Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Online Learning

Learning online, be it earning a college degree or learning how to fix a leaky pipe in your bathroom, has become a mainstay in our lives. Prior to the introduction of the internet, those who wished to improve their personal knowledge base were forced to seek education via a traditional system, such as books or schools. Now, from the comfort of our homes, we can learn how to do anything easily because online learning works around our schedule. In the case of chess, you once had to acquire chess books to improve your game, many of which had text and diagrams that required a PhD in code breaking and linguistics to understand. Now, you can simply go to Youtube and get visual instruction that takes the mystery out of learning. However, the negative side to online learning via sites like Youtube is that anyone can fancy themselves a chess teacher. This means, you’re apt to get some very bad advice regarding chess improvement if you’re not careful.

When learning the game of chess and using the internet to do so, you need to weed out bad teaching from good teaching. In other words, you need to find qualified instructors! What qualifies a person as a great chess instructor? You might think that a great chess instructor has to be a highly rated, well known player. However, this isn’t always the case. There are plenty of brilliant chess players who are terrible teachers and plenty of great teachers who are mediocre chess players. Then there’s the dreadful though looming over online learners; anyone can call themselves an expert in a specific field and, because of the anonymity factor (you don’t really know who you’re dealing with online). How do we determine who really is good at helping beginning chess players improve?

We’ll start by looking at Youtube. If you enter “chess instruction” into the site’s search bar, you’ll be given roughly 68,100 results. These results will not give you a series of video titles such “How Beginners Can Improve at Chess.” You’re more likely to see titles such as “The Sicilian Defense” or “Intermediate School Chess Lessons The Three Golden Rules.” I entered the above search and these are two video lessons that came up. First of all, The Sicilian Defense is an extremely complicated opening for black, one that beginners shouldn’t be learning immediately. Yet a beginner might not know this and decide to watch the video only to feel as if chess is game far above their intellectual pay grade after viewing it. The second video, which I watched, was something I might teach to my intermediate students but not to beginners. This problem of ending up with videos that won’t help you can be avoided by narrowing down the search (I’m doing this as I write).

Try typing in “Chess Lessons for Beginners.” The results are now narrowed down to roughly 39,100 results, but “The Sicilian Defense” is now found as the first offered video. Are you starting to see that there’s a problem here? Further down the Youtube list is a series of videos entitled “ Lessons 1-10 Chess for Beginners. I started to click the link to the videos but suddenly noticed one of the videos titled “Blindfold Chess for Beginners.” Blindfold Chess requires a great deal of skill, since you’re playing chess without a physical board and pieces using your mind only, and beginners simply are not at this skill level. Next?

Then I saw Grandmaster Varuzhan Akobian’s video, “Beginner’s Openings and Tactics.” Upon clicking the video link, I pleasantly found that the video is part of a series produced by the St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center’s “Sunday Kids’ Class”. That’s right, a kids’ chess class. If you’re an adult thinking “I don’t need a video geared towards kids, you’re absolutely wrong. The most effective chess teaching I’ve done with adults uses chess lessons designed for kids. Why does this work (I really do know what I’m doing when it comes to this topic)? Because the lessons simplify complex ideas and concepts by using very easy to understand (so easy a child could fathom it) examples. Trust me, when learning the finer points of chess, you want things simplified.

As it turns out, The St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center has an excellent if not brilliant series of video chess lessons for children that I have all my adult students watch. If you want to improve, this is the way to go. Of course, there are plenty of other choices regarding videos to be found under this Youtube search but, as they say in Latin, caveat emptor, which roughly translates to “let the buyer beware!” I’ll spare you the horrors of watching an instructional video only to ponder whether or not the video poster/host is out of their mind or just doesn’t know how to play chess. As a coach and instructor, I can tell the difference between a good instructional video and a poor one very quickly. If you’re new to the game, you might not be able to tell the difference and worse yet, commit the video’s ideas to memory and find yourself losing games and having people around you wondering if you’ve lost your mind.

Watching videos geared towards children is a safe bet for the most part. However, remember, that anyone can claim to be a chess teaching guru. Therefore, try researching the presenter’s name before investing time in watching the video. Of course, it takes time to do the research but you’ll be better off in the end! If you want to save yourself grief, watch the plethora of beginner’s videos offered by The St. Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center. They use top notch players who are great at teaching children. If you want to venture into the unknown realm of Youtube, stick with names known for great teaching such as Andrew Martin and any of the ChessBase DVD authors. In fact, you can often find samples of their teaching on Youtube.

The point here is to shop carefully for online instruction. Here’s a link to one of the many Saint Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center’s Youtube channels. I think you’ll enjoy the great lessons from Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan. Again, they’re lessons geared towards children but you’ll get a lot of them as a beginner. You could spend a few years just going through the club’s amazing collection of videos.

There’s no game to enjoy until next week because I’d like you to watch the videos instead. I challenge any novice players reading this to watch each of the beginner’s videos over the next few months and let me know how they helped you. I have! You’ll improve your playing immensely and the only cost to you is a little time. Now that’s a bargain! See you next week!

Hugh patterson

Thinking Skills Test 2 (Part 1)

I recently returned to the original Thinking Skills test for children which I wrote some years ago. I decided I could produce a lot more of these, and have had the opportunity to submit the Richmond Junior Club Intermediate Group to another eight questions. These questions are designed for players who have learned the basic principles but are below about 100 ECF/1500 Elo strength. It’s always interesting to note that children who, when playing games, will make most of their moves instantaneously, will spend a long time on this exercise.

If you teach children at this level please feel free to use them yourself and let me know what results you get.

Question 1 is, like last time, a basic king and pawn v king position. Will they push the pawn hoping to get it to the end of the board safely or will they, correctly but perhaps counter-intuitively, take the opposition with Ke6? In my small sample, several of the children knew the answer to this, in some cases specifically mentioning the word ‘opposition’, but without being able to spell it correctly. Others, as expected just pushed the pawn, hoping for a safe promotion.

Question 2 is a very frequent position type in games at this level. Black goes for a quick attack on f2 and White correctly meets the attack by castling. After Black captures with the knight on f2, what should White do? The most popular answer in my sample was Qe2. They see their queen is attacked and move it to a safe square. At least it’s better than Qe1 or Qd2 when a knight move will hit the queen as well as discovering check from the bishop. Surprisingly few make the correct move, capturing the knight on f2, winning two minor pieces for rook (and pawn) and giving White a clear advantage. I’ve also used the position where Black has played Bc5xf2+ instead of Ng4xf2. Here, again, many children at this level will play Kh1 rather than Rxf2, telling me that they don’t want to lose a rook (5 points) for a bishop (3 points). Because they lack the basic skill of being able to look ahead they fail to see their next move, capturing again on f2.

Question 3 is a basic tactical idea which is usually missed at this level. If they haven’t seen the position type before they’ll find it too hard to take in the bishop on b3 pinning the pawn on f7 as well as the potential capture on g6. If they look at Qxg6 at all they’ll reject it because they think the pawn is protected. Being able to see the relationship between five pieces (Bb3, Qf6, Pf7, Pg6, Kg8), one of which is a long way from the other four, is just too difficult. Instead, they’ll stare blankly at the position for some time before doing something like putting a rook on d1 or playing a4 to threaten the enemy queen.

If you look through games played by children at this level you’ll notice very quickly the very large number decided by Qxh7# or Qxh2#. Here’s an example, I think from a German junior game I found on MegaBase. I changed the position slightly: the black pawn you see on f5 was actually on e4, when Black was winning anyway because of the attack on f2. It’s very tempting for White to think it’s a ‘which capture should I make?’ question and just decide which way to take off the bishop on c5. As you’ll see, g3 is the only good defence for White, as the f2 pawn is pinned, but at this level many children will fail to notice Black’s threat. Again, they find it difficult to process information from both sides of the board (the queen on c7 and the knight on g4) at the same time. Children sometimes assure me that castling is a bad move because whenever they castle they get mated. Sometimes this will be in a position like this, sometimes perhaps a back rank mate later in the game. So in future they always leave their king in the centre of the board. Generally speaking, defensive questions such as this are hard for young children, partly because of their egocentric view of the world. There are some more examples in the second half of this quiz, which I’ll discuss next week.

Richard James

Your Opponent’s Move

I’ve written about this subject before, but feel it’s so important that we must revisit it in greater detail! When I coach a group of students, I go from board to board, watching each individual game. I make notes regarding problems I see within each game such as poor development in the opening, poorly thought out exchanges in the middle-game and the bane of the beginning player, one sided plans. What’s a one sided plan, you may be wondering? An affliction that everyone who has ever learned the game of chess has suffer from. Let’s first briefly review the concept of planning:

Chess is a game in which the plans of both players clash. They clash because the immediate plan of one player is often thwarted because of a specific move made by their opponent, a move that stops that plan. Of course, the game’s constant clash of plans is what makes the game so spectacular. Most beginners think the plan is to checkmate their opponent’s King. That is the game’s goal. That goal is achieved by employing a number of immediate plans rather than a single long term plan meant to work for the entire game. It’s unrealistic for beginners or advanced players to create a single plan that takes them from the opening to the endgame because a position can drastically change from one move to the next. This means that, if you had a single long term plan, one or two moves by the opposition could destroy that plan, leaving you in the dark regarding just what to do.

Plans must be flexible, able to adjust to the ever changing position on the chessboard. Flexibility is the key to good planning in chess. Your plan should always take into account a number of possible opposition moves, not just one move. However, there’s something even worse than an inflexible plan that depends on your opponent making a single anticipated move. This dreadful mindset is one sided thinking!

What do I mean by one sided thinking. Many of us have heard beginning players state that “I’m thinking four moves ahead of my opponent right now” going into or during the middle-game. The top chess players in the world have a little trouble realistically thinking this many moves ahead, with absolute accuracy during the middle-game, because there are so many possible positions to be considered (I’m talking about a staggering number that only a computer could fathom). What is the beginner really saying then?

The beginner isn’t lying about seeing four moves ahead. They are seeing four move ahead in their mind. Unfortunately, one sided thinking is clouding their judgment and derailing their plan without them even knowing it. One sided thinking is making a move and expecting your opponent to make the move you want them to make, which allows you to make your next move in the plan followed by your opponent making another move you want them to make. You plan only works if your opponent makes the moves you want them to make. However, your opponent has his or her own plan and you can be sure that they’re going to make moves that go against your plan. After all, your opponent is also trying to win the game. The beginner’s thoughts might sound like this: “I’m going to put my Queen here and my opponent is going to move a pawn there. Next, I’ll move my Bishop here and my opponent will his Knight there and I’ll checkmate on the next move. If this sounds familiar to beginners reading this, it should because it’s The Scholar’s Mate (four move checkmate). Take a look at the example below.

We’ll look at one siding thinking first, our beginner’s thought process from the above paragraph where the opposition makes the moves our beginner wants them to make, and then see what happens when our beginner (playing white) plays against an opponent that has his or her own ideas as to what to do!

In the above example, both players start out making extremely reasonable moves, 1 e4…1e5. Both players control the board’s center with a pawn and allow both the Queens and King-side Bishops access to the board. Our one sided thinker knew that black would play 1…e5. Now, he (white) decides to do something your should never do, which is bringing your Queen out early with 2. Qh5. This move loudly announces (white might as well jump up and down screaming “Scholar’s Mate!”) that white is going to try and checkmate black in four moves! Because our beginner commanding the white pieces is employing one sided thinking, he simply knows that his opponent will play 2…d6 (wow really?). Our beginner smiles as he sees his perfect plan playing out before his eyes and plays 3. Bc4. White obviously has the ability to control his opponent’s mind, because that would be the only explanation for black’s pitiful response, 3…Nc6. White grins from ear to ear as he makes move four, 4. Qf7#. Now let’s look at what actually happens when our beginner tries to employ his one sided thinking against an opponent playing realistically.

White starts off with 1. e4 while black counters with 1…e5. Our brave beginner now brings his Queen to h6 once again, 2. Qh6. “So far, so good” thinks the beginner. “My Queen is lined up for the attack. Now all black has to do is move their d pawn and wait! This isn’t the move black is supposed to play!” Black, instead of playing 2…d6, plays 2…Nf6 and white’s hopes of a fast checkmate are crushed. White retreats the Queen to f3 (3. Qf3) in the hope that the f6 Knight will magically disappear. Black develops his Queen-side Knight with 3…Nc6. Remember, every time you have to move a piece more than once during the opening, you’re essentially giving your opponent a free game turn. Black takes advantage of this fact by developing a new piece. White, determined to somehow salvage the situation, plays 4. Bc4, thinking somehow the chess gods will look down on him with positional pity and grant him his wish! Black counters with 4…Nd4, attacking the Queen who has to move again. In this example, white faced an opponent who didn’t make the moves our beginner wanted them to make but rather made his own, well thought out moves. Beginners will never face an opponent who makes exactly the moves the beginner wants them to make. Thus, one sided thinking is a sure fire way to lose every game of chess you play.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t address how to you can anticipate your opponent’s moves. Of course, you can’t anticipate every possible move your opponent makes. However, you can use a logical system to at least prepare for the opposition’s best possible responses. This is accomplished by simply trading places with your opponent, not literally of course, but in your mind. In other words, you have to look at the board from the opposition’s point of view, looking for the best response to the move you’re planning on making, as opposed to thinking about your opponent’s best response after you’ve made your move. Think first before making any move, otherwise you’ll pay a steep price.

The secret really is putting yourself into your opponent’s shoes, pretending to be in charge of the opposition’s forces. Of course, to find the best and most likely opposition move, you’ll need to examine each pawn and piece. This doesn’t mean looking at them as if you were in a museum looking at a piece of art. You have to look at each pawn and piece and determine whether or not that pawn or piece can be moved to a square that disrupts your plan. During the opening phase, the opposition moves you’ll be looking for are those that gain greater control of the center. Use the opening principles to guide you. If you see that an opposition piece can gain a strong foothold in the center, ask yourself if there’s a move you can make, with a pawn for example, that will deter the opposition from making that move. Take your time and examine everything , material-wise, on the board (board vision).

During the middle-game, tactics are the name of the game for more advanced beginners and improvers. Look at the opposition’s pawns and pieces (yes pawns, because they can fork pieces) and see if there’s a tactical play to be had, such as a fork. Chances are that if you saw it and your opponent is a stronger player, he or she will have seen it as well. Can you use a pawn to keep the forking piece off of its target square? Can you use a piece of lesser value to stop a piece of greater value from making a tactical play? Look for ways to keep your opponent’s pieces away from your side of the board. This can be accomplished by further activating your pawns and pieces.

Again, think about your opponent’s best move as if it was his or her turn, before considering making your move. All you have to do is put yourself in your opponent’s place. If you insist on employing one sided thinking, you’ll be doomed to live out your days in the land of lost chess games. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week. There two players didn’t use one sided thinking when planning their moves.

Hugh Patterson

Mikhail Osipov

At the end of Richmond Junior Club last Saturday I was analysing a game with one of our members. He’s typical of many of the children we see. He knows how to play a good game and wins most of his games at school but lacks the concentration and impulse control needed to avoid blundering every few moves so struggles at higher levels. His father and younger brother arrived to pick him up and settled down to watch the analysis. The young boy sat next to him and started taking some of the pieces off the board, much too his brother’s annoyance. I asked how old he was, and was told that he was three, nearly four. Well, I guess that’s what you’d expect from a three-year-old. I’m not sure that most kids of that age should be allowed anywhere near chess clubs. While they might be able to learn the names of the pieces and how to set the board up, by and large they’d be better off jumping puddles or making mud pies.

So what, then, should we make of three-year-old Mikhail Osipov, who recently appeared on a Russian TV talent show solving chess puzzles and playing against none other than Anatoly Karpov? Some of my Facebook friends considered putting such a young child on television to be bordering on child abuse (‘an obscenity’, according to one prominent chess blogger). Others, by contrast, could hardly contain their excitement at the sight of an amazing new prodigy and future world champion, seemingly having no reservations at all.

My view, as you might guess if you read last week’s column, is somewhere in between the two extremes. Should three-year-olds play chess at all? By and large, no, but I know parents who have successfully taught their three-year-olds to play. The vast majority, though, will, like the young boy I met the other day, be far too young even to master Noughts and Crosses. Should parents expose young children to this sort of publicity? It’s not something I’d do myself if I had children, but then I wouldn’t expose myself to that sort of publicity either. Yes, some child prodigies are spoiled brats with unpleasantly pushy parents, but others, probably the majority in the case of chess, are genuinely talented children whose parents are making sacrifices to help them succeed. As a chess teacher it’s not my business to be judgemental, at least in public, about how parents bring up their children as long as it doesn’t cross the line into child abuse. I have in the past refused to teach children who are clearly being pushed by their parents into doing something they don’t want to do and are not enjoying the lessons.

So what do we know about Misha Osipov? Can he actually play chess or is the whole thing just a fraud or a publicity stunt? No doubt he has an exceptional memory: he had probably memorised the answers to the puzzles and it’s possible the game against Karpov was at least partly staged. Apparently he holds the ‘2nd junior Russian grade’ in chess. I have a rough idea about what ‘2nd grade’ means but perhaps someone could enlighten me about what junior Russian grades are? Are they based on playing or just answering questions and solving puzzles? We’re told he enjoys playing chess online, but who knows whether or not he’s getting any help? He doesn’t seem to have an official rating, although there are several other three-year-olds on the Russian rating list, something I do find extremely disturbing. Even if a very small number of three-year-olds are ready to play a complete game of chess, I’d very much doubt whether they’re ready to take part in competitions.

I’m sorry if you feel I’m being rather indecisive on this, but I think it really depends on context. If you ask me whether Qh4 is a good move for Black that also depends on context. After 1. f3 e5 2. g4 it’s undoubtedly a good move, but after 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 it’s certainly not a good move. These things depend a lot on things like family dynamics, parental aims and cultural ethos. So, although I find it rather concerning in many ways I’d rather wait and see before commenting further. If I hear any significant future developments concerning young Mikhail I’ll keep you in touch.

I’d like to leave you with one last thought. I’ve just invested in a copy of Mozart 225, a collection of 200 CDs including every surviving note of music written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with many of his most important compositions in two contrasting recordings, along with two sumptuously produced hardback books and various other collectible items. If you lose pushy parents and child prodigies you lose Mozart as well as Capablanca. Of course you might also save the lives of, to take just one example, Lena Zavaroni. It’s not an easy ethical question: I guess the only answer, if there is one, is for parents to listen to their children and teachers to listen to their pupils.

Richard James

Hanging Piece Syndrome

One of the bigger problems every single beginner and many “improvers” face early in their chess careers is losing material due to hanging pieces. A hanging piece is one that’s not only unprotected but can be captured en prise or freely, meaning the hanging piece is captured without any loss of material to the player doing the capturing. Unlike an even exchange of material where one piece is exchanged for another piece of equal value, such as a Knight for a Bishop, capturing a hanging piece costs the attacker nothing! You capture the unprotected piece and the piece you used to capture it lives on to fight another battle.

Hanging a piece can have a devastating effect on your game. Of course, if you hang a pawn or minor piece as a beginner playing against another beginner, you may not face an immediate loss and even go on to win the game. However, if you lose your Queen because you brought her out early and left her unprotected, your ability to win will be greatly diminished. The Queen is a piece that most beginners can’t seem to live (or win a game) without (personally, I dislike the Queen).

Of course, the beginning chess player will hang pieces simply due to a lack of playing experience and board vision (the ability to closely examine the entire board/position). Therefore, the beginner shouldn’t be too hard on themselves when they hang a piece. However, they should start working on ways to avoid this problem and the best way to do this is by using training software that has program modules dealing with spotting hanging pieces. Peshka/ChessOK has a software program titled Easy Ways of Taking Pawns and Pieces. It has 5,800 problems that revolving around finding hanging pieces, categorized into groupings based on a specific piece (purchase the hard copy rather than downloading it because some players have had past problems with downloading from their site).

The goal is to find the hanging or undefended piece and capture it. While this program deals with opposition hanging pieces rather than your own hanging pieces, it gets you, the beginner, employing a technique that is critical to chess success, seeing the entire board by using Board Vision. Too often, beginners lose or hang pieces because they’re not looking at the entire board but where the immediate action is (such as the center during the opening). By not scanning the entire board, especially your opponent’s side, you’re apt to miss opposition pieces aimed at your unprotected material. Board vision takes time to develop but working with a software training program will help speed the process up.

When doing the software’s exercises, you’re forced to look at the entire board because often, the piece that’s hanging will be on one side of the board while the piece that can capture it is on the other side. Sometimes, you’ll be given a choice of two identical pieces to capture. You have to look closely because one of those pieces is protected, which means it’s not truly hanging while the other is free for the taking.

Of course, it’s another thing to avoid hanging pieces in an actual game of chess! It becomes more difficult because unlike the software’s problems, which are stagnant and set up, the arrangement your of pawns and pieces (as well as that of the opposition) will change with each move. This means you have have to constantly check the vulnerability of your material before considering making any move. You have to be patient (a lost art in our fast paced, technological world).

The idea of having to check every single pawn and piece on the board (both yours and your opponent’s) before each move seems like an absolutely daunting task to the beginner, which it is. However, with time, the beginner will do this automatically and systematically. You have to get in the habit of doing this which is the hardest hurdle to cross. To simplify this process and make it less maddening to execute, you have to follow some sort of logical, systematic order when examining your opponent’s material for threats.

Start with the pawns. Pawns have the lowest relative value which means they can easily push a piece of greater value back. Look at each opposition pawn and first, make sure it’s not attacking one of your pieces. Then see how many moves it will take for any opposition pawns to reach and attack your pieces. You’ll also want to know what opposition minor pieces will have access to the board if any pawns blocking those pieces in moves forward. In other words, “if my opponent moves the c pawn forward two squares, will a piece originally blocked by that pawn be able to attack one of my pieces.”

Next look at each opposition piece and trace its line of attack across the board, noting any places (squares) where enemy pieces intersect with your pieces. Obviously, if you find one of your pieces can be captured En Prise, you better move that piece or defend it. What happens if the piece being attacked (your piece) is already defended? First, determine the value of the attacking piece and compare it to the value of your piece. If your piece is worth more that the attacking piece, get your piece out of the line of fire! If the value of both pieces is even, you have to consider how the exchange will effect your position. For example, if trading minors with your opponent leads to you having doubled pawn or your opponent being able to launch a nasty attack, you may want to avoid the exchange.

As a beginner, you have to get good at discovering any hanging pieces before your opponent does. Again, there are various software programs and apps for this type of training. The advantage to the above mentioned program is the large number of problems your have to solve. The more you put into it, the better your results. I recommend that my students do the entire program twice. While the program does deal exclusively with opposition hanging pieces, it develops your ability to examine the entire board which means you’ll notice any potentially hanging pieces belonging to you. You’d be surprised at how quickly you start to see everything on the board once you start doing the exercises. You’ll be able to spot any pieces your opponent hangs automatically after putting some effort into it (doing the program’s problems). It should be noted that you should slowly work through the problems and see if you can find a good counter move for the opposition after you make the correct move that solves the puzzle. This will heighten your learning greatly. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

A Nuanced View

I’m sure all politicians, whatever their views, will have a shared frustration that their opinions are frequently misunderstood, misinterpreted and oversimplified, and that others will often claim they hold views which are very different from their actual views.

This is going to happen whenever you put your views on any subject in writing. Those who have genuine knowledge and expertise in a subject will usually have pretty nuanced views, while those with less knowledge and expertise will be more likely to see things in black and white.

Jack and Jake are five years old. They’ve seen a chess set in a shop window and would like to learn the game. Should they do so or not? Jane and Joan, who enjoy playing chess in their school club, have been given entry forms for a junior tournament. Should they take part or not? Tim and Tom are learning some mini-chess games as part of the maths curriculum in their school. Should they play chess at home with their parents or not?

Here are my answers. Jack should learn chess, but Jake shouldn’t. Jane should play in the tournament but Joan shouldn’t. Tim should play with his parents at home, but Tom shouldn’t.

How come?

The reason is very simple. Children are different. Some children have a lot of potential chess ability, most children have a fairly average chess ability. Some children will find chess very difficult at any age. (Most of the latest research from the likes of Robert Plomin suggests that, despite what some might believe, IQ is more down to nature than nurture.) Parents are different as well. Some will be knowledgeable about chess, some won’t. Some will have the time and inclination to help their children, some won’t. Some will want their children to take chess seriously, some won’t. So it all depends. I’ll repeat that in capitals for anyone who doesn’t understand me: IT ALL DEPENDS!!

Jack is a precociously bright and mature boy. His parents are both proficient chess players and will be able to help him a lot at home. He will probably benefit from learning chess now and in a couple of years time he’ll be able to do well in junior tournaments. Jake is an averagely bright boy whose maturity, concentration and self-regulation skills are age-appropriate but no more than that. His parents are not chess players and are too busy to have time to learn the game properly. It would be great for Jake to start by playing some simpler strategy games and perhaps learn chess in a few years time.

Jane, like Jack, has chess playing parents. She has learnt a lot and wins most of her games at school. She’s also mature enough to understand that she’ll probably lose a few games in her first tournament. Joan has not yet reached the same level and she’d struggle against the stronger players she’d meet in a tournament. She really wouldn’t enjoy the experience, so would be well advised to wait a year or so, until she’s had more experience.

Tim’s parents, while not brilliant players, know enough to be able to help him with the basics. It would be really great for Tim to play chess at home. When he can beat them he’ll be able to join a chess club and perhaps have lessons with a private tutor. Tom’s parents think they’re good players, but they set the board up the wrong way round, think rooks are called castles, have never heard of the en passant rule, and start their games with 1. h4 2. Rh3. It might be helpful if they played mini-games with him, but if they tried to play complete games they’d put him off by passing on their own bad habits and misinformation about the game. It would be great if they could buy The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, or perhaps talk to Tim’s parents. If parents are knowledgeable about chess they should certainly play with their kids, as long as they talk through what’s happening rather than just acting the competitive dad and taking all their pieces without explanation.

I’ll say it again. The right age for a child to learn chess might be anywhere between 3 and 13, or even not at all. It depends on all sorts of things: the child, how much the parents know about chess, how much time they have to help their children, the culture in which the child is being brought up.

My interpretation of educational theory as applied to chess (and if you disagree or interpret educational theory another way please feel free to let me know) is that typically developing children will be able to handle simple abstract logic from the age of about 7, and will be able to handle complex multi-dimensional abstract logic from the age of about 11. Some children will be able to handle both simple and complex logic much earlier, others much later, or not at all.

It seems reasonable to me that primary/elementary school education should be based on the typically developing child, while also providing opportunities for those whose development is advanced and support for those who are lagging behind. Bear in mind also that some children might excel in a particular domain at an early age but make little progress, while others might struggle at an early age but later excel. I excelled academically at an early age but struggled later, while I know a lot of people who struggled in their early years at school but went on to achieve academic success at a high level.

Observe, if you will, the Finnish education system, considered by many to be the best in the world. Children don’t start formal education in the three Rs until the age of 7. As these subjects involve logic this makes perfect sense to me. However, schools provide facilities and opportunities for younger children who wish to do so to read books and do sums. Many children take advantage of this, and will also be learning these subjects at home.

So if you want to put strategy games on a primary school curriculum (and whether or not you should do this is another matter entirely) you should probably be doing so using games requiring simple logic rather than complex logic: mini-chess rather than ‘big chess’. You should also provide facilities for younger children who are ready to play ‘big chess’, either through a school chess club or through working in conjunction with an external junior chess club.

Richard James

The Politics of Chess

Of course, many of you readers are expecting this to be an article regarding infighting within the world of professional chess. However, this assumption is actually farthest from the truth! This article came about thanks to the recent Presidential election here in the United States (or should I say un-united states). How, you may ask, can a political election possibly serve as the inspiration for a chess article? It has to do with the subject of civics, an area of study schools here have deemed unnecessary as a practical course. This has led to a generation that has no idea how Democracy works, let alone how to vote (sadly, many simply choose not to vote and then complain about the state of politics after the election). I decided, rather than taking up the art of violent protesting which serves no real purpose, to introduce my chess students to the world of civics and politics via the game of chess. Here’s the gist of my lessons regarding chess and civics/politics. This lesson is taught to older students only because young children would end up having nightmares and be sent to a therapist due to my harsh approach.

We start the lesson by defining key ideas such as voting, The Electoral College (who are more mysterious that the Free Masons) and diplomacy as well as the role of the President, Congress and the Senate. I ask students questions regarding the above concepts during the lessons to make sure they understand the subject matter. Then the narrative starts:

Chess is a war between two countries. Our two countries both see an opportunity to expand their global control and will do whatever it takes to achieve this goal. Sadly diplomacy has failed and our two countries, Blacklandia and Whitelandia have decided to face off on the battlefield. Both Congress and the Senate have voted for a declaration of war. This is a fight to the death. You are the President of your country and now must face the hard decisions the Commander and Chief deals with during times of war, namely the loss of life. You cannot avoid the loss of life in war so you must try to minimize it. This means that the pawns and pieces (soldiers) you send out onto the field of battle must be carefully deployed to minimize loss. Your fellow countrymen have voted you into office and their fate lies in your hands. Don’t let them down. At this point, we discuss the role of the military during times of war as well as how it effects the economy.

The battle starts when one side strikes the first blow. In the game, members of the Whitelandia army decide to attack first. As with all wars, it’s not the King that goes out onto the battle field but the lowly foot soldier, the pawn. The pawn comes from small towns scattered throughout the country and is at the bottom of the military food chain (and the economic food chain as well). However, just because the pawn is low man on the Totem Pole doesn’t mean he can’t do great things. The history of warfare is littered with exceptionally brave acts and won battles thanks to the pawn. Treat him with care and always have him work with his fellow pawns (pawn chains) and provide support for the more specialized warriors who we’ll meet next. Pawns are the first to walk onto the battlefield so respect their bravery.

As with all military forces, there are specialized units that can greatly effect the outcome of a battle, but only if they’re used correctly. During the early stages of a battle, the opening game, it is crucial that your troops are carefully placed. You job is to corner the enemy King who, at the start of a game, is on a central file. The most direct route to victory is through the center of the board during the opening. Therefore, you should develop your forces towards the four central squares (d4, d5, e4 and e5). You cannot waste time because the other side is trying to achieve the same goal. So who do we deploy? The minor pieces of course!

We don’t want to waste time because the citizens of your country want this war won quickly and with minimal loss of life (pawns and pieces). Thus, you should try to develop a new piece with each move, only launching an attack on the enemy King once you’ve achieved maximum development of your military forces. What happens if you don’t do this? You approval ratings go down and you become an unpopular President. We briefly discuss the Vietnam War and it’s affect on Presidential approval ratings at this point.

Of course, you have to keep your King safe, the King really being you the President because if you’re taken down, the war ends and you lose. Therefore, Castling early is a sound idea. Unlike our political leaders who never actually fight on the battlefield, the King gets his hands dirty in the endgame!

To minimize the loss of life, you don’t want to attempt an early attack against the enemy. If you do and that attack fails, your fellow countrymen will want to know why you behaved in such a risky manner, allowing other countrymen to die. Build up your control of the battlefield, trying to maximize the activity of your forces before attacking. Remember, wars are not won in a single battle. They are won through many smaller battles. In chess, these smaller battles are called tactical plays. A brief discussion of the American Civil War reinforces this point as well as the great cost of life that war causes. Once you’ve developed your forces, only then should you consider striking at the enemy.

This is where your specialized forces come into play. The name of the game here is tactics. If the battlefield is crowded with soldiers from both sides we can can use our Knights to reek havoc because Knights can jump over other pieces. They’re like the Air Force! If the field of battle is wide open we use our long distance artillery, the Bishops and Rooks. We briefly discuss the idea of supply lines, something all armies need to survive, using examples from World War Two. I also interject a dialog about the cost of war and how it effects the National economy. In chess, keeping an open supply line means pawns and pieces supporting one another. If your material is chaotically placed across the board, you forces may end up being captured. This means a loss of life and there go your approval ratings as Commander and Chief!

Only now should you consider bringing in your special forces, the Queen. The Queen is your special ops (operations) force. Unlike a real army in which there are many members of the Special Forces, you only have one Queen, so use her awesome and deadly power wisely. If you don’t, the enemy will use their forces to hunt her down!

Eventually the time to attack comes. Are your pieces aimed at the enemy King? Are your forces deployed to active squares? Are your pieces coordinated and your supply lines open? These are all questions every Commander and Chief asks themselves before launching that final assault needed to win the war. It’s here that you must be patient and careful, often having to make adjustments in your position to ensure success. If everything is in place, it’s time to strike and deliver checkmate!

The game of chess can be used to teach a number of external concepts and is an entertaining way to do so. I teach the above ideas regarding politics over a few classes so that students can really grasp and thoroughly understand the concepts being discussed. Of course, the Electoral College still remains a bit of mystery since people know more about the doings of the Free Masons than the rather mysterious Electoral College. It should be noted that there’s nothing educational about this college. Here’s a game played by two members of the Electoral College to enjoy until next week. Just kidding. Those guys don’t play chess, they mysteriously elect Presidents and leave the rest of us dumbfounded…

Hugh Patterson

Walking the Dog

When I was a boy we had a dog. Every day one of us would take her for a walk in the local park, where we’d meet a lot of other dogs and their owners. I still live very near the same park now, but about a mile away. (It’s a linear riverside park, about two miles in length. I used to live half a mile from one end: now I live half a mile from the other end. I’ll tell you another time and another place about the farm and flax mills where I used to live and the gunpowder mills where I now live.) These days, more than half a century on, you’ll still find a lot of dogs there, but the walkers will be different. You won’t find any kids walking their dogs as I did as kids aren’t allowed out on their own any more. They’re probably too busy looking at screens, anyway. You won’t find so many individuals or families walking their dogs, either. What you will find, especially on weekdays, which you wouldn’t have found when I was a boy, is dog walkers, with several dogs under their control. In this part of the world, many people are too busy, or just too preoccupied, to give their pooches the exercise they require so they’re prepared to pay good money for others to do so.

At one level you might think it’s sad that so many people lack the time or inclination to exercise their dogs, but at another level everyone wins. The dog owners are happy to be relieved of a chore. The dog walkers are happy because they can make a decent living doing something they enjoy, earning money from their love of animals and spending time in the open air. The dogs are happy as well: perhaps walkies is more fun if you can share it with your four-legged friends rather than just your two-legged master. Bear in mind that the owners aren’t looking for anything difficult or complicated: they just want someone reliable who is good with animals and will keep them safe. If they want their dog to win the Greyhound Derby or become Supreme Champion at Cruft’s they’ll take a different approach.

It seems to me that, in my affluent part of London, parents take the same attitude to playing with their children that they take to playing with their dogs. They’re too busy to do it themselves, working long hours in demanding jobs to enable them to afford the exorbitant house prices in this part of the world. They recognise, quite rightly, the benefits of strategy games for young children, but many of them lack the time or the inclination to play these games. So instead, just as they’ll happily pay a dog walker to entertain Fido and Rover, they’ll happily sign Johnny and Jenny up for their school chess club. Again, at one level everyone wins. The parents, if they’re not themselves interested in chess, are happy to be relieved of a chore. The chess tutors are happy to be paid for something they enjoy. Johnny and Jenny are happy because playing chess with their friends at school is more fun than playing with Mum and Dad at home. If they want Johnny and Jenny to become grandmasters they’ll take a different approach: they’ll sign them up for a higher level club (in my area that will be Richmond Junior Club), enter them in competitions and perhaps employ a private tutor.

Now if you’re reading this you’ll probably agree about the benefits of strategy games for kids, and probably also agree that chess is one of the world’s greatest strategy games. You’ll also agree that some talented children with supportive parents can excel at chess at an early age. Johnny and Jenny’s parents, though, are too busy provide much support, and let’s assume they are typical, rather than exceptionally bright, students. Is chess really the best game for them to start with, or would they do better to learn simpler games, moving onto chess when they’re ready? Perhaps we should teach them a wide variety of games from different cultures. Perhaps we should introduce them to chess through mini-games before encouraging them to play full games. Perhaps they’ll benefit more from playing games which are easier to master than chess. Perhaps they’ll gain more enjoyment from games with simpler rules which don’t last as long. Perhaps if we take this approach we’ll be able to persuade more schools to start clubs and more chess teachers will be able to make more money.

Ideally, perhaps, schools should run two clubs: a main group for kids who can already play a complete game, and a beginners’ group for kids who can’t play a complete game, or who would just prefer simpler and quicker games.

I’ve been helping a large local Primary School with their chess club for a year now. The club is over-subscribed (this term we’ve set a cap on 24 members) and the school wants to start another session next term. I’ve proposed that they make this a mini-chess club, and the teacher involved is very much in agreement with this. Here’s an edited version of the letter I’ve suggested could go out to parents:

Dear Parents

Strategy games should play a part in all children’s lives. They provide a fun and enjoyable way for children to learn logic, problem solving, self-regulation and social skills.

There are many, like me, who believe that chess is the greatest of all strategy games, but, because of its difficulty, it’s really much more suitable for older children and adults than for younger children. Although most young children have little difficulty learning how the pieces move, they find it hard to cope with the complex abstract logic and the multitude of choices every move.

In this club children will not be playing complete games of chess, but will instead be playing mini-games, solving puzzles and answering quizzes using subsets of the chess. The course will be fully structured and fully documented so that parents and other family members will be able to replicate the activities at home. We’d also like to stress that the club will be equally suitable for both girls and boys.

Perhaps this sort of club will attract more members. Perhaps parents and children just want chess clubs and nobody will be interested. Either way, it will be good to find out. I’ll try to get back to you in the New Year and let you know what happens next.

Richard James

Thinking Skills Revisited (2)

This week I’m revisiting questions 5 to 8 of my thinking skills quiz. My thanks to those readers who have been in touch to provide feedback regarding their pupils’ results.

In Q5 Black’s just taken our knight on c3. It looks like we have a straight choice between capturing the knight with the queen or the b-pawn. In fact quite a few children fail to capture the knight, perhaps thinking that it won’t run away and they’ll be able to take it next move, or perhaps just not noticing that they can take it at all. I tweaked this position slightly from last time, placing the black bishop on e7 rather than c5. When the bishop was on c5 most children captured with the queen in order to threaten the bishop. Some of them pointed out that it was also a double attack, threatening Nxe5 as well as Qxc5. Would moving the black bishop to a safe square make any difference? From the small sample this time round, the answer is ‘no’. All the children who captured on c3 chose the queen, telling me that they wanted to get their most powerful piece into play. None of them asked themselves what Black might play next, so they were all oblivious to the potential pin Bb4 after Qxc3. At this level asking “It I play that move, what will my opponent do next?” is just too hard, but without asking themselves this question they will find it hard to make much progress.

I should add that, if you add the moves O-O for White and Be6 for Black, so that Qxc3 is a viable option, strong players would still prefer bxc3, moving another pawn towards the centre, but at this level children have little idea about the subtleties of pawn play so it would be automatic for them to capture with the queen.

Q6 is a standard tactical idea which happens quite often. It’s helpful to be aware of it and hard to find the right answer if you haven’t seen it before. Most (but not all) children will notice that their queen is in danger. A popular choice would be f3, a perfectly reasonable and logical move. Others will choose a queen move such as Qd2, again very sensible. Some choose Qxg4, usually not noticing that the bishop is defended by the knight, but sometimes spotting that the knight on f6 is pinned and planning a trade of queens and minor pieces. This is also not a bad move, but there’s something much better.

A few children do notice (perhaps they’ve seen the idea before) that the move Bxf6 wins a piece whether Black captures the bishop or the queen in reply. This is hard at this level, though. It’s automatic, if your queen is attacked, to consider moving her to a safe square, blocking the attack or capturing the attacking piece. The idea of creating an Equal or Bigger Threat (EBT) is not so easy.

Looking through my RJCC database (nearly 17000 games played over 30 years) the most frequent tactical idea, occurring, or being missed, in hundreds of games, is the queen fork with Qa4+, or Qa5+ if you’re black, hitting a loose minor piece, often, but not always, on b4/b5. Remember, Loose Pieces Drop Off (LPDO).

This position is a typical example, but few children at this level find the right move for the right reason. Quite a few children look blankly at this position, finding it hard to suggest any move at all, as they don’t think anything very much is happening. Some of them notice that their knight is pinned and resolve to do something about it by playing a3 or Bd2. Others are seduced by the idea of a check and might play either Bb5+ or Qa4+, or even suggest either move, being unable to choose, giving as their reason ‘because it’s check’. Some children think that saying check makes a move worth playing. Always check – it might be mate! Not very many will suggest the correct move for the correct reason. To get full credit they’d need to mention that the move is a fork, hitting the unprotected bishop on b4, and also to note that they’d meet Nc6 with Qxc6+. Of course you also have to notice that after 1. Qa4+ Nc6 2. Qxc6+ Bd7 3. Qb7 your queen will eventually be able to scurry back to safety.

The final question was designed deliberately to be confusing. Nonetheless, a few children do manage to solve it for the right reason. First of all you have to see that your bishop is under threat. Secondly, you have to see that it’s also pinned against the rook on a1. Then you have to notice that you can move the bishop to c3 where it defends the rook on a1. Finally, you have to spot that after 1. Bc3 Qxc3 you have 2. Rxa8+. Will children move their bishop to a safe square, overlooking the pin? Will they decide they’re losing a piece anyway and try something else?

A popular choice is e5. There might be several reasons for this: i) they haven’t noticed their bishop is threatened: ii) they’ve noticed their bishop is threatened and think they can’t save it: iii) they’re thinking ‘if you take my bishop I’ll take your knight’. But the move can be met most simply by Nd5, when Black’s winning a piece because the white bishop no longer has access to c3. Another popular choice is Qc4: I really hope you’ll take my bishop because then I’ll take your queen. Unfortunately the move’s no good because Black can trade queens before capturing the bishop. Rd1 is also sometimes suggested by children who think that after Rxa5, Rd8 might possibly be checkmate.

This quiz demonstrates a few things about how children think about chess positions and why they make mistakes. At this age children find it difficult to think about two different aspects of the position at the same time. Although they might analyse accurately if they see a familiar idea such as a back rank mate, by and large they will make one of two mistakes. They will either think “I’ll go there, then I’ll go there, then I’ll go there” or “I’ll go there because I hope you’ll do something really stupid”, or, in another version of this, “I’ll go there because I hope it might be checkmate”. All of which is very much what you’d expect if you read up on children’s cognitive development.

I’m planning to produce more of these quizzes, which might possibly make a book in the Chess for Heroes series. Although all the questions in this quiz had one right answer, there’s no reason why future questions shouldn’t have two, three or many right answers. I’m just as interested in the reasons for my students’ choice as I am in the moves themselves.

If you have any positions you’d like to submit for future quizzes of this nature, or if you’ve tested this quiz on any of your students, I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Richard James

Tracking Improvement

Many of my students have asked me how they were doing in regards to their own improvement on the chessboard. If you think about it, it’s an extremely valid question since it’s often difficult to measure one’s chess improvement when all you see are your losses. In fact, most beginners (and many experienced players) become frustrated because they feel as if they’re getting nowhere when it comes to honing their chess skills. It’s a lot easier to see progress in others than it is to see progress in your own efforts. Again, we tend to see our losses as total losses, after all, a loss just proves you’re not moving forward. Right? Absolutely wrong, so remove that idea from your thinking. I really mean it, remove the idea that a loss is simply an example of your chess playing shortcomings! Great strides in improvement can be found in even the most brutal losses (within reason).

Of course, someone reading this (other than my wife and mother) is going to think, “hey, if I just suffered a brutal loss, doesn’t that mean I’m doing something wrong?” I’d answer this by saying, “you have to lose a lot of games along the road to mastery.” However, there’s more to it than just simply saying you have to lose before you win. Let’s look at a hypothetical situation:

A student attends my chess classes, showing up every day, paying attention to my lectures and then acquiring some of my recommended chess books to study. This student, who was brand new to the game when we first met, also invests in a chess playing program so they have an opponent around the clock. The students reads and takes that new found knowledge with them when they play against the computer. They lose game after game because they set the software’s playing level fairly high for a beginner. The software program records all of the games played. After a few months, the student comes to me nearly in tears saying “I’m just not any good at this so I’m going to give up.” I say to them, as I say to every students who thinks about giving up, “let me take a look at the games you’ve played against the computer and see where you’re at. Don’t give up yet!”

I look at their games in chronological order, from the first game played to the last game played. I see a much different picture. I see improvement from the first game through the last, even if the student in question lost every game they played. It’s not the result of the game that I’m interested in but the application of their chess studies to the games. Here’s what I look for.

Obviously, I don’t have to worry about illegal piece movement and the breaking of rules when students are playing against the computer because the computer will not let you do anything illegal! What I’m really looking for is improvement. What do I mean by improvement?

The game of chess has three distinct phases, the opening, middle and endgame. Each of these three phases require that certain tasks be accomplished, so that’s where I start. I examine each game phase and determine, first, if my students are applying the correct principles for the phase of the game and second, if those applied principles are improving in scope. I don’t expect a student to play a perfect opening at the start of their chess careers. I want to see the basics starting to come to light!

Most beginners are lost during the opening, not controlling the board’s center with a combination of pawns and pieces (especially the minor pieces). Add to this, the idea that beginner’s pieces aren’t coordinated from the start and you can see why they become so discouraged. The first thing I look at in their games against the computer (from first game to last) is whether they’re getting their pieces out towards the board’s center during the first six to eight moves. I give them a point for each minor piece moved towards the board’s center, ignoring piece coordination until I examine later games. As I play through the students games, I look to see if they start coordinating their pieces in later games. One point is awarded to each pair of coordinated pieces (five points for three pieces working together). A point is awarded for castling as well as good pawn structure.

Next, I examine the middle game, a realm in which many beginners have gone down in flames. What I’m look at here is further activity of pawns and pieces, awarding a point for each piece that is further developed to an active square. Points are taken away for premature attacks and capturing of opposition material if it damaged their position. Combinations that lead to tactical plays get five points.

The endgame, if reached (beginners seldom reach a real endgame), is tough for the beginner because they think that less material makes for less thinking! Wrong! While checkmate with a pair or Rooks or a Queen and King score a point, proper pawn promotion earns a whopping five points! I add up the scores for each game played and we look to see if the score increases from game to game.

By going through a student’s collection of games against their computer from the first game to the last, while scoring points for the above mentioned principled play and adding those points up, can give the student a snapshot of their improvement over time. I suggest you try this with your own recorded games. While you may be losing a lot of games, you’ll at least see that you are improving and getting better at the game we love so much in the long run. Don’t become discouraged if you’re not winning many games because you’re more likely improving but that improvement is buried under the stigma of losing. You just have to look beyond the losses and look for the things you’re doing right. Remember, even the world’s top players lose games and they don’t give up. Also, remember to be kind to yourself when assessing your improvement. My first chess teacher fired me as a student because, as he put it, “you really don’t have the intellectual skill set to play chess.” In other words, he thought I was the village idiot. I had the satisfaction of running into him decades later and crushing him on the sixty four squared jungle. While I try to be a gracious winner, I did kind of dance around the table yelling “ha ha ha, whose the idiot now.” Not my finest moment as an adult! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson