Category Archives: Richard James

Fishing Pole

We have a new member in our chess club. A 12-year-old beginner, he’s really enthusiastic and seems to have some talent. His parents, although knowing little about the game, are very keen to do everything they can to help him.

Half a century or more ago, I myself was in very much the same position. I was really enthusiastic about chess. My parents, wanting to support my enthusiasm but knowing very little about the game, bought me a book (The Game of Chess by Harry Golombek since you asked) so that I could teach myself. “If we try to teach you ourselves”, they said, “we might get it wrong and put you off.” I didn’t understand everything in it and got confused by the chapters on the openings when HG said that there were two moves you could play in this position, while it seemed to me, correctly, that there were many moves you could play. But it still stood me in good stead by giving me well-structured and accurate information about chess.

These days, though, children don’t learn through books, they learn through the Internet. And the Internet is, for all sorts of reasons, a dangerous place.

I like to give new members a game, so on his first visit to the club I took the black pieces against him. His first moves were, in order, e3, g3, Bg2, a3, b4, c3, d4. I asked him what he was trying to achieve in the opening. He explained that he was combining the ideas of his two favourite openings, the King’s Indian Defence and the Stonewall. It seemed that he’d come across online lessons on both openings (probably chosen because he liked the names) but completely misunderstood them.

A couple of weeks later he was very much into gambits. He wanted to play the Wing Gambit, the Halloween Gambit (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Nxe5) and, his new favourite opening, the Fishing Pole. Now I’m reasonably knowledgeable about chess history and literature, and one of my colleagues even more so, but none of us had heard of the Fishing Pole. When I arrived home I searched on Google and found this.

So what do we have? 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Nf6 4. 0-0 Ng4. It’s obvious to any experienced player that this move is nonsense. It may not be losing but it’s just a waste of time. 5. h3 h5. Now if White just plays a sensible developing move like d3 he’s going to be slightly better. Black’s just wasted time playing two fairly useless moves and broken a couple of basic opening tenets into the bargain. He’ll only lose if he takes the knight and gets mated.

We’re told this is a common trap in the Ruy Lopez. Is it? There are 14 examples of 4.. Ng4 out of almost 5.8 million games on BigBase2014. The position after 5.. h5 occurred only 8 times. So hardly common. And none of those 8 people fell for the trap by taking the knight (although Black’s percentage score after 4.. Ng4 is actually fairly respectable). Perhaps it has an extremely high success rate if you play it in online bullet games against weak opponents, but not in real games. Note also some of the comments, none of which are critical. “I will definitely try it every chance I get. Chess is wonderful and you don’t have to sweat!!” enthuses bsharpchess. KWash01 also approves: “All and all I like it and will most certainly try to use it.”

I’m disappointed that a very popular and reputable site such as chess.com should publish such misinformation, and that its users should be so uncritical. Of course if you play online blitz or bullet you’ll come across opponents who play junk like this extremely quickly and win games on time or through a cheap tactic, but it’s not real chess and not how we should be encouraging our pupils to play.

There are, I think, two issues. First of all, in chess, as in everything else, there’s a lot of ill-informed and dangerous rubbish out there. There are any number of videos, articles and e-books written by weak amateurs peddling their favourite eccentric opening or theory about chess. So if you’re trying to teach yourself you need to ensure that your sources are reliable. Asking an experienced chess teacher would be a good place to start.

You also need to learn chess in a structured way. If you’re learning openings you start with basic principles, then you learn the major openings before you look at less popular openings. If you want to emulate Abraham Neviazsky and spend the next 50 years of your life opening 1. b4 that’s fine, but I’d advise you to gain experience with mainstream openings first. I’d also suggest that practising tactics, learning about strategy and familiarising yourself with endings is, unless you want to play very sharp lines, more important than studying opening theory.

So we in the chess community need to promote structured chess courses for learners of all ages. We need to promote them actively and aggressively so that newcomers to the game learn correctly right from the start. Once you get the wrong idea about something or get into a bad habit it’s difficult to get out of it.

Richard James

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Cotton Wool Kids

Childhood is very different now from when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s. In some ways it is much better. We are much more aware nowadays of the importance of preventing children from abuse, neglect and persistent bullying, although we are still a long way from getting everything right. We are getting much closer to an understanding of the concept of special needs so we can provide constructive support for children with learning, social, behavioural or physical problems rather than just criticism and punishment. For all this we should be immensely grateful.

However, I can’t help thinking that, in our praiseworthy efforts to try to ensure children avoid suffering high level bad experiences we are also being over-protective in sheltering them from low level bad experiences. This is apparent from the feedback I get when I try to persuade parents and schools to get their children to take chess seriously.

The school head teacher who, years ago, told me he couldn’t enter more than one team in our tournament because his pupils would feel humiliated if they scored less than 50%.

The school chess club, again years ago, which was unhappy that one of their children was a very strong player, because it would make all the other children in the club feel bad.

The parents who tell me they don’t want their children to solve puzzles at home because it might put them off chess.

The parents who tell me they don’t want their children to play for the school because it wouldn’t be fun.

The parents who tell me their children can’t attend the chess club because it might make them too tired.

The chess teacher who tells me her pupils can’t enter a tournament for the same reason.

The chess teacher who tells me his pupils will only play in team tournaments, not individual tournaments.

The neighbour who asks about chess lessons for her son, and, when I show her the Chess for Heroes book, tells me it looks too hard.

At the same time, children seem to think they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do.

Children in school chess clubs don’t want to solve puzzles because it’s boring.

Children at Richmond Junior Club don’t want to score their games because it’s boring.

They tell me that if something’s boring they don’t have to do it.

This all seems to be about the possibility that children might just have a bad experience by taking chess too seriously. They MIGHT be upset because they lose a game. They MIGHT find it boring. It MIGHT make them tired. It MIGHT be too hard for them. So we’d better not do it, just in case a bad experience might damage their self-esteem.

If you take part in chess tournaments you WILL have bad experiences. It’s happened to all of us. You’ll have days where you play badly and lose your games. You’ll have days where your opponents all seem to play well against you. You’ll meet opponents who are unsporting, who distract you, who try to cheat against you. You’ll meet arbiters who rule against you unfairly. But you’ll also have a lot of good experiences which will more than make up for the bad ones. And by working through those bad experiences you’ll become a stronger person as well as a stronger player.

Children NEED to be challenged. They NEED to be bored. They NEED to learn how to lose. They NEED to learn to persevere when they get stuck. They NEED to learn how to deal with difficult people and difficult situations. They NEED to develop determination and resilience. By wrapping children in cotton wool, by only expecting them to do things that are safe, fun or easy, by bringing our children up in a cocoon where they are sheltered from any experience which might possibly be unpleasant, we’re doing them no favours. Playing serious chess isn’t for everyone, but children who enjoy the game can use it for this purpose.

In Chess for Kids, Sam has to work through difficult situations in order to become a good player. He has to learn not to be discouraged when he keeps on making mistakes, not to give up when a concept is difficult for him to understand, to keep going if something is boring.

My new course is called Chess for Heroes partly for this reason. One way to become a hero is by showing physical courage, but you can also be a hero by showing mental courage. Of course we all want to do all we can to prevent children suffering high level bad experiences but we need to expose them to low level bad experiences and, very gently, help our children deal with them.

A failure to understand this is one of the reasons why I find myself teaching children whose parents and teachers want them to play chess but specifically don’t want them to be good at chess.

Richard James

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Abraham’s Choice

Last Tuesday (9 September 2014) my old friend Abraham Neviazsky died suddenly at the age of 80. I’d known Abraham more or less since joining Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club in 1966.

Abraham was a remarkable character who had learnt chess as a boy in Lithuania, having been taught by the likes of Mikenas. His family had suffered hardship during the Second World War, and eventually found their way, via Poland, to Israel. Abraham later married an English girl and moved to England.

Abraham was noted for his devotion to Fulham football club, and also for his devotion to moving his b-pawn two squares at the start of the game. I played in the same team as him on many occasions and rarely if ever saw him play any first move other than b4. He didn’t play it in a particularly scary way, but was confident and experienced in the slightly unusual middle game positions he reached. In recent years he had also taken to starting his games with Black with a6 followed by b5.

The subject of opening choice has been a topic of debate recently on Nigel’s Facebook page. How should we choose our own openings and what advice should we give to our students, whether adults or children?

Should we encourage them, like Abraham, to stick to the same opening at all times or to vary their openings? And should we encourage them to choose main line openings or, again like Abraham, unusual openings?

I was an active tournament player in the mid 1970s, when the English Chess Explosion, along with the explosion in opening books, was getting underway. What I did was, in retrospect, exactly the wrong thing to do, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. Whenever a new Batsford opening book came out I’d rush to Foyle’s to buy it on publication day, skim through the pages excitedly and play it at the next opportunity. I’d get a bad position because I didn’t really understand the opening, decide it wasn’t for me, await the publication of the next opening book and repeat the whole cycle all over again. When I eventually realised that I was no longer interested in studying chess seriously I was left with the opening repertoire I had when the music stopped. I haven’t been happy with what I play, especially with White, but don’t feel confident playing anything else. I know a little bit about most openings but not enough about anything to play it against a strong opponent. I’m envious of my friends who’ve been playing the same non-critical openings for the past 40 years and know exactly what they’re doing at the start of the game.

But there are two reasons why I don’t really regret taking that approach. As a chess teacher it’s important that I know a bit about all openings so that I can find out how much my students know about them, so that I can avoid falling into the trap of only teaching the openings I play myself, and so that I can avoid giving them bad advice. A few months ago I watched two colleagues demonstrating a game to a class of eager students. The game started 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. d4 exd4 5. 0-0 Nxe4, which they castigated for being too greedy and moving a piece twice in the opening. In fact it’s main line theory and perfectly good for Black, but as neither of my colleagues played this line with either colour they were unaware of this.

There’s another thing as well. It seems to me that only playing e4 and never d4 is like only listening to Bach and never to Mozart, or only reading Dickens and never Jane Austen. Always playing b4 on your first move, then, must be like only listening to, I don’t know, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf. From my perspective it would seem that, from his choice of opening, Abraham only experienced a small part of the world of chess. But I’ve known few people who played chess with so much enjoyment and enthusiasm as Abraham. He’d have liked a few more years, but suffering a heart attack while playing chess against an old friend is probably the way he’d have wanted to go.

Richard James

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Chess for Heroes Continued

Let’s assume that, whether you’re a parent or a teacher, you want your children to learn chess because you’d like to give them the opportunity, should they have the talent and the interest, to become good players.

Of course this isn’t a safe assumption. These days, at least in my part of the world, most parents and teachers want their children to learn chess either to ‘make kids smarter’ or as a low-level ‘fun’ after-school activity.

Anyway, if you want to give your children the chance to be good players (by which I don’t necessarily mean grandmasters: average club players or even weak club players as opposed to social players would be fine) they need to do three things. They need to learn chess skills, solve lots of puzzles and play lots of games in fairly serious conditions. If you’re only playing chess once a week in school you’re not going to be able to do this.

Children who come from a chess playing family will be doing these things automatically, but those whose parents are not chess players will not be able to help their children in this way. Children of primary school age from a non-chess background need external help along with parental support.

The main reason I decided to set up Chess for Heroes the way I did was the release of a new and much stronger version of Douglas Bagnall’s Javascript chess program p4wn. The original version, with some debugging from Chris Lear and hacked about a bit by me, was named Fishy Bobber on chessKIDS academy. It was fairly weak, but stronger than the other Javascript program on there, so good for training for beginners but not so good as a teaching tool. The new program is a lot stronger, as Douglas has incorporated the bug fixes made by Chris and others. It’s not fault free as yet: one issue seems to be is that it has a habit of allowing pawns to capture knights early in the game, and because there’s no opening library it can’t be used for opening training at higher levels.

There are also two very useful features. Firstly, the computer can easily be set up to play any starting position. At present I have various positions set up where the computer gives odds. This is very useful in encouraging young beginners who gain confidence from winning games. The other useful feature is that it records the game while it’s being played, so that it’s easy for the parent to cut and paste the moves and email them to their chess tutor. You can also set the program to play itself, or to act as a referee in a game between two humans. If two children are learning together, or if a parent is learning with a child, they can play on the website and the parent can submit that game to the chess tutor. You can play it on my website here.

It looks as if I’ll also be able to use this engine for endgame skills training in the next stage of Chess for Heroes. If I put it on the highest level and take out three lines of code which say “keep the king at the back for the first few moves” it seems to play endings reasonably well.

In chess, as in everything else, there’s a big difference between theory and practice. You can be very good at solving puzzles and demonstrating your chess skills but you may not be able to put this into practice in your games. So being able to provide simple constructive feedback for young children and their parents is very important. This won’t be heavy opening theory or deep analysis – just telling your pupils they need to develop their pieces more quickly, not bring their queen out too soon or try to avoid leaving pieces en prise. Advice of this nature should be invaluable to parents wanting to help their children learn chess.

So the idea of Chess for Heroes is that children should spend time at home playing games and receiving feedback on the games, learning skills and solving puzzles. We aim to provide resources for children to do all these.

Finally for now, the tagline of Chess for Heroes is ‘serious about chess’. We see chess as a serious game for older children and adults, not a fun game for young children. “I don’t want my children to do homework”, parents say to me, “because then chess wouldn’t be fun”. What’s more fun, though, winning or losing? If you take it seriously you’ll win most of your games and have fun. If you don’t take it seriously you’ll lose most of your games, find chess isn’t fun, get frustrated and give up.

Should you visit the Leipzig Gewandhaus for a symphony concert you’ll find the words RES SEVERA VERUM GAUDIUM painted on the walls. These words from Seneca translate as “True pleasure is a serious business”

My esteemed fellow Chess Improver contributor Hugh Patterson explained in a recent post that all the students in his chess clubs have to do homework. Quite right too. In my view, but this is not the view of most of those involved in primary school chess in this country, if you don’t want to improve you don’t need a teacher, and without homework you won’t improve.

Richard James

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Chess for Heroes

In my last three posts I’ve discussed three reasons for promoting junior chess: to encourage participation in serious competitive chess at whatever level, to identify and fast track potential master strength players, and to use chess as a learning tool.

Between the 1950s and the 1970s chess was promoted in secondary schools: this proved successful in terms of our first aim. The work of the late Bob Wade, Leonard Barden and others was successful in the 1970s and 1980s in terms of our second aim. Chess in Schools and Communities is successfully pursuing the third aim, but over the past 30 years we’ve lost focus with regard to the first two.

Since the 1980s the main focus of junior chess here in the UK has been the primary school chess club. I started getting involved in primary school chess through the Richmond Chess Initiative in 1993, and after a few years I started asking questions. Yes, a few strong players came through primary school clubs, but nowhere near enough. I also didn’t see how they were ‘making kids smarter’. Richmond primary schools are the most academically successful in the country, the schools that were running chess clubs were, by and large, the most academically successful schools in Richmond, and the children who joined their chess clubs were, by and large, those who were academically strong, so there was not very much leeway in terms of making them even smarter than they were.

So our clubs were attracting a lot of very bright boys (but sadly few very bright girls) but the standard of play was, with a few exceptions, pretty low. The children enjoyed the chess clubs, and, to that extent they were an asset to the schools, but they weren’t becoming strong players or developing a long-term interest in chess.

The basic problem is that, because chess is not part of our culture, very few parents have enough knowledge about chess to help their children. Just doing 30 hours of chess in school over a year (actually more like 25 hours once you’ve taken off the time taken getting the sets out, setting them up and putting them away again) isn’t going to get you very far. Playing games at home against parents who are themselves beginners won’t help either, and losing game after game against the chess app on your mobile won’t be a lot better.

I’ve been thinking for a long time about how to get round this problem. I’ve tried handing out worksheets, giving homework, emailing parents with advice on how to help their children at home, writing books for parents, but none of this has had any success.

This time I hope I’ve found the answer.

CHESS FOR HEROES provides a workbook for children plus email access to a chess tutor for children learning the moves. There’s also a chess engine on the site which will record your games. After each module of the workbook you submit your children’s worksheet answers and games against the computer to your chess tutor who will get back to you with specific feedback on your children’s progress.

Children will benefit – they will be able to spend more time each week on chess, will improve their play, win more games and enjoy chess more.

Parents will benefit – they will get help for their children, and, by helping their children, will learn more about chess themselves.

Schools will benefit – their chess club will be stronger, and their children will learn various cognitive and non-cognitive skills which will help them excel academically.

Chess tutors will benefit – they will have something constructive to do between their lunchtime club and their after school club, and will make more money though marking their students’ worksheets and commenting on their games.

The ECF will benefit – more children will be encouraged to take part in higher level competitive chess and they will have more of a long-term interest in the game.

Finally, I will benefit – I will receive royalties for every copy of the course you buy.

Everybody wins, nobody loses. What’s not to like?

Do please visit the CHESS FOR HEROES website. If you’d like to be a CHESS FOR HEROES tutor yourself please let me know.

Richard James

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Scholastic Chess

My last two articles considered two possible reasons for running a junior chess project: to produce young people with a lifelong interest in chess and to identify and train potential IMs and GMs.

There is a third reason which is becoming increasingly popular throughout the world: scholastic chess. This involves using chess as an educational tool on the curriculum in the classroom, usually in primary/elementary schools in less affluent areas, and not necessarily having any expectations that children will become very strong players or even take a lasting interest in the game.

There have been many studies over many years which have claimed educational benefits from chess and suggesting that studying chess might improve children’s problem solving skills and their performance in maths and English.

Personally, I have some reservations about this. Many other activities, which may be of more practical use than chess, are also claimed to provide educational benefits: learning musical instruments, singing in a choir, learning fluency in a second language, learning coding and much else. There just isn’t time for schools to put all these activities on the curriculum. It’s also not clear to me whether other, simpler strategy games, which wouldn’t require specialist teachers, would have a similar effect, or whether the improvement in academic performance is long term or just short term.

Having said that, if schools are enthusiastic and supportive, scholastic chess can be, on its own terms, very popular and successful. If, on the other hand, the class teacher doesn’t support the lesson, just sitting at her desk looking bored and doing her marking, if the chess sets are locked away from one week to the next so that the children have no opportunity to play and reinforce what they’ve learnt, if there’s no communication with parents about what the children are learning and why they’re learning it, it’s probably not going to be very effective.

A further important question with regard to scholastic chess is that of competition. You might think that chess is by its nature competitive, but many teachers have reservations about the role of competition within education. Is it a good idea to run chess competitions for children who barely know how the pieces move and are confused about checkmate? If we decide it’s a good idea for children to have the opportunity to compete in mental activities as well as physical activities, is chess the only option? Could schools run competitions for noughts and crosses, Connect Four, draughts, various pre-chess games using subsets of the pieces and/or rules?

Here’s my take on how scholastic chess should work.

Chess in the classroom should be non-competitive. Of course children will spend some of the time playing games, but these will be seen as learning opportunities, not competitive activities. Children will also solve puzzle sheets as individuals while there will be harder puzzles to be solved by children working collaboratively in groups. The lessons will need to proceed slowly to ensure that no child is left behind. If you start with pawns, as CSC does, it will take several weeks before the whole class has mastered the pawn move (and that’s before you introduce the en passant rule). If a chess tutor is being used, the chess tutor and class teacher should lead the lessons together. The class teacher should be actively involved in the lessons and demonstrate her enthusiasm to the children. There should be posters round the walls reminding children of how the pieces move and the other basic rules. Chess sets should be available for children who want to play at break or lunchtime, before or after school rather than locked away in a cupboard. Parents and carers should be made aware not just that their children are learning chess, but how and why they are learning. You might want to run workshops in the evening for parents who would like to learn more so that they can help their children at home. There should be an after-school or lunchtime club for children who want to play low-level competitive chess. The school should take part in competitions against other schools and, in the UK, run a heat of the UK Chess Challenge. Links should be forged with local junior chess clubs (assuming they exist) so that children who want to play competitive chess at a higher level can be pointed in the right direction.

One final question is this: to what extent should national chess federations support projects that are unlikely to lead to a significant increase in participation in serous competitive chess?

Richard James

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Talent Spotting

Last week I considered three reasons why you might want to promote junior chess at a national level.

One reason might be to produce strong players, potential IMs and GMs, young players who will do well in international junior competitions like the World and European Youth Championships.

Top grandmasters almost always start competitive chess young. If you start later it doesn’t mean that you won’t become a very strong player. The English IM Jonathan Hawkins, for instance, only started playing competitively in his teens and was not especially strong until his early twenties. But if you want your children to become world class players, these days they need to start playing competitively fairly young. Not necessarily at 4 or 5, but certainly by 8 or 9.

From my experiences, children who do well at chess at an early age have five things in common:

1. They usually have a very strong mathematical/logical intelligence. Some are strong academic all-rounders while others are maths specialists. They may excel at jigsaw puzzles or build Lego models designed for much older children. They may have a particular interest in computers or science. They may have an exceptional memory and excel at verbal and non-verbal reasoning and have a high IQ.

2. They are competitive by nature. They want to win, to be the best, and are prepared to work hard to achieve that aim. The children who cry when they lose are often those who eventually become strong players. If you don’t mind whether you win or lose you have no incentive to improve.

3. They are, or can be, mature for their age. Chess at its higher levels is an adult game: children who do well in competitions are able to switch off from being children and become adults for the duration of the game. They have the ability to control the impulse to play the first move that comes to mind and make the effort to find the best move. They have the emotional maturity to learn from their losses and the resilience to overcome setbacks. I’ve met so many children over the years with the talent to do well at chess at an early age but not the maturity.

4. They have highly supportive parents who will take them to clubs and tournaments, arrange tuition and encourage them to study and practise regularly. They have parents who themselves love the game of chess, whether or not they are good players, and who want their children to be the best they can be at whatever they do. Their parents encourage them to learn chess because they thing it might be something their children could excel at, not just because it might make them smarter or be an enjoyable after-school activity.

5. They have regular access to a coach who is knowledgeable about how children learn chess. This might be a family member who happens to be a competent player, but more often it will be a professional chess coach who is experienced at working with young children and who understands children’s cognitive and emotional development.

Now have a look at the top 11 year old players in the USA. Do you notice something about the names? If you look at the English junior lists you’ll find a higher than expected number of Asian and Russian names, but not to the same extent as in the USA.

I’ve written before about the difference between what I call ‘Eastern’ parenting, where children, from an early age, are expected to excel at whatever they do, and ‘Western’ parenting, where young children are encouraged to take on activities because they will be ‘fun’ or lead to extrinsic benefits. Some ‘Western’ parents, though, do take a more serious approach to chess, usually because they themselves have a particular interest in the game.

So, if we want to find children who might have the potential to become GMs, where should we look?

We’re probably going to look in more affluent, middle-class areas. I appreciate this may not be politically correct, but, whether we like it or not, it’s where we’re most likely to find our future stars.

We might want to look in areas with a higher than average ethnic minority population.

We might want to encourage schools in these areas to start chess clubs if they don’t already do so.

We might want to work closely with schools to identify children who have the first four attributes listed above (our job is to provide the fifth). Children who come from chess playing families will learn at home, but we also want to find children whose parents are not themselves chess players.

We might want to run tournaments (both individual and school) and coaching workshops in these areas, and use these to feed children through to junior chess clubs and private coaches.

We might want to work closely with junior chess clubs, or start junior chess clubs in areas without one close at hand.

We might want to provide resources for parents who do not play chess themselves but want to support their children’s chess.

We might want to make a specific effort to encourage more girls both to learn chess and to compete at higher levels.

Because parents in affluent areas are, by and large, prepared to pay good money for services they consider beneficial for their children, it’s not actually going to cost you very much. By bringing more children into serious competitive chess, in the long term you stand to gain.

Richard James

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Secondary Matters

It seems to me that you might have three reasons for running a national chess project for children.

Firstly, you could run a ‘scholastic chess’ project, designed to use chess as an educational tool for young children, without any particular expectation that the children will go on to become strong players.

Secondly, you might want to look for ‘prodigies’, children who will be strong enough to play in top junior international competitions such as the World and European Youth Championships, some of whom will, you hope, reach IM or even GM standard.

Thirdly, you might want to produce serious adult standard competitive chess players, not just titled players but players of all levels.

You’ll probably agree that all three of these reasons are worthwhile in themselves. Observant readers might note that after-school chess clubs for younger children in more affluent areas of the country, and this has been the model here in the UK for the past generation, seem to have been only moderately successful at producing a generation of IMs and GMs, not at all successful at producing lots of serious adult competitive players, and, given the areas in which they tend to operate, have probably not made too many children ‘more intelligent’.

In this post I’m considering the third reason.

Here are just a few reasons (you can probably think of more) why you might want to produce more adult chess players.

  • The chess players in your country form a pyramid. Without a solid base the pyramid will collapse.
  • You need to produce players who will take part in tournaments at lower levels, to provide prize funds for elite players.
  • You need to produce chess enthusiasts who will become club secretaries, treasurers and match captains.
  • You need to produce chess enthusiasts who will become tournament organisers and arbiters, and run tournaments for elite players, as well as average players, to take part in.
  • You need to produce adults who will have an interest in chess and know enough to teach their children in a meaningful way.
  • You need educators who will be enthusiastic about chess and encourage it within their schools and colleges.
  • You need business people who will be keen to sponsor chess events because of their passion for the game.
  • I would contend that, if this is the aim of your chess project, you should target secondary schools rather primary schools. Here again are just a few reasons.

  • Most children only reach the point in their development where they can play ‘real’ chess at secondary school age.
  • Most children only reach the level of self-control to stop and think about their moves rather than playing the first thing that comes to mind at secondary school age.
  • Most children only reach the level of emotional maturity required to cope with the stress of competitive chess at secondary school age.
  • Most children only reach the level of emotional maturity to learn from their mistakes at secondary school age.
  • Most children are unable to study independently until they reach secondary school age.
  • Primary school children’s idea of a game is involving have low level fun with your friends, while secondary school children will see a game as something more serious at which you can learn to excel.
  • Primary school children’s interests are usually chosen by their parents, while secondary school age children choose their own interests.
  • When children move schools (at 11) and reach puberty they make new friends and develop new interests, usually giving up activities they associate with primary school.
  • If children associate an activity with school they are likely to give up when they leave, so they need to be encouraged to join adult chess clubs, which run too late and are too strong for most primary school children.
  • Older children can organise clubs themselves with minimal adult support as well as teach themselves if they’re interested, so there’s less need to find or pay for a professional chess coach.
  • Older children can travel to chess clubs and tournaments themselves without needing transport from their parents.
  • Our experience running, say, Under 14 teams at Richmond Junior Club was that the top boards would be children who’d been playing competitive chess half their lives and felt they were growing out of it, while the lower boards were often children who had started later, for whom chess competition was something new and exciting. It was often these players, rather than the top board stars, who continued playing into adulthood.

    Fortunately, things are starting to happen here in the UK as Neill Cooper is doing a great job promoting secondary schools chess on behalf of the English Chess Federation.

    All secondary schools need (apart from some sets and boards) is an enthusiastic member of staff who will ensure that children have the chance to play chess every day, setting aside a classroom for this purpose at morning and lunch breaks, who will organise internal competitions and matches against other schools for children who want to play competitive chess, and who will encourage those children to join outside clubs and take part in tournaments.

    The trick, of course, is to locate that enthusiastic member of staff, and, because, here in the UK, we’ve been getting junior chess wrong for the past 30 years, there are not very many younger adults around who are genuinely enthusiastic about chess.

    Richard James

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    Drop Outs

    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.

    Richard James

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    Cut Out and Keep

    As promised last week, here’s your handy cut-out-and-keep guide to how children of different ages learn and play chess.

  • Piaget Classification: Pre-Operational Stage
  • Approximate ages: 2-7 (Infant School)
  • UK school system: up to Year 2
  • US school system: up to 1st Grade
  • Logical ability: only very simple egocentric logic
  • What children can learn: the moves of the pieces, will struggle to understand check/mate: will benefit from playing mini games rather than complete chess
  • How children learn: constant repetition of the moves of the pieces until they remember them:they will not be able to teach themselves
  • How children play: either with no logic or with flawed logic: will not be able to consider their opponent’s perspective: they may see threats but will not check that their move is safe before playing it
  • Where should children play: at home or at school on the curriculum or with other beginners: unless they are working hard at the game at home, children at this level will benefit little joining an after-school club and playing against more experienced players. It’s best to wait for children to get through this level before encouraging them to play in tournaments.
  • My term for chess played at this level: illogical chess
  • Dan Heisman’s term for chess played at this level: Flip-Coin Chess

  • Piaget Classification: Concrete Operational Stage
  • Approximate ages: 7-11 (Junior School)
  • UK school system: Years 3-6
  • US school system: 2nd-5th Grade
  • Logical ability: simple logic: if you attack my queen I’ll move it
  • What children can learn: all the rules (but may struggle with en passant), the basic logic of the game (superior force wins)
  • How children learn: repetition and reinforcement, mimicry and memory. Children will need to repeat what they’ve learnt over and over again because they won’t have a higher level understanding. Children will mimic what they see: if they play regularly against a proficient player they will start to play well but if they play against weak players they will copy their bad habits. Children at this level might be able to teach themselves the moves but will need adult help to get any further.
  • How children play: simple logic is used: children will focus on just one aspect of the position, identify one criterion and choose the first safe move which meets that criterion. They will not consider alternatives or look ahead in any meaningful way.
  • Where should children play: at this level children will benefit from joining a school or community chess club and taking part in low-level competitions against other children of their age. They will not be ready for playing in open-age competitions against adults. They can also benefit from playing chess on the internet.
  • My term for chess played at this level: simple logical chess
  • Dan Heisman’s term for chess played at this level: Hope Chess

  • Piaget Classification: Formal Operational Stage
  • Approximate ages: 11 and over (Secondary School)
  • UK school system: Years 7 and over
  • US school system: 6th Grade and over
  • Logical ability: complex logic: if you attack my queen I’ll consider all the safe squares and choose the one I prefer. Children will be able to draw conclusions from examples, switching between the general and the specific and back again.
  • What children can learn: children can start to learn aspects of chess that require higher level understanding as well as just memory. They will be able to appreciate strategic concepts and start to learn openings.
  • How children learn: at this level children will be developing understanding which will complement their memory skills. They will still benefit from either group or individual tuition, but will also be developing self-teaching skills. This will enable them to teach themselves through books, DVDs or websites. They will also be developing the power of self-criticism so they’ll be able to identify the mistakes in their own games and learn from them.
  • How children play: children can now apply complex logic to chess. They can learn to consider every aspect of the position, to consider their opponent’s thoughts and intentions, to make a choice from several alternatives and to look ahead.
  • Where should children play: children should be playing regularly in chess clubs and taking part in tournaments. They can start to play in competitions against adults as well as against other children. If they are still at primary school they will not gain much from attending the chess club, although they may wish to do so for social reasons. Playing chess at secondary school will be great as long as there are opponents who play to their level or above, or who are keen to learn.
  • My term for chess played at this level: complex logical chess
  • Dan Heisman’s term for chess played at this level: Real Chess

  • Please bear in mind that the ages quoted are approximate. Some children will achieve these cognitive milestones earlier, in some cases very much earlier, so, provided they have help from a Real Chess player, they may be able to play Real Chess before the age of 11. Other children will achieve them later, or not at all. Children who are attracted to chess are quite likely to be cognitively advanced for their age. Of course the vast majority of adults who play chess may well be using complex logic in other situations but have never learnt how to apply it to chess so still play Flip-Coin or Hope Chess rather than Real Chess.

    Parents who themselves play Flip-Coin Chess might think that’s all there is to the game, teach their children how the pieces move, think they’re really good and sign them up for their school chess club. Children will need help (ideally one to one) to understand the basic logic of the game and reach the next level.

    Parents who themselves play Hope Chess will take things further, and will be able to help their children to some extent. If children want to play Real Chess, though, they’ll need further help, ideally from playing and learning at a club with other children at the same level or higher along with one to one tuition.

    So, within a primary school club there will be children who play Flip-Coin Chess because that’s what their parents play, or because they’re too young to understand Hope Chess, but they will usually get frustrated after a couple of terms because they keep on losing to the Hope Chess players without having any idea why.

    There will also be children playing Hope Chess because they’ve learnt something about the game from their parents. They will do well in their school club, but will associate the game with their school and are likely to give up when they change schools. There will be few, if any, players within a primary school club playing Real Chess.

    But understanding young children’s limitations regarding chess will enable us to produce lessons, coaching materials and courses based on how they learn and what can realistically be expected of them. It will also help us dissuade well-meaning parents who are ignorant of chess from thinking chess is suitable for their three-year-olds.

    Richard James

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