Chess Openings for Heroes

I’ve often been asked to recommend an opening book for kids, and my answer, for the past 40 years or so, has always been “I haven’t written it yet”. Now is my chance.

There are not many opening books written for players at this level, and the few that do exist tend to fall into two categories: those that give you a couple of pages on each opening and those that teach a specific opening repertoire. I don’t much care for the first type, while the second type is fine if the repertoire suits you but not if it doesn’t. I’m also very suspicious of those chess teachers who get all their pupils to play the same openings. Different strokes for different folks.

There are also two conflicting theories about what openings you should teach children. The traditional theory, popularised in the old Soviet Union, was that children should play open games, including gambits. Excelling at tactics, they argued, is the key to becoming a strong player, and the way to do this is to choose tactical openings. They believed that children should only play internally within their coaching groups until they are in their teens or are already playing to a high standard. That theory is still in use in places today: I’ve written before about my friends, whose son learnt his chess in Baku from a lady they described as an ‘old Stalinist’.

But most chess teachers in the West will appreciate that children enjoy and benefit from playing in competitions from an early age. It’s not so much fun, though, if you lose your games quickly because of tactical errors, so other teachers teach anti-tactics openings. Their pupils might play one of the ‘triangle’ systems with White (Colle/London/Torre) and meet 1. e4 with the Scandinavian or Caro-Kann. Of course they may well be spending a lot of time practising tactics at home.

My views, as usual, are somewhere between the two, although I lean more towards the idea that children should start by playing tactical openings. One danger of this is that children at this age and level will learn through memory rather than genuine understanding. So if you show them the Fried Liver Attack they’ll play Ng5 and, if allowed, Nxf7 at any opportunity because ‘you told me it was a good move’. If you show them Légal’s Mate they’ll go round moving pinned knights whether or not there’s a mate at the end.

Which is why I recommend that children start by mastering tactics (which they will be able to do by reading Checkmates for Heroes and Chess Tactics for Heroes) before they do much in the way of learning actual openings as opposed to general principles. It’s also why my book is more about metatheory than theory. Learning openings is not about memorising sequences of moves, nor is it about setting traps (“My son has a tournament coming up: can you teach him some traps?”).

So, assuming that our readers understand basic tactics and know how to think ahead, we’re going to look at typical tactical ideas (queen forks, tactics on the e-file etc) which happen across a variety of openings. With this groundwork, the open games starting 1. e4 e5, will all fit into place and make sense.

When we reach the currently popular Spanish and Italian type positions where White plays c3 and d3 early on we’re at the transition point between tactics and strategy.

Before we move onto other openings we’ll look at a lot of strategic ideas: knight outposts, rooks on open files, for example, and, very specifically, pawn formations. We’ll consider what makes a good (or bad) pawn formation and explain the vital concept of the pawn break.

With this understanding, albeit at a fairly rudimentary level, in place, our students will be able to see that the moves of other openings actually make sense rather than just being a random sequence of moves. My view is that, at this stage of children’s development, they should try out lots of different openings. When they’re a bit stronger they will be able to decide which openings they like playing the most and specialise in those. One reason is that I’m very big on teaching chess culture, and a basic understanding of all major openings will help you enjoy and understand chess history.

So there you have it: Chess Openings for Heroes will be an elementary opening book quite unlike anything else on the market.

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.