One of the questions most asked by my student’s parents is “how can my child quickly become a better chess player? Many of the parents asking this specific question are referring to their Kindergarten age children attending my classes. The parents of my students expect results. I had one parent ask me why their Kindergartener didn’t have a better grasp of opening positions! I was speechless. When I was first asked these questions I was new to teaching chess and a bit shocked that the parents of children so young would have such unrealistic expectations. Of course, many of these parents thought that chess would make their child smarter and if their child didn’t take to chess like a duck to water, it was a reflection on the family gene pool.

I decided to do some research into the biggest factors affecting a child’s ability to play real chess (as opposed to simply pushing pawns and pieces around the board) and one problem stood head and shoulders above the rest, concentration. While there are a plethora of small problems that affect a beginner’s ability to play good chess, the biggest overall problem standing in the way of chess success for younger players is concentration. Whether it’s a child or adult, a lack of concentration almost always ensures a lost game. Getting younger players to concentrate can be a daunting task at best. However, I tried a number of methods to increase my student’s concentration levels and found a rather unique way that works quite well, creating a bond between the student and the pieces on the board.

You cannot play good chess unless you are fully concentrating on the game. This means putting everything else out of your thought process except playing chess. Young children’s minds are filled with disjointed or fragmented thoughts as they take in the world around them. Because they’re so young, they haven’t developed the ability to focus on a complicated task such as a game of chess. It is unrealistic to expect a six year old to have the mental discipline to shut out the entire world and focus on their chess game. However, I have found a way to bond children to each game they play while they’re learning the art of focusing on the task at hand. Here’s how it works:

I start with an analogy: “A game of chess is like a movie, a movie that you (the student) are making. This means that you have to create characters and a story. Therefore, I want you to name your characters (the pawns and the pieces).” My students will come up with all sorts of interesting names for the pawns and pieces. The “e” pawn becomes Edward while the Kingside Knight might be named “Mr. Horsey.” The idea is for each student to build up a relationship with the material on the board. Young children (based on my observations) tend to care a bit more whether their pieces are lost during a game if they have even the smallest bond with them.

After the pieces are named, it’s time to get to the interesting part, the story. Because many of my students are so young, I offer them a starting point for their stories. “It was the morning of the great battle between the Kingdoms of Jacob and Bayden (the names of two of my students). King Jacob (playing white) has decided to start this epic drama by sending one of his foot soldiers out onto the battlefield. The white King meets with his trusty “e” pawn and they secretly plan their first move.” The idea is to get my students emotionally invested in their pawns and pieces as well as the moves they make. After a little effort, pawns and pieces are no longer lifeless hunks of plastic, they have identities and my students have a bond with them.

I have a contest for the best chess story as told by the game being played. The stories can have drama, excitement and/or humor, the crazier the better. Many of my students reduce the rate at which they hang pieces because they have developed a relationship with them. Concentration greatly improves because my students are busy creating a story out of the game they’re playing so they are forced to focus. Of course, they don’t see it as being forced to focus. They see it as a chance to create a miniature world on the chessboard, a world in which they control the story.

Focus is the key point of this particular exercise. Children tend to focus on whatever they’re interested (or obsessed) in. Children can also demonstrate a great deal of focus when they love something. Watch a child playing a video game and you’ll see great focus, even at the youngest of ages. Why do children focus so greatly on their video games? Because many of them have a plot and back story that creates an exciting world within the game. Add to this a cast of interesting game characters and you’ll find any child captivated by that game. If you take the idea of plot/back story, add some colorful characters into the mix and apply this to chess, you’ll find younger children paying a lot more attention to their game. As they become older they will start to drop the story line and get on with the business of playing good chess without a back story. However, for young children, the idea of a fantasy world contained within the 64 squares of the chessboard is intoxicating.

Rather than give simple game annotation for the demonstration game below, I’m going to have you create a story around the game. Here are the rules: Each pawn and piece should have a name. Each move made should become part of the story line. Here’s an example: A brave little pawn named Edward (white’s e pawn) raised his hand when the white King asked for volunteers to start the battle. The King bestowed this task to Edward, who promptly marched out to e4. Edward jumped with joy because he alone controlled the board’s center. That is until black’s e pawn, Eugene, appeared on e5. Edward cried out for help. Suddenly, he heard the sound of a horse’s hoofs and the clanking of armor. The white Knight rode onto f3 and announced “I am here to protect you young Edward!” Now it’s your turn!

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).