Category Archives: Richard James

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My last post have considered how most parents have little or no knowledge of what chess is all about. They want their children to ‘do’ chess because it ‘makes them smarter’ or, in my part of the world, because it will help their application to the secondary school of their choice, and will drop chess once they’ve got what they wanted out of the game. Many parents specifically tell me they don’t want their children to be good at chess, they are not prepared to support their children in any way and they don’t actually like chess themselves.

Some schools and parents are suspicious of excellence in any field, but many schools in my area who pride themselves, not just on their academic excellence but also on their sporting and artistic excellence, have no interest at all in promoting chess excellence and are quite happy with a low level club which doesn’t take part in competitions and where most of the children play to a very poor standard.

It seems to me there’s a general lack of understanding of what chess is: a highly competitive and extremely demanding mental sport played in most countries of the world.

But this isn’t the image most parents and teachers have about chess. The recent sad coincidence of the deaths of two players on the last day of the Chess Olympiad led to a series of negative articles about chess and chess players. The public perception of chess players – and one that is emphasized by articles in the press – is that chess players are introverted nerds with no social skills. They are often overweight, have a poor diet, drink too much, have a disregard for personal hygiene, dress badly, carry their packed lunch in a carrier bag and – this seems to be a new one – are likely to die young.

Now there’s an element of truth in this at lower adult levels. Those who continue playing chess even though they are not very successful are often those who don’t have a family life, or those who may have difficulty getting a job. But I’m sure this is true of many other pastimes, not just chess. It’s certainly not true at the top, though. The ages of the world’s leading players range from late teens to mid forties. There are, admittedly, one or two (Ivanchuk, for example) who might be considered slightly eccentric, but by and large they come across as well adjusted and well presented: excellent role models for our children. In these days of internet coverage of all major events, where players are interviewed after the game, where there’s money to be made from broadcasting, producing DVDs and teaching, excellent communication skills are as important for chess players as knowing the latest theory in the Sicilian Najdorf.

The media still churn out articles on the ‘all chess players are loonies’ theme from time to time, complete with the usual suspects and the same unsubstantiated or exaggerated anecdotes as evidence that chess sends you mad: Morphy collecting women’s shoes, Steinitz giving God odds of pawn and move, Carlos Torre taking his clothes off on a bus, Fischer, well, being Fischer. Nothing more recent than Fischer, mind you, and you might also share my concern about making fun of people with mental health issues.

I also can’t help thinking that it may not do the game any favours to promote chess as a game suitable for mass participation by young children. If you’re implying chess is so easy that young children have no problem mastering it to the point where they can play in competitions you’re putting it into the same category as Top Trumps. If chess really is that easy and that trivial, adults who devote their lives to it must be pretty sad, and high level competitive chess will not be attractive to potential sponsors.

The chess establishment really needs to stop the petty bickering, rivalries, jealousy and obsession with ancient disputes and promote chess for what it is. A game which, while it can be enjoyed at any age, is, at the top level, a game for young adults, both male and female, who are physically fit and emotionally strong as well as being intelligent and hard working. A game that, while it can also be a fun game for children, at the top level requires the pursuit of excellence and hours of deliberate practice, exactly the same qualities you need to excel at, say, tennis or golf, or at playing the piano. We need to get parents and schools to respect chess as a fantastic, endlessly fascinating and extremely difficult game, not just as a learning tool or a cheap after-school child-minding service.

Richard James

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Excuses Excuses

They always have excuses.

The other day I was talking to the mother of one of my pupils. He’s 11 years old and has just started at a very popular and successful selective boys’ school. (Here in the UK most children change schools at this age.) Although there are a lot of strong chess players at the school they don’t play in the local secondary schools’ chess league, nor in any other competitions. Her son is disappointed so she went in to complain (as several other parents, to my knowledge have over the past few years) and was told that they couldn’t take part in these events ‘for funding reasons’. Now the school is in an affluent area so most parents would be only too happy to pay, and, if there were any children who genuinely couldn’t afford it, they’d be happy to pay extra. No: it’s just an excuse: there’s no teacher with a particular interest in chess so they can’t be bothered. There are plenty of ways round this. When he started a new teaching job years ago, my brother was told that part of his job was to transport the school fencing team to competitions, even though he knew nothing about fencing. If the will is there, things can be made to happen.

Primary schools also have excuses.

They can’t run chess clubs because they have enough clubs already. They can’t have children sitting opposite their opponents because it would take too long to move the tables round. They can’t make homework compulsory because a few parents might not like it, but if it’s optional no one will do it. They can’t provide a teacher to keep order and deal with administration while the chess tutor is doing chess things because they’re all too busy. They can’t give their chess tutor contact details for parents because it would breach safeguarding rules. They can’t allow children to use chess sets outside the chess club because it would need supervision and nobody can be bothered to supervise them. They won’t enter team tournaments because there isn’t a teacher prepared to supervise them, or because the children might score less than 50% and as a result suffer permanent damage to their self-esteem. They won’t enter online tournaments because they’re too busy to look at the website and register their school. They won’t let children play in individual tournaments, or even in representative county competitions because they clash with school football matches and children selected for their school football team are not allowed to pull out. They won’t play matches against other schools because the logistics are too difficult. School A says to School B: “We’d love to play a chess match against you if you come to our school on Monday”. School B replies: “We can’t possibly come on Monday because we have Gym Club on Mondays. You’ll have to come to our school on Tuesday instead”. But School A can’t possibly do Tuesdays because they have Running Club on Tuesdays. And never the twain shall meet. Now I appreciate as much as anyone that teachers do a fantastic job, are very busy, very hard-working and very stressed, but it seems to me that they just don’t respect chess the same way that they respect football or music.

There are several preparatory schools (fee-paying) in this area that value academic excellence: they are proud of the number of pupils who gain scholarships to leading selective secondary schools whose names are listed on honours boards. They also value sporting excellence: photographs of their football, cricket and rugby teams line the walls. They value artistic excellence as well: their concerts and drama productions are of a high standard and pupils who excel in these spheres are rightly valued within the school community. While some of these schools also run successful chess clubs, others have clubs where the standard of play is very low, where children do not take part in competitions, where the school offers no support to the chess tutors, where the game is not valued within the school community.

So why is it that many schools do not afford chess the respect it deserves? Why do they not value it in the same way that they value other extra-curricular activities?

My next post will consider one possible reason.

Richard James

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General Ignorance

The same thing happens every year. I meet a new intake of Year 3s (7 year olds) at a primary school chess club. There are one or two who know nothing at all about chess: some parents sign little Johnny (or, less often, little Jenny) up for the chess club so that they can learn the moves. I’ll talk more about them another time. There may be one or two who come from a chess playing family and have some genuine knowledge about chess. But in the middle are the children who tell me they know how to play chess, or sometimes, that they’re really good at chess, but in fact know very little.

So I pick up one of the chunky pieces that starts in the corner. “Who can tell me what this piece is called”, I ask. A forest of hands goes up. I ask a child who seems particularly keen to answer. I know what’s coming next. “It’s a CASTLE”, he tells me. I explain that, while some people call it a castle it’s real name is a rook, so that’s what we call it here. (I’ve also seen strong players who know perfectly well what it’s called teach their children it’s a castle. No idea why.) His face falls. His implicit belief that everything his dad tells him is correct has been shattered. I might as well have told him that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.

Then I get them to play some games. After a few minutes another child raises his hand. “I’ve won the game”, he tells me excitedly. “I’ve taken his king.” I try to break the bad news to him as gently as possible (not easy when there are several other children round the room waiting to ask me questions). He hasn’t actually won the game at all, and in fact he’s not allowed to capture his opponent’s king. But his dad told him you win by taking the other guy’s king so they don’t understand.

None of this would matter too much if parents were prepared to get up to speed on learning about chess so that they could provide more useful help for their children. In this school I don’t have contact details for parents and very rarely get a chance to speak to them at all. In another school a couple of years ago, though, I had email addresses for parents so I contacted them explaining the rules of check and checkmate so that they could help their children play legal moves. Did I receive any replies thanking me for going to the trouble of telling them how they could help their children? What do you think? Instead I got replies telling me they didn’t want to know, they didn’t have time to help their children, and they themselves hated chess anyway.

One of the major problems for chess teachers here in the UK is that chess is not part of our national culture. Many people know, or think they know, how the pieces move, but they have no idea how to play properly. They use incorrect names for the pieces, they don’t know how to set the board up correctly, they don’t understand check, checkmate and stalemate, they are confused about pawn promotion, castling, and, in the unlikely event that they’ve heard of it, the en passant rule. They’ve never opened a chess book in their lives, never read a newspaper chess column, never watched a chess DVD, never visited a chess website, couldn’t give you the name of any famous chess players with the possible exception of that American guy who played the Russian guy, and they consider him to have been a nutter. Their father probably taught them the moves when they were young, he in turn was taught by his father and so on, like a Generation Game of Chinese Whispers, with less being understood each time round. They have no idea about the complexity of the game, the history, the heritage, the literature. No wonder they consider chess a simple game suitable for young children to play once a week at school without any parental support.

In the BBC TV quiz Only Connect, two teams of three compete to make connections between seemingly random things. The competitors on this programme are amongst the best in the country at problem solving, general knowledge, logic and creativity so you’d expect them to be reasonably well informed about chess, and indeed a few chess players have appeared on the show. In a recent episode one team was asked to find the next item in a sequence starting a1:R, b1:N, c1:B. They thought it might have something to do with cards and guessed that the answer was d1:Y. Their opponents were then given the chance of a bonus point by answering the question themselves. They correctly realised that it was to do with chess, but couldn’t remember which way round the big guys went, so went for d1:K as their answer.

General ignorance indeed. If we want to help young children become proficient players we have to start by educating the parents. But where do we start? My book Chess for Kids is selling very well: parents want to be able to buy a book to give to their kids so that they can teach themselves (not understanding that chess is far too hard for 7-year-olds to teach themselves). But no one is buying The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids because they have neither the time nor the inclination to help their kids. So far, at any rate, there is no interest at all in Chess for Heroes for the same reason. Unless we can break through this barrier chess as a serious adult game in this country will gradually fade away.

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Fishing Pole

We have a new member in our chess club. A 12-year-old beginner, he’s really enthusiastic and seems to have some talent. His parents, although knowing little about the game, are very keen to do everything they can to help him.

Half a century or more ago, I myself was in very much the same position. I was really enthusiastic about chess. My parents, wanting to support my enthusiasm but knowing very little about the game, bought me a book (The Game of Chess by Harry Golombek since you asked) so that I could teach myself. “If we try to teach you ourselves”, they said, “we might get it wrong and put you off.” I didn’t understand everything in it and got confused by the chapters on the openings when HG said that there were two moves you could play in this position, while it seemed to me, correctly, that there were many moves you could play. But it still stood me in good stead by giving me well-structured and accurate information about chess.

These days, though, children don’t learn through books, they learn through the Internet. And the Internet is, for all sorts of reasons, a dangerous place.

I like to give new members a game, so on his first visit to the club I took the black pieces against him. His first moves were, in order, e3, g3, Bg2, a3, b4, c3, d4. I asked him what he was trying to achieve in the opening. He explained that he was combining the ideas of his two favourite openings, the King’s Indian Defence and the Stonewall. It seemed that he’d come across online lessons on both openings (probably chosen because he liked the names) but completely misunderstood them.

A couple of weeks later he was very much into gambits. He wanted to play the Wing Gambit, the Halloween Gambit (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Nxe5) and, his new favourite opening, the Fishing Pole. Now I’m reasonably knowledgeable about chess history and literature, and one of my colleagues even more so, but none of us had heard of the Fishing Pole. When I arrived home I searched on Google and found this.

So what do we have? 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. 0-0 Ng4. It’s obvious to any experienced player that this move is nonsense. It may not be losing but it’s just a waste of time. 5. h3 h5. Now if White just plays a sensible developing move like d3 he’s going to be slightly better. Black’s just wasted time playing two fairly useless moves and broken a couple of basic opening tenets into the bargain. He’ll only lose if he takes the knight and gets mated.

We’re told this is a common trap in the Ruy Lopez. Is it? There are 14 examples of 4.. Ng4 out of almost 5.8 million games on BigBase2014. The position after 5.. h5 occurred only 8 times. So hardly common. And none of those 8 people fell for the trap by taking the knight (although Black’s percentage score after 4.. Ng4 is actually fairly respectable). Perhaps it has an extremely high success rate if you play it in online bullet games against weak opponents, but not in real games. Note also some of the comments, none of which are critical. “I will definitely try it every chance I get. Chess is wonderful and you don’t have to sweat!!” enthuses bsharpchess. KWash01 also approves: “All and all I like it and will most certainly try to use it.”

I’m disappointed that a very popular and reputable site such as chess.com should publish such misinformation, and that its users should be so uncritical. Of course if you play online blitz or bullet you’ll come across opponents who play junk like this extremely quickly and win games on time or through a cheap tactic, but it’s not real chess and not how we should be encouraging our pupils to play.

There are, I think, two issues. First of all, in chess, as in everything else, there’s a lot of ill-informed and dangerous rubbish out there. There are any number of videos, articles and e-books written by weak amateurs peddling their favourite eccentric opening or theory about chess. So if you’re trying to teach yourself you need to ensure that your sources are reliable. Asking an experienced chess teacher would be a good place to start.

You also need to learn chess in a structured way. If you’re learning openings you start with basic principles, then you learn the major openings before you look at less popular openings. If you want to emulate Abraham Neviazsky and spend the next 50 years of your life opening 1. b4 that’s fine, but I’d advise you to gain experience with mainstream openings first. I’d also suggest that practising tactics, learning about strategy and familiarising yourself with endings is, unless you want to play very sharp lines, more important than studying opening theory.

So we in the chess community need to promote structured chess courses for learners of all ages. We need to promote them actively and aggressively so that newcomers to the game learn correctly right from the start. Once you get the wrong idea about something or get into a bad habit it’s difficult to get out of it.

Richard James

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Cotton Wool Kids

Childhood is very different now from when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s. In some ways it is much better. We are much more aware nowadays of the importance of preventing children from abuse, neglect and persistent bullying, although we are still a long way from getting everything right. We are getting much closer to an understanding of the concept of special needs so we can provide constructive support for children with learning, social, behavioural or physical problems rather than just criticism and punishment. For all this we should be immensely grateful.

However, I can’t help thinking that, in our praiseworthy efforts to try to ensure children avoid suffering high level bad experiences we are also being over-protective in sheltering them from low level bad experiences. This is apparent from the feedback I get when I try to persuade parents and schools to get their children to take chess seriously.

The school head teacher who, years ago, told me he couldn’t enter more than one team in our tournament because his pupils would feel humiliated if they scored less than 50%.

The school chess club, again years ago, which was unhappy that one of their children was a very strong player, because it would make all the other children in the club feel bad.

The parents who tell me they don’t want their children to solve puzzles at home because it might put them off chess.

The parents who tell me they don’t want their children to play for the school because it wouldn’t be fun.

The parents who tell me their children can’t attend the chess club because it might make them too tired.

The chess teacher who tells me her pupils can’t enter a tournament for the same reason.

The chess teacher who tells me his pupils will only play in team tournaments, not individual tournaments.

The neighbour who asks about chess lessons for her son, and, when I show her the Chess for Heroes book, tells me it looks too hard.

At the same time, children seem to think they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do.

Children in school chess clubs don’t want to solve puzzles because it’s boring.

Children at Richmond Junior Club don’t want to score their games because it’s boring.

They tell me that if something’s boring they don’t have to do it.

This all seems to be about the possibility that children might just have a bad experience by taking chess too seriously. They MIGHT be upset because they lose a game. They MIGHT find it boring. It MIGHT make them tired. It MIGHT be too hard for them. So we’d better not do it, just in case a bad experience might damage their self-esteem.

If you take part in chess tournaments you WILL have bad experiences. It’s happened to all of us. You’ll have days where you play badly and lose your games. You’ll have days where your opponents all seem to play well against you. You’ll meet opponents who are unsporting, who distract you, who try to cheat against you. You’ll meet arbiters who rule against you unfairly. But you’ll also have a lot of good experiences which will more than make up for the bad ones. And by working through those bad experiences you’ll become a stronger person as well as a stronger player.

Children NEED to be challenged. They NEED to be bored. They NEED to learn how to lose. They NEED to learn to persevere when they get stuck. They NEED to learn how to deal with difficult people and difficult situations. They NEED to develop determination and resilience. By wrapping children in cotton wool, by only expecting them to do things that are safe, fun or easy, by bringing our children up in a cocoon where they are sheltered from any experience which might possibly be unpleasant, we’re doing them no favours. Playing serious chess isn’t for everyone, but children who enjoy the game can use it for this purpose.

In Chess for Kids, Sam has to work through difficult situations in order to become a good player. He has to learn not to be discouraged when he keeps on making mistakes, not to give up when a concept is difficult for him to understand, to keep going if something is boring.

My new course is called Chess for Heroes partly for this reason. One way to become a hero is by showing physical courage, but you can also be a hero by showing mental courage. Of course we all want to do all we can to prevent children suffering high level bad experiences but we need to expose them to low level bad experiences and, very gently, help our children deal with them.

A failure to understand this is one of the reasons why I find myself teaching children whose parents and teachers want them to play chess but specifically don’t want them to be good at chess.

Richard James

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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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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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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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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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Talent Spotting

Last week I considered three reasons why you might want to promote junior chess at a national level.

One reason might be to produce strong players, potential IMs and GMs, young players who will do well in international junior competitions like the World and European Youth Championships.

Top grandmasters almost always start competitive chess young. If you start later it doesn’t mean that you won’t become a very strong player. The English IM Jonathan Hawkins, for instance, only started playing competitively in his teens and was not especially strong until his early twenties. But if you want your children to become world class players, these days they need to start playing competitively fairly young. Not necessarily at 4 or 5, but certainly by 8 or 9.

From my experiences, children who do well at chess at an early age have five things in common:

1. They usually have a very strong mathematical/logical intelligence. Some are strong academic all-rounders while others are maths specialists. They may excel at jigsaw puzzles or build Lego models designed for much older children. They may have a particular interest in computers or science. They may have an exceptional memory and excel at verbal and non-verbal reasoning and have a high IQ.

2. They are competitive by nature. They want to win, to be the best, and are prepared to work hard to achieve that aim. The children who cry when they lose are often those who eventually become strong players. If you don’t mind whether you win or lose you have no incentive to improve.

3. They are, or can be, mature for their age. Chess at its higher levels is an adult game: children who do well in competitions are able to switch off from being children and become adults for the duration of the game. They have the ability to control the impulse to play the first move that comes to mind and make the effort to find the best move. They have the emotional maturity to learn from their losses and the resilience to overcome setbacks. I’ve met so many children over the years with the talent to do well at chess at an early age but not the maturity.

4. They have highly supportive parents who will take them to clubs and tournaments, arrange tuition and encourage them to study and practise regularly. They have parents who themselves love the game of chess, whether or not they are good players, and who want their children to be the best they can be at whatever they do. Their parents encourage them to learn chess because they thing it might be something their children could excel at, not just because it might make them smarter or be an enjoyable after-school activity.

5. They have regular access to a coach who is knowledgeable about how children learn chess. This might be a family member who happens to be a competent player, but more often it will be a professional chess coach who is experienced at working with young children and who understands children’s cognitive and emotional development.

Now have a look at the top 11 year old players in the USA. Do you notice something about the names? If you look at the English junior lists you’ll find a higher than expected number of Asian and Russian names, but not to the same extent as in the USA.

I’ve written before about the difference between what I call ‘Eastern’ parenting, where children, from an early age, are expected to excel at whatever they do, and ‘Western’ parenting, where young children are encouraged to take on activities because they will be ‘fun’ or lead to extrinsic benefits. Some ‘Western’ parents, though, do take a more serious approach to chess, usually because they themselves have a particular interest in the game.

So, if we want to find children who might have the potential to become GMs, where should we look?

We’re probably going to look in more affluent, middle-class areas. I appreciate this may not be politically correct, but, whether we like it or not, it’s where we’re most likely to find our future stars.

We might want to look in areas with a higher than average ethnic minority population.

We might want to encourage schools in these areas to start chess clubs if they don’t already do so.

We might want to work closely with schools to identify children who have the first four attributes listed above (our job is to provide the fifth). Children who come from chess playing families will learn at home, but we also want to find children whose parents are not themselves chess players.

We might want to run tournaments (both individual and school) and coaching workshops in these areas, and use these to feed children through to junior chess clubs and private coaches.

We might want to work closely with junior chess clubs, or start junior chess clubs in areas without one close at hand.

We might want to provide resources for parents who do not play chess themselves but want to support their children’s chess.

We might want to make a specific effort to encourage more girls both to learn chess and to compete at higher levels.

Because parents in affluent areas are, by and large, prepared to pay good money for services they consider beneficial for their children, it’s not actually going to cost you very much. By bringing more children into serious competitive chess, in the long term you stand to gain.

Richard James

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