Category Archives: Richard James


This week, some updates on my last three posts.

First, some more very sad news. Just a couple of weeks on from the death of Richard Haddrell, English chess has lost another of its most valued administrators: John Philpott. John, like Richard, had held many different roles over several decades at club, county (Essex), regional (SCCU) and national levels. His main area of expertise was in financial matters, having worked for Ernst & Young. As I write this he’s still listed on the ECF website as Company Secretary, Voting Registration Officer and Financial Controller. In recent years, the ECF has been riven by tribalism, but John and Richard were both respected on all sides for their (unpaid) professionalism and impartial advice. Outside chess, John was a passionate supporter of West Ham United and enjoyed singing in local choirs. My only personal contact with John was a London League game in 1999, which lasted two sessions and 82 moves (I eventually won a queen ending).

The previous week I wrote about a 6-year-old in one of my school chess clubs whose mother said he was brilliant at chess, but it turned out that he didn’t really know how the pieces moved. We had an odd number at the club last week so I was able to spend some time with him while I paired off the other players. After the club I went back into the town centre to do some shopping in the supermarket. The boy and his mother were also there. When he saw me he shouted excitedly “Mum! Mum! It’s Mr Richard Sir James!” (He’s Italian and has an imperfect understanding of British titles.) His mother asked me how he was getting on. She looked crestfallen when I replied that he was still struggling to learn all the rules. I suggested that he should read a book and showed her a copy of Chess for Kids, which I’d also shown her son during the lesson. She told me she’d buy a copy and asked why the school hadn’t told the parents that I’d written the book. We eventually found ourselves at adjacent checkouts at the same time. The boy turned round to the cashier who was serving me and said “Excuse me! That’s my chess teacher!”.

Again, this is the problem with primary school chess clubs. At Richmond Junior Club it’s very different: most parents know at least a little bit about chess and are often keen to learn more. But at school chess clubs most parents, while perhaps thinking they know how to play chess, actually know virtually nothing, and are totally unaware that they know virtually nothing. It’s all very well everyone from FIDE downwards making grandiose claims about the number of chess players in the world, but if they don’t know all the rules they’re not going to take much interest in Carlsen v Karjakin, or even be aware that the match is taking place.

Going back another week, you may recall I wrote about Stephen Moss’s book The Rookie. I spent the following two Mondays in the company of Stephen at Kingston Chess Club, where my club, Richmond had two matches, a league match followed by a cup match. My first match of the season had resulted in a quick win against a teenager of about my strength who played all his moves almost instantly and lost horribly, so I was thinking that perhaps this would be my lucky season. Kingston fielded a weak team against us in the league match, and I found myself just avoiding playing Stephen Moss, who drew his game on board 5. Kingston had low graded players on the bottom boards and I was playing the White pieces against an opponent graded a long way below me. The way my opponent played the first few moves made me feel even more confident, but I gradually lost control and was forced to make an unclear sacrifice of a knight for two pawns. I then spotted a queen fork which seemed to win the piece back, but I’d missed something rather obvious: my move actually lost rather than won a piece.

Normally I’m pretty consistent: I tend to beat weaker opponents, lose to stronger opponents and draw against opponents of my own strength fairly regularly. My opponent in this game was, I think, the lowest graded player I’ve ever lost to. I guess I’ll have to annotate it for you at some point, just to get it out of my system.

The following week I was on board 5 for the cup match and wondering if I’d get the chance to cross swords with the Rookie. This time, though, Kingston had a stronger team, and I had Black against one of my regular opponents, a player of about my strength against whom I have a very bad record. I managed to trade off most of the pieces quickly, and at move 20 my opponent offered me a draw. Although I might have been slightly better in the ending, given what happened the previous week I had no hesitation in accepting. I spent the rest of the evening in the bar downstairs playing 10-minute chess, mostly against my genial opponent from the previous week. In the first game I allowed a mate in 1 when lots of pieces ahead, but I won the rest of the games, mostly very easily as my opponent combined oversights with unsound sacrifices. Such is life. Stephen was also in the bar, playing on the next board, but we didn’t get the chance to play. Maybe another time. Onwards and upwards, or, in my case, downwards.

Richard James

Farewell to an Administrator

I was saddened to hear of the recent death of Richard Haddrell, one of England’s most prominent chess administrators.

I never met Richard: indeed my only contact with him was through his role as Grading Administrator for the ECF. When I had tournament results for grading I had to email them to Richard. If I made a mistake I’d be sure to receive a rather abrupt and sarcastic reply, like a schoolmaster telling off a naughty schoolboy.

And a schoolmaster was what he was before his retirement. Richard was certainly no rookie as a player, having won the championship of his club, Tunbridge Wells, in Kent, on several occasions. It was as an administrator, though, that he’ll be remembered. He received a President’s Award for Services to Chess in 1994, at which point he had been actively involved in chess administration for 25 years or more. That work would continue for the rest of his life.

Richard’s forte was accuracy and attention to detail, which is why he was in demand when rules needed to be written or meetings needed to be minuted. He held many roles of this nature over the years. As a schoolmaster he was naturally very much involved with junior chess, and, apart from organising many teams in competitions in Kent, was also the Chief Conductor of the National Schools Chess Championship from 2001 to 2015.

For many chess players in the South of England he will be best remembered as the SCCU (Southern Counties Chess Union) bulletin editor from 1978 until its demise in 2011, and its webmaster from its instigation in 1998 until his death. The SCCU website was, and still is, something extraordinary, and a fitting tribute to Richard’s memory. It’s totally unlike any other website I’ve seen. No graphics, no gimmicks, just an index of anything you might need on the front page. Perfect: very easy to find whatever you’re looking for. His waspish sense of humour was also present throughout the site. Most of us would have turned to the “What’s New” page for the latest results of county matches, but we’d also read, with many chuckles along the way, his informative reports of SCCU and ECF meetings. After that, we’d turned to the wonderful “Ragbag” page: a cornucopia of absurdities from the world of SCCU chess, many of which came from rookies (or castlies) in low level kiddie events. A few examples:

“Do the clocks go clockwise?”
An 8 year old in a recent junior congress

From a recent Megafinal:
Junior: “I lost in three moves by Scholar’s Mate.”
Controller: “Scholar’s Mate is four moves.”
Junior: “Oh. It was three moves. Does that mean I won?”

From an EPSCA event:
“He beat me with an undiscovered check.”

From an U9 event 26.2.11:
Junior (who has bare king): “Tell him it’s a draw. He’s only got a king and queen left.”
Adult: “Well, no, that isn’t a forced draw.”
Junior’s opponent: “Yes, it is.” (Accepts draw)

It’s also worth a look at the Archives, which will inform you that, apart from being Bulletin Editor and Webmaster, Richard was SCCU secretary, and also Minute Secretary, from 1997 to his retirement on health grounds in 2015, and also Minute Secretary from 1979 to 1982. All this was on top of his work more locally in Kent, and in Tunbridge Wells Chess Club.

I’ve always believed that organisers and administrators are just as important as players. Many of us get involved in a small way, perhaps captaining a team in the local league, but there have always been a small number of people who who seem to spend much of their lives involved with chess administration at all levels. Most of them are, like Richard, highly competent, dedicated and reliable individuals, and it is they who are the backbone of chess in this country. If any vacancy arises for any job they will be the first to volunteer, with no expectation of either reward or fame. If you want something done, ask a busy person. Sadly, there are not many of them left now. It’s very easy to sneer, as many of us used to do when we were younger: perhaps they’re not the strongest players in the world, perhaps they just enjoy attending committee meetings and hearing the sound of their own voice, but without them the rest of us wouldn’t be able to play competitive chess.

I have the 1995 BCF Yearbook in front of me, which reports on Richard’s BCF President’s Award. “One thing which sets Richard apart from the rest of us is his penchant for getting this right.” From the context, this is clearly a typo for “getting things right”: I’m sure he appreciated the irony. That was Richard, a loyal and dedicated servant to the game of chess who prided himself on conscientiousness, efficiency and attention to detail, and would come down on those who didn’t meet his high standards with mordant humour.

Many of his colleagues who knew him personally have posted heartfelt tributes on the English Chess Forum:

“Richard was a great administrator who facilitated so much chess playing, particularly in the SCCU, schools and as an efficient grading administrator.” (Neill Cooper)

“English chess is much the poorer with his passing.” (John Swain)

“A very genuine and hard working man with no agenda other than to do what he could for other chess players.” (Michael Flatt)

Finally, from SCCU President Julie Denning:
“… a gentle soul, absolutely dedicated to the interests of chess. Richard, rest in peace. We will be missing you for many years to come.”

Richard James

The Castlie

If Stephen Moss, a player with a perfectly respectable grade (slightly above average club strength) considers himself a rookie, perhaps we need a different word for those who really are rookies.

Just before the start of term I received an email from a parent of a boy at a school where I run a chess club asking me if I had any vacancies. She told me her son was 10 years old, was passionate about chess, and had been playing regularly against his father at home for several years. As it happened I had some vacancies so invited him along for the first week of term, and offered him a game to find out what he knew.

He started off by setting the pieces up incorrectly, reversing the black king and queen, which was clearly how he had been taught at home. When I asked him the name of the chunky guy in the corner he shrugged his shoulders, looked bemused, and proposed “the tower?” – not unreasonably as he’s Italian. He started the game with 1. h4, explaining that he wanted to play Rh3 next move. When I asked him about the values of the pieces he thought that the bishop and knight were both worth four points. A nice boy, friendly and enthusiastic, but not (yet) a chess player.

The same day the school asked me if I was prepared to take a 6-year-old boy, two years or more younger than the other boys (sadly, no girls there) in the club. They told me his mother claimed he was a brilliant player, and that he was mature enough to cope in an environment with older children. They were right about the second point, but not the first. He was playing white against one of the stronger players in the club, and when his opponent moved a knight from d5 to capture a pawn on b6, he protested that his opponent was playing an illegal move because knights didn’t move like that.

Now if I’m told that a 10 year old is a passionate footballer I’d expect sensible answers from questions like “Which position do you like to play in?”, “Who’s your favourite player” or “Who do you think will win the Premier League this season?”. But if I ask most kids who claim to be passionate about chess similar questions, like “What’s your favourite opening?”, “Who’s your favourite player” or “Who’s going to win the world championship match” I’d get no more than a blank stare and a shrug of the shoulders.

Most kids who play chess at home, and, for that matter, most adults who play chess in this country, have little idea about competitive chess, would be hard pressed to name very many famous chess players, wouldn’t be able to give the name of any opening, would probably think the best first move is a4 or h4, would be completely unaware of the en passant rule, and would think that rooks were called castles.

If Stephen Moss is a rookie, we need a new name for players like this. There seems little point in calling them rookies anyway, as they wouldn’t understand the pun. Perhaps we should call them Castlies instead. As Stephen wrote in his book, chess has slipped under the radar in this country, and I don’t see much hope of it returning to anything like its post-Fischer popularity in the near future.

Of course we have to realise that most kids in school chess clubs just want to play games with their friends, with someone there to help them if they’re not sure whether or not it’s checkmate. It would help a lot, though, if they all knew the very basic stuff that any adult who already knows the moves could pick up in half an hour or so. I’ve tried a lot of strategies to encourage parents to help their kids in this way, but none of them have had any effect: most parents just don’t want to know. The general view of chess seems to be that learning the moves is very hard, and that if your young child manages this he’s a genius, and that playing chess is about little more than playing random legal moves. I once asked a school chess club whether they thought chess was a game of luck or a game of skill. Most of them voted for a game of luck.

If you can think of any good way of getting through to the adult Castlies and giving them a few pieces of very basic knowledge about chess, please let me know. I’ve tried writing a book: no one buys it. I’ve tried offering free consultations for parents and children: I’ve had no takers. I’ve tried sending emails out to parents: they reply telling me they don’t want their children to be good at chess. I wish I knew what the answer was: perhaps you, dear reader, can help.

Richard James

The Rookie

It’s inevitable that someone as antisocial as me rarely gets invited to parties, so I was surprised to receive an invitation to the offices of Bloomsbury Publishing, in a swanky Georgian terrace in Bedford Square, very close to the British Museum.

The event was the launch party for a new book about chess, The Rookie, subtitled An odyssey through chess (and life) by Guardian journalist Stephen Moss.

Stephen played a lot of chess as a teenager but, like many of his generation, stopped for twenty years, returning to the fray in 2007, and joining two clubs local to me, Kingston and Surbiton. In this book we follow him through three years on the UK tournament circuit, between 2012 and 2015, travelling by public transport, staying in cheap hotels and eating junk food. In the course of the book he also visits the Netherlands, Russia and the USA.

The book comprises 64 chapters, one for each square of the board. In the black squared chapters Stephen relates his chessboard triumphs and disasters, while on the white squares he considers the history, literature and philosophy of chess and interviews various luminaries of the chequered board.

It’s an entertaining and at time amusing read. As you’d expect from Stephen’s day job, he’s a perceptive interviewer as well as a fine writer. He hopes that it will not just appeal to chess players, but will “proselytise on behalf of a game that has slipped off the radar of the mainstream media”. Has he succeeded in his aim?

To be honest, we chess players don’t come across very well in the book. We’re ‘unconventional, unworldly figures’, obsessive, introverted loners who are probably on the autistic spectrum. According to Jon Speelman, we’re odd but not barking. Towards the end of the book Stephen’s team-mate at Kingston Chris Clegg dies. “… I felt that even more I was writing an elegy for an era of chess – the anoraked, pens-in-the-top-pocket, draughty-church-hall brand of the game played in the UK by men who, in some respects, had never ceased to be small boys.” Guilty as charged, on all counts, Your Honour.

Yes, the sort of chess I’ve played for the past half century is slowly dying. I’ve written about this before and will no doubt do so again. Congress regular Brendan O’Gorman tells Stephen the biggest problem, compared with, say, Holland, is the absence of players aged between 20 and 50. He’s quite right, but it would have been good to hear more about why this should be. (Regular Chess Improver readers will be aware that I know the answer to this question!) There’s much more Stephen might have written about. He might have looked more closely at chess organisation here in the UK and considered how we might move forward. But the book’s already a hefty 400 pages long: anything more would have been commercially unrealistic. I’m sure there’s scope there for another volume looking at chess from a different angle.

As an obsessive, introverted loner myself, perhaps I should point out a couple of things. On p345 two sentences quoted from my Chess Improver post on Chris Clegg (linked to above) were attributed to me. Although I wish I’d written the second sentence I was in fact, as you will see, quoting John Foley, and was only personally responsible for the first sentence. I’m told that this is not the only misattribution in the book. Stephen claims to have made a slight improvement in his standard of play during his chess odyssey, having been graded 133 in July 2012 and 142 in July 2015. In fact he had been graded 142 in July 2010 and 143 in July 2009, so the evidence that he actually made progress is not especially convincing.

If you’re a chess player, should you read this book? Yes, as long as you don’t take it too seriously. Regulars on the tournament circuit will have fun trying to identify Stephen’s opponents from his descriptions of them (or they might, as I did, cheat by looking up his grading record online). Will it find a significant outside readership? Despite Stephen’s hopes, I suspect not, and I don’t think it would convince many of them that they, or their children, should take up serious competitive chess. It’s not a book I could recommend to parents considering whether or not they should arrange tuition for their children and sign them up for tournaments. But he tells it the way he sees it, and there’s a lot of perhaps uncomfortable truth about the nature of English chess in there. There’s also much which gave me pause for thought, and which might, who knows, inspire a series of further blog posts.

One problem Stephen seems to have with his chess that I can relate to myself is his uncertainty as to whether he should play safe, boring positional chess or aggressive initiative chess. His other problem is his inconsistency: while he can play the occasional bad game or make the occasional blunder, he is also capable of playing well above his grade, as you’ll see in this game from his visit to Wijk aan Zee.

Richard James

The Price of Chess

My attention was recently drawn to a discussion on Mumsnet about the cost of school chess clubs.

The original poster was of the opinion that £6.50 a week for a school chess club (an hour after school) was rather too expensive. She thought that she ought to teach her son at home instead. The subject generated a lot of responses, with many mums thinking the price was not unreasonable given that the school had to pay for heating and lighting as well as buying equipment. Others, though, claimed that extra-curricular clubs were free in their children’s schools. The original poster later explained that this was a primary school, not a prep school, and that the club was run, not by a grandmaster, but by a retired teacher. I’m aware of at least one school in my borough where the club is run by a retired teacher who is, as far as I know, not a particularly strong player. Whether or not it’s this school I have no idea.

As my previous two posts have mentioned, primary school chess clubs of this nature are little more than child-minding services which provide kids with some low-level enjoyment moving pieces around fairly randomly with their friends and occasionally winning a fluffy mascot for their pains. Whether or not you consider £6.50 an hour for child-minding is good value for money is, I suppose, up to you. I’m assuming here that we’re talking about a fairly affluent part of the country.

It’s actually rather more than I charge for clubs in similar schools. I can give a couple of examples.

School A, a small primary school, runs a club with little staff involvement. This term runs for 12 weeks and I charge £60 per term: £5 per child per session. I’m hoping for at least 10 children, for whit I will make £50 per hour, which I think is reasonable. Last term I had a few more than that. I’m not yet certain about this term. Some schools using this model charge the chess tutor for use of the classroom: this school, at least as yet, doesn’t do so.

School B is a much larger primary school where there is a teacher involved with the club. She deals with the club administration and is in the room at the beginning and end of the session. While the club is in progress she’s working in the next room and can hear what’s happening. The club started last October and has been very popular and successful: we had rather too many children last term and were running short of both space and equipment. It was also not possible for me to spend very long with each child. We decided to limit the club to 24 children in future and try to set up another club, mainly for less experienced players on another day. I requested my standard rate of £50 per session, and last term the school made a significant profit. Starting from this term, it was explained to me, teachers are now paid £30 per hour for involvement in extra-curricular clubs, which seems reasonable to me. The school also expects all clubs to make a profit, so they require 20 children paying £5 each to make the club viable. That comes to £100 per session: £50 for me, £30 for the teacher and £20 for the school coffers. Will they find another 20 children? I’ll probably know the answer by the time you read this.

Back on Mumsnet, the original poster implied that her son didn’t know how to play chess and perhaps that she wanted to sign him up for the club to save her the trouble. I make it very clear to all my schools, and insist that they make it clear in their letters to parents, that my clubs are for children who can already play chess, not for complete beginners. (School B above, though, has decided to target the possible second club specifically for beginners, which is fine.)

A poster called ‘LauraRoslin’ (actually the pseudonym of a male IM who is certainly not a mum, and not, as far as I know, a dad) made a very pertinent point:

There are at least three different models a chess club can be run on, and you can decide for yourself how much you are prepared to pay for any of them:

(a) a basic teaching-the-moves course, such that the participants end up knowing how to play a legal game of chess.

(b) a club where it’s expected that everybody already knows the moves, and an environment is provided for them to be able to play against each other (this is essentially the model that nearly all adult chess clubs in this country follow).

(c) a club where it’s expected that everybody already knows the moves and wants to become a better player, and specific training is given towards this aim.

This is quite correct. In fact most school clubs are essentially Laura’s (b). Junior Chess Clubs, for which you’ll probably pay more than £5 an hour, are (c). Schools, or Junior Chess Clubs, could also run (a), but by and large they don’t, possibly because most parents prefer (wrongly, in my opinion) to teach their kids the basics themselves. Richmond Junior Club runs an (a) group and School B’s proposal for a second club would also be run as an (a) group.

Within less than two minutes of Laura’s posting, another poster suggested a club that caters for all of the above. Laura replied, again quite correctly:

“A club that caters for all of the above” is usually a bad model, because it doesn’t serve any of the groups it’s catering for well.

Quite – but parents often fail to understand that you can’t just teach kids the moves in half an hour and then expect them to become strong players.

In answer to the original question, £6.50 an hour, assuming a low-level primary school club in an affluent area, is quite high but not entirely unreasonable. It depends on various factors such as the size of the club and how much profit the school wants to make. If the teacher is not a strong player and is making more than £50 an hour, it’s probably a bit high. But if you’re a parent you make your choice and you pay your money. Or not, as you prefer.

Richard James

Accepting the Challenge

Last week I considered Boris Gelfand’s view that there are too many tournaments for children, and considered the conflicting philosophies of the old Soviet School which involved skill development, particularly tactical skill development, but with very little competition, and the methods we use here in the UK which involves lots of tournaments but with no formal path of skill development. I put forward my view, which lies between the two extremes.

Primary school chess clubs here in the UK at the moment, by and large, do little more than provide an environment in which children can enjoy playing low level chess with their friends. This, at the moment, anyway, is what most parents, most children and most schools want. The children make little progress and soon give up. Chess is an extremely complex game. While older children can teach themselves to play well successfully, younger children cannot. The only children who do well are those who are studying chess seriously at home, either with their parents or with a private chess tutor. The others stand no chance at all.

I also considered the UK Chess Challenge, whose future is in doubt for financial reasons. You might consider this a disaster. I prefer to see it as an opportunity. An opportunity for someone else to take over the event and, while keeping the basic structure, introduce an element of skill development. It will need some investment and additional sponsorship, but, in the long term, it will be worthwhile.

One of my ideas when I first set up chessKIDS academy back in 2000 was that it might in future link up with the UK Chess Challenge in some way, but Mike Basman wasn’t interested. He started to set up something similar himself but didn’t get very far. Technology has moved on since then, and there are now far better ways of introducing skill development into the UK Chess Challenge.

At present kids who barely know how to play chess win fluffy mascots and other trinkets by beating other kids who barely know how to play chess. As a means of keeping kids interested in the chess club in the short term this is excellent psychology, but as a means of improving their chess and giving them a long-term interest in the game it’s appalling psychology.

There has been much research over the past three decades or more on the effectiveness or otherwise of rewards, most of which has reached the same conclusion. Alfie Kohn is perhaps the best known proponent of the theory that, in all environments, rewards and punishments are counter-productive.

Before you read on, you might like to read his 1994 article on the subject here.

I quote:

“At least two dozen studies have shown that people expecting to receive a reward for completing a task (or for doing it successfully) simply do not perform as well as those who expect nothing (Kohn, 1993). This effect is robust for young children, older children, and adults; for males and females; for rewards of all kinds; and for tasks ranging from memorizing facts to designing collages to solving problems. In general, the more cognitive sophistication and open-ended thinking that is required for a task, the worse people tend to do when they have been led to perform that task for a reward.”

I’ll repeat the last sentence again:

“In general, the more cognitive sophistication and open-ended thinking that is required for a task, the worse people tend to do when they have been led to perform that task for a reward.”

I think you’ll agree that playing chess well is nothing if not a task requiring sophistication and open-ended thinking. So, while the fluffy mascots are superficially attractive, perhaps they actually lower the standard of play.

If I had to award fluffy mascots at all, I’d rather give them to kids who could checkmate me confidently with king and queen against king than to kids who win random games against their friends.

Children enjoy playing video games where you have to complete assignments to move up to the next level. So what I’d do, if I had the money, is develop an app in which children complete chess assignments to move up to the next level.

This app would include a chess engine which you could play at various levels, perhaps with a rating function built in. You’d also be able to use the engine to play out endings such as king and queen against king and king and rook against king. There would, of course, be a tutorial to teach you the moves. There would also be a database of puzzles, starting with very simple one-movers. You might also want to provide an eBook for parents and teachers to explain how it works and how they can help their children use the app.

When you complete your assignments and reach a particular level you win, not a fluffy mascot, but a Golden Ticket to a tournament. To play in the Megafinals, you might, for example, have to show you know all the rules, get checkmate with king and queen against king, complete some simple puzzles and reach a rating of, say, 500 against the engine. Higher levels of the tournament, for the moment, are probably fine as they are.

So how about it, then? We really have to accept that our current methods of running primary school chess, while providing short-term enjoyment for kids, don’t work in terms of giving them a long-term passion for the game. While you can’t really overthrow the system, you can perhaps tweak it in stages to reach your destination.

We need to get away from the idea of competitive chess as a fun, low-level activity for small children and promote the game for what it really is: a complex, beautiful and exciting game for all ages.

Richard James

A Challenge for UK Chess

I’m very grateful to my Facebook friend Paul Swaney for directing me to a recent interview with Boris Gelfand on

Paul, who is well aware of my views on junior chess, pointed out this extract:

“Now almost everyone is focused on an immediate result – largely because there are too many championships and tournaments for children. Trainers teach the youngsters traps and psychological ploys, but not the essentials. The main task of a trainer is to instil a love and interest in chess.”



Not to make kids smarter. Not to produce champions. But to give them a genuine life-long passion for chess.

The old system in the Soviet Union, which Gelfand and his generation would have grown up with, was very much to do with skills development rather than playing in competitions. There were no kiddie tournaments in the way we know them. Tournaments only existed, as far as I understand the system, to check that children had learned the appropriate skills and were able to put them into practice before moving onto the next level.

This system still exists in some countries today. You may recall that my friends’ son learned his chess in Baku using this method. The same concept is what drives the Steps method used extensively in the Netherlands and also popular in other Western European countries.

But here we take precisely the opposite approach. Our kids have many opportunities to take part in tournaments but instruction within school chess clubs is very basic and very much involved with teaching Scholar’s Mate and other traps rather than developing chess skills. The result is that, while a small number of children, those who are getting proactive parental support at home, will do well, the vast majority will make little or no progress, will quickly forget most of what they’ve been taught, and will drop out of chess within a year or two.

My view lies, as you might expect, between the two extremes. Children enjoy playing in competitions and gain a lot from them both socially and in terms of emotional development. But unless you can find a way of linking up tournaments with skills development you won’t produce kids with a long-term ‘love and interest in chess’.

Meanwhile, the big chess news here in the UK is that the very popular and successful UK Chess Challenge is in trouble. IM Mike Basman, who started the event and has been running it for two decades, has been declared bankrupt and is faced with a bill for £300,000 in unpaid tax. While bankruptcy is not something I’d wish on anyone, I can’t help feeling Mike’s been extremely foolish in the way he runs the event and in not seeking financial advice. Laws are laws, whether or not you happen to like them or approve of them.

For those of you not familiar with the event, here’s how it works. Between January and March, schools run an internal competition in which players receive small prizes. The most successful players, including the top boy and the top girl within each year group, qualify for the county stage which takes place in May. Here, they compete against other children of their age from other schools in their part of the country. The top children from these events then compete in semi-national events in July. Finally, in August, the top boys and girls from across the country in all age groups come together to compete for a £2000 first prize.

Superficially, the whole concept is wonderful, and the final is a really great event. The kids in my primary school chess clubs enjoy taking part in the competition and winning prizes. What’s not to like? And yet, and yet. My view is that perhaps the major reason for the decline in British junior chess in the past two decades is precisely the nature of primary school chess, putting kids into too many competitions too soon, before they’ve really understood the basics of chess, prioritising competition over skills development, failing to provide any meaningful system whereby children can improve and failing to get the message across to parents that they need to be actively involved in their children’s learning process. It seems crazy to me that we’re putting kids into competitions at school before they’ve learned all the rules of chess, and putting them into county level competitions before they’ve learned very basic skills. This, in my opinion, is one of the main reasons why there are so few teenagers and young adults playing chess.

So here’s a challenge for anyone who wants to improve chess in the UK. Can we find a better way of running chess in primary schools? I have a possible solution. I’ve had the solution sitting in front of me for the best part of 20 years, but neither Mike Basman nor anyone else involved in UK junior chess has taken any interest.

I’ll tell you more next week.

Richard James

Executive Stress

Here’s a position from a London League game I played back in 1978.

I was White and had to play one more move before the time control. I don’t remember how much time I had but I suspect it was enough to avoid making a blunder. What I do remember, though, is that I had a heavy cold and didn’t feel fully switched on during the game. This was the main reason why, instead of playing something sensible to consolidate my slight advantage, I grabbed the e-pawn, overlooking that after the trade of bishops my opponent had the deadly fork Qh1+.

Feeling unwell is something that will inevitably affect your executive function skills. Perhaps you will find it harder to make a decision and run short of time. Perhaps you will play impulsively and make an oversight. Perhaps your decision making skills will be impaired.

But what exactly do we mean by ‘executive function’?

Wikipedia, as usual, is your friend.

“Executive functions (also known as cognitive control and supervisory attentional system) are a set of cognitive processes – including attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, as well as reasoning, problem solving, and planning – that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.”

Well, chess is very much about reasoning, problem solving and planning, as I’m sure you’ll agree. To play chess well we need attentional control, otherwise we’ll get distracted by external or internal stimuli. We also need inhibitory control, otherwise we’ll play our moves impulsively, without thinking about the consequences, and make lots of oversights as a result. Working memory is not just short-term memory but involves manipulating the information stored in your short-term memory: without that skill we’re not going to be able to consider alternatives and look ahead, and if we try to do so we’ll quickly become very confused. Finally, we also require cognitive flexibility: the ability to switch between thinking about different ideas, and to think about two different ideas at the same time.

Wikipedia again:

“Executive functions gradually develop and change across the lifespan of an individual and can be improved at any time over the course of a person’s life. Similarly, these cognitive processes can be adversely affected by a variety of events which affect an individual.”

So we’d expect children’s executive functions to improve as they get older, but on occasion an individual may be affected by a particular event, such as, in my example above, having a heavy cold, which, in a game of chess, might increase the likelihood of making mistakes. It was reputedly Tartakower who first said that he’d never beaten a healthy opponent.

“… executive functioning in preadolescents is limited because they do not reliably apply these executive functions across multiple contexts as a result of ongoing development of inhibitory control.”

Quite. You can teach young children all the chess you want but, unless their executive function skills are in place they will find it very difficult to put it into practice. Which is why young children will often get stuck, find themselves not making progress, get frustrated and give up. The younger they start chess the more likely this will happen. The children get frustrated, their chess teachers get frustrated with them, their parents get frustrated both with the children and with their chess teachers.

“Many executive functions may begin in childhood and preadolescence, such as inhibitory control. Yet, it is during adolescence when the different brain systems become better integrated. At this time, (young people) implement executive functions, such as inhibitory control, more efficiently and effectively and improve throughout this time period. Just as inhibitory control emerges in childhood and improves over time, planning and goal-directed behavior also demonstrate an extended time course with ongoing growth over adolescence. Likewise, functions such as attentional control, with a potential spurt at age 15, along with working memory, continue developing at this stage.”

Precisely. Which is why it’s so much easier to teach older children than younger children, and one of many reasons why most young children fail to make progress at chess.

It’s difficult to teach executive functions to young children, but I guess playing games of skill would be one way to develop these attributes. I would also guess that simpler games would be much more effective and probably enjoyable than an exceptionally complex and difficult game such as chess.

Some children will have these skills in place at a very early age, and I’ve been lucky enough to have known and worked with quite a few. Current Richmond Junior Chess Club member Nishchal Thatte, for example, shared first place in the U160 section of the most recent Richmond Rapidplay at the age of 7, and was up with the leaders most of the way in the European Under 8 Championships which finished the other day. But most of the children I’m asked to teach are far too immature to make much progress because they have the typical executive function defects which you’d expect from their age.

Thinking back again to the position at the top of this article:

“Psychologists Don Norman and Tim Shallice have outlined five types of situations in which routine activation of behavior would not be sufficient for optimal performance:

1. Those that involve planning or decision making
2. Those that involve error correction or troubleshooting
3. Situations where responses are not well-rehearsed or contain novel sequences of actions
4. Dangerous or technically difficult situations
5. Situations that require the overcoming of a strong habitual response or resisting temptation.”

In that position I had to make a decision. I had to correct the error in my decision making, but failed to do so. The backward diagonal attack on my rook after Qh1+ might be considered part of a novel sequence of actions. I was in a dangerous situation but failed to realise it. I had to resist the temptation of capturing the pawn but failed to do so.

Who was my opponent in that game? None other than the aforementioned Tim Shallice, who has been a strong chess player for more than half a century and is still active today.

“The work of influential researchers such as Michael Posner, Joaquin Fuster, Tim Shallice, and their colleagues in the 1980s (and later Trevor Robbins, Bob Knight, Don Stuss, and others) laid much of the groundwork for recent research into executive functions.”

Tim Shallice is not only a strong chess player but an influential researcher into executive functions. If you were paying attention recently you might recall another name from the same sentence. The winner of the game I demonstrated last week, Trevor Robbins, was a very strong chess player in his teens and early twenties but chose to concentrate on his academic work in the field of executive function.

Given the importance of executive function in playing chess it’s perhaps not surprising that two of the leading experts in the field should also be strong chess players.

We need to stress the importance of executive function in the development of young chess players, but at the moment we’re not really doing so.

Richard James

Child Genius

While it was good to see the UK’s impressive haul of medals at the Rio Olympics, it did raise the issue of sponsorship. There are those who have expressed concern that while we’ve been providing welcome financial support for many sportspeople who were seen as potential medallists, other sports, and, more generally, sports at grassroots level, were losing out. If you have funding available, whether it’s for physical sports, the arts or chess, should you use it to support professional exponents in these fields so that they can achieve even more success, should you use it to identify young talents and help bring them up to professional levels, or should you use it to support mass participation?

Let’s suppose, for a moment, that your fairy godmother offers you a million pounds to identify young chess talents and train them to reach international levels. How would you go about it? You might well decide that top grandmasters these days always start young, so if you want to produce strong grandmasters you’ll need to identify young children with the necessary qualities.

If you know little about chess, you might, I suppose, look at a television programme such as Child Genius. UK readers will be able to watch the recently completed 2016 series here.

Of course these programmes are always edited to tell a story, but there’s a very clear division.On the one hand there are kids with an exceptional natural talent (usually an eidetic memory combined with quick and accurate computational skills) who have, we are told, entered themselves into the competition. Their parents, while being extremely supportive, seem bemused by their children’s extraordinary gifts. On the other hand there are kids who are portrayed, fairly or unfairly, as being reasonably bright, but who are being pushed too hard by over-competitive parents whose teaching techniques border on emotional abuse. What they all have in common, though, is a very high level of parental involvement.

If you’re looking for potential sports stars you’re going to look for kids with specific physical attributes. It would be futile training a very short person to be a basketball player or a very heavy person to be a jockey. Likewise, if you’re looking for kids who might excel at chess at an early age you’ll be looking for specific mental attributes.

In my experience, kids who start playing good chess at secondary school age can come from any background: sometimes you’ll be surprised at the kids who take an interest in chess. But the kids who excel at primary school age all have four things in common.

1. They all have exceptional cognitive skills, specifically excelling at subjects requiring logical-mathematical intelligence.

2. They all have extremely supportive parents who are prepared to give up their weekends and holidays to take their offspring to chess competitions.

3. They all have regular access to a strong chess player who is able to develop their chess skills while also being tuned in to their emotional needs. This may either be a family member or friend, or a professional chess tutor.

4. They all have exceptional maturity for their age, or, to put in in more scientific terms, executive function skills. A lot of the children I teach have the first three attributes, but not the fourth, which is one reason why I’m sceptical about starting children too soon.

Some children are strong academic all-rounders who will, in all probability, gain top grades in all their public examinations before getting a degree from a top university. Some of them will give up chess and spend the rest of their life on activities which are more lucrative (hello, Demis Hassabis) while others will still play occasionally (hello, Luke McShane). Others will be single-issue obsessives (hello, Bobby Fischer) some of whom will be diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, and some will go on to have problems related to mental health or addiction later in life.

Some children will come from chess-playing families (hello, Magnus Carlsen), while others will have parents who decide to use chess as a project at which their children can excel (hello, Judit Polgar and sisters). Sometimes parental support can turn into physical or emotional abuse (hello, Gata Kamsky’s dad Rustam). Hugh Patterson wrote an excellent article on this subject recently, which, if you haven’t already done so, I urge you to read.

Next time I’ll take a closer look at what exactly is meant by executive function, but as it’s been a few weeks since I’ve demonstrated a game for your enjoyment, here’s an entertaining king hunt from the 1972 Oxford-Cambridge university match. You need outstanding executive function skills to play a game like this.

Richard James

T’ain’t What You Do

As we now know, chess, at least using the CSC model, doesn’t make kids smarter. However, a recent article in the Daily Mail, citing research involving 12,000 Australian teenagers, suggests that playing video games might make kids smarter.

According to Alberto Posso, from RMIT University in Melbourne, students who play online games almost every day score 15 points above the average in maths and 17 points above the average in science.

“When you play online games you’re solving puzzles to move to the next level and that involves using some of the general knowledge and skills in maths, reading and science that you’ve been taught during the day. Teachers should consider incorporating popular video games into teaching – so long as they’re not violent ones.”

Well, that poses many questions, one of which is: what are you going to drop from the curriculum to make room for these ‘popular video games’? In the EEF/CSC study, some schools dropped a maths lesson for chess, while some dropped a humanities lesson. It might seem strange to drop a maths lesson for chess when you’re trying to make kids better at maths, but there you go. At the London Chess and Education conference we’ve heard about studies claiming that kids who replace one of their weekly maths lessons with chess do better at maths than those who don’t. You know what? If I were a primary school headteacher and I thought my pupils needed to improve their numeracy, I’d take a long hard look at the methods used for teaching maths in my school rather than introducing chess to make kids better at maths. So perhaps schools should drop a humanities (history, geography etc) lesson instead? You know what else? If I were a primary school headteacher I think I’d consider making sure my pupils understood their place in the world and how they got there was even more important than making them good at maths.

For the past few weeks, a particular area of my local park, alongside a tall structure known locally as the Shot Tower, which was part of the gunpowder works which were there until the late 1920s and next to a footbridge taking you onto a nature reserve recommended by David Attenborough, has been full of mostly young males, often on bikes, staring intently at their smartphones. What are they doing? They’re playing Pokémon GO: according to some of my chess pupils there are a lot of Pokémon there.

The reason why these games are so addictive is that you always want to get to the next level. So you have an incentive to improve your knowledge and skills. Now, some of the ‘slow’ chess courses which have achieved positive results in terms of ‘making kids smarter’ do something similar in that they use the ‘building blocks’ principle, using a series of mini-games and puzzles to enhance kids’ cognitive and chess skills. Kids learn maths in very much the same way. Now if you turn learning chess or maths into a video game children can go at their own pace. If they have the time and the talent they might reach a high level quickly, but if they go more slowly it really doesn’t matter. There’s a lot of chess software around already which approaches the game in this way. I’m sure there’s even more maths software around as well. But there are many of us concerned about the amount of time kids spend in front of screens. At least Pokémon GO gets you outside.

One of the problems with education both here in the UK and in the US is that decisions are made by people who think that all children should reach a certain level in maths or English by a certain age, that children who don’t reach this level have failed and that teachers whose pupils don’t reach this level have failed. In my opinion this is dangerous nonsense. Children should be encouraged to develop at their own pace. Some children start well but their progress stalls. Other children are late developers. The tortoise sometimes beats the hare.

Perhaps what it is that ‘makes kids smarter’ is not the subject itself but the method of teaching it. So, instead of commissioning studies to research whether or not x, y or z ‘makes kids smarter’, maybe we should be looking at what teaching methods we should use to ‘make kids smarter’, and how these methods could be developed using software and other media. In the words of the song: “T’ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. That’s what gets results”. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather listen to Ella Fitzgerald than anyone making unsubstantiated claims about chess ‘making kids smarter’.

Richard James