Chess is Not Easy

It was raining the other day and at morning break two girls in Y4 asked if they could do some chess with me at lunchtime if they couldn’t play outside. As it was still wet play I went to their classroom but they no longer wanted to play chess as they were too engrossed in a game of Snakes and Ladders.

Last year Y5 had some spare time at the end of a lesson and some of them decided to play Noughts and Crosses on the whiteboard. Their standard of play was abysmal: they frequently failed to notice their opponent’s threats or that they could complete a line themselves.

I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to do some non-chess classroom teaching at Hampton Court House over the past few years. It’s been eye-opening to see how much difficulty many children of this age (7 to 10) have with understanding simple logical tasks, such as solving very easy 4×4 SuDokus, solving simple word puzzles or simple mathematical tasks. Once you realise this you start asking yourself whether it’s really a good idea to encourage mass participation in competitive chess by children of this age. If your experience of young children playing chess is limited to teaching your own children who may have inherited your chess genes and who have the opportunity to play every day, think again. If your experience of young children playing chess is limited to that undergraded prodigy who beat you in your last weekend congress, think again. Try teaching a class of primary school age children a simple task involving a combination of logic and impulse control and see for yourself how hard many children find it. Go into a primary school chess club where you can give most of the children odds of queen and two rooks and still win easily. Yes, on one level they’re playing chess and it might impress parents and teachers who know little about the game, but in reality most of them are doing little more than the toddler who bangs down some random keys and exclaims “Look Mummy! I’m playing the piano!”. There’s an enormous difference between making legal moves and playing real chess, just as there’s an enormous difference between being able to read and being able to understand what you read, between knowing your times tables off by heart and being able to apply this knowledge elsewhere.

The problem with chess is that it’s deceptively easy to learn the moves, even for young children, but very difficult to learn how to play well. Because of the large number of choices at each turn you need a complex combination of cognitive and noncognitive skills which most young children just don’t have. I suspect that they would gain more academic benefit from learning to master simpler games of strategy with fewer options.

Here’s another thing. I’ve spent much of the last fifty years trying without much success to play chess at a vaguely competent level. I don’t know about you, but I feel insulted when someone suggests that chess is an easy game suitable for very young children. If it really is as trivial as that, why have I spent so long trying and failing to master it? If you knew, as I do, young children with no chess background, you might well think, as I do, that, if you want to promote chess to young children you’d be much better off using mini-games based on chess pieces, just as, for example, the Steps system does, rather than throwing them into chess straight away. Should we really expect children who are fascinated by Snakes and Ladders or who find it difficult to master Noughts and Crosses to play compete games of chess? And is it really a good idea to sell chess to gullible parents and teachers by promoting it as an easy game for young children?

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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.