Growing up, as I did, in the 1950s and 1960s, playing board games and card games was something most families enjoyed. There were only two television channels, and of course no computers, video games or DVDs.
At home we played board games such as Ludo, Chinese Checkers and probably draughts, as well as games such as Monopoly with more complex rules. We played card games too. We’d start off with Snap, then move onto Strip Jack Naked and, with a different deck of cards, Happy Families. We then moved onto various forms of rummy and whist, later being introduced to Canasta, which my parents would play with friends once a week. We also played a wide variety of word games. When we visited my great-aunts, which we did most weekends, we’d play other games. First we’d play roulette, gambling with buttons rather than money, then the cards would come out and we’d play Pontoon and Newmarket.
My parents were not chess players, but when they saw that I enjoyed strategy games they decided, when I was 10 years old, to buy me a chess set. My father taught me the moves, which was all he knew, but after that I was on my own. Several years later I decided to learn Bridge: again I had to teach myself.
I guess my family was, in that respect, fairly typical for its time. My parents both left school at 14 so did not have the benefit of the sort of education I was to have, and there were not a lot of books in the house. Playing games, board games, card games or whatever, was what families did. You started with simple games before moving onto games with more complex rules, more choices and which involved more skill.
Now, times are very different. Some families do still play a lot of games at home. Most, at least in more affluent areas like Richmond, will play some games at home. Many children in less affluent areas will probably not play games at home at all.
As chess players, we’ll all agree that there are many benefits from playing games of this nature. There have been studies demonstrating that computer games are good for you, which, in some ways, they no doubt are, but they tend to promote what Daniel Kahneman refers to as ‘fast thinking’ rather than ‘slow thinking’.
All children enjoy playing games, and encouraging children to play strategy games is an excellent way of helping them develop a wide range of ‘slow thinking’ skills. Wearing my chess hat I’d certainly want to encourage all children to play chess. But if I take off my chess hat and put on my educator hat instead I’d be asking other questions. Would children, especially younger children, and those who do not play strategy games at home, be better off playing games with simpler rules, with fewer options, which finish more quickly?
Quite possibly, yes, which is why one approach to teaching chess to young children involves teaching them a variety of mini-games with a subset of pieces and rules. If you’re teaching chess in a classroom you can do this, but in a chess club, where there’s a room full of children playing complete games of chess, it’s difficult. Young beginners don’t want to play with just their pawns when they see other children, even if they’re older or more experienced, playing complete games.
We’re living in very different times from fifty years ago, and perhaps we need to think in a different way about how to approach chess for young children.