Chess Is Not Fun

Today at Hampton Court House there were no lessons between morning break and lunch. Instead, the students and staff were treated to a ‘cello and piano recital by BBC Young Musician of the Year Laura Van Der Heijden and Martin Bartlett, a piano finalist in the same competition. After hearing compositions by Bach, Liszt and Mendelssohn, Laura and Martin took questions from the floor. Some of the children asked how much they practised. They both said that they tried to do between 4 and 6 hours a day, but when they started it was 15 minutes a day.

Did their parents say “No, we don’t want them to practise. Playing all those scales might not be fun, and if they’re not having fun they might be put off.”? I rather suspect not.

A few weeks ago I had an editorial in a local parenting magazine (circulation about 20,000) advertising my courses based on the sort of step by step method advocated in my previous post. Much to the editor’s surprise the number of enquiries I’ve had as a result of this article, along with an advertisement and listing, has been precisely zero. You remember the schoolboy who believed his grandmaster chess coach told him knights can’t jump? Several parents had expressed to me their concern about the chess facilities at this school. I emailed the Head saying that I had suggestions about how they could make more of their resources. He passed it onto the staff members responsible for clubs, but I heard no more. A few weeks ago I heard from another long-established, successful and high achieving prep school in my area. The pre-prep department (children aged up to 7) wanted someone to run the chess club. I replied that I might be interested in running structured step-by-step courses in small groups. They said they’d phone me to discuss it further but I’ve heard nothing. (I was doing an after-school club for older children at the school several years ago, until they told me they were no longer doing chess. I discovered a few months later that I’d been replaced by a Grandmaster.)

When I hand out worksheets to be done at home, I’ll only get one lot back at the most. If I suggest to parents and schools that children should be doing homework the response is always the same. They throw up their hands in horror and tell me that if their children had to do homework it wouldn’t be fun, and they want their children to have fun playing chess.

Now, I have nothing at all against children having fun playing games with their friends and family. Indeed, it’s an integral part of growing up and a way of developing interpersonal skills as well as some low-level cognitive skills. But I’ll argue in a later post that chess is not the only game that could be used in this way.

This sort of fun is really just something for young children. True satisfaction, for many of us, comes not from this, but from finding a passion and trying to do something as well as we possibly can in the time we have available. This could be chess, just as, for Laura it’s playing the ‘cello and for Martin it’s playing the piano. Or it could be a thousand and one other things. The Hungarian/American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has popularised the concept of Flow: being completely involved in an activity which requires a high skill level and presents a genuine challenge, and has proposed that this is what produces real happiness. Noel Coward put it another way: “Work is more fun than fun”.

So please, can we stop promoting chess as something that’s fun? Instead, we should be promoting it as something that should be approached with the same sort of seriousness with which you’d approach learning the ‘cello or the piano. Something that deserves to be taught in more than just a haphazard way. Something that requires practice to be worthwhile.

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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.