Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Thank You Mr Postman

Sometimes you read a book which makes you rethink your opinions on a particular subject. Back in 2004 I read a book, originally written in 1982, called The Disappearance of Childhood by the US writer and educator Neil Postman (1931-2003). Reading this book caused me to think about everything I was doing in terms of junior chess, and everything that was happening in the junior chess world, in a different way. You might think it curious that I should have been so influenced by a book which doesn’t actually mention chess at all. It’s not really strange though: I’m always asking questions like “What should 21st century childhood and 21st century schools look like?” before I ask what role chess should play in them. Other chess educators are asking the very different, and, in my opinion, over-simplistic question: how can we best put chess into schools as they are now?”

In his book Neil Postman writes about the decline in children’s play and the merging of children’s and adult games, with specific reference to Little League baseball and Pee Wee football.

“The idea that children’s games are not the business of adults has clearly been rejected by Americans, who are insisting that, even at age six, children play their games without spontaneity, under careful supervision, and at an intense competitive level.”

Postman goes on to discuss a brawl between parents which occurred during an international soccer tournament for young children in Ontario in 1981.

“What are the parents doing there in the first place? Why are four thousand children involved in a tournament? Why is East Brunswick, New Jersey playing Burlington, Ontario? What are these children being trained for? The answer to all these questions is that children’s play has become an adult preoccupation, it has become professionalized, it is no longer a world separate from adults.”

He then talks about young children competing in sports such as tennis, swimming and gymnastics, and has another question to ask.

“Why submit children to the rigors of professional-style training, concentration, tension, media hype? The answer is the same as before: The traditional assumptions about the uniqueness of children are fast fading. What we have here is the emergence of the idea that play is not to be done for the sake of doing it, but for some external purpose, such as renown, money, physical conditioning, upward mobility, national pride.”

I would not take quite such an extreme position as Postman. I can think of many benefits that children who excel at soccer (or chess) could gain from taking part in international tournaments even though I would certainly ask some questions and have some concerns. I guess it’s partly a generational thing: Postman was nearer my parents’ age than my age, and those who are 20 years or so younger than me will, by and large, have far fewer qualms than I do about this sort of competition.

One of the round table debates at last month’s London Chess & Education Conference, which I unfortunately missed as there were several other debates on at the same time which interested me, was on this topic: “Silence, touch move, timers: how strict should chess classes be?” I consider this a very important subject and would have been interested to hear others’ views. Postman writes about the distinction between ‘children’s play’ and ‘adult play’, and it seems to me that, with regard to chess, silence, touch move, timers, scoresheets, arbiters and so on are very specifically aspects of ‘adult play’ rather than ‘children’s play’. Postman would expect chess clubs for young children, even if he was in favour of such a thing, to be unsupervised and unstructured, with children inventing their own rules, and even doing totally different things with the pieces, such as using them as projectiles.

I’ll return to this topic next week and provide some of my own answers, but there was one other thing that jumped out at me on reading Neil Postman’s book.

Postman considered the golden age of childhood to have been between about 1850 and 1950, which, perhaps not coincidentally, was the end of his own childhood. Many baby boomers like me would put the end of the golden age as more like 1970. He saw television as the main reason for the disappearance of childhood, and would surely have been horrified by the effect of the Internet on today’s children. As I explained above, although I share his concerns, my position is not so extreme.

In one chapter, Postman predicts, due to the merging of childhood and adulthood, and the influence of television, the rise of the adult-child.

“The adult-child may be defined as a grown-up whose intellectual and emotional capacities are unrealized and, in particular, not significantly different from those associated with children.”

By the time you read this, an adult-child will be running the most powerful nation in the world, with his finger on the nuclear button. Postman’s prophecy from thirty five years ago has come true.

Meanwhile, I’d urge anyone who is involved with decision making in junior chess to go away and read the book: it’s readily available on Amazon. You probably won’t agree with all of it; you may well disagree with most of it, but it will make you stop and think about how we should be promoting and running junior chess. Come to think of it, I really ought to read his other books myself as well.

Richard James

Avoiding Opening Traps

A fellow coach came up to me during a tournament my student’s were playing in recently and said “Hugh, you better watch that team you’re guys are about to face. They specialize in opening traps and win a great deal of their games because of it.” My reply, “I don’t teach my students to use opening traps to win games.” My fellow coach looked at me sadly and said, “well, best of luck to you.” I smiled and walked away. What I didn’t tell him was that while I don’t teach my students to use opening traps to win games, I do teach them how to avoid traps and, when faced with opening traps, how to shut their opponent’s position down so quickly that the opposition will wish they never tried to employ their traps in the first place. Junior chess is overflowing with young players who (due to what I consider to be bad coaching) try to win their games early on, relying heavily on tricks and traps to give them the advantage. Therefore, any junior player will have to know about tricks and traps to avoid getting themselves into real trouble during the opening. Does this mean young players have to employ tricks and traps to survive? Absolutely not.

As I mentioned earlier, opening tricks and traps are a mainstay of junior chess. The level and degree of sophistication of these traps increases with the junior player’s age. Scholar’s Mate, for example, is the first opening trap young players learn. Why not, since it allows you to checkmate your opponent in four moves. I’ve seen countless tournament games won using Scholar’s Mate by the youngest members of the junior tournament circuit. The problem with this four move checkmate is that it requires your opponent to make a specific set of bad moves for it to succeed. If the person you’re playing against spots the potential attack, they can develop their pawns and pieces correctly while pushing the attacking Queen back. Below, we see the mate but also some simple developmental moves can thwart White’s mating attempt. This example brings up an important point.

Setting any opening trick or trap up requires that you make moves that go against sound opening principles. Since the opening phase of the game is a race to see who gains control of the board’s center first, making moves that don’t aim to reach that goal allow your opponent reach his or her goal before you do. Since the opening is the foundation upon which the rest of the game is built, setting up a trap early on can work against you when that trap fails. Setting traps costs time or tempo you cannot afford to lose.

I teach my students how to defend against opening tricks and traps. We approach it from a defensive viewpoint. Teaching this way does a number of important things. First of all, it teaches students to see the warning signs that a trap is being set. With Scholar’s Mate, the warning sign is that the Queen is being brought out early and is aimed towards the weakest square on the board, f7 (f2 for White). Sneakier players will often bring their light squared Bishop out to c4 which also serves as a warning sign since we usually develop our King-side Knight before our King-side Bishop. The point here is that warning signs are given that alert us to the potential trap.

The second point my method introduces is that principled play during the opening, trumps a trick or trap every time. You have to set up the trap which means doing things you shouldn’t do during the opening, such as bringing the Queen out early or moving the same pieces twice with no valid reason for doing so. A great lesson can be learned here about how important it is to not fall behind in development or time. If your opponent has to move the same piece two times while you move two different pieces once, such as two minor pieces towards the board’s center, you’re gaining time while your opponent is losing time.

Lastly, my students see just how fragile opening traps are, especially when they don’t work. Of course, this doesn’t mean my students are forbidden from ever employing a trap. However, if they employ a trap, they know the consequences that arise from doing so.

Knowing a trap is coming is the basis of a good defense because you can prepare for that trap. The Costage Trap is a simple opening trap I’ve described before in previous articles. However, we’ll look at it again because it demonstrates one of those opposition moves that should set the alarm bells ringing in your head when you see the key move.

In the above example, the first two moves for both players are standard fare as far as opening play is concerned. Both players fight for control of the center with a pawn on move one, 1. e4…e5. White plays 2. Nf3, attacking the e5 pawn and black defends with 2…Nc6. White then develops his King-side Bishop with 3. Bc4, which attacks the center and Black’s weak f7 pawn. Now Black makes a move that should warn White that something is amiss, 3…Nd4. This is where the unsuspecting beginner gets into trouble. They see a hanging pawn on e5. The opening principles tell us we should continue with development, such as castling or bringing another minor piece into the game, maybe moving the Queen-side Knight to c3. However the beginner grabs the pawn on e5 with 4. Nxe5 and now Black springs the trap. Remember, these are traps employed by young players so the traps themselves are not very sophisticated. When Black plays 4…Qg5, White is suddenly faced with losing the Knight on e5 or the g2 pawn. Many younger players will try to hang onto the Knight by taking the f7 pawn with 5. Nxf7, forking the Black Queen and King-side Rook. However, Black is playing to win so he simply takes the g2 pawn with 5…Qxg2 and White’s King-side Rook runs to f1 (6. Rf1). White’s days are numbered after Black plays 6…Qxe4+! White thinks “I’ll just block the Queen’s attack on my King by playing 7. Be2 and everything will be alright.” Wrong. Black plays 7…Nf3# and delivers a smothered mate. Castling on move four, 4. 0-0, would have solved the problem early on.

In the above example, the move 3…Nd4 was the indicator that Black was up to something. Knowing this, would have helped White in the above example. There is always a sign, in the form of a suspicious move, that tells us a trap is afoot! Here’s another example of an opening trap, called the fishing pole trap:

Moves one and two for both players are standard at junior level, 1. e4…e5, 2. Nf3…Nc6. White then plays 3. Bb5, signifying the start of The Ruy Lopez opening. Rather than play 3…a6, the standard response to 3. Bb5, Black plays 3…Nf6, attacking White’s e4 pawn. White castles with 4. 0-0, preparing to move the Rook to e1 to attack the Black Knight should it take the e4 pawn. So far, White is making good moves. Black plays 4…Ng4. Remember, there is always a move that tells us a trap may be afoot. However, White sees that there’s no Bishop on c5 to support the Knight’s attack on f2 (White’s weakest square at the start of the game) and continues with 5. h3, attempting to kick the Knight off of the g4 square. Black’s next move should set off a loud alarm bell in White’s head, 5…h6! Why would Black give up his Knight for a pawn? My students would immediately look up the h file and see that trading Knight for pawn would give the Black Rook an open file on which it would be aimed at the White King. White takes the bait with 6. hxg4. Black happily captures back with 6…hxg4 and White is in huge trouble. Never capture pawns and pieces unless it helps your position! White moves his Knight out of trouble with 7. Ne1 and Black plays 7…Qh4! White plays mechanically (something you should avoid) and plays 8. f3, hoping to trade pawns and create an escape square for his King. Black knows not to capture unless it helps his position and simply plays 8…g3 and now checkmate is unavoidable. White plays 9. Nc3 and Black delivers mate with 9. Qh2#.

You should know the basics of opening traps but know them from a defense viewpoint, rather than in terms of a tool you can use to win games. Experienced players will not fall for these traps and usually can turn the tables on the player employing them. Look for the the warning signs, such as unprincipled moves, and you’ll avoid falling victim. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. No cheap tricks and traps from these two players!

Hugh Patterson

The Four Wise Men

The London Chess and Education Conference last month gave me the chance to find out more about the chess study run by the Institute of Education, which, you may recall, did not demonstrate that chess improved children’s academic performance. Unusually, the tests were based on public examinations which the children took a year after the end of the chess course, which may have been one reason for the negative result. Another reason might have been that the children were following a relatively ‘fast’ course designed to get them playing chess fairly quickly (I should know: I wrote it) rather than a course specifically designed to use chess to improve children’s cognitive skills.

We also learned more about recent studies in Italy and elsewhere, but it seems to me that, while most studies demonstrate a short-term improvement in scholastic performance, there is little or no substantive evidence that studying chess provides any long-term academic benefits.

So why is so much effort being put into promoting chess as a learning tool in schools, and even, as we saw last week, using it to introduce very young children to music and movement?

Imagine for a moment you’re the headteacher of a primary school, or, if you’re in, for example, the USA, the principal of an elementary school.

One day four wise men, wise women if you prefer, but I’m writing this a few days after the Feast of Epiphany, come knocking at your door, all bearing gifts.

The first Wise Person says:

“I bring you the gift of music. I’m going to immerse your school in music, bring music into every lesson in every classroom. Your children will sing in choirs and be able to learn musical instruments. I’ll give your children to listen to music from a wide range of genres and countries: classical, rock, jazz, folk, music from India, China and Africa. I’ll give all your children a passion for music, although I’ll only expect a few to want to take it very seriously. I can also show you a lot of research to demonstrate that learning and listening to music will improve children’s academic performance.”

The second Wise Person says:

“I bring you the gift of language and culture. I’ll teach all your children to speak and read Mandarin Chinese. The world is getting smaller and China is playing an increasingly important role on the world stage. Being able to communicate in Mandarin Chinese will provide many potential employment opportunities for your children when they grow up. I’ll also introduce them to Chinese history, Chinese culture and Chinese cuisine. They’ll also be able to play Go, a great Chinese game. I’ve also got a lot of evidence to prove that learning a second language from an early age is academically beneficial”

The third Wise Person says:

“I bring you the gift of philosophy and thinking. I’ll teach children about metacognition – thinking about thinking. I’ll teach them how to reason, how to differentiate between real and fake news, how to concentrate and focus, how to control their impulses. I’ll also demonstrate meditation techniques and introduce them to concepts of philosophy, from the Ancient Greeks to the present day. My course will improve behaviour as well as academic results and will also benefit children’s mental health. I have a lot of peer-reviewed research in front of me to demonstrate the effectiveness of my approach.”

Finally, the fourth Wise Person says:

“I bring you the gift of chess. I’ll immerse your children in the Royal Game. I’ll introduce your younger children to chess through chess songs and dances, and through doing PE on a black and white squares. Then all children will have one lesson of chess a week instead of maths and I’ll also show you how you can integrate chess into everything else on the curriculum. There’s evidence to show that chess brings some limited short-term academic benefits, and at the end of the course, some of your children will be quite good at moving plastic figures round a chequered board.”

While all four gifts have their attractions, there’s only room on your curriculum for one of them. Which one would you choose?

It’s a difficult question, isn’t it? I guess if I had to make the choice it might depend on what sort of area my school was in, what the intake of pupils was like, and, of course, what costs were involved. But, even though I’m pretty fanatical about chess, I know which one I’d be least likely to choose.

In one of the Conference sessions I put it to the panel that by taking this approach we in the chess world were competing against other activities which claim to ‘make kids smarter’, all of which have their own devotees and apologists. The panel didn’t disagree with me.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of great material out there for schools which really want to go into chess in a big way, much of which I’ve seen over the years at the conference. You can only admire the quality of the products and the effort and dedication of those who produce them. I suppose it’s worthwhile in that there will always be a few schools who want to take this approach. And when they do, the children have a great time: many of them really enjoy playing chess, taking part in competitions and perhaps visiting the London Chess Classic, and some of them eventually compete at a high level. There was a primary school in my area which really went into chess in a big way some 25-30 years ago. Two of their pupils went on to become IMs. I’m not saying it can’t work, more that there are are other, perhaps more important or worthwhile things that schools could do. After all, chess is just a game. An amazingly wonderful game, yes, but not a big thing like music or philosophy.

If it was my decision I’d be looking at very different ways of promoting chess, but it’s where we are, internationally as well as nationally, and I’ll just have to live with it.

Richard James

Three Strategic Concepts for Beginners

One of the most difficult ideas beginners must understand in order to improve is the concept of strategy. It’s difficult because it’s not as cut and dry as other forms of principled game play. With the opening principles, we know we have a specific goal to accomplish during the first ten to fifteen moves and a relatively easy (well, at least for more seasoned players) way to meet our goal. During the opening, we know that the three key tasks we must undertake to reach our goal of a sound opening game are controlling the board’s center early on with a pawn or two, developing our minor pieces towards the center and castling. We’re even given a list of things we don’t want to do such as making too many pawn moves, moving the same piece twice during the opening (unless absolutely necessary) and bringing our Queen out early. The point here is simple; we have an easy to grasp list of what to do and what not to do. The same holds true with middle-game play; further piece activation, tactics and good exchanges of material, and endgame play (pawn promotion, mating with specific pawn and/or piece combinations). However, the idea of strategy and maintaining a strategic plan throughout the game baffles our intrepid beginner. If you’re a beginner and you find yourself a bit in the dark when it comes to strategy, fret not because this concept alluded me for a long time (due to embarrassment, I won’t tell you how old I was when it finally sunk in, but I did have gray hair at the time). Let’s see if we can’t sort this out and shine a bright light on strategy and strategic thinking. It will help your game greatly.

Three words, actually concepts, can be employed during any phase within a game of chess and those words are material, safety and freedom. While these might be commonplace words to non chess players, they become important strategic ideas or concepts to those wishing to play quality chess. I use these three ideas when I introduce beginners to strategic thinking. However, before we delve into these three key concepts, lets start by defining the word “strategy” and compare it to the definition of “tactics.”

While seasoned players know the difference between strategy and tactics, many beginners don’t understand the difference which is critical to good chess playing. Strategy is a plan of action designed to achieve a major or long-term goal. In military terms, strategy is the art of planning and directing the overall operations and movements of an army’s troops. It’s the greater plan used to win the battle. Tactics, on the other hand, are the methods employed or actions used to achieve a specific goal or plan. In a military example, the strategy might be to cut off the enemy’s supply line, forcing them to retreat or starve. However, the way in which you do so, such a as carefully orchestrated attack on the supply line itself, undertaken by special forces late at night when enemy security is at its weakest, is a tactical effort. The strategic plan that meets your goal (taking out the enemy supply line) is executed through a series of tactical efforts.

Now to our three key ideas or concepts, material, safety and freedom. These are ideas to keep in mind throughout the game, meaning they should be considered during the opening, middle and endgame, thus why they’re strategic in nature. These three things help you to maintain strategic goals from start to finish.

Material is just that! When we say material, we’re talking about the pawns and pieces. To see who has the material advantage or the larger army of pawns and pieces, we should always do a pawn and piece count throughout the game. Unlike a real army who might not miss a foot soldier or two, our chess army can be greatly weakened even when we have one or two fewer pawns (foot soldiers) than our opponent.

While experienced players know the relative values of the pawns and pieces and keep a constant tally of just how much material both players have, the beginner often doesn’t understand the idea of the relative value of material. When you can can add up the value of your forces with the ease of an accountant, you’ll always know where you stand, materially speaking!

Our foot soldiers, the pawns, have a relative value of one. The minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops, have a value of three each. The Rooks have a relative value of five, while the Queen has a relative value of nine. The King’s priceless! The value of the pawns and pieces are based on their power. Therefore, the Queen is your most powerful piece and your pawn the least valuable of your material. However, it should be noted that these values are relative which means they can fluctuate depending on their relationship to the position at hand. Pawns, for example, might start off the game with a relative value of one. Yet pawns, upon reaching the opposite side of the board, can promote into a Queen, Rook, Knight or Bishop. Therefore. A pawn one square away from promotion is worth far more than one on its starting square!

You can compare pawns and pieces you’ve captured to those captured by your opponent and know where you stand, materially speaking. You can also add up the value of the pawns and pieces still on the board, both yours and those of your opponent. The bottom line, however, is that you should always know where you stand regarding material because this greatly effects the strategic decisions you make from one move to the next. I say this because strategic thinking and planning can change from move to move depending on what your opponent does. Your strategic thinking or planning should always be flexible because the game can change from one move to the next, meaning plans often have to change and change quickly.

Being able to put a value on the material on and off the board allows you know where you stand in regards to your planning. If you’re down a lot of material, you don’t want to sacrifice your Queen (unless of course it leads to checkmate). Remember though, just because you have more material than your opponent doesn’t mean you’re winning. You have to deliver checkmate to win the game! Having less material means you have to wisely use what you have left in the game. Knowing where you stand from a material viewpoint allows you to employ a smarter strategy, such as not throwing everything you have left at the opponent’s King but trying to use tactics to even the balance of material left in the game! When planning an attack, add up the values of the pawns and pieces being exchanged. The value of the material you capture should be greater than that of your opponent.

Now for safety. Safety really comes down to the position of both your pieces and those of your opponent! The most important piece regarding safety is the King! With your pawns and pieces, not including the King, you might lose some material but the game will continue (at least for a while). However, if you follow a few guidelines, you won’t lose pawns and pieces as easily. Since an attack from which the King cannot escape, checkmate, ends the game immediately, King safety is a crucial task from the game’s start to its finish. Kings who are left in the open are doomed to be checkmated. Therefore, castling is part of our overall game strategy, more specifically when and where to castle. The reason castling is such a fantastic idea is because our King is surrounded by pawns and pieces that keep the opposition from getting within striking distance (when done right).

With some openings, such as The Italian Opening, white has the opportunity to castle on move four. However, should white castle or continue building up forces in or around the board’s center? If the King is safe, castling can be delayed. You just don’t want to delay it until it’s too late. To know whether or not you’re reaching that point, you need to examine the opposition’s pawns and pieces and see if they’re making any threats. Doing this throughout the game has the added bonus of allowing you to see if any of your pawns and pieces are being attacked. All you have to do to determine your material’s safety, is to simply look at each opposition pawn and piece and see if it’s attacking anything of yours either immediately or in another move or two.

If you suddenly realize, after looking at your position, that there’s a great deal of material bearing down on a valuable piece such as the Queen, or worse yet, the King, you need to change your plans (your strategy) and fight off the assault. Of course, if, after every opposition move, you’re looking at each of your opponent’s pawns and pieces to see what threats they’re making, you’ll avoid being in this situation! This situation, being suddenly assaulted, is why you have to have a flexible strategy. A seemingly winning position can change violently against you in a matter of a few moves. Therefore, keep your strategy flexible. Beginners too often have rigid plans base on what they want their opponent to do, not what the opponent actually is doing which is employing their own plans.

Lastly let’s touch upon the concept of Freedom. If you had to spend twenty four hours in either a small box in which you could barely move or a large room with a comfortable couch and lots of room to move, which would you chose? The bigger space. You’re pieces feel the same way. They want and need room to move. There’s a term we use in chess to describe a pawn or piece’s room to move and that term is mobility!

In chess, freedom is mobility and pieces with no mobility might as well not be in the game! For a piece to be active, the key ingredient when it comes to attacking, it must be able to move to an active square and this requires mobility. Beginners tend to move pawns and pieces to awkward squares. By awkward squares, I mean squares, upon which moving a pawn or piece to, block in other pawns and pieces. This creates a traffic jam and, like real life traffic jams on the motorway or freeway, it takes time to extricate yourself from the problem. Time, especially at the start of the game, can work against you in the most vicious of ways. After all, the player who gains control of the board first can not only launch great attacks but keep their opponent from launching any attacks of their own. When considering a move, always check to see of moving a pawn or piece to your target square will hamper the efforts of your other pawns or pieces. Mobile pieces are happy pieces.

So keep these three ideas in mind when creating your game plans and you’ll be playing better chess. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Boris is a brilliant strategic planner!

Hugh Patterson

Chess for Babies

Last month’s London Chess Conference supported by Chess in Schools and Communities was, as always, a mixture of the inspiring, the fascinating and the somewhat disturbing.

We learned quite a lot about methods used for introducing chess to very young children, much of which seems to emanate from Italy and Spain.

Now this doesn’t mean playing complete games of chess against Karpov, like young Mikhail Osipov, whom I wrote about a few weeks ago. It doesn’t involve playing any competitive games at all. FIDE are now promoting a course, originally developed in Italy, for five and six year old children using a giant chessboard to help children develop psychomotor (physical) skills. By playing movement-based games on the board children learn about directions: vertical, horizontal and diagonal. They also learn about listening, following instructions, working as a team, letters (a to h, I suppose) and numbers (1 to 8).

You can find out more about it here. The videos of the lessons are in Italian, but even if it’s not one of your languages you’ll get a pretty good idea of what’s going on.

We also heard from Pep Suarez, from Minorca, who is teaching chess to even younger children using song and dance. Each piece has a different song which describes its moves, and a dance to go with it. He explained that some strong chess players are horrified by this approach to chess. At first he was only getting a small number of children moving onto playing full games, and only a few of those would go on to play competitive chess, but recently his small island (population under 100,000) has produced several national age-group champions.

The people behind these schemes are very much involved with the FIDE Chess in Schools Commission. Their mission:

o Chess for Education (CFE) not Education for Chess (EFC).

o Using chess within the educational framework to improve educational outcomes rather than using the educational environment to produce chess players (although that is an inevitable and very welcome by-product).

o The main focus of CiS is a social educational programme in primary and secondary schools, with particular emphasis on the ages 7-11.

o ‘CiS’ will this year provide a social educational programme for pre-schoolers at home or in kindergarten (see Psychomotricity).

o ‘CiS’ is also important at third level, in further education, especially aiming to encourage research and to develop the professionalization of chess teaching.

The fourth item here is presumably the Italian programme mentioned above.

This is very much the way chess education is moving internationally, although here in the UK we take a rather different approach geared much more towards competitive chess.

My feelings about this are very mixed. Yes, of course it’s important that young children learn through music and movement. If, like me, you grew up in the UK in the 1950s, it’s quite possible your school would have used a BBC Radio (we called it the wireless in those days) programme called precisely that: Music and Movement. If you really want your primary school to go into chess in a big way, then it would probably be a good idea to do this sort of thing to ensure that kids who joined your chess club knew all the moves.

On the other hand, there are all sorts of reasons why you might have concerns. There are no doubt many other ways of teaching children these skills. I can see that the nature of the chequered board has a number of advantages, but I’d be interested to hear from early years teachers as to the effectiveness of using chess for this purpose. It would also only be effective if the teacher was fully engaged and enthusiastic about the lessons, and of course it wouldn’t need a chess tutor at all.

I can also see the objections raised by some strong players who see this as dumbing down chess by turning it into an activity for very young children. But if it works in terms of producing significant numbers of young people with a lasting interest in chess then why not? It’s not something I’d want to be involved with myself, though.

Whether we like it or not, and, personally, I have a lot of reservations, it’s the way children’s chess is heading at the moment. Chess is being used as a tool to improve educational outcomes, and, if it also produces chess players, so much the better. My priority would be very much the other way round, but it’s where we are at the moment.

But how much evidence is there that chess really does improve educational outcomes (‘making kids smarter’)? We learned something about that as well, and I’ll return to this theme next time.

Richard James

Are Databases Important for the Beginner?

There was a time in the not so distant past, when we had to keep track of important games, both our own and the games of others, by carefully copying each move into a paper notebook. If you were serious about improving, you’d often find yourself copying dozens of games into that notebook that were centered around a specific opening you were trying to learn or a tactical idea you were trying to master. This was a daunting task at best. Incorrectly writing down a move from one of those games made the game worthless! Thanks to huge advances in technology, you can now purchase software that gives you immediate access to millions of games with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger. You can easily have ten thousand examples of a specific opening or a huge collection of games representing many different openings neatly stored on your computer. You can compare an individual move you might be considering to hundreds of thousands of previously played games to see if that move has any merit. The database is an extremely powerful and useful tool for anyone wishing to improve their game. However, do you really need a database as a beginner and when should you invest in one?

Before investing in a database program, which can be quite costly, you have to determine whether or not it’s really going to help your game, in other words, help you improve. While the database is an essential tool for serious/professional players as well as coaches and instructors, the beginner should understand that a database is not an instructional tool in the way a training DVD or software program is. With a training DVD or software program, actual lessons are being taught aimed at helping you learn the topic at hand. For example, a DVD on how to play the Ruy Lopez is just that. The DVD teaches you how to play this opening and is written and presented by an individual who has expertise with the Ruy Lopez. A database, on the other hand, might have a collection of ten thousand games featuring the Ruy Lopez opening, which is far greater than the number of example games featured in the DVD. However, there’s no instruction within the database so you just have the games themselves with perhaps a little annotation that is far above the beginner’s comprehension level. Therefore, the database expects you to already know the opening, or at least a bit of it’s mainline and variations. If you’re new to chess and don’t fully understand the opening principles, for example, you’ll quickly become lost and frustrated trying to figure out what’s going on within the database’s games. A database may show the opening principles in action but it doesn’t teach them.

Now, this isn’t to say that beginner’s can’t benefit from a database, but the beginner is better off spending their hard earned money on instructional material and, once they’ve improved, acquire a database program. I rely on my database program for teaching and coaching for very obvious reasons. I give at least ten chess lectures per week. I give roughly four hundred lectures per year (I work year round). Since I rarely show the same game twice during an academic year, I need to have easy access to a large number of games. All I have to do is consult my trusty database to find the games I use. The other advantage to databases, such as ChessBase 14 which I rely upon, is that it allows me to compare lines from a plethora of other games to the game I’m presenting to my students. For a teacher or coach, it’s an indispensable teaching tool. It should be noted that in order to get the most out of a database such as the one I use, you have to do a lot of reading and tinkering with the database. The user manual for ChessBase 14 is 487 pages long and you have to read quite a bit of the manual to get the most out of the software program. This alone, is too much for the beginner to deal with. Is there a happy medium for our intrepid beginner regarding the database? There sure is!

Cost is very prohibitive for many of us who love the game. I can write all chess related chess equipment off on my taxes. However, if you’re not teaching chess for a living and don’t have a good accountant, spending three or four hundred dollars on software can take food off the tables of many of my fellow chess players. Would you be happy if I told you you could either download a free database program or spend roughly twenty to fourty American dollars on an all in one chess program? I’d be happy!

Let’s look at the free database program first. It’s called ChessDB and can be found here: http://chessdb.sourceforge.net/ This is the homepage, so read the page and follow the instructions for downloading, which is a link button in the upper right hand corner of the page. The Beta version with the endgame tables is only 36 megabytes in size so it won’t put a strain on your computer’s available memory.

ChessDB is a great little database program because not only is it free, but it comes with a small database of 27, 681 games. I say small because my latest database has over 6,800,000 games. However, the beginner doesn’t really need six million games to have a decent database (I don’t even need that many games). Beginner’s just need games that they use for a reference for their own studies. If you want to add a larger database of games, you can add an additional 3.5 million games (see the ChessDB website for more on this) The only real downside to this program is that you’ll have to do a bit of studying to learn how to navigate the program and take advantage of its many features. However, you’d have to do that with any database and the good news is that you don’t have to pay any money for this program.

If you’re willing to pay around twenty to fourty American dollars for a program that not only has a large database (600,000 plus games), but a built in playing program and roughly one hundred hours of training and instructional material, try Chessmaster’s Grandmaster Edition or Chessmaster 10th Edition (both are essentially the same with the Grandmaster Edition having one additional section, Josh Waitzkin analyzing a series of games). This is an excellent program for the beginner wishing to not only improve but to have access to a decent database. I highly recommend this program to all my beginning students. It’s a great all in one program. Seldom do you find all in one programs that are great all around programs since most of these tend to be be weak in one area or another. While this is not the best program for more experienced players, it’s first rate for those new to the game. You can’t beat the price either! While not free, it’s close to it considering the fact that a beginner will be able to get a great deal of training in a single software package. Note, you’ll have to do a bit of searching online to find it for the price listed above because, original versions of this program, brand new, in the box and unsealed can sell for as high as three hundred American dollars. Just search around and you’ll find one for a decent price. The company that put out the game no longer makes it so you’ll have to buy it used or find a new copy someone has lying around in their closet. However, the search is well worth it. You can find free demo downloads (do not download full versions online because it’s internet piracy which is illegal) online to try it out. However, always exercise caution when downloading any program onto your computer (which is why I will not provide a downloading source. That risk is yours and yours alone).

So there you have it, a few ideas on acquiring a database should you feel the need for one. As a beginner, don’t worry about having a fancy database even if all your chess playing friends have one. It’s better to invest your money into training materials because, after all, if you really improve your game and beat your friend who’s always bragging about their fancy database program, you’ll have the last laugh. You might find yourself thinking, after beating your friend, “I guess those six million games didn’t do as much for you as my wise investment in my own training.” However, if you want to delve into the world of databases, try one of the above suggestions. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. These guys are old school. They had to write down thousands of games into their notebooks which just goes to show you that technology doesn’t necessarily mean you have the advantage on the chessboard or off the chessboard in life!

Hugh Patterson

Why Teach Chess?

It’s a question I’m asked often by people who know me from my other career, music. I suspect they ask this question because they know me from one world, a world in which chaos and living on the edge are king while logic and reason are foggy notions. People tend to think that musicians have one interest and one interest only, music. They don’t consider the idea that, like every other human on the planet, musicians have multiple interests. I’m fortunate in that the two things that interest me the most are both careers and,more importantly, those careers pay the bills. A professor once said to me “Find something you passionately love to do, find someone to pay you for doing it and you’ll always love your job and your life.” However, there’s much more to it than simply making money via something you love to do. It’s the end result of what I do that’s my real reason for teaching chess to children.

When I first starting teaching chess in the schools, I was attracted to the pay, the hours (I could sleep in until ten in the morning if it were not for the sad reality that I’m a workaholic) and the fact that I’d be getting paid to do something I love. I wish I could tell you that it was my life long mission to teach chess to children but I’d be lying. The job literally fell into my lap when a friend called me with a teaching opportunity. The same thing happened with my musical career which was accidental at best. With music, I was in the right place at the right time. With chess, it was a similar story.

It wasn’t until after I started teaching that I realized how important my new career was. It wasn’t important regarding the training of a new generation of chess players, even though that was part of it. What was crucial was the idea that I was helping my students develop logic and reasoning skills. Why is this so important?

I’m 56 years old (or young, as I like to think) and I’ve had my chance to make my mark on the world through my music. I had my day in the sun and, while I still write new songs and push the boundaries of music (mostly through a lack of talent), I know in my heart that it’s up to a younger generation to really turn music on it’s head and take it into uncharted waters. This idea holds true for everything from science to the arts. It’s the children that I teach who will take up the torch and move civilization forward. By teaching chess, I’m able to give my students the tools they’ll need to change the world. What are these tools? Simply put, the thought process. To change the world, you need to think differently than others and this requires a well honed thought process.

Chess is a fantastic tool for developing and honing your thought process. Too often as adults, we’re encapsulated by a myriad of problems, all demanding our attention at once. It can be work related or personal. In either case, we sometimes freeze like a deer suddenly faced with the glare of a car’s headlights. We get stuck and can’t find a way out, a solution to a seemingly endless parade of problems. We try to take on everything at once rather than one problem at a time. While children rarely have this dilemma, as they grow older, they will face the same situation. Too many problems hitting them all at once. Chess teaches us how to tackle problems in a logical manner. We learn how to look at a series of problems and determine which one needs to be solved first. We learn to deal with things with order and reason. Chess also teaches us patience, something that’s in short supply these days among the human species. Patience is key to problem solving. To prepare children to face life’s problems I teach them logic and reasoning skills. Employing logic and reason helps them to avoid that dreadful feeling of helplessness you get when it seems you can’t find a way out of the plethora of problems we often face in our day to day lives. These skills cut straight through the situation like a hot knife cuts through butter.

Chess also helps children develop the basic skills needed to do well in school. These skills include problem solving and discipline. Chess is a great introduction to big picture problem solving. A little picture problem, for example, is doing a simple arithmetic problem such as adding numbers together. A big picture problem is having homework in multiple subjects, such as math, science and writing, and determining which subject to work on first and managing your time to finish them all on schedule. Chess helps develop big picture thinking. Chess is also a good way to develop the type of thinking required for advanced mathematics such as algebra. Just remember, chess will not make you smarter. You’re stuck with the brain you were born with but chess will help it function at maximum efficiency.

One of the things I’ve done in my teaching program is to incorporate my student’s classroom curriculum into their chess class. We look at ideas their regular teachers present to them and create analogies on the chess board. This allows students to think about a particularly difficult problem they’re tasked with solving in terms of chess. When they can visually see the problem via the chessboard they often have an easier time solving it.

I look at my chess classes as a way to not only teach my students a game they can play and enjoy for the rest of their lives but as preparation for the many problems they’re apt to face in life. If they have a method of problem solving that is based on logic and reason they’ll be ahead of everyone else. Chess really does help develop young minds and helping them to do so is my contribution to the future of civilization. Remember, that little kid sitting at a table in a restaurant across from you, making a rude face in your general direction, may become the surgeon that saves your live one day. You better hope he studied chess. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

A Time of Gifts

It appears to by my turn for the Christmas gig this year, so I’m sure nobody will read this. You’ll all be far too busy opening your presents and stuffing your turkey to read internet chess columns, and quite right too.

If you’ve been teaching chess (or, indeed, teaching anything) as long as I have you might receive gifts at any time of the year. A gift that costs nothing to give but means a lot to receive. Let me explain.

A few months ago I was doing some private chess tuition at Hampton Court House. I walked across to the other side of Bushy Park to catch the bus home, checked the timetable, and discovered I had a few minutes to go back into the park and take some more photographs of the sunset. I held the gate open for a young man on a bicycle. He thanked me, then turned and looked at me again. “Are you Richard?”, he asked. “I’m Ralph.” Ralph had been a member of Richmond Junior Club about fifteen years previously.

A week or so later, I was on the bus one evening returning home from a concert. A man sat next to me. “Hi Richard”, he said, “I’m Alban”. Alban had, along with his three brothers, been a member of Richmond Junior Club about thirty five years ago, and his older brother’s son is currently a member, and by no means the only second generation member we have at the moment.

More recently I was at an amateur opera production where I met the parents of two former Richmond Junior Club members, again from about fifteen years ago. Time and time again, it’s humbling to be reminded, by both parents and former members, in how much affection Richmond Junior Club was, and I hope, still is held.

This is exactly why I do what I do. I’ve never been interested in making money from teaching chess, but because we are where we are, I have no option but to charge a reasonable rate. I’m just interested in making a difference to children’s lives, and perhaps giving them a long-term interest. I’d happily pay, rather than be paid, for the privilege.

The best gift I ever received, though, was a cheap plastic pocket chess set which Santa delivered 56 years ago. I’m sure many children throughout the world will receive the gift of chess today. I hope that, for some of them, as it was for me, it will be a gift that lasts a lifetime. It really doesn’t matter whether they reach 3000 strength, 2000 strength or even 1000 strength. Many parents, unaware of the complexity, beauty, history and heritage of the game, just see it as a way of providing their children with short-term extrinsic benefits rather than as a potential long-term passion. Perhaps we in the chess community should do more to promote the real reasons why they should give their children the gift of chess.

Remember: chess is not just for Christmas, chess is for life!

Richard James

Thank You

I spoke to a childhood friend last night for the first time in decades. He knew about my career as a musician. However, a great deal of time had passed since we last spoke and he had no idea that I had carved out a modest career teaching chess. We both played in our youth. He had aspirations of becoming a Grandmaster while I was more keen on a life of rock and roll. He became a successful scientist and has raised a small army of kids. His dreams of becoming a professional chess player were traded in for a fascinating career and wonderful family. He was amazed that I had managed to figure out how to make a living through the game of chess. Of course, I’m as amazed as he was regarding my chess career! While talking about what I do and how I do it, I was reminded, once again, at how fortunate I am. I was also reminded that any success I’ve had can be attributed to those who support my efforts, my students, the readers of my weekly column at The Chess Improver and my wife who also plays. To those who have supported and helped me with turning my passion for chess into a career I love, I thank you!

I often wonder why anyone in their right mind would consider seriously studying the game of chess. It’s an extremely ironic game in that you can learn its rules in an afternoon but spend a lifetime not even coming close to mastering it. It’s a maddening game at times, drawing your every thought into an obsessive mindset while purposely tripping you up so you fall headlong into the rabbit hole of its complexity. It’s a world within itself and only those who delve head on into its alluring waters will understand just how obsessed you can become. Yet there are those of us who take the plunge and find the waters warm and inviting.

We who love the game to the point of spending countless nights hunched over a computer screen or chess book think this type of behavior as normal. Why do we do it? To get better of course! However, if it were just that, many of us would have given up long ago! I think what keeps us going is the simple fact that chess reveals its deepest mysteries to those who delve deepest! Every once in a while, after long hours of study, I’ll have one of those insightful moments, suddenly understanding a concept that had been elusive and mysterious up until that point. This in itself is greatly satisfying!

Chess is a game that rewards hard work. Of course, you can play casually when on vacation or at a family get together, or you can aim for the stars and attempt to master the game. I say aim for the stars because I don’t think anyone can completely master a game with so many possible positions on the board at any given time. However, like those who choose to climb mountains that claim human lives on a regular basis, lovers of chess love a challenge and chess certainly is that.

I want to thank everyone who plays chess, both casually and professionally because it’s you that inspire me to improve my game and write these articles. Through the game of chess, I’ve made literally thousands of friends, some of whom I actually like (just kidding – I have to live up to my snarky reputation after all). Those friends come from all over the globe and have taught me a great deal about their country’s customs and traditions. My global friends make life interesting and our common bond is chess. Thank you global chess friends for being you, lovers of chess.

I’d like to personally thank the game of chess for keeping me in check (no pun intended). I tend to be an over achieving type and used to have a problem with losing. Of course, nobody likes to lose but some people take it better than others. I discovered through chess that one can learn a great deal from their losses. Chess also keeps my ego in check. It humbles me on a regular basis which makes me a better human being.

Then there’s Nigel Davies! He is one of my favorite chess players and instructors. Prior to meeting Nigel on Facebook, I knew him only through his DVDs. He’s got a warm way of presenting ideas and concepts that makes you feel comfortable when delving into the murky waters of theory. I have to thank him for giving me the opportunity to write about chess. Social media has allowed me to connect with some amazing chess players, Nigel being on the top of my list, so thanks social media sites.

This holiday season, I’m very thankful for all that chess has done for me and will continue to do for me as I sail off into my twilight years (whatever that means). I wish everyone, even non chess players (ha ha ha), the happiest of holidays. Here’s a tip for those doomed to have political discussions during Christmas dinner (especially in the United States): Avoid the conversation and instead, fight with your family members on the chessboard with a nice glass of Brandy. Nothing says “your candidate is one step above the village idiot” more than “Checkmate Uncle Bob.” Happy Holidays everyone and here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Thinking Skills Test 2 (Part 2)

Last week I introduced the first four questions in my second Thinking Skills Quiz. This week I’ll take a look at how children answered the last four questions

Question 5 is another standard tactical idea which comes up in many openings, and where the correct move is often overlooked. The complex thought processes which enable the children to find a3, the only move to avoid losing a piece, are too hard at this level, unless they’ve seen the idea before. Several of my sample chose to castle, wanting to unpin the knight and expecting to be able to save it next move. Again, a typical thinking error with young children, thinking “I go there, then I go there” rather “I go there, then you go there”.

Question 6 is a random mate in 2 position. Can they find a fairly simple mate in two if they’re not told specifically that it’s a checkmate puzzle? A few of them managed to find the correct answer: Nf6. They recognized the typical King and Rook v King checkmate position and saw that they could get checkmate next move by moving the knight out of the way. In some cases this was, I suspect, a lucky guess. You have to control g8 to stop the black king escaping, and blocking off the black bishop also speeds up the mate, but I’m not sure that they were all aware of these points.

Question 7 is another defensive question, and another typical opening idea. When faced with two threats children will automatically react to the first threat they see without stopping to see if there’s another threat that should take priority. So in this position most children will spot the threat to the knight on e5 and move it to the most obvious square, f3, where it threatens the black queen. Even when I prompted some of them to find a knight move which defended f2 some of them found it hard. Eventually they noticed that Ng4 fitted the bill, but didn’t stop to ask whether or not the move was safe. The question you should be asking (and you really had to ask yourself before playing Nxe5 the previous move) is “Do I have a knight move which defends f2 and is also safe”. But this is a complex cognitive operation which is too hard for most young children with little experience of chess.

Finally, Question 8. Several of the students didn’t get this far in the time allocated for the exercise, but those who attempted the question played 1. Qc6+, expecting something like 1… Nd7 2. Nxd7 Qxd7 3. Qxa8+. They probably hadn’t noticed the bishop on h3. It’s often been pointed out that backward diagonal moves are the hardest to spot. In fact the bishop on h3 is the key to this puzzle. White can trap the bishop by playing the rather unusual discovered attack g4.

Again, these puzzles exemplify some of the typical thinking errors made by less experienced younger children.

  • They only consider one criterion when choosing a move, and choose the first move meeting that criterion.
  • They either fail to look more than one move ahead or think ‘I go there, then I go there, then I go there’ rather than ‘I go there, you go there, then I go there’.
  • They are unable to see relationships between pieces in different parts of the board.
  • They fail to notice their opponent’s threats.
  • They overlook discovered attacks.

Now this poses a couple of questions. Can we teach young children more efficiently by concentrating on these areas? Or do we put it down to their cognitive development and expect them to improve naturally? Should we be repeating and reinforcing typical tactical ideas in the opening such as Questions 2, 5 and 7 in this quiz and Questions 6 and 7 in the previous quiz?

And what about less experienced or lower rated adult players? Do they make the same type of mistake or is there a difference? Young children learn mainly through memory and mimicry rather than through genuine understanding, but it should be easier to teach older children and adults to understand abstract concepts and more complex cognitive skills. I don’t know as I have very little experience teaching adults. If you have any views or experience on this, please let me know.

Richard James