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.

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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Right Said Fred

The name of Fred Reinfeld came up recently on the Chess Book Collectors Facebook page.

For decades now Reinfeld has been mocked and slated by many strong players, but his books are still remembered fondly by those who grew up with them 50 or more years ago, so much so that “21st century” editions in algebraic notation of some of his books have been published.

My view is somewhere between the two extremes. For me Reinfeld is, or at least was, the chess equivalent of someone like Jeffrey Archer or Dan Brown. If you want great literature you’ll look somewhere else but if all you want is a good story and an easy read then Archer or Brown will probably suit you just fine. It’s very easy to be snobbish about this sort of thing but I’m not sure that’s a reason to criticise authors whose books have given pleasure to so many. (Of course there are very many other reasons why you might want to mock Jeffrey Archer, but that’s something else entirely.)

There are many with good things to say about Reinfeld. Leonard Barden (in correspondence with Edward Winter) referred to Reinfeld’s ‘lucid and informative explanations’ (Chess Notes 8004). According to BH Wood in the Illustrated London News in 1977, “Bob Wade has remarked again and again how poorer players find him helpful”. (Chess Notes 8364). On the other hand, David Hooper (again in correspondence with Winter) wrote: “He started with some serious books, found they didn’t pay, that the public wanted drivel (How to win in ten moves) and American pace necessitated mass production of drivel, he developed contempt of chessplayers, including many champions” (Chess Notes 8436). I think most of us can name several contemporary chess authors who started with serious books, found they didn’t pay and reverted to mass production of potboilers.

A quick scan of the shelves in the Chess Palace came up with seven books authored by Reinfeld, along with one edited by him and a couple of others (by Marshall and Reshevsky) which he is believed to have ghosted. There may possibly be one or two more around somewhere. So I decided to refresh my memory about these volumes.

The only Reinfeld beginners’ book I have is The Complete Chessplayer (1953), a solid guide similar in concept to other adult beginners’ books of the same period, for instance Golombek’s The Game of Chess (my first ever chess book) and Pritchard’s The Right Way to Play Chess (still in print: as it happens I edited and updated the most recent edition). It starts with the rules of chess, followed by some basic tactics, some basic endings and an opening survey. I was surprised to see that Reinfeld gave 5…Nxd5 in the Two Knights an exclamation mark, claiming that the Fried Liver was unsound. I was also surprised to read that ‘King-side castling is common in ninety-nine games out of a hundred’ (both meaningless and factually incorrect – much of the writing is careless in this way). Finally, there’s a short selection of lightly annotated master games. I don’t think I bought this book myself: it must have been in one of several boxes of books I’ve been given over the years. Yes, it’s dated and for various reasons wouldn’t be a lot of use now, but it was a pretty good book for its day.

Chess Mastery by Question and Answer (1939) was a pioneering attempt to teach by demonstrating master games and asking the reader to comment on some of the moves in terms of both strategy and tactics. An interesting idea which has been copied by few if any other writers. Regular readers will be aware that in general I approve of using Socratic methods when teaching chess, although they’re probably more useful in one-to-one tuition rather than in a book. Reinfeld applied the same technique to a selection of lower level encounters in a later book, Chess for Amateurs, which was actually the second chess book I ever owned some 50 years ago. I lent it out some years later and never got it back. It would be good to see contemporary authors writing more books in this style. Come to think of it, I might even write a Chess Heroes book using Socratic methods to critique children’s games.

Amidst all the mockery, Reinfeld hasn’t really received credit for his pioneering teaching methods. Many of us now understand that one way to improve is by intensive solving of tactics puzzles, and, if you want big books with lots of tactics there are several to choose from. Reinfeld was the first to produce this sort of book. As I collect tactics books I had to have 1001 Brilliant Chess Combinations and Sacrifices and 1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate (both 1955, and both books have appeared in different editions with slightly different titles – these are the titles of my editions). These have been reprinted recently in algebraic notation, but without correcting analytical errors. Big tactics books are great but you’d probably do better with something more recent where the analysis has been computer checked.

Tarrasch’s Best Games of Chess (1947) was recommended by GM Kevin Spraggett as one of his favourite books, and is generally considered to be one of Reinfeld’s better efforts. Possibly this was because the notes to many of the games was based on Tarrasch’s own annotations. I remembered enjoying this book when I borrowed it from a library as a teenager so wanted a copy mainly for nostalgic reasons. It’s been reprinted, but not translated into algebraic. As there’s no other collection of Tarrasch’s games readily available in English this would certainly merit a ’21st century edition’.

Reinfeld published two collections of games played by British (and Commonwealth) players: British Chess Masters Past and Present (1947) and A Treasury of British Chess Masterpieces (1950). Two enjoyable collections of games, many little known and some played by little known players, with light, some would say superficial annotations. As a British chess player myself I wanted these for my collection. They won’t do a lot for your chess improvement but I’m pleased to own them. As far as I know, neither of them have been reprinted.

I’ve been selective about which Reinfeld books I acquired and avoided the obvious potboilers but I wouldn’t call any of these books mass-produced drivel. Yes, he generalises and over-simplifies but you have to when writing for less experienced players. Yes, any fool could switch on a chess engine and improve much of the analysis. Yes, much of what he wrote about the openings is out of date. Yes, some of his writing is slapdash. Yes, some of his books contain unverifiable anecdotes which today would, quite rightly, earn him the wrath of Edward Winter. But considering the books in my library, The Tarrasch book is important and would merit a ’21st century’ edition. The two collections of British games are pleasant and undemanding, in a genre which sadly no longer seems to exist. The tactics and question/answer books were revolutionary for their time. Most importantly his books gave a lot of pleasure to thousands, perhaps millions of readers. If you’re looking for something to make you a better player in 2015, though, you’d be well advised to look elsewhere.

Richard James

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Chess for Goldfish

Here’s a game played a couple of months ago between two of Richmond Junior Club’s less experienced members.

You’ll see a lot of typical mistakes. They exhibit the goldfish syndrome, thinking only in the moment, oblivious of what happened a few moves ago, they only look at part of the board, not the whole board, they miss backward diagonal captures and they fail to look ahead.

If the game remains simple, children at this level can give the impression of playing a decent game, but when things get complicated, as they did here, both players will make a lot of oversights.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Nc3 Bb4
4. Bb5 d6
5. d3 Bg4
6. Be3 a6
7. a3?

A typical mistake that this level where children are tempted to counter-attack instead of moving the threatened piece. Either Ba4 or Bxc6+ would have been fine.

7… Ba5?

Black misses his chance to win a piece with 7… Bxc3+ 8. bxc3 axb5. I’d seen this position while watching them playing so was particularly keen to go through the game afterwards. Both children were wide eyed with amazement at the idea that you could actually look one and a half moves ahead in this way.

8. Ba4 h6
9. h3 Bh5
10. b4 b5

This time it’s Black who prefers a counter-attack to moving his threatened bishop. ‘Copycat’ moves of this nature are very popular at lower levels of children’s chess.

11. Rb1

White chooses a seemingly random move. Instead he could have won a pawn: 11. Nxb5 axb5 12. Bxb5 Nge7 13. bxa5 Rxa5 14. a4.

11… Bb6

Black spots that his bishop is threatened.

12. Nd5?

But now both players seem to have forgotten that the white bishop is in danger. They both consider only the last move rather than looking at the whole board. Instead 12. Bb3 was equal.

12… Ba7?

Black doesn’t notice he can take the white bishop.

13. g4 Bg6
14. g5? hxg5

For the next few moves both players are looking only at the kingside where there’s quite a lot going on. Being able to scan the whole board is too hard for players at this level, but it’s an important lesson they’ll have to learn if they are going to make significant progress.

15. Bxg5? Nf6?

Black could win a piece here with 15… f6, when both white bishops are under attack.

16. Bh4

One of White’s problems is that he tends to play the occasional random and seemingly pointless move. When I asked him why he told me it was because (and lower level primary school age players often think like this) ‘if he takes my bishop I’ll take his rook’.

16… Bh5

In fact Black can, and should, take the rook: 16… Rxh4 17. Nxh4 Nxd5 18. exd5 Qxh4 19. dxc6 (19. Qf3 Nd4 20. Qg3 Qh5 21. Qg4 bxa4) 19… Qxf2#. At this level, though, you can’t expect players to see this far ahead.

But this move is also good, as was 16… bxa4 (yes, it’s still there and still nobody’s noticed). White’s last few moves have just created weaknesses.

17. Rg1

White wants to threaten the g-pawn, but now Black can win most easily by playing Nd4 when White can’t defend the pinned knight on f3.

I was watching the game again at this point. Black picked up his king intending to castle, but then changed his mind (rightly so because 17… O-O 18. Bxf6 is winning for White), and panicked. 17… Kf8 was winning but instead he played…

17… Kd7?
18. Rxg7

Undermining the defence of the pinned knight on f6. Suddenly White’s right back in the game. As it happens, Black’s best move is to play 18… Nxd5 when he gets a lot of pieces for the queen. At this point, though, Black took a look round the board – and suddenly noticed that he could capture the bishop on a4.

18… bxa4?

Unfortunately for Black this is exactly the wrong time to capture the bishop.
White can now win by playing the simple 19. Nxf6+. Fortunately for Black, though, White played…

19. Rxf7+??

Another typical mistake, not just at this level. It’s often said that backward diagonal moves are the easiest to overlook and here White does just that.

19… Bxf7
20. Nxf6+ Ke6?

Black’s a rook up and just has to keep his king safe. At this level children tend to play the first legal move they see when they’re in check rather than considering the alternatives. 20… Kc8 is the way to go here. Ke6 looks – and is – very scary.

21. Nd5

The position is, not unexpectedly, too complicated for both players. This move loses because Black can take twice on h4 after which he’s threatening mate (don’t forget that bishop lurking on a7). Instead White could win by playing 21. Ng5+ Kxf6 22. Qf3+ (discovered checks with the knight win the queen, but not the game) when he’s a rook down but has a winning attack.

21… Rxh4
22. Nxh4 Qxh4
23. Nxc7+ Kd7
24. Nxa8

Overlooking Black’s mate threat but by now Black was winning anyway.

24… Qxf2#

Richard James

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My Favourite Things

“Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.” Jolly nice they are too, but they’re not MY favourite things.

I like to tell my students that my three favourite things are chocolate, especially plain chocolate, ice cream, especially chocolate ice cream and … pawn endings.

So imagine my excitement when I saw this position on the board while watching some games at Richmond Junior Chess Club the other day.

It was White’s move in a game between two of our (relatively) stronger players, round about 1200 strength. RJCC, sadly, isn’t what it was 20 or 30 years ago.

Let’s have a look at how the game continued.

It’s immediately clear to any experienced player that, with the kings on e3 and e5, White, to move, will lose, whereas Black, to move, will not be able to make progress. A classic case of the OPPOSITION. The players both told me after the game they’d heard of ‘the opposition’ but clearly White, at any rate, didn’t actually understand it. This is why you need worksheets to test that children have actually understood the lessons at a higher level.

Players of this strength tend to think statically rather than dynamically, which is why they’re stuck at 1200 strength. If you’re only thinking statically it will be natural to play Ke3. You know you want to defend your pawn so you move your king next to it. If you’re applying dynamic thinking to chess positions you’ll be looking ahead, calculating everything that moves, and then you’ll see the problem.

So White can draw by playing Ke2 (or Kf3). He needs to be able to play Ke3 when Black plays Ke5 so he needs to stay in contact with the e3 square as long as Black is in contact with the e5 square.

White, after some thought, played 1. Ke3? and Black of course replied with Ke5. Now White realised he had a problem and tried 2. Kf3 Kd4 3. e5. This is a good attempt, forcing Black to make a decision about how to capture the pawn. He chose to take with the king. When I asked him why after the game he told me he wanted to keep his pawns together. This seems to be to be a case of misunderstanding basic principles. Generally speaking you want to keep your pawns together to make it easier for you to create a passed pawn (you’d rather have f and g pawns v g pawn than f and h pawns v g pawn, for instance), but if you have the chance to create a passed pawn in the ending you should generally seize it with both hands. After 3… fxe5 Black wins very easily. Play it out for yourself if you’re not sure. Instead, 3… Kxe5? left White having to make a decision about which way his king should move.

Again, if you understand the opposition you’ll make the right decision and play Ke3, which, as long as you know what you’re doing, will lead to a draw. Of course you have to know exactly how to defend after 3. Ke3 f5 4. gxf5 Kxf5 but this is very basic knowledge which all competitive players of any age should know back to front. But if you don’t understand the opposition and you’re thinking statically rather than dynamically you may well do what White did in the game and play Kg3 instead. He explained to me after the game that he wanted to be near his pawn to defend it. This time Black made no mistake and the game continued 4. Kg3? Ke4 5. Kg2 Kf4 6. Kh3 Kf3 (you need to understand that in this sort of position the white pawn can be attacked from two squares but only defended from one square) 7. Kh2 Kxg4 and Black soon obtained a queen and delivered checkmate.

So much to learn from such a simple position. You can see why pawn endings are among my favourite things.

Meanwhile, you might be wondering what happened to my adventures with 1… e5. Well, I’ve had a few more blacks without facing 1. e4 again. I did reach a pawn ending, although not a very interesting one, in my most recent game, though.

Although there are lots of pieces on the board here both players should be thinking about a potential pawn ending as either player can trade queens and White can, whenever he chooses, initiate a mass exchange on d5.

I had the black pieces and had to make a decision in this position where White has just played 26. c4. At this point we probably both realised that any potential pawn ending would be drawn. I decided to trade queens at the point and centralise my king so we continued 26… Qxf4 27. gxf4 Kf7 28. Kf2 Ke7. Now White can continue to maintain the tension but instead chose to trade on d5. I then had to decide how many pieces to trade off. I could perhaps have kept one pair of rooks on the board, although it’s unlikely that the result would have been different. Instead I went for the pawn ending: 29. cxd5 Bxd5 30. Bxd5 Rxd5 31. Rxd5 Rxd5 32. Rxd5 exd5. It’s well known that this type of pawn ending is drawn. Black can never activate his king because of White’s protected passed pawn and likewise White cannot activate his king because of Black’s queenside pawn majority. We continued 33. Ke2 b5 34. Kd3 a5 35. a3 b4 36. axb4 axb4 37. Kc2 c4 (The only move to draw. Black has to threaten to create a passed pawn. 37… Ke6 38. Kb3 is winning for White.) 38. h4 h5 39. Kd2 Ke6 40. Ke2 Ke7 and my draw offer was accepted.

Richard James

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C is for Chess

I’ve just been reading H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald’s multiple award-winning and beautifully written account of how, suffused with grief as a result of her father’s sudden death, she decides to buy and train a goshawk.

It got me thinking, as I often do, about the whole concept of training, about the difference between being a teacher and being a tutor.

“To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so gain the ability to predict what it will do next. Eventually you don’t see the hawk’s body language at all. You seem to feel what it feels. The hawk’s apprehension becomes your own.”

Just as when training a hawk you have to ‘become’ the hawk, so, when training a child to play chess you have to ‘become’ the child, which, I dare say, is a lot easier than ‘becoming’ a hawk. You have to enter the child’s world, tune into his wavelength, understand the way he thinks, the way he behaves, the way he reacts, why he plays chess and what he’s expecting from chess.

So I try to find out as much as I can about my pupils. I ask what their favourite subject is at school (usually maths) and which subjects they don’t like. I ask what books they like reading, and sometimes read their favourite books myself. If they like Harry Potter, for instance, I can talk to them about Wizard Chess. I ask them which sports they play, and, if they like football, which team they support. I also ask them why I support Croatia, but they are never able to guess. I can then make comparisons between chess and football. The king is the goal, the rook the goalie, the pawns in front of the castled king the defenders, the minor pieces the midfield players and the queen the striker.

Likewise, if they’re interested in music I can use that. I explain that they have to practise chess just as they have to practise the piano. Practising chess does not just mean playing games any more than practising the piano means just playing tunes. If you’re learning the piano you have to practise your scales and arpeggios, which many students find boring, but they still have to do it. So when you’re practising chess you have to spend time solving puzzles as well as playing games. You have to develop chessboard vision: the ability to see at a glance where every piece is, what it’s attacking and what it’s defending. In the same way you have to learn to sight read when you play the piano.

At the same time I’m looking at my student’s personality. Is he quiet or loud? Does he have a sense of humour? This will affect the way I talk to him and also, indirectly, the way he plays chess. Does he want to learn to play aggressive, attacking chess or would he prefer something more peaceful? Is he someone who will prefer orthodox openings or someone who’ll prefer something more unusual?

Another question I ask my students is whether they think in words or pictures. I think very much in words rather than pictures. I can’t visualise the position in my head but can only see what’s on the board in front of me, which is why I can’t play blindfold chess and find it hard to calculate long variations. This will have implications for both the way I teach and the nature of the resources I recommend for them. A word thinker will probably prefer books while a picture thinker would work better with DVDs. I suspect, given the extent of screen-based entertainment and resources out there, children these days are more likely to be picture thinkers.

It all comes down to the difference between sympathy and empathy. It’s very easy to say, as many coaches do, “I (don’t) like this book so you should (not) read it” or “I (don’t) like this opening so you should (not) play it”. Beware of chess teachers who get all their pupils to play the same openings or read the same books. When I teach a child on a one to one basis I to try to become that child, to experience life as he or she experiences it, in the same way that Helen Macdonald had to become Mabel the goshawk and experience life the way a goshawk does.

In mediaeval times both falconry and chess were considered appropriate activities for young noblemen. If H is for Hawk, then C is for Chess, but don’t forget that C is also for Child.

Richard James

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Dunning-Kruger

Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? This has its basis in a paper published in 1999 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology, Cornell University. I came across it the other day and considered how it might apply to chess.

From Wikipedia:

“The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.

“Dunning and Kruger proposed that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

fail to recognize their own lack of skill
fail to recognize genuine skill in others
fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy
recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they are exposed to training for that skill”

So with regard to playing chess, unskilled chess players have no understanding that they are unskilled. By ‘unskilled’ in this context I mean failing to know all the rules of chess and failing to understand basic tactics and strategy. In my part of the world, most children are taught the moves by parents who are unskilled chess players, who know how the pieces move and think that’s all there is to chess. Which might explain why, when I offer to help them or give them advice on chess they either ignore me or tell me they don’t want my help. They might recognise and acknowledge their own lack of skill if I provided them with training, but as they don’t recognise their incompetence they are not prepared to expose themselves to training.

Of course the idea of ‘unskilled’ is relative. Children who are aware that I can beat them very easily, and also parents who are aware that I can beat their children very easily, often assume that I must be a grandmaster because they perceive me as being unbelievably brilliant at chess. By Magnus Carlsen’s standards, or even by Nigel Davies’s standards, though, I’m a pretty bad player. Competent, perhaps, but no more than that. Competent enough to recognise my own lack of skill, and, up to a point, to appreciate how skilful Carlsen and other grandmasters are.

The Dunning-Kruger effect applies to teaching as well as playing chess. In fact teaching is a whole range of skills. Teaching a group and teaching an individual are very different skills. Teaching elite junior internationals is very different from teaching beginners. Teaching younger children, teaching older children and teaching adults are all very different skills. But many strong chess players assume that all you have to do to be a chess teacher is stand in front of a class and tell them what you know. This might work in some environments, but not, for instance, with a class of 7-year-olds in a primary school chess club.

These teachers may look impressive but if you actually test their pupils to find out what they do and don’t know, or talk through a game with them and ask them what they’re thinking about you’ll discover just how effective they really are.

Dunning and Kruger also concluded that those with genuine ability in a particular domain tended to underestimate their own competence and assume that something they found easy would also be easy for others. So strong players who teach beginners tend to go too fast, assuming that because chess comes easily to them it will also come easily to their pupils, and assuming that children have understood something when in fact they haven’t. It’s very easy to get frustrated when a pupil hasn’t picked up something which is second nature to you.

There are cultural differences which also need to be explored. From Wikipedia again:

“Studies on the Dunning–Kruger effect tend to focus on American test subjects. A study on some East Asian subjects suggested that something like the opposite of the Dunning–Kruger effect may operate on self-assessment and motivation to improve. East Asians tend to underestimate their abilities and see underachievement as a chance to improve themselves and get along with others.”

I’ve written before about different attitudes to parenting and childhood: what I call the ‘Eastern’ approach: children are seen as small adults and are expected to aim to excel at everything they do, and the ‘Western’ approach: childhood is when you have fun: children are expected to work hard in school but extra-curricular activities are often seen as not being very serious. Perhaps this is part of the same thing. People with a ‘Eastern’ mindset are more likely to be searching for self-improvement as well as being more likely to expect their children to excel at music, chess or whatever.

Of course these are crude generalisations. Many Western parents will take an ‘Eastern’ approach while many Asian or East European parents will take a ‘Western’ approach. Most parents will, to a greater or lesser extent, take a ‘Western’ approach to some subjects and an ‘Eastern’ approach to other subjects.

But it seems to me that the fundamental problem with after-school chess clubs is parental ignorance about all aspects of chess. One way of countering this is to put chess on the curriculum so that all children are taught to play properly. Another way is to promote chess clubs in secondary schools when children are old enough to teach themselves if they’re interested rather than in primary schools.

I’ve spent the last 15 years or more telling anyone who wants to listen that primary school chess clubs in their current form are destroying chess as an adult game in this country. The Dunning-Kruger effect explains why most children don’t get anywhere and also why most teaching in primary school chess clubs is ineffective.

Let’s try to do something about it.

Richard James

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