Category Archives: 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

Bucket List

Getting the Christmas gig means inevitably that I get the January 1st gig as well, when you’ll all be too busy recovering from seeing in the New Year to read this article.

It’s the time when many people make resolutions and I’m sure many of you will have made chess resolutions this year. Perhaps you’re going to learn a new opening? Take time out to sharpen your tactical skills? Brush up your knowledge of rook and pawn endings? All admirable resolutions if you want to boost your rating.

Some of you might also compile a bucket list of things to do before you die, or, if you’re younger than me, before you reach a certain age. I’ve compiled a bucket list myself, but there are only two items on it.

The first item is to finish writing my family history, which will eventually become my own life story, including the story of Richmond Junior Club, which, as anyone who knows me will be aware, has been a very important part of my life.

The second item is to finish writing my chess course for children (or indeed older learners) who have learned the moves and would like to play serious competitive chess. A series of books will cover the basic knowledge and skills you require to reach 100 ECF/1500 ELO. Work is currently in progress on this project under the working title Chess for Heroes.

One of the principles of Chess for Heroes is that you can’t understand the middle game until you understand the ending. If you don’t understand the ending you will have no idea when to trade pieces or which pieces you should trade. If you don’t understand the middle game you’ll have no real idea what you’re doing in the opening. Although you need some understanding and appreciation of opening theory: what happened before you came along, just memorising moves isn’t enough.

Understanding my life, though, is very much the opposite. Chess for Heroes is the endgame of my life and will be very different from anything else on the market. To understand what it’s all about and why I do it you have to understand the effect chess had on my life. You also have to understand what was happening at Richmond Junior Club between 1975 and 2005, why it was so successful, and why, although it seemed to me the obvious way to run a chess club for children, I know of no other club run in anything like the same way. The opening of my life is what happened in my childhood, and how that influenced the way RJCC operated. What happened before I was born is, if you like, the opening theory that you need to be aware of before you try to understand me. Where did I come from? Whose DNA did I inherit? Who were my parents, and where did they come from?

I’ll write more about this in the weeks to come, along with some thoughts from the 2016 London Chess & Education Conference, and perhaps demonstrate some of my recent games.

For the moment, though, I’ll just take this opportunity to wish all readers of this column, their families and friends, all the best for 2017.

Richard James

A Time of Gifts

It appears to by my turn for the Christmas gig this year, so I’m sure nobody will read this. You’ll all be far too busy opening your presents and stuffing your turkey to read internet chess columns, and quite right too.

If you’ve been teaching chess (or, indeed, teaching anything) as long as I have you might receive gifts at any time of the year. A gift that costs nothing to give but means a lot to receive. Let me explain.

A few months ago I was doing some private chess tuition at Hampton Court House. I walked across to the other side of Bushy Park to catch the bus home, checked the timetable, and discovered I had a few minutes to go back into the park and take some more photographs of the sunset. I held the gate open for a young man on a bicycle. He thanked me, then turned and looked at me again. “Are you Richard?”, he asked. “I’m Ralph.” Ralph had been a member of Richmond Junior Club about fifteen years previously.

A week or so later, I was on the bus one evening returning home from a concert. A man sat next to me. “Hi Richard”, he said, “I’m Alban”. Alban had, along with his three brothers, been a member of Richmond Junior Club about thirty five years ago, and his older brother’s son is currently a member, and by no means the only second generation member we have at the moment.

More recently I was at an amateur opera production where I met the parents of two former Richmond Junior Club members, again from about fifteen years ago. Time and time again, it’s humbling to be reminded, by both parents and former members, in how much affection Richmond Junior Club was, and I hope, still is held.

This is exactly why I do what I do. I’ve never been interested in making money from teaching chess, but because we are where we are, I have no option but to charge a reasonable rate. I’m just interested in making a difference to children’s lives, and perhaps giving them a long-term interest. I’d happily pay, rather than be paid, for the privilege.

The best gift I ever received, though, was a cheap plastic pocket chess set which Santa delivered 56 years ago. I’m sure many children throughout the world will receive the gift of chess today. I hope that, for some of them, as it was for me, it will be a gift that lasts a lifetime. It really doesn’t matter whether they reach 3000 strength, 2000 strength or even 1000 strength. Many parents, unaware of the complexity, beauty, history and heritage of the game, just see it as a way of providing their children with short-term extrinsic benefits rather than as a potential long-term passion. Perhaps we in the chess community should do more to promote the real reasons why they should give their children the gift of chess.

Remember: chess is not just for Christmas, chess is for life!

Richard James

Thinking Skills Test 2 (Part 2)

Last week I introduced the first four questions in my second Thinking Skills Quiz. This week I’ll take a look at how children answered the last four questions

Question 5 is another standard tactical idea which comes up in many openings, and where the correct move is often overlooked. The complex thought processes which enable the children to find a3, the only move to avoid losing a piece, are too hard at this level, unless they’ve seen the idea before. Several of my sample chose to castle, wanting to unpin the knight and expecting to be able to save it next move. Again, a typical thinking error with young children, thinking “I go there, then I go there” rather “I go there, then you go there”.

Question 6 is a random mate in 2 position. Can they find a fairly simple mate in two if they’re not told specifically that it’s a checkmate puzzle? A few of them managed to find the correct answer: Nf6. They recognized the typical King and Rook v King checkmate position and saw that they could get checkmate next move by moving the knight out of the way. In some cases this was, I suspect, a lucky guess. You have to control g8 to stop the black king escaping, and blocking off the black bishop also speeds up the mate, but I’m not sure that they were all aware of these points.

Question 7 is another defensive question, and another typical opening idea. When faced with two threats children will automatically react to the first threat they see without stopping to see if there’s another threat that should take priority. So in this position most children will spot the threat to the knight on e5 and move it to the most obvious square, f3, where it threatens the black queen. Even when I prompted some of them to find a knight move which defended f2 some of them found it hard. Eventually they noticed that Ng4 fitted the bill, but didn’t stop to ask whether or not the move was safe. The question you should be asking (and you really had to ask yourself before playing Nxe5 the previous move) is “Do I have a knight move which defends f2 and is also safe”. But this is a complex cognitive operation which is too hard for most young children with little experience of chess.

Finally, Question 8. Several of the students didn’t get this far in the time allocated for the exercise, but those who attempted the question played 1. Qc6+, expecting something like 1… Nd7 2. Nxd7 Qxd7 3. Qxa8+. They probably hadn’t noticed the bishop on h3. It’s often been pointed out that backward diagonal moves are the hardest to spot. In fact the bishop on h3 is the key to this puzzle. White can trap the bishop by playing the rather unusual discovered attack g4.

Again, these puzzles exemplify some of the typical thinking errors made by less experienced younger children.

  • They only consider one criterion when choosing a move, and choose the first move meeting that criterion.
  • They either fail to look more than one move ahead or think ‘I go there, then I go there, then I go there’ rather than ‘I go there, you go there, then I go there’.
  • They are unable to see relationships between pieces in different parts of the board.
  • They fail to notice their opponent’s threats.
  • They overlook discovered attacks.

Now this poses a couple of questions. Can we teach young children more efficiently by concentrating on these areas? Or do we put it down to their cognitive development and expect them to improve naturally? Should we be repeating and reinforcing typical tactical ideas in the opening such as Questions 2, 5 and 7 in this quiz and Questions 6 and 7 in the previous quiz?

And what about less experienced or lower rated adult players? Do they make the same type of mistake or is there a difference? Young children learn mainly through memory and mimicry rather than through genuine understanding, but it should be easier to teach older children and adults to understand abstract concepts and more complex cognitive skills. I don’t know as I have very little experience teaching adults. If you have any views or experience on this, please let me know.

Richard James

Thinking Skills Test 2 (Part 1)

I recently returned to the original Thinking Skills test for children which I wrote some years ago. I decided I could produce a lot more of these, and have had the opportunity to submit the Richmond Junior Club Intermediate Group to another eight questions. These questions are designed for players who have learned the basic principles but are below about 100 ECF/1500 Elo strength. It’s always interesting to note that children who, when playing games, will make most of their moves instantaneously, will spend a long time on this exercise.

If you teach children at this level please feel free to use them yourself and let me know what results you get.

Question 1 is, like last time, a basic king and pawn v king position. Will they push the pawn hoping to get it to the end of the board safely or will they, correctly but perhaps counter-intuitively, take the opposition with Ke6? In my small sample, several of the children knew the answer to this, in some cases specifically mentioning the word ‘opposition’, but without being able to spell it correctly. Others, as expected just pushed the pawn, hoping for a safe promotion.

Question 2 is a very frequent position type in games at this level. Black goes for a quick attack on f2 and White correctly meets the attack by castling. After Black captures with the knight on f2, what should White do? The most popular answer in my sample was Qe2. They see their queen is attacked and move it to a safe square. At least it’s better than Qe1 or Qd2 when a knight move will hit the queen as well as discovering check from the bishop. Surprisingly few make the correct move, capturing the knight on f2, winning two minor pieces for rook (and pawn) and giving White a clear advantage. I’ve also used the position where Black has played Bc5xf2+ instead of Ng4xf2. Here, again, many children at this level will play Kh1 rather than Rxf2, telling me that they don’t want to lose a rook (5 points) for a bishop (3 points). Because they lack the basic skill of being able to look ahead they fail to see their next move, capturing again on f2.

Question 3 is a basic tactical idea which is usually missed at this level. If they haven’t seen the position type before they’ll find it too hard to take in the bishop on b3 pinning the pawn on f7 as well as the potential capture on g6. If they look at Qxg6 at all they’ll reject it because they think the pawn is protected. Being able to see the relationship between five pieces (Bb3, Qf6, Pf7, Pg6, Kg8), one of which is a long way from the other four, is just too difficult. Instead, they’ll stare blankly at the position for some time before doing something like putting a rook on d1 or playing a4 to threaten the enemy queen.

If you look through games played by children at this level you’ll notice very quickly the very large number decided by Qxh7# or Qxh2#. Here’s an example, I think from a German junior game I found on MegaBase. I changed the position slightly: the black pawn you see on f5 was actually on e4, when Black was winning anyway because of the attack on f2. It’s very tempting for White to think it’s a ‘which capture should I make?’ question and just decide which way to take off the bishop on c5. As you’ll see, g3 is the only good defence for White, as the f2 pawn is pinned, but at this level many children will fail to notice Black’s threat. Again, they find it difficult to process information from both sides of the board (the queen on c7 and the knight on g4) at the same time. Children sometimes assure me that castling is a bad move because whenever they castle they get mated. Sometimes this will be in a position like this, sometimes perhaps a back rank mate later in the game. So in future they always leave their king in the centre of the board. Generally speaking, defensive questions such as this are hard for young children, partly because of their egocentric view of the world. There are some more examples in the second half of this quiz, which I’ll discuss next week.

Richard James

Mikhail Osipov

At the end of Richmond Junior Club last Saturday I was analysing a game with one of our members. He’s typical of many of the children we see. He knows how to play a good game and wins most of his games at school but lacks the concentration and impulse control needed to avoid blundering every few moves so struggles at higher levels. His father and younger brother arrived to pick him up and settled down to watch the analysis. The young boy sat next to him and started taking some of the pieces off the board, much too his brother’s annoyance. I asked how old he was, and was told that he was three, nearly four. Well, I guess that’s what you’d expect from a three-year-old. I’m not sure that most kids of that age should be allowed anywhere near chess clubs. While they might be able to learn the names of the pieces and how to set the board up, by and large they’d be better off jumping puddles or making mud pies.

So what, then, should we make of three-year-old Mikhail Osipov, who recently appeared on a Russian TV talent show solving chess puzzles and playing against none other than Anatoly Karpov? Some of my Facebook friends considered putting such a young child on television to be bordering on child abuse (‘an obscenity’, according to one prominent chess blogger). Others, by contrast, could hardly contain their excitement at the sight of an amazing new prodigy and future world champion, seemingly having no reservations at all.

My view, as you might guess if you read last week’s column, is somewhere in between the two extremes. Should three-year-olds play chess at all? By and large, no, but I know parents who have successfully taught their three-year-olds to play. The vast majority, though, will, like the young boy I met the other day, be far too young even to master Noughts and Crosses. Should parents expose young children to this sort of publicity? It’s not something I’d do myself if I had children, but then I wouldn’t expose myself to that sort of publicity either. Yes, some child prodigies are spoiled brats with unpleasantly pushy parents, but others, probably the majority in the case of chess, are genuinely talented children whose parents are making sacrifices to help them succeed. As a chess teacher it’s not my business to be judgemental, at least in public, about how parents bring up their children as long as it doesn’t cross the line into child abuse. I have in the past refused to teach children who are clearly being pushed by their parents into doing something they don’t want to do and are not enjoying the lessons.

So what do we know about Misha Osipov? Can he actually play chess or is the whole thing just a fraud or a publicity stunt? No doubt he has an exceptional memory: he had probably memorised the answers to the puzzles and it’s possible the game against Karpov was at least partly staged. Apparently he holds the ‘2nd junior Russian grade’ in chess. I have a rough idea about what ‘2nd grade’ means but perhaps someone could enlighten me about what junior Russian grades are? Are they based on playing or just answering questions and solving puzzles? We’re told he enjoys playing chess online, but who knows whether or not he’s getting any help? He doesn’t seem to have an official rating, although there are several other three-year-olds on the Russian rating list, something I do find extremely disturbing. Even if a very small number of three-year-olds are ready to play a complete game of chess, I’d very much doubt whether they’re ready to take part in competitions.

I’m sorry if you feel I’m being rather indecisive on this, but I think it really depends on context. If you ask me whether Qh4 is a good move for Black that also depends on context. After 1. f3 e5 2. g4 it’s undoubtedly a good move, but after 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 it’s certainly not a good move. These things depend a lot on things like family dynamics, parental aims and cultural ethos. So, although I find it rather concerning in many ways I’d rather wait and see before commenting further. If I hear any significant future developments concerning young Mikhail I’ll keep you in touch.

I’d like to leave you with one last thought. I’ve just invested in a copy of Mozart 225, a collection of 200 CDs including every surviving note of music written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with many of his most important compositions in two contrasting recordings, along with two sumptuously produced hardback books and various other collectible items. If you lose pushy parents and child prodigies you lose Mozart as well as Capablanca. Of course you might also save the lives of, to take just one example, Lena Zavaroni. It’s not an easy ethical question: I guess the only answer, if there is one, is for parents to listen to their children and teachers to listen to their pupils.

Richard James

A Nuanced View

I’m sure all politicians, whatever their views, will have a shared frustration that their opinions are frequently misunderstood, misinterpreted and oversimplified, and that others will often claim they hold views which are very different from their actual views.

This is going to happen whenever you put your views on any subject in writing. Those who have genuine knowledge and expertise in a subject will usually have pretty nuanced views, while those with less knowledge and expertise will be more likely to see things in black and white.

Jack and Jake are five years old. They’ve seen a chess set in a shop window and would like to learn the game. Should they do so or not? Jane and Joan, who enjoy playing chess in their school club, have been given entry forms for a junior tournament. Should they take part or not? Tim and Tom are learning some mini-chess games as part of the maths curriculum in their school. Should they play chess at home with their parents or not?

Here are my answers. Jack should learn chess, but Jake shouldn’t. Jane should play in the tournament but Joan shouldn’t. Tim should play with his parents at home, but Tom shouldn’t.

How come?

The reason is very simple. Children are different. Some children have a lot of potential chess ability, most children have a fairly average chess ability. Some children will find chess very difficult at any age. (Most of the latest research from the likes of Robert Plomin suggests that, despite what some might believe, IQ is more down to nature than nurture.) Parents are different as well. Some will be knowledgeable about chess, some won’t. Some will have the time and inclination to help their children, some won’t. Some will want their children to take chess seriously, some won’t. So it all depends. I’ll repeat that in capitals for anyone who doesn’t understand me: IT ALL DEPENDS!!

Jack is a precociously bright and mature boy. His parents are both proficient chess players and will be able to help him a lot at home. He will probably benefit from learning chess now and in a couple of years time he’ll be able to do well in junior tournaments. Jake is an averagely bright boy whose maturity, concentration and self-regulation skills are age-appropriate but no more than that. His parents are not chess players and are too busy to have time to learn the game properly. It would be great for Jake to start by playing some simpler strategy games and perhaps learn chess in a few years time.

Jane, like Jack, has chess playing parents. She has learnt a lot and wins most of her games at school. She’s also mature enough to understand that she’ll probably lose a few games in her first tournament. Joan has not yet reached the same level and she’d struggle against the stronger players she’d meet in a tournament. She really wouldn’t enjoy the experience, so would be well advised to wait a year or so, until she’s had more experience.

Tim’s parents, while not brilliant players, know enough to be able to help him with the basics. It would be really great for Tim to play chess at home. When he can beat them he’ll be able to join a chess club and perhaps have lessons with a private tutor. Tom’s parents think they’re good players, but they set the board up the wrong way round, think rooks are called castles, have never heard of the en passant rule, and start their games with 1. h4 2. Rh3. It might be helpful if they played mini-games with him, but if they tried to play complete games they’d put him off by passing on their own bad habits and misinformation about the game. It would be great if they could buy The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, or perhaps talk to Tim’s parents. If parents are knowledgeable about chess they should certainly play with their kids, as long as they talk through what’s happening rather than just acting the competitive dad and taking all their pieces without explanation.

I’ll say it again. The right age for a child to learn chess might be anywhere between 3 and 13, or even not at all. It depends on all sorts of things: the child, how much the parents know about chess, how much time they have to help their children, the culture in which the child is being brought up.

My interpretation of educational theory as applied to chess (and if you disagree or interpret educational theory another way please feel free to let me know) is that typically developing children will be able to handle simple abstract logic from the age of about 7, and will be able to handle complex multi-dimensional abstract logic from the age of about 11. Some children will be able to handle both simple and complex logic much earlier, others much later, or not at all.

It seems reasonable to me that primary/elementary school education should be based on the typically developing child, while also providing opportunities for those whose development is advanced and support for those who are lagging behind. Bear in mind also that some children might excel in a particular domain at an early age but make little progress, while others might struggle at an early age but later excel. I excelled academically at an early age but struggled later, while I know a lot of people who struggled in their early years at school but went on to achieve academic success at a high level.

Observe, if you will, the Finnish education system, considered by many to be the best in the world. Children don’t start formal education in the three Rs until the age of 7. As these subjects involve logic this makes perfect sense to me. However, schools provide facilities and opportunities for younger children who wish to do so to read books and do sums. Many children take advantage of this, and will also be learning these subjects at home.

So if you want to put strategy games on a primary school curriculum (and whether or not you should do this is another matter entirely) you should probably be doing so using games requiring simple logic rather than complex logic: mini-chess rather than ‘big chess’. You should also provide facilities for younger children who are ready to play ‘big chess’, either through a school chess club or through working in conjunction with an external junior chess club.

Richard James

Walking the Dog

When I was a boy we had a dog. Every day one of us would take her for a walk in the local park, where we’d meet a lot of other dogs and their owners. I still live very near the same park now, but about a mile away. (It’s a linear riverside park, about two miles in length. I used to live half a mile from one end: now I live half a mile from the other end. I’ll tell you another time and another place about the farm and flax mills where I used to live and the gunpowder mills where I now live.) These days, more than half a century on, you’ll still find a lot of dogs there, but the walkers will be different. You won’t find any kids walking their dogs as I did as kids aren’t allowed out on their own any more. They’re probably too busy looking at screens, anyway. You won’t find so many individuals or families walking their dogs, either. What you will find, especially on weekdays, which you wouldn’t have found when I was a boy, is dog walkers, with several dogs under their control. In this part of the world, many people are too busy, or just too preoccupied, to give their pooches the exercise they require so they’re prepared to pay good money for others to do so.

At one level you might think it’s sad that so many people lack the time or inclination to exercise their dogs, but at another level everyone wins. The dog owners are happy to be relieved of a chore. The dog walkers are happy because they can make a decent living doing something they enjoy, earning money from their love of animals and spending time in the open air. The dogs are happy as well: perhaps walkies is more fun if you can share it with your four-legged friends rather than just your two-legged master. Bear in mind that the owners aren’t looking for anything difficult or complicated: they just want someone reliable who is good with animals and will keep them safe. If they want their dog to win the Greyhound Derby or become Supreme Champion at Cruft’s they’ll take a different approach.

It seems to me that, in my affluent part of London, parents take the same attitude to playing with their children that they take to playing with their dogs. They’re too busy to do it themselves, working long hours in demanding jobs to enable them to afford the exorbitant house prices in this part of the world. They recognise, quite rightly, the benefits of strategy games for young children, but many of them lack the time or the inclination to play these games. So instead, just as they’ll happily pay a dog walker to entertain Fido and Rover, they’ll happily sign Johnny and Jenny up for their school chess club. Again, at one level everyone wins. The parents, if they’re not themselves interested in chess, are happy to be relieved of a chore. The chess tutors are happy to be paid for something they enjoy. Johnny and Jenny are happy because playing chess with their friends at school is more fun than playing with Mum and Dad at home. If they want Johnny and Jenny to become grandmasters they’ll take a different approach: they’ll sign them up for a higher level club (in my area that will be Richmond Junior Club), enter them in competitions and perhaps employ a private tutor.

Now if you’re reading this you’ll probably agree about the benefits of strategy games for kids, and probably also agree that chess is one of the world’s greatest strategy games. You’ll also agree that some talented children with supportive parents can excel at chess at an early age. Johnny and Jenny’s parents, though, are too busy provide much support, and let’s assume they are typical, rather than exceptionally bright, students. Is chess really the best game for them to start with, or would they do better to learn simpler games, moving onto chess when they’re ready? Perhaps we should teach them a wide variety of games from different cultures. Perhaps we should introduce them to chess through mini-games before encouraging them to play full games. Perhaps they’ll benefit more from playing games which are easier to master than chess. Perhaps they’ll gain more enjoyment from games with simpler rules which don’t last as long. Perhaps if we take this approach we’ll be able to persuade more schools to start clubs and more chess teachers will be able to make more money.

Ideally, perhaps, schools should run two clubs: a main group for kids who can already play a complete game, and a beginners’ group for kids who can’t play a complete game, or who would just prefer simpler and quicker games.

I’ve been helping a large local Primary School with their chess club for a year now. The club is over-subscribed (this term we’ve set a cap on 24 members) and the school wants to start another session next term. I’ve proposed that they make this a mini-chess club, and the teacher involved is very much in agreement with this. Here’s an edited version of the letter I’ve suggested could go out to parents:

Dear Parents

Strategy games should play a part in all children’s lives. They provide a fun and enjoyable way for children to learn logic, problem solving, self-regulation and social skills.

There are many, like me, who believe that chess is the greatest of all strategy games, but, because of its difficulty, it’s really much more suitable for older children and adults than for younger children. Although most young children have little difficulty learning how the pieces move, they find it hard to cope with the complex abstract logic and the multitude of choices every move.

In this club children will not be playing complete games of chess, but will instead be playing mini-games, solving puzzles and answering quizzes using subsets of the chess. The course will be fully structured and fully documented so that parents and other family members will be able to replicate the activities at home. We’d also like to stress that the club will be equally suitable for both girls and boys.

Perhaps this sort of club will attract more members. Perhaps parents and children just want chess clubs and nobody will be interested. Either way, it will be good to find out. I’ll try to get back to you in the New Year and let you know what happens next.

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