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.

Knowledge and Skills

A few weeks ago a poster on the English Chess Forum posed a question about whether chess education should be based on skills or knowledge. I was tempted to answer but before I got round to it the discussion on that thread had moved onto something else, so I decided to write a blog post instead.

Well, it all depends what you mean by ‘skills’, doesn’t it?

When you think about chess skills you might interpret it as the ability to put knowledge into practice. For instance, I may know the basic procedure for delivering checkmate with bishop and knight against king, but not necessarily have the skill to put it into practice with my clock ticking in a quickplay finish. We’re talking here about domain-specific chess skills.

You might also think about the cognitive and executive function skills you need to play chess well: the ability to handle complex abstract logic, concentration, impulse control.

But I suspect the poster meant neither of these type of skills, but rather the skill of, if you like, thinking like a chess player. How to consider what will happen next. How to choose between alternatives. How to make decisions. How to solve problems. And this is precisely what the worldwide scholastic chess movement is aiming to do, claiming that using chess in this way will ‘make kids smarter’. Compare the knowledge of history or science with the skill of thinking like a historian or a scientist. (‘Scholastic chess’, in this sense, means using subsets of chess as a learning tool in the classroom, and has nothing at all to do with competitive chess as played in clubs and tournaments. Its proponents, however, will hope that many children will want to move onto competitive chess later, and, having learnt both the basic rules and the required thinking skills,

You’re probably aware that there’s been a continuing debate over many decades about the respective merits of ‘traditional’, knowledge based learning versus ‘progressive’ or ‘child-centred’, skill based learning, particularly within primary schools. My views, as they do on many subjects, occupy what I’d like to consider the sensible middle ground. Yes, I can see the merits of ‘traditional’ education where children sit in rows of desks facing the teacher, and there’s an emphasis on rote learning, facts, worksheets: after all it’s what I grew up with, and it served me well enough at least in my early years. But some children, in some subjects, will benefit from a more progressive approach where children sit round tables working in groups to develop skills and solve problems, because, after all, the traditional education I had eventually failed me. But that’s a story for another time and place.

The countries that regularly top the international league tables, though, tend to take an extreme view. Finland, for example, considered by many to have the best education system in the world, uses ‘progressive’ methods. Here’s a recent article outlining a proposed move away from a subject-based curriculum to a project-based curriculum. On the other hand, the East Asian countries which excel at maths use extremely ‘traditional’ methods.

The scholastic chess movement, it seems to me, is much more suited to ‘progressive’ than ‘traditional’ education. It ties in very much with the idea of children working together to solve a problem and aims to promote the skills of a chess player, as opposed to chess playing skills. On the other hand, worksheet based courses, such as the Steps Method, or the methods used in the former Soviet Union, focus mainly on domain-specific chess skills. There are many other courses, such as my old chessKIDS academy course, which are specifically knowledge based.

The education blogger David Didau is very much in favour of traditional education. Although I don’t agree with everything he writes, his posts are always entertaining and thought-provoking. Here he’s discussing ways of reframing the debate between the two methods. You might think he’s actually presenting three different false dichotomies, but it will certainly make you think. Here he visits the controversial Michaela School in North West London, which favours fairly extreme traditional teaching methods. Didau is no fan of educational fads and has in the past been critical of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, Edward de Bono’s Thinking Hats, Brain Gym and VAK (Verbal Auditory Kinaesthetic) teaching. He’s never written about chess in the classroom, and, while I wouldn’t want to put words into his mouth, I rather suspect he’d be sceptical.

My view is this: either type of teaching can be successful, but it’s much easier to teach effectively using traditional, rather than progressive methods. To be successful, though, a school has to decide what it’s doing and stick with it, not being swayed by the latest fads, not reacting to parents knocking on your door telling you should do this or that, and trying not to be affected by the ever changing diktats of different education ministers.

Furthermore, there’s a general misunderstanding of the nature of child-centred teaching. There’s been for several decades now, both here in the UK and perhaps also in the US, a rather vague ‘niceness’ about much of primary school education, an obsession with ‘fun’ rather than serious, rigorous work. Many people feel that, unless you make a subject ‘fun’ and ‘relevant’ you won’t get children interested. It seems that parents no longer ask their children “What did you learn in school today?” but “Did you have fun in school today?”. And it was probably wishy-washy liberal baby boomers like me who were responsible for this. Which is why, when I suggest to parents of children in school chess clubs, that they should do some serious work on chess at home, they reply that they don’t want to do that because it wouldn’t be ‘fun’. But we all know that primary school age children who receive proactive parental support can do very well, but those who lack that support will make little progress and soon give up. It seems to me that one reason why we’re lagging behind the rest of the world in junior chess is the mistaken ethos supported by both teachers and parents, that education for young children should be ‘fun’.

To return to the original question, chess is, like maths, by its nature a knowledge-based discipline. Most non-players are unaware of the amount of knowledge, accumulated over centuries, that exists, and fail to understand that a player with some of that knowledge will almost always beat an equally talented player who is making it up as he or she goes along. You might want to use chess to teach both non-chess skills and chess-related cognitive skills, although that will depend on your educational philosophy. Children will only do well at chess if, as well as those two skill types, they are putting a serious effort into acquiring domain-specific chess skills.

Richard James

The Ultimate Chess Addict

In his column in the May 2017 issue of CHESS, John Saunders regrets the demise of the ‘fun’ chess book. The sort of book that Reinfeld, Chernev and Horowitz, amongst others, used to produce. These books might include, for example, entertaining short games or combinations with light annotations, some accessible problems or studies, lists, records, history, anecdotes and trivia.

John writes: “… I find that my last chess book to fall squarely into this category of chess literature is Mike Fox and Richard James’s splendid The Even More Complete Chess Addict, of which the second edition was published in 1993.” He goes on to speculate as to whether this type of book has gone out of fashion, and, if so, why. He proposes two reasons: that these books require a higher than average degree of writing expertise, and that there is now so much material of this nature available on the internet.

There’s a lot to be said for both those reasons, and perhaps there are other reasons as well. There days there are fewer adults with a genuine interest in chess culture, as opposed to self-improvement. There still seems to be a market for chess improvement books, whether they’re aimed at weaker club standard players, or stronger players aiming to reach genuine chess mastery. The quest to improve your chess, as witnessed also by the title of this blog, is to be welcomed, but do the players who just want to enjoy chess still exist? I’m not sure: perhaps they don’t.

The most recent book of this type I have on my shelves is The Joys of Chess, by Christian Hesse, which was slated by Edward Winter for plagiarism and inaccuracy. These days we have a rather different relationship to truth than we did even 30 years ago when Mike Fox and I were writing The Complete Chess Addict. It’s no longer enough to use secondary sources, cutting and pasting dubious unsubstantiated anecdotes from earlier chess trivia books. We’re all historians now: these days only fully researched and assessed primary sources will do, and, if we copy anything from someone else who has already done the spadework we’ll be accused of plagiarism. And that someone else will probably be Edward Winter whose diligent research is to be found on the chesshistory.com website as well as in various books. Do we really need more books retelling the same tired anecdotes? In these puritanical times, is it really appropriate to make fun of the drinking habits or mental health problems of great chess players? Now that top players rarely compete outside supertournaments we no longer witness great players duffing up lesser lights with a cascade of brilliant sacrifices: instead we get subtle (or dull, depending on your perspective) Berlin Wall endgames. so perhaps it’s harder to find the sort of games beloved by the likes of Chernev.

In the early years of this century, Mike Fox and I had been vaguely discussing producing a new edition of our book, provisionally entitled The Ultimate Chess Addict. We had a lot of new material based on our Addicts’ Corner column in CHESS, and believed we could produce a bigger and better book. But, alas, it was not to be as Mike died too young in 2005. Since them I’ve often been asked (and have been asked twice on social media within the last few days) if I was planning to write anything else on the same lines. Well, part of me feels that the whole Chess Addict project was very much tied up with my friendship with Mike, and that I had to move on and do other things with my life. Part of me also feels that perhaps, as John Saunders suggests, there’s no longer much of a market for this sort of book. But, on the other hand, it would be a lot of fun to do. I asked a friend a few years ago if he might be interested in working with me, and just the other day someone I only know in cyberspace, who had enjoyed reading the original as a boy and was now reading carefully selected extracts to his daughters, also expressed an interest. I could, I suppose, start by returning to the Chess Addict website, which was abandoned in mid sentence after Mike’s death.

At present, though, I’m concentrating on working on the Chess Heroes project and won’t really be able to start anything else for the next year or two. After that, who knows? You can help: do feel free to let me know whether or not you think there’s still a market for this type of book. Like John Saunders, I’d be sad to think that chess books designed to entertain readers rather than improve their rating were a thing of the past.

Richard James

Chess Endings for Heroes

I’m currently writing a series of books for children (or adults) who have learnt the moves and would like to reach a good enough standard to play adult competitive chess successfully.

Chess Endings for Heroes will give readers the knowledge and skills they require to reach this level.

You’ll certainly need to be quick and efficient at mating with king and queen against king, and with king and rook against king. Learning how to mate with two bishops and with bishop and knight is not yet necessary as they are much less common but will be covered in brief more for the sake of completion than anything else. At this level, many students will also find the bishop and knight checkmate difficult to grasp. If you want to get beyond this level, though, you will need to know it. The world is very different now from when I was learning chess more than half a century ago, when most league games and some tournament games would be adjudicated at move 30. These days, if you’re at all serious about playing at a high level, you need to know endings like bishop and knight against king, and rook and bishop against rook (and I write this having just been directed to a game in which a 2015 rated player spent more than 75 moves making less than no progress with bishop and knight against king, despite having started with the opposing king on the edge of the board).

Beyond this, what you need to know more than anything else at this level is pawn endings. When you start to learn chess one of the first things you learn is the value of the pieces. We teach about favourable, equal and unfavourable exchanges, so children understandably tend to think, for example, that whenever you trade rooks it’s an equal exchange – 5 points for 5 points. But of course, we, as experienced players, know that very few exchanges genuinely are equal. The point count is very much like stabilisers when you’re learning to ride a bike or water wings when you’re learning to swim: very useful for beginners but once you’re fluent it’s more of a hindrance than a help.

At this level, one of the most frequent mistakes is to convert a probable draw into a loss by trading your last piece into a lost pawn ending. As pawn endings are, by and large, the easiest to win, if you’re a pawn down you should do your best to avoid trading your other pieces. If you’re ahead on material trade pieces but not pawns, if you’re behind on material trade pawns but not pieces.

So we start with king and pawn endings. First, you’ll need to know the result of any position with king and pawn against king. You’ll then need to know the how to win simple positions with an extra pawn: create a passed pawn and, if you can’t promote it, rush your king over to capture some pawns on the other side of the board. With pawns on only one side of the board you’ll need to be a lot more subtle, and have a fairly sophisticated understanding of the opposition.

We then look at other common ideas in pawn endings: the outside passed pawn, the concept of the spare move, the sacrificial breakthrough to create a passed pawn, calculating races where both players are aiming to promote their passed pawns and so on. The lessons are reinforced by quizzes based on games from the RJCC database.

Looking at pawn races leads us onto the important ending of queen against pawn on the seventh rank, which you’ll need to know at this point. This in turn brings us to queen endings: all you need to know at this point is a few basic principles.

At higher levels rook endings are the most important type of endgame. At this level, you’ll need to know the Lucena and Philidor positions along with a few basic principles, such as keeping your pieces active and placing rooks behind passed pawns. You’ll probably also need to know a bit about rook versus pawn.

Positions where you’re a minor piece ahead in the ending can prove tricky at this level. You can’t just trade off all the pawns and mate so you have to win some enemy pawns first. One technique is to target pawns that can’t be defended by friendly pawns (backward or isolated) and attack them with both your minor piece and your king. Another technique is to play for Zugzwang and force the enemy king back so that your king can infiltrate. We’ll also look at bishops against knights, and discuss good and bad bishops. The ending of bishop and wrong rook’s pawn against king is essential knowledge.

And that, really, is all you need to know to reach say 100 ECF or 1500 Elo. Chess Endings for Heroes, coming, with any luck, sometime fairly soon.

Richard James

How Good is Your Endgame?

Many readers will be familiar with the popular magazine feature, known in various places as How Good is Your Chess? and Solitaire Chess, in which the reader is invited to predict the next move in a master game, and is awarded points for selecting good moves.

Some time ago I showed you a couple of lessons based on shorter and lower level games suitable for use at intermediate level (up to about 100 ECF/1500 Elo).

As part of the Chess for Heroes project, which I’ll come back to in more detail, quite possibly next week if nothing else interesting happens in my life in the meantime, I decided to produce a few lessons using king and pawn endings, with the games taken from the Richmond Junior Chess Club database.

Here’s the first one, which was tested successfully at RJCC the other day.

Set this position up on your board. At various points in the game you will be asked to select a move for either White or Black. Sometimes you will have three moves to choose from, and sometimes you will have a free choice. In this position it’s Black’s move.

If you find a winning move you’ll score up to 10 points. If you find a drawing move you’ll score up to 5 points. If you find a losing move or an illegal move you’ll score no points.

Choose a move for Black:
a) Kc6 b) Kd6 c) g5

10 points for Kd6 – head to the king side to attack White’s weak pawns
5 points for Kc6 – the wrong direction for the king
0 points for g5 – loses to an en passant capture

1… Kc6

Choose a move for White:
a) a4 b) f4 c) Kg3

5 points for Kg3 – get your king into play
0 points for a4 or f4 – creating targets for the black king

2. f4 Kd5
3. Kg3 g5 (Ke4 was one of many winning moves)

Choose a move for White (free choice)

10 points for hxg6 – a winning en passant capture
5 points for fxg5 or Kf3 – both these moves should draw
0 points for anything else

4. fxg5 fxg5
5. f4 gxf4+
6. Kxf4 Ke6

Choose a move for White:
a) a3 b) Ke4 c) Kg4

5 points for Ke4 – taking the opposition (a4 and b4 also draw)
0 points for a3 or Kg4 – both of these moves should lose

7. Kg4

Choose a move for Black:
a) b5 b) Kd5 c) Ke5

10 points for Ke5 – Black will be able to approach the white pawns
5 points for b5 – this should lead to a draw
0 point for Kd5 – this will lose after Kf5

7… b5

Choose a move for White:
a) a3 b) b4 c) Kf4

5 points for Kf4 – the only move to draw by keeping the black king from advancing too far
0 points for a3 and b4 – both these moves should lose
8. a3 a5 (Black had the same choice as on the last move. Again Ke5 was winning.)
9. b3 (Again, White had the same choice as on the last move. Kf4 was still a draw, as was b4.)

Choose a move for Black (free choice)

10 points for a4, b4 or Ke5 – all these moves should win
5 points for Kf6 – this move should lead to a draw
0 points for any other move

9… b4
10. axb4 axb4
11. Kf4

Choose a move for Black (free choice)

10 points for Kf6 – Black wins by taking the opposition
5 points for Kd5 – this leads to a race in which both players promote
0 points for other moves – White will win the h-pawn

11… Kf6
12. Kg4 Ke5
13. Kf3

Choose a move for Black (free choice)

10 points for Kf5 – taking the opposition
5 points for all other moves

13… Kd4

Choose a move for White (free choice)

5 points for Kf4 – leading to a drawn position with black queen against white pawn on h7
0 points for anything else

14. Ke2 Kc3
15. Kd1 Kxb3
16. Kc1

Choose a move for Black (free choice)

10 points for Ka2 – the quickest way to win
8 points for Ka3 or Kc3 – these moves are less efficient
5 points for Ka4 or Kc4 – both these moves lead to a draw

16… Ka3

Bonus question 1: what would you do if White played Kb1 here?
a) Ka4 b) Kb3 c) b3

10 points for Kb3 – winning by taking the opposition
5 points for Ka4 or b3 – both these moves lead to a draw

17. Kc2 b3+

Bonus question 2: what would you do if White played Kb1 here?
a) Ka4 b) Kb4 c) b2

10 points for b2 – winning as White has to play Kc2
5 points for Ka4 or Kb4 – both these moves draw as long as White plays correctly

18. Kc1

Choose a move for Black (free choice)

10 points for Ka2 – forcing promotion
5 points for other moves – all of which are only drawn

18… b2+
19. Kb1 and the game was eventually drawn

At the end of the exercise you’re assigned a Chess Hero rating:

95-120: Chess Superhero

70-94: Chess Hero

45-69: Trainee Hero

Below 45: Future Hero

If you teach chess at this level, please feel free to use this yourself. I may well decide to change the marking scheme in future, perhaps awarding 5 or 0 points rather than 10 or 5 in questions where there are only winning and drawing options: I’m still thinking about this.

Richard James

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

Hans Renette, in his biography of Henry Bird which I reviewed last week, reports that, on about 1 June 1874, three weeks before Staunton’s death, Staunton, Bird and Ignaz Kolisch discussed the Sicilian Defence over dinner.

“Ignaz who?”, you might ask if you’re not familiar with 19th century chess history. There’s another relatively new (2015) McFarland chess history book that will tell you all you need to know: Ignaz Kolisch The Life and Chess Games, by Fabrizio Zavatarelli.

Kolisch was a stronger player than Bird, and, from the limited information we have available, seems to have been one of the best players in the world in the mid to late 1860s. He was born on 6 April 1837 in what was then Pressburg, a city belonging to the Kingdom of Hungary. Now we call it Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. In 1845 his family moved to Vienna, and young Ignaz soon learnt the moves of chess

He first came to the attention of the chess public in 1857, winning a match against Eduard Jenay, one of the leading Viennese players of the day. He travelled to Italy, then to France, where he drew a match against Adolf Anderssen, and then to England, where he played in two small knock-out tournaments run by the British Chess Association. In Cambridge in 1860 he beat the American Charles Stanley in the final. The following year in Bristol he was knocked out by the only other strong player in the competition, Louis Paulsen, in the first round. He spent much of the autumn playing a match against the same opponent. Paulsen won 7 games, Kolisch won 6, with no less than 18 draws, a remarkable number for the time.

At some point in the early 1860s Kolisch decided to cut back on his chess and enter the world of finance. By 1867 he was living in Paris, where an international tournament was taking place. He went along to watch, but after the event had already started decided to enter. He eventually won first prize (5000 francs and a Sèvres vase, which he immediately sold), ahead of the newcomer Winawer and probably the two strongest active players at the time, Steinitz and Neumann. Gustav Neumann, by the way, is another forgotten name who deserves a modern reassessment.

Rod Edwards gives Kolisch a rating of 2700 at the end of 1867, behind only the inactive Morphy, so, although there’s not much evidence to go on, you could argue that Kolisch was, if only briefly, the strongest active player in the world at the time.

But that was the end of his competitive chess career. He devoted the rest of his life (he died on 30 April 1889) to his business interests, investing wisely and becoming extremely wealthy. He continued his interest in the Royal Game, becoming a generous chess sponsor.

Zavatarelli considers Kolisch the first truly ‘universal’ player, equally at home playing dashing gambits and brilliant sacrifices in odds and coffee-house games, as he was playing the more modern positional chess which he preferred in most of his more serious encounters. His brilliancies deserve to be as well-known as those of Morphy.

Just as with the Bird book, if you have any interest at all in 19th century chess history you’ll find this an essential purchase. The chess and historical research appears to be meticulous, and if Edward Winter is impressed with its accuracy I’m not going to argue. It might be churlish to point out a couple of things. One of Kolisch’s earliest opponents, Karl Mayerhofer, an opera singer who might be considered for the Musicians team in any future edition of The Complete Chess Addict, is described on p12 as both a bass and a tenor. In fact he was a bass-baritone. We’re also told that the Duke of Brunswick’s father (yes, the Duke played Kolisch as well as Morphy) was killed at the Battle of Waterloo. He actually died in the Battle of Quatre Bras, two days earlier, so my Almey cousins from Earl Shilton, about whom more at another time in another place, just missed seeing him die. Curmudgeon that I am, I’d be tempted to deduct half a star because Zavatarelli’s English, unlike Renette’s, is not entirely idiomatic.

Here’s a game from Paris 1867. White’s 36th move is a blunder. Contemporary sources give Bc3, Qc3 and Qe3 as improvements. The engines concur, giving all three moves as likely draws with best play.

Richard James

Bird in the Hand

I have a Bird in my hand at the moment. A big fat blue Bird. Or, to be precise, a book about Henry Edward Bird.

H.E. Bird A Chess Biography with 1,198 games, written by Hans Renette, a Belgian FM and chess historian, and published by McFarland. A handsome, large format hardback of more than 600 pages, going into immense detail about Bird’s life and times, and with about 40% of the games annotated, often in considerable depth, using both contemporary sources and computer-aided analysis.

Of course we all know the name. We’ve encountered Bird’s Opening (1. f4), still popular with club players seeking to avoid theory with White, and favoured by two of my regular Thames Valley League opponents. We also know about Bird’s Defence to the Ruy Lopez (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nd4), seen occasionally at GM level even today. Carlsen lost the only time he played it, but it’s been played several times by the young Hungarian talent Richard Rapport, as well as by the likes of Morozevich and Sokolov. Bird was also a pioneer of the Dutch Defence and the Sicilian Dragon, and favoured the currently highly fashionable c3+d3 in the Giuoco Piano, although his plan of rapid queenside expansion with b4, b5 and a4 is considered rather inflexible today. The likes of Aronian, So and Short, have tried it, though, and it’s often been played by Jobava.

Bird was the coffee-house player par excellence, with his crowd-pleasing style, and brilliant and creative ideas marred on occasion by gross blunders. I guess it’s the experimental, left-field players like Rapport and Jobava who can be considered Henry Bird’s heirs today.

If you’re interested in chess history you’ll be aware of his long chess career, spanning half a century, from the first modern tournament (London 1849) to the great London International Tournament of 50 years later. You may also have read about his personality, outgoing and friendly but occasionally disputatious.

For these reasons, he’s better remembered than some of his stronger contemporaries, but the details of his life are less well-known. Henry Edward Bird was born in 1829 in Portsea, now part of Portsmouth, which also saw the birth of two illustrious near-contemporaries: Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806) and Charles Dickens (1812). A few years later the family moved to London where the teenage Bird picked up the moves in a coffee house, soon coming into contact with the celebrated chess playing historian Henry Buckle. Our hero was active in London chess circles for several years, but the game soon came to take a back seat to his chosen profession of accountancy, specifically railway accountancy. Sadly for accountancy, but happily for chess, his business ultimately proved unsuccessful and in 1870 he was declared bankrupt. At the end of 1872 he decided to return to his first love, playing in Vienna in 1873, spending two years (1876-77) in America and, on his return, becoming a regular on the international chess circuit. He reached his peak in the middle to late 1870s, when in his late 40s, but his later years, when he was increasingly incapacitated by gout, saw an inexorable decline in his powers.

How strong was he? Jeff Sonas and Rod Edwards have both done an impressive amount of analysis of 19th century chess results, Sonas only using formal competitive games and Edwards using everything available. They also use slightly different mathematical models to produce their results. Sonas has retrospective monthly lists while Edwards has only annual lists. Edwards keeps inactive players on the list longer than Sonas.

Sonas gives Bird a top rating of 2635 in September 1875 and a highest position of 2nd in March and April 1876. Edwards rates him much lower: with a top rating of 2545 in 1878 and a highest position of 10th in both 1877 and 1878. I consider Edwards’ figures more accurate in this case. He usually finished somewhere mid-division in top international events, behind the elite players such as Steinitz, Zukertort and Blackburne but ahead of the local players at the foot of the table.

One of Bird’s claims to fame was as the first recipient of a brilliancy prize: for his imaginative but, as engines now demonstrate, queen sacrifice in this game. His opponent, James Mason, had missed a fairly simple win a couple of moves earlier.

This is a 5-star book in every respect: outstanding historical and chess research combined with outstanding production values, as you would expect if you are at all familiar with McFarland’s chess history books. Much more than just a handsome addition to your library shelves. If you have even the slightest interest in chess history and culture you should rush out and buy a copy now.

Richard James

Fourth Time Unlucky

Here’s a puzzle for you, taken from a game I played the other day. It’s White’s move. What would you play?

While you’re thinking about your answer, here’s what was happening three boards away. My teammate, a new club member who, until a few weeks ago, had never played competitive chess, never recorded his moves or used a clock, and knows very little opening theory, was playing black against a seasoned campaigner (ECF 129). He’s very keen to play and improve so we’re selecting him for our matches whenever we can. It’s always important to encourage new members.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. d4 exd4
4. Bc4

A common choice at this level. You have to know what to do next. The usual reply is Nf6, which is fine as long as you know the Two Knights Defence and have good lines against both 5. O-O and 5. e5. If you prefer defending the Giuoco Piano to the Two Knights then you’ll probably prefer Bc5, which again will probably transpose after 5. c3.

On general principles, even if you don’t know the theory, you should get one of your pieces out rather than make a nervous reaction like..

4… h6

At one level it’s natural to be scared by the idea of Ng5, but after, say, 4… Nf6 5. Ng5, you can defend with either d5 or Ne5.

5. O-O Bc5
6. c3 dxc3
7. Nxc3 a6

Another unnecessary pawn move – just the sort of move we all tell our pupils not to play, and quite rightly so too. Perhaps he wanted to play b5 next move. The first time we met at the club we played a few friendly games, in one of which I played a similar gambit in the Ruy Lopez after he’d played some unnecessary pawn moves. After the game he asked me why I gave up the pawn.

Now White really ought to be pretty close to winning. He has several attractive attacking moves to choose from. The engines like Qb3 and Be3 (very happy for Black to trade and open the f-file) but White prefers a typical tactic in this sort of position.

8. Bxf7+

A temporary sacrifice to set up a fork.

8… Kxf7
9. Qd5+ Ke8
10. Qxc5 d6
11. Qh5+ Kf8
12. Ng5

I guess it’s tempting to threaten mate but there were probably stronger alternatives here. Black can meet the threat and then drive White’s pieces back.

12… Ne5

But not like this, though. The knight is open to attack here. It shouldn’t be too hard to spot 13. f4, which just wins at once, but instead White preferred…

13. Nd5 Nf6
14. Nxf6 Qxf6

Now Black has an awkward threat of g6, opening up a line of defence from f6 to h8 and winning a piece. The only way for White to keep an advantage now is to play 15. f4. Alternatively, 15. Nf3 leads to exchanges and a level position.

15. h3

Instead White misses Black’s threat and loses a piece.

15… g6
16. Qh4 hxg5
17. Qg3 Nf7
18. f4 Qd4+
19. Be3 Qxe4
20. fxg5 Bf5
21. Rac1 Rc8
22. Qf2 c5
23. Rce1 Qd5
24. Rd1 Qe6

Black has played sensibly over the past few moves and kept his extra piece. Now White spots a clever tactical idea to win a pawn…

25. g4 Be4
26. Rxd6

… but there’s a serious flaw.

If I told you Black had a mate in two in this position you’d have no difficulty finding it. If the opportunity for a snap mate comes along in a position in which you were just thinking about keeping your extra piece and checkmate hadn’t entered your head at all you could easily miss it.

But, as I keep on saying, you have to look at every forcing move: check, capture and threat.

It’s always nice to win a game with a queen sacrifice, but sadly for Black it wasn’t to be. There was an alternative win as well: Rxh3 when White has to trade twice on f7, ending up a rook down. No matter, though. Black’s still winning.

26… Qe8
27. Bxc5 Kg8
28. Rf6 Rxh3
29. Qd4

Now Black has another chance for an immediate win. It might not be so easy to find at this level, but 29… Rxc5 30. Qxc5 Qd7 leaves White with no defence against the twin threats of Qxg4+ and Rh1+ followed by Qd2+. He’s still winning easily, though after…

29… Rh1+
30. Kf2 Rh2+

Instead he could have traded to set up a fork: 30… Rxf1+ 31. Kxf1 Qb5+.

31. Kg3 Rg2+
32. Kh3 Rc7

Black stops to defend f7, but the computer finds 32…Nxg5+ 33.Kh4 Nf3+ 34.R6xf3 Bxf3 35.Rxf3 Qe1+ 36.Kg5 Qc1+ 37.Kxg6 Rc6+ 38.Bd6 Rxd6+ 39.Qxd6 Rxg4+ 40.Kf5 Qg5+ 41.Ke6 Re4+ 42.Kd7 Qg7+ 43.Kd8 Rd4, which is not possible for most of us to find over the board. The move also introduces the idea of transferring the rook to the h-file after the knight on f7 moves.

33. Re1

Now Black has a mate in six moves. Instead White might have tried 33. Rxf7 Rxf7 34. Rxf7, challenging Black to find the correct capture. The more obvious 34…Kxf7 leaves Black a rook ahead, but White can force a draw: 35.Qf6+ Kg8 36.Bd4 Qf8 37.Qe6+. Instead 34… Qxf7 35.Qxe4 Rxb2 should win.

34… Nxg5+
34. Kh4 Nf3+

An oversight, but it shouldn’t have mattered: I guess he must have overlooked that his bishop was pinned. The quickest mate was 34…Rh7+ 35.Kxg5 Rh5+ 36.Kf4 g5+ 37.Ke3 Rh3+ 38.Rf3 Rxf3#

35. Rxf3 g5+

There was still a mate: 35…Rh7+ 36.Kg5 Rh5+ 37.Kf4 g5+ 38.Ke3 Bb1+ and mate in two more moves.

36. Kh3 Rh7+

This should lose. Instead Black could draw by giving up his queen: 36…Rxg4 37.Rf8+ Qxf8 38.Bxf8 Bf5 threatening mate, when White can choose between 39.Qd5+ Rf7 40.Kh2 Rh4+ with a perpetual check and 39.Qxg4 Bxg4+ 40.Kxg4 Kxf8 with a drawn rook ending.

37. Kxg2 Bxf3+
38. Kxf3

The sort of obvious move you play without thinking – well at least I do, which is why I’m not a strong player! But it should only draw. Kf2, on the other hand, wins, as White will win the bishop later under more favourable circumstances.

38… Qxe1

Again, the obvious move you play without thinking – and again it’s a mistake. 38… Rf7+, taking time out to move the rook to a better square, would draw.

39. Qd8+ Kg7
40. Qxg5+ Kf7
41. Qf5+ Kg8

Or 41…Kg7 42.Bd4+ Kg8 43.Qg6+ Kf8 44.Bc5+ Re7 45.Qf6+ and wins

42. Qf8# 1-0

An exciting game but a sad end for Black. He’ll put it down to experience.

If you remember my articles from a few months ago (here and here) you’ll recognise the theme.

I was White, again facing the same opponent as in the first game quoted above, and again we both missed the same idea. In this case a bishop sacrifice decoys the black rook into a fork: 1. Bxd5 Rxd5 2. Qa8+. These ideas keep on coming up in my games – and every time I miss them, even though I’ve just been writing a chapter in Chess Tactics for Heroes based on this theme. The game, again, was eventually drawn. You may well see it in full here in a few months time.

We lost the 8-board match 3-5 but if we’d both taken our chances we’d have won 4½-3½ instead. Still, at least it was an end-of-season mid-division match with nothing at stake expect honour and grading points.

Richard James

American Chess Magazine

You might think, given the decline in traditional print media, it’s a strange time to launch a new magazine. Bridge Magazine, the stablemate of CHESS, went digital a few years ago, and The Problemist, the magazine of the British Chess Problem Society, will be heading in the same direction at the start of next year.

But chess in the USA is, at least superficially, booming. They have three players, Wesley So, Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura, near the top of the world rankings, several up and coming young stars such as Jeffery Xiong, Sam Sevian and Awonder Liang, and, thanks to Rex Sinquefield’s generous sponsorship, a major new chess centre in St Louis.

It is this that no doubt inspired the Serbian team behind Chess Informant, who have also recently taken over the British Chess Magazine, to launch the American Chess Magazine late last year. Josip Asik is credited as the editor-in-chief. This is a quarterly magazine with 152 large format glossy pages, which will set you back by $29.95, or, if you buy a copy from Chess & Bridge in Baker Street, £24.99.

You might think that magazines, unlike books, are, by their nature, ephemeral, so you might think that the price is a bit steep. You’d expect a pretty good product for your money, and that is exactly what you get. A quick glance behind the tagline ‘It’s cool to be smart’ reveals outstanding production values if you don’t mind the rather ‘bitty’ layout. This seems to be the modern style, but I don’t very much care for it myself. Why, for instance, does page 4 in the first issue give me the contents of pages 68 onwards, with the contents of the earlier pages on page 5? Lots of colour photographs – in fact I could imagine the amount of colour in the whole magazine along with the busy-ness of the layout inducing sensory overload in some readers. A starry list of contributors: Ivanchuk, Sokolov, Jobava, Harikrishna, Speelman, Shankland, Gulko and Krush amongst others in the first issue, while the second issue also includes the likes of Dominguez, Ehlvest, Seirawan and Hou Yifan.

You’ll also get reports from top tournaments, including many heavily annotated games, along with articles of more general interest. There is, understandably, a bias towards US chess. Much of Issue 1 is about the 2016 Olympiad while Issue 2 features Wesley So. But should you buy it? Will it help you improve your chess?

First of all, it’s aimed very much at the stronger player, say 1800 Elo/150 ECF and above. If you’re a lower rated player you might want to buy it out of interest, and you’ll probably enjoy reading it, but it probably won’t help you improve very much. The games are all a few months old so, if you’re an avid follower of grandmaster chess you’ll have seen many of them before. You might even have forgotten them as another couple of super GM tournaments will have taken place before you see them. If you subscribe to New in Chess you will also already have some of the games in print, and it’s that magazine which would seem to be the newcomer’s main rival.

It’s rather amusing to note that the report on Gibraltar in Issue 2 was written by Hou Yifan. Well, it’s not really a report, just one deeply annotated game (Nakamura-Lagarde). She makes no mention of her ill-judged (or ill-advised) last round protest, but an editorial box explains that she is well-known for her sporting conduct, and that her act ‘made a powerful impact on the chess public and provoked intense discussion about whether or not there is evidence of fixing pairings in chess’. No mention of the fact that the pairings were checked and reproduced by a number of impartial experts on pairing systems.

So if you’re looking for controversy or the latest news on chess politics this probably isn’t for you. Instead you get a relentlessly upbeat, positive view of chess, along with much adulation of Wesley So and other top US players.

If you’re American, especially if you’re rated, say, 1800+, you’ll certainly want to subscribe. If not, you might wonder how much value you’d be getting for your money. On the other hand, you may well think that you have a responsibility, as an inhabitant of Planet Chess, to support this excellent publication and help it succeed. There have been other excellent chess magazines over the years which have perhaps aimed too high and have folded after 2 or 3 issues.

It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, this brash new kid on the block will have on the world of chess magazine publishing. Will we see major changes to its illustrious, if ageing, stablemate the British Chess Magazine? Will it have an effect on its market rival, New in Chess? You’ll find out here first.

Richard James

Notation

Two articles about education caught my eye recently. The first one concerned science education, and asked at what age children could be taught Scientific Method. You can read it here. Most young children enjoy science at school, particularly if it involves experiments producing bangs or smells. At one level science is about understanding how the natural world works, but in order to become a scientist rather than just learning about science you have to learn how to conduct experiments, which means understanding Scientific Method.

There’s a connection with chess here in that Scientific Method is one of many thinking skills you’ll use if you’re a proper chess player. If you’re solving a puzzle with a specific aim, such as Mate in 2, you will create a hypothesis, that a particular move is the answer, test it by checking all possible replies, and either accept or reject your hypothesis. If you reject the hypothesis you must formulate an alternative hypothesis. (Returning for a moment to the Chess Heroes project, this is explained in Checkmates for Heroes.)

It’s an interesting subject and the author of the article doesn’t claim to have an answer.

Similar discussions have taken place over the years concerning history teaching. Should you just tell children about history or should you teach them how to become a historian: how to assess primary and secondary sources. When I was at school you just learnt about history, but, looking at secondary school history books (there are lots of them in the classrooms where Richmond Junior Club meets), I see that there’s an emphasis on evaluation of sources.

Should you spend time teaching young (perhaps pre-school) children, how to become a scientist or a historian, or just about science and history. I don’t know for certain, but, given the amount of fake news and bad science available on the Internet, I rather suspect you should.

A few days earlier, the normally sedate world of classical music was thrown into turmoil by an article by Charlotte C Gill, protesting that music was taught in an over academic way, with too much emphasis on notation. “This is a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education.”

The pianist and blogger Ian Pace, incidentally a specialist in avant-garde music, sent off a reply which has, at the time of writing, attracted over 700 signatories. Among many other responses was a blog post from Frances Wilson, a pianist and teacher from my part of the world.

Although I’m a music lover, not a musician, there’s a lot I could say, particularly about the assumption that learning notation, or placing ‘classical’ (serious, art or whatever you want to call it) music above pop, rap, house or grime, is in some way elitist. You may well think that the elite will always exist, so promoting anti-elitist education policies will only make it harder for others to join the elite. But for now I’ll return to chess.

In chess, just as in music, we have notation, although its function is rather different. Music notation tells us what to play whereas chess notation is a way of recording what we have played. But understanding and being fluent and confident with notation also introduces us to the world of chess literature, enabling us to understand, appreciate and learn from the games that others have played. If you want to be either a ‘serious’ chess player or a ‘serious’ musician, however, notation is essential. Chess notation is much easier than music notation, so can be taught younger, although many children will find it hard or ‘boring’. Within the restricted confines of a primary school chess club you’re probably not going to have very much time to go into any detail or expect children to record their own games, but if you run an ‘elitist’ chess club, which you might prefer to describe as a ‘centre of excellence’ you most certainly will insist that all children learn to record their games.

Coming back to the discussion of the difference between being a scientist and knowing about science, or between being a historian and knowing about history, we might want to make a similar difference between being a chess player and knowing about chess.

The children who tell you they enjoy science at school probably just enjoy the experiments: they might think they’re scientists but unless they’re applying scientific principles to their work, they’re not really scientists at all.

Likewise the children who go to their school chess club once a week and enjoy playing chess might think they’re chess players, but unless they’re applying the appropriate cognitive skills rather than just playing more or less random moves, they’re not really chess players at all.

The scientists, historians and musicians are having interesting discussions about what actually makes you a scientist, historian or musician. Perhaps we, as chess players, should be having the same discussion. At one level it’s good to introduce young children to science, history, music or chess in a fun, unchallenging, inclusive way. Beyond that, we have to get the message across to schools, parents and children, that playing random moves is not really playing chess. Yes, there is a chess elite comprising serious competitive players, and everyone, regardless of their background, should have the opportunity to become a real chess player.

Richard James

A Very Good Chess Page

Taking a break from describing my Chess for Heroes books, I must thank my cyberfriend Paul Swaney for drawing my attention to the Perpetual Chess Podcast for 28 March, in which US chess player and teacher Ben Johnson interviews Spanish IM and teacher Michael Rahal. You’ll find the podcast here, and the whole interview is well worth hearing, but the relevant part starts about 17 minutes in.

Here’s my transcript:

“And what I like to use is a chess page – it’s very good actually – called chessKIDS academy UK. It’s a chess page which is from England. The person who developed it is Richard James, an English chess teacher who, by the way, is a very good educational chess teacher: he’s also written a book, and actually a person who’s very knowledgeable about chess in kids. Richard James: and he’s got this chess site: chesskids.[org.]uk, chessKIDS academy, and it’s very good because it’s all very graphical with very kid-like view, and there’s questions, there’s tests, it’s very good. You can have a look if you want after the interview. It’s very good material and I use that in the classes. They love it because they can try their hand at the quizzes, the tests, and there’s also [some] theory…”

I started writing chessKIDS academy back in 2000 and had more or less forgotten about it. About 10 years ago it was very popular, and was very near the top if you searched for ‘chess’ on Google, but now most users prefer commercial sites like www.chesskid.com which look much more professional than my site. Now it’s very little used, but I did receive a recent email from an English user who’d lost some of the tests. I was hoping to find someone who would be prepared to develop the site commercially, and in fact a well-known English chess personality had expressed an interest several times over the years but eventually dropped the idea. I sold the original domain (www.chesskids.com) to the chess.com/chesskid.com people a few years ago. The site now exists in two versions, although I’m no longer supporting or updating it. The original site, complete with subversive humour unsuitable for adults, is at www.chesskids.me.uk while the sanitised version is at www.chesskids.org.uk.

The whole site really needs to be rewritten to make it smartphone-friendly, but at present I’m much more interested in the Chess for Heroes project. The contents of chessKIDS academy are still for sale to anyone who is interested, or even free for non-profit use. If you’re interested please contact me.

In other news, after the publication of my blog post on Checkmates for Heroes, I received an email asking me why I was bothering as Laszlo Polgar had written a very large tactics book. I’d have been more impressed if he’d asked me why I was bothering because of the Steps Method, or because of Jeff Coakley’s books, but that wasn’t the question. Polgar’s book is impressive for the amount of material, and could well be great if your children are spending eight hours a day studying chess and you want them to become world class players. But it’s far too large, far too bulky, many of the puzzles are composed problems rather than game situations, there’s little or nothing in the way of explanation of how or why you solve the puzzles. I haven’t counted them, but I must have well over a hundred tactics and checkmate books on my shelves. Different students will learn best using different approaches, and different teachers will also prefer to teach in different ways. There was nothing on the market that taught students at this level the way I teach, so I decided to write my own books.

It was reading material like the Steps Method and, to a lesser extent, Polgar’s book, that confirmed my suspicions that my earlier courses, as outlined in Move One! and Move Two!, and on chessKIDS academy, went much too fast tactically for most students. Teaching tactics needs to be like teaching maths: you learn a specific skill, work through a few examples with explanations, then solve some in class, and do some more at home until you’re fluent, when you can move onto the next skill. So I decided to produce a new course with much more emphasis on tactics and calculation, and this is it. At present it’s in book form, but I’m open to suggestions for co-operation in future developments.

It’s good to know that Michael Rahal, an experienced chess teacher as well as an International Master, approves of my methods.

Richard James