Chess for Goldfish

Here’s a game played a couple of months ago between two of Richmond Junior Club’s less experienced members.

You’ll see a lot of typical mistakes. They exhibit the goldfish syndrome, thinking only in the moment, oblivious of what happened a few moves ago, they only look at part of the board, not the whole board, they miss backward diagonal captures and they fail to look ahead.

If the game remains simple, children at this level can give the impression of playing a decent game, but when things get complicated, as they did here, both players will make a lot of oversights.

1. e4 e5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. Nc3 Bb4
4. Bb5 d6
5. d3 Bg4
6. Be3 a6
7. a3?

A typical mistake that this level where children are tempted to counter-attack instead of moving the threatened piece. Either Ba4 or Bxc6+ would have been fine.

7… Ba5?

Black misses his chance to win a piece with 7… Bxc3+ 8. bxc3 axb5. I’d seen this position while watching them playing so was particularly keen to go through the game afterwards. Both children were wide eyed with amazement at the idea that you could actually look one and a half moves ahead in this way.

8. Ba4 h6
9. h3 Bh5
10. b4 b5

This time it’s Black who prefers a counter-attack to moving his threatened bishop. ‘Copycat’ moves of this nature are very popular at lower levels of children’s chess.

11. Rb1

White chooses a seemingly random move. Instead he could have won a pawn: 11. Nxb5 axb5 12. Bxb5 Nge7 13. bxa5 Rxa5 14. a4.

11… Bb6

Black spots that his bishop is threatened.

12. Nd5?

But now both players seem to have forgotten that the white bishop is in danger. They both consider only the last move rather than looking at the whole board. Instead 12. Bb3 was equal.

12… Ba7?

Black doesn’t notice he can take the white bishop.

13. g4 Bg6
14. g5? hxg5

For the next few moves both players are looking only at the kingside where there’s quite a lot going on. Being able to scan the whole board is too hard for players at this level, but it’s an important lesson they’ll have to learn if they are going to make significant progress.

15. Bxg5? Nf6?

Black could win a piece here with 15… f6, when both white bishops are under attack.

16. Bh4

One of White’s problems is that he tends to play the occasional random and seemingly pointless move. When I asked him why he told me it was because (and lower level primary school age players often think like this) ‘if he takes my bishop I’ll take his rook’.

16… Bh5

In fact Black can, and should, take the rook: 16… Rxh4 17. Nxh4 Nxd5 18. exd5 Qxh4 19. dxc6 (19. Qf3 Nd4 20. Qg3 Qh5 21. Qg4 bxa4) 19… Qxf2#. At this level, though, you can’t expect players to see this far ahead.

But this move is also good, as was 16… bxa4 (yes, it’s still there and still nobody’s noticed). White’s last few moves have just created weaknesses.

17. Rg1

White wants to threaten the g-pawn, but now Black can win most easily by playing Nd4 when White can’t defend the pinned knight on f3.

I was watching the game again at this point. Black picked up his king intending to castle, but then changed his mind (rightly so because 17… O-O 18. Bxf6 is winning for White), and panicked. 17… Kf8 was winning but instead he played…

17… Kd7?
18. Rxg7

Undermining the defence of the pinned knight on f6. Suddenly White’s right back in the game. As it happens, Black’s best move is to play 18… Nxd5 when he gets a lot of pieces for the queen. At this point, though, Black took a look round the board – and suddenly noticed that he could capture the bishop on a4.

18… bxa4?

Unfortunately for Black this is exactly the wrong time to capture the bishop.
White can now win by playing the simple 19. Nxf6+. Fortunately for Black, though, White played…

19. Rxf7+??

Another typical mistake, not just at this level. It’s often said that backward diagonal moves are the easiest to overlook and here White does just that.

19… Bxf7
20. Nxf6+ Ke6?

Black’s a rook up and just has to keep his king safe. At this level children tend to play the first legal move they see when they’re in check rather than considering the alternatives. 20… Kc8 is the way to go here. Ke6 looks – and is – very scary.

21. Nd5

The position is, not unexpectedly, too complicated for both players. This move loses because Black can take twice on h4 after which he’s threatening mate (don’t forget that bishop lurking on a7). Instead White could win by playing 21. Ng5+ Kxf6 22. Qf3+ (discovered checks with the knight win the queen, but not the game) when he’s a rook down but has a winning attack.

21… Rxh4
22. Nxh4 Qxh4
23. Nxc7+ Kd7
24. Nxa8

Overlooking Black’s mate threat but by now Black was winning anyway.

24… Qxf2#

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 ( or 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 ( 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.