Category Archives: Children’s Chess

The Chess Hero Project

A few months ago I revealed that one item on my bucket list was to complete a chess course, or, to be more precise, a series of books, designed for children, or indeed anyone, who has mastered the basics and would like to be able to play competitive chess successfully.

The assumption is that readers will know all the rules of chess, know the value of the pieces, and understand that, other things being equal, superior force usually wins.

There are plenty of books for beginners available, some of which I’ve written myself, all of which teach more or less the same things in different ways, and many of which, if my sales figures are anything to go by, sell pretty well. If you want your children to learn the basics, choose the one you like best.

There are also many books on the market for competitive players covering all aspects of the game. Some are written for lower level competitive players, others for higher level competitive players. Publishers bring out more and more titles every month, so, even in these days of screen-based entertainment, they must still be commercially viable, and no doubt appeal to an international market.

There is very little available designed to take you, or more specifically to take children, from one level to the other, and of course there’s an enormous difference between social and competitive chess. Although there is much excellent material out there, particularly in terms of tactical training, there’s nothing on the market which covers all aspects of the game at this level, structured in a logical way. Some writers and publishers think that all you have to do to write a book for children is to give it a catchy title and add a few cartoons. On the contrary, writing for children is very different from writing for adults. You must always be mindful of your readers, using, as far as possible, simple vocabulary and simple sentence structures, explaining everything very clearly. While most chess books show you what to do, books aimed at younger readers, in particular, also need to show you how to do it.

I have on my computer a database of nearly 17,000 games played at Richmond Junior Club over a period of 30 years. While most books at this level either base their material on everything that might happen in a game, or on what happens in master games, my books will be based on what happens in games played by children at this level. What openings do they play? What tactical ideas happen most often in their games? What middle game plans do they choose? What types of mistake do they make? What endings are most important at this level?

The books should also be sufficiently flexible to be used in different ways. It should be accessible to older children studying chess on their own, and to parents working at home with younger children. It should also contain a wide range of different materials which could be used by chess teachers as part of a formal course, for longer lessons within a junior chess centre of excellence, and for shorter lessons within a school chess club.

I’ve spent several years thinking about exactly how to structure the material, as well as researching and analysing the games in my database, along with other junior games from commercially available databases. I eventually decided to write a series of six books, all devoted to different aspects of the game. I’ve started work on all six volumes, but all are some way from completion. I’ll describe each book in more detail in subsequent articles: for the moment, though, I’ll just list the working titles.

1. CHECKMATES FOR HEROES

This comes first, as checkmate is the aim of chess. All players need to be really good at finding checkmates.

2. CHESS TACTICS FOR HEROES

This book covers tactics to win pieces, and is closely connected to the first volume. Checkmates are, of course, a specific type of tactic. Both books will require, and develop, visualisation and calculation skills. Many tactics will involve using a threat of checkmate to win material.

I’m well on my way with these two books. The research is completed: it’s just a question of putting everything into place. I hope to complete the first draft of both by September 2017.

3. CHESS OPENINGS FOR HEROES

I’ve been asked many times over the years to recommend a book on openings for children. My answer, until now, has always been “I haven’t written it yet”. Learning openings is not, for the most part, about learning moves off by heart. It’s about understanding pawn formations and plans, along with an awareness of typical tactical motifs which occur again and again across different openings. I haven’t yet come across anything which takes this approach to the start of the game and explains it in simple terms.

4. CHESS ENDINGS FOR HEROES

The ending may not be the most glamorous part of the game, but in many ways it’s the most important. Unless you understand endings you won’t really understand middle games, and unless you understand middle games you won’t really understand openings. Most chess teachers agree about the importance of teaching endings to their pupils.

I’m planning to complete these two books by September 2018.

5. CHESS GAMES FOR HEROES

This is a series of ‘How Good is your Chess’ games suitable for children – games of about 15 moves in length. I wrote the first two games a couple of years ago and posted them here and here. Since then I’ve produced a few more, and developed the idea of arranging some of the games by opening in order to link up with Chess Openings for Heroes.

6. CHESS PUZZLES FOR HEROES

This is based on my ‘thinking skills’ puzzles which you can read about here, here, here and here. The format is a series of puzzles in which the student has to explain the reasons for his or her choice. The puzzles could be anything: mates, winning material, defence, endings, openings, strategy.

These two volumes together synthesise and contextualise everything in the other four books. I’m hoping to finish writing them by September 2019.

At present I’m open to offers from any publishers who are interested in the project, or anyone interested in developing them electronically. If you have any constructive suggestions please feel free to contact me.

Richard James

The Importance of Tactics Five

This week, we’re going to look at pins involving the Rook and Queen as well as go over some key concepts regarding this tactical tool. We’ll start with a review of a few key concepts. Why review what we already know? Let me tell you a little story about my past. I’ve always had a love affair with motorcycles, owning my first bike at the age of seventeen. When you’re seventeen, just coming up with the money to buy a motorcycle is a gargantuan task for a lazy teenager. I ended up buying the most broken down three stroke Cafe Racer because it was all I could afford. When something went wrong, which was nearly daily, I was at the mercy of the neighborhood mechanic who charged a lot for repair work. Fortunately, he took pity on me and decided to teach me how to fix the bike myself. He taught me motorcycle repair one tool at a time.

My mechanic mentor, upon asking him why I had to learn how to use one tool at a time, patiently explained that you must master one tool before moving on to the next because each tool was used for a specific circumstance and the tools were interrelated, being used together, harmoniously in order to accomplish a specific task. He also stated that, when learning to use each tool, a quick review of that tool’s use greatly helped when mastering it. This idea stuck with me throughout my life and became a cornerstone in my own teaching methods Therefore, we’ll start with a review of the pin.

As stated in the previous article, a pin occurs when a piece (the piece doing the pinning) attacks a piece (the pinned piece) that sits on a rank, file or diagonal in front of a more valuable piece. Thus, a pin takes place when one piece is attacked and should that attacked piece move, a piece of greater value will be captured. With relative pins, the piece being pinned can move at the cost of the more valuable piece behind it. In an absolute pin, the pinned piece cannot move because the piece behind it is the King. Take a look at the diagram below:

In this example, it’s Black to move. Black sees that the White Bishop on f4 is hanging (unprotected). Of course, we never capture pawns and pieces unless it helps our position. Here, capturing the White Bishop does help Black’s position. How does it help? By playing (Black to move) 1…Bxf4, White’s Rook on d2 is now pinned to the White King on c1. This is an absolute pin which means that the piece being pinned cannot move because doing so would expose the King to capture. Since you cannot capture the King in chess, you cannot move the pinned piece! The Rook, in the above example, is also attacked by the Black Queen on d8. Two attackers and one defender spells trouble for White. Even if White plays 2. Nf3, adding a second defender of the Rook on d2, it wouldn’t matter because Black would happily trade his Bishop for White’s Rook. This simple example serves to make a few key points you should always keep in mind regarding pins and tactics in general:

The first point to remember is that tactics in which one of the pieces involved is the King tend to have more dire results for the victim of the tactical play. The reason for this is because the tactic in question, a fork for example, includes a check, forcing the King to move at the expense of the other piece. In the case of a pin, the pinned piece is literally super glued to it’s square because it cannot move. This brings up another point, putting pressure on the pinned piece. In the above example, The Black Queen was attacking the White Rook on d2. However, if the Black Queen was on the a8 square instead of d8, we would move her to d8 after the Black Bishop pinned the White Rook with 1…Bxf4. When given the opportunity, and if it doesn’t damage your position, pile up on pinned pieces. While White can add another defender to the poor Rook on d2, the difference in value between the pinned piece and the piece doing the pinning means that Black will win material and this brings up the next point, always consider the value of the piece doing the pinning and the pinned piece. In the above example, the pinned Rook is worth five points and the Bishop doing the pinning is worth three points. Try to use pieces of lesser value to do the pinning. However, there’s another reason for pinning pieces that doesn’t involve gaining material via an exchange. Pins, especially absolute pins, can stop the pinned piece from becoming involved in the game! In the above example, the White Rook on d2 would love nothing more that capture the White Queen on d8. However, even though the Black Queen is there for the capture, White cannot do a thing about it because the White Rook is absolutely pinned to it’s King by the Black Bishop on f4. Now that we’ve reviewed a few key pinning concepts, let’s move on to Rook and Queen pins. Before we start, remember, you have to keep a constant and watchful eye over all ranks, files and diagonals because these are the places where pins occur.

We’ll start by looking at Rook pins. The Rook is a major piece, along with the Queen. Because the Rook has a relative value of five points, you have to be cautious when using a Rook for pinning purposes. The reason for being cautious has to do with the Rook’s value. If a Rook is pinning a protected minor piece, worth three points, to a more valuable piece, such as the Queen, you’re simply keeping the pinned piece from participating in the game because should the minor piece move, the Rook captures the more valuable piece. If we reverse things, having a minor piece such as a Bishop pinning a Rook to a Queen or King, the minor pieces could trade itself for the pinned Rook, coming out ahead in the exchange of material. However, in the case of Rook pinning a Bishop that’s protected, an exchange wouldn’t be favorable. Therefore, you’d be pinning the minor piece to keep it out of action. However, a Rook can be extremely valuable, exchange-wise, if the pinned piece is the Queen. Take a look at the example below:

In this student game example, the game starts out 1. e4…d5. After 2. exd5, Black decides to develop the King-side Knight with 2…Nf6. This seems reasonable since Black develops a minor piece, bringing him one step closer to Castling King-side, and attacks the White pawn. White plays 3. d6 and now Black makes his first mistake, capturing away from the center with 3…exd6. The reason this move is problematic is because it leaves the Black King exposed on the e file. Try to capture towards the center when given the opportunity. Of course, in the exchange variation of the Ruy Lopez, when White trades the Bishop on b5 for the Knight on c6, Bxc6, we capture away from the center with dxc6 which opens up a diagonal for Black’s light squared Bishop and gives the Black Queen some breathing room. White now naturally develops a Knight with 4. Nf3 and Black wastes time with 4…c5. I say “wastes time” because you want to get your minor pieces into the game and get your King off of the exposed e file, meaning the development of the King-side minor pieces (King-side Castling). White plays 5. Bc4 and Black develops his Queen-side Knight with 5…Nc6. White Castles with 6. 0-0 and Black makes the worst move, 6…Qe7. Anytime you place your Queen in front of your King on an open file, you’re asking for serious trouble. The young man playing the White pieces takes advantage of this and plays 7. Re1, pinning the Black Queen to its King. Now, Black is stuck having to block this pin with either 7…Ne5 or 7…Be6. Either way, Black is going to end up with a pinned minor piece which may soon fall to additional material moving in to attack the now pinned piece. In this example, pinning the Black Queen to her King has created a dreadful situation that will cost Black material and at the least leave him with a terrible position.

Pins in which the Queen is doing the pinning can be extremely dangerous for the player employing the pin because you’re using your most powerful and valuable attacking piece to do the pinning. Because the Queen is worth more in relative value than the individual pawns and pieces, you’re not going to make a profit, material-wise, in trading your Queen for any of your opponent’s material. Therefore, Queen pins tend to be employed to keep the pinned piece out of play, at least temporarily. However, if you add the right second attacker to the pinned piece, things change. Let’s have a look:

Here, the White Queen is pinning the Rook on f7 to the King, which is an absolute pin. The Queen is worth more than the pinned piece so a second attacker is needed to make the pin profitable. White plays, 1. Ng5 and no matter what Black does, the Knight will capture the Rook on White’s next turn.

When pinning with pieces of higher value, you need to think things through, very carefully. Adding pressure via additional attackers (attacking the pinned piece) is a good way to ensure a positive result. Rooks love open and semi open files, especially when there’s an opposition King at the other end of the file. Queens can certainly pin pieces but don’t look for a quick win of material unless you add pieces of lesser value into the mix, using them to put pressure on the pinned piece. Remember, once the Queen comes out into the game, especially early on, she becomes a target for the opposition. Next week we’ll look the the skewer which is similar to the pin. Here’s a game to enjoy until then!

Hugh Patterson

Pitman Shorthand

Today I want to look at a forgotten story from the heady days of the English Chess Explosion.

The year was 1980. Chess in the UK was booming, and, in particular, the game was becoming very popular in Primary Schools. What could be better for catching the Zeitgeist than a chess teaching scheme, combined with a series of tournaments?

And so it was that Pitman House, part of the company originally founded by shorthand pioneer Sir Isaac Pitman, published Learn Chess, the first volume of the Pitman Chess Teaching Scheme. The scheme incorporated three Progress Tests, with certificates and bronze, silver and gold badges awarded to successful candidates. The tournaments would be sponsored by Morgan Crucible, and, we were told, the first tournament would be held in 1981, open to teams of five, plus one reserve, whose members had all passed the third (lowest) level Progress Test. The early rounds would be held at local level, followed by regional and zonal competitions, with the top eight teams playing in London at the sponsor’s expense.

I have the Teacher’s Book in front of me now. The course was written by Edward Penn and John Littlewood. John Littlewood, of course, was a brilliant attacking player and the author of several other chess books. By profession he was a French teacher. Eddie Penn was described as ‘one of Britain’s most stimulating teachers of chess’ but was better known as an organiser and purveyor of chess books and equipment. Other contributors included many of the great and good in British chess: Michael Basman, Bernard Cafferty, Bill Hartston, John Nunn, Mike Price and John Roycroft.

The course starts, predictably enough, by introducing the pieces, starting with the pawns and the king. We then look at some king and pawn v king positions before moving onto the other pieces, the knight, bishop, rook and queen. A slightly strange order, you might think. By the 14th lesson we know all the rules and are now ready to play a complete game. We look at ‘pieces in action’ and are suddenly plunged into some pretty complicated tactics.

The supplementary material for this lesson includes, for example, this position. You might like to analyse it yourself before reading on.

We’re told there are two equally effective moves: the spectacular Rd5 and the only slightly less spectacular Re5. In fact my computer tells me that Rd5 is mate in 7, h6 (not mentioned) is mate in 11 and Re5 is mate in 18. It’s not entirely ridiculous to demonstrate this sort of position to beginners: if you give hints such as “What would you play if the black rook on d8 wasn’t there?” and “What would you play if the black queen wasn’t there?” You might like to compare and contrast something like the Steps Method, where students spend a year solving hundreds of puzzles involving looking at the board and another two years solving 1½ move tactics before moving onto more complicated positions. Two courses based mainly on tactics, but two very different approaches to teaching chess. One going very slowly and the other very fast: a Pitman Shorthand chess course, perhaps. (My own views, you won’t be surprised to hear, lie somewhere between the two extremes.)

So what happened? Was the course successful? Did lots of schools take part in the local, regional and national competitions? It seems not. I may well be mistaken, because my involvement in schools chess was only indirect at that time, but I can’t recall hearing about any local or national tournaments at all, or encountering any children proudly showing me their badges and certificates. There seems to be nothing in the BCF Year Books in the early 1980s.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone with any more knowledge than me about exactly what happened, but it seems like it wasn’t as successful as the publisher and sponsor had hoped. Perhaps the course went too fast. Perhaps there just wasn’t a market for that sort of course within school chess clubs.

In 1984 a second volume appeared: Learn Chess 2. John Littlewood was credited as the sole author, but thanked Michael Basman and John Nunn for their contributions. Mostly advanced (at least by my standards) tactics, expertly chosen, but with some endings as well. An excellent book, but, in my view, far too difficult for a second book for near beginners. The two volumes look identical: same rather unusual size and same distinctive cover design, but closer inspections reveals a change of publisher. The second volume was published, not by Pitman House, but by Adam & Charles Black. There’s no indication that Pitman had gone out of business or had sold anything else off to Black, so I’d assume they opted out of the second volume for commercial reasons. In his introduction, Littlewood apologised, particularly to teachers, for the delay in producing the second volume, adding that it was not economically viable to produce a separate Teacher’s Book. There’s no mention at all of badges or certificates, of tournaments of any nature, or of Morgan Crucible and their sponsorship. And of course it’s no longer the Pitman Chess Teaching Scheme, just Volume 2.

The scheme was a brave attempt: I’ve written before, on many occasions, about the need to combine a systematic method of skills development with competitive chess. It’s a great pity it wasn’t more successful.

Richard James

The Important of Tactics Four

The pin, at least as far as chess is concerned, is mightier than the sword! In the last three articles, we looked at a tactic called the fork. Like the fork, a pin requires that the tactician (you) keep an eye out for pieces that lie on ranks, files and/or diagonals. Unlike the fork, a tactic all of your pawns and pieces can engage in (from pawn to King), pins require the use of your long distance pieces, the Bishop, Rook or Queen. A pin takes place when one piece is attacked and should that attacked piece move, a piece of greater value will be captured. The pieces involved in a pin must lie on a rank, file or diagonal, thus the employment of a Bishop, Rook or Queen. There are two types of pins, the absolute pin and the relative pin. In an absolute pin, the piece behind the piece being attacked is the King which means the piece being attacked cannot move. With a relative pin, the piece being attacked can move but if it does the piece behind it, which is of greater value than the attacked piece, will be captured. Therefore, Absolute pins hold greater weight since the pinned piece is literally glued to the square it’s on due to blocking an attack on the King in question. There are three pieces involved in any pin, the piece doing the pinning (Bishop, Rook or Queen), the piece being pinned (Knight, Bishop, Rook or Queen) and lastly the piece of greater value that sits behind the pinned piece (with at least one empty square between it and the pinned piece. Take a look at the example below:

In the above example, we have a relative pin. It’s important to note that a relative pin can be ignored at the loss of the more valuable material behind the pinned piece. However, pins, as we shall see, are not always rock solid! The game starts off with both players advancing their e pawns with 1. e4…e5. White develops the King-side Knight with tempo, attacking the e5 pawn while Black defends it, 2.Nf3…Nc6. White moves the King-side Bishop to c4, with 3. Bc4, denoting (possibly) the Italian Opening. Black plays 3…d6, which adds a second defender to the e5 pawn and allows the Black Queen-side Bishop to develop. When Black made this last move, White should be able to clearly anticipate that the newly freed Bishop on c8 will come down to g4, pinning the f3 Knight to the White Queen on d1. White continues development with 4. Nc3. Now Black plays 4…Bg4 activating the pin. How effective is this pin? As we shall see shortly, it doesn’t deter White at all. In fact White plays 5. Nxe5, acting as if the pin is non-existent!

It should be noted that White had two alternatives to 5. Nxe5. White could have blocked the pin with 5. Be2, allowing the Knight on f3 to move without consequence to the Queen. White could also have pushed the h pawn with 5. h3, nudging the Black Bishop away or forcing a trade. However, a trade of Bishop for Knight would have caused the White Queen to capture back which would have had the Queen and c4 Bishop aimed at the weak f7 square. In the case of an exchange, we wouldn’t capture back with the g2 pawn because that would leave doubled pawns and a hole in White’s King-side pawn structure should White castle King-side. However, White ignored the pin altogether leaving Black with the opportunity to capture the White Queen.

Any good chess player commanding the Black army would first look closely at the position, especially the placement of the Knight on e5, the Bishop on c4 and the White Knight on c3. They’d immediately avoid the Queen capture and quickly defend the f7 square. However, our greedy player took the White Queen with 5…Bxd1. Now it’s too late. White first checks the Black King with 6. Bxf7+. The Black King is forced to e7 with 6…Ke7 and White delivers the final blow with 7. Nd5#, checkmate!

I used this example because it teaches us an important lesson regarding pins and that lesson is that a pins are not always as strong as they seem. While Black won the White Queen, White won the game and you don’t win by having more material than your opponent! However, the idea behind this pin was to keep the Knight on f3 from participating in the game. If White didn’t have the opportunity to deliver checkmate, the Knight would have been stuck on f3 as long as the Black Bishop remained on g4 and the White Queen on d1. Pins are employed to keep opposition pieces from participating in the game. In our next example, we’ll see an absolute pin, one in which the King is behind the pinned piece, in this case the Queen.

It’s extremely dangerous to have your Queen directly in front of the King on either a rank, file or diagonal. In the above example, the Black Queen (f7) is in front of the Black King (e8) on the h5-e8 diagonal. White takes advantage of this mistake by playing 1. Bh5 pinning the Queen to the King. It’s important to note that this pin only works because the Bishop is protected by the White Queen on d1. Because the King is behind the Black Queen, her majesty cannot move out of the line of fire. She has no choice but to capture the attacking Bishop with 1…Qxh5 or moving the King, losing the Queen either way. Now White plays 2. Qxh5+, winning Queen for Bishop and attacking the poor Black King. The key factors that made this pin successful were first, it was an absolute pin. When a King is behind a pinned piece, as is this case, the pinned piece cannot move out of danger. The second factor regarding this successful pin was the protection of the White Bishop by the White Queen. If the Bishop wasn’t protected, it would simply be captured by the Black Queen free of charge. Because the White Queen guarded the Bishop, the pin was successful.

The key to all pins is looking for a rank, file or diagonal occupied by two opposition pieces, one being more valuable than the other. It’s important to remember that if the piece being pinned can attack the piece doing the pinning, the piece doing the pinning needs protection. In our example involving the Black Queen and King, the value of the pinned piece was greater than the value of the piece doing the pinning, making it an extremely deadly tactical play. If we replaced the Black Queen with a Black Knight, the pin would have the effect of Keeping the Knight glued in place, unable to move because it was shielding the King from attack. While this would be useful because it would keep the pinned piece out of the game temporarily, it wouldn’t have the same effect as being able to win the opposition Queen.

If you have the chance, you should always add pressure to a pinned piece. What do I mean by this? Add another attacker to the pinned piece. Pile up attackers on the pinned piece to really put the thumbscrews to the opposition’s position. Pawns are great for this because if a piece is pinned and then attacked by a pawn, the piece is a goner!

We’ll go into more detail regarding pins in my next article and introduce Rooks and Queen into this tactical tool. Remember, potential pins are seen only to those who closely examine the ranks, files and diagonals continuously throughout the game. It’s the keen eye that finds them. I suggest you look at some random games in any chess books or databases you have and see if you can spot potential pins. If you see a potential pin and it doesn’t get played in actual the game you’re looking over, see if you can determine why. This will teach you both how to spot potential pins and also how to determine whether they’ll work. Happy hunting. Here’s a game to enjoy until then.

Hugh Patterson

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