Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Cut Out and Keep

As promised last week, here’s your handy cut-out-and-keep guide to how children of different ages learn and play chess.

  • Piaget Classification: Pre-Operational Stage
  • Approximate ages: 2-7 (Infant School)
  • UK school system: up to Year 2
  • US school system: up to 1st Grade
  • Logical ability: only very simple egocentric logic
  • What children can learn: the moves of the pieces, will struggle to understand check/mate: will benefit from playing mini games rather than complete chess
  • How children learn: constant repetition of the moves of the pieces until they remember them:they will not be able to teach themselves
  • How children play: either with no logic or with flawed logic: will not be able to consider their opponent’s perspective: they may see threats but will not check that their move is safe before playing it
  • Where should children play: at home or at school on the curriculum or with other beginners: unless they are working hard at the game at home, children at this level will benefit little joining an after-school club and playing against more experienced players. It’s best to wait for children to get through this level before encouraging them to play in tournaments.
  • My term for chess played at this level: illogical chess
  • Dan Heisman’s term for chess played at this level: Flip-Coin Chess

  • Piaget Classification: Concrete Operational Stage
  • Approximate ages: 7-11 (Junior School)
  • UK school system: Years 3-6
  • US school system: 2nd-5th Grade
  • Logical ability: simple logic: if you attack my queen I’ll move it
  • What children can learn: all the rules (but may struggle with en passant), the basic logic of the game (superior force wins)
  • How children learn: repetition and reinforcement, mimicry and memory. Children will need to repeat what they’ve learnt over and over again because they won’t have a higher level understanding. Children will mimic what they see: if they play regularly against a proficient player they will start to play well but if they play against weak players they will copy their bad habits. Children at this level might be able to teach themselves the moves but will need adult help to get any further.
  • How children play: simple logic is used: children will focus on just one aspect of the position, identify one criterion and choose the first safe move which meets that criterion. They will not consider alternatives or look ahead in any meaningful way.
  • Where should children play: at this level children will benefit from joining a school or community chess club and taking part in low-level competitions against other children of their age. They will not be ready for playing in open-age competitions against adults. They can also benefit from playing chess on the internet.
  • My term for chess played at this level: simple logical chess
  • Dan Heisman’s term for chess played at this level: Hope Chess

  • Piaget Classification: Formal Operational Stage
  • Approximate ages: 11 and over (Secondary School)
  • UK school system: Years 7 and over
  • US school system: 6th Grade and over
  • Logical ability: complex logic: if you attack my queen I’ll consider all the safe squares and choose the one I prefer. Children will be able to draw conclusions from examples, switching between the general and the specific and back again.
  • What children can learn: children can start to learn aspects of chess that require higher level understanding as well as just memory. They will be able to appreciate strategic concepts and start to learn openings.
  • How children learn: at this level children will be developing understanding which will complement their memory skills. They will still benefit from either group or individual tuition, but will also be developing self-teaching skills. This will enable them to teach themselves through books, DVDs or websites. They will also be developing the power of self-criticism so they’ll be able to identify the mistakes in their own games and learn from them.
  • How children play: children can now apply complex logic to chess. They can learn to consider every aspect of the position, to consider their opponent’s thoughts and intentions, to make a choice from several alternatives and to look ahead.
  • Where should children play: children should be playing regularly in chess clubs and taking part in tournaments. They can start to play in competitions against adults as well as against other children. If they are still at primary school they will not gain much from attending the chess club, although they may wish to do so for social reasons. Playing chess at secondary school will be great as long as there are opponents who play to their level or above, or who are keen to learn.
  • My term for chess played at this level: complex logical chess
  • Dan Heisman’s term for chess played at this level: Real Chess

  • Please bear in mind that the ages quoted are approximate. Some children will achieve these cognitive milestones earlier, in some cases very much earlier, so, provided they have help from a Real Chess player, they may be able to play Real Chess before the age of 11. Other children will achieve them later, or not at all. Children who are attracted to chess are quite likely to be cognitively advanced for their age. Of course the vast majority of adults who play chess may well be using complex logic in other situations but have never learnt how to apply it to chess so still play Flip-Coin or Hope Chess rather than Real Chess.

    Parents who themselves play Flip-Coin Chess might think that’s all there is to the game, teach their children how the pieces move, think they’re really good and sign them up for their school chess club. Children will need help (ideally one to one) to understand the basic logic of the game and reach the next level.

    Parents who themselves play Hope Chess will take things further, and will be able to help their children to some extent. If children want to play Real Chess, though, they’ll need further help, ideally from playing and learning at a club with other children at the same level or higher along with one to one tuition.

    So, within a primary school club there will be children who play Flip-Coin Chess because that’s what their parents play, or because they’re too young to understand Hope Chess, but they will usually get frustrated after a couple of terms because they keep on losing to the Hope Chess players without having any idea why.

    There will also be children playing Hope Chess because they’ve learnt something about the game from their parents. They will do well in their school club, but will associate the game with their school and are likely to give up when they change schools. There will be few, if any, players within a primary school club playing Real Chess.

    But understanding young children’s limitations regarding chess will enable us to produce lessons, coaching materials and courses based on how they learn and what can realistically be expected of them. It will also help us dissuade well-meaning parents who are ignorant of chess from thinking chess is suitable for their three-year-olds.

    Richard James

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    Keeping a Journal

    I’m surprised that I don’t see more chess players carrying around journals to chronicle their progress and personal chess history. Keeping a chess journal is mandatory for my students once they reach a certain point in their studies. I was looking through one of my first chess journals the other day and was surprised at how much useful information it contained, information that helped me a great deal at the time. My old journal also reminded me of how far I’ve come as a chess player. It also chronicled a bit of personal history as well, reminding me of people and places I had long since forgotten about. I firmly believe that every chess player should keep a journal. Here are some guidelines to help you create your chess journal.

    I use old fashion composition books for my journals because they’re inexpensive and easy to acquire. Their size, 8 ½ by 11 inches, gives me ample writing space. I opt for the college ruled composition books whose line spacing is narrower so you can get more information written down per page. You can use any type of notebook for your chess journal as long as it gives you ample room to write down your thoughts.

    As stated earlier, the primary reason for keeping a chess journal is to chronicle your progress and personal history. Of course, many chess players will see personal progress in the form of an improvement in their rating but not everyone plays in rated tournaments. This is where the journal comes in handy. However, chess journal is more than just a measure of progress. It is also a small storehouse of useful information. Think of it as a training manual that has been customized to fit the needs of its owner. Your chess journal is a training manual that addresses the concepts and ideas you’re learning!

    Each chess journal I’ve kept has addressed specific topics that I’ve had trouble fully understanding. Here’s an example: When I first started to learn about the opening principles, I came across numerous explanations and catch phrases such as “ a Knight on the rim is dim.” Rather than having to refer to the countless books I was reading on opening theory again and again, I simply wrote down key points from those books into my chess journal. After a few months of doing this, I had collected, within my journal, a small collection of critical information regarding opening principles. I have done the same for middle and endgame theory as well. The chess journal allows you to consolidate important information rather than have to search for it through countless books. While many players keep a separate book in which to record their games, I suggest recording specific games again within your journal that exemplify specific concepts and ideas your trying to master. This way you have a visual indicator as to where you stand regarding a concept. If you played a fantastic opening that adheres to all the opening principles, record that game in your journal!

    The way to use your chess journal in conjunction with any chess books your reading is simple. As you read through a chess book, keep your journal handy. Write questions you want answers to in your journal. For example, I had written in my old chess journal, the question “why are pieces more powerful when they are centrally located?” Looking back on this question (asked around 1976), I see where I was at the time with my chess skills. In writing down questions you have into your journal you’ll be on the lookout for their answers when reading through your chess books. As you find your question’s answers, immediately write them down into your journal.

    When you read through a section of a book, write down the basic key concepts into your journal. Doing this allows you to consolidate a chapters worth of information into a few journal pages. However, don’t just copy the book’s explanations word for word. Let’s say you’re studying middle game principles. You come across a succinct explanation of the relationship between attackers and defenders that makes sense to you. After you write down the book’s explanation, rewrite that explanation in your own words. This helps you to fully understand the concept. Because you have both the book’s explanation and your explanation written in your journal, you’ll always be able to access this valuable information quickly. Any concept you have trouble with should be detailed out in your journal.

    The journal also serves as a wonderful way to preserve your personal chess history. Its too easy to forget many of the small details that made one tournament, for example, more interesting than another. Its these little details that we often forget. Because of this, I’ll keep notes on things I found interesting during a tournament in my journal. I recently played in a tournament in this wonderful old church. The lighting was absolutely amazing so I wrote about it in my journal. The reason I did this was because I want to improve the lighting at Academic Chess tournaments and the church had found a simple solution. I also wrote a little about the church’s architecture which was amazing.

    While it might seem pointless to write about lighting and architecture in a chess journal, years from now, I’ll be able to look back on this part of my life with clarity because I recorded my own personal history. Our pasts have a way of becoming blurred over time. Maintaining a journal helps to keep things in absolute focus.

    Imagine if your favorite chess player kept a journal from the very start of their chess careers. Imagine you could read those journals and travel along on their road to mastery. That would be fascinating reading! I tell my students that they might one day become a famous chess player and the world would delight in being able to read their journals.

    You should keep a journal for a few reasons. First, it helps you measure your progress. Second, it allows you to keep a vast body of useful information in a small space and lastly, it preserves your personal history. As we get older, our minds get a bit fuzzy when it comes to details. We also tend to get a bit one sided when it comes to the facts. Fortunately, journals stay informatively sharp with the passing of time, existing as a written record of the times.

    If your not keeping a journal start! In this age of Tablets and electronic Notebooks and all things technologically advanced (and prone to breaking), a paper notebook and pencil is a rather pleasant excursion into the past. Hey, a composition notebook doesn’t need batteries and will survive being dropped from great distances! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week, a game from one of my journals I might add!

    Hugh Patterson

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    Guidelines For Teaching Kids Endgames and Tactics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Ashvin Chauhan

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    Child Genius

    Yesterday evening I watched the first episode of Channel 4′s Child Genius, a programme in which exceptionally gifted young children compete in a series of tests to identify the ‘brainiest child in the country’.

    There were some seriously scary parents on view in the first episode, parents who are devoting their lives to proving a point, that their child should excel in their chosen discipline. It’s parents like these who, in the eyes of many, give child prodigies a bad name.

    Of course these programmes are set up by producers who have a specific agenda. I’m sure most of the parents are much less extreme than some of those featured last night, and are doing their best to encourage children with an exceptional natural talent.

    We had two children in Richmond Junior Club who between them broke a lot of age records, who both had parents who were extremely encouraging, but not over pushy, whose children genuinely enjoyed chess rather than being forced into it. As it happened, one of them, Murugan Thiruchelvam, eventually decided to do other things with his life, while the other, Luke McShane, continued playing, but as an amateur rather than a professional.

    The other day I received an email from parents (presumably not themselves chess players) looking for a chess club where their three-year-old twins could learn the game. I replied explaining why their children were far too young to learn in such an environment. They replied that they understood, but their Korean neighbours were teaching their children (of the same age) to play chess so they felt they ought to arrange lessons for their children as well.

    So, what then of Magnus Carlsen, the highest rated player in the history of the game? Did he start at this age? Let’s find out.

    I’ve just been re-reading Simen Agdestein’s book about Carlsen’s early career, first published 10 years ago under the title Wonderboy, and recently republished as How Magnus Carlsen Became the Youngest Chess Grandmaster.

    Magnus’s father Henrik is himself a strong amateur whose rating has been as high as 2095. Being born into a chess environment is a big advantage for children who start young. Henrik was keen for his son to take up his favourite game. It was clear from an early age that Magnus had exceptional gifts. At the age of two he could complete jigsaw puzzles with more than 50 pieces. At the age of four he was constructing Lego models intended for children up to ten years older. He also had an extraordinary memory. By the time he was five he knew by heart the area, population, flag and capital city of every country in the world. So Henrik thought he might well have a potential chess prodigy on his hands and taught his son how the pieces moved.

    Magnus had no problem learning the moves but understanding the game was another thing entirely. Henrik would play with just his king and pawns while his son started with his whole army, but Magnus showed no comprehension of what was happening in the games, so Henrik dropped the idea. He tried again a year or two later, but again with no success. Even at the age of eight he was still losing to Scholar’s Mate.

    But then, very suddenly, something happened. Here’s Simen Agdestein:

    “Magnus began to sit by himself and shuffle the pieces. He could sit for hours moving the pieces, in known and unknown patterns, finding combinations and repeating games and positions that his father had shown him.”

    Shortly afterwards he played in his first tournament, scoring 6½/11 in the youngest age group of the Norwegian Championships, and from then on played in competitions regularly, making dramatic progress.

    Teach your children the moves at home when they’re young if you want, but don’t forget even Magnus Carlsen didn’t start taking chess seriously and playing in competitions until he was eight. If your children don’t have his natural talent, it could well be that the best age to encourage them to take the game seriously will be rather later than that. Magnus didn’t suffer from starting real chess at eight so there’s no reason at all why I should run chess classes for three-year-olds as some parents seem to expect.

    So why do we encourage early years chess? Teachers do so because they’re hoping to make their reputation by discovering a prodigy. Tournament organisers do so because they think they’ll get more entries and make more money. Parents with no knowledge about chess do so because they’ve heard the message from teachers and organisers in the media and know no better.

    Let’s get away from the absurd idea that all children should start chess very young and get across a more sensible message: that chess is a fantasatic game, the best game in the world, many of us would agree, but a game best suited to older children, not younger children.

    Next time I’ll look at what exactly we can expect from children of different ages as they learn and play chess.

    Richard James

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    Honesty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Hugh Patterson

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    Blunder Or Sense Of Danger

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

    Ashvin Chauhan

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    Flipping Good

    I wonder if you’re aware of the concept of Flip Teaching.

    Flip Teaching reverses the traditional classroom – children learn their subject at home and practise at school.

    If you’re teaching maths in this way you’ll get your students to watch an online lesson introducing a maths skill at home and then practise that skill within the classroom. Likewise, if you’re teaching history, children could watch an online lesson or read a chapter of a book about, say, Henry VIII, and then write an essay in the classroom. I could think of a few disadvantages of this method but it seems to me there are also many advantages.

    It occurred to me that I’ve been running my chess classes in this way, in theory but not in practice, for many years. Unlike other chess teachers I don’t very often stand in front of a demo board giving a lesson unless I’m specifically asked to do so. My experience is that children learn more from playing games in fairly serious conditions than they do from watching me give a lesson on a demo board.

    So here’s how Flip Teaching can work within the chess classroom.

    Children who want to do well at chess need to do three things. Firstly, they need to play games under serious conditions, with feedback from a stronger player. Secondly they need to learn specific chess skills. Thirdly, they need to spend time solving puzzles on a regular basis. Now if you’re good enough to be on the tournament circuit you’ll be playing lots of games under serious conditions anyway, but most children within a primary school chess club will only be taking part in occasional competitions. So the main purpose of a primary school chess club, at least the way I run them (almost every other chess teacher here in the UK will disagree with me) is to enable children to play games in as close to possible tournament conditions. They can develop skills at home in various ways as long as we provide the parents with the appropriate resources and ensure that they help their children learn the skills. We would also provide resources for children to solve puzzles at home.

    There are, it seems to me, many advantages in this. Junior chess clubs, by their nature, will include children of various ages with varying amounts of experience. If all children follow a predetermined course they will be able to progress at their own speed without having to spend 15 minutes or so watching their chess teacher demonstrating something which may well be too easy for some of the students and will certainly be too hard for others. Children will be able to repeat the lesson at home as often as they need, and pause or go back if there’s something they don’t understand. Parents will be able to help or learn with their children. The lesson could be available in different formats to suit children’s learning preferences. There could be a written version, an interactive version (like the lessons on chessKIDS academy), a video lecture on YouTube, a computer program set up to enable children to practise the skill, puzzles to reinforce children’s understanding of the skill. Children, with the support of their parents, can choose the combination of media that works best for them.

    If instead you teach a lesson in the chess club, it will just be the teacher standing at a demo board or interactive whiteboard in front of the class. There won’t be time to ask questions, and if you want your pupils to spend time mastering the skill you’ve taught them they won’t have much time to play against their friends.

    I believe strongly that the future of junior chess clubs lies in this approach to teaching. First, we need a syllabus, then we need all the coaching materials to back it up, in various formats.

    I’m working on setting this up at the moment, and will provide more information later. Who will join me?

    Richard James

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    Land of Hope

    Perhaps you know about the Sally-Anne test, a test used by developmental psychologists to determine whether or not young children understand that other people may not have the same beliefs that they do.

    The experimenter introduces the subject to two dolls, Sally and Anne. Sally is playing with a marble. She puts it in her basket and goes out. Then Anne comes in. Naughty Anne takes Sally’s marble from the basket and hides it in a box. Anne leaves, and then Sally returns. Where will she look for her marble?

    We know that the marble is now in the box but Sally doesn’t, so she’ll look in the basket. Children who give the ‘correct’ answer demonstrate ‘Theory of Mind’, the understanding that others have different beliefs to us. Children who give the ‘incorrect’ answer lack this ability. (Of course, you could think of several reasons why Sally might look in the box. Perhaps Anne often moves the marble so Sally expects it to be in the box rather than the basket. Perhaps Sally was looking through the window and saw Anne move the marble.)

    There’s a typical thinking error young children make when playing chess which, it seems to me, is similar to this. Children play a move thinking – or hoping – that their opponent will do what they want them to do.

    Consider this.

    A book I use a lot is Winning Chess Exercises, by the wonderful Jeff Coakley. For those of you who are not familiar with the book (and, if you’re a chess teacher you should be), it comprises 100 Best Move Contests of increasing difficulty. Each BMC comprises three checkmate puzzles, three winning material puzzles, three best move puzzles, and, at the foot of the page, a verbal chess/maths puzzle. I used the first BMC at a local (fairly strong) primary school chess club the other day for a group of some of the more experienced players who had finished their tournament game early. They set up the first position on the board and set off to find the mate.

    After a few minutes thought they rushed up to me excitedly and told me they’d worked out the answer. I asked them what it was and they told me: R1c2. They explained that after Black captured on c2 they’d take twice on d8 with checkmate, and if Black instead captured on c8 they’d recapture, again leading to checkmate.

    You can see what they were thinking, can’t you? They first looked at capturing on d8, but then one of them noticed that the rook was defended twice. So they then looked for a way to deflect one of the defenders and chanced upon R1c2. After that move there is indeed a forced checkmate in two moves, but sadly for Black rather than White.

    On one level you might see this as a ‘Theory of Mind’ issue. They believe, or at least hope, that their opponent will play the move they want him to play, rather than the move he wants to play. It’s also why children try for Scholar’s Mate, or sacrifice most of their pieces to play their queen to the g-file and their bishop to h6, hoping their opponent will allow Qxg7#.

    On another level it’s a fixation with one idea to the exclusion of everything else rather than changing tack and trying Plan B if Plan A doesn’t work. Inflexible thinking, perhaps. A failure to apply Scientific Method, perhaps.

    On a third level it’s a failure to ask the Magic Question “If I do that, what will my opponent do next? What checks, captures and threats does he have?”.

    To give them credit, though, a few minutes later they came back to me with the correct answer, and, I hope, learnt something from the experience. At least they had little trouble solving the next two checkmate puzzles.

    I’d like to call this sort of mistake, hoping your opponent will overlook your threat or fall for your trap rather than considering what he is most likely to do, ‘Hope Chess’, but Dan Heisman has already claimed this term for something slightly different and rather more general. Heisman defines ‘Hope Chess’ as playing without anticipating your opponent’s reply and hoping to be able to meet any forcing move successfully. This is exactly sort of chess played, in general terms, by stronger primary school players: moving from ‘Hope Chess’ to ‘Real Chess’ requires learning to think ahead accurately. In my example, my pupils were trying to anticipate their opponent’s reply but, possibly because of an inadequately developed Theory of Mind, were ‘hoping’ that he would make a weak reply rather than looking for a possible strong reply. So I need to call this something other than ‘Hope Chess’. Any suggestions?

    Richard James

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    Activity and Vulnerability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Hugh Patterson

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    Search for the Hero

    If you were paying attention last week you’ll know that my new chess course is called Chess for Heroes.

    One reason is that if you want to succeed at competitive chess you need a collection of non-cognitive skills which might be summed up as ‘mental toughness’ along with chess skills.

    But there’s another meaning to the word hero as well. We might admire someone because of their skills in a particular field and describe them as our hero. We might also identify a chess hero: a player we admire and whose play we’d like to emulate.

    I understand from my pupils that some people in Brazil are currently kicking a ball around a grassy field. (There are also some different people much nearer home who, I believe, are hitting a smaller ball at each other over a net.) If you ask any child with even a cursory interest in football to name some famous footballers, he will have no problem in giving you lots of names, just as I could have done at that age. But if I ask children who enjoy playing chess to name some famous chess players they usually look at me in questioning amazement, as if I was asking them to name some famous Snakes and Ladders or Noughts and Crosses players.

    Of course there’s an obvious difference. Football is an excellent spectator sport. Even if you don’t play football yourself you’re aware that the guys in the blue shirts are trying to kick the ball into the net at one end, while the guys in the red shirts are trying to kick the ball into the net at the other end. You might get more out of watching the game if you’re well versed in the intricacies of the offside rule, but it’s really not necessary. You can understand the game and appreciate the skills (or not, in the case of England) of the players even if you’re a complete duffer at playing football. To appreciate a top level chess game, though, you need to be a pretty strong player yourself.

    Even so, I think we in the chess community could do a lot more to promote the idea of chess heroes. The presentation of the game online is improving. Excellent communicators such as Lawrence Trent are providing live online commentary on major events. There was a discussion on Twitter the other day about how well most top GMs handle the press conferences after their games. Although young players might enjoy following the major tournaments and supporting their favourite players, they would probably, at lower levels, get much more from choosing Paul Morphy rather than Magnus Carlsen as a role model for how to play chess. No worries: one great thing about chess is that you can travel back in time and follow the games of chess heroes from the past whose games might be easier to understand. There are many lessons available online which will help you do this, and brilliant analysis by the likes of Andrew Martin and Daniel King will enlighten you further.

    So one of the ideas of Chess for Heroes is that it will incorporate (just as Move Two! did) biographies and news about top players, along with a blog on the website with links to current events.

    There’s a lot to be said for encouraging young players to make Paul Morphy their chess hero. Rapid development and accurate calculation are necessary for chess success. Here’s Paul, at the age of 10 or 11, demonstrating how to beat his dad at chess.

    Richard James

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