Chess Homework

The week before last, a studious new member of Richmond Junior Club asked if I could demonstrate some Evans Gambit games. So last week I showed a couple of games from Move Two! (which, incidentally, is just being republished with minor updates) to the lower half of the club, most of whom are among the stronger players in their primary school.

One of the games reached this position, where I asked the class for White’s next move.

None of the group had any idea at all how to go about solving this, so they just shouted out random moves. Occasionally someone would suggest the correct answer, but immediately retract his suggestion thinking it was a blunder. Even telling them it was mate in 2 didn’t help very much and it was some time before someone found the right answer for the right reason.

Next time I have a position like this I’ll probably get someone up to the demo board to work through their answer and demonstrate to them how to go about solving tactical puzzles.

The boy who asked to see the Evans Gambit games carries a copy of Chess Openings for Kids by John Watson and Graham Burgess (I have reservations about this book) with him, but I suspect that, at his current level, he’d be better off spending his time solving tactics puzzles than learning openings.

Quite frankly, there’s little or no point in standing in front of a board demonstrating a Morphy game, a Carlsen game or your own latest masterpiece, or in showing them the Fried Liver Attack or the Lucena Position, if your pupils don’t know how to look at the board or how to think ahead.

The idea that children serious about learning chess should spend 10 minutes or so each day solving tactical puzzles is absolutely standard across much of Europe, from the Steps Method in the Netherlands (which I’ll revisit in a later post) to any number of tactics based courses from Russia.

I have in front of me at the moment 7-year-old Ben from Baku’s chess homework for the week.

He has four pages, each with four composed mate in 2 puzzles. Here’s an example:

Not easy for a seven year old, I think you’ll agree, and as Ben’s parents are not themselves chess players they won’t be able to help very much. But then he’s been solving puzzles (starting with simple one-movers) regularly for two years so it won’t be too hard for him.

When he’s finished that there are two more pages to solve, from a different book, each containing six ‘find the winning move’ puzzles, this time from games rather than composed. I found these a lot easier than the composed problems.

From my experience, very few children here in England do very much of this sort of work at all apart from an occasional photocopied worksheet at the chess club. This, I believe, is why we’re now lagging behind many countries in terms of strength in depth in junior chess.

If you want to use chess as a learning tool in the classroom, that’s fine. If you want to run an after-school chess club to entertain children who are waiting to be picked up from school that’s also fine. But if you want to produce a significant number of good players who take a long term interest in chess you need to get the message across that, especially if children start young, unless they are solving puzzles on a daily basis they will be unlikely to make much progress.

Sadly, I haven’t yet been able to get anyone high up in English chess to listen to me.

(Answers to puzzles: (a) 1. Qf7+! Nxf7 2. Ne6# (b) 1. Bc7! threatening Bg8#, 1.. Rxa1+ 2. Bb1#, 1.. Rxh8 2. Kf2#, 1.. Ra6 2.Bg6#, 1.. Ra5 2. Bf5#, 1.. Ra4 2. Be4#, 1.. Ra2 2. Bc2# . Other bishop moves along the same diagonal fail to Ra7.)

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.