Child Genius

Yesterday evening I watched the first episode of Channel 4’s Child Genius, a programme in which exceptionally gifted young children compete in a series of tests to identify the ‘brainiest child in the country’.

There were some seriously scary parents on view in the first episode, parents who are devoting their lives to proving a point, that their child should excel in their chosen discipline. It’s parents like these who, in the eyes of many, give child prodigies a bad name.

Of course these programmes are set up by producers who have a specific agenda. I’m sure most of the parents are much less extreme than some of those featured last night, and are doing their best to encourage children with an exceptional natural talent.

We had two children in Richmond Junior Club who between them broke a lot of age records, who both had parents who were extremely encouraging, but not over pushy, whose children genuinely enjoyed chess rather than being forced into it. As it happened, one of them, Murugan Thiruchelvam, eventually decided to do other things with his life, while the other, Luke McShane, continued playing, but as an amateur rather than a professional.

The other day I received an email from parents (presumably not themselves chess players) looking for a chess club where their three-year-old twins could learn the game. I replied explaining why their children were far too young to learn in such an environment. They replied that they understood, but their Korean neighbours were teaching their children (of the same age) to play chess so they felt they ought to arrange lessons for their children as well.

So, what then of Magnus Carlsen, the highest rated player in the history of the game? Did he start at this age? Let’s find out.

I’ve just been re-reading Simen Agdestein’s book about Carlsen’s early career, first published 10 years ago under the title Wonderboy, and recently republished as How Magnus Carlsen Became the Youngest Chess Grandmaster.

Magnus’s father Henrik is himself a strong amateur whose rating has been as high as 2095. Being born into a chess environment is a big advantage for children who start young. Henrik was keen for his son to take up his favourite game. It was clear from an early age that Magnus had exceptional gifts. At the age of two he could complete jigsaw puzzles with more than 50 pieces. At the age of four he was constructing Lego models intended for children up to ten years older. He also had an extraordinary memory. By the time he was five he knew by heart the area, population, flag and capital city of every country in the world. So Henrik thought he might well have a potential chess prodigy on his hands and taught his son how the pieces moved.

Magnus had no problem learning the moves but understanding the game was another thing entirely. Henrik would play with just his king and pawns while his son started with his whole army, but Magnus showed no comprehension of what was happening in the games, so Henrik dropped the idea. He tried again a year or two later, but again with no success. Even at the age of eight he was still losing to Scholar’s Mate.

But then, very suddenly, something happened. Here’s Simen Agdestein:

“Magnus began to sit by himself and shuffle the pieces. He could sit for hours moving the pieces, in known and unknown patterns, finding combinations and repeating games and positions that his father had shown him.”

Shortly afterwards he played in his first tournament, scoring 6½/11 in the youngest age group of the Norwegian Championships, and from then on played in competitions regularly, making dramatic progress.

Teach your children the moves at home when they’re young if you want, but don’t forget even Magnus Carlsen didn’t start taking chess seriously and playing in competitions until he was eight. If your children don’t have his natural talent, it could well be that the best age to encourage them to take the game seriously will be rather later than that. Magnus didn’t suffer from starting real chess at eight so there’s no reason at all why I should run chess classes for three-year-olds as some parents seem to expect.

So why do we encourage early years chess? Teachers do so because they’re hoping to make their reputation by discovering a prodigy. Tournament organisers do so because they think they’ll get more entries and make more money. Parents with no knowledge about chess do so because they’ve heard the message from teachers and organisers in the media and know no better.

Let’s get away from the absurd idea that all children should start chess very young and get across a more sensible message: that chess is a fantasatic game, the best game in the world, many of us would agree, but a game best suited to older children, not younger children.

Next time I’ll look at what exactly we can expect from children of different ages as they learn and play chess.

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.