Qxg5
9. Bxb5+ Kd8

This is the main line of the Fritz variation. White now has an important decision: Qf3 or O-O.

10. O-O

10. Qf3 is the more popular option here (144 games on BigBase 2014 compared with 70 for O-O) but Stockfish considers Black to be fine after 10.. exd4 (much better than the more usual Bb7, which would probably transpose to my game) 11. O-O Rb8 or 11. Bc6 Nf4! 12. Bxa8 Bg4 when Black, despite being a rook down, appears to stand better.

Jochem’s choice seems to be a definite improvement, leading to an advantage for White in all variations.

10.. Bb7

10.. Rb8 11. Bc6 exd4 (or 10.. exd4 transposing) is probably a better try for Black, but, with his king in the centre, it’s still good for White.

11. Qf3 exd4

11.. Rb8 12. dxe5 Ne3 13. Qh3 Qxg2+ 14. Qxg2 Nxg2 15. d4 is another try, but leaves White with an extra pawn.

12. d3 Qf6
13. Qg4 Qd6

In this position Black has chosen Qe5 five times and Bc8 three times. Everything seems to favour White, though.

14. Na3 c6
15. Ba4 Nf6

The losing move. 15.. Nb6 was a better try, but still pretty unpleasant for Black. Now Stockfish chooses Qh4, planning to follow up with moves like Nc4, Re1 and Bg5 when it can’t find a good defence for Black. Jochem’s move is also good enough to win.

16. Qg5 h6
17. Qa5+ Qc7
18. Nc4 c5
19. Bd2 Nd5

Leading to a quick loss, but after 19.. Qxa5 20. Bxa5+ Kc8 21. b4! White opens up the c-file for an attack on the black king.

20. Qb5 Qe7

The computer move Ke7 was the only way to play on.

21. Rae1 1-0

So it looks from this game that the Fritz Variation, while offering good chances against an unprepared opponent, is pretty much unplayable for Black as long as White knows the theory.

Richard James

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Aggression in Chess

Chess is a violent sport according to artist and chess player Marcel Duchamp. It’s a vicious game, says folk singer Nic Jones. Nigel Short is frequently quoted as saying that chess is ruthless: you’ve got to be prepared to kill people. Grandmaster Boris Gulko tells his (adult) pupils that chess is a game for hooligans.

Your favourite chess book dealer will offer you a killer opening repertoire, advocate street fighting chess, and even provide a chess terrorist’s handbook.

Aggression is natural in all species, particularly among males, and is, in itself, neither bad nor good but a natural instinct. One reason for promoting chess, along with other competitive activities, it seems to me, might be to provide a positive outlet for aggression. Those who favour physical competition might let their aggression loose on the football field, or, more directly, in the boxing ring, while those who favour mental competition might choose a chessboard instead.

This, though, raises a number of questions. Young boys, at the age most of them take up chess, are often interested in weapons and fighting, and by using appropriate metaphors we can make chess more attractive and exciting for them. But one big problem the chess world faces is the small number of female participants. This is something especially true here in the UK. If we promote chess as an ‘aggressive’, competitive activity, will this deter girls from taking part? Or perhaps we should encourage girls to be more competitive: something Alice has to learn in Chess for Kids.

Or we could promote chess in a non-competitive way, as a fluffy game equally suitable for boys and girls. Many schools would be in favour of this: primary schools are often run by ‘nice ladies’ who find it hard to understand and come to terms with the sort of mock aggressive play favoured by many boys (and some girls). But, if we do that, are we not removing something essential from chess? After all, chess started as a war game. Perhaps we’re also removing something essential from the lives of some of the boys who enjoy chess. To be honest, I really don’t know what the answer is myself. If you’re doing chess in the classroom I think you need to take a non-competitive approach, but within a chess club you need to encourage mental aggression over the board, while, of course, prohibiting any form of physical or verbal aggression away from the board and encouraging good sportsmanship at all times.

When you’re playing chess, aggressiveness over the board works in two ways. You can choose an aggressive style, favouring attacks, gambits and sacrifices, or a non-aggressive, ‘vegetarian’ style, playing quietly and trading pieces off to reach an ending. You can also choose a non-aggressive psychological approach, being eager to agree a draw in an unclear or even position, or if you’re feeling sorry for your opponent for some reason, or you can be aggressive in playing out every position to try to win, taking risks in complex positions or grinding away in equal endings as Carlsen, for example, does, waiting for your opponent to make a fatal mistake.

Genna Sosonko wrote about this in an essay entitled Killer Instinct, first published in New in Chess and later reprinted in one of his essay collections, Smart Chip from St. Petersburg (New in Chess 2006). Among his anecdotes was that concerning Boris Gulko, who was teaching an older adult player who would reach good positions but lacked the killer instinct to finish off his opponents. He told him that chess was a game for hooligans and advised him to show more aggression. This more aggressive approach to chess led to a sharp improvement in his results. The nicest person I ever met was a man called Gene Veglio, who was, for some years, a clubmate of mine at Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club. He was always willing to play, but equally willing to stand down if someone else wanted to play. Whenever he reached a good position, though, he’d offer his opponent a draw because he didn’t want to hurt their feelings by beating them.

Now, here’s my problem. Superficially, I come across as an extremely non-aggressive person. I play chess non-aggressively: I usually prefer fairly safe openings and am usually happy to agree a draw. For reasons which I won’t go into here I find it very hard to deal with losing a game, with making a mistake, with any form of confrontation. But when I play blitz on the Internet, where I’m not so bothered about the result, I play much more aggressively, using a totally different opening repertoire. So I’ve decided to make some changes to my opening repertoire this season, to play more aggressively. I’ll explain the reasons for this in more detail next time. Will I, like Gulko’s student, see an improvement in my results?

My next series of articles (with possible interruptions as and when the whim takes me) will let you see how I get on.

Richard James

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In Summary

This will be my last post on the problems with junior chess for the foreseeable future, but, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to summarise what I’ve been writing recently.

I’ve been spending the past 15 years telling anyone who’ll listen to me that the best thing we could do to promote and encourage chess in this country would be to abolish after-school and lunchtime chess clubs for children up to the age of 11.

To play chess to adult club standard you need to be able to apply complex logic to chess. Most children will, under normal circumstances, only develop the required cognitive skills at about 11 or 12.

Children who start chess at, say, 7 and who haven’t reached adult club standard or thereabouts when they leave primary school at the age of 11 are likely to give up chess unless they go to a secondary school which is very big on chess.

Children will only reach adult club standard by the age of 11 if their cognitive development is exceptionally advanced or if they are immersed in chess from a fairly early age, either at home, at school, or through a chess academy which is open every day.

Most chess teachers either have an insufficient knowledge of chess or an insufficient knowledge of how young children learn. Young children are active learners: they need to do things, not listen to lectures. You need to start by finding out what they know and build on their knowledge rather than telling them what you know. Standing in front of a demo board showing them a game is great for older and stronger children but will only confuse younger, less experienced players.

Most parents, at least in my area, teach their children the wrong names for the pieces, the wrong rules and incorrect strategy. Because chess is not part of our culture they are unaware of the extent of their ignorance and unwilling to be told about it.

Competitive chess has a poor public image and chess players are seen as anti-social nerds who are probably also mad. So while some parents and schools want their children to learn chess they don’t want them to be good at chess.

The current ethos with regard to childhood, at least among the majority of parents in my area, emphasises taking part rather than being successful, having fun rather than being serious, doing lots of things at a low level rather than excelling at a few things.

Parents in my area see after-school chess clubs as a learning tool, something that might help their children get into the selective secondary school of their choice, or as a cheap child-minding service. They are not prepared to help or support their children beyond playing low-level games with them. There is also a complete misunderstanding about exactly what chess practice entails.

Children are often encouraged to take part in competitions before they’ve learnt all the rules of chess let alone have any understanding of basic tactics and strategy. Chess entrepreneurs encourage this because they make money out of these events.

If I were Prime Minister what I’d do is this:

Set up a national chess course with an appropriate reward system.

Set up a network of individual and team tournaments linking up with the national chess course: if you pass a level of the course you get a ticket to take part in a tournament at the appropriate level.

Set up a network of junior chess clubs operating the national chess course providing outreach to local schools and individual tuition for talented children with supportive parents.

Abolish all junior chess clubs not following the national chess course.

Encourage primary and prep schools who want to take chess seriously and teach all or most of their children to play properly on the curriculum.

Encourage all secondary schools to set up chess clubs and enter teams of children who have passed the first level of the national course into competitions.

But I’m not PM and never will be, so enough of that.

I appreciate that many of my posts here have been very negative, but there’s a lot to be negative about. Veteran chess journalist Leonard Barden, as someone who, along with the late Bob Wade, played such an important part in the English Chess Explosion in the late 1970s and early 1980s, knows more than anyone about the decline in junior chess in the UK. Here’s what he wrote in his chess column in the Guardian on 1 November:

It was all so different in the 1970s Bobby Fischer boom years. Then England had a huge crop of talented juniors, many of whom became grandmasters and masters, but there was a desperate shortage of suitable older players to coach them.

This week, in contrast, England’s juniors have struggled to average 50% in the European Youth championships for under-18s to under-8s at Batumi, Georgia, whereas in the inaugural World Senior over-50 championship at Katenni, Greece, England has the two top seeds, John Nunn and Mark Hebden, with the European champion, Keith Arkell, also among the favourites.

Now, the implication is, we have a huge crop of older players involved in coaching, many of whom learnt their chess in the 1970s boom years, but there are very few talented juniors coming through.

The good news is that I’m currently talking to a few schools and clubs who might possibly be interested in doing things my way.

If anything positive happens I’ll keep you in touch, but now it’s more than time to move onto another subject.

Richard James

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Deliberate Practice

There is now a general understanding that to achieve mastery in any worthwhile field you require deliberate practice. Sadly most parents and schools either fail to understand that this is true of chess or fail to understand exactly what deliberate chess practice might involve.

I asked a class of children aged 8-10 at a local primary school chess club if they practised chess. A lot of them told me they did, so I asked them how they practised. Some told me they played their mum or dad. Others said that they played their computer or on a website. No one mentioned anything other than playing games. I them asked how many of them had piano lessons. Many hands went up. They all told me they practised their scales as well as the pieces they were learning. Again, I asked how many played tennis. Again, a lot of hands were raised. They told me they practised different shots: backhand, forehand, topspin. So they, or their teachers, have a good idea of what deliberate practice looks like in music and tennis, but not in chess. Playing games is only useful practice if you’re getting constructive feedback. Playing every day against a parent who doesn’t know the correct names for the pieces or play by the correct rules isn’t much good. Nor is playing against a computer program that beats you every time without telling you why.

One thing you need to do in many disciplines is develop fluency – speed and accuracy – in simple skills. If you’re learning maths you need to be fast and accurate with basic arithmetic. If you’re not, you’ll find anything else difficult. At the age of 6 or 7 we all sat in rows chanting our times tables until we learnt them off by heart. These days the primary school maths curriculum is much broader, less boring and more ‘fun’, but has this come at the expense of the rigour of learning your tables off by heart? If you’re learning the piano you’ll be expected to practice your scales and arpeggios over and over again even though you may well find it boring. If you’re learning golf you’re going to practice simple short putts over and over again until you’re confident you can hole them every time. In chess you develop fluency by solving puzzles. At one level this means solving simple (to you) puzzles quickly and getting them right every time. It also means challenging yourself to solve harder puzzles. By solving puzzles you’re doing lots of things. Yes, you’re developing speed and accuracy. More specifically, you’re improving your chessboard vision: the ability to glance at a position and take in where every piece is, what it can do both now and in the future, to identify all the attacks and defences, to see every possible check. You’re also learning pattern recognition. You’ll see the same ideas over and over again, learning to recognise them and use them in your own games. Once you move onto two-move puzzles you’re learning to think ahead, to visualise the next moves without moving the pieces: one of the most vital chess skills to acquire. As you graduate to harder puzzles you’re learning to look further and further ahead. You’re learning concentration and impulse control – many children fail to make progress because they lack these vital skills. Puzzles are also use to develop non-cognitive skills such as persistence: not giving up if you find a puzzle difficult to solve.

We’ve known for the past 30 years about the importance of puzzle solving. It’s how Laszlo Polgar taught his daughters. It’s the basic idea of the Dutch Steps Method. It’s what children at chess academies in Baghdad and Baku have to do for homework. If you compare learning chess with learning an instrument or a sport it becomes obvious.

Many non-players or non-competitive players, though, don’t understand the point of solving puzzles. I remember many years ago standing at the back of the room watching my colleague Ray Cannon demonstrate a tactical puzzle on the demo board. A parent who was watching with me asked me “Why is he doing this? They’re not likely to reach that position in their games.”. But of course that’s not the point. Parents are often reluctant to make their children do chess homework solving puzzles. They often don’t understand the purpose of solving puzzles, think it might not be ‘fun’, it might be ‘boring’. But most children enjoy solving puzzles so doing this sort of work can be presented in a positive light.

Deliberate practice at chess will also involving learning and honing new skills. At lower levels this might be learning specific endings: practising the king and queen checkmate, for example. At higher levels this will involve learning more complex endings, learning and practising new openings, possibly by playing games online, learning and practising how to play typical middle-game structures such as IQP positions. It also involves, at higher levels, targeting specific weaknesses: concentrating on skills which you’re not so good at in order to improve them. If you’re tactically weak you might work on improving this by playing blitz games online using sharp openings. Or if you’re positionally weak, playing games using positional openings to improve this side of your play.

The point of Chess for Heroes is that it provides opportunities for deliberate practice. The first volume gives children a lot of very simple puzzles to solve. I’m currently working on an endgame book which, as well as puzzles, will include positions to play out to develop your skill at winning simple endings. Further books on tactics and other aspects of chess are also planned so that children will have a complete programme of practice materials taking them from learning the moves up to the point where they can compete in low level adult competitions.

Richard James

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Blurred Image

My last post have considered how most parents have little or no knowledge of what chess is all about. They want their children to ‘do’ chess because it ‘makes them smarter’ or, in my part of the world, because it will help their application to the secondary school of their choice, and will drop chess once they’ve got what they wanted out of the game. Many parents specifically tell me they don’t want their children to be good at chess, they are not prepared to support their children in any way and they don’t actually like chess themselves.

Some schools and parents are suspicious of excellence in any field, but many schools in my area who pride themselves, not just on their academic excellence but also on their sporting and artistic excellence, have no interest at all in promoting chess excellence and are quite happy with a low level club which doesn’t take part in competitions and where most of the children play to a very poor standard.

It seems to me there’s a general lack of understanding of what chess is: a highly competitive and extremely demanding mental sport played in most countries of the world.

But this isn’t the image most parents and teachers have about chess. The recent sad coincidence of the deaths of two players on the last day of the Chess Olympiad led to a series of negative articles about chess and chess players. The public perception of chess players – and one that is emphasized by articles in the press – is that chess players are introverted nerds with no social skills. They are often overweight, have a poor diet, drink too much, have a disregard for personal hygiene, dress badly, carry their packed lunch in a carrier bag and – this seems to be a new one – are likely to die young.

Now there’s an element of truth in this at lower adult levels. Those who continue playing chess even though they are not very successful are often those who don’t have a family life, or those who may have difficulty getting a job. But I’m sure this is true of many other pastimes, not just chess. It’s certainly not true at the top, though. The ages of the world’s leading players range from late teens to mid forties. There are, admittedly, one or two (Ivanchuk, for example) who might be considered slightly eccentric, but by and large they come across as well adjusted and well presented: excellent role models for our children. In these days of internet coverage of all major events, where players are interviewed after the game, where there’s money to be made from broadcasting, producing DVDs and teaching, excellent communication skills are as important for chess players as knowing the latest theory in the Sicilian Najdorf.

The media still churn out articles on the ‘all chess players are loonies’ theme from time to time, complete with the usual suspects and the same unsubstantiated or exaggerated anecdotes as evidence that chess sends you mad: Morphy collecting women’s shoes, Steinitz giving God odds of pawn and move, Carlos Torre taking his clothes off on a bus, Fischer, well, being Fischer. Nothing more recent than Fischer, mind you, and you might also share my concern about making fun of people with mental health issues.

I also can’t help thinking that it may not do the game any favours to promote chess as a game suitable for mass participation by young children. If you’re implying chess is so easy that young children have no problem mastering it to the point where they can play in competitions you’re putting it into the same category as Top Trumps. If chess really is that easy and that trivial, adults who devote their lives to it must be pretty sad, and high level competitive chess will not be attractive to potential sponsors.

The chess establishment really needs to stop the petty bickering, rivalries, jealousy and obsession with ancient disputes and promote chess for what it is. A game which, while it can be enjoyed at any age, is, at the top level, a game for young adults, both male and female, who are physically fit and emotionally strong as well as being intelligent and hard working. A game that, while it can also be a fun game for children, at the top level requires the pursuit of excellence and hours of deliberate practice, exactly the same qualities you need to excel at, say, tennis or golf, or at playing the piano. We need to get parents and schools to respect chess as a fantastic, endlessly fascinating and extremely difficult game, not just as a learning tool or a cheap after-school child-minding service.

Richard James

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Excuses Excuses

They always have excuses.

The other day I was talking to the mother of one of my pupils. He’s 11 years old and has just started at a very popular and successful selective boys’ school. (Here in the UK most children change schools at this age.) Although there are a lot of strong chess players at the school they don’t play in the local secondary schools’ chess league, nor in any other competitions. Her son is disappointed so she went in to complain (as several other parents, to my knowledge have over the past few years) and was told that they couldn’t take part in these events ‘for funding reasons’. Now the school is in an affluent area so most parents would be only too happy to pay, and, if there were any children who genuinely couldn’t afford it, they’d be happy to pay extra. No: it’s just an excuse: there’s no teacher with a particular interest in chess so they can’t be bothered. There are plenty of ways round this. When he started a new teaching job years ago, my brother was told that part of his job was to transport the school fencing team to competitions, even though he knew nothing about fencing. If the will is there, things can be made to happen.

Primary schools also have excuses.

They can’t run chess clubs because they have enough clubs already. They can’t have children sitting opposite their opponents because it would take too long to move the tables round. They can’t make homework compulsory because a few parents might not like it, but if it’s optional no one will do it. They can’t provide a teacher to keep order and deal with administration while the chess tutor is doing chess things because they’re all too busy. They can’t give their chess tutor contact details for parents because it would breach safeguarding rules. They can’t allow children to use chess sets outside the chess club because it would need supervision and nobody can be bothered to supervise them. They won’t enter team tournaments because there isn’t a teacher prepared to supervise them, or because the children might score less than 50% and as a result suffer permanent damage to their self-esteem. They won’t enter online tournaments because they’re too busy to look at the website and register their school. They won’t let children play in individual tournaments, or even in representative county competitions because they clash with school football matches and children selected for their school football team are not allowed to pull out. They won’t play matches against other schools because the logistics are too difficult. School A says to School B: “We’d love to play a chess match against you if you come to our school on Monday”. School B replies: “We can’t possibly come on Monday because we have Gym Club on Mondays. You’ll have to come to our school on Tuesday instead”. But School A can’t possibly do Tuesdays because they have Running Club on Tuesdays. And never the twain shall meet. Now I appreciate as much as anyone that teachers do a fantastic job, are very busy, very hard-working and very stressed, but it seems to me that they just don’t respect chess the same way that they respect football or music.

There are several preparatory schools (fee-paying) in this area that value academic excellence: they are proud of the number of pupils who gain scholarships to leading selective secondary schools whose names are listed on honours boards. They also value sporting excellence: photographs of their football, cricket and rugby teams line the walls. They value artistic excellence as well: their concerts and drama productions are of a high standard and pupils who excel in these spheres are rightly valued within the school community. While some of these schools also run successful chess clubs, others have clubs where the standard of play is very low, where children do not take part in competitions, where the school offers no support to the chess tutors, where the game is not valued within the school community.

So why is it that many schools do not afford chess the respect it deserves? Why do they not value it in the same way that they value other extra-curricular activities?

My next post will consider one possible reason.

Richard James

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General Ignorance

The same thing happens every year. I meet a new intake of Year 3s (7 year olds) at a primary school chess club. There are one or two who know nothing at all about chess: some parents sign little Johnny (or, less often, little Jenny) up for the chess club so that they can learn the moves. I’ll talk more about them another time. There may be one or two who come from a chess playing family and have some genuine knowledge about chess. But in the middle are the children who tell me they know how to play chess, or sometimes, that they’re really good at chess, but in fact know very little.

So I pick up one of the chunky pieces that starts in the corner. “Who can tell me what this piece is called”, I ask. A forest of hands goes up. I ask a child who seems particularly keen to answer. I know what’s coming next. “It’s a CASTLE”, he tells me. I explain that, while some people call it a castle it’s real name is a rook, so that’s what we call it here. (I’ve also seen strong players who know perfectly well what it’s called teach their children it’s a castle. No idea why.) His face falls. His implicit belief that everything his dad tells him is correct has been shattered. I might as well have told him that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

Then I get them to play some games. After a few minutes another child raises his hand. “I’ve won the game”, he tells me excitedly. “I’ve taken his king.” I try to break the bad news to him as gently as possible (not easy when there are several other children round the room waiting to ask me questions). He hasn’t actually won the game at all, and in fact he’s not allowed to capture his opponent’s king. But his dad told him you win by taking the other guy’s king so they don’t understand.

None of this would matter too much if parents were prepared to get up to speed on learning about chess so that they could provide more useful help for their children. In this school I don’t have contact details for parents and very rarely get a chance to speak to them at all. In another school a couple of years ago, though, I had email addresses for parents so I contacted them explaining the rules of check and checkmate so that they could help their children play legal moves. Did I receive any replies thanking me for going to the trouble of telling them how they could help their children? What do you think? Instead I got replies telling me they didn’t want to know, they didn’t have time to help their children, and they themselves hated chess anyway.

One of the major problems for chess teachers here in the UK is that chess is not part of our national culture. Many people know, or think they know, how the pieces move, but they have no idea how to play properly. They use incorrect names for the pieces, they don’t know how to set the board up correctly, they don’t understand check, checkmate and stalemate, they are confused about pawn promotion, castling, and, in the unlikely event that they’ve heard of it, the en passant rule. They’ve never opened a chess book in their lives, never read a newspaper chess column, never watched a chess DVD, never visited a chess website, couldn’t give you the name of any famous chess players with the possible exception of that American guy who played the Russian guy, and they consider him to have been a nutter. Their father probably taught them the moves when they were young, he in turn was taught by his father and so on, like a Generation Game of Chinese Whispers, with less being understood each time round. They have no idea about the complexity of the game, the history, the heritage, the literature. No wonder they consider chess a simple game suitable for young children to play once a week at school without any parental support.

In the BBC TV quiz Only Connect, two teams of three compete to make connections between seemingly random things. The competitors on this programme are amongst the best in the country at problem solving, general knowledge, logic and creativity so you’d expect them to be reasonably well informed about chess, and indeed a few chess players have appeared on the show. In a recent episode one team was asked to find the next item in a sequence starting a1:R, b1:N, c1:B. They thought it might have something to do with cards and guessed that the answer was d1:Y. Their opponents were then given the chance of a bonus point by answering the question themselves. They correctly realised that it was to do with chess, but couldn’t remember which way round the big guys went, so went for d1:K as their answer.

General ignorance indeed. If we want to help young children become proficient players we have to start by educating the parents. But where do we start? My book Chess for Kids is selling very well: parents want to be able to buy a book to give to their kids so that they can teach themselves (not understanding that chess is far too hard for 7-year-olds to teach themselves). But no one is buying The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids because they have neither the time nor the inclination to help their kids. So far, at any rate, there is no interest at all in Chess for Heroes for the same reason. Unless we can break through this barrier chess as a serious adult game in this country will gradually fade away.

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Fishing Pole

We have a new member in our chess club. A 12-year-old beginner, he’s really enthusiastic and seems to have some talent. His parents, although knowing little about the game, are very keen to do everything they can to help him.

Half a century or more ago, I myself was in very much the same position. I was really enthusiastic about chess. My parents, wanting to support my enthusiasm but knowing very little about the game, bought me a book (The Game of Chess by Harry Golombek since you asked) so that I could teach myself. “If we try to teach you ourselves”, they said, “we might get it wrong and put you off.” I didn’t understand everything in it and got confused by the chapters on the openings when HG said that there were two moves you could play in this position, while it seemed to me, correctly, that there were many moves you could play. But it still stood me in good stead by giving me well-structured and accurate information about chess.

These days, though, children don’t learn through books, they learn through the Internet. And the Internet is, for all sorts of reasons, a dangerous place.

I like to give new members a game, so on his first visit to the club I took the black pieces against him. His first moves were, in order, e3, g3, Bg2, a3, b4, c3, d4. I asked him what he was trying to achieve in the opening. He explained that he was combining the ideas of his two favourite openings, the King’s Indian Defence and the Stonewall. It seemed that he’d come across online lessons on both openings (probably chosen because he liked the names) but completely misunderstood them.

A couple of weeks later he was very much into gambits. He wanted to play the Wing Gambit, the Halloween Gambit (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Nxe5) and, his new favourite opening, the Fishing Pole. Now I’m reasonably knowledgeable about chess history and literature, and one of my colleagues even more so, but none of us had heard of the Fishing Pole. When I arrived home I searched on Google and found this.

So what do we have? 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. 0-0 Ng4. It’s obvious to any experienced player that this move is nonsense. It may not be losing but it’s just a waste of time. 5. h3 h5. Now if White just plays a sensible developing move like d3 he’s going to be slightly better. Black’s just wasted time playing two fairly useless moves and broken a couple of basic opening tenets into the bargain. He’ll only lose if he takes the knight and gets mated.

We’re told this is a common trap in the Ruy Lopez. Is it? There are 14 examples of 4.. Ng4 out of almost 5.8 million games on BigBase2014. The position after 5.. h5 occurred only 8 times. So hardly common. And none of those 8 people fell for the trap by taking the knight (although Black’s percentage score after 4.. Ng4 is actually fairly respectable). Perhaps it has an extremely high success rate if you play it in online bullet games against weak opponents, but not in real games. Note also some of the comments, none of which are critical. “I will definitely try it every chance I get. Chess is wonderful and you don’t have to sweat!!” enthuses bsharpchess. KWash01 also approves: “All and all I like it and will most certainly try to use it.”

I’m disappointed that a very popular and reputable site such as chess.com should publish such misinformation, and that its users should be so uncritical. Of course if you play online blitz or bullet you’ll come across opponents who play junk like this extremely quickly and win games on time or through a cheap tactic, but it’s not real chess and not how we should be encouraging our pupils to play.

There are, I think, two issues. First of all, in chess, as in everything else, there’s a lot of ill-informed and dangerous rubbish out there. There are any number of videos, articles and e-books written by weak amateurs peddling their favourite eccentric opening or theory about chess. So if you’re trying to teach yourself you need to ensure that your sources are reliable. Asking an experienced chess teacher would be a good place to start.

You also need to learn chess in a structured way. If you’re learning openings you start with basic principles, then you learn the major openings before you look at less popular openings. If you want to emulate Abraham Neviazsky and spend the next 50 years of your life opening 1. b4 that’s fine, but I’d advise you to gain experience with mainstream openings first. I’d also suggest that practising tactics, learning about strategy and familiarising yourself with endings is, unless you want to play very sharp lines, more important than studying opening theory.

So we in the chess community need to promote structured chess courses for learners of all ages. We need to promote them actively and aggressively so that newcomers to the game learn correctly right from the start. Once you get the wrong idea about something or get into a bad habit it’s difficult to get out of it.

Richard James

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Cotton Wool Kids

Childhood is very different now from when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s. In some ways it is much better. We are much more aware nowadays of the importance of preventing children from abuse, neglect and persistent bullying, although we are still a long way from getting everything right. We are getting much closer to an understanding of the concept of special needs so we can provide constructive support for children with learning, social, behavioural or physical problems rather than just criticism and punishment. For all this we should be immensely grateful.

However, I can’t help thinking that, in our praiseworthy efforts to try to ensure children avoid suffering high level bad experiences we are also being over-protective in sheltering them from low level bad experiences. This is apparent from the feedback I get when I try to persuade parents and schools to get their children to take chess seriously.

The school head teacher who, years ago, told me he couldn’t enter more than one team in our tournament because his pupils would feel humiliated if they scored less than 50%.

The school chess club, again years ago, which was unhappy that one of their children was a very strong player, because it would make all the other children in the club feel bad.

The parents who tell me they don’t want their children to solve puzzles at home because it might put them off chess.

The parents who tell me they don’t want their children to play for the school because it wouldn’t be fun.

The parents who tell me their children can’t attend the chess club because it might make them too tired.

The chess teacher who tells me her pupils can’t enter a tournament for the same reason.

The chess teacher who tells me his pupils will only play in team tournaments, not individual tournaments.

The neighbour who asks about chess lessons for her son, and, when I show her the Chess for Heroes book, tells me it looks too hard.

At the same time, children seem to think they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do.

Children in school chess clubs don’t want to solve puzzles because it’s boring.

Children at Richmond Junior Club don’t want to score their games because it’s boring.

They tell me that if something’s boring they don’t have to do it.

This all seems to be about the possibility that children might just have a bad experience by taking chess too seriously. They MIGHT be upset because they lose a game. They MIGHT find it boring. It MIGHT make them tired. It MIGHT be too hard for them. So we’d better not do it, just in case a bad experience might damage their self-esteem.

If you take part in chess tournaments you WILL have bad experiences. It’s happened to all of us. You’ll have days where you play badly and lose your games. You’ll have days where your opponents all seem to play well against you. You’ll meet opponents who are unsporting, who distract you, who try to cheat against you. You’ll meet arbiters who rule against you unfairly. But you’ll also have a lot of good experiences which will more than make up for the bad ones. And by working through those bad experiences you’ll become a stronger person as well as a stronger player.

Children NEED to be challenged. They NEED to be bored. They NEED to learn how to lose. They NEED to learn to persevere when they get stuck. They NEED to learn how to deal with difficult people and difficult situations. They NEED to develop determination and resilience. By wrapping children in cotton wool, by only expecting them to do things that are safe, fun or easy, by bringing our children up in a cocoon where they are sheltered from any experience which might possibly be unpleasant, we’re doing them no favours. Playing serious chess isn’t for everyone, but children who enjoy the game can use it for this purpose.

In Chess for Kids, Sam has to work through difficult situations in order to become a good player. He has to learn not to be discouraged when he keeps on making mistakes, not to give up when a concept is difficult for him to understand, to keep going if something is boring.

My new course is called Chess for Heroes partly for this reason. One way to become a hero is by showing physical courage, but you can also be a hero by showing mental courage. Of course we all want to do all we can to prevent children suffering high level bad experiences but we need to expose them to low level bad experiences and, very gently, help our children deal with them.

A failure to understand this is one of the reasons why I find myself teaching children whose parents and teachers want them to play chess but specifically don’t want them to be good at chess.

Richard James

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Abraham’s Choice

Last Tuesday (9 September 2014) my old friend Abraham Neviazsky died suddenly at the age of 80. I’d known Abraham more or less since joining Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club in 1966.

Abraham was a remarkable character who had learnt chess as a boy in Lithuania, having been taught by the likes of Mikenas. His family had suffered hardship during the Second World War, and eventually found their way, via Poland, to Israel. Abraham later married an English girl and moved to England.

Abraham was noted for his devotion to Fulham football club, and also for his devotion to moving his b-pawn two squares at the start of the game. I played in the same team as him on many occasions and rarely if ever saw him play any first move other than b4. He didn’t play it in a particularly scary way, but was confident and experienced in the slightly unusual middle game positions he reached. In recent years he had also taken to starting his games with Black with a6 followed by b5.

The subject of opening choice has been a topic of debate recently on Nigel’s Facebook page. How should we choose our own openings and what advice should we give to our students, whether adults or children?

Should we encourage them, like Abraham, to stick to the same opening at all times or to vary their openings? And should we encourage them to choose main line openings or, again like Abraham, unusual openings?

I was an active tournament player in the mid 1970s, when the English Chess Explosion, along with the explosion in opening books, was getting underway. What I did was, in retrospect, exactly the wrong thing to do, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. Whenever a new Batsford opening book came out I’d rush to Foyle’s to buy it on publication day, skim through the pages excitedly and play it at the next opportunity. I’d get a bad position because I didn’t really understand the opening, decide it wasn’t for me, await the publication of the next opening book and repeat the whole cycle all over again. When I eventually realised that I was no longer interested in studying chess seriously I was left with the opening repertoire I had when the music stopped. I haven’t been happy with what I play, especially with White, but don’t feel confident playing anything else. I know a little bit about most openings but not enough about anything to play it against a strong opponent. I’m envious of my friends who’ve been playing the same non-critical openings for the past 40 years and know exactly what they’re doing at the start of the game.

But there are two reasons why I don’t really regret taking that approach. As a chess teacher it’s important that I know a bit about all openings so that I can find out how much my students know about them, so that I can avoid falling into the trap of only teaching the openings I play myself, and so that I can avoid giving them bad advice. A few months ago I watched two colleagues demonstrating a game to a class of eager students. The game started 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. d4 exd4 5. 0-0 Nxe4, which they castigated for being too greedy and moving a piece twice in the opening. In fact it’s main line theory and perfectly good for Black, but as neither of my colleagues played this line with either colour they were unaware of this.

There’s another thing as well. It seems to me that only playing e4 and never d4 is like only listening to Bach and never to Mozart, or only reading Dickens and never Jane Austen. Always playing b4 on your first move, then, must be like only listening to, I don’t know, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. From my perspective it would seem that, from his choice of opening, Abraham only experienced a small part of the world of chess. But I’ve known few people who played chess with so much enjoyment and enthusiasm as Abraham. He’d have liked a few more years, but suffering a heart attack while playing chess against an old friend is probably the way he’d have wanted to go.

Richard James

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