Children and Studying

If you want to get good at chess, you have to put work into it, namely in the form of studying the game’s principles. Unfortunately, living in a society that values instant gratification, we often avoid hobbies or pastimes that require serious effort. Many chess playing adults tend to learn only what is necessary to make a slight improvement in their game. Most adults work so their free time is limited which, in turn, limits the time they have to study. Children face an even great obstacle when it comes to learning chess. That obstacle is the video game. Let me explain.

I play video games now and again so I speak with a little authority on the subject. With video games, the only way to improve your skill set is to play the game over and over. Video games do not have a method of study you can employ to get better at playing them. You simply play the game over and over until you get better (or give up). The majority of my young students are video game players. When they first started their classes with me, they thought of chess and video games as being in the same category; games. They were preconditioned by their video games to approach improvement in chess by simply playing the game over and over. The idea of studying a game in a systematic way was foreign to them.

Today, my students actually embrace the idea of studying and ask for homework. When a student enters one of my classes, I make sure the parents know that work outside the classroom is necessary if their child want to get better at chess. I make a point of explaining to the parents that my reasons for giving homework are not Machiavellian on my part. No, my reasoning is simple: Children become frustrated easily and this frustration can lead to a child giving up on something they truly enjoy, such as chess. With students and parents alike, I use a music analogy:

When I was about fourteen years old, I decided that I was going to make a name for myself as a guitar player. I was determined to see my face on an album in the local record store. That was the plan! I had studying classical piano from a very young age so I knew the musician’s secret weapon for success, practice. Therefore, I locked myself in my room for a few years and taught myself guitar. By the age of seventeen, I was playing and touring in bands and had penned my first minor college radio hit (the first song I wrote). The song did well on the regional charts and I went on from there. My student’s parents, if they lived in San Francisco long enough, knew my name as a musician so they took what I had to say seriously. Study and practice. Study and practice!

When I start each class session, we briefly discuss how to get better at playing a musical instrument. Of course the discussion revolves around working at your craft by studying how to play and then practicing what you’ve learned. I had a student come to the first day of chess class in a t-shirt with my bands name on the front and an image of me playing guitar on the back. After the above opening session discussion, the student in question asked me if you really had to work that hard to get better at something. Knowing he took guitar lessons, I asked him if he practiced his guitar everyday. He said he did because his playing sounded terrible if he didn’t. I told him that the same idea applied to chess. Mastering the guitar would allow him to create art with his instrument and mastering chess would allow him to create art on the chess board. He seemed intrigued by this thought.

I poll my students at the start of every session and the majority of them either play a musical instrument or play a sport. The bottom line: both require some method of organized study followed by practice. However, just because there are similarities between learning chess and learning an instrument (or sport), doesn’t mean you’re going to get your students to throw themselves wholly into the study of chess! Rule one for me, lead by example.

I put a great deal of time into studying chess. I do it because I love the game and the more I study, the more secrets the game reveals to me. However, telling children or teenagers that the mystic secrets of the game of Kings will be revealed if they hunker down and hit the books isn’t enough. Therefore, at the start of every class, I say “guys, you’re not going to believe was I discovered in my studies last night. This is truly mind boggling and I’m not sure I can even show it to you.” The key point here is the build up. I get them pumped up to the point where they want to know what brilliant secret I learned in my chess studies. Do I share with them the greatest chess secret ever? Actually, we proceed with our regularly scheduled lesson. However, it isn’t just any old chess lesson, it’s a long lost Russian Grandmaster’s secret suddenly discovered in my studies. In actually, it might be an introduction to Knight forks or the dreaded double discovered check. The point is, it’s an adventure. I share my enthusiasm and the personal homework I’ve done with my students. Of course, the studying I’m doing is a bit more complicated than that of my students but the basic concepts are the same.

I also do any homework in the form of workbooks and handouts my students do. Yes, every year, I sit with a pencil in one hand and a workbook in the other, doing the same work I ask my students to do. Students will ask me why I bother doing their homework (since I know it already) and I tell them this, “I would never ask you to do something I didn’t do myself!”

I also use a bit of an incentive program. The more studying outside of class my students do, in the form of workbooks and handouts, the more one on one playing time they can earn with me. There is nothing wrong with a bit of incentive. Of course, my students start seeing progress because they’re studying chess outside of class so they often conclude that a bit of study can be a good thing. While it doesn’t work with every child and I did have one parent comment that my methods were on par with a television evangelist (my feathers are still ruffled over that comment), it has served the majority of my students well.

If you’re going to ask students to do outside work, make it an adventure and give them reasons for doing so that they can relate to. Well, time to go do some studying myself. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).