Meet Ben. He’s just six years old and lives in Kasparov’s home town of Baku, Azerbaijan. He has no particular chess background: his English father plays a bit but his Russian mother doesn’t play at all and his older sister doesn’t like the game. Even so, he’s doing well at chess and is finishing high up in local Under 8 tournaments.
He attends a junior chess club for an hour and a half twice a week, where there is some instruction and a lot of serious chess. The teacher is very strict, expects children to play under tournament conditions, and shouts at children who lose their games or play badly. He also has to solve puzzles at home, working through Sergey Ivashchenko’s Chess School books.
A bit harsh for one so young, you might think. Has it put Ben off chess? Not at all: he’s really enthusiastic about the game, as you may tell from his photo on the front page of www.chessforkids.info. He was very keen to show me his puzzle book as well as the trophy he won in a tournament in Baku.
I also spent some time this summer teaching another boy whose father works in the oil industry and currently lives abroad. Easan’s home is in Bahrain, where he’s part of a small coaching group run by a young Indian player, one of the strongest in the country. Easan too was keen to bring in his puzzle book to show me. Guess what – Ivashchenko’s Chess School.
I’m not sure to what extent Ben’s junior chess clubs’s methods are prevalent in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
GM Jaan Ehlvest’s course, based, he says, on long-established Russian methods, seems to take things more slowly, and sounds very different from Ben’s experiences in Baku.
“This manual differs from other beginning chess books available in the United States.
This is the ‘Russian way’ of teaching Chess to young children. It is not an arbitrary method but the result of decades of research. Chess Gymnasium introduces each concept slowly, but with depth. We do not attempt to have students play legal games against each other as soon as possible, but rather to use the very process of learning the rules as a teaching tool. This is important, and what makes this manual different from others. For this reason, two lessons are devoted to each piece. Besides simply learning how each piece moves, the students solve various problems with each piece before they have learned all the rules of chess. Along the way, particularly close attention is given to the geometry of the chess board itself.
“The ultimate goal of chess – checkmate – is not introduced until Lesson 21! After learning the material in this book, students will know all of the rules. However, we can say that they will gain much more, and have a much more solid foundation in chess, than if they had been taught the rules as quickly as possible without discretion.
This book is designed to be used by any adult who wishes to teach chess to a child. You do not need to know anything about chess! Thus it can be used by a master who is teaching chess in a classroom, or by a classroom teacher who knows no more about chess than the children. It can also be used by parents who wish to teach their children chess at home.”
That’s all very well, Jaan, but how much time should children spend on chess every week?
“Preferably, students should study with their teacher for two hours, once a week; in addition to independent study, completion of homework, and practical play. If the lessons are too infrequent, the students will forget the previous material; if lessons are too short, the material will not be learned thoroughly.”
But this is what happens in Russia, where chess is part of their culture. Perhaps we should look at countries more culturally similar to ours. Let’s take a short hop across the North Sea and see what happens in the Netherlands. Most schools and clubs use the Steps Method, written originally in the mid 80s by Cor van Wijgerden and the late Rob Brunia. Although they don’t have the same expectation about the amount of chess children do in the week, their course is very similar to Ehlvest’s Chess Gymnasium in teaching chess slowly, step by step.
Their first step only introduces checkmate half way through. From the introduction: “Learning how to mate is postponed as long as possible. This sounds astonishing and even incredible but up till now, practice has shown that this effect works perfectly.” And, paraphrased from their website, in answer to the question about how long teachers should spend over Step 1:
“As long as possible. The ability to solve the exercises and obtain the certificate does not always correspond to the student’s playing skills. Only then when the student can use the material in his games regularly, should the following step be introduced. It is no use to teach Step 2 to children who fail to capture their opponent’s unprotected pieces in their own games. In the Step 1 Manual you can read the following: The basic material seems to be simple and some trainers manage to complete step 1 within 3 months. That is not the best approach. Essential chess skills such as giving mate require a long learning period. It is better to devote at least a year to the first step to master the basic skills very well (there are always exceptions). The lost time can be easily recovered later.”
They also make the point that the best teachers are not the strong players, who can’t resist the temptation to go too fast, but often classroom teachers who know little more than the basic material themselves. They find it hard, so they understand that the kids will find it hard as well.
In the USA they’re starting to get the right message. Igor Sukhin’s Chess Camp is now the Official Beginner’s Puzzle Book Series of the USCF. Sukhin’s first volume is purely pre-checkmate material: Move, Attack and Capture. “This collection of problems opens a series of a new kind of problem books. Some of the problems in it may seem absurdly simple to experienced chessplayers or coaches. But that isn’t the case – the simplicity of our problems is superficial. If the required attention hasn’t been paid in the past to the development of these kinds of simple problems, that highlights the fact that there are still many blank spots in the matter of how to begin teaching the game of chess. This has to do with the fact that, in every country in the world, these problem books are written by strong practical players, for whom certain subjects seem too simple to be worth any attention at all. Such authors don’t take into account the fact that the earliest stage of instruction deserves closer attention.”
So there you have it. If you’re reading this because you’re teaching chess to your kids, or at a school, this is what you do. Start them slowly, taking a year over learning the moves, emphasising chessboard vision and understanding the concepts of attack and defence. Get them to spend time each day solving simple puzzles. When they’re ready, take them along to a junior chess club where they’ll be able to play serious chess under tournament conditions and receive age-appropriate tuition from teachers who understand education as well as chess.