When I complain about the high dropout rate from primary school chess clubs, the defenders of the system tell me it doesn’t matter: they can always return to the game later. I have two problems with this. Firstly, the dropout rate is much higher than it should be. Of course there will always be a high drop-out rate. Children try out many different activities and eventually choose to concentrate on just a few, and that’s how it should be. If I had a dropout rate of 80% in primary school chess clubs I’d be delighted, but I’m not delighted that it’s much closer to 100%. It was good to talk to a headteacher the other day who had identified this problem and was questioning the value they were getting from the GM running their school chess club.
My other problem is that it wouldn’t matter if they dropped out as long as they knew enough about chess to return to the game later, or to teach their children in a meaningful way in 25 or 30 years time, but this is not the case. Anyway, how much do you remember about what you learnt at 7 or 8? Most of the children who drop out of primary school chess clubs have no chessboard vision or understanding of chessboard logic and are leaving pieces en prise every three or four moves. A few years ago I was teaching a boy of secondary school age, and, while I was at his house I’d also give a short lesson to his sister. I’d give her odds of queen and two rooks, and, although she developed her pieces beautifully in the opening, I really had to help her a lot if I wanted to let her win. Imagine my surprise when I was told she’d won a prize for being the best player in her (IM taught) school chess club.
When children come into Hampton Court House from other schools I naturally ask if they play chess. The typical answer from the older children is “I played a bit at my last school but didn’t get very far”: which is exactly what I’d expect. On several occasions I’ve played against children coming into Y7 and mated them in three moves. 1. f4 e5 2. g3 exf4 3. gxf4 Qh4# has happened more than once. Some younger children give me more specific reasons for not having enjoyed chess in their previous schools. There was the dyspraxic boy whose chess teacher at his previous school (an IM) forced very young children who hardly knew how the pieces moved to record their games. There was the boy with Asperger Syndrome, potentially a strong player, who didn’t enjoy his previous school chess club (in New York) because it was too noisy and crowded. There was the quiet and thoughtful boy who excelled at Maths and logical reasoning tasks who had found the lessons (given by a strong player) at a very small club in his previous school too hard to understand.
At this point I should make it clear that I’m specifically talking about after-school or lunchtime chess clubs at schools where children have no other opportunity for chess either at school or at home. I’m not talking about schools which go in for chess in a big way, such as Yateley Manor or Twickenham Prep: what they do is great. Nor am I talking about putting chess on the curriculum as Chess in Schools and Communities is encouraging. That is an entirely different issue and done for a very different purpose, and that too is great. The fact is that primary school chess clubs, the way they are run at present, lead to low standards and only a short-term interest in the game.
They can work, up to a point, in conjunction with a junior chess club, which was how things used to work in Richmond. We’d help schools start up chess clubs, identify the stronger and more serious players, and feed them through to Richmond Junior Club. But eventually we hit a problem: children in Richmond were no longer free on Saturday mornings in the 2000s as they had been ten years previously, due to a combination of increasingly serious and competitive Saturday morning football clubs and most children from Primary Schools having extra tuition to help them pass exams for the selective school of their choice.
We can also deconstruct the UK Chess Challenge in the same way. Don’t get me wrong: the overall concept of the event is brilliant and one can only admire the amount of work put in by Mike Basman and his team. At the lowest level, the children really enjoy winning the badges and mascots in their school clubs. The Terafinal is a really fantastic tournament, especially for the stronger players, with very generous prizes. Superficially, it’s very attractive to encourage the best players from primary school chess clubs to take part in tournaments. While it’s great for the best players, who will be the children getting significant proactive help at home, the others will just be cannon fodder. If the event was really successful we wouldn’t be getting the big dropout rate between Y3 and Y6 in Primary School chess clubs. If it was really successful, secondary school children would be taking chess sets into school and knocking on the door of their Headteacher’s study asking to start a chess club. What actually happens, because we have a system which relies purely on competition rather than combining competition and skills development, is that we’re running tournaments for children who barely know (or in some cases don’t know) how the pieces move, we’re insisting on touch and move, we’re insisting on silence, we’re giving them arbiters, sometimes we’re giving them clocks and ratings. While it works for some children, and while almost all children enjoy the experience, it doesn’t work for most children in terms of helping them to become strong players with more than a passing interest in the game.
So far, my articles have been rather negative in tone: deliberately so. We must first take on board the idea that primary school chess clubs produce children who see chess as purely a game for young kids, who play to a very low standard and lose interest within a year or two. Then we can start looking for alternative, more constructive, ways of introducing children to chess. My next series of posts will look at ways in which we might be able to achieve this aim.