Category Archives: Richard James

The Magic Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard James


Take Care!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard James


Game Theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard James


Games People Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard James


Queen Against Pawn

Last time we looked at a pawn ending played between two young players (about 1500-1600 strength) at Richmond Junior Chess Club. After various misadventures, during which Black miscalculated badly in a position where he had a simple win, this position was reached, with White to play.

Before we continue looking at the game, some basic endgame knowledge. Everyone needs to know the ending with queen against pawn on the 7th rank supported by the king. If the pawn’s on a centre file or knight’s file the queen wins. You force the king onto the queening square and advance your king. Against a bishop’s pawn or a rook’s pawn, though, it’s a draw unless your king’s close enough to take a hand in a checkmate. With a bishop’s pawn, the defender can move his king into the corner so that taking the pawn will result in a stalemate. Likewise, with a rook’s pawn, the king in the corner will be stalemated.

Another piece of basic knowledge is that you can stop a pawn on the 7th rank easily if you can put your queen on the promotion square. All you have to do then is approach the pawn with your king.

Bearing that in mind, let’s see what happened in the game, with White to play his 60th move.

Black has the potentially drawing c-pawn, and two others as well, but his king is on d3 rather than d2. White has several ways to bring home the full point. A nice winning move is 60. Qh3+, when Kd2 walks into 61. Qe3+ Kd1 62. Qe1#, while moving back to, say, c4 allows Qe3, controlling the queening square. White can then follow up with Qc1 and just take all the black pawns. A similar idea is 60. Qh6, again followed by Qc1. But instead the game continued:

60. Qd8+ Kc3 61. Qxf6+

In some lines White might want to keep the f-pawn on the board to prevent the stalemate defence, but after this White’s still winning.

61… Kd3 62. Qf3+ Kd2

Allowing an immediate mate, but otherwise the king will be cut off on the fourth rank.

63. Qe2+(?)

Missing the mate in 2: 63. Qe3+ Kd1 64. Qe1#. White’s still winning at the moment, though.

63…Kc1 64. Kxg2?

This is the move that throws away the win. It’s not so easy at this level, but the winning idea was 64. Qb5 (avoiding the stalemate defence) Kd1 65. Qb3 Kc1 66. Kxg2 Kd2 67. Qb2 Kd1 68. Kf2 c1Q 69. Qe2#.

64… Kb1 65. Qd3 Kc1?

Now White’s winning again. Instead, Ka1 was drawing.

66. Kf2?

It looks natural to move the king in but now Black has the chance to revert to the stalemate defence. Again, the win was to be achieved by occupying the b-file. For example: 66. Qb3 Kd2 67. Qb2 Kd1 68. Kf2 Kd2 69. Qd4+ Kc1 70. Qb4 Kd1 71. Qe1#.

66…Kb2 67. Qd2 Kb1 68. Qb4+ Kc1?

The final mistake. Black still had a draw by moving to the a-file.

69. Ke3

White had to be careful: Ke2 and Ke1 were both stalemate. There was another mate in two, though: 69. Kf1 Kd1 70. Qe1#.

69…Kd1 70. Qd2#

Once more, then, a lot to learn from this game. These endings with pawn on the 7th rank against queen are so important and essential for understanding many pawn endings. As I tell all my students, you can’t understand other endings until you understand pawn endings, you can’t understand middle games until you understand endings, and you can’t understand openings until you understand middle games.

For the record, here’s the complete game.

Richard James


Pawn Endings in Practice (2)

It’s been far too long since the first article in this series, but here’s a very instructive ending between two of Richmond Junior Club’s stronger members (both about 1500-1600 strength) on 22 March.

We start here, with White considering his 41st move. Should he trade rooks or not? First lesson: you have to calculate the pawn ending before trading the last pieces. So before you can play any ending well you have to understand pawn endings. In this case the pawn ending is won for Black, so White should avoid the trade. Although Black has a slight advantage I guess the rook ending should be drawn. We teach our pupils to move their king up into the centre of the board in the ending but here the correct plan for Black is to move his king to b4 to attack the c-pawn. This is an important position type, with the two immovable pawns on the c-file. Black can attack c4 from either b4 or b3, but Black can only defend from d3, so when he runs out of pawn moves on the other side he’ll have to capitulate.

Let’s see whether our gladiators were up to the challenge.

41. Rxb7+? (Now Black’s winning.) Kxb7
42. Kf1 Kb6
43. Ke2 Kc6? (Now it’s probably a draw. Ka5 followed by Kb4 is winning for Black.)
44. f4? (The computer gives 44. Ke4 as leading to a queen ending where White has a slight advantage.) f5? (Kb6, followed by Ka5 and Kb4 is winning again for Black.)
45. Kf3? (White can draw by moving onto the d-file. Now Black is winning again.) Kb6? (Good plan but poor timing. Black should have played h5, and then Kb6 etc.)
46. Ke3? (White can draw here by playing g4, when both players will promote.) Ka5 (Finally Black is on the winning track.)
47. Kd2 Kb4
48. Kd3 Kb3
49. g4 (Desperation) fxg4
50. g3 h5 (The last few moves have been fine for Black.)
51. f5 h4?? (All he had to do to win was play Kb4 when White is zugged. Interestingly, when I demonstrated this ending at the club the following week quite a few of the class made the same mistake. I guess they were already familiar with the idea of sacrificing to obtain a passed pawn but failed to calculate the resulting position. Now White is winning.)
52. f6? (Now it’s a draw. Instead, White can win by just capturing the pawn. His king can stop the g-pawn by entering the queening square, and then he can play f6, sacrificing to create an unstoppable passed pawn.) gxf6? (Black errs in turn. He could have draw by playing hxg3, when both players queen. Black will have an extra pawn but White has a perpetual check on the other side.)
53. gxh4 g3
54. Ke3 Kxc4
55. h5 (White has one pawn against three, but he’s going to promote first.) g2
56. Kf2 Kd3
57. h6 c4
58. h7 c3
59. h8Q c2

The last few moves have all been self-explanatory. When the pawn ending was reached, Black was winning. After a series of mistakes on both sides he found the winning plan, but then miscalculated badly. Now we reach an ending with queen against three pawns, two of which are on the seventh rank. White should win from here, but did he actually manage to do so? Don’t miss next week’s exciting episode.

Meanwhile, what lessons can be learnt from this ending so far?

1. You have to calculate the pawn ending before trading or proposing a trade of your last piece.
2. Being able to activate your king first is often decisive in pawn endings, but the centre is not always the best place. In this game Black’s winning plan (at least it should have been winning) involved marching the king down the a-file.
3. Learn the position type with two fixed pawns on the same file. If you can activate your king first you can attack the pawn from two squares, but it can only be defended from one square. Then all you have to do is run your opponent out of pawn moves and he’ll be zugged.
4. Sometimes you can win by sacrificing to obtain a passed pawn.
5. Positions with passed pawns on both sides need to be calculated accurately. You can’t just guess but really have to work it out. There may not be much point in sacrificing to get a passed pawn if your opponent’s king can move into the queening square.
6. Sometimes pawn endings can become queen endings. You have to be really good at queen endings as well as pawn endings.

Richard James


Queen Traps

The other day one of my pupils showed me a recent tournament game in which he had the black pieces.

I can’t remember the exact move order, but it started something like this.

White opened with the queen’s pawn but neither player really demonstrated much understanding of the subtleties of the opening. At move seven Black decided to attack the white queen. At this level children tend to play threats in the hope that their opponent won’t notice rather than trying to put pieces on better squares. But this time White was sufficiently alert to move his queen and decided to throw in a check on b5. Qd2 instead would have been fine. Black might, I suppose, have replied with c6 but instead he found, possibly without realising why, the correct move Bc6. Suddenly, White’s queen is trapped in broad daylight, in the middle of the board. Black eventually went on to win the game with his extra queen.

Last week I demonstrated this to a group of children at Richmond Junior Club, and asked them what lessons they could learn from the game. They were all eager to tell me the lesson that you have to look ahead before playing your move, which of course is perfectly correct. There were two other lessons I wanted them to tell me about as well, but I had difficulty getting the replies I was looking for.

I was hoping they’d tell me that it’s often dangerous to bring your queen out too soon, one reason being that she might get trapped. I’m sure most of them have been told this many times, but they weren’t able to relate this piece of advice to the game in question. The second thing I hoped they’d tell me was that you should beware of playing random checks. Probably not all of them are aware of this. They’ve been taught to look for every check, capture and threat so not playing random checks seemed like strange advice to some of them. What we mean, of course, is that you should look at every check – it might be checkmate, lead to checkmate, be a fork or whatever, not that you should always play a check should you have one available.

This reminded me of a very short game I first saw in Chernev’s 1000 Best Short Games of Chess many years ago.

In this game White started with 1.e3. Children often play this, illogically, because they’re scared of Scholar’s Mate. Then he went for a queen attack on move 2, but as his e-pawn had only advanced one square Black correctly took over the centre. On move 4 White played his queen to what seemed to be a random safe square, but it wasn’t safe at all. Again, the white queen was trapped in the middle of the board, in record time.

In both these games, White learnt the hard way about the dangers of bringing your queen out too soon.

Richard James


Steps Revisited (3)

Revisiting the Steps Method has encouraged me to think again about the best way to teach tactics. Assuming, of course, that our students have developed excellent chessboard vision and understand the basic principle that (other things being equal) Superior Force Wins.

Steps is very thorough at outlining every possible tactical idea to win material and providing excellent puzzles to reinforce each concept before the students move onto the next idea.

But there’s not so much, at least in the main part of the course, about the actual thinking process. I teach my pupils to look at every check, capture and threat by telling them to use a CCTV to look at the chessboard. The first C stands for Checks, the second C for Captures and the T for Threats. Checks, Captures, Threats and Violent moves, or, if you prefer, for those of you who correct children who ‘kill’ their opponent’s pieces, looking for Checks, Captures and Threats leads to Victory.

I think it was Purdy back in the 1930s who introduced the concept of looking for Checks, Captures and Threats. “Examine moves that smite!”, he said. “A good eye for smites is far more important than a knowledge of strategical principles.”

In the 1970s, Kotov’s book Think Like a Grandmaster was hugely influential. Kotov advised his readers to identify ‘candidate moves’ and form a tree of variations, taking each forcing move in turn and trying to analyse each sequence of checks, captures and threats until quiescence is reached, then assessing the resulting position. As time went on, though, Kotov’s work was criticised by other writers who claimed that this was not really how chess players thought.

Well, perhaps it was how Kotov thought. I certainly found it helpful for improving my play when I first read it 40 years ago, although I usually forget to look at all checks, captures and threats in my own games! My method of teaching tactics uses a similar approach at a much lower level. The Steps Method takes what I think is a slightly different approach, emphasising the different tactical ideas rather than the thought processes you might use. In a sense it’s the same principle as “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life”. By using CCTV you can in theory solve any tactical position.

Perhaps, at least for some players, learning the thought processes will be more efficient. If you learn, say, Philidor’s Legacy you can remember it and use it yourself, but it won’t help you with any other position. If, on the other hand, you learn to analyse all sequences of checks, captures and threats, you will, in theory, be able to solve very many positions.

There’s a third method, as well, which might be used: intuition. You might well think of someone like Tal in this context. An intuitive player will play a move because it looks right, or even just because it looks interesting, without precise calculation.

Ideally, we need to use a combination of methods when teaching tactics. We need to teach the specific thinking skills – analysing all checks, captures and threats for both players. We need to teach visualisation skills to enable students to look ahead and calculate accurately. (As it happens, the Steps people are developing a new series of workbooks designed to develop this skill.) We need to teach the basic tactical ideas: forks, pins, discovered attacks, deflections and so on, which the Steps course does outstandingly well. We also need to encourage our students to develop intuition, creativity and fantasy, partly by encouraging them to play open games where tactical opportunities will abound: something that is encouraged within the Steps course.

Richard James


Steps Revisited (2)

Continuing my thoughts about the very different chess education philosophy represented by the Dutch Steps method, let’s consider an extract from the Step 4 Manual for Chess Trainers. This would be for children aged about 12-13 who have been studying chess seriously for three years.

This section discusses when children should move into adult chess. I’m paraphrasing a bit (and I hope I’m not misunderstanding) because the translation isn’t very good.

Bear in mind also that the course is most often used within a chess club. Dutch chess clubs (and European chess clubs generally) operate more like football, rugby or cricket clubs here in the UK, with an adult section and a junior section.

“The drawback with training in small groups is that it is impossible to organise a good competition. It’s boring to play the same opponents over and over again. In many clubs this is solved by letting the students play with the adults. The problem of moving children to the adult section is essentially the same as that of allowing children to go to bed late, or of forcing them to adapt socially to their seniors (consider 11-13 year olds). The children’s chess development will stagnate because they will subconsciously adapt their playing style to that of adults. Their sharp attacking games give way to careful play, so that they will not lose too quickly.”

The authors go on to suggest that it might be good to allow young people of 15 or older to play against adults, but for 12 year olds or younger it’s not a good idea.

This seemed when I first read it, and still seems now, pretty startling. At Richmond we used to run rapidplay tournaments every two months precisely to encourage those players who were good enough to compete against adults. We also ran teams in the local (adult) chess league for the same purpose. Our experience was very much that children gained enormous benefit from playing against adults as long as they were good enough players and had sufficient emotional maturity. It was good for them to meet opponents with a wider variety of styles and a wider range of openings than they’d encounter in junior tournaments. And of course many of the adults were scared of playing children: they had little to gain and much to lose when sitting opposite a small child. We’d encourage children to play tactically and to unleash their favourite gambits against their unsuspecting adult opponents. Putting children in a position where they had to learn to adapt socially to adults also had its advantages, although it could on occasion backfire when children breached the etiquette of adult chess.

It’s also interesting to note at what point simple endgames are taught. Basic king and pawn v king endings are only encountered in Step 3, and basic rook endings such as the Lucena and Philidor positions in Step 5, by which point the students will be strong tactical players.

So the principle of the course seems to be a small group of children developing tactical skills in a cocoon, not mixing with the outside world or playing against adults, learning no opening theory and only dealing with basic endings. I’d be interested to know to what extent the system really does work like this in real life. During the nearly 30 years it’s been in operation, though, the Dutch have produced an impressive number of strong young players, and the course is still being developed with more material being added to each step. So, however strange it may seem to us, its success cannot be doubted.

Certainly, the tactical material is highly impressive: well thought out, logically structured and extremely thorough, although I suspect there are different approaches to tactics that might be considered.

Here in the UK, though, and no doubt also in the United States, we take a more practical approach, teaching children openings and perhaps endings early on in order to prepare them for tournaments.

My view is that, as with most things, the best approach is somewhere in the middle. Regular readers will be aware of my view that in this country we put children into competitions too soon at the expense of skills development. Although I can’t see many teachers in the UK adopting anything resembling the Steps method it doesn’t mean we can’t learn a lot from the way it emphasises and develops tactical ability.

Richard James


Steps Revisited (1)

I’ve recently been revisiting the Dutch Steps method, written by Cor van Wijgerden and the late Rob Brunia. The whole philosophy behind the course is very different from what we are used to here in the UK and no doubt also in the United States. Neither better nor worse, just different.

The course was developed in 1987 for children from age 9 upwards, and comprises six steps, each of which would typically take a year to complete. The course material is dominated by tactics. The first step is concerned with the ability to see what’s on the board in front of you, the second and third volumes involve two-move tactics and the later volumes deeper tactics. There are preliminary ‘Stepping Stones’ books for children aged between 6 and 9 to complete before they start on the main course.

The teachers’ manual for Step 2 includes the following game played between two children at the beginning of the second step. So they’d be 10 years old and would have been playing for a year.

Yes, a lot of tactical oversights as you’d expect from children who haven’t been playing long, but what is noticeable is the lack of knowledge of opening principles. It’s interesting to note that opening principles are not covered at all until almost half way through Step 2, when pupils are taught the three golden rules: put a pawn in the centre, develop your knights and bishops and castle your king into safety.

We, on the other hand, tend to teach the three golden rules more or less straight away, so this will seem very strange to many of us. We’ll probably also show them Scholar’s Mate, explain how to stop it, and perhaps the first few moves of one or two openings, probably starting 1. e4 e5. We also, of course, usually start children at 6 or 7, rather than at 9, the age at which children should be starting Step 1.

You’ll see that Josina and Danielle, playing a lot of pawn moves and not developing their minor pieces or making their kings safe, reached a highly tactical position. My typical beginners’ games, on the other hand, will probably be Spanish Four Knights and Giuoco Pianissimo type games where the minor pieces are developed, the king is castled – and they reach a stodgy position where they find it hard to think of what to do next.

It may be very different from the way we approach teaching children about openings, but given the large number of strong young players produced in the Netherlands over the past couple of decades, it’s hard to argue with success.

Perhaps we need to consider taking a middle course. I’ll take another look at our two very different chess philosophies next week, but meanwhile do tell me about your experiences and about how and when you think we should teach openings to beginners.

Richard James