Category Archives: Richard James

Legal Aid

I’m sure you all know about Legal’s Mate (or, if you prefer, Legall or Legalle, with or without an acute accent). It’s named after François Antoine de Legall de Kermeur (1702–92), a French chess player who taught Philidor and was probably, until he lost a match to his pupil in 1755, the strongest player in the world. Sadly, the games of that match are not extant: all we have of his play is the one game with the mate that bears his name.

Here’s an example from the RJCC database: Ray Cannon giving a simul back in 1987.

Black resigned, seeing that 8.. Ke7 9. Nd5 was checkmate. He would have been better advised to capture with the pawn rather than the knight on move 6.

There are, as you would imagine, many games on my database where one player unwittingly moves the pinned knight, losing the queen. Beginners will see the attack on the knight, decide they don’t want to lose it (even though it’s defended twice) and move it away. Alternatively, as in the next game, a more experienced but impatient player will get excited about the idea of creating a threat and forget to ask himself the Magic Question.

Of course, this is a really important topic that we need to teach to young children.

Firstly, they have to understand the pin, recognise the typical position type and be aware that if they move the knight their opponent will be able to capture their queen.

Then they need to learn that sometimes, but not very often, they will be able to move the pinned knight with impunity because they, like Sire de Legall or Ray Cannon, will have a mate at the other end of the board. Apart from its practical merit, it’s always good to show children queen sacrifices. There’s a section on Legal’s Mate in Move Two!.

But there are two possible problems that can arise. The first one happens when they find the mate they’d planned was illusory. One of my earliest coaching experiences was a game at RJCC where, after we’d given the class a lesson on Legal’s Mate, one player did just this. It might possibly have been this game:

If this was the game I’m thinking of, Black played Ng4 fully aware that White could take the queen but hoping that he had a mate in reply.

Another thing that can go wrong is that the mate’s there but the sacrificer hasn’t considered what happens if his opponent doesn’t take the queen.

Here’s the start of another RJCC game from the same period:

The mate’s there OK if Black takes the queen on move 6, but he unsportingly captured the knight instead when White had nothing for the piece.

Failing to check for this sort of thing is not recommended, but in another RJCC game nearly 20 years later Black got away with his indiscretion:

A little bit of thought would have persuaded White to play 12. Nxe4, leaving him a piece ahead. So there you have it. Teach your pupils about Legal’s Mate: it’s an important part of their chess education. Don’t forget to provide some Legal aid as well. Teach them to ensure that the mate is actually there if their opponent snaps at the bait, and to check what happens if their opponent doesn’t take the queen. Perhaps a worksheet could be produced where the students have to tell you whether or not the unpinning sacrifice works.

Richard James


When We Were Kings (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are a couple of games from that period.

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

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

Richard James


When We Were Kings (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard James


Poetic Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the complete game.

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

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

Richard James


When We Were Kings (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard James



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard James


The Magic Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard James


Take Care!

A few years ago I was teaching a Reasoning class (to help children succeed at IQ tests) at a local school when a young girl explained to me that there were two types of mistake. You might make a mistake because something is too hard for you or you might make a careless mistake that you shouldn’t really have made.

If you look at children’s maths tests you’ll find that almost all young children will make several careless mistakes no matter how many times their teacher tells them to check through their work carefully before they hand it in. It’s in the nature of young children that this will happen.

If you look at chess games played by young children you’ll see the same thing. Probably about half the games played at, say, higher primary school level are decided in this way. At lower levels children will often give away pieces because they think it doesn’t matter. At higher levels children understand that Superior Force Wins but still hang pieces on a regular basis. The chessboard is a big place so it’s hard for less experienced players to see everything. Typical errors at this level might include overlooking a discovered attack, moving a pinned piece, moving a defender, blocking a line of defence, moving into a fork and so on.

What happens, I ask my pupils, if you make a careless mistake when you’re crossing the road? What happens if you make a careless mistake when you’re driving a car? What happens when a brain surgeon makes a careless mistake? What happens when an airline pilot makes a careless mistake? Learning to concentrate and avoid careless mistakes is a vital life skill, not just a chess skill.

We can help children avoid careless chess mistakes by teaching them to use a CCTV when they look at a chessboard. Looking for Checks, Captures and Threats leads to Victory. You have to look for your opponent’s checks, captures and threats as well as your own.

Then there’s the Magic Question. At lower levels the Magic Question is “Is the move I want to play safe?” At higher levels this becomes “If I play that move, what will my opponent do next?”. It’s partly a question of focus and partly a question of self-discipline.

The single thing most young children need to do which will most improve their results is not to improve their opening play, their tactical ability or their endgame knowledge but to learn to avoid unnecessary oversights.

It happens to all of us from time to time. If we lose because our opponent is stronger or just plays better we can learn from the experience. If we lose because of a careless mistake we’re letting ourselves down, and, in a team competition, we’re letting our teammates down as well. To maximise our results we need to eliminate these oversights. When a top player, especially one renowned for his solid play, makes a careless mistake it makes headline news. Here are two of the all-time greats, both renowned for being extremely solid and hard to beat, making fools of themselves.

In this game Capablanca makes a simple oversight at move 9, allowing a standard queen fork tactic, but struggles on to move 62 before capitulating.

In this game, Karpov also overlooks a simple queen fork and has to resign after just 12 moves.

Richard James


Game Theory

Mathematicians will tell you chess is a two-person zero-sum game. If I win, you lose. If you win, I lose. If you draw, I draw as well. It’s also a game of total information: we both have complete information about what is happening and the location of all the pieces.

It’s a reasonable assumption that if God played God (assuming God is omniscient and plays perfectly at all times) the game would be a draw, and therefore that there is no first move that will give White a winning advantage. In the eyes of God, any position is either a win for White, a win for Black, or a draw: for God there’s no ‘slight advantage’, ‘unclear’ or ‘with compensation’.

In the unlikely event that I find myself sitting opposite Magnus Carlsen in my next Thames Valley League match, God will tell me at the start of the game that I have a drawn position. At some point, probably sooner rather than later, She’ll tell me I have a lost position. This will happen as a result of one of my moves, not as a result of one of Magnus’s moves. The move that swings the game in his favour may be brilliant, spectacular, extremely subtle, or very hard to find, but it will be my mistake, not Magnus’s rejoinder, that decides the game. You see, in mathematical terms, there are no good moves in chess, only acceptable moves and bad moves. Early on in the game each of us will have a choice of some moves which retain the status quo and other moves that lead to a lost position. Once I play a move that tips the balance in Magnus’s favour I will only be able to choose different ways of losing, some more tenacious than others. Magnus, on the other hand, will have some (or all) moves that retain a winning position, some (or no) moves which will turn the game into a draw and some (or no) moves which lose the game.

So how should this affect the way we teach chess? I tell my pupils that I’m not like other teachers. Other teachers will teach you how to play good moves, but I’ll teach you how not to play bad moves. If you never play any bad moves you’ll never lose. Carlsen, Houdini and Stockfish will hold no terrors for you.

Regular readers will be aware that I’m sceptical of the value of demonstrating master games to young children. That, given the way young children process information, this approach will either have no effect or leave your audience confused. What I prefer to do is demonstrate a game in which a clear mistake was made and explain what the mistake was and how to avoid it. I will often use games played by the children themselves: children find it easier to relate to or take an interest in games played by themselves or their friends. You can’t do this with complete beginners who are still playing random moves, but once children understand the underlying logic of chess and can, at least in theory, play a game without making simple oversights, this approach can be very effective. This is one reason why we get children at Richmond Junior Club to record their games and hand in the scoresheets once they’ve reached the appropriate level.

More thoughts about mistakes at chess in a future article, quite possibly next week.

Richard James


Games People Play

Growing up, as I did, in the 1950s and 1960s, playing board games and card games was something most families enjoyed. There were only two television channels, and of course no computers, video games or DVDs.

At home we played board games such as Ludo, Chinese Checkers and probably draughts, as well as games such as Monopoly with more complex rules. We played card games too. We’d start off with Snap, then move onto Strip Jack Naked and, with a different deck of cards, Happy Families. We then moved onto various forms of rummy and whist, later being introduced to Canasta, which my parents would play with friends once a week. We also played a wide variety of word games. When we visited my great-aunts, which we did most weekends, we’d play other games. First we’d play roulette, gambling with buttons rather than money, then the cards would come out and we’d play Pontoon and Newmarket.

My parents were not chess players, but when they saw that I enjoyed strategy games they decided, when I was 10 years old, to buy me a chess set. My father taught me the moves, which was all he knew, but after that I was on my own. Several years later I decided to learn Bridge: again I had to teach myself.

I guess my family was, in that respect, fairly typical for its time. My parents both left school at 14 so did not have the benefit of the sort of education I was to have, and there were not a lot of books in the house. Playing games, board games, card games or whatever, was what families did. You started with simple games before moving onto games with more complex rules, more choices and which involved more skill.

Now, times are very different. Some families do still play a lot of games at home. Most, at least in more affluent areas like Richmond, will play some games at home. Many children in less affluent areas will probably not play games at home at all.

As chess players, we’ll all agree that there are many benefits from playing games of this nature. There have been studies demonstrating that computer games are good for you, which, in some ways, they no doubt are, but they tend to promote what Daniel Kahneman refers to as ‘fast thinking’ rather than ‘slow thinking’.

All children enjoy playing games, and encouraging children to play strategy games is an excellent way of helping them develop a wide range of ‘slow thinking’ skills. Wearing my chess hat I’d certainly want to encourage all children to play chess. But if I take off my chess hat and put on my educator hat instead I’d be asking other questions. Would children, especially younger children, and those who do not play strategy games at home, be better off playing games with simpler rules, with fewer options, which finish more quickly?

Quite possibly, yes, which is why one approach to teaching chess to young children involves teaching them a variety of mini-games with a subset of pieces and rules. If you’re teaching chess in a classroom you can do this, but in a chess club, where there’s a room full of children playing complete games of chess, it’s difficult. Young beginners don’t want to play with just their pawns when they see other children, even if they’re older or more experienced, playing complete games.

We’re living in very different times from fifty years ago, and perhaps we need to think in a different way about how to approach chess for young children.

Richard James