Black Belt

Regular readers will know my views: that here in the UK we teach chess too quickly, start children playing complete games too soon and put children into highly competitive environments before they are ready in terms of either chess or emotional development.

Yes, I’m passionate about promoting chess for children both as a learning tool and as a great game which they can play, if they choose, for the rest of their lives. I’m much less passionate about promoting chess as a fun activity suitable for a child-minding service for kids waiting for their parents to pick them up from primary school.

Let’s look at a few suggestions about how we can improve the service we provide for children learning chess.

Many young children, especially boys, take an interest in Martial Arts such as Judo and Karate. They will be very familiar with the ‘belt’ system as a way of measuring progress. Likewise, children who are serious about their music lessons will strive to reach the next grade.

So let’s consider introducing a similar system for chess. Different coloured badges, medals, certificates, belts, t-shirts, baseball caps or whatever. Let’s not use words like ‘grade’ and ‘grading’ because this will cause confusion, at least in the UK. We’d probably need to use a word like ‘level’ instead. I appreciate that this may not be appropriate if you’re putting chess on the curriculum as a learning tool, but I would recommend it for use within school or community chess clubs.

You might, I guess, experience a short-term decline in your club membership as not all children will want to take the game this seriously, but when children start showing their badges or whatever to their friends they will want to join in.

You’d need, first of all, a step by step structured chess course, something I keep on banging on about. You’d aim for each level to be achievable by the average student in, say, three to six months. Not too quick and easy to be meaningless, but close enough for children to maintain interest. There would be a network of local centres where the tests could be taken, and a network of teachers qualified to administer the tests. The format of each grading would include a written test comprising a variety of puzzles and a short session with an examiner which might include, for example, demonstrating the en passant capture or how to mate with king and queen. So the first grades will just be about learning the moves and values of the pieces and the basic concepts of attack and defence. You’ll then move onto check and checkmate, and the other rules and concepts you need to know in order to be successful in competitive chess.

Just as you need to pass a test to drive a car, I believe children should also pass a test before they play in a serious chess tournament. Junior tournaments would require entrants to have reached a certain level, and, along with tournaments restricted by age you’ll have events with sections restricted by level so that children will avoid having to play those who are too strong or too weak to give them a good game. Children who are less attracted to the competitive side of chess will also be able to continue their interest by increasing their skill at solving tactical puzzles.

Of course there are problems. You or I could run our own internal system but it really wouldn’t mean very much. We’ll also get lots of complaints from parents saying that chess won’t be fun if children are forced to take it seriously. (They’re entitled to their opinion, but, to my mind, they might just as well sign their children up for a Top Trumps club.) The system has to be national, introduced and run by your national chess federation. It also has to be compulsory in order to be valued.

Just think for a moment who will benefit from this.

Children, at least those who are serious about chess, will benefit by receiving tangible rewards for making progress at chess. There’s no reason why schools could not encourage informal play for those who are not so serious: some of them might be encouraged to take chess seriously when they decide they’re ready for the challenge.

Parents will benefit: they will have access to the syllabus and be aware of what their children need to learn and how to help them.

Chess teachers will benefit: they will be able to work from a syllabus, and will be teaching children who are more serious about chess rather than providing a child-minding service. They may find there is more demand for private tuition, and may be able to charge more because parents will want their children to reach the next level.

Adult chess clubs and tournament organisers will benefit because more children will take chess seriously and retain their interest longer.

Is there anyone out there who is prepared to listen?

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.