Category Archives: Children’s Chess

Sources And Thoughts On Teaching kids

Normally, I use books which advocate a step by step method in order to teach kids, but every kid is different and you can’t apply the same method to all of them. One day I came across the following sentence when I was reading Chess Fundamentals.

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

So why can’t we do just this while teaching tactics to kids? I didn’t see why not and came to the conclusion that the mates in two from Laszlo Polgar’s 5334 Problems, Combination and Games was the best source of material for teaching kids tactics and mating patterns, and without using any jargon! There is also no need to find problem sets for different tactical motifs. One of my students did around 1600 mates in two and was then able to find tactical possibility without learning particular tactical motifs.

As I gained experience in the field of chess coaching, my belief become stronger and stronger that kids should solve more and more checkmate in one move problems before proceeding further. Here you can use Elementary Checkmates I and II that can be found at ChessOK.

Ashvin Chauhan

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Abraham’s Choice

Last Tuesday (9 September 2014) my old friend Abraham Neviazsky died suddenly at the age of 80. I’d known Abraham more or less since joining Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club in 1966.

Abraham was a remarkable character who had learnt chess as a boy in Lithuania, having been taught by the likes of Mikenas. His family had suffered hardship during the Second World War, and eventually found their way, via Poland, to Israel. Abraham later married an English girl and moved to England.

Abraham was noted for his devotion to Fulham football club, and also for his devotion to moving his b-pawn two squares at the start of the game. I played in the same team as him on many occasions and rarely if ever saw him play any first move other than b4. He didn’t play it in a particularly scary way, but was confident and experienced in the slightly unusual middle game positions he reached. In recent years he had also taken to starting his games with Black with a6 followed by b5.

The subject of opening choice has been a topic of debate recently on Nigel’s Facebook page. How should we choose our own openings and what advice should we give to our students, whether adults or children?

Should we encourage them, like Abraham, to stick to the same opening at all times or to vary their openings? And should we encourage them to choose main line openings or, again like Abraham, unusual openings?

I was an active tournament player in the mid 1970s, when the English Chess Explosion, along with the explosion in opening books, was getting underway. What I did was, in retrospect, exactly the wrong thing to do, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. Whenever a new Batsford opening book came out I’d rush to Foyle’s to buy it on publication day, skim through the pages excitedly and play it at the next opportunity. I’d get a bad position because I didn’t really understand the opening, decide it wasn’t for me, await the publication of the next opening book and repeat the whole cycle all over again. When I eventually realised that I was no longer interested in studying chess seriously I was left with the opening repertoire I had when the music stopped. I haven’t been happy with what I play, especially with White, but don’t feel confident playing anything else. I know a little bit about most openings but not enough about anything to play it against a strong opponent. I’m envious of my friends who’ve been playing the same non-critical openings for the past 40 years and know exactly what they’re doing at the start of the game.

But there are two reasons why I don’t really regret taking that approach. As a chess teacher it’s important that I know a bit about all openings so that I can find out how much my students know about them, so that I can avoid falling into the trap of only teaching the openings I play myself, and so that I can avoid giving them bad advice. A few months ago I watched two colleagues demonstrating a game to a class of eager students. The game started 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. d4 exd4 5. 0-0 Nxe4, which they castigated for being too greedy and moving a piece twice in the opening. In fact it’s main line theory and perfectly good for Black, but as neither of my colleagues played this line with either colour they were unaware of this.

There’s another thing as well. It seems to me that only playing e4 and never d4 is like only listening to Bach and never to Mozart, or only reading Dickens and never Jane Austen. Always playing b4 on your first move, then, must be like only listening to, I don’t know, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. From my perspective it would seem that, from his choice of opening, Abraham only experienced a small part of the world of chess. But I’ve known few people who played chess with so much enjoyment and enthusiasm as Abraham. He’d have liked a few more years, but suffering a heart attack while playing chess against an old friend is probably the way he’d have wanted to go.

Richard James

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Dwelling on Lost Games

“Don’t dwell on the game you lost last week. Focus on the game you’re playing now!” Those were my words to one of my students before he started playing a game against an opponent he lost to the previous week. While we improve by learning from our losses, we can do more harm than good (to our game) if we dwell upon loss in the wrong way. Embrace a lost game as a chance to learn from your mistakes but remember not to overstay your welcome by simply dwelling on the loss. Otherwise, you may become slowly paralyzed by fear.

One of the hurdles that beginners face, both young and old, is surviving long enough to win a few games as a novice player. The human ego is fragile, especially in the young. Humans, again both young and old, have a habit of letting their egos do the talking when they excel at something. In junior chess you’ll often see a bit of bragging and gloating from the winner and a potential outpouring of tears from the loser (tears being proportional to the level of gloating and bragging). Simply put, kids don’t like to lose but often don’t understand the concept of having to put work into their game to avoid losing. One form of “work” that can have the greatest results is game analysis.

I teach students to use their losses as an opportunity to learn! When you lose a game its because something went wrong. Finding out where you went wrong can go a long way towards improving your game. For beginners, a single weak move can lead to disaster. The reason for this is because bad moves have a cumulative effect. Its the domino effect. If you make a bad move that weakens your position and your opponent makes a good move that strengthens their position, things will get worse before they get better (for you). Like history, if you fail to learn from your mistakes, you’re doomed to repeat them. With that said, how does the beginner determine where they went wrong?

Game analysis is something players of all skill levels can do. Obviously, a highly rated player will be able to do some serious in-depth analysis that is beyond the technical scope of the beginner. However, the novice player can do some basic analysis that will help them determine where they went wrong. All they have to do is to ask a simple question after examining each move. That questions is “does this move adhere to sound game principles?”

Beginners have a terrible time with opening play. Therefore, when going through your opening moves, you should examine each move and see whether or not it adheres to the opening principles. Beginners should keep their checklist simple. The opening principles that should be applied are central pawn development, minor piece development to active squares and King safety. If the beginner is playing the white (or black) pieces and, on move one develops a flank pawn, such as those found on the “a” or “h” files, they’re not addressing control of the center and that’s where the problem starts. If minor pieces are being developed away from the board’s center, the problem is there, etc.

For the middle game, beginners should be looking at piece activity. Are your pieces on their most active squares? Hanging pieces are another problem beginners have. If you hang a piece, go back and play through the moves made prior to the loss of that piece. By going back a few moves you’ll often see that you got distracted doing something else, such as launching a premature attack or not looking at the entire board. If an exchange has left you down material, go back three moves and play it through. You’ll see things more clearly. The point is simple: Studying your games, using basic game principles as a guide, will lead to improvement!

Endgame questions should revolve around pawn structure and King activity. Can you get a pawn to its promotion square? Can your King stop the promotion of an opposition pawn. Keep the questions you ask yourself simple. As a beginner, you’re not going to be able to analyze games like Karpov so don’t even try.

Even using game analysis and the idea of learning from your losses, some players will still become paralyzed by loss. Sometimes we face losing streaks that leave us stuck in “fear mode.” The fear of losing overwhelms us, spreading the seeds of doubt within our minds. Here’s my advice:

If you’ve gone back, played through your lost games, discovered where you went wrong and worked at correcting the problem, you’re half way to playing winning chess. You’ve found the problem and addressed it. Does that mean you’ll win your next game? In a word, no. However, it does mean that you’ll play better chess. For example, let’s say that you’ve analyzed your last lost game and sit down to play another. You know where you went wrong in that previous game and should be able to avoid that initial problem this time around. Let’s say you lose this current game. While it may be a loss, you’ve made progress because of your previous game analysis. When you analyze this current game, you’ll notice that you did better this time around, not getting into the same trouble you got into before. This is progress in small steps. Small steps leads to solid improvement.

Eventually, you’ll start winning more games than you lose. However, you have to exercise patience. Chess requires work. If you put work into your game you’ll get better. Just remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Take your time and celebrate the small improvements in your game. The overall war is won only by winning a series of smaller battles. Here’s game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Chess for Heroes Continued

Let’s assume that, whether you’re a parent or a teacher, you want your children to learn chess because you’d like to give them the opportunity, should they have the talent and the interest, to become good players.

Of course this isn’t a safe assumption. These days, at least in my part of the world, most parents and teachers want their children to learn chess either to ‘make kids smarter’ or as a low-level ‘fun’ after-school activity.

Anyway, if you want to give your children the chance to be good players (by which I don’t necessarily mean grandmasters: average club players or even weak club players as opposed to social players would be fine) they need to do three things. They need to learn chess skills, solve lots of puzzles and play lots of games in fairly serious conditions. If you’re only playing chess once a week in school you’re not going to be able to do this.

Children who come from a chess playing family will be doing these things automatically, but those whose parents are not chess players will not be able to help their children in this way. Children of primary school age from a non-chess background need external help along with parental support.

The main reason I decided to set up Chess for Heroes the way I did was the release of a new and much stronger version of Douglas Bagnall’s Javascript chess program p4wn. The original version, with some debugging from Chris Lear and hacked about a bit by me, was named Fishy Bobber on chessKIDS academy. It was fairly weak, but stronger than the other Javascript program on there, so good for training for beginners but not so good as a teaching tool. The new program is a lot stronger, as Douglas has incorporated the bug fixes made by Chris and others. It’s not fault free as yet: one issue seems to be is that it has a habit of allowing pawns to capture knights early in the game, and because there’s no opening library it can’t be used for opening training at higher levels.

There are also two very useful features. Firstly, the computer can easily be set up to play any starting position. At present I have various positions set up where the computer gives odds. This is very useful in encouraging young beginners who gain confidence from winning games. The other useful feature is that it records the game while it’s being played, so that it’s easy for the parent to cut and paste the moves and email them to their chess tutor. You can also set the program to play itself, or to act as a referee in a game between two humans. If two children are learning together, or if a parent is learning with a child, they can play on the website and the parent can submit that game to the chess tutor. You can play it on my website here.

It looks as if I’ll also be able to use this engine for endgame skills training in the next stage of Chess for Heroes. If I put it on the highest level and take out three lines of code which say “keep the king at the back for the first few moves” it seems to play endings reasonably well.

In chess, as in everything else, there’s a big difference between theory and practice. You can be very good at solving puzzles and demonstrating your chess skills but you may not be able to put this into practice in your games. So being able to provide simple constructive feedback for young children and their parents is very important. This won’t be heavy opening theory or deep analysis – just telling your pupils they need to develop their pieces more quickly, not bring their queen out too soon or try to avoid leaving pieces en prise. Advice of this nature should be invaluable to parents wanting to help their children learn chess.

So the idea of Chess for Heroes is that children should spend time at home playing games and receiving feedback on the games, learning skills and solving puzzles. We aim to provide resources for children to do all these.

Finally for now, the tagline of Chess for Heroes is ‘serious about chess’. We see chess as a serious game for older children and adults, not a fun game for young children. “I don’t want my children to do homework”, parents say to me, “because then chess wouldn’t be fun”. What’s more fun, though, winning or losing? If you take it seriously you’ll win most of your games and have fun. If you don’t take it seriously you’ll lose most of your games, find chess isn’t fun, get frustrated and give up.

Should you visit the Leipzig Gewandhaus for a symphony concert you’ll find the words RES SEVERA VERUM GAUDIUM painted on the walls. These words from Seneca translate as “True pleasure is a serious business”

My esteemed fellow Chess Improver contributor Hugh Patterson explained in a recent post that all the students in his chess clubs have to do homework. Quite right too. In my view, but this is not the view of most of those involved in primary school chess in this country, if you don’t want to improve you don’t need a teacher, and without homework you won’t improve.

Richard James

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Strategic Thinking

There are two concepts that all chess players must understand from the start; strategy and tactics. Beginners often confuse the two. Simply put, when we employ a strategy in chess, we are examining a game position in general terms and working out a plan to deal with the overall problem at hand (From a strategic problem comes a tactical solution). A tactic is the actual method we employ to bring our plan into fruition. So a strategy can be though of as our plan of action while a tactic is the actual plan in action. Strategic thinking looks at the “big picture.” Once you see the “big picture,” its time to roll up your sleeves and get down to business, resolving the strategic problem with a fist full of tactics. Einstein was a strategic thinker, calculating the variables of a problem, while Clint Eastwood portraying Dirty Harry would be a tactician, blasting away at the problem!

Tactics, such as forks, pins and skewers, are easier to learn because because they employ pattern recognition. Tactics are visual in nature. The chess student uses pattern recognition and is taught to look for specific piece/board patterns such as an opponent placing his or her Queen in front of their King on an open rank, file or diagonal. The opposition’s Queen can then become pinned to her King should our budding tactician notice this great tactical opportunity. You can think of the difference between tactics and strategy as the difference between linear and non linear mathematics. In linear mathematics, one plus one will always equal two. In non linear mathematics, one plus the one doesn’t always equal two. Strategy requires a more abstract, big picture view of the situation at hand, in this case a chess game!

To help students differentiate between tactics and strategy, we’ll consider tactical thinking first: If you’re looking at your own pawns and pieces, determining which are protected and which are not, you’re thinking tactically. Tactical thinking tends to require immediate action, such as having to protect an unprotected pawn or piece. If you’re looking for checks ,mates, forks, pins or skewers, you’re thinking tactically. Again, if you see a great tactical play, you’re going to take action immediately. If you’re trying to calculate the end result of an exchange, you’re thinking tactically. Tactical thinking means taking action (not simply thinking about it). On the other side of the coin, if you’re counting material to determine who has an advantage, you’re thinking strategically. If you’re examining a position to see whose material is more actively placed, you’re thinking strategically. If you’re contemplating attacking versus defending, you guessed it, you’re thinking strategically. Action will not be immediate as is the case with tactical thinking.

There are three simple concepts that will help you understand strategic thinking or strategy, and those are material, safety and freedom. It should be noted that these three concepts or ideas are part of the “bigger picture” or positional overview. Think of the difference between strategic and tactical thinking as viewing a painting in a museum. With strategic thinking, you’re taking in the entire painting, examining it as a whole (seeing everything at once), whereas with tactical thinking, you’re examining the painting on a more detailed level, such as brush strokes or color relationships. Tactical thinking requires that you hone in on a specific issue and resolve it through an action. Strategic thinking requires that you identify the overall problems before any action is taken. We’ll start our look at strategic thinking with an examination of material.

When we talk about material, we talking about both player’s pawns and pieces. If we want to know which player has more material, we simply count each side’s captured pawns and pieces. Of course, the pawns and pieces have been assigned a relative numeric value based of the pawn or piece’s power. The pawn, who is limited in power, is on the bottom rung of the value ladder and is worth one point. The Queen, the strongest piece in either side’s army is on the top rung of our ladder and is worth nine points (Knights and Bishops are worth approximately three points, while Rooks are worth five points).

Being able to compare the relative strength of both side’s pawns and pieces allows a player to assess a position from a strategic viewpoint. If you know you’re down a substantial amount of material, you’ll plan accordingly, avoiding the execution of any attacks that might cost you what little material you have left. If you’re ahead in material, you might be apt to launch a more aggressive attack.

Safety is another important consideration. When I say safety, I’m speaking of your King’s safety. Castling is a critical factor in any game. Most beginners who don’t castle their king to safety end up losing their games. So how does castling your King to safety and the concept of strategy fit together? Here’s how:

To castle your King, you have to move two minor pieces on the King-side or two minor pieces and your Queen on the Queen-side. You also cannot have moved your King or the Rook (on the side you intend to castle on) prior to castling. You can’t move into or through check with your King when castling. In short, you have to meet specific conditions in order to castle. Your opponent knows this and will do his or her best to thwart your chance to castle. This means you have to be on the lookout for possible attacks, checks, etc. Therefore, if you plan on castling, you have to exercise strategic thinking from the start! Following the opening principles, we know that we place a pawn in the center of the board (1.e4…e5). Moving the e pawn to e4 allows White to bring the King-side Bishop into the game. White might follow up with 2.Nf3 then 3.Bc4. These two moves put White’s King-side minor pieces on active squares and allows White to castle on move four. This is big picture thinking: White knows he or she needs to castle so a strategy is put into place to castle. Your plan to castle is strategic in nature.

The concept of Freedom is really the concept of piece activity. Beginners often have a hard time with developing their pawns and pieces to active squares. When I teach my students to develop their pawns and pieces, they often think that a pawn or piece is finished in its development after a single move. However, pieces can be further developed to more active squares. An actively developed piece finds itself on a square that controls a large number of other squares on the board, especially squares on the opponent’s side of the board. Therefore, you should always look to see if you can further develop a piece to an even more active square. Piece activity is strategic in nature rather than tactical because you’re looking at the piece in question and comparing it to the other pieces on the board. You’re looking at the big picture.

The intention of this article is to get you, the reader, to see the difference between strategies and tactics in its most basic form. I think of strategy as the job of army generals who sit behind their desks and look at the big picture while the grunts or soldiers have to put those plans into action, using tactics or simply put physical fighting. Speaking of fights, here’s game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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An Interesting Way To Teach Knight Moves To Kids

While teaching how pieces move, the most difficult to explain and understand is the knight. This is because other pieces move in in straight lines and the knight is the only piece which can jump. Kids can usually grasp the point that knight can jump but still find it difficult to understand its movements.

The best way to teach anything is to keep it simple, interesting and if possible make it funny (a kind of trigger) so that kids can easily remember it. Here is one interesting and funny method. The founder of this method is one of my chess friends (Mr. Rushang) who is a chess coach and also a very creative person. Nowadays I am using this method very effectively and enjoy doing so.

Normally we have tiles on the floor. Then we ask one of the kids to come up and ask him or her to stand on any tile they like with their legs together and then jump two steps, one by one, still with their legs together. Once he or she has completed the second jump, we ask him or her to spread their legs to show where the knight came from and where it is now. Believe me, the is very funny and effective way to teach kids knight moves. Parents even told me that after my departure the kids would continue to play this game.

If you would like to use this method on a board then you can do it with two fingers together and the same process outlined above. But it is not as funny!

Teaching should not be stereotyped, you have to make it interesting.

Ashvin Chauhan

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Chess for Heroes

In my last three posts I’ve discussed three reasons for promoting junior chess: to encourage participation in serious competitive chess at whatever level, to identify and fast track potential master strength players, and to use chess as a learning tool.

Between the 1950s and the 1970s chess was promoted in secondary schools: this proved successful in terms of our first aim. The work of the late Bob Wade, Leonard Barden and others was successful in the 1970s and 1980s in terms of our second aim. Chess in Schools and Communities is successfully pursuing the third aim, but over the past 30 years we’ve lost focus with regard to the first two.

Since the 1980s the main focus of junior chess here in the UK has been the primary school chess club. I started getting involved in primary school chess through the Richmond Chess Initiative in 1993, and after a few years I started asking questions. Yes, a few strong players came through primary school clubs, but nowhere near enough. I also didn’t see how they were ‘making kids smarter’. Richmond primary schools are the most academically successful in the country, the schools that were running chess clubs were, by and large, the most academically successful schools in Richmond, and the children who joined their chess clubs were, by and large, those who were academically strong, so there was not very much leeway in terms of making them even smarter than they were.

So our clubs were attracting a lot of very bright boys (but sadly few very bright girls) but the standard of play was, with a few exceptions, pretty low. The children enjoyed the chess clubs, and, to that extent they were an asset to the schools, but they weren’t becoming strong players or developing a long-term interest in chess.

The basic problem is that, because chess is not part of our culture, very few parents have enough knowledge about chess to help their children. Just doing 30 hours of chess in school over a year (actually more like 25 hours once you’ve taken off the time taken getting the sets out, setting them up and putting them away again) isn’t going to get you very far. Playing games at home against parents who are themselves beginners won’t help either, and losing game after game against the chess app on your mobile won’t be a lot better.

I’ve been thinking for a long time about how to get round this problem. I’ve tried handing out worksheets, giving homework, emailing parents with advice on how to help their children at home, writing books for parents, but none of this has had any success.

This time I hope I’ve found the answer.

CHESS FOR HEROES provides a workbook for children plus email access to a chess tutor for children learning the moves. There’s also a chess engine on the site which will record your games. After each module of the workbook you submit your children’s worksheet answers and games against the computer to your chess tutor who will get back to you with specific feedback on your children’s progress.

Children will benefit – they will be able to spend more time each week on chess, will improve their play, win more games and enjoy chess more.

Parents will benefit – they will get help for their children, and, by helping their children, will learn more about chess themselves.

Schools will benefit – their chess club will be stronger, and their children will learn various cognitive and non-cognitive skills which will help them excel academically.

Chess tutors will benefit – they will have something constructive to do between their lunchtime club and their after school club, and will make more money though marking their students’ worksheets and commenting on their games.

The ECF will benefit – more children will be encouraged to take part in higher level competitive chess and they will have more of a long-term interest in the game.

Finally, I will benefit – I will receive royalties for every copy of the course you buy.

Everybody wins, nobody loses. What’s not to like?

Do please visit the CHESS FOR HEROES website. If you’d like to be a CHESS FOR HEROES tutor yourself please let me know.

Richard James

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Children and Studying

If you want to get good at chess, you have to put work into it, namely in the form of studying the game’s principles. Unfortunately, living in a society that values instant gratification, we often avoid hobbies or pastimes that require serious effort. Many chess playing adults tend to learn only what is necessary to make a slight improvement in their game. Most adults work so their free time is limited which, in turn, limits the time they have to study. Children face an even great obstacle when it comes to learning chess. That obstacle is the video game. Let me explain.

I play video games now and again so I speak with a little authority on the subject. With video games, the only way to improve your skill set is to play the game over and over. Video games do not have a method of study you can employ to get better at playing them. You simply play the game over and over until you get better (or give up). The majority of my young students are video game players. When they first started their classes with me, they thought of chess and video games as being in the same category; games. They were preconditioned by their video games to approach improvement in chess by simply playing the game over and over. The idea of studying a game in a systematic way was foreign to them.

Today, my students actually embrace the idea of studying and ask for homework. When a student enters one of my classes, I make sure the parents know that work outside the classroom is necessary if their child want to get better at chess. I make a point of explaining to the parents that my reasons for giving homework are not Machiavellian on my part. No, my reasoning is simple: Children become frustrated easily and this frustration can lead to a child giving up on something they truly enjoy, such as chess. With students and parents alike, I use a music analogy:

When I was about fourteen years old, I decided that I was going to make a name for myself as a guitar player. I was determined to see my face on an album in the local record store. That was the plan! I had studying classical piano from a very young age so I knew the musician’s secret weapon for success, practice. Therefore, I locked myself in my room for a few years and taught myself guitar. By the age of seventeen, I was playing and touring in bands and had penned my first minor college radio hit (the first song I wrote). The song did well on the regional charts and I went on from there. My student’s parents, if they lived in San Francisco long enough, knew my name as a musician so they took what I had to say seriously. Study and practice. Study and practice!

When I start each class session, we briefly discuss how to get better at playing a musical instrument. Of course the discussion revolves around working at your craft by studying how to play and then practicing what you’ve learned. I had a student come to the first day of chess class in a t-shirt with my bands name on the front and an image of me playing guitar on the back. After the above opening session discussion, the student in question asked me if you really had to work that hard to get better at something. Knowing he took guitar lessons, I asked him if he practiced his guitar everyday. He said he did because his playing sounded terrible if he didn’t. I told him that the same idea applied to chess. Mastering the guitar would allow him to create art with his instrument and mastering chess would allow him to create art on the chess board. He seemed intrigued by this thought.

I poll my students at the start of every session and the majority of them either play a musical instrument or play a sport. The bottom line: both require some method of organized study followed by practice. However, just because there are similarities between learning chess and learning an instrument (or sport), doesn’t mean you’re going to get your students to throw themselves wholly into the study of chess! Rule one for me, lead by example.

I put a great deal of time into studying chess. I do it because I love the game and the more I study, the more secrets the game reveals to me. However, telling children or teenagers that the mystic secrets of the game of Kings will be revealed if they hunker down and hit the books isn’t enough. Therefore, at the start of every class, I say “guys, you’re not going to believe was I discovered in my studies last night. This is truly mind boggling and I’m not sure I can even show it to you.” The key point here is the build up. I get them pumped up to the point where they want to know what brilliant secret I learned in my chess studies. Do I share with them the greatest chess secret ever? Actually, we proceed with our regularly scheduled lesson. However, it isn’t just any old chess lesson, it’s a long lost Russian Grandmaster’s secret suddenly discovered in my studies. In actually, it might be an introduction to Knight forks or the dreaded double discovered check. The point is, it’s an adventure. I share my enthusiasm and the personal homework I’ve done with my students. Of course, the studying I’m doing is a bit more complicated than that of my students but the basic concepts are the same.

I also do any homework in the form of workbooks and handouts my students do. Yes, every year, I sit with a pencil in one hand and a workbook in the other, doing the same work I ask my students to do. Students will ask me why I bother doing their homework (since I know it already) and I tell them this, “I would never ask you to do something I didn’t do myself!”

I also use a bit of an incentive program. The more studying outside of class my students do, in the form of workbooks and handouts, the more one on one playing time they can earn with me. There is nothing wrong with a bit of incentive. Of course, my students start seeing progress because they’re studying chess outside of class so they often conclude that a bit of study can be a good thing. While it doesn’t work with every child and I did have one parent comment that my methods were on par with a television evangelist (my feathers are still ruffled over that comment), it has served the majority of my students well.

If you’re going to ask students to do outside work, make it an adventure and give them reasons for doing so that they can relate to. Well, time to go do some studying myself. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Scholastic Chess

My last two articles considered two possible reasons for running a junior chess project: to produce young people with a lifelong interest in chess and to identify and train potential IMs and GMs.

There is a third reason which is becoming increasingly popular throughout the world: scholastic chess. This involves using chess as an educational tool on the curriculum in the classroom, usually in primary/elementary schools in less affluent areas, and not necessarily having any expectations that children will become very strong players or even take a lasting interest in the game.

There have been many studies over many years which have claimed educational benefits from chess and suggesting that studying chess might improve children’s problem solving skills and their performance in maths and English.

Personally, I have some reservations about this. Many other activities, which may be of more practical use than chess, are also claimed to provide educational benefits: learning musical instruments, singing in a choir, learning fluency in a second language, learning coding and much else. There just isn’t time for schools to put all these activities on the curriculum. It’s also not clear to me whether other, simpler strategy games, which wouldn’t require specialist teachers, would have a similar effect, or whether the improvement in academic performance is long term or just short term.

Having said that, if schools are enthusiastic and supportive, scholastic chess can be, on its own terms, very popular and successful. If, on the other hand, the class teacher doesn’t support the lesson, just sitting at her desk looking bored and doing her marking, if the chess sets are locked away from one week to the next so that the children have no opportunity to play and reinforce what they’ve learnt, if there’s no communication with parents about what the children are learning and why they’re learning it, it’s probably not going to be very effective.

A further important question with regard to scholastic chess is that of competition. You might think that chess is by its nature competitive, but many teachers have reservations about the role of competition within education. Is it a good idea to run chess competitions for children who barely know how the pieces move and are confused about checkmate? If we decide it’s a good idea for children to have the opportunity to compete in mental activities as well as physical activities, is chess the only option? Could schools run competitions for noughts and crosses, Connect Four, draughts, various pre-chess games using subsets of the pieces and/or rules?

Here’s my take on how scholastic chess should work.

Chess in the classroom should be non-competitive. Of course children will spend some of the time playing games, but these will be seen as learning opportunities, not competitive activities. Children will also solve puzzle sheets as individuals while there will be harder puzzles to be solved by children working collaboratively in groups. The lessons will need to proceed slowly to ensure that no child is left behind. If you start with pawns, as CSC does, it will take several weeks before the whole class has mastered the pawn move (and that’s before you introduce the en passant rule). If a chess tutor is being used, the chess tutor and class teacher should lead the lessons together. The class teacher should be actively involved in the lessons and demonstrate her enthusiasm to the children. There should be posters round the walls reminding children of how the pieces move and the other basic rules. Chess sets should be available for children who want to play at break or lunchtime, before or after school rather than locked away in a cupboard. Parents and carers should be made aware not just that their children are learning chess, but how and why they are learning. You might want to run workshops in the evening for parents who would like to learn more so that they can help their children at home. There should be an after-school or lunchtime club for children who want to play low-level competitive chess. The school should take part in competitions against other schools and, in the UK, run a heat of the UK Chess Challenge. Links should be forged with local junior chess clubs (assuming they exist) so that children who want to play competitive chess at a higher level can be pointed in the right direction.

One final question is this: to what extent should national chess federations support projects that are unlikely to lead to a significant increase in participation in serous competitive chess?

Richard James

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The Pawn Game

The pawn is the most misunderstood member of the beginner’s army. While the experienced player knows just how valuable an asset pawns are during all phases of the game, the novice player views them as expendable. In the eyes of an inexperienced player, pawns are on the bottom rung of the chess ladder for a number of reasons. First off, pawns are the lowest valued unit according to the relative value system employed in learning chess. A pawn is worth one point while the Queen is worth nine. Beginner’s tend to view comparisons such as the relative value system as absolute. If the Queen is at the top of the value system, the pawn is at the bottom. Adding to this conceptual problem is the fact that players starts the game with eight pawns each. Beginner’s often think that having so many pawns, combined with their low relative value, means that they’re expendable. After all, you have eight pawns at the game’s start. Certainly you can afford to lose a few? Absolutely not! You’ll have to give up pawns to move forward in the game but they must be given up for the right reasons.

Another problem with pawns, in the eyes of the novice player, is that they are unidirectional. Pawns move in one direction only, forward, while pieces move in multiple directions. White’s pawns march towards Black’s pawns along a single file and Black’s pawns march towards White’s pawns along a single file. The exception to this rule is when a pawn captures another pawn or piece, in which case it captures diagonally, meaning that the pawn doing the capturing moves to a new file (the file the captured pawn or piece was on). This means pawn moves are absolutely committal. Move a pawn forward and there’s no going back!

Then there’s that special pawn rule, pawn promotion. Tell a beginner that they can promote a pawn into a Queen if it safely moves to the other side of the board and that beginner will envision winning the game because they have multiple Queens. Suddenly, pawns are being pushed towards their promotion squares with complete disregard of anything else, such as a good position.

Pawns play different roles during the game’s three phases which means there’s a lot to learn about the pawn. Countless books have been written solely about pawns during the opening, middle and endgames as well as pawn structure. There is a great deal of pawn theory for the beginner to learn. I use the term pawn theory as an umbrella phrase to cover all pawn related concepts. One method I employ to teach pawn theory is the pawn game. This starts as a “pawn only” game that allows students to learn how to work with their pawns.

To play the first phase of the pawn game, both players set up only their pawns, White’s pawns on the second rank and Black’s pawns on the seventh rank. Pawns adhere to the standard rules of the game such as being able to move one or two squares forward on their first move and then one square only after that. The goal of this game phase is to get a pawn to the other side of the board, promote it into a Queen and use that Queen to capture the remaining enemy pawns. After this game phase is finished, the student’s play phase two. In phase two, when a pawn reaches it’s promotion square, it promotes not into a Queen but a Rook. The Rook is used to capture any remaining enemy pawns. The game is played again, phase three, but upon reaching a promotion square, the pawn is promoted to a Bishop, then a Knight in the following game phase (phase four). The idea here is to have players learn how to use different pieces (upon promotion) in conjunction with pawns to win the game. Of course both players can promote pawns during the same phase which makes the game a bit harder.

Prior to playing the pawn game, my students and I discuss pawn structure. The first concept we discuss is pawn cooperation or pawns working together. Beginner’s have a habit of thrusting lone pawns out onto the board and leaving them unprotected. To avoid this problem, we discuss the pawn chain. A pawn chain is simply a group of pawns connected to one another so that each pawn defends the pawn ahead of it diagonally. An example of a White pawn chain would be a pawn on b2, c3, d4 and e5. The base of the pawn chain is the b2 pawn while the head of the chain is the e5 pawn. In this pawn chain, pawns protect one another leaving the major and minor pieces free to partake in more important tasks. This is a case in which the pawn’s low relative value works to an advantage in that most players will not trade a minor or major piece (of greater value) for the lowly one point pawn!

Then we look at pawn islands. A pawn island is a pawn or group of pawns separated from one another by a file. The rule of thumb here is that the more pawn islands you have, the harder it is to defend your pawns. Therefore, the fewer pawn islands you have the better off you are. Other key concepts covered before starting the pawn game are isolated pawns, a pawn who has no friendly pawns to defend him on adjacent files and backwards pawns, pawns whose fellow adjacent file friendly pawns have advanced past the point of protecting him. An example of this (for White) would be pawns on b5, c4 and d5, the c4 pawn being the backwards pawn. Then there’s the passed pawn, a pawn able to promote because there are no enemy pawns on adjacent files to stop him nor is there an enemy pawn on the same file to block his promotion. Always try to created a passed pawn or two!

I have my students write these definitions down on a sheet of paper they will refer to as they play the pawn game. After the first run through of the pawn game (four phases), I have my students add Kings to the board (on their starting squares). The objective is now to checkmate the enemy King using a pawn promoted to a Queen and any remaining friendly pawns. The game is repeated, with the promoting pawn promoting into a Rook (phase two), then a Bishop (phase three) and finally a Knight (phase four). As students complete a full promotion cycle of the pawn game, promoting to Queen, Rook, Bishop and finally Knight, a new piece is added to the board. After the King, a Queen is added followed by a Bishop, etc (one minor/major piece at a time). Pawns are promoted as in the previous phases.

By the time my students have gone through these numerous phases, they’ve developed some basic pawn skills. Only then do we start our study of pawn endgames. I use the pawn game first because it allows students to study the interactions between pawns and pieces in a simplified scenario. I have my more advanced students do these exercises as well because you cannot spend too much time studying pawn theory. Remember the pawn’s motto, “we may be small but we do big things.” However, those big things can only happen when you know a bit about pawns. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

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