Category Archives: Children’s Chess

The Importance of Tactics Three

Tactics can quickly decide the games of beginning and intermediate players, so knowing how and when to employ them is crucial if you wish to improve your game. Of course, tactics are not a guaranteed way to win but they can change the material balance in your favor and thus make it easier to win due to having a larger army than your opponent. We looked at pawn and minor piece (Knight and Bishop) forks in the last two articles. Now we’re going to look at major piece (Rook and Queen) forks. There is a difference between pawn, Knight and Bishop forks versus Rook and Queen forks. That difference has to do with the value of the material doing the forking. Pawns, for example, are great at forking because they have the lowest relative value. When a pawn forks two pieces, you automatically end up with a material gain. Knights and Bishops, when forking major pieces, (Rooks and Queens) also lead to a material gain. However, when you’re using a Rook or Queen to fork, you have to be careful because of their high relative value. If you have a Rook forking two minor pieces, and those minor pieces are protected by pawns or other minor pieces, then you’re apt to lose material should you follow through with the fork and capture one of those minor pieces!

We’ll start by looking at Rook forks. Rooks have the ability to move along the ranks and files. Unlike the Bishop who can only control diagonals of one color, the Rook can cover both black and white squares simultaneously. Because a Rook is worth more than a minor piece or pawn, your target pieces when using a Rook to fork should be a piece of higher value, such as The King or Queen and an unprotected piece of lower value, such as a Knight or Bishop. Why not a piece of equal value? Well, a piece of equal value would be another Rook and you can’t fork another Rook because that other Rook would simply capture your Rook! As with all forks, the set up is critical to your success. Take a look at the example below:

This is an extremely simplified example but it demonstrates what I just mentioned above regarding the idea of forking a piece of greater value than the Rook and a piece of lesser value. In our example, the White Rook moves to d6 (1. Rd6+) where it checks the Black King on h6 while also attacking the Bishop on a6. The King moves (1…Kg5) and the Rook captures the Bishop with 2. Rxa6. Nice and easy. However, if Black had a Knight on b8, this fork wouldn’t work because the Knight would protect the Black Bishop and following through with the exchange would leave you trading a five point Rook for a three point Bishop. Forks work when the piece being captured after the other piece has moved isn’t protected. However, what if we substitute A Black Queen for the Black Bishop and the White Rook we’re using to fork King and Queen has a bodyguard? Take a look at the example below:

Here, the Rook moves to the forking square, d6 (1. Rd6+). Since it’s checking the Black King, Black has the choice of moving the King and losing the Queen (and the game) or Capturing the Rook. Black opts to capture with 1…Qxd6. Now we see why the Rook needed a bodyguard. Remember, the Queen moves like both a Rook and Bishop, so forking a Queen with either of these two pieces requires a bodyguard for the forking piece. White plays 2. Bxd6, winning the Queen at the cost of a Rook. The net gain of this tactic is four points of material, trading Rook for Queen. With major piece forks, you often need a bodyguard to assist the forking piece to ensure a gain of material. Thus, the more valuable the piece doing the forking the more carefully you must set up your fork. There is one place where Rooks can can be highly effective against lower valued material, namely the pawns!

Rooks love to reek havoc on the seventh and second ranks, especially when the initial pawn structure (pawns on their starting squares) is somewhat intact. Let’s take a look:

White plays 1. Rd7, forking the Black pawns on c7 and e7. Black can only protect one of those pawns which means White captures the other one free of charge. After 1…Rfe8, White plays 2. Rxc7 winning a pawn. Black blunders with 2…Rac8, attacking the White Rook, thinking White will trade Rooks. However, the White Rooks says “time to take another pawn” and plays 3. Rxb7. Black decides to cover his a7 pawn with 3…Ra8 and the White Rook runs away after creating a three to one Queen-side pawn majority for White with 4. Rb3. This actual tragedy was from a student game in one of my beginner’s classes. White went on to win after being able to promote a Queen-side pawn. Of course, we can thank the Rook for creating the pawn majority!

The above example shows how powerful the Rook can be when it comes to rounding up pawns. However, you must be careful when going on a pawn hunt with one of your Rooks because of the Rook’s value. Hunting pawns with Rooks and Queens can be hazardous to your position’s health. It’s better not to hunt pawns in the first place because you have greater tasks to be tackled, such as winning the game by creating strong positions! Now we’ll look at some Queen forks.

Since the Queen is the most valuable piece aside from the King, you have to be extremely careful when using her, especially when it comes to forks. If you miscalculate your tactical assault, you may become the victim rather than the other way around. When forking with the Queen, it’s best for the beginner to only consider forks that involve the opposition King as one of the forked pieces. Take a look at the example below:

In the above example, Black is threatening to capture the a2 pawn. White could simply move the Queen to b1 or c2 to defend it. However, wouldn’t it be better to win the Rook outright? White can further improve upon his material advantage by employing a fork. Using a Queen fork, White plays 1. Qb3+ which forks the Black King and the annoying Black Rook. After black blocks with 1…Rf7, White plays 2. Qxa2 equalizing the material balance. Of course, if the Black Knight was on b4, this fork wouldn’t work. You should always make sure the pieces you’re planning on capturing after employing the fork aren’t protected.

When using Rooks and Queens for forks, you have to take care because these are your major pieces, having the highest material value. Therefore, you need to make sure they can’t be recaptured after you execute the fork. As I mentioned in the previous two articles, the way to find potential forks is to look for pieces that share a rank, file or diagonal. Rooks fork on the ranks and files. Queens have an advantage in that they can fork on the ranks, files and diagonals. Their disadvantage is that they’re at the top of the relative value scale so if you lose your Queen due to a faulty tactical execution, you’re down a lot of material. Next week we’ll start our examination of pins, a deadly tactic you should know how use. Until then, here’s a great gambit game from the romantic era of the game we all love. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

The Children on the Hill

Published by Quartet Books Limited, 1973, copyright 1972, it says in my paperback edition of this book. So I must have bought it at some point between starting to teach chess in 1972 and starting Richmond Junior Club in 1975.

I was working in Central London at the time and during the lunch break I’d sometimes walk the mile or so down the road to Foyle’s to browse the chess books. One day, for a change, I went to Dillon’s London University Bookshop instead, and chanced upon a small paperback which looked interesting. It told the story of a family of child prodigies living in a dilapidated cottage in Wales. The second child, aged only 9, had won a national piano competition open to children up to 14 (not, as the book cover incorrectly states, 18). I started browsing, and discovered that the oldest son was, apart from being a maths prodigy, something of a chess player.

The family, who were understandably fearful of any invasion of their privacy, were not identified in the book, and were given different names, but there were enough clues for me to suspect that I knew the oldest boy by sight. At the time I was playing regularly in weekend tournaments in London, and also visited the Mary Ward Centre, only a short walk from Dillon’s, where Leonard Barden and Bob Wade ran regular junior training tournaments, and where I’d seen him play. This, of course, was the start of the famed English Chess Explosion. It later transpired that my suspicions were entirely correct, and I knew the name of the oldest child.

So I paid my 40p and returned to my office with a copy of The Children on the Hill, by Michael Deakin. The Story of an Extraordinary Family.

In brief, and I’ll probably write much more about this another time in another place, the children’s parents determined to bring up children who were both happy and moral. Producing prodigies was an unexpected byproduct of this. Their methods were based on the teachings of Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget, and involved the parents totally subsuming their lives into the requirements of their children. The children were encouraged to find their passion and, with unconditional love and totally without pressure, take it seriously (the phrase ‘high seriousness’ occurs more than once in the book) as far as they wanted.

The desire to excel came from the children themselves, while the parents made enormous sacrifices to help them succeed. Parental involvement, lack of pressure and seriousness of purpose, along with the child’s natural ability, are the keys to producing ‘child prodigies’. If you’re at all interested in the subject I’d recommend the book. It’s been out of print for many years but second hand copies are readily available from the usual sources.

While I was reading this book, a Hungarian family were just starting something superficially similar. But unlike Martin and Maria, the parents of the Children on the Hill, Laszlo and Klara Polgar decided in advance which subject should be their children’s speciality, and, as we all know, they chose chess. Dangerous, you might think, for the parents to choose their children’s passion, and it could easily backfire, but in this case it seems to have worked.

If you want to consider a contemporary family of gifted children you might well look at the Kanneh-Mason family from Nottingham, whose seven children are all classical musicians of extraordinary talent. The third of the siblings, Sheku, last year won the title of BBC Young Musician of the Year, playing Shostakovich’s first Cello Concerto. Unlike, for instance, the Polgars, the children are not home-schooled, instead attending a Catholic Comprehensive School. Sheku also finds time for ‘normal’ interests such as football.

In several places on the Internet you’ll find questions about what happened to the Children on the Hill. The identity of the family is now in the public domain if you know where to look. In fact I wrote about Adam, the name given to the pianist in the book, a few months ago, using his real name. Although he never achieved genuine stardom he still plays and teaches professionally, appearing at leading venues as part of a piano trio. A few years after the book was published he followed his brother in taking up chess, which he still plays to a pretty high level, and is also involved in teaching chess to children. The two youngest children are also classical musicians, a flautist and a cellist. The chess playing oldest son was very active nationally and internationally during the 70s, but stopped playing to pursue a successful international academic career in computing, making a brief comeback at the chequered board a few years ago.

And there I was going to leave you, but just yesterday a boy only a couple of months past his fifth birthday turned up at Richmond Junior Club wanting to try out the Intermediate Group, having already held his own in a tournament against much older children. I asked his mother if he was really ready for a three-hour club, but she assured me he had no problem playing for six hours at home. Well, we did have a problem with him: it was very hard to persuade him he had to leave when we were trying to put everything away and adjourn to the pub! As he’d arrived very early he was there for the best part of four hours, playing quietly with total concentration the whole time. It was also clear, when I played a couple of games with him, that he had an intuitive grasp of the game’s logic. I’ve come across very few children, even a couple of years older, who have the concentration, the impulse control and the logic to play good chess, but this boy potentially has these skills at only five. Speaking to his mother, it’s clear that she’s going to be very supportive. Talent: tick (I think). Passion: tick. Supportive parents: tick. I’ll be interested to see what happens next.

Richard James

The Importance of Tactics Two

As promised, we’re going to continue our examination of tactics for the beginner. Last week, we looked at the power of the Knight fork. Because a Knight cannot be blocked when attacking, the opposition is left with one less choice (the other two being capturing or running/moving out of the attack) when dealing with the Knight. Also the Knight’s “L” shaped movement makes it difficult for the beginner to clearly see this piece’s target squares when compared to the linear movement of the other pieces. Now we’ll look at how the pawn and Bishop can be used in tactical forks to win material. Remember, everyone in your chess army can fork.

As I mentioned last week, forking opportunities rarely just present themselves when you play against an experienced opponent. You have to set them up with a combination of moves which is the hard part of learning how to become a tactician! Some of these combinations require a move or two while some may take three or more moves to set up. With forks involving pieces other than the Knight, the trick to setting up a tactical play is to look for lines (ranks, files or diagonals) on which opposition material sits. We’ll start by looking a a pawn fork. This example is a simple tactical trick employed by many savvy young players and requires setting the tactic up with a combination of moves:

So our game starts off with a typical e pawn opening, 1. e4…e5. No tricks here, just the simple application of opening principles, controlling the board’s center with a pawn. On move two, White attacks the e5 pawn with 2. Nf3 and Black properly defends with 2…Nc6. White plays the Italian Opening with 3. Bc4 and Black responds with 3…Nf6. Both players are employing sound opening moves that fight for the center of the board. White develops another minor piece with 4. Nc3. Now Black looks at the position and spots an opportunity for a fork. Obviously, there’s no immediate fork but, as I mentioned earlier, tactical plays more often than not, have to be set up. Black sees that by advancing the d pawn from d7 to d5, he’d be forking the Bishop on c4 and the e4 pawn. While the Black Queen protects the Black pawn, White’s pawn on e4 that would capture the Black pawn and that would be that. However, Black has an idea. What if there was a White Knight on e4 rather than a pawn? In this case, a Black pawn on d5 (protected by the Queen) would be forking both the c4 Bishop and the e4 Knight. This would be a worthwhile fork since White would lose one of his pieces. How does Black lure the Knight to e4? By temporarily sacrificing his own Knight with 4…Nxe4. White, being inexperienced thinks that Black has blundered by capturing the pawn and happily captures the Knight with 5. Nxe4. Black advances his d pawn, 5…d5, forking the Bishop and Knight, winning a pawn at the end of this tactical exchange!

Note that in the above example, the fork works because the pawn had a defender, the Black Queen, and it was attacking two pieces of greater value. Pawns are excellent at forking because of their low relative value in relationship to the pieces. It’s important to remember that forks are most effective when the unit forking is worth less than the material being forked (unless one of the forked pieces cannot be defended)!

Now let’s look at a Bishop fork. You’ll want to keep in mind that Bishop forks requires more thought when setting up. What do I mean by this? Any attack by a Knight cannot be blocked due to it’s ability to jump over other pieces. The Knight also has the ability to fork up to eight pieces at the same time (in theory as compared to actual positional practice). With the pawn, because of its having the lowest relative value, any pair of pieces (it can only fork two pieces at a time) being forked are at a disadvantage because those pieces are worth more than the pawn. With Bishops, Rooks and especially the Queen, you have additional details to address before forking with these pieces. We’ll look at Rook and Queen forks next week.

At the start of the game, you have two Bishops, one that travels along the light colored squares and one that travels along the dark colored squares. Because of this, a Bishop of one color (square) will only be able to fork pieces that sit on squares of that Bishop’s color. Thus, a dark squared Bishop can only attack or fork pieces on dark colored squares. Now we’re going to look at a series of forks in a single game, employing both Knight and Bishop working together, that leave the player of the White pieces in ruins just ten moves into the game. The key point here is that only a specific combination of coordinated pieces and a carefully thought out series of moves makes this devastating tactical play work. Let’s take a look:

The opening used in the above example is the Queen’s Gambit Declined. The Queen’s Gambit is a very solid opening played by many of the world’s top players. However, as we shall see, just because it’s played by top players with ensuing good results doesn’t mean that less experienced players will have successful results employing it. There are a few noteworthy ideas or concepts to consider regarding this example.

First off, we see two well timed Knight and Bishop forks, almost back to back, that have devastating results. Secondly, the minor pieces involved in this tactical slaughter work together, with one minor piece supporting the other. When you seriously study tactics, you’ll find that pieces work with one another in a balanced or harmonious way. One pawn or piece protects the forking piece, which allows that piece to execute the tactical play. Sometimes, a piece will be temporarily sacrificed in order to clear a line (rank, file or diagonal), allowing another piece to deliver the tactical play. Thus, in order to successfully employ a tactic, pawns and pieces must work together. Material harmony is the phrase of the day! Let’s get to our example.

The game starts with a d pawn opening which can lead to a semi-closed or closed game. In closed games, where pawns and pieces tend to render long distance attackers such as the Bishops, Rooks and Queen powerless due to a lack of open squares ( but not completely powerless), the Knights are often the stars of the show. However, in this game, Black uses a combination of a long distance attacker, in this case the Bishop, and the Knight who rules in closed positions harmoniously. After 1. d4…d5, White plays 2. c4, indicating The Queen’s Gambit. Now it’s up to Black to either accept or decline the gambit. When Black plays 2…Bf5, he states that he’s not accepting the gambit. The Black Bishop on f5 is following the opening principles, attacking a central square. White now plants the Queen-side Knight on it’s own active square with 3. Nc3 which attacks the Black d5 pawn. Black defends the pawn with 3…e6. White develops his King-side Knight with 4. Nf3, a principled opening move. Black develops his Queen-side Knight with 4…Nc6. White follows with 5. Qb3. It’s here that White’s game starts to weaken. While the White Queen is targeting the Black pawn on b7, is it a good idea to bring one’s Queen out early to attack a pawn that can easily be defended? In short, the answer is no. The Queen should never be used to hunt down pawns during the opening!

How does Black defend the seemingly hanging pawn? He doesn’t. Instead, Black plays 5…Nb4, literally depositing the Knight on the Queen’s head. The reason this works is because of piece coordination. The f8 Bishop protects the Knight so the Queen cannot capture the b4 Knight! White makes an essentially pointless check with 6. Qa4+. I say pointless because this move actually helps Black’s game, allowing Black to make a move he was already considering, 6…c6. Never makes moves that help your opponent!

White decides to attack Black’s pawn structure with 7. cxd5. Since the Black pawn on c6 is pinned to Black’s King by the White Queen, Black has to capture back with the e pawn, right? Absolutely not! Black instead plays the nasty fork, 7…Nc2+, attacking the White King and Queen-side Rook. Hold on because it gets worse! After White moves his King with 8. Kd1, Black responds with 8…Nxa1. What’s worse than losing the Rook on a1? After White goes about the business of pawn grabbing with 9. dxc6, Black unleashes another devastating fork with 9…Bc2+, forking Queen and King. Needless to say it’s all downhill for White after this. We can learn a few valuable lessons regarding forks from this example.

In the above example, we saw the power of piece coordination when employing a fork. White’s mistake was wasting time by bringing his Queen out early and sniping at Black’s pawns. Had White looked more closely at the Black Knight and Black’s light squared Bishop, he wouldn’t have ended up losing so much material early on. Of course, you’ll rarely get to employ two tactical forks back to back but this example demonstrates the power of a well timed and coordinated tactical play. Next week we’ll end our examination of forks and move on to the mighty pin. Here’s a game to enjoy until then!

Hugh Patterson

Silence in the Chess Club

Back in the mid 1970s there were a couple of elderly (by my standards at the time) social players at Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club: Henry Coke and the appropriately named Philip Pratt. They played each other every week, rarely if ever taking part in club matches. Henry sat there in silence while Philip prattled on incessantly. “What’s it all about, Henry?” “I don’t like it much, Henry.” We all referred to them, with a degree of affection, as the Club Loonies, but didn’t feel particularly affectionate towards them when we were trying to concentrate on our match games.

Children don’t seem to have the same problem: in junior chess clubs kids very rarely complain about the incessant chatter going on round about them, while not having a problem with playing in silence during more formal competitions.

Last week I looked at to what extent the trappings of adult chess should be adopted in school chess clubs, and how this might tie in with Neil Postman’s views on the merging of childhood and adulthood. My view is that, in most school clubs, there is no need for clocks and scoresheets, although the children will probably learn the names of the squares. In junior chess clubs which aim to produce serious players, though, children will learn how to use clocks and score their games. This sort of club will, by definition, be more serious than a school club. Older and stronger players will be expected to play in silence, but younger and less experienced players, who are still learning about serious competitive chess, will probably be allowed a certain amount of leeway. Clubs of this nature will also usually have time for less formal activity, probably at the beginning and end of the session, where children will be able to socialise and play more casual games. At this point, you may or may not allow chess variants. Personally, although some of my colleagues disagree with me, I have no problem with Suicide Chess or Scotch Chess, for example, as they can be played quietly, but I don’t like children playing Exchange/Bughouse because it gets too noisy and does the equipment no favours. My view is that chess variants are part of the overall culture of the game so, in principle, shouldn’t be discouraged.

As you may know, I left Richmond Junior Club in 2006. When I returned several years later the children were chatting during their supposedly ‘serious’ games and the last hour or so appeared to be devoted to Bughouse. Touch move was enforced and clocks were used, but no one seemed too concerned about silence or scoresheets, and chess variants were encouraged. The club was seen more as a social and community club than a Centre of Excellence. Parents who wanted their children to excel at chess were frowned upon as ‘having an agenda’. I quite understand, and have a certain amount of sympathy with the idea that children’s chess should be fun and stress-free, and that ‘pushy’ parents should be treated with caution. Now, looking at it from a Neil Postman perspective, this is a perfectly valid way to run a chess club, and there’s certainly an argument that this sort of club should exist alongside more serious clubs designed to produce strong players. However, it seems that more serious clubs are also more popular. Within a few years the numbers had declined to a fraction of what they were before I left.

Eventually a new régime took over, and, while keeping the same format (social time, lesson, game, more social time) made the club a lot more serious. Numbers increased as did the standard of play. There’s a market within primary schools for ‘fun’ clubs which, while expecting some sort of discipline, are also rather less strict. There’s also a market within the community for clubs which are stricter and more serious, which serve as a bridge between kiddie chess and adult chess. Regular readers will be aware that there’s much I dislike about the current primary school chess set-up. But we are where we are. All we can do at the moment is aim to get the right balance between fun and seriousness, with the right level of strictness. At Richmond, I think we’re doing this as well as we can.

Richard James

The Importance of Tactics One

It’s been said that chess is 99% tactics. While this isn’t completely true when it comes to more experienced players, it’s often true when it comes to the games of junior players! More experienced players, both young and old, know how to shut down potential tactical plays attempted by their opponents. If a more experienced player is faced with an opponent who is better at tactical play, they know how to create a closed position that reduces the opposition’s tactical opportunities greatly. However, the beginner often doesn’t has enough experience to follow suit. Many beginners, again both old and young alike, lose games because of a well timed tactical play. This doesn’t mean that this tactical play solely determines the game’s outcome. It does however give the tactician an advantage, one that creates a positional weakness that can fester into a losing game over the long run.

Over the next few articles we’re going to explore a number of basic tactics that the beginning player can employ in their own games. However, it should be noted that, as a beginner, you shouldn’t expect these exact positions to suddenly appear on the board when you play chess. Our examples serve as positional motifs or ideas/concepts rather than exacting positions that you must reach in a specific move order.

We’ll start with the fork. A fork has a completely different meaning within the world of chess as opposed to it’s meaning in the world of culinary arts. A fork in chess leads to a gain of material while a fork in the culinary arts is a utensil you use to either eat with or serve food with! In chess, a fork is one pawn or piece attacking two or more pieces at the same time. Yes, I said pawn because even this seemingly lowly little fellow can engage in tactical forks. Even the King can fork other pieces but not until you reach an endgame position! Everyone in your chess army can fork material which is why the fork is such a powerful tactical weapon!

Perhaps the greatest forking piece is the Knight who, if positioned on a central square, can simultaneously fork or attack up to eight pieces. While the Queen (who travels along ranks, files or diagonals) can also fork up to eight pieces at once , she’s your most powerful piece (in general) which means employing her for tactical duty can be more dangerous that using a Knight! Considering the value of the pieces, it’s better to risk a minor piece for a tactical play than a major piece. You have two Knights but only one Queen! The Knight also has a special power that stops the opposition from blocking a Knight attack or fork and that’s the Knight’s ability to jump over other pieces. This special ability means that you cannot block a Knight when it attacks. This being the case, we’ll concentrate on Knight forks in this first article on tactics.

The Knight is perhaps the most difficult piece for the beginner to master. Remember, the Knight moves in an “L” shape which makes it difficult to follow visually (for the beginner) since the other pieces move in a more linear fashion (straight lines along ranks, files or diagonals). This non-linear pattern of movement can be a bit tricky at first for both the player employing the Knight in a game and the player having to defend against the Knight. However, it’s well worth mastering our horsey friend because of it’s very unique abilities. Let’s take a look at an example of a Knight fork. It’s important for you to keep in mind that forks require being set up. While forks do sometimes present themselves seemingly out of the blue, more often than not, they require being set up. We call this set up a combination. A combination is a series of moves that align opposition pieces on specific squares that allow a tactical play, in this case a fork, to occur. Take a look at the example below:

In the above example, Black makes a move, 1…Qxc3, that the beginner might think is terrible, trading a Queen for a Knight. From a monetary viewpoint (assigning a dollar value to the pawns and pieces rather than relative point values), Black appears to have just traded nine dollars for three dollars. You wouldn’t walk up to a stranger and say “I’ll give you nine dollars if you give me three dollars back” unless you had a really good reason (insanity doesn’t count)! In our example, White jumps at this seemingly lopsided exchange of material with 2. Qxc3. White is certainly happy to have won a Queen for a minor piece, in this case a Knight! However, this is a “set up” move for Black’s tactical play, 2…Ne2+ which turns out to be a fork. Black is simultaneously attacking the White King and Queen at the same time. Because White must get out of check and the forking Knight can’t be captured nor blocked, the King has to move and the Queen is lost with 3. Kf1…Nxc3. Black has employed a fork and is up a minor piece for his efforts. It’s important to remember that this tactical play, a fork, had to be set up employing a combination of moves. Let’s look at another example:

Our first tactical example was more advanced than the type of forks you find in the games of beginners. I included it because it involved an idea we’ll look at in later articles, the concept of temporarily sacrificing material as part of a tactical play. In our second example, we meet a Knight fork that occurs a great deal in the games of beginners, one that involves the King-side Knight and Bishop. This is a forking pattern you’re likely to see quite a bit as a novice player. Why does this fork appear in many games? Because the target square, f7, is the weakest square on the board at the start of the game (White’s counterpart is f2). The f7 and f2 squares are weak because the square’s only defender is the King at the game’s start. If one piece attacks one of these two squares, such as a lone Bishop capturing the f7 or f2 pawn, the King whose job to protect that square either has to move, because he’s in check, or capture the Bishop. Either way he loses the right to castle. When the Bishop attacks the same square but has a piece protecting it, the King cannot capture the attacking piece. In our example, the Bishop supports or protects the Knight who has captured the f7 pawn so the Black King can’t do a thing about it. The Knight has not only captured the f7 pawn but is forking the Black Queen and Rook. Let’s play it through!

The first two moves, 1. e4…e5 and 2. Nf3…Nc6 are standard opening fare. Both players stake out a claim in the center with their initial pawn moves. White attacks the e5 pawn with his King-side Knight and Black develops the Queen-side Knight to defend it. White plays 3. Bc4, the start of the Italian Game. White also targets the f7 pawn with this Bishop move. Black makes a seemingly good move, 3…Nf6. Black’s last move makes sense since both Knights attack all four of the center squares. Since control of the board’s center is a key opening game principle, Black has little to worry about, right? Wrong! When White plays 4. Ng5 a problem suddenly appears for Black! There are now two attackers aimed at the f7 pawn and only one defender, the King! Black plays 4…Be7, hoping to escape his troubles by castling on the next move. However, it’s too late because White plays 5. Nxf7, winning the pawn and forking both the Black Queen and Rook. Worse, yet, the Black Queen is trapped so she’ll be captured on the next move.

This was a simple introduction to one of the many great tactics you should learn in order to improve your game. We’ll look at other forks in greater detail over the weeks to come but rather than provide you with a game to mull over this week, I’ll give you an exercise to do. Set up a chessboard with the pieces randomly placed about the board. Place them on the board very quickly without thinking about where they’re going. After removing any illegal positions such as a King in check, see if you can find any potential forks, either immediately or by using a combination of moves to achieve. You’ll start to develop an eye for forks. Since you’re playing both sides of the board, make sure to try and stop potential forks as well. You’ll learn a great deal about creating and defending against forks doing this. Get ready for another round of forks next week.

Hugh Patterson

Silence in Class

Last week I asked a question which was posed at the London Chess & Education Conference:

“Silence, Touch Move, Timers: how strict should chess classes be?” We might also ask other questions such as whether or not we have scoresheets, or whether or not we allow children to play Bughouse (Exchange), Suicide and other chess variants?

Thinking about this you might like to bear in mind Neil Postman’s views (as discussed here last week) about the difference between adult play and children’s play and consider which is better for young children.

Well, it depends, doesn’t it, what sort of chess class you’re running. I’ll consider the classes I’m involved with.

After-school chess clubs in my part of London are little more than child-minding sessions. The children just want to be able to play once a week with their friends, and they and their parents, for the most part, are too busy to be able to spend any more time on chess. Even if I offer parents free books and free lessons I don’t get any takers. So how strict should these clubs be? I guess Neil Postman would think they shouldn’t be strict at all. I don’t entirely agree.

First of all, some of these children will take part in external tournaments: some of them will qualify for the Megafinals of the Delancey UK Chess Challenge, where they’ll have to play touch move, and also have to play in silence. So if we introduce the idea of competition in this way we have to be pretty strict about enforcing touch and move for any child able to play a complete game. I’m slightly uneasy about it, for reasons that Postman would have understood, and I’m also uneasy about putting children who know very little about chess into any sort of competition, but it’s where we are and the kids enjoy the fluffy mascots so there’s not much I can do about it.

I think, to be honest, the discipline of touch move is, generally speaking, good for children, as it helps them in developing self-regulatory skills such as impulse control. So, yes, we play touch move in school chess clubs.

Silence is slightly more of a problem. Children have been working hard at school all day and are usually coming straight to the chess club without a break from their last lesson. It seems to me to be verging on cruelty to expect them to spend an hour sitting in silence. On the other hand, if there’s any noise it’s going to be very hard for them to concentrate on their games. Here is the crux of the issue about the difference between adult and children’s play. In some schools the chess club is seen as part of the school day and there is a teacher present in the room to keep noise levels down. In other schools it is seen as something separate from school and the noise level is the chess tutor’s responsibility. Some chess tutors have a strong classroom presence and are able to keep the kids fairly quiet, some, including me (which is why I’ll only do school clubs where a teacher is responsible for discipline) struggle with this, while others don’t mind if there’s a lot of noise as long as they get paid.

Clocks and scoresheets: by and large I don’t use them in schools. If a school is really big on chess, all children learn the moves and they can play at any time, then only the stronger players will join the school club and using clocks and scoresheets would be appropriate. But for most school clubs there’s really no need: children who are serious will be fed through to more serious clubs where they will learn these skills.

Inevitably children at this level will need arbiters, and in this sort of club the chess tutor will also be the arbiter. The role of an arbiter in school chess clubs is mostly to answer questions like ‘is this checkmate?’ and ‘can you remind me how to castle’. In an ideal world children would know all the rules and be able to identify checkmate and stalemate before taking part in a competition, but it’s not where we are, so there’s not much I can do about it.

Whether or not to allow chess variants is another matter on which opinions differ. My view, as usual, is somewhere in the middle. I don’t allow Bughouse at all (and don’t teach it) but have no problem with children, once they’ve finished their tournament game, playing Suicide Chess or Scotch Chess. Some of them will also play mini-games such as variants of Capture the Flag. As far as I’m concerned this is all part of chess culture and shouldn’t be discouraged. Children will often try to invent their own variants, which will usually make little sense: should this be encouraged or not? Neil Postman considered that inventing their own rules is an integral part of children’s play. On the other hand, I have some colleagues who won’t allow any chess variant at all, while, at the other extreme, some let children spend the entire session playing Bughouse.

I’d be interested to hear your views about school chess clubs. More serious chess clubs, such as Richmond Junior Club, are very different. I’ll consider this next week.

Richard James

Taking Advantage

We see many beginner games in which our novice player launches an attack only to see it fall apart, often leaving a weak position in its wake. Yet the experienced player will launch an attack and the results will be positive. What’s the difference between attacks? Knowing when to launch an attack by taking advantage of the situation, which is usually a weak opposition position. This means you have to look at your opponent’s position and attack only when you can take advantage of it!

Beginner’s tend to launch two kinds of attacks. The first attack usually involves a couple of pieces working independently of one another. In other words, those pieces are not working as a team. To work as a team, pieces have to support one another or protect one another when launching any attack. We often see early checkmates in the games of junior players that use a Queen and Bishop (Scholar’s Mate) or a Queen and Knight. These mating attacks work because the Bishop or Knight supports (protects) the Queen. The pieces work with one another through coordination. The minor piece protects the Queen which keeps the opponent’s King from capturing the her when the attack is launched. Notice the minor piece supporting the major piece, the Queen. Because the Queen can attack along the ranks, files and diagonals, she is the piece best suited to attacking the opposition King because she can cut off any escape squares

Imagine now, the the Knight or Bishop previously mentioned isn’t positioned to protect the Queen and her majesty goes in for the attack. The opposition King would then capture her and you’d be down your most powerful attacking piece. Piece coordination is therefore critical to any successful attack.

The other beginner’s attack is what I call the kitchen sink attack in which everything is thrown at the opposition King. This sounds great in theory but if our beginner doesn’t have his or her pieces protecting one another (piece coordination), then material will be lost and their position ruined. As a chess teacher, I teach the idea that the more pieces you have attacking the opposition, the better your chances of a successful attack. However, I point out that those pieces must be coordinated, otherwise you’ll lose material. I repeat this point over and over because beginning students will hear “the more pieces you have attacking the opposition King, the faster you’ll checkmate that King,” missing the key point regarding piece coordination. The beginning student will often throw their entire army at the opposition King and watch in horror as their army is captured. So how does the beginner launch a successful attack?

The first idea any beginner should embrace is patience. Junior players tend to be very impatient, only wanting to make moves that do something spectacular, such as capturing a piece or checking the opposition’s King. Beginners want to win and win fast. While beginner’s games tend to be short and fast, when playing other beginners, there will come a time when they’re playing strong players who can easily repel impatient attacks and usually turn the position around in their favor. Patient is a necessary skill all chess players must develop if they want to improve! Being patients means slowing building up your attack rather than launching a slap dash guaranteed to fail fiasco.

Of course, simply being patient isn’t enough to win the game. You have to be doing something while being patient, namely developing your pieces to their most active squares when preparing for your attack. The idea here is that the more material you have on active squares, those around the board’s center during the opening or those that give you attacking lines when preparing to attack your opponent’s King, the more attacking options you have and the fewer defensive choices your opponent has. The player will greater options has greater control of the board and the game!

Active squares in the opening are fairly straight forward. They’re squares that control the board’s center. However, when preparing a middle-game attack on the opposition’s position you have to develop material to specific squares. In the case of a mating attack, those squares will be those nearest the opposition King. However, you often have to do some additional work before attacking the King. Where do you move pawns and pieces then?

During the middle-game, you want to exploit weaknesses in your opponent’s position. Weakness include, doubled and isolated pawns, undefended pieces, pieces trapped on their starting ranks, defenders of squares that, if those pieces weren’t there, would give you an open line (rank, file or diagonal) to the enemy King or weak squares themselves. Of course, beginners will always try to look for tactical plays such as forks, pins, skewers, etc. However, you often are deprived of any immediate tactical plays so you have to look for weaknesses. The key idea here is to take advantage of opposition weaknesses. Often, those weakness create tactical plays.

For example, if your opponent’s pawn structure is plagued with problems such a doubled pawns, isolated pawns and too many pawn islands, your opponent will have to use some of his or her pieces to defend those problem pawns. If you put pressure on those pawns, such as threatening to attack them, your opponent will have to defend them or lose them. I say threat because a threat can be better than simply capturing the material being threatened. The point here is that opposition material becomes tied down when having to defend against attacks on poorly placed pawns and pieces. This means there are fewer opposition pieces able to repel your attack when you launch it because they’re tied down to the defense of their own poorly placed pawns and pieces. Another idea or concept beginners should learn is the notion of removing the defender of a key square. Removing that key defender makes it easier to open attacking and mating lines.

Multiple threats are a benefit from the patient development of your pawns and pieces. If you have multiple threats across the board, your opponent often can only deal with one of those threats leaving you the opportunity to take advantage of the position your opponent has left undefended. Multiple threats also lead to overloaded material, pieces that have to protect multiple pawns and pieces at the same time.

Timing is the key to a good attack. Only attack when the time is right. When is that? When there’s a weakness in your opponent’s position that gives you the opportunity to attack. When you and your opponent make moves, even the the best moves can leave you or your opponent with a weakness, namely the squares you leave behind. In simple terms, a White Knight on f3, controls the g5 and h4 squares so the Black Queen can’t move to these squares without being captured. Let’s say White hasn’t castled his or her King KIng-side and decides to capture an undefended Black pawn on e5 with the f3 Knight. After doing so, White has given up the defense of or left behind two important squares which the Black Queen takes advantage of by, in this case moving to g5. Now White’s Knight is under attack and so is the g2 pawn. While this example brings the Queen out early, something you shouldn’t do, it makes a good point. Black took advantage of a bad move on White’s part, only launching this early attack when the timing was right. Of course, experienced players would never take the pawn in our example, but beginners are know to do such things!

Wait for your opponent to create a weakness in their position before attacking. Even when playing principled chess, there comes a time when you or your opponent will have to make a move that may weaken their position. If you’re paying close attention, you’ll spot it and take advantage of it by either building up an attack or launching into one. Be patient and wait for an opportunity to arise and only then consider an attack after carefully building up your forces. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. You have to love a guy named Pal Benko.

Hugh Patterson

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