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.

Paignton Challengers A 1974 Part 2

I left you last time after the first round of the 1974 Paignton Challengers A Tournament.

In round 2 I had the black pieces against a friend and clubmate, Geoff Davies, and was content with a short draw in a position in which I might well have played on. If you read my column two weeks ago you’ll realise that I’m still more than happy to take a short draw with black against friends. Perhaps this is one reason why I never made much progress as a serious competitive player.

So onto round 3, where I had white against a lower graded opponent.

In those days I liked to play against big centres with black, choosing the Modern Defence, and with big centres with white, hence my choice of the Four Pawns Attack against my opponent’s King’s Indian Defence. I’d learned this from the Batsford book on the King’s Indian by Barden, Hartston and Keene.

Here’s what happened.

1. d4 Nf6
2. c4 g6
3. Nc3 Bg7
4. e4 d6
5. f4 O-O
6. Nf3 c5
7. d5

Main line 4PA theory so far. Now Black usually plays 7… e6 (b5 is an interesting alternative) when after 8. Be2 exd5 White has to choose which way to recapture. At the time I favoured taking with the e-pawn, which, to be honest, is not a very good move. Despite a couple of rather horrible losses I generally scored well with it because my opponents weren’t familiar with the position and chose incorrect plans.

7… Nh5

German writers would remark that this move was “nicht stellungsgemäß” (my favourite word at the time) – not appropriate to the position. In lines where Black plays e5 rather than c5 he’s going to move his knight from f6, often to h5, and play the f5 pawn break. But, confused by White’s opening, he plays an inappropriate move and constantly refuses to avail himself of the e6 break. If you don’t play your pawn breaks in cramped positions you’ll end up getting squashed.

8. Bd3 Na6
9. O-O Bd7
10. Be3 Nc7
11. a4 a6
12. a5 Nf6
13. h3 Qc8
14. e5 Nfe8
15. Ne4

So far so good, but Stockfish prefers the immediate Qe1 here.

15… Rb8
16. Qe1 b5

Finally Black plays a pawn break.

17. axb6 Rxb6
18. Bc1

It’s fairly natural to defend the pawn, but Stockfish again prefers Qh4.

18… Bf5
19. g4 Bxg4

I’ve speculated in a previous article that, at this sort of level, more games are lost by unsound sacrifices than are won by sound sacrifices. It’s understandable that Black, not liking his position very much, lashes out in this way. Stockfish considers 19… Bxe4 20. Qxe4 e6 a much better defence.

20. hxg4 Qxg4+
21. Qg3 Qxg3+
22. Nxg3 f5
23. Ne2 Na8
24. Rb1 Nec7
25. Bd2 Rfb8
26. Bc3 R6b7
27. Bc2 Nb6
28. b3 Nbxd5

Black decides to sacrifice another piece for a couple of pawns. By this time I’d have been wishing I knew how to mate with a bishop and knight.

29. cxd5 Nxd5
30. Kf2 Nb4
31. Bxb4 Rxb4
32. Rfe1 Bh6
33. Kg3 Bf8
34. e6

Good enough, although the pawn might become a target here. Better was exd6 followed by Nc3 and Nd5, playing for an attack on the black king.

34… Bg7
35. Rh1 Bf6
36. Kf2 d5
37. Rhg1 R8b6
38. Bxf5 Kh8

Reaching the time control. (In Round 2 and subsequent rounds we were playing 38 moves in 2¼ hours.) Now it’s easy: I can return one of my extra pieces for a mating attack on the g and h files. He might have tried Rxb3 instead.

39. Bxg6 hxg6
40. Rxg6 Kh7
41. f5

Retreating the rook to g4, g3 or g2 was slightly more efficient.

41… Bh4+
42. Nxh4 Rxh4
43. Kg3 Rh6
44. Rxh6+ Kxh6
45. Nc3

The sealed move. He could have resigned here and saved us both the trouble of resuming.

45… c4
46. Nxd5 Rxb3+
47. Rxb3 cxb3
48. f6 exf6
49. e7 b2
50. Nc3 Black resigned

So, 2½/3 and things were looking good. Tune in again for next week’s exciting episode.

Richard James

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Paignton Challengers A 1974 Part 1

I haven’t considered myself a serious player for many years, but back in the early and mid 70s I was a regular on the British tournament circuit.

This new series takes a look at some of my more successful events.

For several years I’d been playing at about 1800 strength but the latter months of 1974 saw a dramatic improvement. I put this down to reading two books. Think Like a Grandmaster, by Kotov, first got me thinking about how to make decisions in chess. I followed his advice about writing your move down before playing it, and found that this practice cut out a lot of the blunders which had previously been common in my games. Looking at my scoresheets from the period, I was crossing out my moves and changing my mind several times every game. Of course you’re no longer allowed to do this so I eventually had to revert to playing my move before writing it down. I’d also read and enjoyed Keene and Botterill’s book on the Modern Defence, which, for the first time, gave me a viable defence to 1. e4 (no 1. e4 e5 for me in those days).

It’s strange how some things never change. At the end of August 1974 I took part in the Berks & Bucks Congress, which, then, as now, comprised several small Swiss sections of about 16 players each. Not so many sections now, as then, of course. Playing in a section in which I should have scored well, I failed to win a game, scoring three draws and two losses in the five round event.

So I wasn’t feeling confident when I travelled down to the Devon seaside resort of Paignton with my friend Ken Norman a few days later. Paignton is another tournament which hasn’t changed its format much in the last half century or so. There’s a popular Premier section, usually won these days by local resident GM Keith Arkell, and various grading restricted sections below (though again not as many as in the Fischer boom days). So while Ken competed in the Premier, I settled down in the Premier Reserves A.

In those days I didn’t appreciate endings so probably had mixed feelings on reaching a rook ending a pawn up after winning my opponent’s isolated d-pawn.

Of course positions like this are meat and drink to the aforementioned Keith Arkell, but not so easy for me. Let’s see what happened. This was the position after Black’s 32nd move, just before the first time control (for the first round only we were playing 34 moves in two hours followed by 17 moves per hour). I guess I felt at the time that White should be winning because of Black’s doubled pawns, but wasn’t quite sure how to make progress.

33. Rb7 Kh7
34. Rf7 Kg8
35. Rf5 Ra2
36. Kg3 Ra3
37. Rf3 Ra4
38. Rf5 Ra3
39. Rb5 Kf7
40. Rb6 Rc3
41. h4

In principle I want to keep as many pawns as possible on the board and don’t want to undouble his pawns, but I couldn’t find any other way of getting my king up the board. The computer seems to agree with me.

41… gxh4+
42. Kxh4 Ra3
43. Kg3 Rc3
44. Rd6 Ke7
45. Rg6 Kf7
46. Ra6 Rb3
47. Rc6 Ra3
48. Rc4 Rb3
49. Re4 Kf6
50. f4 Rb5
51. f5 Rb7
52. Re6+ Kf7
53. e4 Rb3+
54. Kf4 Rb1
55. Rc6 Rf1+
56. Ke3 Rg1

I’ve made some headway over the last 15 moves, but what do to next? I seemed to think that I could only make progress by giving up my g-pawn, while my opponent apparently believed me and, for several moves neglected to win my g-pawn. Here I should have played Rg6 when I can eventually advance my e-pawn while retaining my g-pawn. A sample variation: 57. Rg6 Re1+ 58.
Kf3 Rf1+ 59. Ke2 Rb1 60. Kf2 Rb3 61. Ra6 Rc3 62. e5 Rc2+ 63. Ke3 Rc3+ 64. Kd4
Rg3 65. e6+ Kf6 66. Ra7.

57. Kf3 Rf1+
58. Ke2 Rg1

Missing his chance for Rf4

59. Kf3 Rf1+
60. Kg2 Rf4

Taking his second chance. Now the game should be drawn.

61. Rc7+ Kg8
62. e5 Rxg4+
63. Kf3 Rg1
64. Ke4 Ra1
65. Rc8+

This was the sealed move so we must both have been playing very quickly. I suspect (but don’t now remember) that we adjourned for a couple of hours and resumed later in the evening. During the interval I complained to Ken about having reached ‘another boring ending’. Ken, then as now an endgame aficionado, told me that unless I agreed with him that endings were interesting he wouldn’t give me a lift back home to London. So I had to play the game out.

65… Kf7
66. Rc7+ Kf8
67. Kd5 Rd1+

Just after the adjournment Black makes a fatal error. Most moves draw here: even Ke8, because White can’t avoid the checks without losing a pawn. (67… Ke8 68. Rxg7 Ra5+ 69. Kd6 Ra6+ 70. Kd5 Ra5+ 71. Ke4 Ra4+ 72. Kf3 Ra5 73. Kf4 Ra4+) But this moves lets me get my king to e6 safely, after which the win is simple.

68. Ke6 Rd8
69. f6 Re8+
70. Kf5 gxf6
71. Kxf6 Kg8
72. e6 h5
73. Rg7+ Kh8
74. e7 h4
75. Rf7 Kg8
76. Rg7+ Kh8
77. Rg4 Kh7
78. Kf7 1-0

So a lucky win for me after some not very impressive endgame play by both sides.

Find out how the tournament continued for me next time.

Richard James

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Adventures with 1… e5 (5)

Regular readers of my posts might be wondering what had happened to my attempts at playing 1… e5 in reply to 1.e4 this season.

Since my last article in the series I’ve faced 1. f4 followed by four consecutive 1. d4s. My last two games, though, saw me facing 1. e4 again, both times against slightly lower graded opponents.

For many years now it’s been against my principles to play serious chess unless there’s an ‘r’ in the month. The league chess season used to finish at the end of April, but it now drags on until the end of May, with cup matches continuing well into June. I really prefer to have more than a couple of months break between seasons.

The first game was in our last league match of the season, against Kingston, who were finding it difficult to field full teams since the sad loss of their captain, Chris Clegg, a few months ago.

I was sitting opposite their new captain, but three of the Kingston players had failed to appear, so I guessed my opponent was not really in the mood for a serious game, while a solid draw would do our prospects no harm.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Bb5 Nge7

The Cozio Variation. I’d been looking at 3… g6 and 3… Nge7 but it was so long since I’d last faced a Lopez that I’d forgotten which one I was going to play as well as all the analysis. My opponent told me he’d have played the Exchange Variation against 3… a6.

4. d4

Perfectly playable, of course, but not White’s most dangerous option.

4… exd4
5. Nxd4 g6
6. O-O Bg7
7. Be3 O-O
8. c3

8. Nc3 is more to the point but Black still has several playable replies.

8… d5

Leading to complete equality. Now a series of exchanges simplifies the position.

9. exd5 Nxd4
10. Bxd4 Qxd5
11. Bxg7 Kxg7
12. Qxd5 Nxd5
13. Na3 Bf5
14. Rfd1 c6
15. Bd3 Bxd3
16. Rxd3

Offering a draw, which was immediately accepted. I’d intended to offer a draw on my next move anyway.

Not a very exciting adventure, I’m afraid, but I can’t really complain about achieving equality with the black pieces so quickly.

The league programme may have finished but we were still in the cup, with a quarter-final match against Division 2 side Hayes, who currently meet in Uxbridge, by the standards of the Thames Valley League a long journey and one which most of our players were unable or reluctant to make, so I had little choice but to play. Again, I had the black pieces and found myself facing 1. e4. My only previous game against my opponent, back in 2001, had started 1. f4 but since then he’s changed his opening repertoire.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. d4 exd4
4. c3

Not unexpected from what I knew about my opponent.

4… d5

He told me after the game that he has a good record against weaker players who take the pawn, but stronger players prefer this move.

5. exd5 Qxd5
6. cxd4 Bb4+
7. Nc3 Bg4
8. Be2 Bxf3
9. Bxf3 Qc4

9… Qxd4 10. Bxc6+ has netted a few victims. Qc4 is attributed to Capablanca, and indeed the earliest game with it on my database is Marshall-Capablanca Lake Hopatcong 1929. Transposition from the Danish Gambit is also common. Both my opponent and I were familiar with this line. If you play e5 in reply to e4 you really ought to know it.

10. Bxc6+ bxc6
11. Qe2+ Qxe2+
12. Kxe2 O-O-O
13. Be3 Ne7

Still travelling a familiar route.

14. a3

Rad1 is more often played here, but Black scores well. a3 might be slightly more accurate.

14… Bd6

The only game in my database with this move was agreed a draw at this point. The other games all saw Black preferring Ba5.

15. Ne4 Nf5
16. Rac1 Rhe8
17. Nxd6+ Rxd6
18. Kd3 Red8

Played without much thought. Nxd4 was an alternative, giving White fewer options, which didn’t occur to me until the following move.

19. Rc4 c5

Here I spent some time considering the respective merits of Nxd4 and c5. They both seem to lead to equality.

20. Rxc5 Nxd4
21. Bxd4

There was no real need for this exchange. Instead Kc3 was about equal.

21… Rxd4+
22. Ke3 Rd3+
23. Ke4 Rd2

Again played too quickly. I should have preferred 23… R8d4+ 24. Ke5 Rd2 when Black will win a pawn as the white king is exposed a potential f6+. Maybe not so obvious at my level, though.

24. Rhc1 R8d7
25. R1c2 Re7+

Slightly inaccurate again. The safe way to draw was 25… R7d4+ 26. Ke5 Rd5+ when White has nothing better than repetition.

26. Kf3 Rd3+

My draw offer was accepted immediately. White could have tried to avoid the checks by 27. Kf4 Rd4+ 28. Kg3 Rd3+ 29. f3 but there’s really not much there.

Again not very exciting, I’m afraid, but both games demonstrate that a well-timed d5 can give Black easy equality in many open games.

Richard James

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Children of the Revolution

Here’s a question for you. What’s slow, green and free range? Sounds like a children’s riddle, doesn’t it? A dinosaur egg, perhaps?

Before I tell you the answer, though, I have another children’s riddle for you. Why is it that, when children’s lives should be better than ever before, children in the Western world increasingly see themselves as unhappy and increasingly suffer from a range of physical and mental health problems? (I could give references and may well do so at another time and in another place.)

There is a growing movement towards a different approach to education: an approach promoting ‘slow’ child development, starting formal education later rather than earlier, a ‘green’ childhood, restoring children’s connection with nature and the outdoors, and a ‘free range’ childhood, teaching children self-reliance by giving them more freedom and independence in their spare time.

Child psychologist David Elkind’s book The Hurried Child was first published in 1982. From the blurb to the 25th anniversary edition: “…by blurring the boundaries of what is age-appropriate, by expecting – or imposing – too much too soon, we force our kids to grow up too fast, to mimic adult sophistication while they secretly yearn for time to act their age.”

It may well be that your life is so busy that you’re not aware of the ‘slow movement’. The concept of slowing down in all aspects of our lives was popularised by Scottish born Canadian journalist Carl Honoré in his 2004 book In Praise of Slowness. In his 2008 book Under Pressure, Honoré considers a slow approach to parenting and education. He asks (quoting again from the blurb) “whether we are going wrong in some fundamental way”.

You will probably know that, here in the UK, children start formal schooling at the age of five. In many other countries, children don’t start formal education until six or even seven. The 2011 book Too Much Too Soon?, subtitled Early Learning and the Erosion of Childhood, edited by Richard House, comprises a series of essays by experts on early years education questioning the idea that the earlier children start learning to read, for example, the better they do. Of course some children are ready to learn to read very young (I was one: I could already read fluently before I started school not long after my fifth birthday) but many are not.

Richard Louv’s seminal book Last Child in the Woods was first published ten years ago. According to the blurb in my edition, Louv “directly links the absence of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation to some of the most disturbing childhood trends: the rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression”. There are many who share his concern about children’s increasing disconnection with nature. David Bond’s 2013 film Project Wild Thing, for instance, tackles the same subject.

Parents are, quite understandably, concerned for their children’s safety so they either keep them at home staring at a screen or sign them up for a continual frenzy of ‘improving’ activities. Those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 60s experienced a very different childhood. New York journalist Lenore Skenazy was accused of child abuse after writing a column about how she let her 9-year-old son ride home alone on the subway. As a result of this she founded the “free range kids” movement, encouraging parents to give their children more independence and self-reliance.

Of course this is only one side of the argument and there are many experts who take the opposite view but, speaking personally, I find their views of considerable interest. None of them are advocating a return to the sort of childhood I experienced 50-60 years ago: they are all looking at how latest research can inform parents and teachers how to help their children live in the 21st century. You may well disagree completely and think our current parenting and teaching methods are fine as they are. You may well think their views are impractical and idealistic, but maybe the world needs, and has always needed, impractical idealists.

The answer to my riddle then, is that perhaps we’ll see a revolution in the whole concept of what childhood should mean in the 21st century. Perhaps we shouldn’t be encouraging our children to do too much too soon. (And you might understand why I wasn’t impressed when a fellow chess teacher asked about Under 6 tournaments in his area, and why he wasn’t impressed with my reply.) Perhaps we should do more to ensure that children spend time outdoors and find ways to connect with nature. Perhaps we should give children more freedom and independence. Perhaps the childhood of the future will be slow, green and free range. Perhaps it will be more holistic, with schools seeing children as individuals, identifying their particular talents and interests and finding activities which they might like. It’s not just about being ‘progressive’, though. For many children there’s a lot to be said for old-fashioned concepts such as academic rigour and discipline as long as it’s placed within the context of the children’s lives.

Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with these ideas, in which case your homework for this week is to read some of the authors I’ve mentioned here. You might expect educationalists who hold these views to be sceptical about encouraging mass participation in chess by very young children. They might also be sceptical about the whole business of promoting chess (or anything else) as something that ‘makes kids smarter’. You might also want to ask yourself what part chess will play in the lives of the Children of the Revolution. Perhaps more children will start chess later rather than earlier (yes, a few children will be ready to start early just as I was ready to start reading early). We might see children taking up fewer extra-curricular activities but taking them more seriously. We might see parents and teachers encouraging children to play chess because they want to become good at it rather than because it might make them smarter. In the short term we might see fewer children playing, but more children will continue to play into their teens and on into adulthood. I just wonder how much of this will happen in my lifetime.

Richard James

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A Modest Proposal

I’ve written many times about the problems facing junior chess here in the UK. Two weeks ago I considered GM Simon Williams’s critique of what’s happening at top levels of junior chess. Last week I looked at some contradictions in the public perception of chess.

Today I want to highlight the one thing that is really not working and see how we might go about putting it right.

A lot of what we do is great.

Promoting chess in secondary schools is great, and the ECF is quite rightly putting a lot of effort in this direction. At present, though, it’s not easy to get that much interest outside single-sex selective schools.

Junior Chess Clubs are great, especially for parents who want to fast-track their children, for children who are doing well at school and want to take things more seriously, and for children who want to learn the basics in a non-competitive environment.

We run some great tournaments, at least they would be great if more of the participants were developing their skills in tandem with gaining experience in competitions.

There are a number of very devoted parents out there, doing a wonderful job in encouraging their children to play chess, and, in many cases, doing a lot of voluntary administration as well. Only a small number, though. We need to make it much larger.

Putting chess on the curriculum is great: more children will learn chess, they’ll learn the basics correctly rather than being taught at home by parents who are unaware of their own ignorance. It might also make them smarter. We can then feed them through to competitions and junior chess clubs when they’re ready.

There’s a lot of great work going on in junior chess in this country, and yet the whole set-up is ineffective. If you look at what actually happens in primary school chess clubs in my part of London you’ll see why.

There are some school clubs which are reasonably successful, where there’s a member of staff who is committed to chess, who is present in the classroom to ensure children are quiet and well-behaved, and who encourages children to take part in both team and individual competitions and to join junior chess clubs, but these schools are very much in a minority.

A few weeks ago I spoke to a friend and colleague, an IM who has, for some years, been running an after-school club at a primary school very local to Richmond Junior Club. I asked if he had any players who might be good enough to represent Richmond in national competitions. No, he told me. It’s just a low-level fun club, although there was one boy who might be good enough next year.

A year or so ago I emailed another friend and colleague, another IM, about the players at another local primary school where he’s been running the chess club certainly since the last century. I asked if any of his players were going to take part in our forthcoming individual tournament. He replied that his members were only interested in taking part in team tournaments where they represented the school, not in individual competitions.

Now my two friends are both outstanding players, brilliant chess coaches and great guys. The two schools are among the highest rated state primary schools in the country. So we have two fantastic teachers working in fantastic schools, who, at least in these two schools (I’m well aware that they both get better results elsewhere) produce very few if any children who reach a reasonable level of chess proficiency or take a long-term interest in the game. IMs and GMs, along with many others, including myself, are trying to make a living providing low-level entertainment for children who are not serious about chess and whose parents don’t want them to be serious about chess. It would be a much more productive use of their time if they were teaching smaller numbers of children who were ambitious to succeed, but, the way things are at the moment, they can earn more money doing what they’re doing, and who can blame them?

We first need to make sure that more children learn chess. I can’t see chess on the curriculum in the UK being made compulsory in the near future, and, personally, I wouldn’t be in favour. So let’s put together an attractive package for a potential sponsor. We’ll put a couple of chess sets in every junior classroom (Year 3/2nd Grade upwards) in the country. (Yes, a project of this nature was started by the ECF a few years ago but turned out to be a complete fiasco.) Just putting chess sets into schools without accompanying instruction won’t work, though. We’ll also produce some attractive, colourful, child-friendly posters to go round the room showing the rules of chess. We’ll encourage children in Year 3 to play mini-games so we’ll also produce some mini-game posters. We’ll encourage teachers to get those children who wish to do so to play chess before school and at break times. We’ll provide an information pack for class teachers. We’ll produce a booklet giving the rules of chess, some mini-games, some basic advice on tactics and strategy, and links to recommended resources, email this to schools and ask them to forward it to all parents.

Let’s then set up a network of chess academies providing individual and group tuition, competitions, and time and space for children who enjoy chess to socialise with each other. In more affluent areas parents should be happy to pay for this. These academies will also provide tutors for schools who are ambitious to excel at chess.

We also need to flood the media with positive stories about competitive chess, particularly as played by older children and young adults, both male and female. At present chess has a good reputation among the general public for ‘making you smarter’ but a poor reputation as a hobby, which is one reason why many parents want their children to ‘do’ chess but not to be good at chess. Last week’s post considered the image of chess players. They are seen as geeks who either dress too formally or too informally, have poor social skills, will probably go mad (like that Fischer chap), are almost all male (wasn’t there a player who said women were useless at chess the other day?), are either very young or very old, and are so unhealthy that they will probably drop dead at the board. Getting away from these stereotypes and promoting a positive image of chess should be a top priority.

While I continue to support primary school chess clubs because it’s better for schools to have a club than not to have a club, the current model of the primary school chess club led by a professional chess teacher is, in my opinion, demonstrably not fit for purpose. By continuing to support it we are letting down both the children and the wider chess community. Surely we can come up with a way of using our talented chess coaches to teach children who want to learn and improve rather than just running low-level children’s entertainment.

Richard James

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Schrödinger’s Game

You will no doubt be aware of Schrödinger’s cat, which is simultaneously both alive and dead.

It occurs to me that public perception of chess is full of similar paradoxes.

Times journalist Tom Whipple, writing about Nigel Short’s views on women’s chess, chose to tell us the reason why he game up competitive chess in his teens:

“No, the reason I quit aged 15, at a time when my friends (or rather, given I played competitive chess, tormentors) were starting to go to the pub, was something else. It was because I looked round one day and realised I was myself in a minority: I was the only person in the immediate vicinity not wearing a bow tie.”

He then, by way of further explanation, that he quit because chess was ‘too geeky’. A quick search of the ECF grading database reveals that his grade at the time he quit was a not terribly impressive 74. So I’d suggest that he quit because he just wasn’t very good at the game. Or perhaps he’d never been taught to play well.

Perhaps Mr Whipple played chess in a different universe to me. There was one junior a few years ago, now an IM, who used to wear a bow tie regularly. Another junior, now a GM, was wearing a bow tie the first time I met him, but that was because he’d just been to a party. I wouldn’t say that bow ties were de rigeur in the Thames Valley League, though.

But there’s a different stereotype, isn’t there? Chess players are often portrayed in the media as scruffily dressed, wearing anoraks, unwashed T-shirts and torn jeans, with their sandwiches in a carrier bag.

So there you have Schrödinger’s chess player, who simultaneously is geekily well-dressed and sporting a bow tie, and is badly dressed with an anorak over his T-shirt.

You might have thought a highly regarded journal of record (well, not everyone has a high regard for their chess correspondent) would encourage its writers to avoid lazy stereotypes.

I think the paradox stems from the perception that chess is for geeks, and that there are two public, and rather contradictory, views of geeks: the bow tie wearing eccentric mathematician and the scruffy trainspotter. But serious competitive players are, in one sense, anything but geeks. You need a lot of mental toughness to succeed in chess at a high level. We should be celebrating our best players, male or female, juniors, seniors or inbetweeners, for that quality as well as for their talent, hard work, commitment and dedication to chess.

I don’t think is the only paradox in the public perception of our game.

On the one hand chess is seen as something which requires genius level intelligence, an astronomically high IQ, to master. On the other hand it’s portrayed as a game so easy that it’s suitable for mass participation by very young children. Schrödinger’s game, very easy and very hard at the same time. This always reminds me of what the great Artur Schnabel said about Mozart’s piano sonatas: too easy for children and too difficult for artists. So parents are often totally confused about what chess really is. The answer to this question is, as CEM Joad would have said, it depends what you mean by chess.

If you mean learning how the pieces move, then, yes, it’s easy for most young children. If you mean playing ‘real’ chess, considering alternatives, thinking ahead, that’s something very different. You don’t need a very high IQ to do this but you do require a certain amount of cognitive and emotional maturity which most young children don’t have. Parents who have some knowledge of ‘real’ chess understand this, which is why, for instance, Magnus Carlsen’s father dropped the game for a few years when his 5-year-old son found it hard to get beyond the moves of the pieces. Parents who don’t understand ‘real’ chess, which, here in the UK must be about 80-90%, have no understanding that their children aren’t really playing chess because they don’t know how to play real chess themselves. You can tell when you ask kids joining a school club to name the rook and they tell you, as they nearly always do, it’s called a castle. You know they’ve been taught the moves by someone who has never read a chess book, and who was taught the moves himself by someone who had never read a chess book.

And this perhaps explains another paradox.

The other day I received my six-monthly royalty statement from my publishers. It’s gratifying that Chess for Kids is still selling well, and providing me with a significant amount of money every year: the only book I’ve written which has done this. However, The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids isn’t selling at all. Unless something remarkable happens it’s never going to get anywhere near paying off its advance.

In a sensible world it would be the other way round. If you really do see chess as a very hard game you’re going to need a guide on how to teach it. If you’re not a proficient player yourself you need to learn enough to help your kids. Even if you are a proficient player you’ll appreciate that some guidance on how to go about teaching something so difficult wouldn’t come amiss. All parents wanting to teach their kids chess should read a book on the subject first. And there’s really no other book on the market which will help you in this way.

There are, on the other hand, plenty of attractive books on the market teaching the rudiments of the game to kids. Once you’ve read my book on how to teach chess you’ll then, when you think your kids are ready, want to buy them a book. You might choose mine, but you might prefer one of the rival volumes which teach very much the same material in different ways. It’s up to you: it doesn’t really matter too much which one you prefer. In a world where chess was recognised for what it really is, my book for parents would sell many times more copies than my book for kids, rather than the other way round.

The right, non-confusing message we’re putting out about chess should be that, although it’s fairly easy to learn the moves, it’s really a game for older children and adults at which some exceptional younger children with exceptionally supportive parents can excel, a game which requires mental toughness as well as intelligence.

Richard James

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Simon Says

Nigel Short is not the only grandmaster to have made controversial statements in chess magazines recently.

An interview with Simon Williams in the May 2015 issue of CHESS will no doubt attract less interest, but, in my opinion, what he has to say is much more important, at least for those concerned with junior chess, than Short’s attention-seeking soundbites.

You might know Simon for his creative and imaginative attacking play, for his devotion to the Dutch Defence, or for his excellent books and GingerGM DVDs, so you might express some surprise that he has strong views on junior chess.

Simon was the subject of the magazine’s 60 seconds with… feature. Here’s what he had to say about the ECF’s selection policy for major junior events (I presume he means the World and European Youth Championships).

“At junior level, I have been amazed in the past by the level of some players who have represented England. My impression has been that only wealthy families, who are willing to pay a large amount of money, can send their kids to tournaments and not always for the right reasons. Not for long-term improvement, but as another thing that they can put on their CV.

“Meanwhile chess tuition and improvement for juniors seems to be stuck on an artificial level in England. No long-term plans are in place. How can a coach teach a child everything in the space of a week at a world junior event?

“Parents are really in a tough position and I admire any who supports their child with coaching and travelling, but it would really help if there was more support available from the national federation. At this rate England will struggle to generate any future grandmasters.”

Trenchant stuff from Simon. His views should be taken seriously by everyone concerned with junior chess in England. It’s many years since I’ve had any direct involvement with elite players so it’s good to hear what I believe to be an honest opinion about how things are at the moment.

Let’s take his points one by one.

If you read my articles regularly you’ll know that, a generation ago, we were one of the world’s leading powers in junior chess. You’ll also be aware that we’re now very poor in terms of strength in depth (people I meet who haven’t followed chess news recently are surprised and dismayed by this), and you’ll be aware of my views on the reasons for our decline.

A few years ago our policy was only to invite one player from each age group to represent the BCF/ECF in the World and European Youth Championships. Complaints were received that talented players who wanted to take part, and whose parents could afford to pay, were not able to do so. So the rules were changed and (relatively low) rating targets were set. The ECF is, according to its website, unable to take financial responsibility but does offer a bursary fund which can provide some financial support in cases of genuine need.

In recent years we’ve been sending more players to these events but, although a few players have finished in or near the top 10, our overall scores tend to be on average just above the 50% mark. Should we be satisfied with this? Simon, I guess, thinks not.

The next point he makes is that some of the participants are taking part because being able to say they’ve played for England looks good on their CV rather than because they have any genuine interest in long-term chess development. This is something that concerns me as it happens here in my area on a local scale. In our area there’s an excellent selective fee-paying secondary boys’ school which is very big on chess. Their teams perform well in competitions both locally and nationally. They offer all-rounder scholarships with reduced fees for boys who demonstrate excellence in more than one area, including sports, arts and chess. So every year several parents ask me to provide references for their sons. Perhaps they’ll send them along to Richmond Junior Club for a few weeks or book a couple of private lessons in the hope that their chess will improve as a result. And if they get in they will suddenly find they have too much homework and stop playing chess. Most parents, it seems to me, sign their children up for chess not because they want to give their children a lifelong interest but because they think they’ll gain extrinsic benefits from chess, and, once they’ve received those benefits they’ll give up the game.

Simon goes on to make the point that, while it’s all well and good providing a coach for the duration of the tournament, children really need to be working with a coach on a regular basis throughout the year. Well no doubt most of them are, but perhaps not all of them. In an ideal world the child’s regular coach would be in contact with the tournament coach in advance. To what extent this happens I really don’t know.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Simon’s impression is that the events are expensive to take part in and, while there is, at least in theory, some financial support available in cases of genuine need, it’s mostly the wealthy parents whose children take part in these events. I guess the only answer to this is sponsorship, and no doubt the ECF are actively pursuing this as I write.

Just as a digression, though, I wonder to what extent these tournaments offer value for money. They often take place at distant venues, the conditions are often less than optimal, many of the participants are either underrated or unrated so it may well not do your rating any favours, there is a feeling that these events exist mainly to make money for both the organisers and FIDE. Yes, it’s great to represent your country, to work together as a team with your friends, to make new friends from other countries and cultures. But there are those who think that sending a team to an open Swiss event on the continent would offer better value for money. Of course if your only reason for entering your children is because playing for England in the World or European Championship looks good on their CV this may not be an option.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the magazine’s Executive Editor, IM Malcolm Pein, also brought up the subject of costs in this month’s editorial. In comparison with other activities, chess is relatively cheap, but for many families in the more deprived inner-city areas where Chess in Schools & Communities operates, even taking part in local events can be a problem.

“It is worth mentioning that the CSC program in Newham and in other boroughs around the UK, including Cardiff, Liverpool and Teesside, is starting to produce some useful junior players… Unfortunately there is little awareness in some quarters of the practical difficulties faced by children from inner-city areas in travelling to tournaments or even affording entry fees.

“CSC is working to ensure as many children as possible have a chance, but my experience with organisations like EPSCA (the English Primary Schools Chess Association) and the UK Chess Challenge has not been uniformly positive, even though I am Honorary President of the former.”

Well, I’m not sure how constructive it is to criticise organisations without mentioning specifics, but I’m still sympathetic. Anyone who knows me well will be aware that, although many of my pupils have gained a lot of enjoyment and benefit from playing in the excellent events run by EPSCA and UKCC I also have reservations about them. But that, perhaps, will be for another article. Meanwhile, the comments made by both Simon and Malcolm need careful consideration by those involved in junior chess in England.

Richard James

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Baking Flans for Nigel

Well, there’s been a lot of chess in the mainstream press recently, hasn’t there? As usual, it hasn’t presented the chess world in a good light, but they say there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

First we had Wesley So and his motivational notes to himself. A rather heavy-handed decision by the arbiter, I thought. He should have been given a time penalty before a forfeit. But why on earth he thought he was allowed to write such notes I can’t imagine.

Then there was Gaioz Nigalidze (whose surname is an anagram of Aidz Nigel) and his rather unsuccessful use of the Toilet Gambit. If he really was consulting his mobile which was crudely hidden in the toilet cubicle he deserves, at the very least, a lengthy ban from competitive chess.

More recently, the media worldwide have been making plans for Nigel. Short, that is. You can’t have failed to notice that, several weeks after the article was published in New In Chess, Nigel’s views on women’s chess were picked up by an English newspaper and subsequently went viral.

Short’s concluding paragraph:

“Men and women’s brains are hard-wired very differently, so why should they function in the same way? I don’t have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do. Likewise, she doesn’t feel embarrassed in asking me to manoeuvre the car out of our narrow garage. One is not better than the other, we just have different skills. It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.”

To be honest, although some might question ‘hard-wired’ it didn’t concern me too much. I was rather more concerned about Short’s gratuitous reference earlier in the article to Fischer and Susan Polgar (of whom he is no fan) as both being of Hungarian Jewish descent. But his views were taken out of context by the world’s media who interviewed various female players about the prevalence of sexism in chess. As he has a track record of making rather unpleasant sexist remarks in New in Chess and elsewhere I don’t really have too much sympathy for him in this case. I guess we could all agree with him, though, when he says that it would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess.

Here’s my take on the subject.

Anyone who has, as I have, spent any time in schools will be well aware that there are significant differences between typical boys and girls but how much is due to nature and how much to nurture is the subject of continuing debate. I have my views and, if you’re prepared to buy me a pint I might in turn be prepared to reveal them to you.

But what we are is not just a question of how our brain is wired. There are the genes we inherited from our parents. There are also a lot of chemicals floating around our bodies, most notably for our purpose, testosterone.

Now your view of the typical male might be one of macho testosterone-fuelled aggression and competitiveness, and, in one sense, this ties in very much with chess. At about the age they take up chess boys tend also to be obsessed with fighting and weapons, and the idea of chess as a battle is very appealing. Because chess is by its nature competitive it will appeal more to boys than to girls.

In his (controversial, and, in some circles, unpopular) book The Essential Difference, Simon Baron-Cohen puts forward his theory. “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” He goes on to describe what he means by a system. “I mean by a system anything which is governed by rules specifying input-operation-output relationships. This definition takes in systems beyond machines, such as maths, physics, chemistry, astronomy, logic, music, military strategy, the climate, sailing, horticulture and computer programming. It also includes systems like libraries, economics, companies, taxonomies, board games or sports.” Baron-Cohen’s academic critics, most notably Cordelia Fine, dispute that this difference is hard-wired, instead believing it’s created by other factors such as social conditioning.

Well, I’m not sure about all Baron-Cohen’s example systems. Many women are interested in music and horticulture, for example. But chess is very much a system according to his definition which again might explain why it appeals more to males than females.

My view is that there is no evidence to suggest that males have inherently more (or less) chess ability than females, but that males are more likely to be attracted to chess, and more likely to want to excel at chess, than females. How much that is due to nature or nurture, well, you pay your money and you take your choice.

The other reason for the shortage of chess-playing girls is, in my opinion, socio-cultural. Chess is perceived by the public very much as a male activity rather than a female activity. In my part of the world, schools will typically offer two after-school clubs most evenings, often one which they perceive as being mainly for girls (perhaps dance or drama) and one which they perceive as being mostly for boys (perhaps football or chess). So most of these clubs attract mostly boys, and the few girls who come often get discouraged and soon give up.

Schools round here don’t seem particularly concerned about the shortage of girls in their chess clubs. Perhaps, as girls these days tend to outperform boys academically, they’re happy to promote chess as an academic-type activity at which boys may outperform girls. Perhaps they see chess as a constructive outlet for boys’ natural competitive and aggressive instincts. While I quite understand this it poses a big problem for the chess community.

So what can be done to get more girls into chess, to encourage them to try to excel at chess, and to maintain their interest as they get older?

Encouraging schools to put chess on the curriculum as a non-competitive problem-solving activity, as Chess in Schools & Communities are doing, is a step in the right direction. CSC’s evidence is that girls perform at least as well as boys in such an environment. Children with a talent for chess can then be identified and encouraged to take part in competitions, perhaps with separate events or sections for girls. Schools might also look at running different types of chess club, with the aim of learning and developing skills rather than taking part in low-level competitions.

The chess community could help by promoting positive stories about girls and women participating successfully in chess events (and, no, this doesn’t mean publishing lots of photographs of attractive young women who just happen to play chess) and getting the message across to both schools and parents that girls as well as boys should be encouraged to take up chess.

Finally, we need to ensure that sexual harassment in the chess world is just as unacceptable as consulting your mobile in the toilet. Let’s do everything we can to encourage more girls and women to play chess rather than staying at home baking flans for Nigel.

Richard James

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Remembering Colin Crouch

I was very sad to hear of the recent death of English IM Dr Colin Crouch at the age of 58.

Colin was one of the most popular members of the English chess community. He was not just a strong player but also a highly respected author and a very successful junior chess coach.

We all know chess players with no interest at all in life outside the 64 squares. Colin wasn’t one of those. He was extremely well-read and knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects including history and politics (he had been a member of the Labour Party). His doctoral thesis was on the economics of unemployment in Britain. He was blogging on politics and history as well as chess up to a week before his death.

We also know strong players who consider it beneath their dignity to talk to anyone with a rating under 2200. Colin wasn’t one of those either. He was happy to talk to anyone at any time, as witnessed by his dedication to coaching young children in Harrow and Pinner.

Colin had been in poor health since suffering a major stroke in 2004 which robbed him of much of his eyesight. On my shelves I found two books, both published by Everyman Chess, about his games after returning to competitive chess. Why We Lose At Chess is essentially a puzzle book based on his games during the 2006-07 season. Analyse Your Chess is a collection of his games played between Spring 2009 and early 2010. Both books are instructive, with lucid and detailed analysis of his games and brutal honesty about his mistakes. But more than that, they’re intensely moving about how he came to terms with his visual handicap and other health issues caused by his stroke.

But the book I got most pleasure from was the Hastings 1895 Centenary Book (Waterthorpe Information Services), co-written by Colin Crouch and Kean Haines. The original Hastings 1895 book (every home should have one) featured all the tournament games annotated by the participants, but, strangely by today’s standards, they didn’t annotate their own games. Crouch and Haines re-annotated the games through modern eyes, providing a fascinating perspective on how a leading contemporary player and writer viewed the way chess was played a century ago.

I knew Colin for forty years, but we were acquaintances rather than close friends. We met twice over the board, the first time at the London Chess Festival in 1975, one of my better tournaments (perhaps I’ll show you the games some other time), where an exciting rook ending led to a draw. We crossed swords again in 1992, on top board in a Thames Valley League match between Richmond B and Pinner A. This time my ill-judged central break led to a speedy defeat.

Two games against more challenging opposition, from consecutive rounds of the 1991 Krumbach Open:

Richard James

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Short Circuit

I guess a Short Circuit might be what happens when Nigel S gives a simul. But it’s also the reason for many of my losses. My brain short circuits: it stops working before it gets to consider the correct move, either for me or for my opponent.

Watch what happened in this recent game against Martin Smith, who blogs elsewhere on chess art, literature and history.

1. e4 c5
2. c3 d6
3. d4 Nf6
4. Bd3 Nc6
5. Nf3 e5
6. dxc5 d5
7. exd5 Qxd5
8. Qe2 e4

Martin has chosen an unusual variation, but one which scores well for Black. Bg4 now is equal but this move loses a pawn.

9. Bc4 Qxc5
10. Ng5 Ne5
11. Bb5+ Nc6
12. Nxe4 Nxe4
13. Qxe4+ Be6
14. Bxc6+

Gaining a tempo and splitting his pawns, but probably not enough reason to trade bishop for knight.

14… bxc6
15. Be3

Nothing very much wrong with this but it would have been simpler to castle. I thought it didn’t matter much whether I played this before or after castling. I got as far as noticing that he had to move his queen to maintain defence of c6. I assumed he wouldn’t want to exchange queens after Qd5 so assumed he’d play Qd6. I failed to be thorough in considering every possibility, though, and the idea of Qb5 didn’t occur to me at all. If I’d seen it I’d have castled without further thought. I guess b5 is an unusual square for a black queen early in the game.

15… Qb5
16. a4

I could have played Nd2 followed by c4 and O-O but again it hadn’t occurred to me that he could play Qa6. I thought Qb7 was his only move.

16… Qa6
17. b4 Rd8
18. f3

A slightly dangerous plan. I mistakenly thought my king would be safe on f2. The right idea was 18. Na3 followed by b5 and eventually O-O, but to play that I had to notice that 18… Qxa4 would have been well met by 19. O-O followed by Nc2.

18… Be7
19. Nd2 O-O
20. Kf2 Rfe8
21. Qc2 f5
22. Rhb1

Continuing to pursue a faulty plan. I was planning to open up the queen side and win his a-pawn but was still unaware that my king would be in danger because his pieces seemed so far away. Moving my rooks into the centre would have led to a position where Black probably has enough for the pawn but no more.

22… Bd6
23. b5 Qc8
24. Kg1 cxb5
25. axb5 f4

This is where things get interesting. We were playing 35 moves in 75 minutes (with a choice of adjournment or adjudication if the game was unfinished when time was called) and at this point we both had round about 10 minutes to reach the time control – a minute a move.

I was very surprised by this move, having expected Bc5 instead. It turns out, though, that neither of those was the best move.

The move Martin should have preferred was 25… Bf7 (not easy to find with the time control approaching) when best play is 26. Bg5 Re2 27. Qd1 (not 27. Bxd8 Qc5+ 28. Kh1 Qe5) 27… Rde8. Black will pick up the c-pawn with advantage but no clear win.

I don’t think I’d decided what to do if he’d played 25… Bc5. 26. Nf1, according to the computer, is equal with best play, but 26. Bxc5 Qxc5+ is winning for Black.

26. Bxa7

I couldn’t see any reason not to take the pawn and indeed Stockfish gives this as its first choice (although in 10 moves time it will change its mind). Instead I could have played Bd4 (which we looked at briefly after the game), or, better still Bf2 when White has an extra pawn in a stable position.

26… Bc5+
27. Bxc5??

A fatal short circuit. For some reason I played this at once, not considering moving my king at all. Perhaps I thought I had to take because otherwise he’d take my bishop but I really can’t explain it.

27. Kf1 loses at once to 27… Rxd2! 28. Qxd2 Bc4+ with mate to follow.

27. Kh1 is an adequate defence, though. The extra tempo compared with the game makes a big difference There’s a long forced variation: 27… Bxa7 28. Rxa7 Qc5 29. Ra4 (Ra2 giving up the exchange might also hold) 29… Qf2 30. Rd4 (the point) 30… Rxd4 31. cxd4 Bf5 threatening mate, the queen and indirectly the rook. So White has to check. 32. Qb3+ loses because White has no back rank checks. 32. Qa2+ draws as the black king has access to f8. The winning try is 32. Qc4+ Kh8 33. Ne4 (meeting all the threats in one go) 33… Bxe4 34. fxe4 f3 35. Qf1 (after 35. Rg1 Black has a perpetual) 35… fxg2+ 36. Qxg2 Qxd4. At this point White has several tries but Black appears to be holding in all variations.

27… Qxc5+
28. Kh1

28. Kf1 again gets mated after 28… Rxd2!

28… Qf2

I’d seen this but thought I had a defence.

29. Rb2

29. Rf1, for instance, avoids the mate at the cost of the knight and, eventually, the game.

29… Bh3!

This was the reason why Martin played f4 on move 25.

30. Rg1 Bxg2+
0-1

On one level I lost because I blundered on move 27, caused by a short circuit. If I’d defended correctly I could have at least drawn the game. But Black could have played better himself at move 25. At a higher level, though, I lost because I failed to realise that my king was in danger once the dark squared bishops had been exchanged. If I’d castled on move 15 instead of short circuiting and overlooking that he could temporarily prevent O-O, this wouldn’t have happened. I could also have avoided the attack by centralising my rooks instead of playing on the queen side.

So (no pun intended) how can I stop myself short circuiting in this way in future? I suppose I could make some motivational notes on my scoresheet, or even on some other piece of paper. But then again, maybe not.

Richard James

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