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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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.