Category Archives: Richard James

Thinking Skills Revisited (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard James

Thinking Skills Revisited (1)

More than a decade ago I devised a short quiz designed to test the chess thinking skills of children rated up to about 1500 ELO/100 ECF. There were eight questions in which my pupils were invited to choose a move for White and give reasons for their choice either using a short sentence or a variation.

The results were written up in an article which was published in various places.

Two of the original questions were slightly unsatisfactory so were omitted from the article. I’d rather forgotten about the whole project, partly because I hadn’t had the opportunity recently to teach in an environment where the test would be appropriate. But following a recent discussion about the article with my online friend from across the Atlantic, Paul Swaney, I decided to revive it for the Intermediate Group at Richmond Junior Club, making some minor changes to two of the other positions in the process. This group is for children of primary school age who have mastered the basics and understand notation, but who are not yet ready for serious competition. Their ratings would be up to about 800/1000 ELO and their ECF grades up to about 40/50. My previous experience is that players of about 1500 ELO/100 ECF will get most of the questions right, but anyone much below that will struggle to get more than a few correct.

My interest in these questions is not so much the answers that the children give but the reasons for their answers. I have to bear in mind, of course, that young children are not always very good at putting their thoughts into words and their words onto paper.

This is Q1: a basic test of endgame knowledge. I repeat this over and over again with my pupils, so some of them will get it right. Others will choose a random move, saying that if Black replies with c2 they’ll be able to capture the pawn. This is an error in differentiation. I explain to them it’s like me asking what the difference is between Jack and Joe, and getting the reply “Jack’s a boy”.

It occurred to me that there’s a slight problem with interpreting the reasons they give for their answers to this question. Many children think ‘stalemate’ is just another word for draw and announce ‘stalemate’ when they reach a position with king against king. If they say that they’ll play Kc1 because they’re more likely to get stalemate they might have the right reason, or they might just be saying it because they’re anticipating c2 in reply.

In Q2 we have a pawn on the seventh rank about to promote. But there’s a problem: Black is threatening mate in 1, which, because it relies on a pin, is not easy to see at this level. The other problem is that, because promotions are very common in games played by young children and a queen is almost always chosen, they find it very difficult even to consider the idea of promoting to anything other than a queen.

As expected, most children at this level promote to a queen here, overlooking the mate. They will often point out that next move they intend to play Q(either)g8#. Some children will play something else instead even though they haven’t seen Black’s mate threat, thinking that promotion can wait. So Rd1, for instance, is sometimes chosen. Some children move the rook, explaining that they’ve seen the mate and want to provide an escape square for their king on g1, overlooking that they’re just allowing mate in 2. Some children will stop the mate by playing a move like c4 or Kh2. Only a few will even consider promoting to a knight rather than a queen because the idea of promoting to a queen is so ingrained. When I ask children how many possible moves they have with the pawn on f7 they’ll usually say ‘one’: it takes me a very long time to persuade them that the answer is actually ‘four’.

When I first devised Q3 I expected it to be a straight choice between captures on d4. I was wondering how many would choose the rook capture because they wanted to avoid doubled pawns. At this level at least half the children, typically, will give an incorrect answer. A few will mention doubled pawns but most will not: children will usually see the rook capture first because pawns move and capture in different ways and play it with no further thought.

Many children at this level are familiar with the back rank mate and some of them will notice the problem with Rxd4. You’d expect them all to play cxd4 instead, but not all of them do. Some of them will instead play a move such as h3 to stop the back rank mate, intending to capture the knight next move. This didn’t actually happen with the small RJCC group, but when I tested some of my private pupils later, one of them did play h3. Again, this demonstrates that children at this level tend, if they’re thinking ahead at all, to think “I go there, then I go there, then I go there” rather than “I go there, then you go there, then I go there”. The idea that they have an opponent who is going to try to find the best move is a very difficult concept for most young children whose theory of mind skills are, as yet, insufficiently developed for them to consider their opponent’s perspective in any meaningful way.

Q4 might be considered the hardest question in this set. The idea, which mostly works, is that weaker players will play the right answer for the wrong reason, and will take the queen without any further thought. The intermediate players will spot the potential back rank mate but the idea of meeting Re1+ with Rf1 rather than Rxa1 won’t occur to them. So they’ll play a move such as Qd1 or h3, planning to capture the queen next move.

At this level, only a few players will get the question right for the right reason, pointing out that after 1. Rxf6 Re1+? they’re going to play Rf1. There will also be a few who don’t notice that they can capture the black queen.

I’ll consider the other four questions next week. If any of my readers teach at this level and would like to try this quiz out or devise suitable questions of their own I’d love to hear from them.

Richard James

King Up For The Ending

Like all chess teachers, I explain to all my pupils that the first rule of endings is to use your king actively. In the very early days of Richmond Junior Club, Mike Fox would use the acronym KUFTE (King Up For The Ending).

Here’s an example. I have the white pieces and am a pawn behind but as long as I remember the Philidor position I should draw with a bit of care. What could be more natural than moving my king up the board to g4? Let’s just shake hands and grab a swift pint in the bar before closing time. But I’m soon awakened from my reverie. The black pawn moves to h5. My opponent offers his hand, but not because he’s happy to share the point.

King Up For The Ending wasn’t such a good idea in that position, then. Perhaps I’ll do better next time.

I’m white again, and have a pawn on the seventh rank. I reach out for a queen, eager to promote my pawn and force resignation. “Check”, my opponent says. “Oh no, I missed that one. Never mind, I can move out of check and then promote. I must remember to bring my king up for the ending, and attacking an enemy pawn seems like a good idea, so I play Kf3. Now if Rg3+ I’m playing Kxf4, if Rg8 I can probably play Rd7 followed by Rd8, and if the rook moves horizontally I promote at once with mate. What could go wrong?

But instead, my opponent plays Rf2. “Checkmate”, he announces, apologetically, and stops the clock.

Perhaps it will be third time lucky.

This time my opponent has a knight rather than a rook, so I shouldn’t have to worry about checkmate. I must remember to watch out for knight forks: Kc4, for example, wouldn’t be too clever. So I’ll move my king forward again, both advancing and centralising: surely it must be safe this time. My opponent moves his knight to b6. From out of the blue it’s another checkmate.

It’s very easy, isn’t it, to make this sort of mistake. Many games are decided by opening tactics. At the start of the game we wear our Opening Hat. We think about quick development, central control and king safety, but if we forget our Tactics Hat we could easily overlook a fork, for example. While we wear our Tactics Hat in the middle game it’s all to easy to forget it when we have our Ending Hat on. We’re thinking about winning pawns, creating passed pawns, promoting them and mating our opponent with the resulting queens. We learn at an early age that in the ending the king is a fighting piece. We’re not likely to get mated with many pieces on the board so we can advance him fearlessly into enemy territory.

But as you’ve seen it doesn’t always work out like that. The Magic Question always has to take precedence. Just in case you didn’t know, the Magic Question is “If I play that move, what could my opponent do next? What checks, captures and threats will be at my opponent’s disposal?” With not many pieces on the board, it’s fatally easy to be lulled into a false sense of security. The clock is ticking away: perhaps you’re playing on increment. I guess we’ve all been there.

Here’s another example:

Of course you can guess what happened next: White played Kd4, advancing and centralising, but allowing Rd3#.

This one’s a bit different:

White is up by the exchange for a pawn. The king is already centralised so it’s time to think of another endgame precept: Passed Pawns Must Be Pushed. Another sad story: d6 was met by Bc6#.

So how did I find these examples? I’m currently in the final stages of research for Checkmates for Heroes, part of the Chess for Heroes project (about which much more later) and looking for examples of interesting black checkmates to be used as test positions. I also came across positions such as these which were interesting for other reasons.

One final, and rather different, tragedy, this time not an ending.

Anything reasonable will win for White. Nf3 is, according to the engines, mate in 9, while Qxg7+ is obvious and strong. Instead, White, not noticing there was a big difference, captured on g7 with the rook. As Tartakower said, the mistakes are all there waiting to be made. We’ll all do well to remember Tartakower, as well as the Magic Question, next time we play chess.

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