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.

Heffalump Swamp

The only competitive chess I’ve played for many years has been in my local league, the Thames Valley League. As I write this we’re half way though the summer break so it’s a good time to look back to last season’s games and consider how I might do better next time round.

My first game last season was a quick (in more ways than one) win against a talented junior which I’ll probably come back to later. My next match was against Kingston, a small club with a fairly strong first team but not much in the way of reserve strength. As several of their regular players were unavailable I found myself playing an opponent graded more than 50 points (about 400 Elo points) below me. Now I’m normally fairly consistent: I tend to beat lower graded players, lose to higher graded players and draw with players about my own strength, so, with the advantage of the white pieces, I was expecting a fairly comfortable victory.

Here’s what happened.

1. d4 Nf6
2. c4 d5

If he’s playing this move he doesn’t know a lot about openings.

3. cxd5 Nxd5
4. Nf3 Nc6
5. e4 Nb6
6. d5 Nb8
7. Nc3 e6

He’s hitting my centre pawn. What to do? At this point I started having visions of my opponent playing Bb4 sometime soon giving me problems holding d5 so I panicked and looked for a way to stop this idea. Bf4, Be2 and Qd4 have all been played here and the engines rather like a4, but I decided I should trade off the dark squared bishops and get his queen off the d-file.

In fact I have tactical resources, for instance 8. Bf4 exd5 9. exd5 Bb4 10. Qe2+ or 8. Be2 exd5 9. exd5 Bb4 10. Qd4, but these weren’t immediately obvious to me so, after some thought, I played…

8. Bg5 Be7
9. Bxe7 Qxe7
10. Be2 O-O
11. O-O

I was happy with my lead in development, space advantage and extra centre pawn but the engines are not so impressed, considering the position about equal.

11… N8d7

The engines tell me Black should trade on d5 here, and that I should, either now or next move, play dxe6, meeting Qxe6 with Nb5. Not something I considered at all, of course.

12. a4 a5
13. Rc1 c6

Again he should have traded on d5, but instead he gives me the chance to play d6. Well, it’s the obvious move but again I started panicking about the pawn eventually being surrounded by the black pieces so decided on what I thought was a safer alternative.

14. dxc6 bxc6

I was still fairly happy here. Black has an isolated pawn which I can target, and if it moves to c5 I’ll have a tasty outpost on b5. I would also have argued that the black bishop is rather bad. The engines are still not impressed, though.

15. Nd4 Bb7
16. f4 Nf6
17. e5

Why not gain some space to go with my other advantages? I expected Nd5 here, but the engines prefer the unobvious (at this level) tactical shot Rfd8. Instead the knight went back where it came from, so I appeared to have gained a couple of tempi.

17… Nfd7
18. Bf3

Hitting the weak pawn on c6 again.

18… Nd5

Now I have to make a decision.

19. Bxd5

At the time I was pleased with myself for having found this move. I was trading advantages: giving up a bishop for a knight and straightening his pawns, assuming he’d take back with the c-pawn, but in exchange I’d get an outpost on b5, play on the c-file and, potentially, a good knight against a bad bishop. I didn’t seriously consider what would happen if he took with the e-pawn. In fact taking with the e-pawn is fine for Black and Bxd5 was a pretty poor decision. Nxd5 was OK and perhaps very slightly better for White, as was Qd2.

19… exd5

Never mind: I can still get my knight to d6. This must be good for me.

20. Nf5 Qe6
21. Nd6 Ba6

It hadn’t occurred to me that he now had this square for his bishop, but never mind. My rook will be happy looking at the black queen.

22. Re1 f6

It was only now that I realised I had a problem. I can’t defend e5 again and my knight on d6 has nowhere to go. It now seemed to me that, far from playing safe, I’d overreached and was now in trouble.

23. f5 Qe7

I couldn’t see any alternative to the speculative sacrifice on d5, but in fact there’s a tactical solution: 24. Ncb5 cxb5 25. Qxd5+ Kh8 26. axb5, when I’m regaining the piece as the bishop is trapped (Bc8 leaves the rook on a8 hanging). I’m not a good enough tactician to see that sort of thing, so I had to make do with…

24. Nxd5 cxd5
25. Qxd5+ Kh8

This looked fairly unclear to me: perhaps my opponent would find the defence too difficult. But now we’re in exactly the sort of swamp where heffalumps are as likely as rabbits to drown.

26. exf6

My computer tells me I should have played 26. Rc7, which is an immediate draw by repetition after 26… fxe5 27. Qc6 and now either 27… Rfd8 28. Qd5 Rf8 or 27… Nb8 28. Qc5 Nd7. But I was starting to run low on time and it seemed natural to trade off my e-pawn rather than leaving it en prise.

26… Qxf6

26… Nxf6, trading queens, was a probable improvement.

27. Rc7 Rad8
28. Qc6

After thinking for a bit I suddenly noticed I had a fork and jumped at the opportunity. But, unlike in the line after White’s 26th move, it’s just a losing blunder. I’d simply missed that he could defend with Nb8, meeting both my threats and creating two threats of his own.

It’s not obvious at my level and with the clock ticking, but 28. Rc6 Nb8 29. Re6 is the computer recommendation, apparently with equality. The tactical point is that the immediate 28. Rc6 would allow Qxb2, but now 29… Qxb2 would lose to Nf7+.

28… Qd4+
29. Kh1 Qd2

He should have played Nb8 at this point, which just wins at once. Now I have some sort of defence.

30. Rg1 Nb8
31. Ne4 Qe2

And here he should trade queens, which is still winning comfortably.

32. Qc3 Rd7
33. Rxd7

I had two better choices here: f6, which I think I considered but rejected, and Qc5.

33… Nxd7
34. Nd6 Nf6

34… Qd3 was correct here. Now I could and should grab the a-pawn: my only hope is to run Black out of pawns.

35. h3 Qf2
36. Rc1

Again, I should have captured on a5, which, according to my computer, is only slightly better for Black. By now neither of us had enough time left so I’ll let the rest of the moves pass without comment.

36… Bf1
37. Qc6 Qf4
38. Rc2 Bd3
39. Rc1 Bxf5
40. Nxe4 Bxe4
40. Nxf5 Qxf5
41. Rc5 Qf1+
42. Kh2 Qf4+

At this point I stopped recording as I was down to my last couple of minutes. My opponent eventually mated me with king and rook against king just before his flag fell.

So what went wrong? The mistakes at the end were understandable: the position was complicated and I didn’t have enough time left. The main problem was the blunder on move 28, and before that the positional misjudgement on move 19. I could have played the early part of the game much better, but on several occasions I didn’t play the move I knew I should have played because I was fearing ghosts: something that happens over and over again in my games. Perhaps I was unlucky because the run of play went against me. This sometimes happens, but my opponent played well after the opening and took enough of his chances to score a well deserved win.

Richard James

Novice Versus Amateur

One genre of chess book I find useful involves games between masters and amateurs. This originated with a series of books by Max Euwe and Walter Meiden in the 1960s, and there have been a few others since. I’ve always thought that you can probably learn more from the play of those rated, say, 300-400 points above you than from the top players. If I see a game played by a 2200 strength player I’ll be able to understand it and think ‘Yes, I could play like that’, while a game played by Carlsen will be over my head.

So perhaps there’s scope for a book for novices which uses games played by amateurs as teaching materials. The games would have to be simple to understand and free from obvious oversights. As it happens, one of the books in the Chess Heroes project, Chess Games for Heroes, will be similar to this, but as it uses the ‘How Good is Your Chess’ principle the games are, of necessity, short.

Here’s a training game I played against one of my pupils which might be useful.

1. e4 d5

I usually play e5, which is what he’s used to, but wanted to see what he’d do when faced with unfamiliar problems. Of course the natural move is to take the pawn, but he noticed I had a threat and chose to defend instead.

2. Nc3 c6

I decided to transpose to a Caro-Kann. How would he cope with that? Rather illogically, perhaps, he now decided to trade pawns.

3. exd5 cxd5
4. d4 Bf5
5. Bf4 Nf6
6. Nf3 e6

Rather careless. I’m trying to develop my king side pieces first, but not considering possible replies. White now has the opportunity to play 7. Bxb8 Rxb8 8. Bb5+ when I’d have to play the uncomfortable Ke7 as Nd7 would lose immediately to Ne5. White has another interesting option in Nb5, which was also possible last move. I’d have to reply with Na6 when the knight on b5 will be safe for some time to come. I really should have played Nc6 by now.

7. Bb5+ Nbd7
8. O-O Bb4

With a positional threat. We haven’t yet spoken much about weak pawns so here’s an opportunity to teach him a lesson. The engines prefer h6 here, to prevent White playing Nh4 and trading off my light squared bishop.

9. a3

Just what I was hoping for. Now I’m going to trade on c3 when White will have backward doubled pawns on the half-open c-file as well as an isolated a-pawn. In an analogous position type where Black has a c-pawn rather than an e-pawn White might be happy with his two bishops, but here I’m hoping to tie him down to defence by targeting the front c-pawn with my major pieces.

9… Bxc3
10. bxc3 Rc8

I could also have played Ne4 here, but I would have had to analyse lines like 10… Ne4 11. Ne5 Nxc3 12. Qh5 Bg6 13. Bxd7+ Qxd7 14. Nxd7 Bxh5 15. Ne5 Ne2+ to justify it.

11. Qd2

He spots my threat and chooses the most natural defence. There were better alternatives, but at novice level it wouldn’t be possible to find them for the right reasons.

The simplest option is 11. Nh4 Bg6 12. Nxg6 hxg6 13. Qf3 Ne4 14. c4.

White can also give up the c-pawn for counterplay:
11. Qb1 Rxc3 12. Qb4 Rxc2 13. Ne5 with more than enough compensation, although Black shouldn’t take the second pawn.
11. Rb1 Rxc3 12. Bd3 Bxd3 13. cxd3 b6 14. Qa4 with compensation for the pawn.

11… O-O

After playing this move I realised that I could have played Ne4 at once, although my move is also strong. Around this point my pupil became stuck, and was unable to find reasonable moves. Understandably so because his position is very difficult to play and he probably doesn’t have any reasonable moves. Some of his moves, including the next one, were my suggestions.

12. Bd3

I’d suggested that he might want to trade off my dangerous bishop. I have no intention of taking it, though, as I don’t want to give him control of c4 and e4. After he’d played the move I realised that Ne4 was very strong.

12… Ne4
13. Bxe4 Bxe4

The wrong recapture. I didn’t want to double my pawns (as I was trying to teach my pupil about the weakness of doubled pawns) or block in my bishop, but dxe4 is excellent as it drives the white knight back to e1.

14. Qe3

If I’d noticed it left the c2 pawn en prise I’d have suggested that he played an alternative. My computer thinks Ne5 is the best try, but Black’s still a lot better.

14… Nb6
15. Nd2 Bxc2

The rest of the game is just a matter of technique for an experienced player. I offered my pupil the chance to switch sides and see if he could win with Black at several points but, to his credit, he preferred to play it out and see how I beat him.

16. Rac1 Bg6
17. Bg5 Qc7
18. Bf4 Qc6
19. Rfd1 Nc4
20. Nxc4 Qxc4
21. Bd6 Rfd8
22. Be7 Rd7
23. Bg5 b6
24. Rd2 Qb3
25. Bf4 Qxa3

A second pawn falls.

26. Rdd1 a5
27. Re1 Rc4
28. Qd2 Rd8
29. Re3 Rdc8
30. h3 b5
31. g3 b4

The third weak pawn falls. White finds a good tactical try but I manage to calculate the win.

32. Bd6 bxc3
33. Bxa3 cxd2
34. Rd1 Rc1
35. Bxc1 Rxc1
36. Rb3

Another good tactical try, threatening mate but allowing an amusing finish. My pupil shows admirable tactical imagination as well as tenacity which will stand him in good stead in the future.

36… Rxd1+
37. Kg2 Rg1+
38. Kh2 Rh1+
39. Kg2 Be4+
40. f3 Bxf3+
41. Kf2 g6
42. Rb8+ Kg7
43. Kxf3 d1=Q+
44. Kf4 Qxd4+
45. Kf3 Rf1+
46. Ke2 Rf2+
47. Ke1 Qd2#

I guess you might find this a useful example of how an amateur can beat a novice by creating weak pawns, attacking them and winning them. This is not the only training game of this nature I’ve played recently so I guess learning about pawn weaknesses, how to avoid them, how to create them and how to exploit them, is a useful lesson for novices who want to become amateurs. There may be more on this topic in Chess Openings for Heroes.

Richard James

Feedback and Follow-ups

This week, some feedback and follow-ups on recent posts.

But first, something rather less recent. It was great to hear from Dr Robert Samuels, a chess player and senior lecturer in music at the Open University, concerning my articles on chess and music last year. I pointed him in the direction of The Even More Complete Chess Addict, which he is enjoying reading. He has just started his own blog on chess and music which you can, and should, if you’re interested in both chess and music, read here.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the European Schools Chess Championship in Montenegro and mentioned the reports by an English parent who was concerned that some of the participants were fearful of the reactions of their parents and coaches if they lost.

Shortly after publication I came across this article from the Jewish Chronicle last year, written by Dana Brass, mother of leading English junior Ezra Brass. Her experience has been very similar:

The reaction of the Russians, who had sent the largest delegation, was perfunctory. A win was simply an expectation met, a job done. A loss would unleash a myriad of expletives at the poor offspring very publicly (again, my Russian proving useful).

Meanwhile, there were problems with parents at the recent PanAm youth Youth Championships in Costa Rica, according to a Facebook post by Paul Truong:

Some chess parents and coaches are embarrassing the chess community, again! After receiving so many complaints, the organization of the 2017 PanAm Youth Championships addressed the complaints and announced a new procedure this morning.

They are allowing all parents, coaches, family members, and head of delegations, etc. 5 minutes to take photos of their players. After the 5 minutes are up, they are asked to leave the playing hall. Once everyone was out of the room, play began.

The reason for this is a number of parents and coaches instead of taking pictures of their players, took pictures of all the opening positions of potential rivals. Some got so aggressive that they got in the way of other parents / family members / coaches who really want to take pictures of their own players.

When this announcement was made, a huge round of applause erupted. At one time years ago, parents were allowed to be in the playing hall. Because of a few parents and coaches who cannot behave, rules had to be changed.

Chess is a game. The time for serious preparation is at home. Young players need their parents and coaches’ support at tournaments but some lines should not be crossed.

In the same article I asked why other Western European countries were not represented in the European Schools Championship. This elicited a reply from Helmut Froeyman, whose son Hugo is Belgian U8 Champion, explaining that, in his case at least, it was a matter of time and money: his national chess federation offers no financial support for this type of event, and he and his wife both work full time. In addition, this particular tournament clashed with Hugo’s school exams. I took the opportunity to read Helmut’s chess blog and ask him more about junior chess in his country. His reply confirmed my understanding: perhaps I’ll return to this some other time.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how many parents misunderstand the nature of chess. Here’s another story.

The other day I was filling in for a colleague who had to leave early in the RJCC Beginners’/Novices’ group. There were a few children who were too young and immature for chess, but others who were really enthusiastic and keen to learn. Some of them were still there with me more than half an hour after the scheduled end of the session. Among the children left at the end were a sister and brother who had come along for the first time that day. Their mother was also watching with interest. I set up this position and asked them how White could get checkmate in two moves.

This is a good question as it tests children’s understanding of both pawn promotion and stalemate as well as their ability to look ahead and their knowledge of typical king and rook checkmates. I was planning to move onto the positions discussed here, but first wanted to see whether they could solve this.

One of them eventually realised that promoting to a queen was stalemate and they finally discovered that the problem was solved by promoting to a rook instead.

The mother watching was incredulous, though. How could it possibly be better to promote to a rook rather than a queen? There’s nothing a rook can do that a queen can’t do. True, but there’s something a queen can do that a rook can’t do: in this case, control the h6 square. She seemed unaware of the concept of stalemate, and of the idea of looking at what your opponent’s next move might be. She told me that when she was a girl her family lived on a boat, and she was taught chess by a man with a fondness for ‘a certain substance’. At least, unlike most parents, she was doing the right thing by taking her children to Richmond Junior Club, where, as we have a separate group for novices, her children will learn to play correctly.

I’d advise her, though, not to read How to beat Anyone at Chess, by Ethan Moore. Simon & Schuster were the first publishers of Fischer’s My 60 Memorable Games, but now they’re publishing a book, which doesn’t quite make the same impression.

Here’s the blurb:

Learn to take the king like a pro!

Whether you’ve played a few matches or are completely new to the game, How to Beat Anyone at Chess helps you master leading strategies for one of the hardest games out there. Each page guides you through important moves with easy-to-understand explanations and tips for staying ahead of your opponent. From utilizing the queen’s power to slaying your rival’s king, you’ll learn all about the traps, squeezes, and sacrifices that give players an extra edge and how you can use these techniques to beat the competition.

The ultimate guide to conquering the classic game, How to Beat Anyone at Chess will show you how to become a grandmaster in no time!

Who, you might ask, is Ethan Moore? Perhaps he’s this guy, with a rating of 883. Who knows? Quality control, indeed!

Finally, shortly after writing this post I read another article about Brexit by a former RJCC member, Jonathan White. Jonathan still finds time to play chess in between being a professor at the London School of Economics. Perhaps one reason is that, unlike Adam and Tommy, he started competitive chess at the age of 13, when he joined RJCC from Westminster School along with his friend, Ben Yeoh.

I’ve said this many times before, and I’ll say it again now: children who start competitive chess at secondary school age are much more likely to play as adults than those who start at primary school age.

Richard James

As Others See Us

“Chess. Quite boring if you ask me but chess club is the sort of thing you should belong to aged 8 if you’re going to graduate to the Bullingdon Club and then become a Tory MP.”

(A note for non-UK readers: the Bullingdon Club is, according to Wikipedia, “an exclusive but unofficial all-male students’ dining club based in Oxford … noted for its wealthy members, grand banquets, boisterous rituals and destructive behaviour, such as the vandalising (“trashing”) of restaurants and students’ rooms.” It’s former members include David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson.)

This is the opinion, not that anyone, as far as I know, was asking her, of one Sophia Money-Coutts, in a recent Sunday Telegraph article about board games. I guess she should know about Tory MPs, if not about chess. Sophia’s grandfather was Bill Deedes, a Tory (or Conservative, for those of my friends who like to make the distinction) MP famous for his friendship with Margaret and Denis Thatcher, and from a long line of MPs dating back almost 400 years.

I suppose it makes a change from the usual stereotypical description of chess players: we’re usually portrayed as being introverted nerds with poor social skills and dubious personal hygiene, shabbily dressed and with our sandwiches in a carrier bag. Articles about chess on internet news sites often conclude with the obligatory ‘all chess players are loonies’ feature, with paragraphs about Morphy collecting women’s shoes, Steinitz giving God odds of pawn and move, Carlos Torre taking his clothes off on the bus, and Fischer – well – just being Fischer. Given the way we’re presented in the media, it’s not surprising that parents sometimes tell me they don’t want their children to be good at chess. Sure, they want them to play chess because they’ve read that ‘chess makes kids smarter’, but, understandably, they don’t want them to grow up to become either Billy No-Mates or Boris Johnson. To be honest, I’m not sure which is worse.

Perhaps, though, there’s also an element of truth in Sophia’s perception of school chess clubs as being mainly for intelligent boys from upper-class families. We could start by looking at the schools taking part in the final stages of various national schools competitions.

Let’s start with the EPSCA (English Primary Schools Chess Association) Under 9 Championship.

The final eight teams this year, in order of finishing, were as follows:
1. Westminster Under (the junior branch of Westminster School, one of London’s leading academic schools)
2. Homefield (upmarket prep school in South London with a strong recent chess record)
3. St Paul’s Juniors (the junior branch of St Paul’s School, another of London’s leading academic schools, whose former pupils include Jon Speelman, Julian Hodgson and many other chess players)
4. Wetherby (top people’s prep school in central London, former pupils include Princes William and Harry)
5. The Hall (upmarket prep school in Hampstead, also with a strong recent chess record)
6. Hallfield (prep school in Edgbaston, an affluent suburb of Birmingham)
7. Akiva (Jewish fee-paying primary school in North London)
8. Dulwich Prep (the junior branch of Dulwich College, another top academic London school, whose former pupils include Ray Keene)

Eight fee-paying schools, seven of them in London. Will the Under 11 Championship be any different?

1= Westminster Under
1= Haberdashers’ Aske’s (prep department of leading independent school in Elstree, just north of London, another school with many recent chess successes)
3. Heathside (another upmarket prep school in Hampstead with a strong recent chess record)
4. North London Collegiate (prep department of leading independent girls’ school in North London)
5. North Bridge House (upmarket prep school in North London, again with a strong chess tradition)
6= Homefield
6= Brookland (state primary school in Hampstead Garden Suburb)
8. Heycroft (state primary school in Essex with chess on the curriculum via CSC)

So 14 schools were represented in this competition, of which 12 are, I believe, fee-paying, 12 are in affluent areas of London and one in an affluent area of Birmingham.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against any of these schools and offer my congratulations to all of them, to their pupils, their chess tutors and their parents. It’s especially gratifying to see the CSC (Chess in Schools and Communities) pupils from Heycroft and the girls from North London Collegiate doing so well. But it does look as if, taking only school chess clubs into consideration, Sophia Money-Coutts has a point.

The ECF Under 19 Schools Championship is not very different, although, partly because of the way it’s run, there’s a much wider geographical spread: as far as I can tell, the final 16 schools were either fee-paying or grammar (selective) schools.

(For those readers not familiar with the UK education system, in most parts of the country children move from primary to comprehensive (non-selective) schools at the age of 11, but in some areas there are also state grammar (selective) schools which require children to pass an examination. There’s also a thriving private sector with many fee-paying schools.)

1. Royal Grammar School Guildford (fee-paying)
2. Hampton School (fee-paying)
3= Reading School (grammar)
3= Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School (fee-paying)
3= Queen Elizabeth’s School Barnet (grammar)
6= King Edward’s School Birmingham (fee-paying)
6= The Judd School (grammar)
6= Nottingham High School (fee-paying)
6= City of London School (fee-paying)
6= King Edward VI Grammar School Chelmsford (grammar)
6= Wilson’s School (grammar)
12= Sir Thomas Rich’s School (grammar)
12= Eltham College (fee-paying)
12= Wirral Grammar School for Boys (grammar)
12= Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital (fee-paying)
16. Yarm School (fee-paying)

Here’s an exciting game from this event with a remarkable conclusion. Can you find an improvement for Black on move 24? The winner is an IM elect from Haberdashers’ Aske’s school: his opponent was representing Sir Thomas Rich’s School.

While I’d again like to offer my congratulations to the participants, and my thanks to the orgainsers of both competitions, this does make the whole schools chess set-up in the UK look very elitist, in the worst sense. I wonder how many of the participants will indeed go on to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford, join the Bullingdon Club and become Conservative MPs.

I’d suggest two things: we should be doing more to promote chess in the state sector, especially within comprehensive schools (CSC is already doing great work in primary schools), and should also strive to promote a more positive image of chess itself: as an exciting and beautiful, not a boring game, and of chess players: as serious sportspeople, not as either nerds or toffs.

The answer to my question above: Black missed the extraordinary defence 24… Qd7, when, after the moves 25. Bxd5 e6 26. Nxe5 Qxd5 27. Qf4 Qb7, my computer assures me that White will eventually draw by perpetual check by moving his knight to g4 and then to f6. Chess is only boring to those who, like Sophia, don’t know enough about it to appreciate its excitement and beauty.

Richard James

Quality Control

The other day we decided to show a video to the Richmond Junior Club Intermediate Group. As our subject for the day was opening tactics we chose this video from chesskid.com.

I should start by saying that chesskid.com is an excellent site and their curriculum is one of the best I’ve seen. However, I have a few problems with this video.

You may or may not like the idea of using seemingly random positions like the one you see at the start of the video. I don’t much like this myself, but I understand that you may well disagree with me, so we’ll move on.

My first problem is the confusion in terminology. The first confusion is between the words ‘attack’ and ‘threat’. I try to differentiate: an attack is something you could do and a threat is something you want to do (which, at low levels, will be capturing a piece for free, capturing a more valuable piece with a less valuable piece or delivering checkmate). There’s also a problem with the exact definition of the word ‘fork’, and here writers and video producers differ. My definition is ‘a move which creates two threats in different directions with the same piece’. If you don’t make this clear children will play something like 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Ng5 and excitedly tell you they’ve played a fork.

For example, after the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Bc4 Bc5, 3. Qh5 is, in my opinion, a fork, creating two threats with the queen, although one of the threats is only operational because the bishop on c4 is a backup attacker. If I wanted to use this example I’d go on to explain that it’s not a dangerous fork as Black should have no problem finding a move which defends both threats.

By this definition, any piece can make a fork. Other teachers, illogically in my opinion, make some sort of differentiation depending on which piece is making the double attack, and that is what seems to be happening here. We’re told that forking is like a double attack, but done by knights and sometimes by pawns (it depends who you ask). According to my definition, queen forks are the most common, followed by knight forks, and pawn forks often happen in lower level games. As queens and knights both move in eight directions it’s quite understandable that they are the pieces most likely to create forks. There’s a whole section on queen forks in the opening in both Move Two! and Chess Openings for Heroes. I consider this seemingly arbitrary distinction to be confusing.

Continuing with the video, after a couple of minutes we see some double attacks with the rook, one of which is also described as a fork. In fact, according to my definition, the first rook moves we see are forks, but the one that’s described as a fork is no such thing, because, as is pointed out to us, the knight is defended, so that move only creates one threat.

We then continue with a practical example and learn about the Two Knights Defence, and how White can play Ng5, threatening the most common fork in kids’ chess. Excellent – and very important. But we see the move 4… Bc5, which, as you’ll probably know, is the Wilkes-Barre variation. There’s no mention of this, though, and we’re told that after this move we should continue with 5. Nxf7 Qe7 6. Nxh8. In fact I’d probably continue with 5. Bxf7+ because I know it’s the safer option, and I also realise that after Nxf7 my opponent will probably play Bxf2+, and I don’t know enough about the theory to survive.

When I’m teaching this knight fork I prefer to give Black 4… h6 rather than Bc5 to avoid the confusion over the Wilkes-Barre. Dave Rumens, one of the great characters of English chess, whose death was announced as I was writing this column, used to encourage his pupils to play this with black. Whether or not this is a good opening to teach is another matter entirely, and one I’m not going to discuss here.

The next example is slightly strange in that it appears that White has played five moves to Black’s four, but it’s White’s move. Perhaps Black played Qe7 followed by Qf6: I can’t imagine why, but we’ll let it pass. I’d also expect Black to play Kd8 rather than Kf8 after Nxc7+ to try to trap the knight on a8, but my computer has a slight preference for Kf8, so again we’ll let it pass.

I really like the last example, the final position of an endgame study, although I think it’s more an example of how beautiful chess can be rather than something of very much practical use. It looks, though, as if they’d forgotten about the f5 square and only referred to it at the end as an afterthought. In fact the whole video looks in many ways as if it was rushed.

Now you may think I’m being Mr Picky here, but chess is a complex game, and it’s very easy for young children to get confused, to misunderstand ideas or to take them out of context. If you’re talking to, or writing for, young children you need to be very clear in terms of using vocabulary which will be understood within context, using consistent and unambiguous terminology and choosing examples which avoid any possible confusion. Of course I frequently get it wrong myself!

Richard James

Misunderstandings

Something I remember from nearly thirty years ago. My friend and colleague Ray Cannon is going through the solution to a tactics puzzle on the demo board. I’m watching at the back of the room together with some parents. One of the dads asks me: “Why is he doing this? They’re never going to reach that position in their games.” I try to explain the reasons: that children need to learn how to calculate tactics, and that, although they will probably never reach that exact position they may reach an analogous position where a similar idea works.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago. I was teaching a private pupil, not much more than a beginner. His grandmother, whom I’ve known for nearly twenty years, came to pick him up. She’s a passionate educationalist who has founded no less than three schools. I talked to her about the importance of children solving tactics puzzles. She was astonished. “Puzzles? Why do they need to do that? Chess is just memory.” Again, I tried to explain. “Oh, you mean like those square things in The Times every day, but at a much lower level?” “Yes, exactly!”

Richard Teichmann is alleged to have claimed that “Chess is 99% Tactics”. Well, I think ‘calculation’ is a better word than ‘tactics’ (since strategy involves a different type of calculation to tactics) and I think 99% is something of an exaggeration, but, even so, calculation is the single most important skill in chess. Yet most non-players and most of those who know the moves but nothing else, I suspect, have no understanding that this is the case. The general public’s idea of chess is, I suspect, that it’s mostly about memory.

Well, memory is a complicated subject. It’s hard to become a proficient chess player if you have a weak short-term (working) memory. Long-term memory is also important, and the stronger you get the more important it becomes. You’re going to have to remember opening theory, how to play typical endings, middle game strategy and standard tactical ideas. But without understanding, and without calculation, you won’t get very far.

Here’s something else that happened the other day. When I visited one of my youngest private pupils he and his parents had a specific request for the content of the lesson. He wanted to know the best way to play when he’d lost his queen. Further questioning as to exactly what he meant confirmed that he didn’t want to learn how to play queenless middlegames or endings, but the best way to play after he’d blundered and was a queen behind. Of course the answer is easy: don’t lose your queen! He loses pieces every few moves in his games because his concentration and impulse control are not yet fully developed.

Week after week, my younger pupils argue with me that it doesn’t matter if you lose a piece because you can still win. At their level this is true, but to raise your game to the next level you have to understand that good players, by and large, don’t leave their pieces en prise or move them to unsafe squares. Yes, if Chelsea have a player sent off they might still beat Manchester United, but they are much less likely to do so. Good players might sacrifice a piece because they’ve calculated that they can achieve checkmate or gain a material advantage by doing so. They might play a positional sacrifice because their assessment of the position, combined with their knowledge and experience of chess, that the positional advantage they game provides adequate compensation for the material they’ve lost, but this is a very hard concept for beginners.

Chess is basically this: other things being equal superior force (usually) wins. An advantage of two or more points is, with a few exceptions, enough to win, and an advantage of even one point will often win. Very strong players will sometimes resign even if they’re just a pawn down. Chess is mostly about calculation: looking ahead (I go there, you go there, I go there) to work out how you can get checkmate, win pieces, get your pieces on better squares or get your opponent’s pieces on worse squares. If, by some unlikely combination of circumstances, I find myself sitting opposite Magnus Carlsen in my first Thames Valley League match next season, if I don’t make any mistakes I won’t lose, and, if Magnus makes a mistake, I’ll win.

Yet most non-players have a totally mistaken idea about what chess is and the skills you require to play the game well. Even many strong players and teachers, to whom chess comes naturally, are unaware of the importance of teaching calculation skills and concentrate purely on passing on their knowledge of chess to their pupils.

You need to do just three things to play chess well:
1. Put your pieces on good squares
2. Calculate everything that moves
3. Avoid careless mistakes

How can we get this message across to parents and teachers, so that they can be more proactive in helping their children play chess?

Richard James

King and Rook Checkmates

What I often do when playing young children who are lacking in confidence is head for an overwhelmingly won ending and turn the board round to let them win.

I was playing a boy at a school chess club the other day and duly turned the board round when I had a rook and lots of pawns against a few pawns. On swapping the positions my king soon captured my opponent’s pawns and, when I captured his last pawn we reached this position, with Black to move:

I explained to my opponent that he could mate me in two moves by playing a king move, and, more by luck than judgement, he was able to find it.

At the end of the club at this school I usually do a quick 10-minute lesson on the demo board for children who have finished their tournament games. I set up this position and asked if the students could find the mate in 2 (being careful to explain exactly what a mate in 2 was). There was one boy, the strongest player in the club, who had just missed out on qualifying for the Delancey UK Chess Challenge Gigafinals at the weekend, had some idea how to go about trying to work out the answer, but the rest of the class were unable to do anything other than making wild guesses.

I then changed the position slightly:

Again, they had the same difficulty trying to find the mate in 2 for Black. When they eventually found the answer I made another slight change:

When our strongest player found Rc6 I asked the whole class how many different answers there were to this question. At first they just made random guesses (2? 3? 22?) and I told them it wasn’t a guessing game: they had to work it out. Finally, someone found Re6 and it dawned on them that there were in fact five ways for Black to force mate in 2 moves in this position.

I would have liked, if I’d have had time, to have rotated the positions by 90% and 180% to see whether they would realise the answer was, in effect, the same, or whether they would go back and try to solve the puzzles from first principles. But it was the end of the session and the parents were waiting outside to collect their children. Another time, maybe.

The teacher who was in the room with me at the time, not a chess player herself, told me the lesson was very hard for them, and was impressed with their answers as well as with their enthusiasm and concentration during the lesson.

For chess players these examples are very simple and very basic. We know that, in order to play even reasonably good chess, we need to think “I go there, you go there, I go there”, but this type of thinking, even when “you go there” elicits only one possibility, is very hard and very unnatural for most young children, especially if they are not used to playing simple strategy games at home.

I suspect it’s because this sort of exercise introduces children to a totally new thinking skill that scholastic chess in the classroom might have a short-term effect in ‘making kids smarter’.

I also suspect that teaching kids how the pieces move in half an hour and putting them into a competitive environment will have no effect at all in ‘making kids smarter’. A ten-minute lesson of this nature after they’ve finished their tournament game will also have little effect unless the thinking skills are reinforced. Otherwise most of them will have forgotten it by the following week.

Richard James

Under Pressure

Over the last few days I’ve been reading with interest the reports of the English contingent’s progress at the European Schools Championship in Montenegro.

The reports are written by Malcolm Birks, whose son Joe is taking part in the Under 9 section. After Round 5 he wrote “The tension is palpable and not all of it is fun”.

After Round 7 Malcolm went into more detail:

Being strong, even extra strong, is important in these competitions, because the lurking feeling that hangs around in the corners of the playing hall is fear.

Some of the children participating are undoubtedly fearful which is sad and worrying. Fearful of their parents’ reaction, fearful of their coaches and fearful of the great expectations upon their small shoulders.

I’m glad to say that I don’t think that this applies to the England players in our team, who all seem to have a healthy attitude and supportive parents and coaches. Indeed, a friendly parent from the Israeli delegation kindly observed: “I knew it must be players from the England team because they were smiling”.

It’s disturbing, but not altogether surprising, to read this, although good to be reassured that the English parents and coaches have been supporting their children in a healthy and positive way.

By and large, most English chess parents, in my experience, are great. We’ve been very lucky in the parents we’ve had at Richmond Junior Club over the years. However, I’ve witnessed parents shouting at children who have lost games, and heard reports of parents physically abusing children. I’m not sure that the whole concept of children having to score well in one tournament to qualify for the next tournament, or for the England squad, is helpful in this respect. The last time I visited the London Junior Championships I witnessed several children in tears because they hadn’t scored enough points to obtain a norm for the England Junior Squad.

Of course competitive chess, like any competitive activity, is, by its nature, tense and pressurised, and, because it’s a solo activity you can’t blame anyone other than yourself if you make a careless mistake and lose the game. Some people thrive on that sort of pressure, but there are others, including me, who don’t enjoy it.

Malcolm’s report poses a lot of questions, and it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. When Luke McShane was selected for the World Under 10 Championship in 1992 at the age of eight, there were those in the English junior chess establishment who were opposed to his selection, believing that Luke would be too young to cope with that sort of pressure, and citing a boy who had had a bad experience in this event in the past. But those of us who knew Luke and his father well were confident that he had the maturity to take part, and, as we know, he went on to win the tournament.

These days anyone who works with children has to be aware of child abuse, and aware of the long-term damage that physical and emotional abuse, as well as sexual abuse, can do to children. While many children gain a lot of benefit from taking part in junior international chess tournaments of this nature, they do create an environment in which abuse can occur. In events like this, especially when they involve very young children (the World Schools Championship includes U7 and U7 Girls sections), organisers need to be sensitive to the potential for abuse, and national chess federations need to provide guidelines for parents and coaches with regard to appropriate conduct.

There’s one more point. This is a relatively low profile event, much smaller and weaker than the World and European Youth Championships. A large proportion of the competitors are from Russia, with significant participation also from Turkey and Israel. There are 13 English players (plus a member of Richmond Junior Club representing Russia in the U7 section), five Spanish players and one Swedish player. Other West European countries, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands, are conspicuous by their absence. Perhaps they’ve decided their players will get more benefit, or better value for money, by playing in open Swiss events against players of all ages. I understand this, but we have very few suitable tournaments in this country. Perhaps they know something we don’t. Perhaps we should ask them and find out.

Richard James

Aftermath

Don’t worry. Although this might start off like a post on politics, it’s actually about something else. Most things, in my experience, are not about what most people think they’re about. If it really was a post on politics, Nigel, quite rightly, wouldn’t publish it. After all, this is a chess blog.

In the aftermath of the recent General Election it’s been interesting to read articles from a variety of viewpoints on what will happen next with regard to both UK politics in general, and, more specifically, Brexit.

Adam Swersky, for example, is a local councillor in Harrow (North West London) representing the Labour Party. In his day job he leads an initiative helping people with health problems and disabilities to find employment. He wrote an interesting article proposing a Grand Coalition to solve the UK’s political and social problems.

A couple of hours later I came across an article in the Sunday Times suggesting that the election result might open the way for a soft Brexit. The article was written by the newspaper’s economics correspondent Tommy Stubbington, who had previously worked for the Wall Street Journal, and, before that, for Dow Jones Newswires.

You might by now be asking yourself what this has to do with chess. But 22 years ago, back in 1995, Tommy and Adam were sitting across the chessboard from each other in Round 4 of the Richmond Chess Initiative Championship. Tommy was the more experienced player so the game resulted in a comprehensive victory for the future Sunday Times over the future Harrow Labour Party.

Both Tommy and Adam were strong, but not outstanding, players at primary school age, both achieving grades in the 120s before giving the game up to concentrate on their academic work. If you’re bright enough to understand chess at a higher level at that age without intensive coaching there’s a fair chance (although it’s not true for everyone) that you’ll find other things to do with your life that are more lucrative, such as being a top financial journalist, more worthwhile, like helping people with health problems find work, or just more interesting than chess.

This is one of the problems with children starting competitive chess young: those who do well will be the children with a very strong general intellgence (David Didau believes there is such a thing: you may disagree) who will often choose to do other things with their lives.

Looking back at the 29 players in that 1995 tournament, there is, as far as I know, one (older than most of the players in this event and also older when starting competitive chess) still playing regularly and another, who also started relatively late, playing occasionally. I’m aware that another competitor, now a Brussels-based Eurocrat (not sure what effect Brexit will have on him) plays online to a high level. So we’re getting at most 10% of our stronger players remaining active 20 years later – and don’t forget that these were the strongest RJCC players, and the RJCC players in turn were the strongest primary school players. The followthrough from primary school to adult chess has been for 20 or 30 years at the most 1% (probably more like 0.1% now), even in an area like Richmond with a strong and active junior chess club acting as a bridge between the two worlds.

Children who start competitive chess at secondary school age, however, do not need precocious skills – and it’s those who are more likely to continue playing chess as adults. The younger children start to play competitively the more likely they are to become grandmasters, but the older children start to play competitively the more likely they are to continue playing as adults.

If you look at the pattern in other Western European countries you’ll find that, although chess is very popular with young children, just as it is here, it is also, unlike here, popular with teenagers, and, again unlike here, many young people come into competitive chess for the first time in their teens. There are several possible reasons for this, which I’ve touched on in many articles here and elsewhere over the years. Perhaps the educational and social ethos in this country, something I alluded to last week, also has something to do with it. What do you think?

Richard James

Knowledge and Skills

A few weeks ago a poster on the English Chess Forum posed a question about whether chess education should be based on skills or knowledge. I was tempted to answer but before I got round to it the discussion on that thread had moved onto something else, so I decided to write a blog post instead.

Well, it all depends what you mean by ‘skills’, doesn’t it?

When you think about chess skills you might interpret it as the ability to put knowledge into practice. For instance, I may know the basic procedure for delivering checkmate with bishop and knight against king, but not necessarily have the skill to put it into practice with my clock ticking in a quickplay finish. We’re talking here about domain-specific chess skills.

You might also think about the cognitive and executive function skills you need to play chess well: the ability to handle complex abstract logic, concentration, impulse control.

But I suspect the poster meant neither of these type of skills, but rather the skill of, if you like, thinking like a chess player. How to consider what will happen next. How to choose between alternatives. How to make decisions. How to solve problems. And this is precisely what the worldwide scholastic chess movement is aiming to do, claiming that using chess in this way will ‘make kids smarter’. Compare the knowledge of history or science with the skill of thinking like a historian or a scientist. (‘Scholastic chess’, in this sense, means using subsets of chess as a learning tool in the classroom, and has nothing at all to do with competitive chess as played in clubs and tournaments. Its proponents, however, will hope that many children will want to move onto competitive chess later, and, having learnt both the basic rules and the required thinking skills,

You’re probably aware that there’s been a continuing debate over many decades about the respective merits of ‘traditional’, knowledge based learning versus ‘progressive’ or ‘child-centred’, skill based learning, particularly within primary schools. My views, as they do on many subjects, occupy what I’d like to consider the sensible middle ground. Yes, I can see the merits of ‘traditional’ education where children sit in rows of desks facing the teacher, and there’s an emphasis on rote learning, facts, worksheets: after all it’s what I grew up with, and it served me well enough at least in my early years. But some children, in some subjects, will benefit from a more progressive approach where children sit round tables working in groups to develop skills and solve problems, because, after all, the traditional education I had eventually failed me. But that’s a story for another time and place.

The countries that regularly top the international league tables, though, tend to take an extreme view. Finland, for example, considered by many to have the best education system in the world, uses ‘progressive’ methods. Here’s a recent article outlining a proposed move away from a subject-based curriculum to a project-based curriculum. On the other hand, the East Asian countries which excel at maths use extremely ‘traditional’ methods.

The scholastic chess movement, it seems to me, is much more suited to ‘progressive’ than ‘traditional’ education. It ties in very much with the idea of children working together to solve a problem and aims to promote the skills of a chess player, as opposed to chess playing skills. On the other hand, worksheet based courses, such as the Steps Method, or the methods used in the former Soviet Union, focus mainly on domain-specific chess skills. There are many other courses, such as my old chessKIDS academy course, which are specifically knowledge based.

The education blogger David Didau is very much in favour of traditional education. Although I don’t agree with everything he writes, his posts are always entertaining and thought-provoking. Here he’s discussing ways of reframing the debate between the two methods. You might think he’s actually presenting three different false dichotomies, but it will certainly make you think. Here he visits the controversial Michaela School in North West London, which favours fairly extreme traditional teaching methods. Didau is no fan of educational fads and has in the past been critical of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, Edward de Bono’s Thinking Hats, Brain Gym and VAK (Verbal Auditory Kinaesthetic) teaching. He’s never written about chess in the classroom, and, while I wouldn’t want to put words into his mouth, I rather suspect he’d be sceptical.

My view is this: either type of teaching can be successful, but it’s much easier to teach effectively using traditional, rather than progressive methods. To be successful, though, a school has to decide what it’s doing and stick with it, not being swayed by the latest fads, not reacting to parents knocking on your door telling you should do this or that, and trying not to be affected by the ever changing diktats of different education ministers.

Furthermore, there’s a general misunderstanding of the nature of child-centred teaching. There’s been for several decades now, both here in the UK and perhaps also in the US, a rather vague ‘niceness’ about much of primary school education, an obsession with ‘fun’ rather than serious, rigorous work. Many people feel that, unless you make a subject ‘fun’ and ‘relevant’ you won’t get children interested. It seems that parents no longer ask their children “What did you learn in school today?” but “Did you have fun in school today?”. And it was probably wishy-washy liberal baby boomers like me who were responsible for this. Which is why, when I suggest to parents of children in school chess clubs, that they should do some serious work on chess at home, they reply that they don’t want to do that because it wouldn’t be ‘fun’. But we all know that primary school age children who receive proactive parental support can do very well, but those who lack that support will make little progress and soon give up. It seems to me that one reason why we’re lagging behind the rest of the world in junior chess is the mistaken ethos supported by both teachers and parents, that education for young children should be ‘fun’.

To return to the original question, chess is, like maths, by its nature a knowledge-based discipline. Most non-players are unaware of the amount of knowledge, accumulated over centuries, that exists, and fail to understand that a player with some of that knowledge will almost always beat an equally talented player who is making it up as he or she goes along. You might want to use chess to teach both non-chess skills and chess-related cognitive skills, although that will depend on your educational philosophy. Children will only do well at chess if, as well as those two skill types, they are putting a serious effort into acquiring domain-specific chess skills.

Richard James