Category Archives: Richard James

Bird in the Hand

I have a Bird in my hand at the moment. A big fat blue Bird. Or, to be precise, a book about Henry Edward Bird.

H.E. Bird A Chess Biography with 1,198 games, written by Hans Renette, a Belgian FM and chess historian, and published by McFarland. A handsome, large format hardback of more than 600 pages, going into immense detail about Bird’s life and times, and with about 40% of the games annotated, often in considerable depth, using both contemporary sources and computer-aided analysis.

Of course we all know the name. We’ve encountered Bird’s Opening (1. f4), still popular with club players seeking to avoid theory with White, and favoured by two of my regular Thames Valley League opponents. We also know about Bird’s Defence to the Ruy Lopez (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nd4), seen occasionally at GM level even today. Carlsen lost the only time he played it, but it’s been played several times by the young Hungarian talent Richard Rapport, as well as by the likes of Morozevich and Sokolov. Bird was also a pioneer of the Dutch Defence and the Sicilian Dragon, and favoured the currently highly fashionable c3+d3 in the Giuoco Piano, although his plan of rapid queenside expansion with b4, b5 and a4 is considered rather inflexible today. The likes of Aronian, So and Short, have tried it, though, and it’s often been played by Jobava.

Bird was the coffee-house player par excellence, with his crowd-pleasing style, and brilliant and creative ideas marred on occasion by gross blunders. I guess it’s the experimental, left-field players like Rapport and Jobava who can be considered Henry Bird’s heirs today.

If you’re interested in chess history you’ll be aware of his long chess career, spanning half a century, from the first modern tournament (London 1849) to the great London International Tournament of 50 years later. You may also have read about his personality, outgoing and friendly but occasionally disputatious.

For these reasons, he’s better remembered than some of his stronger contemporaries, but the details of his life are less well-known. Henry Edward Bird was born in 1829 in Portsea, now part of Portsmouth, which also saw the birth of two illustrious near-contemporaries: Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806) and Charles Dickens (1812). A few years later the family moved to London where the teenage Bird picked up the moves in a coffee house, soon coming into contact with the celebrated chess playing historian Henry Buckle. Our hero was active in London chess circles for several years, but the game soon came to take a back seat to his chosen profession of accountancy, specifically railway accountancy. Sadly for accountancy, but happily for chess, his business ultimately proved unsuccessful and in 1870 he was declared bankrupt. At the end of 1872 he decided to return to his first love, playing in Vienna in 1873, spending two years (1876-77) in America and, on his return, becoming a regular on the international chess circuit. He reached his peak in the middle to late 1870s, when in his late 40s, but his later years, when he was increasingly incapacitated by gout, saw an inexorable decline in his powers.

How strong was he? Jeff Sonas and Rod Edwards have both done an impressive amount of analysis of 19th century chess results, Sonas only using formal competitive games and Edwards using everything available. They also use slightly different mathematical models to produce their results. Sonas has retrospective monthly lists while Edwards has only annual lists. Edwards keeps inactive players on the list longer than Sonas.

Sonas gives Bird a top rating of 2635 in September 1875 and a highest position of 2nd in March and April 1876. Edwards rates him much lower: with a top rating of 2545 in 1878 and a highest position of 10th in both 1877 and 1878. I consider Edwards’ figures more accurate in this case. He usually finished somewhere mid-division in top international events, behind the elite players such as Steinitz, Zukertort and Blackburne but ahead of the local players at the foot of the table.

One of Bird’s claims to fame was as the first recipient of a brilliancy prize: for his imaginative but, as engines now demonstrate, queen sacrifice in this game. His opponent, James Mason, had missed a fairly simple win a couple of moves earlier.

This is a 5-star book in every respect: outstanding historical and chess research combined with outstanding production values, as you would expect if you are at all familiar with McFarland’s chess history books. Much more than just a handsome addition to your library shelves. If you have even the slightest interest in chess history and culture you should rush out and buy a copy now.

Richard James

Fourth Time Unlucky

Here’s a puzzle for you, taken from a game I played the other day. It’s White’s move. What would you play?

While you’re thinking about your answer, here’s what was happening three boards away. My teammate, a new club member who, until a few weeks ago, had never played competitive chess, never recorded his moves or used a clock, and knows very little opening theory, was playing black against a seasoned campaigner (ECF 129). He’s very keen to play and improve so we’re selecting him for our matches whenever we can. It’s always important to encourage new members.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. d4 exd4
4. Bc4

A common choice at this level. You have to know what to do next. The usual reply is Nf6, which is fine as long as you know the Two Knights Defence and have good lines against both 5. O-O and 5. e5. If you prefer defending the Giuoco Piano to the Two Knights then you’ll probably prefer Bc5, which again will probably transpose after 5. c3.

On general principles, even if you don’t know the theory, you should get one of your pieces out rather than make a nervous reaction like..

4… h6

At one level it’s natural to be scared by the idea of Ng5, but after, say, 4… Nf6 5. Ng5, you can defend with either d5 or Ne5.

5. O-O Bc5
6. c3 dxc3
7. Nxc3 a6

Another unnecessary pawn move – just the sort of move we all tell our pupils not to play, and quite rightly so too. Perhaps he wanted to play b5 next move. The first time we met at the club we played a few friendly games, in one of which I played a similar gambit in the Ruy Lopez after he’d played some unnecessary pawn moves. After the game he asked me why I gave up the pawn.

Now White really ought to be pretty close to winning. He has several attractive attacking moves to choose from. The engines like Qb3 and Be3 (very happy for Black to trade and open the f-file) but White prefers a typical tactic in this sort of position.

8. Bxf7+

A temporary sacrifice to set up a fork.

8… Kxf7
9. Qd5+ Ke8
10. Qxc5 d6
11. Qh5+ Kf8
12. Ng5

I guess it’s tempting to threaten mate but there were probably stronger alternatives here. Black can meet the threat and then drive White’s pieces back.

12… Ne5

But not like this, though. The knight is open to attack here. It shouldn’t be too hard to spot 13. f4, which just wins at once, but instead White preferred…

13. Nd5 Nf6
14. Nxf6 Qxf6

Now Black has an awkward threat of g6, opening up a line of defence from f6 to h8 and winning a piece. The only way for White to keep an advantage now is to play 15. f4. Alternatively, 15. Nf3 leads to exchanges and a level position.

15. h3

Instead White misses Black’s threat and loses a piece.

15… g6
16. Qh4 hxg5
17. Qg3 Nf7
18. f4 Qd4+
19. Be3 Qxe4
20. fxg5 Bf5
21. Rac1 Rc8
22. Qf2 c5
23. Rce1 Qd5
24. Rd1 Qe6

Black has played sensibly over the past few moves and kept his extra piece. Now White spots a clever tactical idea to win a pawn…

25. g4 Be4
26. Rxd6

… but there’s a serious flaw.

If I told you Black had a mate in two in this position you’d have no difficulty finding it. If the opportunity for a snap mate comes along in a position in which you were just thinking about keeping your extra piece and checkmate hadn’t entered your head at all you could easily miss it.

But, as I keep on saying, you have to look at every forcing move: check, capture and threat.

It’s always nice to win a game with a queen sacrifice, but sadly for Black it wasn’t to be. There was an alternative win as well: Rxh3 when White has to trade twice on f7, ending up a rook down. No matter, though. Black’s still winning.

26… Qe8
27. Bxc5 Kg8
28. Rf6 Rxh3
29. Qd4

Now Black has another chance for an immediate win. It might not be so easy to find at this level, but 29… Rxc5 30. Qxc5 Qd7 leaves White with no defence against the twin threats of Qxg4+ and Rh1+ followed by Qd2+. He’s still winning easily, though after…

29… Rh1+
30. Kf2 Rh2+

Instead he could have traded to set up a fork: 30… Rxf1+ 31. Kxf1 Qb5+.

31. Kg3 Rg2+
32. Kh3 Rc7

Black stops to defend f7, but the computer finds 32…Nxg5+ 33.Kh4 Nf3+ 34.R6xf3 Bxf3 35.Rxf3 Qe1+ 36.Kg5 Qc1+ 37.Kxg6 Rc6+ 38.Bd6 Rxd6+ 39.Qxd6 Rxg4+ 40.Kf5 Qg5+ 41.Ke6 Re4+ 42.Kd7 Qg7+ 43.Kd8 Rd4, which is not possible for most of us to find over the board. The move also introduces the idea of transferring the rook to the h-file after the knight on f7 moves.

33. Re1

Now Black has a mate in six moves. Instead White might have tried 33. Rxf7 Rxf7 34. Rxf7, challenging Black to find the correct capture. The more obvious 34…Kxf7 leaves Black a rook ahead, but White can force a draw: 35.Qf6+ Kg8 36.Bd4 Qf8 37.Qe6+. Instead 34… Qxf7 35.Qxe4 Rxb2 should win.

34… Nxg5+
34. Kh4 Nf3+

An oversight, but it shouldn’t have mattered: I guess he must have overlooked that his bishop was pinned. The quickest mate was 34…Rh7+ 35.Kxg5 Rh5+ 36.Kf4 g5+ 37.Ke3 Rh3+ 38.Rf3 Rxf3#

35. Rxf3 g5+

There was still a mate: 35…Rh7+ 36.Kg5 Rh5+ 37.Kf4 g5+ 38.Ke3 Bb1+ and mate in two more moves.

36. Kh3 Rh7+

This should lose. Instead Black could draw by giving up his queen: 36…Rxg4 37.Rf8+ Qxf8 38.Bxf8 Bf5 threatening mate, when White can choose between 39.Qd5+ Rf7 40.Kh2 Rh4+ with a perpetual check and 39.Qxg4 Bxg4+ 40.Kxg4 Kxf8 with a drawn rook ending.

37. Kxg2 Bxf3+
38. Kxf3

The sort of obvious move you play without thinking – well at least I do, which is why I’m not a strong player! But it should only draw. Kf2, on the other hand, wins, as White will win the bishop later under more favourable circumstances.

38… Qxe1

Again, the obvious move you play without thinking – and again it’s a mistake. 38… Rf7+, taking time out to move the rook to a better square, would draw.

39. Qd8+ Kg7
40. Qxg5+ Kf7
41. Qf5+ Kg8

Or 41…Kg7 42.Bd4+ Kg8 43.Qg6+ Kf8 44.Bc5+ Re7 45.Qf6+ and wins

42. Qf8# 1-0

An exciting game but a sad end for Black. He’ll put it down to experience.

If you remember my articles from a few months ago (here and here) you’ll recognise the theme.

I was White, again facing the same opponent as in the first game quoted above, and again we both missed the same idea. In this case a bishop sacrifice decoys the black rook into a fork: 1. Bxd5 Rxd5 2. Qa8+. These ideas keep on coming up in my games – and every time I miss them, even though I’ve just been writing a chapter in Chess Tactics for Heroes based on this theme. The game, again, was eventually drawn. You may well see it in full here in a few months time.

We lost the 8-board match 3-5 but if we’d both taken our chances we’d have won 4½-3½ instead. Still, at least it was an end-of-season mid-division match with nothing at stake expect honour and grading points.

Richard James

American Chess Magazine

You might think, given the decline in traditional print media, it’s a strange time to launch a new magazine. Bridge Magazine, the stablemate of CHESS, went digital a few years ago, and The Problemist, the magazine of the British Chess Problem Society, will be heading in the same direction at the start of next year.

But chess in the USA is, at least superficially, booming. They have three players, Wesley So, Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura, near the top of the world rankings, several up and coming young stars such as Jeffery Xiong, Sam Sevian and Awonder Liang, and, thanks to Rex Sinquefield’s generous sponsorship, a major new chess centre in St Louis.

It is this that no doubt inspired the Serbian team behind Chess Informant, who have also recently taken over the British Chess Magazine, to launch the American Chess Magazine late last year. Josip Asik is credited as the editor-in-chief. This is a quarterly magazine with 152 large format glossy pages, which will set you back by $29.95, or, if you buy a copy from Chess & Bridge in Baker Street, £24.99.

You might think that magazines, unlike books, are, by their nature, ephemeral, so you might think that the price is a bit steep. You’d expect a pretty good product for your money, and that is exactly what you get. A quick glance behind the tagline ‘It’s cool to be smart’ reveals outstanding production values if you don’t mind the rather ‘bitty’ layout. This seems to be the modern style, but I don’t very much care for it myself. Why, for instance, does page 4 in the first issue give me the contents of pages 68 onwards, with the contents of the earlier pages on page 5? Lots of colour photographs – in fact I could imagine the amount of colour in the whole magazine along with the busy-ness of the layout inducing sensory overload in some readers. A starry list of contributors: Ivanchuk, Sokolov, Jobava, Harikrishna, Speelman, Shankland, Gulko and Krush amongst others in the first issue, while the second issue also includes the likes of Dominguez, Ehlvest, Seirawan and Hou Yifan.

You’ll also get reports from top tournaments, including many heavily annotated games, along with articles of more general interest. There is, understandably, a bias towards US chess. Much of Issue 1 is about the 2016 Olympiad while Issue 2 features Wesley So. But should you buy it? Will it help you improve your chess?

First of all, it’s aimed very much at the stronger player, say 1800 Elo/150 ECF and above. If you’re a lower rated player you might want to buy it out of interest, and you’ll probably enjoy reading it, but it probably won’t help you improve very much. The games are all a few months old so, if you’re an avid follower of grandmaster chess you’ll have seen many of them before. You might even have forgotten them as another couple of super GM tournaments will have taken place before you see them. If you subscribe to New in Chess you will also already have some of the games in print, and it’s that magazine which would seem to be the newcomer’s main rival.

It’s rather amusing to note that the report on Gibraltar in Issue 2 was written by Hou Yifan. Well, it’s not really a report, just one deeply annotated game (Nakamura-Lagarde). She makes no mention of her ill-judged (or ill-advised) last round protest, but an editorial box explains that she is well-known for her sporting conduct, and that her act ‘made a powerful impact on the chess public and provoked intense discussion about whether or not there is evidence of fixing pairings in chess’. No mention of the fact that the pairings were checked and reproduced by a number of impartial experts on pairing systems.

So if you’re looking for controversy or the latest news on chess politics this probably isn’t for you. Instead you get a relentlessly upbeat, positive view of chess, along with much adulation of Wesley So and other top US players.

If you’re American, especially if you’re rated, say, 1800+, you’ll certainly want to subscribe. If not, you might wonder how much value you’d be getting for your money. On the other hand, you may well think that you have a responsibility, as an inhabitant of Planet Chess, to support this excellent publication and help it succeed. There have been other excellent chess magazines over the years which have perhaps aimed too high and have folded after 2 or 3 issues.

It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, this brash new kid on the block will have on the world of chess magazine publishing. Will we see major changes to its illustrious, if ageing, stablemate the British Chess Magazine? Will it have an effect on its market rival, New in Chess? You’ll find out here first.

Richard James

Notation

Two articles about education caught my eye recently. The first one concerned science education, and asked at what age children could be taught Scientific Method. You can read it here. Most young children enjoy science at school, particularly if it involves experiments producing bangs or smells. At one level science is about understanding how the natural world works, but in order to become a scientist rather than just learning about science you have to learn how to conduct experiments, which means understanding Scientific Method.

There’s a connection with chess here in that Scientific Method is one of many thinking skills you’ll use if you’re a proper chess player. If you’re solving a puzzle with a specific aim, such as Mate in 2, you will create a hypothesis, that a particular move is the answer, test it by checking all possible replies, and either accept or reject your hypothesis. If you reject the hypothesis you must formulate an alternative hypothesis. (Returning for a moment to the Chess Heroes project, this is explained in Checkmates for Heroes.)

It’s an interesting subject and the author of the article doesn’t claim to have an answer.

Similar discussions have taken place over the years concerning history teaching. Should you just tell children about history or should you teach them how to become a historian: how to assess primary and secondary sources. When I was at school you just learnt about history, but, looking at secondary school history books (there are lots of them in the classrooms where Richmond Junior Club meets), I see that there’s an emphasis on evaluation of sources.

Should you spend time teaching young (perhaps pre-school) children, how to become a scientist or a historian, or just about science and history. I don’t know for certain, but, given the amount of fake news and bad science available on the Internet, I rather suspect you should.

A few days earlier, the normally sedate world of classical music was thrown into turmoil by an article by Charlotte C Gill, protesting that music was taught in an over academic way, with too much emphasis on notation. “This is a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education.”

The pianist and blogger Ian Pace, incidentally a specialist in avant-garde music, sent off a reply which has, at the time of writing, attracted over 700 signatories. Among many other responses was a blog post from Frances Wilson, a pianist and teacher from my part of the world.

Although I’m a music lover, not a musician, there’s a lot I could say, particularly about the assumption that learning notation, or placing ‘classical’ (serious, art or whatever you want to call it) music above pop, rap, house or grime, is in some way elitist. You may well think that the elite will always exist, so promoting anti-elitist education policies will only make it harder for others to join the elite. But for now I’ll return to chess.

In chess, just as in music, we have notation, although its function is rather different. Music notation tells us what to play whereas chess notation is a way of recording what we have played. But understanding and being fluent and confident with notation also introduces us to the world of chess literature, enabling us to understand, appreciate and learn from the games that others have played. If you want to be either a ‘serious’ chess player or a ‘serious’ musician, however, notation is essential. Chess notation is much easier than music notation, so can be taught younger, although many children will find it hard or ‘boring’. Within the restricted confines of a primary school chess club you’re probably not going to have very much time to go into any detail or expect children to record their own games, but if you run an ‘elitist’ chess club, which you might prefer to describe as a ‘centre of excellence’ you most certainly will insist that all children learn to record their games.

Coming back to the discussion of the difference between being a scientist and knowing about science, or between being a historian and knowing about history, we might want to make a similar difference between being a chess player and knowing about chess.

The children who tell you they enjoy science at school probably just enjoy the experiments: they might think they’re scientists but unless they’re applying scientific principles to their work, they’re not really scientists at all.

Likewise the children who go to their school chess club once a week and enjoy playing chess might think they’re chess players, but unless they’re applying the appropriate cognitive skills rather than just playing more or less random moves, they’re not really chess players at all.

The scientists, historians and musicians are having interesting discussions about what actually makes you a scientist, historian or musician. Perhaps we, as chess players, should be having the same discussion. At one level it’s good to introduce young children to science, history, music or chess in a fun, unchallenging, inclusive way. Beyond that, we have to get the message across to schools, parents and children, that playing random moves is not really playing chess. Yes, there is a chess elite comprising serious competitive players, and everyone, regardless of their background, should have the opportunity to become a real chess player.

Richard James

A Very Good Chess Page

Taking a break from describing my Chess for Heroes books, I must thank my cyberfriend Paul Swaney for drawing my attention to the Perpetual Chess Podcast for 28 March, in which US chess player and teacher Ben Johnson interviews Spanish IM and teacher Michael Rahal. You’ll find the podcast here, and the whole interview is well worth hearing, but the relevant part starts about 17 minutes in.

Here’s my transcript:

“And what I like to use is a chess page – it’s very good actually – called chessKIDS academy UK. It’s a chess page which is from England. The person who developed it is Richard James, an English chess teacher who, by the way, is a very good educational chess teacher: he’s also written a book, and actually a person who’s very knowledgeable about chess in kids. Richard James: and he’s got this chess site: chesskids.[org.]uk, chessKIDS academy, and it’s very good because it’s all very graphical with very kid-like view, and there’s questions, there’s tests, it’s very good. You can have a look if you want after the interview. It’s very good material and I use that in the classes. They love it because they can try their hand at the quizzes, the tests, and there’s also [some] theory…”

I started writing chessKIDS academy back in 2000 and had more or less forgotten about it. About 10 years ago it was very popular, and was very near the top if you searched for ‘chess’ on Google, but now most users prefer commercial sites like www.chesskid.com which look much more professional than my site. Now it’s very little used, but I did receive a recent email from an English user who’d lost some of the tests. I was hoping to find someone who would be prepared to develop the site commercially, and in fact a well-known English chess personality had expressed an interest several times over the years but eventually dropped the idea. I sold the original domain (www.chesskids.com) to the chess.com/chesskid.com people a few years ago. The site now exists in two versions, although I’m no longer supporting or updating it. The original site, complete with subversive humour unsuitable for adults, is at www.chesskids.me.uk while the sanitised version is at www.chesskids.org.uk.

The whole site really needs to be rewritten to make it smartphone-friendly, but at present I’m much more interested in the Chess for Heroes project. The contents of chessKIDS academy are still for sale to anyone who is interested, or even free for non-profit use. If you’re interested please contact me.

In other news, after the publication of my blog post on Checkmates for Heroes, I received an email asking me why I was bothering as Laszlo Polgar had written a very large tactics book. I’d have been more impressed if he’d asked me why I was bothering because of the Steps Method, or because of Jeff Coakley’s books, but that wasn’t the question. Polgar’s book is impressive for the amount of material, and could well be great if your children are spending eight hours a day studying chess and you want them to become world class players. But it’s far too large, far too bulky, many of the puzzles are composed problems rather than game situations, there’s little or nothing in the way of explanation of how or why you solve the puzzles. I haven’t counted them, but I must have well over a hundred tactics and checkmate books on my shelves. Different students will learn best using different approaches, and different teachers will also prefer to teach in different ways. There was nothing on the market that taught students at this level the way I teach, so I decided to write my own books.

It was reading material like the Steps Method and, to a lesser extent, Polgar’s book, that confirmed my suspicions that my earlier courses, as outlined in Move One! and Move Two!, and on chessKIDS academy, went much too fast tactically for most students. Teaching tactics needs to be like teaching maths: you learn a specific skill, work through a few examples with explanations, then solve some in class, and do some more at home until you’re fluent, when you can move onto the next skill. So I decided to produce a new course with much more emphasis on tactics and calculation, and this is it. At present it’s in book form, but I’m open to suggestions for co-operation in future developments.

It’s good to know that Michael Rahal, an experienced chess teacher as well as an International Master, approves of my methods.

Richard James

Chess Openings for Heroes

I’ve often been asked to recommend an opening book for kids, and my answer, for the past 40 years or so, has always been “I haven’t written it yet”. Now is my chance.

There are not many opening books written for players at this level, and the few that do exist tend to fall into two categories: those that give you a couple of pages on each opening and those that teach a specific opening repertoire. I don’t much care for the first type, while the second type is fine if the repertoire suits you but not if it doesn’t. I’m also very suspicious of those chess teachers who get all their pupils to play the same openings. Different strokes for different folks.

There are also two conflicting theories about what openings you should teach children. The traditional theory, popularised in the old Soviet Union, was that children should play open games, including gambits. Excelling at tactics, they argued, is the key to becoming a strong player, and the way to do this is to choose tactical openings. They believed that children should only play internally within their coaching groups until they are in their teens or are already playing to a high standard. That theory is still in use in places today: I’ve written before about my friends, whose son learnt his chess in Baku from a lady they described as an ‘old Stalinist’.

But most chess teachers in the West will appreciate that children enjoy and benefit from playing in competitions from an early age. It’s not so much fun, though, if you lose your games quickly because of tactical errors, so other teachers teach anti-tactics openings. Their pupils might play one of the ‘triangle’ systems with White (Colle/London/Torre) and meet 1. e4 with the Scandinavian or Caro-Kann. Of course they may well be spending a lot of time practising tactics at home.

My views, as usual, are somewhere between the two, although I lean more towards the idea that children should start by playing tactical openings. One danger of this is that children at this age and level will learn through memory rather than genuine understanding. So if you show them the Fried Liver Attack they’ll play Ng5 and, if allowed, Nxf7 at any opportunity because ‘you told me it was a good move’. If you show them Légal’s Mate they’ll go round moving pinned knights whether or not there’s a mate at the end.

Which is why I recommend that children start by mastering tactics (which they will be able to do by reading Checkmates for Heroes and Chess Tactics for Heroes) before they do much in the way of learning actual openings as opposed to general principles. It’s also why my book is more about metatheory than theory. Learning openings is not about memorising sequences of moves, nor is it about setting traps (“My son has a tournament coming up: can you teach him some traps?”).

So, assuming that our readers understand basic tactics and know how to think ahead, we’re going to look at typical tactical ideas (queen forks, tactics on the e-file etc) which happen across a variety of openings. With this groundwork, the open games starting 1. e4 e5, will all fit into place and make sense.

When we reach the currently popular Spanish and Italian type positions where White plays c3 and d3 early on we’re at the transition point between tactics and strategy.

Before we move onto other openings we’ll look at a lot of strategic ideas: knight outposts, rooks on open files, for example, and, very specifically, pawn formations. We’ll consider what makes a good (or bad) pawn formation and explain the vital concept of the pawn break.

With this understanding, albeit at a fairly rudimentary level, in place, our students will be able to see that the moves of other openings actually make sense rather than just being a random sequence of moves. My view is that, at this stage of children’s development, they should try out lots of different openings. When they’re a bit stronger they will be able to decide which openings they like playing the most and specialise in those. One reason is that I’m very big on teaching chess culture, and a basic understanding of all major openings will help you enjoy and understand chess history.

So there you have it: Chess Openings for Heroes will be an elementary opening book quite unlike anything else on the market.

Richard James

Chess Tactics for Heroes

Last week I looked at the format of Checkmates for Heroes, the first of my series of books designed to take children, or indeed older players, who know the basics up to the point where they can compete successfully in tournaments.

This post considers the next book, Chess Tactics for Heroes.

The principle is exactly the same: start with simple concepts, gradually increasing the complexity. We start with the idea that Superior Force Wins, which underpins the whole of chess, and refer to Chess Endings for Heroes, which will explain how and why. So we should be trying to win points while making sure we don’t play moves that lose points. We explain the idea of a threat (as opposed to an attack), consider the ATD (Attacker Target Defender) idea, and look at how to avoid blunders (look at your opponent’s threats, don’t move defenders or pinned pieces).

We then explain that we can sometimes create a threat that cannot be parried and pose some puzzles in which the reader has to work out how to trap a piece: threaten it so that there’s no way out. Of course, checkmate is a special case of a threat that cannot be parried.

Usually, though, our opponents will meet our threats, but there’s something else we can do: create two threats at the same time. It’s quite likely our opponent will only be able to meet one of those threats, enabling us to carry out the other one.

We start by looking at forks: our students have to find some pawn forks (these are surprisingly common at this level), some knight forks, then some queen forks. Just as we did when teaching checkmates, we then pose some puzzles where you can use a fork to win material, but you have to work out for yourself which piece you are going to use.

The next stage is to look at the pin, a subject which is not so easy to explain. We can win material by pinning a stronger piece, very often using a rook or bishop to pin a queen to a king, or by pinning a piece that cannot be defended. But many pins are harmless, or at worst only mildly inconvenient. There are other things we can do with pins, though. We can sometimes capture a piece for free because the apparent ‘defender’ is pinned. This is a special case of capturing an unprotected piece, but much harder to see because you have to spot the pin as well. Because a pinned piece cannot move away we can often win material by attacking the pinned piece again. This again is a special case of trapping a piece. Our readers will have to solve lots of puzzles based on finding pins which win material, noticing when a pinned piece doesn’t defend, and spotting how you can threaten a pinned piece.

From there it’s natural to move onto skewers, a much simpler subject, and again solve some puzzles.

We can also create two threats at the same time using different pieces. The way we do this is by using a discovered threat. We have a line piece (queen, rook or bishop) in line with an enemy target, but one of our own pieces is in the way. If we can move that piece out of the way we create a discovered threat, which, if the enemy target is the king, will be a discovered check. If we create another threat with the piece we move out of the way we’re creating two threats at the same time. At this level discovered threats, even if they’re not double threats, are often successful because children tend to look only at the last piece that moved rather than the whole board.

We then have some puzzles based on discoveries and some revision puzzles before moving on to something a bit different, which will involve looking a bit further ahead.

Imagine you have an ATD (Attacker Target Defender) situation. You’d like to get rid of the defender. Our next section looks at ways in which you can do this. You might be able to capture the defender, possibly using a sacrifice. You might be able to threaten the defender and drive it away. If the defender is doing two defensive tasks at the same time it’s an overworked piece so you can take advantage. These ideas will be the subject of further puzzles for the student to solve.

Finally, we move onto positions where you have to look a bit further ahead. A typical example would be a position where you play a sacrifice in order to set up a fork and get back the material with interest. This sort of concept, where you have to see 2½ moves ahead, is very difficult for players much below 100 ECF (1500 ELO) strength, but the only way to make progress is to learn to think this far ahead. Understanding this idea is also vital when you come to study openings: particularly the open games which you’ll learn in Chess Openings for Heroes.

The positions from this book are all taken from the Richmond Junior Chess Club database, and played by children at this level. A quick search will reveal, for example, lots of games decided by knights forking king and queen. If you look at grandmaster games you won’t find this sort of thing: they see them coming a long way off. So this book doesn’t consider all possible tactical ideas, nor does it concentrate on the types of tactic appearing in GM games. Instead, and this is one of its USPs, it’s based on the tactical ideas which happen over and over again in games played at this level.

Richard James

Checkmates for Heroes

We all know that checkmate ends the game, and yet, if you visit your local primary school chess club you’ll see that many children get more pleasure from promoting lots of pawns and getting lots of queens than from actually winning the game.

Furthermore, you’ll see that most games end with the equivalent of a two rook checkmate. It is more likely to be a rook and queen checkmate, and is sometimes a two queen checkmate.

You’ll also see a few games finishing early on with a variation of Scholar’s Mate: a quick checkmate on f7/f2.

At this level children will try to remember something they’ve been taught or seen before, but they won’t be able to work anything out for themselves. So if they don’t see a familiar checkmate on the horizon they will just play random moves, hoping that it will be checkmate.

If we want to help children become good at spotting checkmates we need to do two things. We need to get them to remember the basic patterns, and we need to teach them how to think about a position and work out for themselves whether or not a move is checkmate.

Checkmates for Heroes starts by looking at the familiar two rook checkmate, and extends the idea to look at other checkmates on the edge of the board: the almost equally familiar back rank mate along with positions where one or two possible escape squares are controlled by enemy pieces. These ideas are reinforced by several pages of puzzles on this theme.

Then we look at Scholar’s Mate (there will be more about this in Chess Openings for Heroes) and the general concept of mates with the queen next to the king, sometimes known as Support of Helper Mates. We see how the castled king can often be mated in this way on h7/h2 or g7/g2. This idea is again reinforced by some pages of puzzles.

We also look at two types of checkmate which are harder to spot. We consider the pin mate, where it looks at first as if it’s not mate, but the enemy piece that might have been able to block or capture cannot do so because it’s pinned against the king. Then we consider the discovered check, where another piece moves out of the way to open up a checkmate by a queen, rook or bishop, along with its close relation, the double mate, where two pieces check the enemy king simultaneously.

Next, readers will learn the technique for finding mates in one if you don’t immediately see something you recognise. You have to look at the board and ask a series of questions to identify whether or not the position is checkmate, but this doesn’t come naturally to most young children. To make it easy we start by giving a clue as to which piece is used to get checkmate. As the queen is the most likely piece to give checkmate we have some pages of queen checkmates. Then we do the same thing with the rook.

Once they are confident about working out whether or not a move is mate rather than just making random guesses it’s time to solve some mate in one puzzles where the piece and type of mate are not specified. This is an important skill so there will be several pages of these puzzles.

Now we move on to positions where you have to find more than one way to mate on the move. You might think that one is enough, which is true in a game, but there are two points to this. Firstly, this is a good way of learning more checkmate patterns, and secondly this sort of puzzle trains skills such as perseverance and attention to detail, which are very important if you want to become a good player. We start with positions where you are told how many mates there are, before tackling similar positions where you have to work out for yourself the number of solutions.

Once you’re really good at spotting mates in one you’re ready to learn the most important skill in chess, the ability to think ahead. You’ll then apply this to solving mates in 2 (and more) moves.

At this level, children, if they think ahead at all, will either think “I go there, then I go there, then I go there” or “I go there, then I hope you’ll go there when I’ll be able to go there”. The one single skill which will turn you into a real tournament player is the ability to think “I go there, then if you go there I’ll go there, or if you go there, I’ll go there”. This does not come naturally to most young children. If you ask them what they think their opponent will do next they tend to shrug their shoulders and wonder why you asked such a strange question. How could they possibly know what their opponent’s next move will be? Positions where your opponent has little choice (because they’re in check or because they have few pieces left) are good places to start teaching this skill. We look at how to calculate mates in two moves, and introduce the idea of the sacrifice, where we deliberately give up a piece (sometimes even a queen) because we’ve seen that we can force checkmate. Children often learn the word ‘sacrifice’ before they realise you can look ahead in this way, and think that it applies to any move that loses material, using it as a synonym for ‘blunder’.

Then children have to solve some mate in two (or more) puzzles. I haven’t yet written this part of the book. Perhaps we’ll start with puzzles with some sort of clue.

There might also – and I haven’t yet decided how to do this – be some puzzles where you have to defend against a threatened checkmate. Defensive puzzles are important: I see that Susan Polgar has recently written a book for less experienced players devoted solely to this subject.

A quick note on the source of most of the material for this book: I was originally planning to use the RJCC database but discovered that I’d get a better selection of positions just by taking random games from commercially available databases. Almost any game, no matter how simple, will offer the opportunity for good quiz questions at this level.

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