Category Archives: Richard James

The Chess Hero Project

A few months ago I revealed that one item on my bucket list was to complete a chess course, or, to be more precise, a series of books, designed for children, or indeed anyone, who has mastered the basics and would like to be able to play competitive chess successfully.

The assumption is that readers will know all the rules of chess, know the value of the pieces, and understand that, other things being equal, superior force usually wins.

There are plenty of books for beginners available, some of which I’ve written myself, all of which teach more or less the same things in different ways, and many of which, if my sales figures are anything to go by, sell pretty well. If you want your children to learn the basics, choose the one you like best.

There are also many books on the market for competitive players covering all aspects of the game. Some are written for lower level competitive players, others for higher level competitive players. Publishers bring out more and more titles every month, so, even in these days of screen-based entertainment, they must still be commercially viable, and no doubt appeal to an international market.

There is very little available designed to take you, or more specifically to take children, from one level to the other, and of course there’s an enormous difference between social and competitive chess. Although there is much excellent material out there, particularly in terms of tactical training, there’s nothing on the market which covers all aspects of the game at this level, structured in a logical way. Some writers and publishers think that all you have to do to write a book for children is to give it a catchy title and add a few cartoons. On the contrary, writing for children is very different from writing for adults. You must always be mindful of your readers, using, as far as possible, simple vocabulary and simple sentence structures, explaining everything very clearly. While most chess books show you what to do, books aimed at younger readers, in particular, also need to show you how to do it.

I have on my computer a database of nearly 17,000 games played at Richmond Junior Club over a period of 30 years. While most books at this level either base their material on everything that might happen in a game, or on what happens in master games, my books will be based on what happens in games played by children at this level. What openings do they play? What tactical ideas happen most often in their games? What middle game plans do they choose? What types of mistake do they make? What endings are most important at this level?

The books should also be sufficiently flexible to be used in different ways. It should be accessible to older children studying chess on their own, and to parents working at home with younger children. It should also contain a wide range of different materials which could be used by chess teachers as part of a formal course, for longer lessons within a junior chess centre of excellence, and for shorter lessons within a school chess club.

I’ve spent several years thinking about exactly how to structure the material, as well as researching and analysing the games in my database, along with other junior games from commercially available databases. I eventually decided to write a series of six books, all devoted to different aspects of the game. I’ve started work on all six volumes, but all are some way from completion. I’ll describe each book in more detail in subsequent articles: for the moment, though, I’ll just list the working titles.

1. CHECKMATES FOR HEROES

This comes first, as checkmate is the aim of chess. All players need to be really good at finding checkmates.

2. CHESS TACTICS FOR HEROES

This book covers tactics to win pieces, and is closely connected to the first volume. Checkmates are, of course, a specific type of tactic. Both books will require, and develop, visualisation and calculation skills. Many tactics will involve using a threat of checkmate to win material.

I’m well on my way with these two books. The research is completed: it’s just a question of putting everything into place. I hope to complete the first draft of both by September 2017.

3. CHESS OPENINGS FOR HEROES

I’ve been asked many times over the years to recommend a book on openings for children. My answer, until now, has always been “I haven’t written it yet”. Learning openings is not, for the most part, about learning moves off by heart. It’s about understanding pawn formations and plans, along with an awareness of typical tactical motifs which occur again and again across different openings. I haven’t yet come across anything which takes this approach to the start of the game and explains it in simple terms.

4. CHESS ENDINGS FOR HEROES

The ending may not be the most glamorous part of the game, but in many ways it’s the most important. Unless you understand endings you won’t really understand middle games, and unless you understand middle games you won’t really understand openings. Most chess teachers agree about the importance of teaching endings to their pupils.

I’m planning to complete these two books by September 2018.

5. CHESS GAMES FOR HEROES

This is a series of ‘How Good is your Chess’ games suitable for children – games of about 15 moves in length. I wrote the first two games a couple of years ago and posted them here and here. Since then I’ve produced a few more, and developed the idea of arranging some of the games by opening in order to link up with Chess Openings for Heroes.

6. CHESS PUZZLES FOR HEROES

This is based on my ‘thinking skills’ puzzles which you can read about here, here, here and here. The format is a series of puzzles in which the student has to explain the reasons for his or her choice. The puzzles could be anything: mates, winning material, defence, endings, openings, strategy.

These two volumes together synthesise and contextualise everything in the other four books. I’m hoping to finish writing them by September 2019.

At present I’m open to offers from any publishers who are interested in the project, or anyone interested in developing them electronically. If you have any constructive suggestions please feel free to contact me.

Richard James

Pitman Shorthand

Today I want to look at a forgotten story from the heady days of the English Chess Explosion.

The year was 1980. Chess in the UK was booming, and, in particular, the game was becoming very popular in Primary Schools. What could be better for catching the Zeitgeist than a chess teaching scheme, combined with a series of tournaments?

And so it was that Pitman House, part of the company originally founded by shorthand pioneer Sir Isaac Pitman, published Learn Chess, the first volume of the Pitman Chess Teaching Scheme. The scheme incorporated three Progress Tests, with certificates and bronze, silver and gold badges awarded to successful candidates. The tournaments would be sponsored by Morgan Crucible, and, we were told, the first tournament would be held in 1981, open to teams of five, plus one reserve, whose members had all passed the third (lowest) level Progress Test. The early rounds would be held at local level, followed by regional and zonal competitions, with the top eight teams playing in London at the sponsor’s expense.

I have the Teacher’s Book in front of me now. The course was written by Edward Penn and John Littlewood. John Littlewood, of course, was a brilliant attacking player and the author of several other chess books. By profession he was a French teacher. Eddie Penn was described as ‘one of Britain’s most stimulating teachers of chess’ but was better known as an organiser and purveyor of chess books and equipment. Other contributors included many of the great and good in British chess: Michael Basman, Bernard Cafferty, Bill Hartston, John Nunn, Mike Price and John Roycroft.

The course starts, predictably enough, by introducing the pieces, starting with the pawns and the king. We then look at some king and pawn v king positions before moving onto the other pieces, the knight, bishop, rook and queen. A slightly strange order, you might think. By the 14th lesson we know all the rules and are now ready to play a complete game. We look at ‘pieces in action’ and are suddenly plunged into some pretty complicated tactics.

The supplementary material for this lesson includes, for example, this position. You might like to analyse it yourself before reading on.

We’re told there are two equally effective moves: the spectacular Rd5 and the only slightly less spectacular Re5. In fact my computer tells me that Rd5 is mate in 7, h6 (not mentioned) is mate in 11 and Re5 is mate in 18. It’s not entirely ridiculous to demonstrate this sort of position to beginners: if you give hints such as “What would you play if the black rook on d8 wasn’t there?” and “What would you play if the black queen wasn’t there?” You might like to compare and contrast something like the Steps Method, where students spend a year solving hundreds of puzzles involving looking at the board and another two years solving 1½ move tactics before moving onto more complicated positions. Two courses based mainly on tactics, but two very different approaches to teaching chess. One going very slowly and the other very fast: a Pitman Shorthand chess course, perhaps. (My own views, you won’t be surprised to hear, lie somewhere between the two extremes.)

So what happened? Was the course successful? Did lots of schools take part in the local, regional and national competitions? It seems not. I may well be mistaken, because my involvement in schools chess was only indirect at that time, but I can’t recall hearing about any local or national tournaments at all, or encountering any children proudly showing me their badges and certificates. There seems to be nothing in the BCF Year Books in the early 1980s.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone with any more knowledge than me about exactly what happened, but it seems like it wasn’t as successful as the publisher and sponsor had hoped. Perhaps the course went too fast. Perhaps there just wasn’t a market for that sort of course within school chess clubs.

In 1984 a second volume appeared: Learn Chess 2. John Littlewood was credited as the sole author, but thanked Michael Basman and John Nunn for their contributions. Mostly advanced (at least by my standards) tactics, expertly chosen, but with some endings as well. An excellent book, but, in my view, far too difficult for a second book for near beginners. The two volumes look identical: same rather unusual size and same distinctive cover design, but closer inspections reveals a change of publisher. The second volume was published, not by Pitman House, but by Adam & Charles Black. There’s no indication that Pitman had gone out of business or had sold anything else off to Black, so I’d assume they opted out of the second volume for commercial reasons. In his introduction, Littlewood apologised, particularly to teachers, for the delay in producing the second volume, adding that it was not economically viable to produce a separate Teacher’s Book. There’s no mention at all of badges or certificates, of tournaments of any nature, or of Morgan Crucible and their sponsorship. And of course it’s no longer the Pitman Chess Teaching Scheme, just Volume 2.

The scheme was a brave attempt: I’ve written before, on many occasions, about the need to combine a systematic method of skills development with competitive chess. It’s a great pity it wasn’t more successful.

Richard James

Raymond Smullyan – and a Postscript

I was saddened to hear of the recent death of Raymond Smullyan at the impressive age of 97. Smullyan was a mathematician, stage magician and concert pianist as well as a philosopher, but was best known as the author of many books on logic.

He was also interested in chess and published two books of ‘chess logic’ puzzles based on retro-analysis: The Chess Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes (1979) and The Chess Mysteries of the Arabian Knights (1981). My bookshelf includes the latter, but not, as far as I can recall, the former. In Smullyan’s puzzles the solver has to use logic to work out how the position was reached, rather than, as in most chess puzzles, what should happen next.

Here’s his best known puzzle.

Set up this position on your board: a white bishop on a4, a black bishop on d5, black rook on b5 and black king on d1.

In the Arabian Knights book Smullyan explains that Haroun Al Rashid, the White King, has made himself invisible, a trick he learnt from a Chinese sorcerer. He is on one of the 64 squares of the enchanted chess kingdom, but no one can see him. Your task is to discover his location.

You might like to work it out for yourself before reading on.

You’ll spot that the black king is in check from the white bishop, but that there is no possible last move for that piece. But if Haroun Al Rashid is on b3 he will be in what appears to be an illegal double check from the black rook and bishop.

You’ll need a bit of lateral thinking to realise that this double check is not quite impossible: it could come about from an en passant capture.

This is how the position might have arisen (the black bishop could be somewhere else on the long diagonal). Black plays 1… Bd5+ and the game continues 2. c4 bxc3 (en passant), giving double check from the rook and the bishop by opening two lines, and then 3. Kxc3, giving you the required position. So the answer is that Haroun Al Rashid is on the c3 square.

This was first published by Leonard Barden in what was then the Manchester Guardian in 1957, but, as Barden had been sent the puzzle without any further information, the composer was not named. A few weeks later, Smullyan made contact with Barden, who later published several more of his chess logic puzzles.

By way of a postscript to last week’s article, I have a more conventional puzzle for you to solve.

Black to play: choose your next move.

You might recall that last week I demonstrated how my two most recent games featured missed opportunities for very similar tactics: sacrificing a rook for a pawn to set up a fork regaining the rook.

Since then I’ve played another league game, and again I was awarded the white pieces. In this position my opponent has an extra pawn on c3 which might not be very safe, while I might also be thinking about taking advantage of the slightly insecure black king by playing Nxg5.

They say things come in threes, and, for the third consecutive game both players failed to notice the possibility of a very similar combination.

Black can play 1… Rd1+! 2. Rxd1 c2 winning material by forcing the white queen away from her protection of the rook on b5. White’s only hope now is to give up the exchange: 3. Rxb6 axb6 4. Qb3 cxd1Q 5. Qxd1. Instead, Black, who was starting to run short of time, played Rd6, and, a few moves later, panicked and gave up material unnecessarily. I eventually won the game.

This is slightly harder from last week’s positions. Firstly, it involves a sacrifice on a vacant square. Secondly, there’s the additional motif of deflecting the white queen so you have to see one move further ahead. The basic concept is quite similar, though, and again, if you look for checks, captures and threats, you should be able to find it.

Richard James

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

It’s been a long time since I showed you any actual chess on a Sunday, so here, for a change, are two puzzles for you to solve. In each case I just want you to select your next move, and, if you want, consider what the two positions have in common.

In this position it’s White’s move.

And in this position it’s Black’s move.

Go away and solve them now before reading on.

It seems like I’ve spent most of my life telling children to use a CCTV when they’re playing chess. Look at every Check, Capture, Threat and Violent move both for you and for your opponent. Continue with all sequences of checks, captures and threats until you reach a quiescent position. As Cecil Purdy wrote, examine moves that smite.

If I’d been brought up on Purdy perhaps this would have become second nature to me. But instead I was brought up on Golombek’s The Game of Chess, which explained what to do but not how to do it. Golombek was an excellent writer and, it goes without saying, extremely knowledgeable about chess. But, unlike Purdy, he wasn’t really a teacher.

So, although I try to explain to my pupils how to think about chess positions, I’m totally unable to do the same thing myself in my own games.

These positions came from my two (at the time of writing) most recent games. I was White in both positions. You’ve probably found the best move in both positions by now: they’re not so hard if you know there’s something there, but easy to miss over the board, at least at my level.

In the first position I could have won a pawn with the simple tactic 1. Rxb7 Rxb7 2. Qc8+, but neither player noticed, either at the time or during the post mortem. The game was eventually drawn: you might possibly see all the moves in a future post.

In the second position, Black looks in trouble. His h-pawn is en prise, his f-pawn will be under pressure after a future Rcf1, and White’s centre pawns are ready to roll. But the great god Tactics comes to his rescue: he has 1… Rxd4+ 2. Kxd4 Ne2+, when Black is a bit better but White might just be holding. Again, fortunately for me and my team (we won the match by the minimum margin) neither player noticed the opportunity and I eventually brought home the full point.

Both tactics are essentially the same thing, aren’t they? You sacrifice a rook for a pawn, setting up a fork to win back the rook. If I were writing a tactics book (which, as it happens, I am), and included a chapter on sacrificing to set up a fork (which I probably won’t as it’s a very basic tactics book) you could well include both positions. In both games I didn’t consider the possibility at all, just seeing that the pawn was defended and not taking it any further.

Although I teach my pupils to look for this sort of thing in their games, it just doesn’t occur to me to do so myself. It ought to be second nature, but it isn’t, which is one reason why I’ve never been a very good player. I guess that, as I’m coming towards the end of my chess career, it’s too late to do anything about it now.

Richard James

The Children on the Hill

Published by Quartet Books Limited, 1973, copyright 1972, it says in my paperback edition of this book. So I must have bought it at some point between starting to teach chess in 1972 and starting Richmond Junior Club in 1975.

I was working in Central London at the time and during the lunch break I’d sometimes walk the mile or so down the road to Foyle’s to browse the chess books. One day, for a change, I went to Dillon’s London University Bookshop instead, and chanced upon a small paperback which looked interesting. It told the story of a family of child prodigies living in a dilapidated cottage in Wales. The second child, aged only 9, had won a national piano competition open to children up to 14 (not, as the book cover incorrectly states, 18). I started browsing, and discovered that the oldest son was, apart from being a maths prodigy, something of a chess player.

The family, who were understandably fearful of any invasion of their privacy, were not identified in the book, and were given different names, but there were enough clues for me to suspect that I knew the oldest boy by sight. At the time I was playing regularly in weekend tournaments in London, and also visited the Mary Ward Centre, only a short walk from Dillon’s, where Leonard Barden and Bob Wade ran regular junior training tournaments, and where I’d seen him play. This, of course, was the start of the famed English Chess Explosion. It later transpired that my suspicions were entirely correct, and I knew the name of the oldest child.

So I paid my 40p and returned to my office with a copy of The Children on the Hill, by Michael Deakin. The Story of an Extraordinary Family.

In brief, and I’ll probably write much more about this another time in another place, the children’s parents determined to bring up children who were both happy and moral. Producing prodigies was an unexpected byproduct of this. Their methods were based on the teachings of Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget, and involved the parents totally subsuming their lives into the requirements of their children. The children were encouraged to find their passion and, with unconditional love and totally without pressure, take it seriously (the phrase ‘high seriousness’ occurs more than once in the book) as far as they wanted.

The desire to excel came from the children themselves, while the parents made enormous sacrifices to help them succeed. Parental involvement, lack of pressure and seriousness of purpose, along with the child’s natural ability, are the keys to producing ‘child prodigies’. If you’re at all interested in the subject I’d recommend the book. It’s been out of print for many years but second hand copies are readily available from the usual sources.

While I was reading this book, a Hungarian family were just starting something superficially similar. But unlike Martin and Maria, the parents of the Children on the Hill, Laszlo and Klara Polgar decided in advance which subject should be their children’s speciality, and, as we all know, they chose chess. Dangerous, you might think, for the parents to choose their children’s passion, and it could easily backfire, but in this case it seems to have worked.

If you want to consider a contemporary family of gifted children you might well look at the Kanneh-Mason family from Nottingham, whose seven children are all classical musicians of extraordinary talent. The third of the siblings, Sheku, last year won the title of BBC Young Musician of the Year, playing Shostakovich’s first Cello Concerto. Unlike, for instance, the Polgars, the children are not home-schooled, instead attending a Catholic Comprehensive School. Sheku also finds time for ‘normal’ interests such as football.

In several places on the Internet you’ll find questions about what happened to the Children on the Hill. The identity of the family is now in the public domain if you know where to look. In fact I wrote about Adam, the name given to the pianist in the book, a few months ago, using his real name. Although he never achieved genuine stardom he still plays and teaches professionally, appearing at leading venues as part of a piano trio. A few years after the book was published he followed his brother in taking up chess, which he still plays to a pretty high level, and is also involved in teaching chess to children. The two youngest children are also classical musicians, a flautist and a cellist. The chess playing oldest son was very active nationally and internationally during the 70s, but stopped playing to pursue a successful international academic career in computing, making a brief comeback at the chequered board a few years ago.

And there I was going to leave you, but just yesterday a boy only a couple of months past his fifth birthday turned up at Richmond Junior Club wanting to try out the Intermediate Group, having already held his own in a tournament against much older children. I asked his mother if he was really ready for a three-hour club, but she assured me he had no problem playing for six hours at home. Well, we did have a problem with him: it was very hard to persuade him he had to leave when we were trying to put everything away and adjourn to the pub! As he’d arrived very early he was there for the best part of four hours, playing quietly with total concentration the whole time. It was also clear, when I played a couple of games with him, that he had an intuitive grasp of the game’s logic. I’ve come across very few children, even a couple of years older, who have the concentration, the impulse control and the logic to play good chess, but this boy potentially has these skills at only five. Speaking to his mother, it’s clear that she’s going to be very supportive. Talent: tick (I think). Passion: tick. Supportive parents: tick. I’ll be interested to see what happens next.

Richard James

Silence in the Chess Club

Back in the mid 1970s there were a couple of elderly (by my standards at the time) social players at Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club: Henry Coke and the appropriately named Philip Pratt. They played each other every week, rarely if ever taking part in club matches. Henry sat there in silence while Philip prattled on incessantly. “What’s it all about, Henry?” “I don’t like it much, Henry.” We all referred to them, with a degree of affection, as the Club Loonies, but didn’t feel particularly affectionate towards them when we were trying to concentrate on our match games.

Children don’t seem to have the same problem: in junior chess clubs kids very rarely complain about the incessant chatter going on round about them, while not having a problem with playing in silence during more formal competitions.

Last week I looked at to what extent the trappings of adult chess should be adopted in school chess clubs, and how this might tie in with Neil Postman’s views on the merging of childhood and adulthood. My view is that, in most school clubs, there is no need for clocks and scoresheets, although the children will probably learn the names of the squares. In junior chess clubs which aim to produce serious players, though, children will learn how to use clocks and score their games. This sort of club will, by definition, be more serious than a school club. Older and stronger players will be expected to play in silence, but younger and less experienced players, who are still learning about serious competitive chess, will probably be allowed a certain amount of leeway. Clubs of this nature will also usually have time for less formal activity, probably at the beginning and end of the session, where children will be able to socialise and play more casual games. At this point, you may or may not allow chess variants. Personally, although some of my colleagues disagree with me, I have no problem with Suicide Chess or Scotch Chess, for example, as they can be played quietly, but I don’t like children playing Exchange/Bughouse because it gets too noisy and does the equipment no favours. My view is that chess variants are part of the overall culture of the game so, in principle, shouldn’t be discouraged.

As you may know, I left Richmond Junior Club in 2006. When I returned several years later the children were chatting during their supposedly ‘serious’ games and the last hour or so appeared to be devoted to Bughouse. Touch move was enforced and clocks were used, but no one seemed too concerned about silence or scoresheets, and chess variants were encouraged. The club was seen more as a social and community club than a Centre of Excellence. Parents who wanted their children to excel at chess were frowned upon as ‘having an agenda’. I quite understand, and have a certain amount of sympathy with the idea that children’s chess should be fun and stress-free, and that ‘pushy’ parents should be treated with caution. Now, looking at it from a Neil Postman perspective, this is a perfectly valid way to run a chess club, and there’s certainly an argument that this sort of club should exist alongside more serious clubs designed to produce strong players. However, it seems that more serious clubs are also more popular. Within a few years the numbers had declined to a fraction of what they were before I left.

Eventually a new régime took over, and, while keeping the same format (social time, lesson, game, more social time) made the club a lot more serious. Numbers increased as did the standard of play. There’s a market within primary schools for ‘fun’ clubs which, while expecting some sort of discipline, are also rather less strict. There’s also a market within the community for clubs which are stricter and more serious, which serve as a bridge between kiddie chess and adult chess. Regular readers will be aware that there’s much I dislike about the current primary school chess set-up. But we are where we are. All we can do at the moment is aim to get the right balance between fun and seriousness, with the right level of strictness. At Richmond, I think we’re doing this as well as we can.

Richard James

Silence in Class

Last week I asked a question which was posed at the London Chess & Education Conference:

“Silence, Touch Move, Timers: how strict should chess classes be?” We might also ask other questions such as whether or not we have scoresheets, or whether or not we allow children to play Bughouse (Exchange), Suicide and other chess variants?

Thinking about this you might like to bear in mind Neil Postman’s views (as discussed here last week) about the difference between adult play and children’s play and consider which is better for young children.

Well, it depends, doesn’t it, what sort of chess class you’re running. I’ll consider the classes I’m involved with.

After-school chess clubs in my part of London are little more than child-minding sessions. The children just want to be able to play once a week with their friends, and they and their parents, for the most part, are too busy to be able to spend any more time on chess. Even if I offer parents free books and free lessons I don’t get any takers. So how strict should these clubs be? I guess Neil Postman would think they shouldn’t be strict at all. I don’t entirely agree.

First of all, some of these children will take part in external tournaments: some of them will qualify for the Megafinals of the Delancey UK Chess Challenge, where they’ll have to play touch move, and also have to play in silence. So if we introduce the idea of competition in this way we have to be pretty strict about enforcing touch and move for any child able to play a complete game. I’m slightly uneasy about it, for reasons that Postman would have understood, and I’m also uneasy about putting children who know very little about chess into any sort of competition, but it’s where we are and the kids enjoy the fluffy mascots so there’s not much I can do about it.

I think, to be honest, the discipline of touch move is, generally speaking, good for children, as it helps them in developing self-regulatory skills such as impulse control. So, yes, we play touch move in school chess clubs.

Silence is slightly more of a problem. Children have been working hard at school all day and are usually coming straight to the chess club without a break from their last lesson. It seems to me to be verging on cruelty to expect them to spend an hour sitting in silence. On the other hand, if there’s any noise it’s going to be very hard for them to concentrate on their games. Here is the crux of the issue about the difference between adult and children’s play. In some schools the chess club is seen as part of the school day and there is a teacher present in the room to keep noise levels down. In other schools it is seen as something separate from school and the noise level is the chess tutor’s responsibility. Some chess tutors have a strong classroom presence and are able to keep the kids fairly quiet, some, including me (which is why I’ll only do school clubs where a teacher is responsible for discipline) struggle with this, while others don’t mind if there’s a lot of noise as long as they get paid.

Clocks and scoresheets: by and large I don’t use them in schools. If a school is really big on chess, all children learn the moves and they can play at any time, then only the stronger players will join the school club and using clocks and scoresheets would be appropriate. But for most school clubs there’s really no need: children who are serious will be fed through to more serious clubs where they will learn these skills.

Inevitably children at this level will need arbiters, and in this sort of club the chess tutor will also be the arbiter. The role of an arbiter in school chess clubs is mostly to answer questions like ‘is this checkmate?’ and ‘can you remind me how to castle’. In an ideal world children would know all the rules and be able to identify checkmate and stalemate before taking part in a competition, but it’s not where we are, so there’s not much I can do about it.

Whether or not to allow chess variants is another matter on which opinions differ. My view, as usual, is somewhere in the middle. I don’t allow Bughouse at all (and don’t teach it) but have no problem with children, once they’ve finished their tournament game, playing Suicide Chess or Scotch Chess. Some of them will also play mini-games such as variants of Capture the Flag. As far as I’m concerned this is all part of chess culture and shouldn’t be discouraged. Children will often try to invent their own variants, which will usually make little sense: should this be encouraged or not? Neil Postman considered that inventing their own rules is an integral part of children’s play. On the other hand, I have some colleagues who won’t allow any chess variant at all, while, at the other extreme, some let children spend the entire session playing Bughouse.

I’d be interested to hear your views about school chess clubs. More serious chess clubs, such as Richmond Junior Club, are very different. I’ll consider this next week.

Richard James

Thank You Mr Postman

Sometimes you read a book which makes you rethink your opinions on a particular subject. Back in 2004 I read a book, originally written in 1982, called The Disappearance of Childhood by the US writer and educator Neil Postman (1931-2003). Reading this book caused me to think about everything I was doing in terms of junior chess, and everything that was happening in the junior chess world, in a different way. You might think it curious that I should have been so influenced by a book which doesn’t actually mention chess at all. It’s not really strange though: I’m always asking questions like “What should 21st century childhood and 21st century schools look like?” before I ask what role chess should play in them. Other chess educators are asking the very different, and, in my opinion, over-simplistic question: how can we best put chess into schools as they are now?”

In his book Neil Postman writes about the decline in children’s play and the merging of children’s and adult games, with specific reference to Little League baseball and Pee Wee football.

“The idea that children’s games are not the business of adults has clearly been rejected by Americans, who are insisting that, even at age six, children play their games without spontaneity, under careful supervision, and at an intense competitive level.”

Postman goes on to discuss a brawl between parents which occurred during an international soccer tournament for young children in Ontario in 1981.

“What are the parents doing there in the first place? Why are four thousand children involved in a tournament? Why is East Brunswick, New Jersey playing Burlington, Ontario? What are these children being trained for? The answer to all these questions is that children’s play has become an adult preoccupation, it has become professionalized, it is no longer a world separate from adults.”

He then talks about young children competing in sports such as tennis, swimming and gymnastics, and has another question to ask.

“Why submit children to the rigors of professional-style training, concentration, tension, media hype? The answer is the same as before: The traditional assumptions about the uniqueness of children are fast fading. What we have here is the emergence of the idea that play is not to be done for the sake of doing it, but for some external purpose, such as renown, money, physical conditioning, upward mobility, national pride.”

I would not take quite such an extreme position as Postman. I can think of many benefits that children who excel at soccer (or chess) could gain from taking part in international tournaments even though I would certainly ask some questions and have some concerns. I guess it’s partly a generational thing: Postman was nearer my parents’ age than my age, and those who are 20 years or so younger than me will, by and large, have far fewer qualms than I do about this sort of competition.

One of the round table debates at last month’s London Chess & Education Conference, which I unfortunately missed as there were several other debates on at the same time which interested me, was on this topic: “Silence, touch move, timers: how strict should chess classes be?” I consider this a very important subject and would have been interested to hear others’ views. Postman writes about the distinction between ‘children’s play’ and ‘adult play’, and it seems to me that, with regard to chess, silence, touch move, timers, scoresheets, arbiters and so on are very specifically aspects of ‘adult play’ rather than ‘children’s play’. Postman would expect chess clubs for young children, even if he was in favour of such a thing, to be unsupervised and unstructured, with children inventing their own rules, and even doing totally different things with the pieces, such as using them as projectiles.

I’ll return to this topic next week and provide some of my own answers, but there was one other thing that jumped out at me on reading Neil Postman’s book.

Postman considered the golden age of childhood to have been between about 1850 and 1950, which, perhaps not coincidentally, was the end of his own childhood. Many baby boomers like me would put the end of the golden age as more like 1970. He saw television as the main reason for the disappearance of childhood, and would surely have been horrified by the effect of the Internet on today’s children. As I explained above, although I share his concerns, my position is not so extreme.

In one chapter, Postman predicts, due to the merging of childhood and adulthood, and the influence of television, the rise of the adult-child.

“The adult-child may be defined as a grown-up whose intellectual and emotional capacities are unrealized and, in particular, not significantly different from those associated with children.”

By the time you read this, an adult-child will be running the most powerful nation in the world, with his finger on the nuclear button. Postman’s prophecy from thirty five years ago has come true.

Meanwhile, I’d urge anyone who is involved with decision making in junior chess to go away and read the book: it’s readily available on Amazon. You probably won’t agree with all of it; you may well disagree with most of it, but it will make you stop and think about how we should be promoting and running junior chess. Come to think of it, I really ought to read his other books myself as well.

Richard James

The Four Wise Men

The London Chess and Education Conference last month gave me the chance to find out more about the chess study run by the Institute of Education, which, you may recall, did not demonstrate that chess improved children’s academic performance. Unusually, the tests were based on public examinations which the children took a year after the end of the chess course, which may have been one reason for the negative result. Another reason might have been that the children were following a relatively ‘fast’ course designed to get them playing chess fairly quickly (I should know: I wrote it) rather than a course specifically designed to use chess to improve children’s cognitive skills.

We also learned more about recent studies in Italy and elsewhere, but it seems to me that, while most studies demonstrate a short-term improvement in scholastic performance, there is little or no substantive evidence that studying chess provides any long-term academic benefits.

So why is so much effort being put into promoting chess as a learning tool in schools, and even, as we saw last week, using it to introduce very young children to music and movement?

Imagine for a moment you’re the headteacher of a primary school, or, if you’re in, for example, the USA, the principal of an elementary school.

One day four wise men, wise women if you prefer, but I’m writing this a few days after the Feast of Epiphany, come knocking at your door, all bearing gifts.

The first Wise Person says:

“I bring you the gift of music. I’m going to immerse your school in music, bring music into every lesson in every classroom. Your children will sing in choirs and be able to learn musical instruments. I’ll give your children to listen to music from a wide range of genres and countries: classical, rock, jazz, folk, music from India, China and Africa. I’ll give all your children a passion for music, although I’ll only expect a few to want to take it very seriously. I can also show you a lot of research to demonstrate that learning and listening to music will improve children’s academic performance.”

The second Wise Person says:

“I bring you the gift of language and culture. I’ll teach all your children to speak and read Mandarin Chinese. The world is getting smaller and China is playing an increasingly important role on the world stage. Being able to communicate in Mandarin Chinese will provide many potential employment opportunities for your children when they grow up. I’ll also introduce them to Chinese history, Chinese culture and Chinese cuisine. They’ll also be able to play Go, a great Chinese game. I’ve also got a lot of evidence to prove that learning a second language from an early age is academically beneficial”

The third Wise Person says:

“I bring you the gift of philosophy and thinking. I’ll teach children about metacognition – thinking about thinking. I’ll teach them how to reason, how to differentiate between real and fake news, how to concentrate and focus, how to control their impulses. I’ll also demonstrate meditation techniques and introduce them to concepts of philosophy, from the Ancient Greeks to the present day. My course will improve behaviour as well as academic results and will also benefit children’s mental health. I have a lot of peer-reviewed research in front of me to demonstrate the effectiveness of my approach.”

Finally, the fourth Wise Person says:

“I bring you the gift of chess. I’ll immerse your children in the Royal Game. I’ll introduce your younger children to chess through chess songs and dances, and through doing PE on a black and white squares. Then all children will have one lesson of chess a week instead of maths and I’ll also show you how you can integrate chess into everything else on the curriculum. There’s evidence to show that chess brings some limited short-term academic benefits, and at the end of the course, some of your children will be quite good at moving plastic figures round a chequered board.”

While all four gifts have their attractions, there’s only room on your curriculum for one of them. Which one would you choose?

It’s a difficult question, isn’t it? I guess if I had to make the choice it might depend on what sort of area my school was in, what the intake of pupils was like, and, of course, what costs were involved. But, even though I’m pretty fanatical about chess, I know which one I’d be least likely to choose.

In one of the Conference sessions I put it to the panel that by taking this approach we in the chess world were competing against other activities which claim to ‘make kids smarter’, all of which have their own devotees and apologists. The panel didn’t disagree with me.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of great material out there for schools which really want to go into chess in a big way, much of which I’ve seen over the years at the conference. You can only admire the quality of the products and the effort and dedication of those who produce them. I suppose it’s worthwhile in that there will always be a few schools who want to take this approach. And when they do, the children have a great time: many of them really enjoy playing chess, taking part in competitions and perhaps visiting the London Chess Classic, and some of them eventually compete at a high level. There was a primary school in my area which really went into chess in a big way some 25-30 years ago. Two of their pupils went on to become IMs. I’m not saying it can’t work, more that there are are other, perhaps more important or worthwhile things that schools could do. After all, chess is just a game. An amazingly wonderful game, yes, but not a big thing like music or philosophy.

If it was my decision I’d be looking at very different ways of promoting chess, but it’s where we are, internationally as well as nationally, and I’ll just have to live with it.

Richard James

Chess for Babies

Last month’s London Chess Conference supported by Chess in Schools and Communities was, as always, a mixture of the inspiring, the fascinating and the somewhat disturbing.

We learned quite a lot about methods used for introducing chess to very young children, much of which seems to emanate from Italy and Spain.

Now this doesn’t mean playing complete games of chess against Karpov, like young Mikhail Osipov, whom I wrote about a few weeks ago. It doesn’t involve playing any competitive games at all. FIDE are now promoting a course, originally developed in Italy, for five and six year old children using a giant chessboard to help children develop psychomotor (physical) skills. By playing movement-based games on the board children learn about directions: vertical, horizontal and diagonal. They also learn about listening, following instructions, working as a team, letters (a to h, I suppose) and numbers (1 to 8).

You can find out more about it here. The videos of the lessons are in Italian, but even if it’s not one of your languages you’ll get a pretty good idea of what’s going on.

We also heard from Pep Suarez, from Minorca, who is teaching chess to even younger children using song and dance. Each piece has a different song which describes its moves, and a dance to go with it. He explained that some strong chess players are horrified by this approach to chess. At first he was only getting a small number of children moving onto playing full games, and only a few of those would go on to play competitive chess, but recently his small island (population under 100,000) has produced several national age-group champions.

The people behind these schemes are very much involved with the FIDE Chess in Schools Commission. Their mission:

o Chess for Education (CFE) not Education for Chess (EFC).

o Using chess within the educational framework to improve educational outcomes rather than using the educational environment to produce chess players (although that is an inevitable and very welcome by-product).

o The main focus of CiS is a social educational programme in primary and secondary schools, with particular emphasis on the ages 7-11.

o ‘CiS’ will this year provide a social educational programme for pre-schoolers at home or in kindergarten (see Psychomotricity).

o ‘CiS’ is also important at third level, in further education, especially aiming to encourage research and to develop the professionalization of chess teaching.

The fourth item here is presumably the Italian programme mentioned above.

This is very much the way chess education is moving internationally, although here in the UK we take a rather different approach geared much more towards competitive chess.

My feelings about this are very mixed. Yes, of course it’s important that young children learn through music and movement. If, like me, you grew up in the UK in the 1950s, it’s quite possible your school would have used a BBC Radio (we called it the wireless in those days) programme called precisely that: Music and Movement. If you really want your primary school to go into chess in a big way, then it would probably be a good idea to do this sort of thing to ensure that kids who joined your chess club knew all the moves.

On the other hand, there are all sorts of reasons why you might have concerns. There are no doubt many other ways of teaching children these skills. I can see that the nature of the chequered board has a number of advantages, but I’d be interested to hear from early years teachers as to the effectiveness of using chess for this purpose. It would also only be effective if the teacher was fully engaged and enthusiastic about the lessons, and of course it wouldn’t need a chess tutor at all.

I can also see the objections raised by some strong players who see this as dumbing down chess by turning it into an activity for very young children. But if it works in terms of producing significant numbers of young people with a lasting interest in chess then why not? It’s not something I’d want to be involved with myself, though.

Whether we like it or not, and, personally, I have a lot of reservations, it’s the way children’s chess is heading at the moment. Chess is being used as a tool to improve educational outcomes, and, if it also produces chess players, so much the better. My priority would be very much the other way round, but it’s where we are at the moment.

But how much evidence is there that chess really does improve educational outcomes (‘making kids smarter’)? We learned something about that as well, and I’ll return to this theme next time.

Richard James