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.

Tennison Gambit

One of my private pupils rushed in excitedly to tell me he’d discovered an amazing new opening: he always wins whenever he plays it.

I asked him the name of the opening. “The Tennison Gambit”, he replied.

The what? Unless you’re an expert in obscure gambits you could be forgiven for not knowing what he was talking about.

First of all, it’s nothing at all to do with Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Tennyson the poet was appointed President of the revived British Chess Association in 1883: I guess they were looking for a big name, and in 1883 celebrities didn’t come much bigger than Tennyson. His actual interest in chess, though, seems to have been fairly peripheral, although back in 1862 his 8-year-old son Lionel played chess against Lewis Carroll. I imagine his dad taught him the moves. History doesn’t record whether or not young Lionel played the Tennison Gambit.

So what is the Tennison Gambit? It’s named after the Danish born American amateur Otto Mandrup Tennison (1834–1909) and starts 1. Nf3 d5 2. e4 (or, if you prefer, 1. e4 d5 2. Nf3).

Here’s a game he played in 1891:

1. Nf3 d5 2. e4 dxe4 3. Ng5 f5 4. Bc4 Nh6 5. Nxh7 Rxh7 6. Qh5+ Kd7 7. Qg6 Rh8 8. Be6+ Kc6 9. Bxc8+ Qd6 10. Qe8+ Kb6 11. Qa4 when Black, rather prematurely, resigned instead of trying to struggle on with 11.. Nc6.

How did my pupil discover this opening? It seems like he read somewhere that 1. Nf3 was the Réti Opening, and, under the misapprehension that the idea of the move was to transpose into a king’s pawn opening, decided to try it out. He played a game online starting 1. Nf3 d5 2. e4, which he won. The computer informed him he was playing the Tennison Gambit, and, because he won the game and he knew 1. Nf3 was popular, he assumed this gambit was both popular and strong. He also told me that after 1. Nf3 e5 he’d play 2. e4, transposing into what he knows. “What about playing 2. Nxe5 instead?”, I asked, but he didn’t seem interested. So his idea was that 1. Nf3 is a great move because after 1.. e5 you transpose, but if Black errs with 1.. d5 you play the brilliant Tennison Gambit.

Is the Tennison Gambit any good? It looks like you’re playing a reverse Budapest with an extra move, and the Budapest is certainly playable for Black, at least at club level. But if you stop and think about it you’ll realise that, if you play the Budapest with Black you’re doing to because you think you can take advantage of White’s c4 by playing Bb4+ at some point. The Tennison Gambit doesn’t give you this option.

So, in a word, no, it’s not any good. You’re just giving up a pawn for next to nothing. But if you google ‘Tennison Gambit’ you’ll come across a few videos like this. To save you the trouble of watching, you’re advised to play these moves:

1. e4 d5 2. Nf3 (if you really want to play the Tennison Gambit you’re more likely to get it after 1. Nf3 than 1. e4) 2.. dxe4 3. Ng5 Nf6 (3.. Bf5, which, according to the video, ‘doesn’t look right’, is more accurate while 3.. e5 is another option) 4. d3 (4. Bc4 is probably a better move, when White has some initiative) 4.. exd3 5. Bxd3 h6 (White isn’t actually threatening anything so something like 5.. Nc6 leaves White with little to show for the missing pawn) 6. Nxf7 Kxf7 7. Bg6+ winning the black queen. You may well recognise this, with colours reversed, as a familiar trap in the Budapest. How many times have the moves in this game occurred in my 7 million game database? A big fat zero.

You see why so many kids tell me about the ‘secret opening tricks’ they’ve learnt: this is one of a whole series of videos by the same presenter. Even some otherwise reputable sources have their fair share of videos recommending dodgy opening traps (don’t get me started on the Fishing Pole Trap). If you look at the comments you’ll soon discover that there must be millions of players worldwide who have been taken in by this sort of thing and think the idea of the opening is to memorise traps and spring them on unwary opponents. Facebook groups concerning chess books and chess teachers are bombarded with requests for recommended books and lessons about opening traps.

In this case, no harm was done and some important lessons were learnt. Misunderstandings are an important learning tool, as long as you have a teacher who can put you right. I wonder how many novices, misled by the seductive idea of opening traps, fail to make progress and eventually give up because they have the wrong idea about what you’re supposed to do at the start of the game.

Richard James

Indian Defence

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about John Cochrane’s games against Moheschunder Bannerjee from the 1850s. Bannerjee had learnt chess using the rules prevalent in India at the time, in which, amongst other differences, pawns were not allowed to move two squares on their first move.

In many of the games in which Bannerjee had black, he experimented with what would now be called the King’s Indian Defence, with Cochrane usually choosing the Four Pawns Attack. If you believe ChessBase (not a 100% reliable source but I don’t have immediate access to the contemporary records) some of the games started with the Pirc move order: 1. e4 d6 2. d4 Nf6, with Cochrane, not wanting to block his c-pawn, preferring 3. Bd3 to the usual 3. Nc3. They investigated the further moves 3.. g6 4. c4 Bg7 5. Nc3 O-O 6. f4 e5 7. fxe5 dxe5 8. d5.

If you’re interested in what King’s Indian Defences from the 1850s looked like, here are a couple of examples.

In this game Black miscalculated the tactics on move 24, missing the force of Cochrane’s queen sacrifice

Here, Bannerjee brought off a neat finish.

Although the King’s Indian Defence was Bannerjee’s usual choice when Cochrane opened 1. d4, he also tried other ideas.

Here’s a Grünfeld Defence, in which Cochrane brings off a familiar smothered mate:

Finally, a Nimzo-Indian Defence where Bannerjee blundered a piece in a difficult position on move 25.

The name ‘Indian Opening’ was first used by Löwenthal in his book on the London 1862 Congress (published in 1864), annotating a game between Valentine Green, another player who spent time in India, and Louis Paulsen, which started 1. e4 e5 2. d3. ‘Indian Defence’ was first used in the Chess Player’s Chronicle in 1884, referring to one of the Cochrane-Bannerjee games which started 1. e4 d6 2. d4 g6. The current opening nomenclature was only developed in the period between the two world wars, when what we now call the Indian Defences (starting 1. d4 Nf6) were being investigated by the Hypermodern School and their immediate successors.

If more notice had been taken of Bannerjee’s games against Cochrane, chess openings might have developed in a very different way.

Richard James

Unsound Sacrifices

It was the last week of term at the primary school chess club. The children had all completed their games the previous week and received their fluffy mascots. At the start of the session we handed out the Megafinal qualification forms to the lucky recipients and then moved onto the traditional end of term simul.

There were 19 players present and six large tables in the room so I appointed the six strongest players as team captains, with one to a table, and distributed the other players into teams, leaving one team with four players and five teams with three players each.

One of the games started like this:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Nc3 Nf6
4. Bc4 Nxe4
5. Nxe4 d5
6. Bd3

I was impressed that they found the right move here, and, when they suggested it, confirmed that it was the best move. At this level most of my opponents play Bxd5, but it’s clearly better to keep the bishop rather than the knight.

6.. dxe4
7. Bxe4 Bd6
8. d3 O-O

At this point I expected them to do something sensible like O-O, the usual move here, but instead they surprised me by playing Nd4. I explained that I could capture the knight. “Yes, we know”, their captain replied. “We want to play this move.”

I then realised what they had in mind, so the game continued:

8. Nd4 Nxd4
9. Qh5

As expected. They were sacrificing a piece for a mate threat, hoping that I wouldn’t notice.

9.. g6

Good enough, but 9.. Nxc2+ was more accurate as White could now have played Qd1.

10. Qh6

Now I spotted that they might be planning Bg5, followed by Bf6 and Qg7#, but I decided I had time to meet that threat and played:

10… Nxc2+, winning easily with my extra material.

I suppose I have to be impressed with the idea, which demonstrates imagination and creativity as well as the ability to think ahead. Unfortunately, that sort of thing isn’t going to work against a reasonably competent opponent. If you want to play for a mating attack on move 8 it would make much more sense to play Ng5 when Qh5 really is a threat, but instead they wanted to bait the trap.

I should add, in case anyone from the school is reading this, that the teams played really well in the simul, two of them totally outplaying me, although I think I might have almost equalised in one game when time was called.

Two days earlier I’d been demonstrating the Aronian-Kramnik game from the Candidates Tournament to a group of rather stronger players (about 800-1000 rating) at Richmond Junior Club.

You’ve probably seen the game already, so will be aware that the first moves were:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5 Nf6
4. d3 Bc5
5. Bxc6 dxc6
6. O-O Qe7
7. h3

I asked the class to guess Black’s next move, telling them it wasn’t an easy move to find.

Several of the class liked the idea of Bxh3. One of the stronger players in the group told me he’d play either Bxh3 or Bg4. Someone else suggested Ng4, possibly thinking of the Fishing Pole trap.

Again, you have to be impressed, up to a point. They’d identified that White’s last move had created a weakness and they wanted to take advantage of it. Most of them have seen games in which the winner successfully sacrificed a piece for a winning attack on the enemy king. I might have been more impressed if someone had suggested the idea of Be6, Qd7 and then Bxh3, which, if White gives you the opportunity, will give you two pawns for the piece and a stronger attack.

As you probably know, Kramnik actually played 7.. Rg8 here, continuing with Nh5 and g5, and winning with a brilliant sacrificial attack against Aronian’s king.

It occurred to me some time ago that I was mistaken in thinking that when players at this level lost a piece they were either playing too impulsively or looking at the board but not seeing. Once you talk to children about their moves you’ll realise that very often they know they’re losing a piece but either think it doesn’t matter, or, as in these two examples, think they’re doing something rather clever.

This is what happened, for rather different reasons, in both these examples.

In the first position, they were simply setting a trap which they hoped I’d fall into. How should we look at this? A failure to consider risks and probabilities? Immaturity of thought, playing a move based on what they hope their opponent will play rather than what their opponent is likely to play? A lack of understanding that Superior Force Wins and how to play endings?

The second example (playing, for example, Bxh3 rather than Kramnik’s Rg8) is a higher level error. These players have seen lots of examples of sacrificial attacks but lack the ability to calculate whether or not the sacrifice works and the experience to estimate whether or not the sacrifice is likely to work. Of course all chess teachers like to demonstrate this sort of game, but as you progress in chess you realise that in real life most potential sacrifices don’t work, and that you’ll reject the majority of the sacrifices you consider.

Returning, for a moment, to the first diagram, according to my database, two players (rated 1855 and 1949, so about my level) have tried 9. Bxh7+ here. If you’ve learnt the Greek Gift sacrifice it’s very tempting, isn’t it? I suspect that if I showed this position to the Saturday group, many of whom will know the idea, a lot of them would suggest the same thing.

In this position, though, it just doesn’t work. After 9.. Kxh7 10. Ng5+ Kg8 11. Qh5 Black can defend comfortably with Bf5 (or, if he prefers, 11.. Bb4+ 12. c3 Qxd3 13. cxb4 Nxb4). It’s important to know basic tactical ideas like the Greek Gift and Légall’s Mate, but you have to understand that they don’t always work. The Greek Gift, for example, is unlikely to work if your opponent can, as in this position, play Bf5 in reply to Qh5.

Richard James

The Cochrane Gambit

John Cochrane (1798-1878) was one of the most interesting figures in 19th century chess. Rod Edwards ranks him among the world’s top 15 players for half a century, from 1820 to 1870, yet he never played any formal competitive chess.

Cochrane was a scion of the Scottish nobility, a member of the family of the Earls of Dundonald. He joined the Royal Navy as a young man, but changed his career and became a barrister. In the early 1820s he played casual games against the leading French players of the time and wrote a book on the game. He then moved to India to further his legal career. He spent the years from 1841 to 1843 in London, where he proved himself superior to everyone except Howard Staunton. Back in Calcutta, he played many games against two local players, Moheschunder Bannerjee and Saumchurn Guttack, which were published in England, mostly by Staunton.

Cochrane is perhaps best remembered today for the Cochrane Gambit, which goes like this:

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nf6
3. Nxe5 d6
4. Nxf7 Kxf7

There are 848 games with this on MegaBase2018, with White scoring a healthy 59%.

Cochrane and Bannerjee tested this over many games in the 1850s, with Cochrane invariably following up with the natural 5. Bc4+. Bannerjee tried three ways of getting out of check: Ke8, Be6 and d5.

One of their games continued:

5. Bc4+ Ke8 6. O-O c5 7. h3 Qc7 8. f4 Nc6 9. Nc3 a6 10. a4 Qe7 11. Nd5 Qd8 12. d4 cxd4 13. e5 Nxd5 14. Bxd5 dxe5 15. Bxc6+ bxc6 16. Qh5+ Kd7 17. fxe5 Kc7 18. Rf7+ Kb8 19. e6 Bd6 20. Bg5 Qb6 21. a5 Qc5

So far Black has defended well, but this is an oversight. The correct move was Qb4. Cochrane now has a pretty win: 22. Bf4 Qb4 23. c3 and Black will have to give up his queen to prevent Bxd6#.

22. b4

White misses his opportunity…

22.. Qe5

… but Black gives him a second chance. Instead, either Qc3 or Qd5 would have provided a sufficient defence.

23. Bf4 Qxe6

Losing at once. His only chance was Qxf4.

24. Qc5 Qxf7
25. Bxd6+ 1-0

Cochrane’s gambit led an underground existence for more than a century, until it was revived in the late 1970s, its most prominent regular practitioner being the Latvian IM Alvis Vitolinsh. 5. Bc4+ was now considered insufficient and instead attention turned to 5. d4, which was almost always played at this time.

By the late 1990s attention had switched to another 5th move for White: Nc3, which is preferred by today’s engines. It reached the big time when Topalov punted it against Kramnik in 1999, the game resulting in a thrilling draw.

Since then, though, the Cochrane Gambit’s only appearance in top level chess came in 2016, when Ivanchuk was unsuccessful in a blitz game against the Chinese GM Li Chao.

Objectively, the gambit is not quite sound. If you like this sort of thing it may well be worth a try in blitz games at lower levels. For the piece you get two pawns and some attacking chances against Black’s displaced king, which, if you’re not playing a well booked-up master strength player, might be considered reasonable compensation. Why not give it a go yourself, in commemoration of the life and chess career of John Cochrane?

Richard James

Defend With Your Life

There are plenty of puzzle books where you’re invited to find the winning move: to win material or force checkmate. But very few books present puzzles where you have to find the best defence.

Try your hand at this position. It’s Black’s move.

Go away, make yourself a cup of coffee or pour yourself a glass of your favourite tipple, and choose a move before reading on.

I came across this position the other day (I’ll tell you where at some point, but not for a few months). It’s, I think, an excellent defensive puzzle for intermediate standard players.

I set this up on the demo board for the upper intermediate group at Richmond Junior Club (these are young children graded round about 40-70 ECF). They set about analysing the position working mostly in small groups. One of two or them preferred to work alone.

They soon noticed that White was threatening Qxh6, not surprisingly. At this level many children get obsessed with this tactic and sometimes give up the rest of their army in order to set it up. While a few wanted to play a king move to h7 or h8, most of them wanted to move their queen. Some of them spotted that Qf6 lost the exchange to Nd7. I was very impressed that one group at first suggested 1… Qh7, and then explained to me that White could then play 2. Nd7, and if 2.. Rd8, then 3. Nf6+, exploiting the pin on the g-file to play a fork.

Interestingly, most of them failed to mention White’s other threat: Bg4, skewering the queen and rook and winning the exchange. At this level, many players make the mistake of only considering one threat, or one reason for playing a move. Trying to think about more than one thing at once proves to be difficult. This, by the way, is a point that Dan Heisman makes regularly: you should ask yourself “What are my opponent’s threats?” rather than “What is my opponent’s threat?”. Because it’s a more familiar pattern, you will tend to see the threat of Qxh6 before the threat of Bg4.

Once you realise that White has two threats you can start trying to find ways to meet them both at the same time. You might think of 1.. h5, which does meet both threats. Now White can win the h-pawn by playing a fork: 2. Rg5. There’s a stronger alternative, though, in 2. Qh6 Qh7 3. Qd6 with multiple threats: one idea is 3.. Rfd8 4. Nd7 Be6 5. Nf6+ Kh8 6. Qxd8, winning the exchange.

On the other hand, an experienced player would probably sense that 1.. h5 doesn’t look right, so would only consider it if everything else failed. Black has one simple move to meet both threats and leave him with a perfectly satisfactory position. That move, as you’ve probably realised by now, is 1.. Qe6, planning to meet 2. Bg4 with f5. After this move Black is at least equal. Eventually, my students managed to find the right answer for the right reason.

I then wound back the position by half a move. White’s last move was Rg4-g3. I asked the class if this was a mistake. Couldn’t White have played the immediate Qxh6 instead? Doesn’t that move win a pawn? A bright spark quickly provided the information that Black would reply with Qxg4, which will leave him a piece ahead. I’d guess, though, that had they been white in that position, most of them would have played Qxh6 without very much thought. Rg3, by the way, is an unusual way to create two threats. The threat Qxh6 comes about by moving the rook away from the attentions of the black queen, while it’s also a clearance move, vacating a square which the bishop wants to use. I’m not sure that there’s a technical term for this sort of double threat.

When we talk about tactics we tend to think about sacrifices and combinations. Most tactics you’ll find in books (including, at the moment, the CHESS FOR HEROES books) are exactly that. In real life, tactics is mostly about sorting out positions like this, defending accurately, not missing simple one or two movers.

Richard James

Short and Sweet (3)

Chess Improver reader Matt Fletcher sent me a game played by one of his teammates in a Hertfordshire League match last November.

As it happens it featured a variation I wrote about in an earlier Chess Improver post.

White in this game was Evgeny Tukpetov (currently 2280/212) while Black was Francis Parker (currently 1954/191).

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. c3

White chooses the Ponziani Opening

3.. Nf6
4. d4 Nxe4
5. d5 Bc5

Black chooses the move I was shown after the game in my earlier article. I had another chance to play it, against a different opponent, recently but chickened out as I’d forgotten the theory. You’ll probably see that game later this year.

This is not a new idea at all. The earliest game on my database with this piece sacrifice is Brien-Falkbeer (he of counter-gambit fame) in 1855, although Black followed up incorrectly by taking on f2 with the knight rather than the bishop next move. It was later played by Chigorin and Pollock, and it seems there was quite a lot of theory on it in the 19th century, reaching the conclusion that it wasn’t quite sound.

6. dxc6 Bxf2+
7. Ke2 Bb6

This is a relatively new move which seems to justify the piece sacrifice. The earliest game I have was played between Tim Krabbé and Paul de Rooi on my 14th birthday. It was played a few times between 2003 and 2014 by players in the 2100-2350 range before taking off at a higher level in 2016.

A game from the 2014 World Blitz Championship saw Gabriel Sargissian experiment with 7.. 0-0 against Ian Nepomniachtchi but White eventually won a long and exciting game.

8. Qd5 has almost always been played here, and seems to be the only really satisfactory move for White. Black will continue 8.. Nf2. Now White has three reasonable options. 9. cxb7 Bxb7 10. Qxb7 Nxh1 which looks pretty unclear. 9. Rg1 dxc6 10. Qxd8+ Kxd8 when Black has three pawns for the piece. 9. Qxe5+ Kf8 10. Rg1 dxc6 which again seems unclear: Black has two pawns for the piece but the white king is exposed (and the black king also misplaced).

8. Qa4

Tukpetov tries something different, but this move is just bad.

8.. Nf2
9. Rg1

Or 9. cxb7 Bxb7 10. Rg1 Qf6 when Black clearly has more than enough compensation.

9.. dxc6
10. Na3 Qd5

This is fine, but the engines prefer 10.. Bf5

11. Qc4

White was busted anyway, but this is an egregious blunder. He resigned immediately without waiting for the inevitable 11.. Qd1#

It’s very strange to see such a strong player lose like that. He must have had an off day: I guess it happens to everyone from time to time.

It’s stranger still that Tukpetov had had previous experience with this variation: he’d faced it in two recent 4NCL games.

In November 2016, a year before this game, he had White against GM Matthew Turner and followed one of the recommended lines.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. c3 Nf6 4. d4 Nxe4 5. d5 Bc5 6. dxc6 Bxf2+ 7. Ke2 Bb6 8. Qd5 Nf2 9. cxb7 Bxb7 10. Qxb7 Nxh1 11. Bg5 f6 12. Bh4 Rb8 13. Qd5 Qe7 14. Nbd2 c6 15. Qc4 g5 16. Be1 Kf8 17. g3 d5 18. Qxc6 e4 19. Nd4 Bxd4 20. cxd4 Kg7 21. Bh3 Rxb2 22. Qd7 Qxd7 23. Bxd7 Rhb8 24. Bc6 f5 25. Bxd5 Rd8 26. Bb3 Rxd4 0-1

He was doing fine for some time (the engines recommend 21. Qxd5 with advantage) and appeared to resign in an equal position (the engines give 27. Rc1 as totally level). Perhaps he missed something Perhaps he lost on time. Perhaps his phone went off. Perhaps someone out there knows and can tell me.

The following March he faced the same variation again. His opponent, Samuel Franklin, had no doubt seen the Turner game and prepared an improvement, which might be why Tukpetov varied on move 9.

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. c3 Nf6 4. d4 Nxe4 5. d5 Bc5 6. dxc6 Bxf2+ 7. Ke2 Bb6 8. Qd5 Nf2 9. Bg5 f6 10. Nxe5 Qe7 11. cxd7+ Bxd7 12. Qxd7+ Qxd7 13. Nxd7 Kxd7 14. Be3 Nxh1 15. Nd2 Bxe3 16. Kxe3 Rae8+ 17. Kf3 Re5 18. g4 Rhe8 19. Nc4 Re1 20. Rxe1 Rxe1 21. Ne3 Rb1 22. Bg2 Rxb2 23. Bxh1 Rxa2 24. Kf4 c6 25. h4 a5 26. Be4
a4 27. Bxh7 a3 28. Nc2 Rxc2 0-1

9. Bg5 seems to lead to a fairly forced tactical sequence after which Black has a winning advantage.

Now, in November 2017, he varied on move 8, but I don’t see how you can prefer Qa4 to Qd5, which hits both e5 and b7. As you’ve seen, he lost just three moves later.

While the Ponziani might have some merit as a surprise weapon, I’m not sure why you’d want to play it regularly at this level, where your opponents will prepare against you. Nepomniachtchi and, not unsurprisingly, Jobava, have played it quite often. Carlsen’s played it once and Nakamura twice, once in a blitz game. It’s perfectly sound and contains a certain amount of poison, but lacks the strategic complexity of the Ruy Lopez.

Another thing, which perhaps relates to last week’s article. It seems that Evgeny Tukpetov arrived in England a few years ago, when he was in his late 30s, never having played a FIDE rated game of chess. Perhaps he was schooled in the old Soviet system which concentrated on skills development rather than competitive play. I wonder, incidentally, whether anyone knows who is the highest graded player in England who has never played a FIDE rated game? There must be quite a few graded above me.

Richard James

Educational Chess

There seems to be a general misunderstanding, at least in this country, about what ‘chess in schools’ means. Let me try to explain.

If you attend the Chess in Schools conference you’ll be informed about what they call Scholastic Chess. Last year it was suggested that Educational Chess might be a better term, as Scholastic Chess, at least in the US, means something totally different. So, for the purposes of this article, at any rate, Educational Chess it is.

Educational Chess has nothing at all to do with competitive chess as you and I know it. Instead it involves using the chessboard and pieces for non-competitive activities across the curriculum. For instance, it might involve very young children using the chessboard to learn about up and down, left and right, black and white. Slightly older children might learn songs and dances explaining the moves of each piece, which could be used both in Music and PE. Beyond that, children might spend time in maths lessons working collaboratively to solve puzzles based on subsets of chess: for instance the Eight Officer’s Puzzles. Here’s a recent report on a major project of this nature.

Now you might well think this sounds great: all children will learn how to play chess in a fun way which will also have other benefits across the curriculum.

You might also think that, by taking this approach you’re dumbing down chess by presenting it as an activity for very young children, and that this will be counter-productive in terms of encouraging older children and adults to take chess seriously.

I have no very strong views one way or the other myself as to the effectiveness of this approach as I have no personal experience. There are, to the best of my knowledge, very few schools here in the UK using this sort of method.

I would, however, question whether or not there are more important skills that 21st century schools should be teaching children, and whether or not these methods are the best way to teach music, PE, maths or whatever.

Wearing my Chess Hat I can see that it’s wonderful to teach all children to play chess. But if I take off my Chess Hat and put on my Education Hat instead there are all sorts of questions I might choose to ask.

What happens in most primary schools, at least in my part of the world, is very different. There are a small number of schools who take chess seriously and see it as part of the life of the school. But in most cases the only chance children have to learn or play is an after-school club running for an hour once a week. These tend to be geared towards low-level competitive chess such as the heats of the UK Chess Challenge. Children who are getting help at home will do well at this level and make progress. Children who are not getting much help will make little progress, but will have fun and enjoy winning their fluffy mascots.

Now you might well think this sounds great: children are introduced to competitive chess at a fairly early age, and those who show talent will be able to qualify for higher level competitions and will perhaps be encouraged to join more serious chess clubs.

You might also think that, by taking this approach you’re dumbing down chess by presenting competitive chess as being suitable for mass participation by young children, and that, by promoting a structure in which the vast majority of children won’t get very far, you’re actually lowering the standards of chess.

I think I’m qualified to have an opinion on this, and, if you know me or if you read my articles, you’ll be aware of my views. However, it’s where we are, and it’s clearly better than nothing.

Other countries take a different approach: one specifically designed to produce strong players. Armenia has been doing this for some time, as recently reported here by the BBC. I must say the mothers and grandmothers waiting for their children to finish their games don’t look terribly excited. Leonard Barden pointed out on the English Chess Forum that there’s little evidence that, despite the claims made in this article, there’s no evidence that Armenia are producing many – or any – exceptionally talented young players. The closest match I can find to ‘Mikhael’ has a rating of 1550 and is ranked 1165th in the world for Under 12s. Of course it’s possible there may be some strong players not taking part in FIDE rated competitions: the old Soviet methods disapproved of young children playing in rated events.

Now you might well think that this sounds great: what could be more admirable than producing a generation of ‘chess whizz kids’? Your country will have lots of grandmasters, win lots of Olympic medals and encourage more young players to take up chess.

You might also think that, by taking this approach you’re taking up two lessons a week which could be better used for something else. My understanding is that one of the chess lessons replaced a PE lesson, which would have been great for me, but not necessarily for everyone. You might also ask what happens to the young children who show promise but fail to make the grade.

Another country taking a similar approach is Turkey. I recently saw some photos of a Turkish junior tournament posted on Facebook. I’ve never seen such an unhappy looking bunch of young people.

So, there you go. If you want to talk about ‘chess in schools’ it’s a good idea to be aware of what sort of ‘chess in schools’ you’re talking about.

Richard James

Short and Sweet (2)

In a recent Thames Valley League match my teammate Chris White managed to win a game against an opponent graded 173 in only ten moves.

Here’s how it went.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Be2

Chris is playing a reverse Philidor, which doesn’t seem the most likely place to find a ten-mover. Still, you never know.

3… Nf6
4. d3 d5
5. Nbd2 dxe4

This seems rather obliging. Bc5 and Be7 are more challenging options.

6. dxe4 Bg4

Again he might have preferred Bc5 here.

7. c3 Bd6
8. h3 Bh5
9. Nh4

Chris wants to put a knight on f5 (a knight on the rim isn’t dim if it’s on its way somewhere else) but he has to calculate this accurately.

9… Nxe4

A familiar tactic, apparently winning a pawn, but Chris has it all worked out.

10. Nxe4

Now Black, to his credit, realised that he was losing a piece and resigned without waiting to be shown:

10… Bxe2

Or 10… Qxh4 11. Nxd6+

11. Qxe2 Qxh4
12. Bg5

And Black’s queen is trapped.

This is a quiescence error. Black thinks the position after Qxh4 is quiescent (there’s nothing immediate happening) but it isn’t. You have to look at all forcing moves before deciding a position is quiescent and stopping your analysis.

This seemed to be a relatively unusual idea, although I’d remembered seeing this game in Chernev’s 1000 Best Short Games of Chess.

I did a quick search on MegaBase 2018 and found several other examples. The game between Roberto Diaz Garcia (2037) and Leandro Jimenez Jimenez (1974) played in the Championship of the Dominican Republic last May, was almost a repeat of Busvine-Birnberg, the only difference being that White had played O-O rather than Nf1.

A few more examples of the same queen trap. This one’s from a very different opening and has happened more than once. 8. dxe5 would have been OK for White.

Even fairly strong players seem to miss this idea.

The final example features a very different setting, but the queen still gets trapped in the same way.

So there are two tactical ideas you might want to learn. If your opponent plays Nh5 you can sometimes win a pawn using a discovered attack: Nxe5 followed by Qxh5. But you must make sure your queen isn’t going to be trapped as a result. The general idea of trapping a queen in this way is also worth remembering.

Richard James

First Things First

The other week I was talking to a boy at Richmond Junior Club. He’s an older boy, in his first year at a highly regarded selective secondary school, but is fairly new to chess and has only recently moved up from the Novices Group.

I’d just looked through a game in which he’d lost most of his pieces and resigned in about a dozen moves. I then played a game with him, helping him a bit. He made a lot of highly intelligent and knowledgeable comments about positional chess, but the idea that you should be very careful not to lose your pieces and check that your intended move is safe before playing it seemed new to him.

The following week I was playing a boy who was new to the club. He was beating everyone at his primary school club and, quite rightly, wanted something more challenging. We played a game and eventually reached a position where I (with black) had an extra pawn, a big pawn centre and two bishops pointing at his castled king against two knights. He told me that he wasn’t going to move his knight from g3 because it would allow a two bishop sacrifice. There was one problem with this: we’d exchanged queens so there was no way I’d be able to mate him after giving up both my bishops.

How often do double bishop sacrifices occur, anyway? Round about once in 20,000 games, at a rough guess. As Dan Heisman would say, studying this won’t give you a lot of bang for your bucks. It’s important to know about the idea, but more because it’s part of chess culture than because it’s of very much practical use.

I spoke to the same boy again the following week. I explained that sacrifices happen very rarely in real life. When I told him this I could see his face fall a million miles. In 1542 games on my personal database I can recall winning only one game by a (very obvious) queen sacrifice and one game by a Greek Gift sacrifice (which was so strong it caused immediate resignation). I can’t, off the top of my head, recall losing any games in this way. He told me he’d won a game with the two bishop sacrifice himself, which I don’t believe. It was more likely a two bishop blunder. Children who only watch videos about sacrifices often think that ‘sacrifice’ is just another word for losing a piece, and, if they accidentally leave their queen en prise they’ll describe it as a sacrifice.

Another boy who was watching quoted something from a video about Mikhail Tal throwing all his pieces away. Well, yes, sometimes, but only in a small proportion of his games. But a) he was a risk taker by nature b) he had enough experience to know whether or not he had practical or theoretical compensation for the lost material and c) he was a genius. A third boy then, inevitably, mentioned the Fishing Pole Trap. To be fair we were looking at the Exchange Lopez variation with 5… Bg4 6. h3 h5 at the time, and they all got the idea that, while the Fishing Pole was just a trap, this was a much better way of using the same idea.

I see this over and over again: kids who have watched videos about, or perhaps been taught about relatively advanced (and sometimes relatively unimportant) concepts before they’ve grasped the fundamental point of chess: that (other things being equal) SUPERIOR FORCE (usually) WINS.

If you continually watch videos about sacrificial attacks without knowing how to win with an extra pawn, let alone with an extra piece, you’ll end up very confused about chess. Kids will often tell me that pawns don’t matter, or even that it doesn’t matter if you lose a bishop or a knight because you can’t get checkmate with just a minor piece against a king. They have neither the experience or the cognitive maturity to prioritise or contextualise the information they’ve learnt. In books and videos, of course, sacrifices always win, which is why we show them, but in real life we probably reject about three quarters of the sacrifices we consider because they seem to be unsound.

Likewise I frequently meet children who have watched videos about openings which are either not very good or too advanced for them. (“My dad’s got this brilliant new opening. It wins every time. It’s called the Latvian Gambit!”) This is one of the problems with internet chess instruction. Firstly, there’s a lot of bad information out there. Secondly, even if you’re using a reputable website you might get confused if you watch videos explaining difficult topics before you’ve mastered simple topics.

My belief is that chess tuition, especially for younger children, should be structured in a logical way. You learn a simple topic, master it through practice, and only then move onto the next topic. Of course there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be working on different topics relating to different aspects of the game in parallel. Of course we want to demonstrate brilliant sacrifices from time to time (and you’ll find lots of them in Checkmates for Heroes and Chess Tactics for Heroes) but the concept of the sacrifice needs to be explained correctly and put into context. We also need to teach them how to win endings when they’re a pawn ahead. We also need to teach them how to put pieces onto good squares to make tactics more likely. You’ll recall Spielmann said something to the effect that he understood Alekhine’s sacrifices well enough, but not how he reached positions where he could play them.

I quoted Dan Heisman a couple of weeks ago. I’ll do so again, in case you missed it.

“In math it would be obvious that you want to learn to multiply before doing geometry or trigonometry. But in chess so many worry about subtle things before mastering important basics like how to consistently make safe moves, or avoiding trades when behind material.”

This is one reason why I’d like to see a proper structured national or international chess course which ensures that students learn these important basics before moving on to harder topics.

Richard James

Are you a Risk Taker?

There are ten types of people in the world: those who understand binary arithmetic and those who don’t.

There are two types of people in the world: those who enjoy putting people into two categories and those who don’t.

I’m in the former category here. One way in which you can split people is whether they’re naturally cautious or prefer to take risks.

If you have some money to invest, your financial advisor will probably give you a questionnaire to fill in. Your answers will determine whether you’re a cautious saver or a risk taker. Depending on your answers, you will be recommended a savings option which will guarantee, as far as such things are possible, a small profit on your investment, or an option which will bring potentially greater rewards at the expense of a greater risk of losing money.

Me, I’m naturally a cautious person. I want to play safe. I don’t enjoy taking risks. One thing not many people know about me is that I’ve been interested in horse racing for almost sixty years, but I’ve never once placed a bet on a horse. It’s just not for me.

You might also want to classify chess players as to whether they prefer to play cautiously or take risks. Capablanca versus Alekhine, for example, Petrosian versus Tal or Karpov versus Kasparov.

I was thinking about this the other day when someone posted on Facebook extracts from an article written by the American master John F Barry just after Alekhine had defeated Capa in the 1927 World Championship match. Barry, although acknowledging that Capa had the greater natural talent, was clearly not impressed by his style of play. Here, in part, is what he said.

“For long the writer has been amazed to see the false theory of combat which the Cuban has disclosed in his games, namely: to play the opening safely in accordance with his views of safety, and pounce on his adversary only if he should blunder, content to draw when that did not happen. Poorer players oftimes drew with him accordingly, as they were naturally glad to do against so formidable an adversary. His disposition to initiate mid-game tactics was only predicated only on the adversary’s blunder. He met with tactics only when the adversary was venturesome enough to attack unwisely, and Capablanca won, of course.

“He rarely showed initiative or enterprise to bring about a mid-game otherwise. So that in many of his games we have an opening, and presently an equal ending. The art of planning a mid-game became a lost art to him, yet its possession discloses the true chess artist. He harbored a belief that you can’t attack unless the opponent errs – a truth, but the art is to lure the error.”

Of course you’re not going to become world champion unless you excel in all aspects of the game, but it’s natural that everyone will have stylistic preferences, based in part, perhaps, on their personalities and temperaments. If you prefer quiet positional chess you’re more likely to reach an ending – and many endings require accurate calculation. (There’s another, unrelated, paradox to do with chess. The more slowly you play the more likely you are to get into time trouble and the better you need to be at blitz chess.)

As for me, by nature I’m a cautious player, but my best results have been when I’ve taken risks. I’ve tended to play unambitious openings with white, but lack both the understanding and technique to play them well, usually ending up with no advantage or even a disadvantage. Not feeling comfortable defending slightly passive positions, I’ve tended to play more aggressively with black. When I played more aggressive but slightly dubious openings I’d often do well with them, but if you take this approach sometimes things will go wrong: you’ll meet someone who knows the opening and you’ll lose horribly. When that happened, I’d give up the opening, in spite of previous good results, buy the next Batsford opening book to hit the shelves and take up something else instead.

I was never able to resolve the paradox of the clash between my temperament, which has always been one of caution, and my abilities, which may have been more tactical than positional.

If you also teach chess your own preferences may influence the way you teach. If you enjoy taking risks you might encourage your pupils to play sharp, tactical openings. If you prefer to play more cautiously you might encourage your pupils to play safe and solid openings. Truly effective teachers will identify their pupils’ personality and stylistic preferences rather than just teaching the openings they themselves play. They might also want to encourage less experienced students to try out different styles, different openings, to see which they prefer and which gives them better results. At the same time they’ll also want to think about identifying their students’ weaknesses and help them improve in aspects of chess where they are weaker so that they can become stronger all-round players.

Richard James