Category Archives: Children’s Chess

When We Were Kings (3)

I left you last week answering a phone call in my London office in early 1986.

The call was from my friend Mike Fox. Mike and I had started Richmond Junior Club in 1975, but a few years later his job in advertising took him to Birmingham. One of his clients there was an internationally famous manufacturer of luxury cars. Along with a colleague, Steve Smith, Mike devised an advertising campaign based on Rolls Royce trivia. The client was impressed with the campaign and suggested that it could be expanded into book form. Rolls Royce: The Complete Works was published by Faber & Faber, becoming a best-seller. The publishers asked Mike for another book, on any subject he chose. He decided to write a book about chess trivia and asked me to be the co-author.

I was excited by the prospect of becoming a published author but, with a full-time job along with RJCC I needed to make time. So I decided to leave my job. I could earn as much money working freelance three days a week as I could working five days a week for a salary. The spare time would enable me to work with Mike on the book (which was to become The Complete Chess Addict) and develop Richmond Junior Club into what I wanted it to be.

These days teachers talk a lot about differentiation, and that was what I wanted to do. Our morning group was to be for children of primary school age, where they would learn to play with clocks and record their moves when they were ready to do so. In the afternoon group children would be more serious. Once a month we would run quad tournaments, where children would be placed in groups of 4 according to playing strength and play three 30-minute games during the 3 hour session, recording their moves.

Meanwhile, we got lucky again. During the late 70s and early 80s London Central YMCA ran a very strong junior chess group which attracted many of the best young players from London and the South East. By this time it was in decline and one of the chess teachers there, Ray Cannon, came along to Richmond with his young son Richard. Ray, like me, was pretty serious about junior chess and soon became an integral part of the afternoon group.

At about the same time a local primary school, Sheen Mount, appointed a new Headteacher, Jane Lawrence, who was very keen on chess. Jane was not herself a very strong player, but was more than good enough to be an inspirational teacher of beginners. She taught the whole school to play chess, was highly competitive, and children who wanted to do so could play at school every day. Because they had so many opportunities to play during the week, only a few Sheen Mount children joined RJCC, but those who did, including future IMs Richard Bates and Tom Hinks-Edwards, became strong players.

The following year a family from Aberdeen with two chess-playing sons moved into my road. The younger boy’s name was Jonathan Rowson. The cast for our second big generation was taking shape.

Towards the end of 1989 I received another momentous phone call: “Hello. I think my son might be quite good at chess.” The son in question was Luke McShane, younger than our other strong players but an honorary member of that cohort. Meanwhile, one of our first members, Gavin Wall, had joined the team working with our younger players on Saturday mornings. We had an efficient and coherent structure in place which allowed a second strong generation to flourish.

Here are a couple of games from that period.

From a match between Richmond Junior Club and Sheen Mount School. Richard Bates reminded me of this game on Facebook recently. He recalled missing the winning 40. Rd6+.

From a few years later. Here, the young Luke McShane outplays his opponent, a great-nephew of the Yugoslavian GM Petar Trifunovic, but suffers a brainstorm on move 53. Black in his turn heads in the wrong direction in the king and pawn ending, throwing away the draw ten moves later. I’ve said it before, and will no doubt do so again, but so many games at this level are decided by mistakes directly or indirectly connected with king and pawn endings.

Richard James

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Future Masters

Future masters have to start somewhere and most in England learn their skills on the weekend tournament circuit, in junior events and adult events. It used to be the case that it would take many years, even for the most talented, to become masters, but now things seem to have speeded up with access to databases and coaching.  It is remarkable how quickly juniors can improve now. One kid from nearby went from a beginner to the top player in the county for his age category in just 3 years. I guess he will have his first master title in another 3 years, such is the trajectory of his progression.

I recently had a look through some of my games in the 1990s, the decade when I first started playing chess. In 1996, I played in the World Amateur Championship in Hastings. I played a future IM, Thomas Rendle. He was only about 10 at the time, graded perhaps around 1500 elo, while I was about 1700 elo – although the ratings are a bit irrelevant as we were both heading for ratings hundreds of points higher. While I was a bit more experienced, he had the confidence of youth. He was in the habit of wearing bow-ties, as I recall. I thought he was a bit reminiscent of Walter, the arch enemy of Dennis and Gnasher. Anyway, he played the French Defence, which he still does today, although he’s no longer wearing the bow-ties!

In the game below he played well until he saw an opportunity to win two minor pieces for a rook, missing that his king would get into trouble.

Although I won this encounter, ten years later he become an IM while I hit a wall and stopped making significant progress. I like to think that the reason why I didn’t progress to master level was that I only came to chess as an adult, and annoying things like having to earn a living got in the way. While there is probably a little bit of that involved, it is probably more because I didn’t want to improve as much as he did and didn’t prioritise it enough. What are you prepared to sacrifice to improve? If you’re not giving 100% to chess, forget becoming a master. And watch out for the kids – some of them may be future masters!

Angus James

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When We Were Kings (2)

Two weeks ago I left you at the 1983 Richmond Junior Club Under 14 Championship, where a host of potential or actual future GMs and IMs vied for their club championship.

It soon became clear, though, that this generation was something of a flash in the pan. We were at the end of the English Chess Explosion and also at the end of the generation who had been influenced by Mike Fox’s charismatic personality. If you get a group of strong players together two things happen. Firstly, they learn from each other and become even stronger, and secondly you develop a good reputation and other strong players will be attracted to join you. Our next cohort was, by comparison, small in number and weak in playing strength. I wanted to ensure that we’d return to our previous level of excellence and continue to produce strong players in future. The obvious thing to do was to talk to the most successful chess teacher in the country, who, as it happened, was in our area, so we started working together with Mike Basman. Mike’s approach was to get all children to notate their games even if they were young beginners, so we ran some training events in which our members were joined by some of his pupils.

As a result of this I have quite a lot of games in my database played by very weak players. Pieces were left en prise every few moves and many games ended with a quick checkmate on f7 or f2. Children had been taught attacking ideas but not how to look at the board, how to defend or how to think ahead. While I’m still not convinced that it’s a good idea to encourage children to score their games too soon, 30 years on, these are useful to me as a supply of games played by beginners. (I guess it’s an interesting question whether or not beginners play the same way now as they did 30 years ago. Grandmasters certainly don’t, and I think there are differences at lower levels partly due to the easy online availability of coaching materials. I might, or might not, return to this later.)

After a couple of years I decided that, while Mike Basman’s success as a coach was not in question, it wasn’t the right approach for me. I was developing ideas about what I wanted to do, but it would involve a lot of work and time which was not compatible with regular employment.

One day in early 1986 I was sitting in the office at work contemplating my future when the phone rang. My job writing computer programs to analyse market research data was reasonably enjoyable and reasonably well paid but I’d been doing the same thing (albeit with different technology) since 1972 and didn’t want to continue for the next 30 years. The only way out was to move into management, but I was told, quite rightly, that I was a techie and not management material.

“Hello Richard”, said the voice at the other end of the phone. “This call could change your life.”

In the next exciting episode you’ll find out what happened next.

Richard James

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Retaining Focus is Child’s Play

Being able to completely immerse yourself in chess, either during games or when studying, is clearly going to benefit your chess development.

It is well known that some children can suffer from attention deficit disorder or something similar, but actually children can be much better than adults at focusing on one thing. This might be partly why they are so good at learning and absorbing information quickly when they find something that interests them.

Anyone with children, or who teaches children, will know that they can become so engrossed in something that they are able to completely zone out whatever is not the focus of their attention – such as parents and teachers on occasion! If something interests them it is effortless for them to completely focus on it. They don’t need lessons in how to concentrate, find something that interests them and they will be the ones giving the lessons to parents and teachers in how to concentrate.

This ability to focus, and zone out everything else, is known as ‘inattentional blindness‘ and everyone needs this to some degree. It is linked to brain development and hence children, especially younger children, are going to be much less aware of surroundings. I’m speculating, but I wonder if dedicated junior chess players are benefiting from this ability to focus so well. The main thing is that children are naturally interested in chess, not pushed into doing it by well-meaning parents. Not all children are interested in the same things. It would be great if every child could have the opportunity to learn chess and decide for themselves if they wish to pursue it further. Anyone with a child who loves chess is not going to have a problem getting them to focus on it, quite the reverse, it is their school homework that might be the problem!

Angus James

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Poetic Justice

I’ll return to the history of Richmond Junior Club later, possibly next week, but first I’d like to show you a recent RJCC game played between two of my private pupils.

The game started with the French Defence. Black, the older of the two boys, favours this opening. He doesn’t yet know a lot about it, though, as he’s still too young to study chess on his own.

So: 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 (unusual in junior chess where the Exchange and Advance Variations are the usual choices) 3.. Nf6 4. Bd3 (a reasonable developing move, but not played often at higher levels, where Bg5 and e5 are preferred. Now c5 is the most popular reply, but instead Black immediately blunders)

4.. Bd6, and White spotted the opportunity to win a piece, playing 5. e5. This tactical idea, a pawn fork in the centre of the board, happens over and over again in games played by children. There are scores of examples in my Richmond Junior Club database. You’ll rarely come across this in books, though, because at higher levels players see it coming and avoid it. If Black had remembered to ask himself the Magic Question (“If I do that what will he do next?”) he might have chosen something else.

Black decided he ought to gain some compensation for the piece by getting his pieces out quickly, so the game continued 5.. Nc6 6. exd6 Qxd6.

At this level, children tend to think “How can I create a threat?” rather than “How can I put a piece on a better square?”. The next day I was playing Black in a training game against another of my private pupils, younger and less experienced than these two boys. I played the French Defence myself (I usually play 1.. e5 at this level but sometimes mix things a bit) and the game started 1. e4 e6 2. d4 (It took him some time to find this move) 2.. d5 3. exd5 exd5. Now he saw that he could threaten my queen by playing Bg5, reached out his hand, noticed that it wasn’t safe, and instead played the first move he saw that controlled g5: h4. At lower levels children play this sort of move for this reason all the time. I persuaded him that if he wanted to prepare Bg5 he’d be better off developing a piece with Nf3.

Returning to the game in question, then, White decided he’d like to play Bf4 to threaten the black queen, so chose to prepare it with the truly horrible 7. g3. A much more sensible approach to the position would have been simple development with Nf3 and O-O.

Black replied with 7.. e5, opening the centre against the white king, and White, his plan thwarted, looked for another way to threaten the black queen and found 8. Nb5. Black replied 8.. Qe7, defending c7 and eyeing the white king. It’s not so easy for White now as it’s going to be hard to get his king into safety. He played 9. Ne2, blocking the e-file and hoping to castle, but this move had a tactical disadvantage. Again, asking the Magic Question would have led him to an alternative solution.

Black could now regain his piece with 9.. e4, trapping the bishop on d3, another basic recurring tactical idea at this level, but he didn’t notice this and preferred to continue his development with 9.. Bg4. White traded pawns: 10. dxe5 Nxe5, reaching a position where Black has a Big Threat.

White has a few ways to stay in the game here, but instead he failed to ask himself the Magic Question and just developed a piece: 11. Be3, allowing Black to carry out his threat: 11.. Nf3+ 12. Kf1 Bh3# with a pretty checkmate. Poetic justice that Black’s knight and bishop occupied the squares that were weakened by g3, and a salutary lesson for White about how pawn moves can create weaknesses.

Here’s the complete game.

The game I usually use when teaching about pawn forks in the opening is this:

This is a trick worth knowing. Black developed his bishops on c5 and e6 and a knight on c6, giving White the chance to win a piece neatly with 7. d4, followed by d5. He missed his chance but still won a piece the following move when Black fell for another recurring tactic, the queen fork on a4. If 9. Bxb4, 10. Qa4+ wins.

Richard James

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When We Were Kings (1)

I’m currently working my way though my database of nearly 17000 games played at Richmond Junior Chess Club between 1977 and 2006 to produce low level tactics puzzles based mostly on encounters between young children. I’ll tell you more about this project when it’s further advanced, but looking at the games enables me to think again about the history of RJCC.

Our first ‘big generation’ came through in the early 1980s. The club had been formed in 1975 by Mike Fox and myself, but Mike’s job took him to Birmingham in 1979, leaving me on my own, but with a lot of support from parents. However, it was Mike’s enthusiasm and charisma, along with our being in the right place at the right time, which produced this crop of strong players.

Our 1983 Under 14 Championship had 18 players. Two of them, Aaron Summerscale and Demetrios Agnos (who was later known as Dimitri or Dimitrios Anagnostopolous when he and his family returned to Greece) became Grandmasters. Two more, Gavin Wall and Ali Mortazavi, became International Masters. Chris Briscoe is a 2200+ strength player with an IM norm to his name. Mark Josse is also a 2200 strength player, and plays alongside Chris at Surbiton Chess Club. Bertie Barlow is a strong club player, whom I saw recently for the first time in many years. Others: James Cavendish, Ben Beake, Michael Ross, Harry Dixon, Philip Hughes were strong teenage players with at least IM potential who chose to do other things with their lives. Players such as Rajeev Thacker and Leslie Faizi were not far behind. Their contemporaries at RJCC who didn’t enter this event included the likes of Nick von Schlippe and Michael Arundale.

Gavin, Aaron and Chris are all now professional chess coaches working in schools and teaching private pupils in the West/South West London area. Mark Josse was a valuable member of the RJCC coaching team last season. But, in spite of all their talents as both players and teachers the standard of junior chess in this area, and in the country in general, is dramatically lower now than it was then. We were lucky to be at the end of the post-Fischer boom and in the middle of the English Chess Explosion, but there must have been something else happening. I remember at about this time seeing a list of the top US juniors in Chess Life and working out that, at the top level, Richmond Junior Club was stronger than the whole of the USA.

How did we get such a strong group of players together? What was happening then which isn’t happening now?

Did we have a team of great coaches? No – we did very little coaching and there was not very much in the way of private tuition available. I seem to recall visiting the Mortazavi residence on one occasion but that was all. They played serious chess and learnt both from themselves and from each other. If you get a group of talented players together things just happen. The social element of the club was also very important. Of course back in those days there was no online chess and not much in the way of computer games to distract them. There was also far less academic pressure than there is now. One factor which I think was important was that, by and large, children started playing competitively slightly older than they do now. Gavin Wall, a player with extraordinary natural talent, was the exception, having been a former London Under 8 Champion. But, at the age of 12 or 13, chess was still something relatively new and exciting for them. For some, the excitement waned, but at least half of them are still excited by chess more than 30 years on.

Gavin won the event with a 100% score. In this game he defeats a future GM.

Richard James

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Exploiting Weaknesses

Beginning players tend to look at their progress during a game in terms of making aggressive attacking moves that lead to checkmate. Beginners, especially younger ones, love to attack and capture pawns and pieces. In this context, the beginner has a rather one sided or simplistic view of the game. For these players, attacking is the name of the game. My young students often end up on the losing side of a game because, in their efforts to attack, they weaken their position which allows their opponent to take advantage of this weakness and win the game. Of course, a strong position and moves that attack your opponent are instrumental in winning your game, but there is another concept that needs to employed, the exploitation of weakness. In life, the exploitation of weakness would be considered a dastardly thing to do. In chess, however, exploiting weaknesses leads to winning games. Unfortunately, most beginners haven’t matured enough, skill-wise, to consider this idea early in their chess careers. I used to wait until my students had reached a specific level before introducing the concept of exploiting an oppositional weakness. However, as an experiment, I decided to try introducing the concept of exploiting weaknesses earlier in my student’s training.

When I teach chess, and only after my students understand the game’s rules, we move on to simultaneously learning opening principles, basic tactics and how to attack. Beginners can easily become overwhelmed when faced with too much theory so I tend to teach ideas and principles using smaller steps. While teaching three ideas simultaneously might not seem like taking smaller learning steps, all three go hand in hand and each complements the other. In fact, each of the three above mentioned concepts helps to reinforce the other two!

Learning how to properly attack starts with a review of relative piece and pawn value followed by counting attackers and defenders. Generally, you want to start an attack with the units of least value. Therefore, if you have a pawn, a Knight and a Queen, you’ll want to start the attack with the pawn, the unit of least value, then the Knight and finally the Queen (there are exceptions to this idea). Before launching your attack, count up the relative value of the defending pieces and compare it to the relative value of the attacking pieces. If you’re the attacker and your material value is 17, you may not want to start exchanging pieces if the defender’s total material value is 7 points (unless the result is checkmate or you’re avoiding being checkmated). Beginners should also compare the number of attackers to defenders. If you have three attacking pieces and your opponent has five defending pieces, you’re not going to do well with your attack. Again, there are always exceptions to these principles but I work with beginners so I have to keep it simple and make sure they understand the principles before they break them. Beginners need to expand their tactical and strategic horizons!

The point here is that beginners tend to see things in a very black and white way. Beginners see the game of chess two dimensionally when they start off while the experienced player sees the game three dimensionally. This third dimension constitutes the grey areas such as exploiting an opponent’s positional weaknesses. To an experienced player, exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses is a norm rather than an exception. However, beginners tend to see things in terms of straight forward attacking or defending because they’re just taking their first swim in the ocean of strategic thinking, so they’re only ankle deep in the water rather freely swimming!

Chess teaching is a double edged sword. What I mean by this is that you have to teach the underlying mechanics of the game which leads to a very mechanical way of thinking. However, and here’s where the double edged sword rears its ugly blade, mechanical thinking leads to loss when facing an opponent who thinks outside the box (outside of the realm of mechanical thinking). Mechanical thinking is necessary if the beginner ever hopes to really improve. After all, you have to learn the game’s underlying principles. Once you have learned those principles and understand them, you can start thinking about breaking them. Pablo Picasso, for example, was known for his brilliant abstract art. However, he could paint realistic works of art (at the age of fourteen) without effort. He learned the principle of painting first and then went on to break those principles!

As usual, I’ve digressed from the topic at hand! When beginners attack, they do so based on a combination of the positioning of their pawns and pieces, with a minimal amount of attention given to their opponent’s pawn and piece positioning other than counting attackers and defenders. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this idea, the beginner is not necessarily creating the best circumstances for his or her attack. This is where the examination of an opponent’s positional weaknesses comes into play. An example I use to demonstrate this idea of positional weakness is the square or squares left behind after a piece moves.

I learned about this idea watching an instructional video by Grandmaster Maurice Ashley. When we or our opponent moves a pawn or piece, they often create a weakened position. The pawn or piece they just moved is no longer defending the squares it previously defended. This means a weakness has been created. This means that even an apparently strong move can leave behind a dangerous weakness. I tell my students that every move, no matter how good, has a potentially negative aspect to it. For example, after 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6, 3.Bc4…d6 and 4.d3…Nd4, White has to make a decision regarding his Knight on f3. Does White trade off Knights, take the pawn on e5 or move the Queen-side Knight to d2 (there are other choices but I’m trying to keep it simple)? Two of these moves, trading Knights or taking the pawn of e5 leave White with a weakness. That weakness is that the Knight previously on f3 isn’t there anymore to guard the g5 and h4 squares. The person playing Black in the above example is counting on White moving the Knight off of the f3 square which allows easier access to White’s King-side. Black sees a potential weakness and tries to exploit it.

The idea here is that you should look at your moves and your opponent’s moves for weaknesses in the form of the squares that pawns or pieces no longer defend after they move. This helps improve your game because you have to carefully consider each move in terms of weakening your position rather that strengthening it. The beginner starts to see, with a little practice, that an aggressive move may do more harm than good. I have my students write down potential weaknesses (squares left behind) for each of their moves and their opponent’s moves. In doing so, they tend to build up their attacks in a slower manner, avoiding weakening their position in exchange for a fast attack. By examining your opponent’s move, specifically the squares left behind or left undefended, you’ll start to discover weaknesses that you can exploit. You’ll also weaken your position less! Remember, every move has a potential negative side to it. Consider potential weaknesses before committing to a move and your game will improve. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Defence Skills

Defence skills are just as important as attacking skills. At a basic level, that means noticing when, for example, an undefended piece is attacked and threatened with capture. Usually, defending it or moving it is required – unless there is something more important going on elsewhere on the board, like a checkmate threat. In chess clubs at primary schools, players can often miss that their pieces are en prise (‘in a position to be taken’). Just getting them to check before they move whether any of their pieces are en prise is a good habit, and a breakthrough if they can manage it. When I see players hesitating even for a moment before making a move, it is a good sign that they are considering things that previously they would have ignored or overlooked. With experience they learn that mistakes like leaving pieces en prise for no good reason, can and usually will get punished by experienced opponents.

Scholar’s Mate, and variants of this, are simple attacks right out of the opening, but they are remarkably effective at school chess clubs and junior tournaments. Learning how to defend against this most basic attack is an important first step on the road to improving defence skills. Players that can survive the opening without being mated or losing material often find that their opponents start to lose heart. The game is not over in seconds; the first attack of the game has failed; and they have a fight on their hands. Having easily repelled an attack the initiative can pass to the defender.

Here is the classic Scholar’s Mate:

Here is a kind of Scholar’s Mate that was played at a recent junior tournament. Note how Black overlooks the vast array of defensive moves he has at his disposal to avoid mate (not to mention White’s own blunder):

Most of the time juniors at school chess clubs don’t need to play amazing attacking chess to win a game. They just need to be alert to threats and have some basic defensive skills. Training and practice that cultivates defence skills is just as important as attack skills. Good tactics training will include both attack and defence problems to solve, because finding the right way to defend can be just as important as finding the right attacking moves.

Angus James

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Misconception

I’ve written quite a lot recently about how many young children have a complete misconception about the nature of chess. Here’s a graphic example.

Our under 11 team took part in the national inter-area finals in Northampton last Saturday. One of our reserves is a very keen player who always enjoys challenging me to a game. He attends a local prep school which is very big on chess. The Headmaster is a 2200 strength player, and as well as providing children with the opportunity to take part in internal and external competitions, the school runs two chess clubs: there’s a lunchtime club where a GM does the coaching and an after-school club run by a player with several IM norms. The boy also attends Richmond Junior Club on Saturdays and plays regularly at home against his father, an enthusiastic social player.

Between rounds we played a game. I took the white pieces and essayed the King’s Gambit. The game started something like this:

“I can take your knight”, I said. “Yes, I know”, my opponent replied. “This is the move I want you to play.”

If you play against young children at this level and ask them the reason for their moves you’ll find this sort of thing happens quite often. Now we all like to demonstrate brilliant combinations and games with sacrifices. No doubt my opponent has seen quite a lot of these. He may well have seen a game where one player sacrifices a minor piece for a pawn in front of the castled king; a Greek Gift sacrifice, perhaps, and concluded that it’s generally a good idea to give up a piece for a pawn on the side of the board where the enemy king resides.

Children at this age are usually unable to distinguish between specifics and generalities. If they see a game in which one player sacrifices pieces to win, or maybe, if we’re demonstrating a Morphy game, for example, plays without a rook and wins brilliantly, we hope they’ll think “If I learn to calculate accurately, to look ahead, and if I practise solving checkmate puzzles regularly, I can learn to play as well as that”. But instead they conclude that points aren’t important, that it doesn’t matter if you lose a piece because you can still get checkmate. If we show them a game where the winner sacrifices a piece to expose the enemy king they’ll sacrifice pieces in the vicinity of the opposing monarch at the slightest provocation, even if, as in my game, they get little or no compensation for the lost material.

Perhaps we should look at different ways of coaching children. Maybe we should start with the ending so that they get the idea that (other things being equal) superior force wins. Maybe we should teach children how to calculate by getting them to solve puzzles before we show complete games with sacrifices.

Anyway, the game continued and my extra material eventually told. While we were playing, the boy’s father had joined us. I explained what was happening and suggested he bought my book The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, which was on sale at the tournament bookstall. He followed my advice and returned with a copy of the book for me to sign for him and his son.

With any luck our player will soon get over his misconceptions about chess.

Richard James

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The Magic Question

Last week there were two new boys at my Wednesday after-school chess club. Now this really shouldn’t happen. The parents should get the message that the club is for children who know how to play chess, not for children who want to learn. Complete beginners in a club of this nature need individual attention, and this doesn’t give me time for the other children in the club. Anyway, I quickly introduced them to the pieces and taught them to play the Capture the Flag pawn game (just 8 pawns each: in my rules you win by getting a pawn to the end, capturing all your opponent’s pawns or stalemating your opponent). As I usually do with complete beginners I played without my c and f-pawns. On his third move the first boy I played deliberately placed a pawn where I could take it for free, saying “My dad says you have to take risks when you play chess”.

“Hey ho!”, I thought. Another kid who’s been given bad advice by a well-meaning but ill-informed parent, or who has perhaps taken advice out of context.

On Saturday there were two new 8-year-olds at Richmond Junior Club. The first boy had been recommended to us by the chess teacher (a former pupil of mine) at his school club where he was beating his contemporaries and was looking for something more challenging. He played a couple of games against other children, but he was losing by hanging his pieces. So I played a game against him. After a few moves he said to me “Points don’t matter”. I’m not sure whether this was something he’d learnt from his father or whether he’d misunderstood something he’d been taught at school.

Every week I’m more and more convinced that most children in primary school chess clubs think points don’t matter, that they should take risks, that chess is a game of luck not a game of skill. Every time we show children who have this misapprehension a brilliant sacrifice to force checkmate we’re actually reinforcing their beliefs. And there’s no point in showing them combinations to win material if they think that points don’t matter.

It’s easy for us to assume that children automatically understand that it’s an advantage to have more points than their opponent but they don’t, and very often it seems that their parents don’t either. Unless and until children understand this, teaching anything else will only confuse them. Who, I ask them, would win a football match between Chelsea and Manchester United if Chelsea had three men sent off? (Given Manchester United’s current form the answer is probably Chelsea but that’s another story.)

Once children understand this we can introduce the Magic Question that will take them to the next level. The Magic Question is what they have to ask themselves before playing their move. For beginners, the Magic Question is simply “Is it safe?”. If points don’t matter, safety doesn’t matter either. Once they’ve mastered this the Magic Question changes: “If I do that, what will my opponent do next?” – you have to look at the whole board, not just the piece you’re moving, to avoid moving defenders, moving pinned pieces, moving into forks, overlooking discovered attacks and so on.

A few children, though, seem to pick things up straight away. We had another new 8-year-old at Richmond Junior Club last Saturday. I was contacted by his parents: they’re a Japanese family who have just moved to England. The family are keen Shogi (Japanese Chess) players but their son had only just learnt the basics of Western chess. I wasn’t sure he’d be ready but suggested they brought him along for a trial session. I gave him a game when he arrived, expecting to take all his pieces and win easily, but it became clear after just a few moves that he knew exactly what he was doing. He negotiated his way through some middle game complications to reach an ending with level material. Fortunately for me, my king was nearer the centre and I had fewer pawn islands, so I was able to win a pawn and eventually the game. Although he’d only been playing Western chess three weeks he was already close to 100 ECF/1450 Elo standard. Compare this with most primary school chess players who, after three years are still unaware that they have to look at the board and avoid losing points.

Talent undoubtedly has a lot to do with it, but perhaps we should start by educating the parents so that they get the right message across to their children as to what chess is really about.

Richard James

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