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.

Chess for Heroes

In my last three posts I’ve discussed three reasons for promoting junior chess: to encourage participation in serious competitive chess at whatever level, to identify and fast track potential master strength players, and to use chess as a learning tool.

Between the 1950s and the 1970s chess was promoted in secondary schools: this proved successful in terms of our first aim. The work of the late Bob Wade, Leonard Barden and others was successful in the 1970s and 1980s in terms of our second aim. Chess in Schools and Communities is successfully pursuing the third aim, but over the past 30 years we’ve lost focus with regard to the first two.

Since the 1980s the main focus of junior chess here in the UK has been the primary school chess club. I started getting involved in primary school chess through the Richmond Chess Initiative in 1993, and after a few years I started asking questions. Yes, a few strong players came through primary school clubs, but nowhere near enough. I also didn’t see how they were ‘making kids smarter’. Richmond primary schools are the most academically successful in the country, the schools that were running chess clubs were, by and large, the most academically successful schools in Richmond, and the children who joined their chess clubs were, by and large, those who were academically strong, so there was not very much leeway in terms of making them even smarter than they were.

So our clubs were attracting a lot of very bright boys (but sadly few very bright girls) but the standard of play was, with a few exceptions, pretty low. The children enjoyed the chess clubs, and, to that extent they were an asset to the schools, but they weren’t becoming strong players or developing a long-term interest in chess.

The basic problem is that, because chess is not part of our culture, very few parents have enough knowledge about chess to help their children. Just doing 30 hours of chess in school over a year (actually more like 25 hours once you’ve taken off the time taken getting the sets out, setting them up and putting them away again) isn’t going to get you very far. Playing games at home against parents who are themselves beginners won’t help either, and losing game after game against the chess app on your mobile won’t be a lot better.

I’ve been thinking for a long time about how to get round this problem. I’ve tried handing out worksheets, giving homework, emailing parents with advice on how to help their children at home, writing books for parents, but none of this has had any success.

This time I hope I’ve found the answer.

CHESS FOR HEROES provides a workbook for children plus email access to a chess tutor for children learning the moves. There’s also a chess engine on the site which will record your games. After each module of the workbook you submit your children’s worksheet answers and games against the computer to your chess tutor who will get back to you with specific feedback on your children’s progress.

Children will benefit – they will be able to spend more time each week on chess, will improve their play, win more games and enjoy chess more.

Parents will benefit – they will get help for their children, and, by helping their children, will learn more about chess themselves.

Schools will benefit – their chess club will be stronger, and their children will learn various cognitive and non-cognitive skills which will help them excel academically.

Chess tutors will benefit – they will have something constructive to do between their lunchtime club and their after school club, and will make more money though marking their students’ worksheets and commenting on their games.

The ECF will benefit – more children will be encouraged to take part in higher level competitive chess and they will have more of a long-term interest in the game.

Finally, I will benefit – I will receive royalties for every copy of the course you buy.

Everybody wins, nobody loses. What’s not to like?

Do please visit the CHESS FOR HEROES website. If you’d like to be a CHESS FOR HEROES tutor yourself please let me know.

Richard James

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Scholastic Chess

My last two articles considered two possible reasons for running a junior chess project: to produce young people with a lifelong interest in chess and to identify and train potential IMs and GMs.

There is a third reason which is becoming increasingly popular throughout the world: scholastic chess. This involves using chess as an educational tool on the curriculum in the classroom, usually in primary/elementary schools in less affluent areas, and not necessarily having any expectations that children will become very strong players or even take a lasting interest in the game.

There have been many studies over many years which have claimed educational benefits from chess and suggesting that studying chess might improve children’s problem solving skills and their performance in maths and English.

Personally, I have some reservations about this. Many other activities, which may be of more practical use than chess, are also claimed to provide educational benefits: learning musical instruments, singing in a choir, learning fluency in a second language, learning coding and much else. There just isn’t time for schools to put all these activities on the curriculum. It’s also not clear to me whether other, simpler strategy games, which wouldn’t require specialist teachers, would have a similar effect, or whether the improvement in academic performance is long term or just short term.

Having said that, if schools are enthusiastic and supportive, scholastic chess can be, on its own terms, very popular and successful. If, on the other hand, the class teacher doesn’t support the lesson, just sitting at her desk looking bored and doing her marking, if the chess sets are locked away from one week to the next so that the children have no opportunity to play and reinforce what they’ve learnt, if there’s no communication with parents about what the children are learning and why they’re learning it, it’s probably not going to be very effective.

A further important question with regard to scholastic chess is that of competition. You might think that chess is by its nature competitive, but many teachers have reservations about the role of competition within education. Is it a good idea to run chess competitions for children who barely know how the pieces move and are confused about checkmate? If we decide it’s a good idea for children to have the opportunity to compete in mental activities as well as physical activities, is chess the only option? Could schools run competitions for noughts and crosses, Connect Four, draughts, various pre-chess games using subsets of the pieces and/or rules?

Here’s my take on how scholastic chess should work.

Chess in the classroom should be non-competitive. Of course children will spend some of the time playing games, but these will be seen as learning opportunities, not competitive activities. Children will also solve puzzle sheets as individuals while there will be harder puzzles to be solved by children working collaboratively in groups. The lessons will need to proceed slowly to ensure that no child is left behind. If you start with pawns, as CSC does, it will take several weeks before the whole class has mastered the pawn move (and that’s before you introduce the en passant rule). If a chess tutor is being used, the chess tutor and class teacher should lead the lessons together. The class teacher should be actively involved in the lessons and demonstrate her enthusiasm to the children. There should be posters round the walls reminding children of how the pieces move and the other basic rules. Chess sets should be available for children who want to play at break or lunchtime, before or after school rather than locked away in a cupboard. Parents and carers should be made aware not just that their children are learning chess, but how and why they are learning. You might want to run workshops in the evening for parents who would like to learn more so that they can help their children at home. There should be an after-school or lunchtime club for children who want to play low-level competitive chess. The school should take part in competitions against other schools and, in the UK, run a heat of the UK Chess Challenge. Links should be forged with local junior chess clubs (assuming they exist) so that children who want to play competitive chess at a higher level can be pointed in the right direction.

One final question is this: to what extent should national chess federations support projects that are unlikely to lead to a significant increase in participation in serous competitive chess?

Richard James

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Talent Spotting

Last week I considered three reasons why you might want to promote junior chess at a national level.

One reason might be to produce strong players, potential IMs and GMs, young players who will do well in international junior competitions like the World and European Youth Championships.

Top grandmasters almost always start competitive chess young. If you start later it doesn’t mean that you won’t become a very strong player. The English IM Jonathan Hawkins, for instance, only started playing competitively in his teens and was not especially strong until his early twenties. But if you want your children to become world class players, these days they need to start playing competitively fairly young. Not necessarily at 4 or 5, but certainly by 8 or 9.

From my experiences, children who do well at chess at an early age have five things in common:

1. They usually have a very strong mathematical/logical intelligence. Some are strong academic all-rounders while others are maths specialists. They may excel at jigsaw puzzles or build Lego models designed for much older children. They may have a particular interest in computers or science. They may have an exceptional memory and excel at verbal and non-verbal reasoning and have a high IQ.

2. They are competitive by nature. They want to win, to be the best, and are prepared to work hard to achieve that aim. The children who cry when they lose are often those who eventually become strong players. If you don’t mind whether you win or lose you have no incentive to improve.

3. They are, or can be, mature for their age. Chess at its higher levels is an adult game: children who do well in competitions are able to switch off from being children and become adults for the duration of the game. They have the ability to control the impulse to play the first move that comes to mind and make the effort to find the best move. They have the emotional maturity to learn from their losses and the resilience to overcome setbacks. I’ve met so many children over the years with the talent to do well at chess at an early age but not the maturity.

4. They have highly supportive parents who will take them to clubs and tournaments, arrange tuition and encourage them to study and practise regularly. They have parents who themselves love the game of chess, whether or not they are good players, and who want their children to be the best they can be at whatever they do. Their parents encourage them to learn chess because they thing it might be something their children could excel at, not just because it might make them smarter or be an enjoyable after-school activity.

5. They have regular access to a coach who is knowledgeable about how children learn chess. This might be a family member who happens to be a competent player, but more often it will be a professional chess coach who is experienced at working with young children and who understands children’s cognitive and emotional development.

Now have a look at the top 11 year old players in the USA. Do you notice something about the names? If you look at the English junior lists you’ll find a higher than expected number of Asian and Russian names, but not to the same extent as in the USA.

I’ve written before about the difference between what I call ‘Eastern’ parenting, where children, from an early age, are expected to excel at whatever they do, and ‘Western’ parenting, where young children are encouraged to take on activities because they will be ‘fun’ or lead to extrinsic benefits. Some ‘Western’ parents, though, do take a more serious approach to chess, usually because they themselves have a particular interest in the game.

So, if we want to find children who might have the potential to become GMs, where should we look?

We’re probably going to look in more affluent, middle-class areas. I appreciate this may not be politically correct, but, whether we like it or not, it’s where we’re most likely to find our future stars.

We might want to look in areas with a higher than average ethnic minority population.

We might want to encourage schools in these areas to start chess clubs if they don’t already do so.

We might want to work closely with schools to identify children who have the first four attributes listed above (our job is to provide the fifth). Children who come from chess playing families will learn at home, but we also want to find children whose parents are not themselves chess players.

We might want to run tournaments (both individual and school) and coaching workshops in these areas, and use these to feed children through to junior chess clubs and private coaches.

We might want to work closely with junior chess clubs, or start junior chess clubs in areas without one close at hand.

We might want to provide resources for parents who do not play chess themselves but want to support their children’s chess.

We might want to make a specific effort to encourage more girls both to learn chess and to compete at higher levels.

Because parents in affluent areas are, by and large, prepared to pay good money for services they consider beneficial for their children, it’s not actually going to cost you very much. By bringing more children into serious competitive chess, in the long term you stand to gain.

Richard James

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Secondary Matters

It seems to me that you might have three reasons for running a national chess project for children.

Firstly, you could run a ‘scholastic chess’ project, designed to use chess as an educational tool for young children, without any particular expectation that the children will go on to become strong players.

Secondly, you might want to look for ‘prodigies’, children who will be strong enough to play in top junior international competitions such as the World and European Youth Championships, some of whom will, you hope, reach IM or even GM standard.

Thirdly, you might want to produce serious adult standard competitive chess players, not just titled players but players of all levels.

You’ll probably agree that all three of these reasons are worthwhile in themselves. Observant readers might note that after-school chess clubs for younger children in more affluent areas of the country, and this has been the model here in the UK for the past generation, seem to have been only moderately successful at producing a generation of IMs and GMs, not at all successful at producing lots of serious adult competitive players, and, given the areas in which they tend to operate, have probably not made too many children ‘more intelligent’.

In this post I’m considering the third reason.

Here are just a few reasons (you can probably think of more) why you might want to produce more adult chess players.

  • The chess players in your country form a pyramid. Without a solid base the pyramid will collapse.
  • You need to produce players who will take part in tournaments at lower levels, to provide prize funds for elite players.
  • You need to produce chess enthusiasts who will become club secretaries, treasurers and match captains.
  • You need to produce chess enthusiasts who will become tournament organisers and arbiters, and run tournaments for elite players, as well as average players, to take part in.
  • You need to produce adults who will have an interest in chess and know enough to teach their children in a meaningful way.
  • You need educators who will be enthusiastic about chess and encourage it within their schools and colleges.
  • You need business people who will be keen to sponsor chess events because of their passion for the game.
  • I would contend that, if this is the aim of your chess project, you should target secondary schools rather primary schools. Here again are just a few reasons.

  • Most children only reach the point in their development where they can play ‘real’ chess at secondary school age.
  • Most children only reach the level of self-control to stop and think about their moves rather than playing the first thing that comes to mind at secondary school age.
  • Most children only reach the level of emotional maturity required to cope with the stress of competitive chess at secondary school age.
  • Most children only reach the level of emotional maturity to learn from their mistakes at secondary school age.
  • Most children are unable to study independently until they reach secondary school age.
  • Primary school children’s idea of a game is involving have low level fun with your friends, while secondary school children will see a game as something more serious at which you can learn to excel.
  • Primary school children’s interests are usually chosen by their parents, while secondary school age children choose their own interests.
  • When children move schools (at 11) and reach puberty they make new friends and develop new interests, usually giving up activities they associate with primary school.
  • If children associate an activity with school they are likely to give up when they leave, so they need to be encouraged to join adult chess clubs, which run too late and are too strong for most primary school children.
  • Older children can organise clubs themselves with minimal adult support as well as teach themselves if they’re interested, so there’s less need to find or pay for a professional chess coach.
  • Older children can travel to chess clubs and tournaments themselves without needing transport from their parents.
  • Our experience running, say, Under 14 teams at Richmond Junior Club was that the top boards would be children who’d been playing competitive chess half their lives and felt they were growing out of it, while the lower boards were often children who had started later, for whom chess competition was something new and exciting. It was often these players, rather than the top board stars, who continued playing into adulthood.

    Fortunately, things are starting to happen here in the UK as Neill Cooper is doing a great job promoting secondary schools chess on behalf of the English Chess Federation.

    All secondary schools need (apart from some sets and boards) is an enthusiastic member of staff who will ensure that children have the chance to play chess every day, setting aside a classroom for this purpose at morning and lunch breaks, who will organise internal competitions and matches against other schools for children who want to play competitive chess, and who will encourage those children to join outside clubs and take part in tournaments.

    The trick, of course, is to locate that enthusiastic member of staff, and, because, here in the UK, we’ve been getting junior chess wrong for the past 30 years, there are not very many younger adults around who are genuinely enthusiastic about chess.

    Richard James

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    Drop Outs

    We saw last week that most children will only be able to play ‘real chess’ at secondary school age. (For readers from other countries, children in the UK usually attend primary schools up to the age of 11, at which point they transfer to a secondary school.) Our experience at Richmond Junior Club, and, yes, I’ll return to its history later, is that children who start chess at primary school (usually at about 7 years old) and fail to reach adult club standard, ‘real chess’ in other words, will see chess purely as a children’s game, and, unless there is significant chess activity in their secondary school, will fail to make further progress and soon drop out of the game.

    For those of us who were at secondary school in the years between the end of the Second World War and the late 1970s, chess was something you did in your teenage years. Many of us are still playing. In the recently concluded British Championships the British Senior Championship (for players aged 60 and over) attracted 61 competitors while there were also two grading restricted sections for seniors . By contrast, there were only 25 players in the Major Open, which in the past would have attracted many ambitious younger players. I played in it myself a few times in the 1970s.

    Sometimes my colleagues at Richmond Chess Club ask me why so few members of Richmond Junior Club graduate to adult chess (and, on occasion blame me personally for the decline in club membership). Sometimes questions are asked on chess forums about why, with more young children playing chess and more chess players making a living out of teaching chess to young children, the number of teenagers and young adults playing chess is not increasing. These are good and important questions.

    In other countries things are different. In many East European and Asian countries chess is taken much more seriously. Their chess clubs are open every day, not just once a week, and children learning the game are given regular homework. Here in the UK, by contrast, parents want their children to have a rounded education and don’t want them to spend more than an hour or so a week on chess.

    In other West European countries chess clubs operate very much like football, rugby or cricket clubs, meeting at weekends, with members getting involved in coaching and with a natural progression from junior club teams through to adult club teams.

    Primary school chess, whether in the form of using chess as a learning tool on the curriculum or through after-school or lunchtime chess clubs, is great in itself, and provides many extrinsic benefits for children, but for the past 30 years, and there’s no sign of improvement, we haven’t been successful in feeding children through into adult chess. For reasons I explained last week, playing adult standard chess is just too hard for most children of primary school age.

    There are two things the English Chess Federation could do to help improve the situation. One of them, promoting chess in secondary schools, is already happening with some success. The other, providing a path to take children from learning the moves to playing ‘real chess’, is not. Future posts will consider this in more detail.

    Richard James

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    Cut Out and Keep

    As promised last week, here’s your handy cut-out-and-keep guide to how children of different ages learn and play chess.

  • Piaget Classification: Pre-Operational Stage
  • Approximate ages: 2-7 (Infant School)
  • UK school system: up to Year 2
  • US school system: up to 1st Grade
  • Logical ability: only very simple egocentric logic
  • What children can learn: the moves of the pieces, will struggle to understand check/mate: will benefit from playing mini games rather than complete chess
  • How children learn: constant repetition of the moves of the pieces until they remember them:they will not be able to teach themselves
  • How children play: either with no logic or with flawed logic: will not be able to consider their opponent’s perspective: they may see threats but will not check that their move is safe before playing it
  • Where should children play: at home or at school on the curriculum or with other beginners: unless they are working hard at the game at home, children at this level will benefit little joining an after-school club and playing against more experienced players. It’s best to wait for children to get through this level before encouraging them to play in tournaments.
  • My term for chess played at this level: illogical chess
  • Dan Heisman’s term for chess played at this level: Flip-Coin Chess

  • Piaget Classification: Concrete Operational Stage
  • Approximate ages: 7-11 (Junior School)
  • UK school system: Years 3-6
  • US school system: 2nd-5th Grade
  • Logical ability: simple logic: if you attack my queen I’ll move it
  • What children can learn: all the rules (but may struggle with en passant), the basic logic of the game (superior force wins)
  • How children learn: repetition and reinforcement, mimicry and memory. Children will need to repeat what they’ve learnt over and over again because they won’t have a higher level understanding. Children will mimic what they see: if they play regularly against a proficient player they will start to play well but if they play against weak players they will copy their bad habits. Children at this level might be able to teach themselves the moves but will need adult help to get any further.
  • How children play: simple logic is used: children will focus on just one aspect of the position, identify one criterion and choose the first safe move which meets that criterion. They will not consider alternatives or look ahead in any meaningful way.
  • Where should children play: at this level children will benefit from joining a school or community chess club and taking part in low-level competitions against other children of their age. They will not be ready for playing in open-age competitions against adults. They can also benefit from playing chess on the internet.
  • My term for chess played at this level: simple logical chess
  • Dan Heisman’s term for chess played at this level: Hope Chess

  • Piaget Classification: Formal Operational Stage
  • Approximate ages: 11 and over (Secondary School)
  • UK school system: Years 7 and over
  • US school system: 6th Grade and over
  • Logical ability: complex logic: if you attack my queen I’ll consider all the safe squares and choose the one I prefer. Children will be able to draw conclusions from examples, switching between the general and the specific and back again.
  • What children can learn: children can start to learn aspects of chess that require higher level understanding as well as just memory. They will be able to appreciate strategic concepts and start to learn openings.
  • How children learn: at this level children will be developing understanding which will complement their memory skills. They will still benefit from either group or individual tuition, but will also be developing self-teaching skills. This will enable them to teach themselves through books, DVDs or websites. They will also be developing the power of self-criticism so they’ll be able to identify the mistakes in their own games and learn from them.
  • How children play: children can now apply complex logic to chess. They can learn to consider every aspect of the position, to consider their opponent’s thoughts and intentions, to make a choice from several alternatives and to look ahead.
  • Where should children play: children should be playing regularly in chess clubs and taking part in tournaments. They can start to play in competitions against adults as well as against other children. If they are still at primary school they will not gain much from attending the chess club, although they may wish to do so for social reasons. Playing chess at secondary school will be great as long as there are opponents who play to their level or above, or who are keen to learn.
  • My term for chess played at this level: complex logical chess
  • Dan Heisman’s term for chess played at this level: Real Chess

  • Please bear in mind that the ages quoted are approximate. Some children will achieve these cognitive milestones earlier, in some cases very much earlier, so, provided they have help from a Real Chess player, they may be able to play Real Chess before the age of 11. Other children will achieve them later, or not at all. Children who are attracted to chess are quite likely to be cognitively advanced for their age. Of course the vast majority of adults who play chess may well be using complex logic in other situations but have never learnt how to apply it to chess so still play Flip-Coin or Hope Chess rather than Real Chess.

    Parents who themselves play Flip-Coin Chess might think that’s all there is to the game, teach their children how the pieces move, think they’re really good and sign them up for their school chess club. Children will need help (ideally one to one) to understand the basic logic of the game and reach the next level.

    Parents who themselves play Hope Chess will take things further, and will be able to help their children to some extent. If children want to play Real Chess, though, they’ll need further help, ideally from playing and learning at a club with other children at the same level or higher along with one to one tuition.

    So, within a primary school club there will be children who play Flip-Coin Chess because that’s what their parents play, or because they’re too young to understand Hope Chess, but they will usually get frustrated after a couple of terms because they keep on losing to the Hope Chess players without having any idea why.

    There will also be children playing Hope Chess because they’ve learnt something about the game from their parents. They will do well in their school club, but will associate the game with their school and are likely to give up when they change schools. There will be few, if any, players within a primary school club playing Real Chess.

    But understanding young children’s limitations regarding chess will enable us to produce lessons, coaching materials and courses based on how they learn and what can realistically be expected of them. It will also help us dissuade well-meaning parents who are ignorant of chess from thinking chess is suitable for their three-year-olds.

    Richard James

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    Child Genius

    Yesterday evening I watched the first episode of Channel 4’s Child Genius, a programme in which exceptionally gifted young children compete in a series of tests to identify the ‘brainiest child in the country’.

    There were some seriously scary parents on view in the first episode, parents who are devoting their lives to proving a point, that their child should excel in their chosen discipline. It’s parents like these who, in the eyes of many, give child prodigies a bad name.

    Of course these programmes are set up by producers who have a specific agenda. I’m sure most of the parents are much less extreme than some of those featured last night, and are doing their best to encourage children with an exceptional natural talent.

    We had two children in Richmond Junior Club who between them broke a lot of age records, who both had parents who were extremely encouraging, but not over pushy, whose children genuinely enjoyed chess rather than being forced into it. As it happened, one of them, Murugan Thiruchelvam, eventually decided to do other things with his life, while the other, Luke McShane, continued playing, but as an amateur rather than a professional.

    The other day I received an email from parents (presumably not themselves chess players) looking for a chess club where their three-year-old twins could learn the game. I replied explaining why their children were far too young to learn in such an environment. They replied that they understood, but their Korean neighbours were teaching their children (of the same age) to play chess so they felt they ought to arrange lessons for their children as well.

    So, what then of Magnus Carlsen, the highest rated player in the history of the game? Did he start at this age? Let’s find out.

    I’ve just been re-reading Simen Agdestein’s book about Carlsen’s early career, first published 10 years ago under the title Wonderboy, and recently republished as How Magnus Carlsen Became the Youngest Chess Grandmaster.

    Magnus’s father Henrik is himself a strong amateur whose rating has been as high as 2095. Being born into a chess environment is a big advantage for children who start young. Henrik was keen for his son to take up his favourite game. It was clear from an early age that Magnus had exceptional gifts. At the age of two he could complete jigsaw puzzles with more than 50 pieces. At the age of four he was constructing Lego models intended for children up to ten years older. He also had an extraordinary memory. By the time he was five he knew by heart the area, population, flag and capital city of every country in the world. So Henrik thought he might well have a potential chess prodigy on his hands and taught his son how the pieces moved.

    Magnus had no problem learning the moves but understanding the game was another thing entirely. Henrik would play with just his king and pawns while his son started with his whole army, but Magnus showed no comprehension of what was happening in the games, so Henrik dropped the idea. He tried again a year or two later, but again with no success. Even at the age of eight he was still losing to Scholar’s Mate.

    But then, very suddenly, something happened. Here’s Simen Agdestein:

    “Magnus began to sit by himself and shuffle the pieces. He could sit for hours moving the pieces, in known and unknown patterns, finding combinations and repeating games and positions that his father had shown him.”

    Shortly afterwards he played in his first tournament, scoring 6½/11 in the youngest age group of the Norwegian Championships, and from then on played in competitions regularly, making dramatic progress.

    Teach your children the moves at home when they’re young if you want, but don’t forget even Magnus Carlsen didn’t start taking chess seriously and playing in competitions until he was eight. If your children don’t have his natural talent, it could well be that the best age to encourage them to take the game seriously will be rather later than that. Magnus didn’t suffer from starting real chess at eight so there’s no reason at all why I should run chess classes for three-year-olds as some parents seem to expect.

    So why do we encourage early years chess? Teachers do so because they’re hoping to make their reputation by discovering a prodigy. Tournament organisers do so because they think they’ll get more entries and make more money. Parents with no knowledge about chess do so because they’ve heard the message from teachers and organisers in the media and know no better.

    Let’s get away from the absurd idea that all children should start chess very young and get across a more sensible message: that chess is a fantasatic game, the best game in the world, many of us would agree, but a game best suited to older children, not younger children.

    Next time I’ll look at what exactly we can expect from children of different ages as they learn and play chess.

    Richard James

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    Flipping Good

    I wonder if you’re aware of the concept of Flip Teaching.

    Flip Teaching reverses the traditional classroom – children learn their subject at home and practise at school.

    If you’re teaching maths in this way you’ll get your students to watch an online lesson introducing a maths skill at home and then practise that skill within the classroom. Likewise, if you’re teaching history, children could watch an online lesson or read a chapter of a book about, say, Henry VIII, and then write an essay in the classroom. I could think of a few disadvantages of this method but it seems to me there are also many advantages.

    It occurred to me that I’ve been running my chess classes in this way, in theory but not in practice, for many years. Unlike other chess teachers I don’t very often stand in front of a demo board giving a lesson unless I’m specifically asked to do so. My experience is that children learn more from playing games in fairly serious conditions than they do from watching me give a lesson on a demo board.

    So here’s how Flip Teaching can work within the chess classroom.

    Children who want to do well at chess need to do three things. Firstly, they need to play games under serious conditions, with feedback from a stronger player. Secondly they need to learn specific chess skills. Thirdly, they need to spend time solving puzzles on a regular basis. Now if you’re good enough to be on the tournament circuit you’ll be playing lots of games under serious conditions anyway, but most children within a primary school chess club will only be taking part in occasional competitions. So the main purpose of a primary school chess club, at least the way I run them (almost every other chess teacher here in the UK will disagree with me) is to enable children to play games in as close to possible tournament conditions. They can develop skills at home in various ways as long as we provide the parents with the appropriate resources and ensure that they help their children learn the skills. We would also provide resources for children to solve puzzles at home.

    There are, it seems to me, many advantages in this. Junior chess clubs, by their nature, will include children of various ages with varying amounts of experience. If all children follow a predetermined course they will be able to progress at their own speed without having to spend 15 minutes or so watching their chess teacher demonstrating something which may well be too easy for some of the students and will certainly be too hard for others. Children will be able to repeat the lesson at home as often as they need, and pause or go back if there’s something they don’t understand. Parents will be able to help or learn with their children. The lesson could be available in different formats to suit children’s learning preferences. There could be a written version, an interactive version (like the lessons on chessKIDS academy), a video lecture on YouTube, a computer program set up to enable children to practise the skill, puzzles to reinforce children’s understanding of the skill. Children, with the support of their parents, can choose the combination of media that works best for them.

    If instead you teach a lesson in the chess club, it will just be the teacher standing at a demo board or interactive whiteboard in front of the class. There won’t be time to ask questions, and if you want your pupils to spend time mastering the skill you’ve taught them they won’t have much time to play against their friends.

    I believe strongly that the future of junior chess clubs lies in this approach to teaching. First, we need a syllabus, then we need all the coaching materials to back it up, in various formats.

    I’m working on setting this up at the moment, and will provide more information later. Who will join me?

    Richard James

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    Land of Hope

    Perhaps you know about the Sally-Anne test, a test used by developmental psychologists to determine whether or not young children understand that other people may not have the same beliefs that they do.

    The experimenter introduces the subject to two dolls, Sally and Anne. Sally is playing with a marble. She puts it in her basket and goes out. Then Anne comes in. Naughty Anne takes Sally’s marble from the basket and hides it in a box. Anne leaves, and then Sally returns. Where will she look for her marble?

    We know that the marble is now in the box but Sally doesn’t, so she’ll look in the basket. Children who give the ‘correct’ answer demonstrate ‘Theory of Mind’, the understanding that others have different beliefs to us. Children who give the ‘incorrect’ answer lack this ability. (Of course, you could think of several reasons why Sally might look in the box. Perhaps Anne often moves the marble so Sally expects it to be in the box rather than the basket. Perhaps Sally was looking through the window and saw Anne move the marble.)

    There’s a typical thinking error young children make when playing chess which, it seems to me, is similar to this. Children play a move thinking – or hoping – that their opponent will do what they want them to do.

    Consider this.

    A book I use a lot is Winning Chess Exercises, by the wonderful Jeff Coakley. For those of you who are not familiar with the book (and, if you’re a chess teacher you should be), it comprises 100 Best Move Contests of increasing difficulty. Each BMC comprises three checkmate puzzles, three winning material puzzles, three best move puzzles, and, at the foot of the page, a verbal chess/maths puzzle. I used the first BMC at a local (fairly strong) primary school chess club the other day for a group of some of the more experienced players who had finished their tournament game early. They set up the first position on the board and set off to find the mate.

    After a few minutes thought they rushed up to me excitedly and told me they’d worked out the answer. I asked them what it was and they told me: R1c2. They explained that after Black captured on c2 they’d take twice on d8 with checkmate, and if Black instead captured on c8 they’d recapture, again leading to checkmate.

    You can see what they were thinking, can’t you? They first looked at capturing on d8, but then one of them noticed that the rook was defended twice. So they then looked for a way to deflect one of the defenders and chanced upon R1c2. After that move there is indeed a forced checkmate in two moves, but sadly for Black rather than White.

    On one level you might see this as a ‘Theory of Mind’ issue. They believe, or at least hope, that their opponent will play the move they want him to play, rather than the move he wants to play. It’s also why children try for Scholar’s Mate, or sacrifice most of their pieces to play their queen to the g-file and their bishop to h6, hoping their opponent will allow Qxg7#.

    On another level it’s a fixation with one idea to the exclusion of everything else rather than changing tack and trying Plan B if Plan A doesn’t work. Inflexible thinking, perhaps. A failure to apply Scientific Method, perhaps.

    On a third level it’s a failure to ask the Magic Question “If I do that, what will my opponent do next? What checks, captures and threats does he have?”.

    To give them credit, though, a few minutes later they came back to me with the correct answer, and, I hope, learnt something from the experience. At least they had little trouble solving the next two checkmate puzzles.

    I’d like to call this sort of mistake, hoping your opponent will overlook your threat or fall for your trap rather than considering what he is most likely to do, ‘Hope Chess’, but Dan Heisman has already claimed this term for something slightly different and rather more general. Heisman defines ‘Hope Chess’ as playing without anticipating your opponent’s reply and hoping to be able to meet any forcing move successfully. This is exactly sort of chess played, in general terms, by stronger primary school players: moving from ‘Hope Chess’ to ‘Real Chess’ requires learning to think ahead accurately. In my example, my pupils were trying to anticipate their opponent’s reply but, possibly because of an inadequately developed Theory of Mind, were ‘hoping’ that he would make a weak reply rather than looking for a possible strong reply. So I need to call this something other than ‘Hope Chess’. Any suggestions?

    Richard James

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    Search for the Hero

    If you were paying attention last week you’ll know that my new chess course is called Chess for Heroes.

    One reason is that if you want to succeed at competitive chess you need a collection of non-cognitive skills which might be summed up as ‘mental toughness’ along with chess skills.

    But there’s another meaning to the word hero as well. We might admire someone because of their skills in a particular field and describe them as our hero. We might also identify a chess hero: a player we admire and whose play we’d like to emulate.

    I understand from my pupils that some people in Brazil are currently kicking a ball around a grassy field. (There are also some different people much nearer home who, I believe, are hitting a smaller ball at each other over a net.) If you ask any child with even a cursory interest in football to name some famous footballers, he will have no problem in giving you lots of names, just as I could have done at that age. But if I ask children who enjoy playing chess to name some famous chess players they usually look at me in questioning amazement, as if I was asking them to name some famous Snakes and Ladders or Noughts and Crosses players.

    Of course there’s an obvious difference. Football is an excellent spectator sport. Even if you don’t play football yourself you’re aware that the guys in the blue shirts are trying to kick the ball into the net at one end, while the guys in the red shirts are trying to kick the ball into the net at the other end. You might get more out of watching the game if you’re well versed in the intricacies of the offside rule, but it’s really not necessary. You can understand the game and appreciate the skills (or not, in the case of England) of the players even if you’re a complete duffer at playing football. To appreciate a top level chess game, though, you need to be a pretty strong player yourself.

    Even so, I think we in the chess community could do a lot more to promote the idea of chess heroes. The presentation of the game online is improving. Excellent communicators such as Lawrence Trent are providing live online commentary on major events. There was a discussion on Twitter the other day about how well most top GMs handle the press conferences after their games. Although young players might enjoy following the major tournaments and supporting their favourite players, they would probably, at lower levels, get much more from choosing Paul Morphy rather than Magnus Carlsen as a role model for how to play chess. No worries: one great thing about chess is that you can travel back in time and follow the games of chess heroes from the past whose games might be easier to understand. There are many lessons available online which will help you do this, and brilliant analysis by the likes of Andrew Martin and Daniel King will enlighten you further.

    So one of the ideas of Chess for Heroes is that it will incorporate (just as Move Two! did) biographies and news about top players, along with a blog on the website with links to current events.

    There’s a lot to be said for encouraging young players to make Paul Morphy their chess hero. Rapid development and accurate calculation are necessary for chess success. Here’s Paul, at the age of 10 or 11, demonstrating how to beat his dad at chess.

    Richard James

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