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 (4)

My fourth consecutive black saw me facing 1. c4 so it’s not relevant to this series of articles. Another match and yet another outing with the black pieces. This was yet another Richmond v Surbiton encounter: Richmond B v Surbiton A so I was on a high board against an opponent about 200 points stronger than me.

My opponent chose the slow option. We had to complete 35 moves in 75 minutes, with a choice of adjournment or adjudication if the game was unfinished after 2½ hours. You might find the rules strange but that’s the way things work in ThamesValleyLeagueLand.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5

At last I get to face the Ruy Lopez. I’m looking at a few options in answer to this.

3… g6

The Smyslov Variation. I’m hoping to continue with Bg7, Nge7, d6, 0-0 in some order. The Cozio Variation (3… Nge7) is another possible move order to achieve the same aim.

4. O-O

Not White’s scariest line. An immediate d4 will disrupt Black’s plan but his position is still playable.

4… Bg7
5. c3 d6
6. Re1 Nge7
7. d4 O-O

Natural developing moves so far. The three previous games in this series were about opening knowledge, tactics and calculation. Here, at least for the moment, it’s about understanding pawn formations, long-term planning and positional judgement. But of course you still have to calculate everything that moves.

Both players have several choices with regard to the centre pawns. White can close the centre with d5 when the position will resemble a King’s Indian Defence or possibly trade on e5. Black has a range of options. He might be able to play an immediate d5, an immediate f5, or trade on d4 and then play either d5 or f5. He might also want to throw in a6 (with or without a subsequent b5) before doing any of these. There’s a lot to think about.

8. Be3

For the moment White decides to play a simple developing move rather than committing himself in the centre.

8… Bd7

Not a very intelligent move. There was no need to put the bishop on d7 after I’d castled and in some cases it might prefer to be on g4. Now was probably the time to undertake some sort of action in the centre.

9. Bf1

Again White decides to wait.

9… Kh8

Another waiting move based on an irrational fear of checks on the diagonal. I could and probably should have played 9.. exd4 10. cxd4 d5 when I can meet 11. e5 with f6.

10. d5

White decides it’s time to take action in the centre himself, heading for a King’s Indian Defence structure. I’m very big on encouraging children who are serious about the game to learn ALL major openings, partly for this reason. If you never open 1. d4 and never play the King’s Indian with black you’ll be totally at sea when you reach this sort of position via a Ruy Lopez.

Now the game continues with a series of typical KID-type moves.

10… Nb8
11. Nfd2 f5
12. f3 f4
13. Bf2 g5
14. c4 b6
15. b4 a5

16. c5

Ambitious. 16. bxa5 was a simpler and probably stronger alternative.

16… axb4
17. c6 Bc8
18. Qb3 Na6
19. Qa4

Overlooking a cheapo but Black seems to be doing quite well anyway, with various tactical chances on the king-side and the long diagonal.

19… Nxd5

My opponent thought I would have been in trouble here without this move but Stockfish suggests I’m OK. The pin on the a-file isn’t a big problem as, whenever I move the bishop from c8, it can bounce back to c8 again after Bxa6. But he’d completely missed this simple tactic winning the exchange.

20. exd5 e4

The point – the rook is trapped and White has no way of blocking the diagonal. Justification for my third move!

21. Rxe4

The more natural Nxe4 was probably a better try – at least in theory.

21… Bxa1
22. Nb3 Be5
23. Nd4 Bxd4

Well, what can I say? It looks, and is, totally wrong to trade off the bishop on the long diagonal for a knight. If one of my more serious pupils had played this move I’d have been very disappointed in them. At this point I had about 15 minutes left to reach move 35, so didn’t want to spend more than a few minutes on this move. I had visions of this knight coming in on e6 in some lines, but, realistically, that’s never going to happen. I’d also failed to consider that White could double his queen and bishop on the long diagonal. From what I recall, my other candidate move was Bf5, which is absurd for tactical reasons. After a sensible move such as Qf6, though, White has absolutely nothing for his material deficit. It’s Black, if anyone, who has the king-side attacking chances.

So what went wrong? Why did I play such an obviously bad move? Time and again in my games I talk myself out of playing a move I know I should play or talk myself into playing a move I know I shouldn’t play.

Indecisiveness (coupled, in this case, with lack of familiarity of the opening) always leaves me behind on the clock. I’m not a good speed player and not good at dealing with stress so when I don’t have much time left I start to panic. Lack of self-confidence, which also contributes to getting short of time. Irrational fears (in this case, an irrational fear of a knight landing on e6). All this is the story of my life, not just the story of my chess games. In my case, and it’s probably true to a greater or lesser extent for most players, getting better at chess is not just about learning more openings or improving calculation skills. It’s about clearing all the junk (which has been there for more than half a century) out of my head.

Anyway, the game continued.

24. Bxd4+ Kg8
25. Nd2 Bf5

The position’s now very complicated and without much time on the clock I wasn’t able to find a good continuation. Stockfish tells me Black has several ways to draw here but I really don’t understand most of the moves! One of the options was 25… g4, with the following variations: 25… g4 26. fxg4 Bxg4 27. Bxa6 Qg5 28. Qb5 Bh3 29. Qe2 Rxa6 30. Nf3 Qxg2+ (30… Qg4 31. Re7 Rf7 32. Re8+ Rf8 33. Re7) (30… Qg6 31. Nh4 Qg5 32. Nf3) 31. Qxg2+ Bxg2 32. Kxg2 Rxa2+ 33. Kh3 Ra3 34. Kg2)

26. Bxa6 Bc8

Played (without any thought) to regain the bishop, but I should have taken the rook instead and gone for the white king: 26… Bxe4 27. Nxe4 g4 28. Qb5 Qh4 29. Qe2 Rf7 30. Bc4 gxf3 31. gxf3 which Stockfish assesses as equal, though don’t ask me why.

27. Qxb4 Rxa6
28. Bc3 Bf5

This is losing. The only way to stay in the game was to play Rxa2, hitting the knight on d2. Stockfish analyses 28… Rxa2 29. Qd4 Qf6 30. Qxf6 Rxf6 31. Bxf6 Rxd2 with an ending in which, although Black is temporarily a pawn ahead, White has better chances.

29. Re2

He could have ignored the rook, just playing 29. Qd4 Qf6 30. Qxf6 Rxf6 31. Bxf6 Bxe4 32. Nxe4 Rxa2 when White is winning because Black can’t defend c7 (after Bd8, Nc3, Nb5).

29… Rf6

29… Kf7 was an insufficient alternative. Stockfish informs me that White’s best reply is 30. Ne4, threatening 31. Bf6, and also 31. g4 fxg3 Nxg3 when if the bishop moves on the b1-h7 diagonal White has Re6 and if it moves on the h3-c8 diagonal White has Qb1. Alternatively, 29… Rxa2 30. Qd4 and Black has to give up a rook. Notice that 29. Re2 defended the knight on d2.

30. Qd4 Kf7
31. Re6

White gives up a second exchange, this time deliberately.

31… Bxe6 32. dxe6+ Rxe6

Losing horribly but 32… Ke8 drops the rook on f6 and 32… Kxe6 drops the rook on a6 (after 33. Qc4+).

33. Qg7+ Ke8
34. Qg8+ Ke7
35. Qxg5+ Ke8
36. Qg8+ Ke7
37. Qxh7+ Ke8

At this point time was called. My opponent could either propose an adjudication or seal a move and adjourn. We agreed on an adjudication as the computer would confirm whether or not he had any more than a perpetual. Looking at the position, we soon concluded that after Ne4 I had no defence to a future Nf6+. Computer analysis confirmed this so I resigned by email the following day.

1-0

Richard James

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Adventures with 1…e5 (3)

Fate soon offered me another opportunity to defend against 1. e4 in another Richmond v Surbiton encounter, this time a match between our respective B teams. Again I was sitting opposite an opponent rated slightly below me.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bc4

Someone else who’s going Italian. I decided to try the Two Knights’ Defence again.

3.. Nf6
4. Ng5 d5
5. exd5

Should I stick with the slightly dubious Fritz variation after what happened last time or try something else? I decided to go down the main line, at least for a few moves.

5.. Na5
6. Bb5+ c6
7. dxc6 bxc6
8. Be2

White’s most popular choice here, but is it best? Alternatives are the currently fashionable 8. Bd3 preparing a knight retreat to e4, which leads to fairly obscure positions, and the sharp pinning move 8. Qf3, when one option (there are others) for Black is 8.. Rb8, the Colman Variation, analysed by Eugene Ernest Colman while he was held in the Changi Civilian Internees Camp in Singapore during the Second World War. Colman played his move successfully in club chess for Wimbledon, no doubt on occasion in the Thames Valley League. Olympiu Urcan’s biography of Colman, Surviving Changi, is highly recommended.

8.. h6
9. Nf3

Steinitz and Fischer both tried Nh3 here.

9.. e4
10. Ne5 Bc5

The immediate Bd6 is Black’s most popular choice here but engines and stats both prefer this move.

11. c3

The most popular move here. White wants to prevent a possible Qd4 but takes a square away from his queen’s knight.

11.. Bd6

This move and 11.. Qc7 both score very well for Black.

12. d4

Again the most popular choice, but 12. f4 might be an improvement.

12.. exd3
13. Nxd3 Qc7

76 games in BigBase 2014 reached this position with Black scoring 74%. It looks like White’s backing a loser by going down this line.

14. h3

Now we have 41 games with Black scoring 78%.

14.. O-O
15. O-O Bf5

21 games here and Black now up to 81%.

16. b3

Played twice in BigBase 2014. In both cases Black won after playing Rad8.

16.. Rfe8

White looked like a man about to play Ba3 so I played something that I thought prevented this. I was right, but for the wrong reason.

17. Ba3

This should lose at once, but White’s position is uncomfortable due to Black’s pressure down the centre files.

17… Bxa3

Stockfish informed me after the game that I should have played 17.. Bh2+ (the immediate 17.. Rad8 is also strong) 18. Kh1 Rad8 when there’s surprisingly little White can do to meet the threat of Rxe2 followed by Bxd3.

18. Nxa3 Qe7

This is what I’d seen when I played 16.. Rfe8. I thought it won a piece, but it doesn’t. Instead I could again have played 18… Rad8, but now White has some sort of defence: 19. Nc2 Rxe2 20. Nd4 Bxd3 21. Nxe2 when Black has bishop and knight for rook and pawn.

19. Re1

We both missed that White can save the piece here: 19. b4 Qxe2 20. Qxe2 Rxe2 21. Nc1 (gaining time by hitting the rook) 21.. Re4 22. bxa5 Ra4 23. Nb1 and White is still in the game. But now Black’s just a piece ahead.

19… Qxa3
20. Nb4 Rad8

Forcing a queen exchange.

21. Qc1 Qxc1 22. Raxc1 Kf8 23. Kf1 c5 24. Na6 Ne4 25. g4 Bc8 26. Kg1 c4 27. Nc7 Re7 28. Nb5 cxb3 29. axb3 Nxb3 30. Rb1 Ned2 31. Rbd1 Rde8 0-1

My switch to 1.. e5 was certainly successful in that game. White certainly needs to rethink the opening as 10.. Bc5 seems very comfortable for Black. Still no Spanish, though. Maybe next time.

Richard James

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Adventures with 1…e5 (2)

It was not so many years ago that there were nine or ten fairly strong and serious teams in the Thames Valley League. It’s symptomatic of the decline in chess, at least in this part of London, that there are now only four serious teams: Ealing, Surbiton and Wimbledon along with my team, Richmond.

My next chance to play 1.. e5 came when I played for Richmond A in our home match against Surbiton A. My opponent was rated slightly below me. We’ve known each other for many years, but, surprisingly, this was only our second encounter over the board. A few years ago I lost through a blunder at the end of the session.

Here’s what happened.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. c3

White chooses the unusual Ponziani opening, the fifth most popular choice here after Bb5, Bc4, d4 and Nc3.

3.. Nf6

This and 3.. d5 are Black’s main options and both totally playable as long as you avoid the tricks. Here’s a game played just the other day in which a strong player suffered a disaster. White was Federico Gonzalez (1978) and Black Rico Salimbagat (2213): the game was played (online) in the US Chess League KO between Miami and Manhattan.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. c3 d5 4. Qa4 dxe4 (f6 and Bd7 are also played here) 5. Nxe5 Nf6 6. Bc4 Bd7?? 7. Bxf7+ Ke7 8. Qa3+ 1-0

I seemed to recall reading somewhere many years ago that 3.. Nf6 was the simpler route to equality, but there are some traps there as well.

4. d4 Nxe4
5. d5 Ne7

Jochem Snuverink informed me after the game that 5… Bc5 is another option for Black. White has to play very accurately just to stay in the game. Stockfish analysis runs 6. dxc6 Bxf2+ 7. Ke2 Bb6 (a big improvement on bxc6, which is usually played here) 8. Qd5 Nf2 9. cxb7 Bxb7 10. Qxb7 Nxh1 with some advantage to Black.

6. Nxe5 Ng6

Black has to be careful. I correctly rejected 6.. d6 because of 7. Bb5+, which wins at once.

7. Bd3

After just seven moves we reach the critical moment of the game. Black can play simply 7.. Nxe5 8. Bxe4 Bc5 when Black’s position is slightly more comfortable. Jochem told me he used to play the Ponziani himself but gave it up because of this line. 7.. d6 again loses: either to 8. Bb5+ or to 8. Nxg6 hxg6 9. Qa4+ with a familiar queen fork.

But it looks very tempting to play the desperado 7.. Nxf2 when most of White’s pieces seem to be hanging. After a queen move I can capture on d3 with check. I was suspicious as my opponent had played all his moves immediately so far, but couldn’t see anything wrong with it so foolishly decided to call his bluff.

7.. Nxf2
8. Bxg6

So this was what I’d overlooked. I saw enough to realise that I couldn’t take the queen. After the game my opponent showed me the variation 8.. Nxd1 9. Bxf7+ Ke7 10. Bg5+ Kd6 11. Nc4+ Kc5 12. Nba3 Nxb2 (12… Qxg5 13. b4#) 13. Be3#. It’s not a forced mate but Black will be a piece down with his king exposed.

BigBase reveals that I’m not the only person, or even the strongest person, to have fallen for this trap. Igor Rausis, rated 2460 at the time, lost to an unrated player back in 1992, playing 8.. Qh4 here. Four players have captured the queen, all losing. Five players preferred the tricky Bc5, managing to win three games and draw one, but with best play White should be winning. Stockfish likes 9. Qe2 Qe7 10. Bxf7+ Kd8 11. h4 to threaten Bg5.

My choice is slightly better, but should still lose.

8.. hxg6

Now it’s White’s turn to face a critical decision. The correct choice was, as my opponent realised immediately after playing his move, 9. Qe2, when White should have no trouble converting his extra piece. As it happens, 9. Kf2 is also good: 9.. Bc5+ 10. Be3 Bxe3+ 11. Ke3 and White’s king will have time to scuttle back to safety.

But instead, and luckily for me, White went wrong.

9. Qf3 Qf6
10. Kxf2 Bc5+

I guess he missed that I could throw in this check before taking the knight. White either has to interfere with his rook or allow me to capture on e5 with check. 11. Kg3 Qh4# (which I hadn’t seen at the time) would have been amusing, at least for the spectators.

11. Kf1 Qxe5
12. Bf4 Qf5
13. Nd2

Another key decision. Should I return my extra pawn and castle into safety or retain my material advantage, allowing a check which would displace my king.

13.. O-O

The wrong decision, although it turned out well in the game. After 13… d6 14. Re1+ Kf8 my king is perfectly happy. I was hoping to use my threats to trap his bishop and embarrass his king but hadn’t realised my queen might be in danger.

14. Bxc7

It’s very natural to restore material equality, but neither of us noticed the possibility of 14. Ne4, threatening not just the bishop, but to trap the queen with 15. g4. So, assuming (not necessarily a safe assumption) that I spotted the Big Threat, I’d have to play 14.. d6 15. Nxc5 dxc5 16. Kf2 Qc2+ 17. Qe2 when Black may have trouble exploiting his extra pawn.

14.. Qxf3+

One of the symptoms of my habitual lack of aggression is a tendency to trade queens at the first opportunity. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that young children often avoid trading queens because if they lose their most powerful piece it will be harder for them to get checkmate. In my case I’m only too eager to exchange queens because I won’t be able to leave it en prise (and because if my opponent loses his most powerful piece it will be harder for him to get checkmate). Of course this is based on fear of losing rather than logic.

I thought this was good for me as I have threats of trapping his bishop as well as harassing his king, but I should have preferred 14.. Qc2, trying to win a few of White’s queen-side pawns…

15. Nxf3

…because White could instead capture with the g-pawn giving his king a safe haven on g2.

15.. b6
16. c4

This is the losing move. White can stay in the game with 16. Nd4 Bb7 17. d6

16.. d6

Now Black is winning material. If White tries to save his bishop his king will be caught in the crossfire of my bishops and rooks.

17. a3 Ba6
18. Nd2

Or 18. b4 Bxc4+ 19. Ke1 Be3 20. Bxd6 Rfe8 and the black king has nowhere to hide. The rest is easy.

18.. Rac8
19. b4 Bd4
20. Re1 Rxc7
21. b5 Bc3
22. Re2 Bxd2
23. Rxd2 Bxb5

A nice way to finish. If he takes the bishop he loses his rook on h1 to a skewer.

0-1

Richard James

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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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