Choices

In these days where children expect instant gratification, where quick decisions are often valued above in-depth thinking, where children are more likely to be hunters than farmers, it’s increasingly difficult to get many children to slow down and think before playing their move.

Many years ago, well-meaning teachers used to advise children to sit on their hands. In my experience the only effect this had, in many cases, was that they would stare at the ceiling for a few minutes, forget the move they’d intended, and play something random instead.

In order to slow down, children need to do two things, one chess-related and one not. They need to learn to control their impulses – yes, sit on your hands, mentally count to ten or whatever. But they also need to learn how to develop both depth and breadth of chess vision. Looking further ahead and considering more (or better) candidate moves. There are many books and websites which provide excellent practice in learning to think further ahead. (The problem I have with most of them is that they focus on tactics rather than calculation, but that’s perhaps the subject of another post.) It’s not so easy, though, to improve your breadth of vision. Children will naturally tend to play the first move they think of, as long as it looks OK. If you ask them why they played A they’ll give you a reasonable answer, but if you ask why they played A rather than B they’ll look at you blankly.

A former colleague at Richmond Junior Club developed a training technique to help children develop this skill. He called it Choices. What he’d do for the stronger RJCC members was this. He’d select a game of about 40 moves in which the winner didn’t make any obviously inferior moves. He’d prepare scoresheets by drawing a vertical line in the Black column and labelling the resulting three columns A, B and C. He’d then announce the name of the opening and invite the students to make three choices for each move. They’d write the move they thought was best under A, the second best move under B and the third best move under C. They’d score three points if their first choice was played in the game, two points if their second choice was played, and one point if their third choice was played. We’d tally the points at the end and identify the winner.

Of course there’s an element of luck in this as there will often be more than one equally good move, and in the opening the main line might not be selected. For less experienced players you’d want to start with a shorter game, maybe 20 moves, and only offer them two rather than three choices. Alternatively, you might not want to start at the beginning of the game, or even, for endgame training, only do the last 20 moves or so. The concept can be tweaked in a number of ways depending on the needs of your students.

What we found was that at first students would think of a move and write it down in column A, then think of another move and write it down in column B. By that point the weaker players would have had enough and would often write down a totally random move in column C. We’d find that most of the participants scored a lot more first choices than second choices and few if any third choices. Instead we’d encourage them to think of three moves before writing anything down, then mentally put them in order of preference.

Repeating this exercise will assist students in identifying and prioritising candidate moves and thus enable them to make better decisions at the chessboard.

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.