Black Belt Chess

You will be aware that, if you’re a practitioner of martial arts, you will be able to earn different coloured belts depending on your level of skill. If you’re learning a musical instrument you’ll be able to take grade exams at various levels. I’ve spoken to children who take part in other activities such as gymnastics and drama, who have told me about similar systems. Yet there’s nothing comparable in chess. Why not?

Yes, we have both national and international rating systems. We have titles for strong players: Grandmaster, International Master, FIDE Master and so on. But there’s an enormous gap between social players and serious competitive players. I believe such a scheme would provide encouragement for more people, adults as well as children, to take chess seriously. It wouldn’t be very stressful because you’d only take the test when you were ready to do so: in fact it would be a lot less stressful than playing, and would ensure that no one took part in competitions before they were ready.

Here in the UK we have two competing national systems, but not many people, to the best of my knowledge, take either of them. I’ve encountered parents, though, whose children have passed with merit or distinction but are still not sure of the castling rules. It’s not surprising they’re deluded as to how well their children play chess. Such schemes need to be serious and rigorous – and there has to be a significant reason and a significant reward for following them.

I’ve seen other local schemes as well but haven’t been impressed. If you’re devising an examination you have to be clear exactly what you want to test and ensure that you’re not actually testing something different. If you can pass the exam by memorising the course book, your exam is testing memory rather than knowledge or skill. If you expect examinees to write an essay you’re, to a certain extent, testing English and essay writing skills, which may cause problems for students with dyslexia, or those whose first language is not English, as well as favouring older rather than younger children.

My view is that the most significant indicator and predictor of chess skills is the ability to solve tactical/calculation puzzles, and that the puzzles should be a mixture: not all of the ‘sac sac mate’ type. At the lowest level the puzzles will just test chessboard vision, but higher levels will expect students to look further and further ahead and solve more complicated positions. The test should be serious and rigorous, using pencil and paper rather than screen, with exam conditions enforced. You’d provide sample papers with answers and perhaps also a screen-based version for practice, to ensure that students are fully prepared and ready to take the test.

There are other aspects of chess, though, which are best tested one to one, rather than through a written test. So I’d include, if it was logistically possible, a short viva voce session. At the lowest level this might include checking that the students are familiar with the en passant rule, that they can checkmate with a king and queen against a king, and so on. At higher levels you might want to test opening understanding in this way, by getting them to play and explain the first few moves of the Queen’s Gambit, the Sicilian Najdorf or whatever, as well as ensuring they can win more difficult endings.

In my view we need to get away from purely competitive chess and encourage skills development, with players only taking part in competitions when they have the appropriate knowledge and skills. Within a club like Richmond Juniors we can do this to a certain extent, but it’s not easy within school chess clubs. The nature of chess requires that skills children learn within a chess club are reinforced at home, but if parents just see the school chess club as a childminding service which might also ‘make kids smarter’ they won’t remember very much of what we teach them.

How can we change the perception of how junior chess should be run so that we improve standards and ensure that more children continue their interest in chess beyond primary school? That is the million dollar question, and I think perhaps setting up a scheme such as this might help. It has to be compulsory rather than optional, though, at least if you want to take part in competitions. You might want to open it to players of all ages and perhaps encourage parents to join in.

If you’re interested in setting up something along these lines, either nationally or internationally, please let me know.

Richard James

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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 ( or 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 ( 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.