We saw last week that most children will only be able to play ‘real chess’ at secondary school age. (For readers from other countries, children in the UK usually attend primary schools up to the age of 11, at which point they transfer to a secondary school.) Our experience at Richmond Junior Club, and, yes, I’ll return to its history later, is that children who start chess at primary school (usually at about 7 years old) and fail to reach adult club standard, ‘real chess’ in other words, will see chess purely as a children’s game, and, unless there is significant chess activity in their secondary school, will fail to make further progress and soon drop out of the game.
For those of us who were at secondary school in the years between the end of the Second World War and the late 1970s, chess was something you did in your teenage years. Many of us are still playing. In the recently concluded British Championships the British Senior Championship (for players aged 60 and over) attracted 61 competitors while there were also two grading restricted sections for seniors . By contrast, there were only 25 players in the Major Open, which in the past would have attracted many ambitious younger players. I played in it myself a few times in the 1970s.
Sometimes my colleagues at Richmond Chess Club ask me why so few members of Richmond Junior Club graduate to adult chess (and, on occasion blame me personally for the decline in club membership). Sometimes questions are asked on chess forums about why, with more young children playing chess and more chess players making a living out of teaching chess to young children, the number of teenagers and young adults playing chess is not increasing. These are good and important questions.
In other countries things are different. In many East European and Asian countries chess is taken much more seriously. Their chess clubs are open every day, not just once a week, and children learning the game are given regular homework. Here in the UK, by contrast, parents want their children to have a rounded education and don’t want them to spend more than an hour or so a week on chess.
In other West European countries chess clubs operate very much like football, rugby or cricket clubs, meeting at weekends, with members getting involved in coaching and with a natural progression from junior club teams through to adult club teams.
Primary school chess, whether in the form of using chess as a learning tool on the curriculum or through after-school or lunchtime chess clubs, is great in itself, and provides many extrinsic benefits for children, but for the past 30 years, and there’s no sign of improvement, we haven’t been successful in feeding children through into adult chess. For reasons I explained last week, playing adult standard chess is just too hard for most children of primary school age.
There are two things the English Chess Federation could do to help improve the situation. One of them, promoting chess in secondary schools, is already happening with some success. The other, providing a path to take children from learning the moves to playing ‘real chess’, is not. Future posts will consider this in more detail.