C is for Chess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard James

This entry was posted in Articles, Children's Chess, Richard James on by .

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.