Checkmates for Heroes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.