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.

The Price of Chess

My attention was recently drawn to a discussion on Mumsnet about the cost of school chess clubs.

The original poster was of the opinion that £6.50 a week for a school chess club (an hour after school) was rather too expensive. She thought that she ought to teach her son at home instead. The subject generated a lot of responses, with many mums thinking the price was not unreasonable given that the school had to pay for heating and lighting as well as buying equipment. Others, though, claimed that extra-curricular clubs were free in their children’s schools. The original poster later explained that this was a primary school, not a prep school, and that the club was run, not by a grandmaster, but by a retired teacher. I’m aware of at least one school in my borough where the club is run by a retired teacher who is, as far as I know, not a particularly strong player. Whether or not it’s this school I have no idea.

As my previous two posts have mentioned, primary school chess clubs of this nature are little more than child-minding services which provide kids with some low-level enjoyment moving pieces around fairly randomly with their friends and occasionally winning a fluffy mascot for their pains. Whether or not you consider £6.50 an hour for child-minding is good value for money is, I suppose, up to you. I’m assuming here that we’re talking about a fairly affluent part of the country.

It’s actually rather more than I charge for clubs in similar schools. I can give a couple of examples.

School A, a small primary school, runs a club with little staff involvement. This term runs for 12 weeks and I charge £60 per term: £5 per child per session. I’m hoping for at least 10 children, for whit I will make £50 per hour, which I think is reasonable. Last term I had a few more than that. I’m not yet certain about this term. Some schools using this model charge the chess tutor for use of the classroom: this school, at least as yet, doesn’t do so.

School B is a much larger primary school where there is a teacher involved with the club. She deals with the club administration and is in the room at the beginning and end of the session. While the club is in progress she’s working in the next room and can hear what’s happening. The club started last October and has been very popular and successful: we had rather too many children last term and were running short of both space and equipment. It was also not possible for me to spend very long with each child. We decided to limit the club to 24 children in future and try to set up another club, mainly for less experienced players on another day. I requested my standard rate of £50 per session, and last term the school made a significant profit. Starting from this term, it was explained to me, teachers are now paid £30 per hour for involvement in extra-curricular clubs, which seems reasonable to me. The school also expects all clubs to make a profit, so they require 20 children paying £5 each to make the club viable. That comes to £100 per session: £50 for me, £30 for the teacher and £20 for the school coffers. Will they find another 20 children? I’ll probably know the answer by the time you read this.

Back on Mumsnet, the original poster implied that her son didn’t know how to play chess and perhaps that she wanted to sign him up for the club to save her the trouble. I make it very clear to all my schools, and insist that they make it clear in their letters to parents, that my clubs are for children who can already play chess, not for complete beginners. (School B above, though, has decided to target the possible second club specifically for beginners, which is fine.)

A poster called ‘LauraRoslin’ (actually the pseudonym of a male IM who is certainly not a mum, and not, as far as I know, a dad) made a very pertinent point:

There are at least three different models a chess club can be run on, and you can decide for yourself how much you are prepared to pay for any of them:

(a) a basic teaching-the-moves course, such that the participants end up knowing how to play a legal game of chess.

(b) a club where it’s expected that everybody already knows the moves, and an environment is provided for them to be able to play against each other (this is essentially the model that nearly all adult chess clubs in this country follow).

(c) a club where it’s expected that everybody already knows the moves and wants to become a better player, and specific training is given towards this aim.

This is quite correct. In fact most school clubs are essentially Laura’s (b). Junior Chess Clubs, for which you’ll probably pay more than £5 an hour, are (c). Schools, or Junior Chess Clubs, could also run (a), but by and large they don’t, possibly because most parents prefer (wrongly, in my opinion) to teach their kids the basics themselves. Richmond Junior Club runs an (a) group and School B’s proposal for a second club would also be run as an (a) group.

Within less than two minutes of Laura’s posting, another poster suggested a club that caters for all of the above. Laura replied, again quite correctly:

“A club that caters for all of the above” is usually a bad model, because it doesn’t serve any of the groups it’s catering for well.

Quite – but parents often fail to understand that you can’t just teach kids the moves in half an hour and then expect them to become strong players.

In answer to the original question, £6.50 an hour, assuming a low-level primary school club in an affluent area, is quite high but not entirely unreasonable. It depends on various factors such as the size of the club and how much profit the school wants to make. If the teacher is not a strong player and is making more than £50 an hour, it’s probably a bit high. But if you’re a parent you make your choice and you pay your money. Or not, as you prefer.

Richard James

Accepting the Challenge

Last week I considered Boris Gelfand’s view that there are too many tournaments for children, and considered the conflicting philosophies of the old Soviet School which involved skill development, particularly tactical skill development, but with very little competition, and the methods we use here in the UK which involves lots of tournaments but with no formal path of skill development. I put forward my view, which lies between the two extremes.

Primary school chess clubs here in the UK at the moment, by and large, do little more than provide an environment in which children can enjoy playing low level chess with their friends. This, at the moment, anyway, is what most parents, most children and most schools want. The children make little progress and soon give up. Chess is an extremely complex game. While older children can teach themselves to play well successfully, younger children cannot. The only children who do well are those who are studying chess seriously at home, either with their parents or with a private chess tutor. The others stand no chance at all.

I also considered the UK Chess Challenge, whose future is in doubt for financial reasons. You might consider this a disaster. I prefer to see it as an opportunity. An opportunity for someone else to take over the event and, while keeping the basic structure, introduce an element of skill development. It will need some investment and additional sponsorship, but, in the long term, it will be worthwhile.

One of my ideas when I first set up chessKIDS academy back in 2000 was that it might in future link up with the UK Chess Challenge in some way, but Mike Basman wasn’t interested. He started to set up something similar himself but didn’t get very far. Technology has moved on since then, and there are now far better ways of introducing skill development into the UK Chess Challenge.

At present kids who barely know how to play chess win fluffy mascots and other trinkets by beating other kids who barely know how to play chess. As a means of keeping kids interested in the chess club in the short term this is excellent psychology, but as a means of improving their chess and giving them a long-term interest in the game it’s appalling psychology.

There has been much research over the past three decades or more on the effectiveness or otherwise of rewards, most of which has reached the same conclusion. Alfie Kohn is perhaps the best known proponent of the theory that, in all environments, rewards and punishments are counter-productive.

Before you read on, you might like to read his 1994 article on the subject here.

I quote:

“At least two dozen studies have shown that people expecting to receive a reward for completing a task (or for doing it successfully) simply do not perform as well as those who expect nothing (Kohn, 1993). This effect is robust for young children, older children, and adults; for males and females; for rewards of all kinds; and for tasks ranging from memorizing facts to designing collages to solving problems. In general, the more cognitive sophistication and open-ended thinking that is required for a task, the worse people tend to do when they have been led to perform that task for a reward.”

I’ll repeat the last sentence again:

“In general, the more cognitive sophistication and open-ended thinking that is required for a task, the worse people tend to do when they have been led to perform that task for a reward.”

I think you’ll agree that playing chess well is nothing if not a task requiring sophistication and open-ended thinking. So, while the fluffy mascots are superficially attractive, perhaps they actually lower the standard of play.

If I had to award fluffy mascots at all, I’d rather give them to kids who could checkmate me confidently with king and queen against king than to kids who win random games against their friends.

Children enjoy playing video games where you have to complete assignments to move up to the next level. So what I’d do, if I had the money, is develop an app in which children complete chess assignments to move up to the next level.

This app would include a chess engine which you could play at various levels, perhaps with a rating function built in. You’d also be able to use the engine to play out endings such as king and queen against king and king and rook against king. There would, of course, be a tutorial to teach you the moves. There would also be a database of puzzles, starting with very simple one-movers. You might also want to provide an eBook for parents and teachers to explain how it works and how they can help their children use the app.

When you complete your assignments and reach a particular level you win, not a fluffy mascot, but a Golden Ticket to a tournament. To play in the Megafinals, you might, for example, have to show you know all the rules, get checkmate with king and queen against king, complete some simple puzzles and reach a rating of, say, 500 against the engine. Higher levels of the tournament, for the moment, are probably fine as they are.

So how about it, then? We really have to accept that our current methods of running primary school chess, while providing short-term enjoyment for kids, don’t work in terms of giving them a long-term passion for the game. While you can’t really overthrow the system, you can perhaps tweak it in stages to reach your destination.

We need to get away from the idea of competitive chess as a fun, low-level activity for small children and promote the game for what it really is: a complex, beautiful and exciting game for all ages.

Richard James

A Challenge for UK Chess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll tell you more next week.

Richard James

Executive Stress

Here’s a position from a London League game I played back in 1978.

I was White and had to play one more move before the time control. I don’t remember how much time I had but I suspect it was enough to avoid making a blunder. What I do remember, though, is that I had a heavy cold and didn’t feel fully switched on during the game. This was the main reason why, instead of playing something sensible to consolidate my slight advantage, I grabbed the e-pawn, overlooking that after the trade of bishops my opponent had the deadly fork Qh1+.

Feeling unwell is something that will inevitably affect your executive function skills. Perhaps you will find it harder to make a decision and run short of time. Perhaps you will play impulsively and make an oversight. Perhaps your decision making skills will be impaired.

But what exactly do we mean by ‘executive function’?

Wikipedia, as usual, is your friend.

“Executive functions (also known as cognitive control and supervisory attentional system) are a set of cognitive processes – including attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, as well as reasoning, problem solving, and planning – that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.”

Well, chess is very much about reasoning, problem solving and planning, as I’m sure you’ll agree. To play chess well we need attentional control, otherwise we’ll get distracted by external or internal stimuli. We also need inhibitory control, otherwise we’ll play our moves impulsively, without thinking about the consequences, and make lots of oversights as a result. Working memory is not just short-term memory but involves manipulating the information stored in your short-term memory: without that skill we’re not going to be able to consider alternatives and look ahead, and if we try to do so we’ll quickly become very confused. Finally, we also require cognitive flexibility: the ability to switch between thinking about different ideas, and to think about two different ideas at the same time.

Wikipedia again:

“Executive functions gradually develop and change across the lifespan of an individual and can be improved at any time over the course of a person’s life. Similarly, these cognitive processes can be adversely affected by a variety of events which affect an individual.”

So we’d expect children’s executive functions to improve as they get older, but on occasion an individual may be affected by a particular event, such as, in my example above, having a heavy cold, which, in a game of chess, might increase the likelihood of making mistakes. It was reputedly Tartakower who first said that he’d never beaten a healthy opponent.

“… executive functioning in preadolescents is limited because they do not reliably apply these executive functions across multiple contexts as a result of ongoing development of inhibitory control.”

Quite. You can teach young children all the chess you want but, unless their executive function skills are in place they will find it very difficult to put it into practice. Which is why young children will often get stuck, find themselves not making progress, get frustrated and give up. The younger they start chess the more likely this will happen. The children get frustrated, their chess teachers get frustrated with them, their parents get frustrated both with the children and with their chess teachers.

“Many executive functions may begin in childhood and preadolescence, such as inhibitory control. Yet, it is during adolescence when the different brain systems become better integrated. At this time, (young people) implement executive functions, such as inhibitory control, more efficiently and effectively and improve throughout this time period. Just as inhibitory control emerges in childhood and improves over time, planning and goal-directed behavior also demonstrate an extended time course with ongoing growth over adolescence. Likewise, functions such as attentional control, with a potential spurt at age 15, along with working memory, continue developing at this stage.”

Precisely. Which is why it’s so much easier to teach older children than younger children, and one of many reasons why most young children fail to make progress at chess.

It’s difficult to teach executive functions to young children, but I guess playing games of skill would be one way to develop these attributes. I would also guess that simpler games would be much more effective and probably enjoyable than an exceptionally complex and difficult game such as chess.

Some children will have these skills in place at a very early age, and I’ve been lucky enough to have known and worked with quite a few. Current Richmond Junior Chess Club member Nishchal Thatte, for example, shared first place in the U160 section of the most recent Richmond Rapidplay at the age of 7, and was up with the leaders most of the way in the European Under 8 Championships which finished the other day. But most of the children I’m asked to teach are far too immature to make much progress because they have the typical executive function defects which you’d expect from their age.

Thinking back again to the position at the top of this article:

“Psychologists Don Norman and Tim Shallice have outlined five types of situations in which routine activation of behavior would not be sufficient for optimal performance:

1. Those that involve planning or decision making
2. Those that involve error correction or troubleshooting
3. Situations where responses are not well-rehearsed or contain novel sequences of actions
4. Dangerous or technically difficult situations
5. Situations that require the overcoming of a strong habitual response or resisting temptation.”

In that position I had to make a decision. I had to correct the error in my decision making, but failed to do so. The backward diagonal attack on my rook after Qh1+ might be considered part of a novel sequence of actions. I was in a dangerous situation but failed to realise it. I had to resist the temptation of capturing the pawn but failed to do so.

Who was my opponent in that game? None other than the aforementioned Tim Shallice, who has been a strong chess player for more than half a century and is still active today.

“The work of influential researchers such as Michael Posner, Joaquin Fuster, Tim Shallice, and their colleagues in the 1980s (and later Trevor Robbins, Bob Knight, Don Stuss, and others) laid much of the groundwork for recent research into executive functions.”

Tim Shallice is not only a strong chess player but an influential researcher into executive functions. If you were paying attention recently you might recall another name from the same sentence. The winner of the game I demonstrated last week, Trevor Robbins, was a very strong chess player in his teens and early twenties but chose to concentrate on his academic work in the field of executive function.

Given the importance of executive function in playing chess it’s perhaps not surprising that two of the leading experts in the field should also be strong chess players.

We need to stress the importance of executive function in the development of young chess players, but at the moment we’re not really doing so.

Richard James

Child Genius

While it was good to see the UK’s impressive haul of medals at the Rio Olympics, it did raise the issue of sponsorship. There are those who have expressed concern that while we’ve been providing welcome financial support for many sportspeople who were seen as potential medallists, other sports, and, more generally, sports at grassroots level, were losing out. If you have funding available, whether it’s for physical sports, the arts or chess, should you use it to support professional exponents in these fields so that they can achieve even more success, should you use it to identify young talents and help bring them up to professional levels, or should you use it to support mass participation?

Let’s suppose, for a moment, that your fairy godmother offers you a million pounds to identify young chess talents and train them to reach international levels. How would you go about it? You might well decide that top grandmasters these days always start young, so if you want to produce strong grandmasters you’ll need to identify young children with the necessary qualities.

If you know little about chess, you might, I suppose, look at a television programme such as Child Genius. UK readers will be able to watch the recently completed 2016 series here.

Of course these programmes are always edited to tell a story, but there’s a very clear division.On the one hand there are kids with an exceptional natural talent (usually an eidetic memory combined with quick and accurate computational skills) who have, we are told, entered themselves into the competition. Their parents, while being extremely supportive, seem bemused by their children’s extraordinary gifts. On the other hand there are kids who are portrayed, fairly or unfairly, as being reasonably bright, but who are being pushed too hard by over-competitive parents whose teaching techniques border on emotional abuse. What they all have in common, though, is a very high level of parental involvement.

If you’re looking for potential sports stars you’re going to look for kids with specific physical attributes. It would be futile training a very short person to be a basketball player or a very heavy person to be a jockey. Likewise, if you’re looking for kids who might excel at chess at an early age you’ll be looking for specific mental attributes.

In my experience, kids who start playing good chess at secondary school age can come from any background: sometimes you’ll be surprised at the kids who take an interest in chess. But the kids who excel at primary school age all have four things in common.

1. They all have exceptional cognitive skills, specifically excelling at subjects requiring logical-mathematical intelligence.

2. They all have extremely supportive parents who are prepared to give up their weekends and holidays to take their offspring to chess competitions.

3. They all have regular access to a strong chess player who is able to develop their chess skills while also being tuned in to their emotional needs. This may either be a family member or friend, or a professional chess tutor.

4. They all have exceptional maturity for their age, or, to put in in more scientific terms, executive function skills. A lot of the children I teach have the first three attributes, but not the fourth, which is one reason why I’m sceptical about starting children too soon.

Some children are strong academic all-rounders who will, in all probability, gain top grades in all their public examinations before getting a degree from a top university. Some of them will give up chess and spend the rest of their life on activities which are more lucrative (hello, Demis Hassabis) while others will still play occasionally (hello, Luke McShane). Others will be single-issue obsessives (hello, Bobby Fischer) some of whom will be diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, and some will go on to have problems related to mental health or addiction later in life.

Some children will come from chess-playing families (hello, Magnus Carlsen), while others will have parents who decide to use chess as a project at which their children can excel (hello, Judit Polgar and sisters). Sometimes parental support can turn into physical or emotional abuse (hello, Gata Kamsky’s dad Rustam). Hugh Patterson wrote an excellent article on this subject recently, which, if you haven’t already done so, I urge you to read.

Next time I’ll take a closer look at what exactly is meant by executive function, but as it’s been a few weeks since I’ve demonstrated a game for your enjoyment, here’s an entertaining king hunt from the 1972 Oxford-Cambridge university match. You need outstanding executive function skills to play a game like this.

Richard James

T’ain’t What You Do

As we now know, chess, at least using the CSC model, doesn’t make kids smarter. However, a recent article in the Daily Mail, citing research involving 12,000 Australian teenagers, suggests that playing video games might make kids smarter.

According to Alberto Posso, from RMIT University in Melbourne, students who play online games almost every day score 15 points above the average in maths and 17 points above the average in science.

“When you play online games you’re solving puzzles to move to the next level and that involves using some of the general knowledge and skills in maths, reading and science that you’ve been taught during the day. Teachers should consider incorporating popular video games into teaching – so long as they’re not violent ones.”

Well, that poses many questions, one of which is: what are you going to drop from the curriculum to make room for these ‘popular video games’? In the EEF/CSC study, some schools dropped a maths lesson for chess, while some dropped a humanities lesson. It might seem strange to drop a maths lesson for chess when you’re trying to make kids better at maths, but there you go. At the London Chess and Education conference we’ve heard about studies claiming that kids who replace one of their weekly maths lessons with chess do better at maths than those who don’t. You know what? If I were a primary school headteacher and I thought my pupils needed to improve their numeracy, I’d take a long hard look at the methods used for teaching maths in my school rather than introducing chess to make kids better at maths. So perhaps schools should drop a humanities (history, geography etc) lesson instead? You know what else? If I were a primary school headteacher I think I’d consider making sure my pupils understood their place in the world and how they got there was even more important than making them good at maths.

For the past few weeks, a particular area of my local park, alongside a tall structure known locally as the Shot Tower, which was part of the gunpowder works which were there until the late 1920s and next to a footbridge taking you onto a nature reserve recommended by David Attenborough, has been full of mostly young males, often on bikes, staring intently at their smartphones. What are they doing? They’re playing Pokémon GO: according to some of my chess pupils there are a lot of Pokémon there.

The reason why these games are so addictive is that you always want to get to the next level. So you have an incentive to improve your knowledge and skills. Now, some of the ‘slow’ chess courses which have achieved positive results in terms of ‘making kids smarter’ do something similar in that they use the ‘building blocks’ principle, using a series of mini-games and puzzles to enhance kids’ cognitive and chess skills. Kids learn maths in very much the same way. Now if you turn learning chess or maths into a video game children can go at their own pace. If they have the time and the talent they might reach a high level quickly, but if they go more slowly it really doesn’t matter. There’s a lot of chess software around already which approaches the game in this way. I’m sure there’s even more maths software around as well. But there are many of us concerned about the amount of time kids spend in front of screens. At least Pokémon GO gets you outside.

One of the problems with education both here in the UK and in the US is that decisions are made by people who think that all children should reach a certain level in maths or English by a certain age, that children who don’t reach this level have failed and that teachers whose pupils don’t reach this level have failed. In my opinion this is dangerous nonsense. Children should be encouraged to develop at their own pace. Some children start well but their progress stalls. Other children are late developers. The tortoise sometimes beats the hare.

Perhaps what it is that ‘makes kids smarter’ is not the subject itself but the method of teaching it. So, instead of commissioning studies to research whether or not x, y or z ‘makes kids smarter’, maybe we should be looking at what teaching methods we should use to ‘make kids smarter’, and how these methods could be developed using software and other media. In the words of the song: “T’ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. That’s what gets results”. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather listen to Ella Fitzgerald than anyone making unsubstantiated claims about chess ‘making kids smarter’.

Richard James

I’ve Got a Little List

Firstly, a quick correction from last time. The study I referred to last week was actually commissioned by the EEF, who paid CSC to conduct it.

Most English chess players will be aware that, before doing anything of any importance in chess you should consult an organiser from Twickenham of below average height. So if CSC wanted to consult me, here’s what I’d tell them. (To be fair, they consulted me several years ago at the start of the project, but more recently I’ve only been speaking informally to some of my friends who work for CSC over a pint or a curry.)

Regular readers will know that I’ve always been sceptical about the research concerning chess making kids smarter. Apart from whether or not ‘making kids smarter’, whatever that means, is as desirable an aim as it sounds (I think it’s not) I have two problems.

1. Can we be sure that the improvement in kids’ maths or problem-solving skills is long-term rather than short-term? One possible interpretation of the failure of the EEF/CSC project to achieve positive results might be that the effect is indeed only short-term. It’s possible that if they’d tested the kids immediately after completing the chess course they might have produced different results.

2. Can we be sure that, if chess does actually improve kids’ performance at maths or problem solving, that the same, or even better, results, could not have been achieved using other games, perhaps simpler games which wouldn’t need investment in chess sets and the involvement of professional chess tutors? While I’m sure most kids will benefit, socially as well as academically, from playing a wide range of games, perhaps some kids will find chess too hard and would gain more benefit from simpler games.

There are, I think, several reasons (apart from making kids smarter) why you might wish to promote chess for kids. I’ve got a little list.

1. You might want to teach lots of kids how the pieces move.

2. You might want to get as many kids as possible playing low level competitive chess.

3. You might want to get as many kids as possible playing adult standard competitive chess.

4. You might want to produce champions and future IMs or GMs.

At the moment there are various projects designed for 1, 2 and 4, but little or nothing designed for 3. It’s not just because I’m an adult competitive player who has never had any ambition to become an IM or GM, that I consider number 3 to be the most important. But before you start any project you have to decide what your aims are and how you’re going to get there.

There also several methods you could use when promoting chess for kids. I’ve got another little list.

1. You can put chess in the classroom specifically as a non-competitive learning tool. Children will be playing simple games and solving puzzles using subsets of chess, not playing actual games of ‘big chess’. Many of the projects that have reported positive results have used this method. This will certainly achieve point 1 above. Whether or not it will achieve the other aims will depend on the local and national chess infrastructure into which kids who want to take things further can move. However, it will only work in schools that are fully committed to the project.

2. You can put chess in the classroom as a low-level semi-competitive activity, teaching kids the moves quickly and then encouraging them to play complete games of chess. This is the model that has been encouraged by CSC, although it’s possible some tutors and schools will have taken a slower, less competitive approach. They run inter-schools competitions, some schools take part in international competitions via the Internet, and kids are invited to visit the London Chess Classic, where they can get some instruction and watch the likes of Magnus and Vishy in action. This way, you’ll be achieving both the first and second aims, possibly at the expense of ‘making kids smarter’.

3. You could promote chess in secondary schools through a network of inter-school and inter-area competitions. If you’re linking up with adult chess clubs and competitions this will achieve our third aim above, but at the expense of the first two, and possibly also the fourth. At the moment, though, because of the nature of ‘adult’ chess clubs and competitions, as you’ll have seen if you’ve read my two recent articles about the Thames Valley League, are not really suitable for kids of secondary school age.

4. You could follow my suggestion. What I’d do is identify the areas I wish to work in, which, for several reasons, would be more deprived areas of the country, and this is what CSC are doing at present. I would establish a professionally staffed Junior Chess Club within the Borough which would meet at weekends and possibly also some evenings. This club would run courses for both beginners and intermediate level players as well as providing competitive chess, possibly including competitions for all ages as well as just for kids. This club would also provide outreach for schools within the Borough who wanted to run chess within their school. This could be non-competitive chess on the curriculum as a learning tool using mini-games, a quicker course on the curriculum (as CSC are doing at the moment), or a chess club which might be before school, at lunchtime or after school. Of course it doesn’t have to be just a junior chess club. There could be a section for adults, classes for adult beginners, for parents who want to help their kids, clubs in libraries, clubs for seniors and retirees, clubs for immigrants, using chess to help them integrate into their new community and much else.

To be fair to CSC, I’d add two points. Firstly, I understand that something like my proposal above is already happening in the London Borough of Newham: what’s happening there sounds great to me. Secondly, CSC has already had some success in producing young players through its schools who are excelling in both national and international competitions. This is great news which should be celebrated.

So my advice to CSC in the wake of the negative result of their study would be this. Concentrate on providing opportunities for competitive chess and move away from the idea of chess making kids smarter. Concentrate more on chess in the community than chess in schools. And bear in mind, most of all, that ‘big chess’ is just too hard for most kids of primary school age. They’ll learn the moves, sure, but will find it very hard to get much further. I’ll consider this in more detail next time.

Richard James

Chess Doesn’t Make Kids Smarter

Perhaps you saw the recent headlines here in the UK. It’s now official that chess doesn’t make kids smarter. Before I look at this more closely I’d like to take you back in time to 1993.

At a concert in leafy suburban Richmond, the then Mayor of Richmond, Anne Summers, met a successful local businessman, Stanley Grundy. Stanley had just read an article claiming that chess made kids smarter, based on this paper. He offered to provide financial support for a project to encourage chess in schools in Richmond, and so the Richmond Chess Initiative was born. If you have any experience in reading and assessing scientific papers you’ll be able to pick lots of holes in the validity of the research, but for now we’ll let that be. In Richmond, unlike in other parts of the world, there’s comparatively little scope for making kids smarter. It’s an affluent area of London with many bright kids with parents who are prepared to support them academically and ambitious for them to be successful. The RCI was successful for several years. More schools started after-school chess clubs, players from Richmond schools excelled nationally in both individual and team events, we ran an annual inter-schools championship which attracted several hundred players, and even ran two international events. Looking at the overall standard of play in the school clubs, though, it didn’t seem to me that chess was making kids smarter. Stanley wanted to run a study in Richmond, but the resources were not available. He was unwilling to listen to my objections that there’s a very big different between putting chess on the curriculum and running after-school clubs for kids who, for the most part, already know how the pieces move. Eventually the RCI started to wither away: schools became less interested, numbers of participants in our tournaments declined and Stanley’s money was running out. But we’re still there, running Richmond Junior Club and putting chess teachers into after-school clubs in the area.

Since then there has been much more research on the subject, with most studies showing positive results for chess improving kids’ mathematical abilities. You’ll find a very useful summary here.

Moving forward, the chess education charity Chess in Schools and Communities decided to commission their own study, the results of which have just been published. To their surprise, but not entirely to my surprise, the results were negative. This was how the press reported it.

Well, there’s a lot to say. First of all, it’s evident that the Daily Telegraph journalist hadn’t actually read the report. The survey had nothing at all to do with ‘pushy parents sending their children to chess classes’ but involved kids in deprived areas learning chess on the curriculum. I was in fact responsible for the original CSC curriculum, although it was never the curriculum I would have chosen to write, but I’m not sure to what extent if any this was used in the study.

So why wasn’t I surprised that the results showed no correlation between chess instruction and academic performance? Firstly, many of the studies showing positive results were not based on kids learning how the pieces move fairly quickly and then playing semi-competitive games, but involved kids using subsets of the board, pieces and rules to develop thinking and problem solving skills. While there is much that is excellent about CSC, there has always, it seems to me, been a conflict between two very different aims which would involve approaching chess in very different ways: chess as a non-competitive learning tool and chess as a competitive activity, and they’ve been trying to do both at the same time instead of just concentrating on one aim. The second reason for my lack of surprise was that the testing took place a year after the completion of the study, rather than immediately afterwards. It seems reasonable to me to assume that, because most of the kids enjoy their chess lessons, this will make them happier and more confident in the short term, but that this effect would gradually wear off.

Perhaps now we can take a different approach to chess and stop making dubious claims about chess making kids smarter. I’d go along with the two education experts quoted by the Daily Telegraph. Christopher McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, with whom I agree about both Mozart and chess: “Children should play chess and listen to Mozart for pleasure and as an antidote to the widespread addiction to digital technology and social media sites. Parental encouragement of their offspring should stretch beyond concerns about test marks to a love of what it means to be civilised and that includes Mozart and chess and lots of other things.” Or Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, the charity which carried out the report: “Teach chess for its own sake – for its intrinsic value and the enjoyment pupils gain from it.”

Next time I’ll consider how chess organisations might take a different approach to promoting chess. If you’ve been following my articles over the past couple of years you’ll have heard a lot of it before, but now seems a good time to repeat it.

But before then, your homework for the week is to go away and read the complete report, which you’ll find (although I’m puzzled as to why the first two conclusions, at least at the time of writing, appear to be identical) here.

Richard James

No Change

So I went along to the Thames Valley League AGM for the first time for some years. As I’m currently captaining a team in the league I thought I ought to be there.

Still very much the same people who’ve been attending for the past 40 years or so. No change there. And, of course, no discussion of the real problems facing the league.

There was much discussion on adjudications. Yes, adjudications. If you live on Planet Sensible you’d be more likely to find Elvis playing chess with the Loch Ness Monster than a league which still has adjudications. But there you go. That’s where we are. Over the past few years there have been maybe 5 or 6, but last season nothing happened. There were three games with no result recorded. It transpired that one was an adjournment which the two players hadn’t got round to playing off, but the other two were indeed adjudications, one from one of my team’s matches, which the league secretary, due to a combination of health problems and pressure of work, hadn’t sent off to the adjudication secretary. Fortunately they didn’t affect league winners, promotion or relegation. These days, of course, most games which would in the past have gone for adjudication will have their results agreed followed by consultation with Stockfish or Houdini, but there will always be a few which are genuinely unclear. You might ask yourself why the league has an adjudication secretary at all, given that there are so few adjudications, but he’s been in the post for several decades and no one wants to upset him by telling him his services are no longer needed. You might also wonder, as one or two did at the meeting, why the positions for adjudication could not be sent directly to the adjudication secretary, but, until a few years ago, he didn’t have access to email and no one had thought to change the rules once he entered the current century.

There has been some talk in the ECF in recent years about not grading games decided by adjudication, and it’s even been proposed that events which allow adjudication shouldn’t be graded. Extreme, maybe, but my view is that adjudication, at least outside primary school chess clubs, should have no place in the modern game. My view also is that adjournments are fine for consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes, but shouldn’t be forced on anyone. If the league wants to be attractive to stronger players, and to attract new players, playing to a finish in one session should be the default option. Yes, it doesn’t suit all older players. It certainly doesn’t suit me. Although I’ll always agree to finishing in one session, I inevitably panic in the quickplay finish, and, if I’m anything less than a queen ahead I’m likely to run short of time, blunder and lose. It’s a price I’m prepared to pay for the survival of the league.

The good news from the evening was that my Chess Improver posts have more readers than I thought. My Surbiton friends had read my recent piece on Keith Arkell’s visit to their neighbourhood. More surprisingly, I discovered that the league Chairman had read the column from several months ago in which I annotated my win against his King’s Gambit. Perhaps, then, I should use this column to make some proposals. If you’d like to support me or make alternative proposals please get in touch.

We agree the time control at the start of the game. At present the order of precedence is:
1. Slow time limit with adjournment or adjudication of unfinished games
2. Faster time limit with intermediate time control
3. Faster time limit with no intermediate time control

I’d propose instead the following order of precedence:
1. Faster time limit with intermediate time control
2. Faster time limit with no intermediate time control
3. Slow time limit with adjournment of unfinished games (no adjudication)

Personally, I’d prefer 1 and 2 the other way round, but I know I’m in a minority on that one. If you play in the Thames Valley League, or even if you don’t, what do you think?

Richard James

STREXIT

In the past three weeks I’ve looked at three events designed to bring chess to a wider public.

Nette Robinson staged a combination of a blitz tournament and a jazz gig, which appealed to both chess and music fans. Nette is also a talented artist, and has combined chess with art in the past.

Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan brought their Chess for Life roadshow to Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club: they’ve also given talks in other chess clubs and in less formal venues.

The ECF started a new initiative to promote chess by staging simuls in pubs, with Keith Arkell kicking things off in a hostelry not too far from me.

All three events were great and thanks are due to the organisers and participants, but their success in reaching out beyond the local chess club membership was questionable. Of course this is very difficult. There’s an enormous gap between the enthusiastic social player and even the weaker club player. We get people turning up at our club who think they’re really good at chess because they’ve won a few games on the Internet, but some of them find it hard to cope with real chess with the clock ticking and soon disappear.

Meanwhile, our local chess league, the Thames Valley League, is slowly shrinking. Not so long ago there were nine or ten strong competitive clubs in the league: now there are only three or four. Some of it is natural, but more and more higher rated players are pulling out of the league because they’re no longer prepared to risk playing a game which might not finish on the night. Everyone in this country has been much concerned recently with the possibility of BREXIT, but in ThamesValleyLeagueLand we’re seeing stronger players exiting their local league: not BREXIT but STREXIT.

I’ve explained the league rules before, but I guess I ought to provide a brief recap for new readers. Matches take place on weekday evenings, starting in theory at 7:30 but in practice more like 7:45. We have a choice of a 2½ hour or a 3 hour session, but most clubs prefer the former option. Before the start of the match the players in each game have to agree on the time control. The three options, in order of precedence, are, a slow game with adjournment or adjudication (I won’t bore you with the complicated rules about this), playing to a finish in one session with an intermediate time control and a quickplay finish, or playing all the moves within either 75 or 90 minutes. So a player who prefers slower chess can insist on the first option.

I was on the Thames Valley League committee for many years but resigned some time ago due to my frustration with the inability of the Committee and the club representatives at the AGM to come to terms with the problem. The people who turn up every year to the AGM are very often those who, like me, have been playing in the league for the past half century or so. They’re resistant to change and naturally prefer slower time limits. It’s in the nature of elections, whether chess or political, that people tend to vote for their perceived self-interest rather than for the interests of the community as a whole. So we were getting constant cries of “We don’t want faster time limits: they favour younger players and are unfair to older players like us”.

By and large, younger players prefer faster time limits, while older players, naturally enough, prefer slower time limits. In addition, stronger players tend to prefer faster time limits while weaker players tend to prefer slower time limits. What has happened to the Thames Valley League in recent years is that several clubs have withdrawn their first team from the league while continuing to run teams in lower divisions for weaker and, often, older players. Even the committee should understand that the whole concept of adjournment or adjudication will be very strange for a younger player coming into the league via junior competitions, just as it will for the hobbyist who has previously played exclusively online. While the league has made some positive decisions over the last decade or so, unless the Committee is prepared to come to terms with 21st century chess, it’s questionable whether or not the league will exist at all in a decade’s time. It will see me out, I guess, but not much more than that.

By the time you read this article, this year’s AGM will have taken place. Will anything change? Probably not, but you never know. Watch this space for the latest news.

Richard James