Category Archives: Richard James

Land of Hope

Perhaps you know about the Sally-Anne test, a test used by developmental psychologists to determine whether or not young children understand that other people may not have the same beliefs that they do.

The experimenter introduces the subject to two dolls, Sally and Anne. Sally is playing with a marble. She puts it in her basket and goes out. Then Anne comes in. Naughty Anne takes Sally’s marble from the basket and hides it in a box. Anne leaves, and then Sally returns. Where will she look for her marble?

We know that the marble is now in the box but Sally doesn’t, so she’ll look in the basket. Children who give the ‘correct’ answer demonstrate ‘Theory of Mind’, the understanding that others have different beliefs to us. Children who give the ‘incorrect’ answer lack this ability. (Of course, you could think of several reasons why Sally might look in the box. Perhaps Anne often moves the marble so Sally expects it to be in the box rather than the basket. Perhaps Sally was looking through the window and saw Anne move the marble.)

There’s a typical thinking error young children make when playing chess which, it seems to me, is similar to this. Children play a move thinking – or hoping – that their opponent will do what they want them to do.

Consider this.

A book I use a lot is Winning Chess Exercises, by the wonderful Jeff Coakley. For those of you who are not familiar with the book (and, if you’re a chess teacher you should be), it comprises 100 Best Move Contests of increasing difficulty. Each BMC comprises three checkmate puzzles, three winning material puzzles, three best move puzzles, and, at the foot of the page, a verbal chess/maths puzzle. I used the first BMC at a local (fairly strong) primary school chess club the other day for a group of some of the more experienced players who had finished their tournament game early. They set up the first position on the board and set off to find the mate.

After a few minutes thought they rushed up to me excitedly and told me they’d worked out the answer. I asked them what it was and they told me: R1c2. They explained that after Black captured on c2 they’d take twice on d8 with checkmate, and if Black instead captured on c8 they’d recapture, again leading to checkmate.

You can see what they were thinking, can’t you? They first looked at capturing on d8, but then one of them noticed that the rook was defended twice. So they then looked for a way to deflect one of the defenders and chanced upon R1c2. After that move there is indeed a forced checkmate in two moves, but sadly for Black rather than White.

On one level you might see this as a ‘Theory of Mind’ issue. They believe, or at least hope, that their opponent will play the move they want him to play, rather than the move he wants to play. It’s also why children try for Scholar’s Mate, or sacrifice most of their pieces to play their queen to the g-file and their bishop to h6, hoping their opponent will allow Qxg7#.

On another level it’s a fixation with one idea to the exclusion of everything else rather than changing tack and trying Plan B if Plan A doesn’t work. Inflexible thinking, perhaps. A failure to apply Scientific Method, perhaps.

On a third level it’s a failure to ask the Magic Question “If I do that, what will my opponent do next? What checks, captures and threats does he have?”.

To give them credit, though, a few minutes later they came back to me with the correct answer, and, I hope, learnt something from the experience. At least they had little trouble solving the next two checkmate puzzles.

I’d like to call this sort of mistake, hoping your opponent will overlook your threat or fall for your trap rather than considering what he is most likely to do, ‘Hope Chess’, but Dan Heisman has already claimed this term for something slightly different and rather more general. Heisman defines ‘Hope Chess’ as playing without anticipating your opponent’s reply and hoping to be able to meet any forcing move successfully. This is exactly sort of chess played, in general terms, by stronger primary school players: moving from ‘Hope Chess’ to ‘Real Chess’ requires learning to think ahead accurately. In my example, my pupils were trying to anticipate their opponent’s reply but, possibly because of an inadequately developed Theory of Mind, were ‘hoping’ that he would make a weak reply rather than looking for a possible strong reply. So I need to call this something other than ‘Hope Chess’. Any suggestions?

Richard James

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Search for the Hero

If you were paying attention last week you’ll know that my new chess course is called Chess for Heroes.

One reason is that if you want to succeed at competitive chess you need a collection of non-cognitive skills which might be summed up as ‘mental toughness’ along with chess skills.

But there’s another meaning to the word hero as well. We might admire someone because of their skills in a particular field and describe them as our hero. We might also identify a chess hero: a player we admire and whose play we’d like to emulate.

I understand from my pupils that some people in Brazil are currently kicking a ball around a grassy field. (There are also some different people much nearer home who, I believe, are hitting a smaller ball at each other over a net.) If you ask any child with even a cursory interest in football to name some famous footballers, he will have no problem in giving you lots of names, just as I could have done at that age. But if I ask children who enjoy playing chess to name some famous chess players they usually look at me in questioning amazement, as if I was asking them to name some famous Snakes and Ladders or Noughts and Crosses players.

Of course there’s an obvious difference. Football is an excellent spectator sport. Even if you don’t play football yourself you’re aware that the guys in the blue shirts are trying to kick the ball into the net at one end, while the guys in the red shirts are trying to kick the ball into the net at the other end. You might get more out of watching the game if you’re well versed in the intricacies of the offside rule, but it’s really not necessary. You can understand the game and appreciate the skills (or not, in the case of England) of the players even if you’re a complete duffer at playing football. To appreciate a top level chess game, though, you need to be a pretty strong player yourself.

Even so, I think we in the chess community could do a lot more to promote the idea of chess heroes. The presentation of the game online is improving. Excellent communicators such as Lawrence Trent are providing live online commentary on major events. There was a discussion on Twitter the other day about how well most top GMs handle the press conferences after their games. Although young players might enjoy following the major tournaments and supporting their favourite players, they would probably, at lower levels, get much more from choosing Paul Morphy rather than Magnus Carlsen as a role model for how to play chess. No worries: one great thing about chess is that you can travel back in time and follow the games of chess heroes from the past whose games might be easier to understand. There are many lessons available online which will help you do this, and brilliant analysis by the likes of Andrew Martin and Daniel King will enlighten you further.

So one of the ideas of Chess for Heroes is that it will incorporate (just as Move Two! did) biographies and news about top players, along with a blog on the website with links to current events.

There’s a lot to be said for encouraging young players to make Paul Morphy their chess hero. Rapid development and accurate calculation are necessary for chess success. Here’s Paul, at the age of 10 or 11, demonstrating how to beat his dad at chess.

Richard James

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Tough by Nature

“What does not kill me”, said Nietzsche, “makes me stronger”.

How we react to bad experiences is an important part of our personality.

Of course we all want to protect children from high-level bad experiences, but the issue I have with many parents and schools is that they are over-zealous in protecting children from low-level bad experiences rather than teaching children how to deal with them. This makes it hard for children to develop qualities such as resilience and independence.

There is an increasing understanding that non-cognitive skills such as these are more important than cognitive skills in predicting future success. I referred in an earlier post to a new book by the aptly named Paul Tough, How Children Succeed, which includes a chapter about the famous IS318 school in New York.

Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t be saying “Chess makes you smarter” but instead “Chess makes you tougher”. It’s important that schools promote competitive activities in order to develop mental toughness. While many children will enjoy competing on the football field or the tennis court, there will be others who will prefer more cerebral competition. Both within and outside school, we do a lot more to promote competitive physical activities than we do to promote competitive mental activities. Twenty years or so ago, many primary schools were opposed to any sort of competition because children might do badly and that would make them unhappy. When I asked one school, which promoted chess strongly and taught all its pupils to play, why they were only entering one team in our schools tournament they told me they couldn’t possibly enter any more teams because they might score less than 50%. Most schools, fortunately, have moved away from this, but there’s still much more they can do.

If you’re playing competitive chess you will have many good experiences. But you’ll also have bad experiences: games where you play badly, blundering in a winning position, poor tournament performances, events where your opponents all seem to play well against you, opponents who are distracting, unsporting or otherwise difficult. Developing the mental toughness and resilience to cope with this is part of growing up. If you play a bad game you can say “I’m no good at chess” and give up. Or you can work out why you lost and try to improve. Perhaps you didn’t know enough about the opening. Perhaps you miscalculated the tactics or didn’t find the right plan in the middle game. Maybe you need to improve your knowledge of rook and pawn endings. Losing a game of chess might kill your king but it doesn’t kill you. If you learn from your mistakes and improve your play as a result then it makes you both a stronger player and a stronger person. If you decide you’re no good at chess, lose confidence and play badly for the rest of the tournament then it makes you weaker. Of course, if you love chess but find it hard to cope emotionally with tournaments you can always do what I did and become involved with other aspects of the game instead, but this is not a decision for young children.

Up to a point, we can, and do, teach this sort of mindset within school and junior chess clubs. We tell children not to give up if they’re behind but to keep fighting. We encourage them not to be disheartened if they’re facing an opponent they think is stronger than them, and not to be over-confident if they have a winning position or are playing a weaker opponent.

But developing mental toughness goes beyond that, beyond their approach to an individual game into how they view chess as a whole.. Young children who lose their games will decide chess isn’t for them and give up. Older learners, who may have greater emotional maturity, and will be old enough to teach themselves, will work out what they need to do to improve.

If we encourage children to start young they may benefit more in terms of cognitive development, but starting children older may well be more beneficial in terms of developing non-cognitive skills.

My new course is called Chess for Heroes. There are several reasons for this, but one reason is that the course, in between the chess content, will teach children the advanced cognitive skills they need to become good players, along with the non-cognitive skills they need to be successful competitors. This means developing mental toughness: the quality of a hero.

Richard James

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Legal Aid

I’m sure you all know about Legal’s Mate (or, if you prefer, Legall or Legalle, with or without an acute accent). It’s named after François Antoine de Legall de Kermeur (1702–92), a French chess player who taught Philidor and was probably, until he lost a match to his pupil in 1755, the strongest player in the world. Sadly, the games of that match are not extant: all we have of his play is the one game with the mate that bears his name.

Here’s an example from the RJCC database: Ray Cannon giving a simul back in 1987.

Black resigned, seeing that 8.. Ke7 9. Nd5 was checkmate. He would have been better advised to capture with the pawn rather than the knight on move 6.

There are, as you would imagine, many games on my database where one player unwittingly moves the pinned knight, losing the queen. Beginners will see the attack on the knight, decide they don’t want to lose it (even though it’s defended twice) and move it away. Alternatively, as in the next game, a more experienced but impatient player will get excited about the idea of creating a threat and forget to ask himself the Magic Question.

Of course, this is a really important topic that we need to teach to young children.

Firstly, they have to understand the pin, recognise the typical position type and be aware that if they move the knight their opponent will be able to capture their queen.

Then they need to learn that sometimes, but not very often, they will be able to move the pinned knight with impunity because they, like Sire de Legall or Ray Cannon, will have a mate at the other end of the board. Apart from its practical merit, it’s always good to show children queen sacrifices. There’s a section on Legal’s Mate in Move Two!.

But there are two possible problems that can arise. The first one happens when they find the mate they’d planned was illusory. One of my earliest coaching experiences was a game at RJCC where, after we’d given the class a lesson on Legal’s Mate, one player did just this. It might possibly have been this game:

If this was the game I’m thinking of, Black played Ng4 fully aware that White could take the queen but hoping that he had a mate in reply.

Another thing that can go wrong is that the mate’s there but the sacrificer hasn’t considered what happens if his opponent doesn’t take the queen.

Here’s the start of another RJCC game from the same period:

The mate’s there OK if Black takes the queen on move 6, but he unsportingly captured the knight instead when White had nothing for the piece.

Failing to check for this sort of thing is not recommended, but in another RJCC game nearly 20 years later Black got away with his indiscretion:

A little bit of thought would have persuaded White to play 12. Nxe4, leaving him a piece ahead. So there you have it. Teach your pupils about Legal’s Mate: it’s an important part of their chess education. Don’t forget to provide some Legal aid as well. Teach them to ensure that the mate is actually there if their opponent snaps at the bait, and to check what happens if their opponent doesn’t take the queen. Perhaps a worksheet could be produced where the students have to tell you whether or not the unpinning sacrifice works.

Richard James

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When We Were Kings (3)

I left you last week answering a phone call in my London office in early 1986.

The call was from my friend Mike Fox. Mike and I had started Richmond Junior Club in 1975, but a few years later his job in advertising took him to Birmingham. One of his clients there was an internationally famous manufacturer of luxury cars. Along with a colleague, Steve Smith, Mike devised an advertising campaign based on Rolls Royce trivia. The client was impressed with the campaign and suggested that it could be expanded into book form. Rolls Royce: The Complete Works was published by Faber & Faber, becoming a best-seller. The publishers asked Mike for another book, on any subject he chose. He decided to write a book about chess trivia and asked me to be the co-author.

I was excited by the prospect of becoming a published author but, with a full-time job along with RJCC I needed to make time. So I decided to leave my job. I could earn as much money working freelance three days a week as I could working five days a week for a salary. The spare time would enable me to work with Mike on the book (which was to become The Complete Chess Addict) and develop Richmond Junior Club into what I wanted it to be.

These days teachers talk a lot about differentiation, and that was what I wanted to do. Our morning group was to be for children of primary school age, where they would learn to play with clocks and record their moves when they were ready to do so. In the afternoon group children would be more serious. Once a month we would run quad tournaments, where children would be placed in groups of 4 according to playing strength and play three 30-minute games during the 3 hour session, recording their moves.

Meanwhile, we got lucky again. During the late 70s and early 80s London Central YMCA ran a very strong junior chess group which attracted many of the best young players from London and the South East. By this time it was in decline and one of the chess teachers there, Ray Cannon, came along to Richmond with his young son Richard. Ray, like me, was pretty serious about junior chess and soon became an integral part of the afternoon group.

At about the same time a local primary school, Sheen Mount, appointed a new Headteacher, Jane Lawrence, who was very keen on chess. Jane was not herself a very strong player, but was more than good enough to be an inspirational teacher of beginners. She taught the whole school to play chess, was highly competitive, and children who wanted to do so could play at school every day. Because they had so many opportunities to play during the week, only a few Sheen Mount children joined RJCC, but those who did, including future IMs Richard Bates and Tom Hinks-Edwards, became strong players.

The following year a family from Aberdeen with two chess-playing sons moved into my road. The younger boy’s name was Jonathan Rowson. The cast for our second big generation was taking shape.

Towards the end of 1989 I received another momentous phone call: “Hello. I think my son might be quite good at chess.” The son in question was Luke McShane, younger than our other strong players but an honorary member of that cohort. Meanwhile, one of our first members, Gavin Wall, had joined the team working with our younger players on Saturday mornings. We had an efficient and coherent structure in place which allowed a second strong generation to flourish.

Here are a couple of games from that period.

From a match between Richmond Junior Club and Sheen Mount School. Richard Bates reminded me of this game on Facebook recently. He recalled missing the winning 40. Rd6+.

From a few years later. Here, the young Luke McShane outplays his opponent, a great-nephew of the Yugoslavian GM Petar Trifunovic, but suffers a brainstorm on move 53. Black in his turn heads in the wrong direction in the king and pawn ending, throwing away the draw ten moves later. I’ve said it before, and will no doubt do so again, but so many games at this level are decided by mistakes directly or indirectly connected with king and pawn endings.

Richard James

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When We Were Kings (2)

Two weeks ago I left you at the 1983 Richmond Junior Club Under 14 Championship, where a host of potential or actual future GMs and IMs vied for their club championship.

It soon became clear, though, that this generation was something of a flash in the pan. We were at the end of the English Chess Explosion and also at the end of the generation who had been influenced by Mike Fox’s charismatic personality. If you get a group of strong players together two things happen. Firstly, they learn from each other and become even stronger, and secondly you develop a good reputation and other strong players will be attracted to join you. Our next cohort was, by comparison, small in number and weak in playing strength. I wanted to ensure that we’d return to our previous level of excellence and continue to produce strong players in future. The obvious thing to do was to talk to the most successful chess teacher in the country, who, as it happened, was in our area, so we started working together with Mike Basman. Mike’s approach was to get all children to notate their games even if they were young beginners, so we ran some training events in which our members were joined by some of his pupils.

As a result of this I have quite a lot of games in my database played by very weak players. Pieces were left en prise every few moves and many games ended with a quick checkmate on f7 or f2. Children had been taught attacking ideas but not how to look at the board, how to defend or how to think ahead. While I’m still not convinced that it’s a good idea to encourage children to score their games too soon, 30 years on, these are useful to me as a supply of games played by beginners. (I guess it’s an interesting question whether or not beginners play the same way now as they did 30 years ago. Grandmasters certainly don’t, and I think there are differences at lower levels partly due to the easy online availability of coaching materials. I might, or might not, return to this later.)

After a couple of years I decided that, while Mike Basman’s success as a coach was not in question, it wasn’t the right approach for me. I was developing ideas about what I wanted to do, but it would involve a lot of work and time which was not compatible with regular employment.

One day in early 1986 I was sitting in the office at work contemplating my future when the phone rang. My job writing computer programs to analyse market research data was reasonably enjoyable and reasonably well paid but I’d been doing the same thing (albeit with different technology) since 1972 and didn’t want to continue for the next 30 years. The only way out was to move into management, but I was told, quite rightly, that I was a techie and not management material.

“Hello Richard”, said the voice at the other end of the phone. “This call could change your life.”

In the next exciting episode you’ll find out what happened next.

Richard James

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Poetic Justice

I’ll return to the history of Richmond Junior Club later, possibly next week, but first I’d like to show you a recent RJCC game played between two of my private pupils.

The game started with the French Defence. Black, the older of the two boys, favours this opening. He doesn’t yet know a lot about it, though, as he’s still too young to study chess on his own.

So: 1. e4 e6 2. d4 d5 3. Nc3 (unusual in junior chess where the Exchange and Advance Variations are the usual choices) 3.. Nf6 4. Bd3 (a reasonable developing move, but not played often at higher levels, where Bg5 and e5 are preferred. Now c5 is the most popular reply, but instead Black immediately blunders)

4.. Bd6, and White spotted the opportunity to win a piece, playing 5. e5. This tactical idea, a pawn fork in the centre of the board, happens over and over again in games played by children. There are scores of examples in my Richmond Junior Club database. You’ll rarely come across this in books, though, because at higher levels players see it coming and avoid it. If Black had remembered to ask himself the Magic Question (“If I do that what will he do next?”) he might have chosen something else.

Black decided he ought to gain some compensation for the piece by getting his pieces out quickly, so the game continued 5.. Nc6 6. exd6 Qxd6.

At this level, children tend to think “How can I create a threat?” rather than “How can I put a piece on a better square?”. The next day I was playing Black in a training game against another of my private pupils, younger and less experienced than these two boys. I played the French Defence myself (I usually play 1.. e5 at this level but sometimes mix things a bit) and the game started 1. e4 e6 2. d4 (It took him some time to find this move) 2.. d5 3. exd5 exd5. Now he saw that he could threaten my queen by playing Bg5, reached out his hand, noticed that it wasn’t safe, and instead played the first move he saw that controlled g5: h4. At lower levels children play this sort of move for this reason all the time. I persuaded him that if he wanted to prepare Bg5 he’d be better off developing a piece with Nf3.

Returning to the game in question, then, White decided he’d like to play Bf4 to threaten the black queen, so chose to prepare it with the truly horrible 7. g3. A much more sensible approach to the position would have been simple development with Nf3 and O-O.

Black replied with 7.. e5, opening the centre against the white king, and White, his plan thwarted, looked for another way to threaten the black queen and found 8. Nb5. Black replied 8.. Qe7, defending c7 and eyeing the white king. It’s not so easy for White now as it’s going to be hard to get his king into safety. He played 9. Ne2, blocking the e-file and hoping to castle, but this move had a tactical disadvantage. Again, asking the Magic Question would have led him to an alternative solution.

Black could now regain his piece with 9.. e4, trapping the bishop on d3, another basic recurring tactical idea at this level, but he didn’t notice this and preferred to continue his development with 9.. Bg4. White traded pawns: 10. dxe5 Nxe5, reaching a position where Black has a Big Threat.

White has a few ways to stay in the game here, but instead he failed to ask himself the Magic Question and just developed a piece: 11. Be3, allowing Black to carry out his threat: 11.. Nf3+ 12. Kf1 Bh3# with a pretty checkmate. Poetic justice that Black’s knight and bishop occupied the squares that were weakened by g3, and a salutary lesson for White about how pawn moves can create weaknesses.

Here’s the complete game.

The game I usually use when teaching about pawn forks in the opening is this:

This is a trick worth knowing. Black developed his bishops on c5 and e6 and a knight on c6, giving White the chance to win a piece neatly with 7. d4, followed by d5. He missed his chance but still won a piece the following move when Black fell for another recurring tactic, the queen fork on a4. If 9. Bxb4, 10. Qa4+ wins.

Richard James

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When We Were Kings (1)

I’m currently working my way though my database of nearly 17000 games played at Richmond Junior Chess Club between 1977 and 2006 to produce low level tactics puzzles based mostly on encounters between young children. I’ll tell you more about this project when it’s further advanced, but looking at the games enables me to think again about the history of RJCC.

Our first ‘big generation’ came through in the early 1980s. The club had been formed in 1975 by Mike Fox and myself, but Mike’s job took him to Birmingham in 1979, leaving me on my own, but with a lot of support from parents. However, it was Mike’s enthusiasm and charisma, along with our being in the right place at the right time, which produced this crop of strong players.

Our 1983 Under 14 Championship had 18 players. Two of them, Aaron Summerscale and Demetrios Agnos (who was later known as Dimitri or Dimitrios Anagnostopolous when he and his family returned to Greece) became Grandmasters. Two more, Gavin Wall and Ali Mortazavi, became International Masters. Chris Briscoe is a 2200+ strength player with an IM norm to his name. Mark Josse is also a 2200 strength player, and plays alongside Chris at Surbiton Chess Club. Bertie Barlow is a strong club player, whom I saw recently for the first time in many years. Others: James Cavendish, Ben Beake, Michael Ross, Harry Dixon, Philip Hughes were strong teenage players with at least IM potential who chose to do other things with their lives. Players such as Rajeev Thacker and Leslie Faizi were not far behind. Their contemporaries at RJCC who didn’t enter this event included the likes of Nick von Schlippe and Michael Arundale.

Gavin, Aaron and Chris are all now professional chess coaches working in schools and teaching private pupils in the West/South West London area. Mark Josse was a valuable member of the RJCC coaching team last season. But, in spite of all their talents as both players and teachers the standard of junior chess in this area, and in the country in general, is dramatically lower now than it was then. We were lucky to be at the end of the post-Fischer boom and in the middle of the English Chess Explosion, but there must have been something else happening. I remember at about this time seeing a list of the top US juniors in Chess Life and working out that, at the top level, Richmond Junior Club was stronger than the whole of the USA.

How did we get such a strong group of players together? What was happening then which isn’t happening now?

Did we have a team of great coaches? No – we did very little coaching and there was not very much in the way of private tuition available. I seem to recall visiting the Mortazavi residence on one occasion but that was all. They played serious chess and learnt both from themselves and from each other. If you get a group of talented players together things just happen. The social element of the club was also very important. Of course back in those days there was no online chess and not much in the way of computer games to distract them. There was also far less academic pressure than there is now. One factor which I think was important was that, by and large, children started playing competitively slightly older than they do now. Gavin Wall, a player with extraordinary natural talent, was the exception, having been a former London Under 8 Champion. But, at the age of 12 or 13, chess was still something relatively new and exciting for them. For some, the excitement waned, but at least half of them are still excited by chess more than 30 years on.

Gavin won the event with a 100% score. In this game he defeats a future GM.

Richard James

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Misconception

I’ve written quite a lot recently about how many young children have a complete misconception about the nature of chess. Here’s a graphic example.

Our under 11 team took part in the national inter-area finals in Northampton last Saturday. One of our reserves is a very keen player who always enjoys challenging me to a game. He attends a local prep school which is very big on chess. The Headmaster is a 2200 strength player, and as well as providing children with the opportunity to take part in internal and external competitions, the school runs two chess clubs: there’s a lunchtime club where a GM does the coaching and an after-school club run by a player with several IM norms. The boy also attends Richmond Junior Club on Saturdays and plays regularly at home against his father, an enthusiastic social player.

Between rounds we played a game. I took the white pieces and essayed the King’s Gambit. The game started something like this:

“I can take your knight”, I said. “Yes, I know”, my opponent replied. “This is the move I want you to play.”

If you play against young children at this level and ask them the reason for their moves you’ll find this sort of thing happens quite often. Now we all like to demonstrate brilliant combinations and games with sacrifices. No doubt my opponent has seen quite a lot of these. He may well have seen a game where one player sacrifices a minor piece for a pawn in front of the castled king; a Greek Gift sacrifice, perhaps, and concluded that it’s generally a good idea to give up a piece for a pawn on the side of the board where the enemy king resides.

Children at this age are usually unable to distinguish between specifics and generalities. If they see a game in which one player sacrifices pieces to win, or maybe, if we’re demonstrating a Morphy game, for example, plays without a rook and wins brilliantly, we hope they’ll think “If I learn to calculate accurately, to look ahead, and if I practise solving checkmate puzzles regularly, I can learn to play as well as that”. But instead they conclude that points aren’t important, that it doesn’t matter if you lose a piece because you can still get checkmate. If we show them a game where the winner sacrifices a piece to expose the enemy king they’ll sacrifice pieces in the vicinity of the opposing monarch at the slightest provocation, even if, as in my game, they get little or no compensation for the lost material.

Perhaps we should look at different ways of coaching children. Maybe we should start with the ending so that they get the idea that (other things being equal) superior force wins. Maybe we should teach children how to calculate by getting them to solve puzzles before we show complete games with sacrifices.

Anyway, the game continued and my extra material eventually told. While we were playing, the boy’s father had joined us. I explained what was happening and suggested he bought my book The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, which was on sale at the tournament bookstall. He followed my advice and returned with a copy of the book for me to sign for him and his son.

With any luck our player will soon get over his misconceptions about chess.

Richard James

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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

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