Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Guidelines For Teaching Kids Endgames and Tactics

Once a student is familiar with piece movements, attacks, check and checkmate, my next topic is to teach him or her elementary mates. This was explained by Capablanca in his book Chess Fundamentals.

“The first thing a student should do, is to familiarise himself with the power of pieces. This can best be done by learning how to accomplish quickly some of the simple mates.”

In my view tactics and endgames should be learned in parallel. For tactics it’s best to proceed step by step to develop tactical skills very gradually and effectively. I have had very good results with that. But for the endgame I referred to many books before finally choosing ‘GM RAM’. This seems very strange at first as there are just 256 dry positions to work out without even knowing who is to move! But once you go though the you realise that the first 58 endgame positions are really essential. I realised that 70% or more of my endgame knowledge is based around those 58 positions, and these cover the following topics:

- Key Square
- Rule of Square
- Opposition
- Shouldering
- Pawn breakthrough
- Essential Rook ending (Philidor and Lucena)
- Queen vs. Rook endgame
- Essential Queen endgames

These elements are all vital for practical endgame play. And as there is nothing ready-made it can actually actually inspire us to work through them in our own way.

There is a problem when a coach focuses on the endgame. A few of my students see the endgame as boring, insisting that I teach them more and more tactics, but the problem is that they can’t understand that they are not knowledgeable enough to decide what is good for them.

Accordingly I have not changed my way even at the cost of some students going elsewhere for lessons. Quality demands sacrifices.

Ashvin Chauhan

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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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Honesty

I had no intention of writing this article as of two weeks ago until I was faced with an interesting situation at one of my week long chess camps. A parent emailed me regarding enrolling her child in the camp. The only information she provided about her child was that he was eight years old, played chess and was dyslexic. Having had a problem with dyslexia myself, I looked forward to meeting this young man because I thought of him as a kindred spirit. When the young man arrived for the start of our week long camp, we quickly discovered that the young man was autistic and extremely disruptive because his condition. While we (my interns and I) were able to keep things under control, we would have been able provide a better camp experience for this student had we been informed from the start of the true nature of the problem. That got me thinking about honesty and how it effects your training as a student.

Of course, the above incident was an extremely harsh example of not being forthright about issues that can effect a child’s education on and off the chessboard. However, it serves as a strong reminder for both parent’s and students to be open about any issues that may effect one’s abilities as a student. Simple honesty will go a long way towards helping a student achieve their goals.

I have put a great deal of time into learning how to teach children with learning disabilities. I did so because many of my students were being presented to me (by their parents) with mild to moderate learning issues. If I wanted to succeed at being a chess teacher, I needed to be able to work with these kids rather than do what many enrichment program instructors do, simply ignore the so called problem child. I’m a hard liner on this topic. If you’re not willing to work with a learning disabled student, within reason, then teaching may not be for you. However, it is up to the parent to inform you, the teacher, of any issues.

I implore parents to be completely honest with their child’s chess teacher before starting any chess class or private lessons. I know its painful to have to discuss your child’s problems with a teacher you don’t know. However, in doing so, you’ll be giving that teacher crucial information needed to help provide the best lessons possible for the child in question. Being honest about a child’s abilities is absolutely great for the child. A couple of my students who have had moderate to serious learning disabilities have gone on to do some amazing things with their chess. Why? Because their parents were upfront about their child’s issues which allowed me to tailor my program to meet specific educational needs.

Now we’ll look at honesty and the student with no special needs, the students who make up the bulk of my classes. Do these students need a healthy does of honesty? Absolutely! While they may not have to deal with any type of learning disability, they do disable their learning process by not being completely honest with themselves. This applies to children and adults as well!

Often, when a parent approaches me for classroom or private chess lessons, they proudly describe their child’s great skills. Their child shows, in the parent’s words, above average potential. I hear this a lot and don’t fault any parent for being proud of their child. However, I sit down and play a few games with the child in question to assess just how skilled they are. More often than not, the above average child is a bit less skilled than the parent thinks!

The parent who thinks their child is above average often inadvertently passes this idea onto their child. In private chess lessons, this isn’t a great problem. However, in a classroom setting, a child who thinks he or she is a cut above the rest can face a hard emotional downfall when he or she squares off against a truly strong player of the same age. Suddenly, the falsely built up confidence is gone and the child in question is facing emotional turmoil.

I teach my students to use honesty as a learning tool. The more you use this tool, the more you’ll learn. What I mean by being honest, is being honest about your skills or lack of skills. People, young and old, often don’t like to ask questions because they feel that doing so some how makes them appear less informed than those around them. These are the same people that might think a specific question to be stupid. I teach my students that the only stupid question is the one not asked. Students should get in the habit of asking questions to increase their knowledge base.

At the start of each school session, I tell my students that, if I provide an explanation of a concept that doesn’t make sense to them, they raise their hands and ask for a second explanation (or a third). I will go over a concept again and again, employing different explanations, until that concept is understood by my students. We improve our chess using the idea that actively asking questions strengthens our knowledge. Question everything.

Another honesty tool I employ is self explanation. How many times have you studied a concept, convinced yourself that you understand that concept only to realize a real lack of comprehension when you try to apply that concept to a situation? Children will often nod their heads in agreement, seemingly following the lesson, only to have things fall apart when they try to employ that lesson to their own chess game. To reduce this problem and determine who is actually understanding the lesson, I have my students write out (in their own words) a summary of the lesson’s key concepts. Adults studying the game of chess, or any other subject for that matter, should try this.

Honesty is a critical if you wish to improve your game. There’s no shame in not understanding a concept. You may have to spend some additional time in your studies but you’ll get a lot farther in developing your skills than the person who merely skims through their studies. Honestly assessing your abilities is the best way to start your journey along the road of chess improvement. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Blunder Or Sense Of Danger

For us a mistake which turn the table or decides the game is called a blunder, but for kids it’s nothing special. I have seen lots of kids win games with a single piece against a huge army. The reason is that a sense the danger has not been cultivated. We normally teach kids to check the square twice before moving and check what the opponent’s last move threatened. Without experience kids can’t do this instinctively.

For example, in the following position you will often see kids play a bishop to f5 with Black or f4 with White:


I have tried to find the cause and came up with following conclusions:

1. We coaches are not focusing on that area as we believe that, some skills come only with time.
2. If I tell the parents of my private students that they are playing very few games, they are not particularly bothered. They are much more interested in the by products of chess training than the game itself. They believe that chess is a tool that will help their kids develop their minds so they ask kids to learn chess even if they’re not very interested.

As a coach we can’t do much about the second factor except increase playing time during the class. But we should try to work on the first factor, that with proper attention we can reduce the amount of time in acquiring a sense of danger.

Normally I prepare very simple diagrams to explain how piece moves, attack and capture. Now I am going to add some diagrams where kids have to mark where his or her piece is not safe. You can start with very few pieces and gradually make it more complicated, for example:


Once he or she is doing reasonably well we should focus on his or her real game and should compose new positions from them which can be presented in the next class.

Ashvin Chauhan

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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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Activity and Vulnerability

Beginners of all ages tend to have two very big positional problems when they’re honing their chess skills, piece activity and piece vulnerability. These two problems, if not addressed, will lead to loss after loss until the beginner simply gives up on this fantastic game. However, if the beginner puts some effort into both the understanding and application of activity and vulnerability, they’ll play a much better game. The earlier the beginner embraces these ideas, the better off they’ll be. Let’s take a look at activity first.

An important question players of all levels should ask themselves when looking at their position is “what are my pieces actually doing?” Pieces are active only if they’re doing something useful. If your pieces are sitting on their starting squares, they’re inactive. However, simply moving a piece randomly out onto the board doesn’t guarantee activity. So what defines piece activity?

A piece is active if it has mobility. Mobility is the ability of a piece to move to a number of different squares. The greater the number of squares, the greater the mobility. Greater mobility leads to greater control of the board. The beginner should always strive to develop their pieces to more active squares. Mobility gives a player greater options regarding the formation of plans. Greater planning options means more flexibility which is crucial since plans change during a game. Having flexibility due to mobility allows you to adjust your plans to fit the ever changing positional landscape on the board.

The ability to attack one or more of the oppositions pieces also adds to a piece’s activity. If you’re attacking one or more of your opponent’s pieces they’ll have to tie down some of their own forces to aid the attacked piece or pieces. This means that those opposition pieces involved in the defense of the attacked pieces lose their activity. Pieces tied down to defending a position cannot participate in an attack. Even if the attacked piece can move out of danger, it still costs time to do so which can detract from one’s development.

Control of territory is another consideration when discussing piece activity. Greater mobility leads to greater control. While controlling squares on your half of the board is important (you don’t want your opponent’s pieces to have an easy time occupying your half of the sixty four squares), it isn’t as important as controlling squares on your opponent’s side of the board. Take away key squares on your opponent’s side of the board and they’ll have a difficult time launching an attack let alone developing their pieces.

Piece coordination and cooperation is also tantamount to good active play. Pieces must work together. Beginners tend to launch lone pieces out on the board in an effort to attack the opposition only to lose that piece because it had no support. Chess is a team sport which means that pawns and pieces must work together. Pieces that work together are far less likely to become targets for your opponent. Now let’s look at vulnerability.

In the broadest sense, a vulnerability can be thought of as a disadvantage for you and an advantage for your opponent. Its a place, in this case the chessboard, in which a series of actions has led to you to being exposed to danger. You could be about to lose material or facing a mating attack. You are vulnerable. Your opponent has the immediate upper hand in the positional situation. Don’t make yourself vulnerable. Giving material away (hanging pieces) is an example of becoming vulnerable because in giving your material away, you’re giving your opponent an advantage (while you maintain the disadvantage).

Beginners tend to hang pieces (place them on squares that allow their opponent to capture said piece freely) early in their chess careers. While employing the concepts mentioned above will help reduce this problem, there are some additional things the beginner can do to make their pieces less vulnerable to capture.

We are taught to look both ways before crossing the street. The same should hold true when moving a piece out onto the board. You wouldn’t just run out onto a busy street hoping you don’t get hit by a car, yet many beginners blindly thrust a piece out onto the board without much though. If you want to move a piece to a particular square, follow the rank, file and diagonals radiating out from that square to see if any opposition pawns or pieces control or attack it. Just doing this one simple thing can eliminate hanging pieces greatly.

Sending major pieces out onto the board early makes you vulnerable to attack. If you bring your Queen out early, you’re opponent will more than likely attack it. As your opponent’s pieces attack your Queen, they’re developing which gives your opponent an advantage. Because you’re having to move the Queen out of the line of fire, you’re losing tempo, a disadvantage. Common sense can greatly help improve your game and common sense tells us to bring out pieces of lesser value at the game’s start.

Beginners also tend to become vulnerable because of a one sided view of the game’s ebb and flow. By this, I mean that the beginner is more concerned with their moves and plans that those of their opponent’s. A student whose game I was watching once told me that he had thought the position through four moves into the future. This is a difficult task for many seasoned players let alone a young beginner. I watched in horror as my student’s position was crushed in three moves. He did think four moves into the future of the position, but those four moves depended on his opponent making the moves my student wanted him to make (which all favored my student’s position). Therefore, before making a move, ask yourself what your opponent’s best response to that move would be. Pretend to play your opponent’s side of the board when making decisions regarding your position! Often, you’ll find that a seemly reasonable move, even one that adheres to sound chess principles, can lead to problems. Problems are a measure of vulnerability.

Creating active positions and avoiding vulnerability really comes down to looking carefully before moving a piece anywhere on the board. It also comes down to putting these ideas into practice. I have my students keep checklists written out on index cards that they consult before making a move. Eventually, they don’t need to refer to their checklists, having committed the information to memory. However, at the start of their training with me I have them use the checklist because it forces them to think carefully before moving a piece. Speaking of pieces, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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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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Tough by Nature

“What does not kill me”, said Nietzsche, “makes me stronger”.

How we react to bad experiences is an important part of our personality.

Of course we all want to protect children from high-level bad experiences, but the issue I have with many parents and schools is that they are over-zealous in protecting children from low-level bad experiences rather than teaching children how to deal with them. This makes it hard for children to develop qualities such as resilience and independence.

There is an increasing understanding that non-cognitive skills such as these are more important than cognitive skills in predicting future success. I referred in an earlier post to a new book by the aptly named Paul Tough, How Children Succeed, which includes a chapter about the famous IS318 school in New York.

Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t be saying “Chess makes you smarter” but instead “Chess makes you tougher”. It’s important that schools promote competitive activities in order to develop mental toughness. While many children will enjoy competing on the football field or the tennis court, there will be others who will prefer more cerebral competition. Both within and outside school, we do a lot more to promote competitive physical activities than we do to promote competitive mental activities. Twenty years or so ago, many primary schools were opposed to any sort of competition because children might do badly and that would make them unhappy. When I asked one school, which promoted chess strongly and taught all its pupils to play, why they were only entering one team in our schools tournament they told me they couldn’t possibly enter any more teams because they might score less than 50%. Most schools, fortunately, have moved away from this, but there’s still much more they can do.

If you’re playing competitive chess you will have many good experiences. But you’ll also have bad experiences: games where you play badly, blundering in a winning position, poor tournament performances, events where your opponents all seem to play well against you, opponents who are distracting, unsporting or otherwise difficult. Developing the mental toughness and resilience to cope with this is part of growing up. If you play a bad game you can say “I’m no good at chess” and give up. Or you can work out why you lost and try to improve. Perhaps you didn’t know enough about the opening. Perhaps you miscalculated the tactics or didn’t find the right plan in the middle game. Maybe you need to improve your knowledge of rook and pawn endings. Losing a game of chess might kill your king but it doesn’t kill you. If you learn from your mistakes and improve your play as a result then it makes you both a stronger player and a stronger person. If you decide you’re no good at chess, lose confidence and play badly for the rest of the tournament then it makes you weaker. Of course, if you love chess but find it hard to cope emotionally with tournaments you can always do what I did and become involved with other aspects of the game instead, but this is not a decision for young children.

Up to a point, we can, and do, teach this sort of mindset within school and junior chess clubs. We tell children not to give up if they’re behind but to keep fighting. We encourage them not to be disheartened if they’re facing an opponent they think is stronger than them, and not to be over-confident if they have a winning position or are playing a weaker opponent.

But developing mental toughness goes beyond that, beyond their approach to an individual game into how they view chess as a whole.. Young children who lose their games will decide chess isn’t for them and give up. Older learners, who may have greater emotional maturity, and will be old enough to teach themselves, will work out what they need to do to improve.

If we encourage children to start young they may benefit more in terms of cognitive development, but starting children older may well be more beneficial in terms of developing non-cognitive skills.

My new course is called Chess for Heroes. There are several reasons for this, but one reason is that the course, in between the chess content, will teach children the advanced cognitive skills they need to become good players, along with the non-cognitive skills they need to be successful competitors. This means developing mental toughness: the quality of a hero.

Richard James

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Learning an Opening

Beginners often make the mistake of memorizing an opening before they have a solid grasp of its underlying mechanics. The problem with memorizing an opening, as opposed to learning the mechanics underlying the opening (the opening principles), is that you’ll run into serious trouble the moment your opponent makes a move not included in your memorization. Memorizing an opening is not the same as learning an opening. Before learning a specific opening, you must have a solid grasp of its underlying principles. All openings, from the Hippopotamus to the Nimzo Indian, share a common bond. That common bond is the underlying mechanics or principles that make the opening work. Once the beginner has learned the underlying principles (controlling the center with a pawn, active piece development and castling), it’s time to learn a specific opening.

Choosing a specific opening depends on the type of player you are. If you’re aggressive you might chose a more aggressive opening while the more reserved player might chose a more defensive opening. Once you determine what opening fits your general style of play, it’s time to sit down and learn that opening. Beginners should stick to openings that are flexible and simple to learn such as the opening I mention below, the Italian opening. Here’s how I teach an opening to my students.

I teach chess concepts in units of three. For example, when learning the opening principles, we focus on the three critical ideas of putting a pawn on a central square, developing our minor pieces to active squares and castling. I tell my students to always look for three possible moves before committing to one. Of course the game of chess is divided into three phases which was the primary reason for teaching concepts in units of three. I use this number in teaching openings as well.

The first opening I teach the beginning student is the Italian opening. Out of all the openings, this opening allows a beginner to see the opening principles in action very clearly. After 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6 and 3.Bc4…Nf6, white has a pawn in the center, two minor pieces on active squares and is ready to castle King-side. An additional benefit to learning this opening is that it lays the groundwork for learning the Evan’s Gambit and the Fried Liver Attack. However, the key point to learning this opening is the clarity it provides regarding basic opening principles.

We approach learning the opening’s moves in groups of three, starting from move one. Each move is carefully examined to determine which opening principle is being applied. Using the Italian opening, let’s look at the first three moves, starting with move one. White plays 1.e4. When learning an opening, examine every move carefully, even the first move! I tell my students that placing a pawn on e4 has multiple benefits First off; it gains a foothold in the center of the board. However, it also allows the King-side Bishop and Queen to have access to the board. Then we discuss the type of game an e pawn opening can lead to (open game). We then define open and closed games, which leads to a discussion of Bishops and Knights. Next we look at move two, 2.Nf3. This move attacks the pawn on e5. However, there’s more to this move than simply attacking a pawn. The Knight on f3 also contests the black pawn’s control of d4. The Knight also attacks the g5 and h4 squares which helps protect white from a black Queen raid on those files. The point here is to really discuss and examine each move in great detail which helps reinforce the understanding of the move’s underlying principles.

Move three, 3.Bc4, brings up a couple of interesting points. The first is the weakness of the f7 square (f2 for white). This square is weak because, at the game’s start, it is only defended by the King. This makes it a natural target. The second point I bring up with my students is the idea of moving pieces to their most active squares. If we look at how many squares the Bishop controls on c4, we see that the number is ten. The Bishop is extremely active on c4. I solidify this example by looking at the Bishop when placed on d3 where is not only has less activity but blocks in the d pawn and Queen-side Bishop. This leads to a brief discussion about not making opening moves that block in other pawns and/or pieces.

After going over the first three moves of our opening, I quiz my students. Before moving on to the next three moves, each student must understand the underlying principles of each of the previous moves. Once I’m satisfied that everyone has a good grasp on the mechanics behind each of those moves we move on to the next three moves of the opening. Of course, the further you delve into the opening, the more complex it becomes due to numerous variations. Because I’m working with young beginners, I stick to the mainline.

After those first three moves we move onto the next three moves. Before starting into the next grouping of three moves (moves seven, eight and nine), I review the opening from move one. This helps etch the opening’s moves and underlying mechanics into a student’s memory. By frequently going back to move one and playing through the sequence of moves learned up to that point, students get a better idea of how each move helps build up a stronger position. Yes, they’re committing the opening to memory which is memorizing. However, they’re working through the mechanics as they go along which makes the difference.

It really comes down to looking at each move in an opening analytically, using the opening principles to define the underlying mechanics of that move. When studying the moves within an opening, don’t move on from one move to the next until you completely understand the underlying mechanics up to that point. Remember, memorizing an opening and understanding it are two different things. Here’s game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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