Elitism in Junior Chess

In an article in the November British Chess Magazine, GM Aleksandar Colovic bemoans the declining standards in junior chess.

Colovic starts by considering various projects involved with putting chess on the curriculum in schools. I share his reservations about this, but not for the same reasons.

“…there is one thing”, says Colovic, “that bothers me. … “It is the fact that all these activities are not aimed at producing the next Garry Kasparov or Judit Polgar. … Chess is seen as part of a person’s culture, not as a possible future profession.”

This is where I have a problem. Junior chess has, over the past 30 years or so, become increasingly elitist, and this attitude is one of the reasons for this. In my view the main purpose of any competition-based junior chess programme should not be to produce professional chess players, but to develop chess culture and produce hobby players with a lifelong passion for chess. Specifically, it should be to maximise the number of young people reaching, say, 1500 strength, not to maximise the number of young people reaching 2500 strength. I like to consider the chess playing population as a pyramid. At the top you get the likes of Garry Kasparov and Judit Polgar, Magnus Carlsen and Hou Yifan. As you go down you get grandmasters, international masters, national masters, down to the mass of 1500 strength (or below) players at the bottom. Unless there are amateur hobby players putting their time and money into chess the whole edifice will collapse.

Hobby players are just as important as professional players. They put money into chess: they join clubs, enter competitions, subscribe to online chess sites, buy boards, sets, clocks, books, software and DVDs. They take lessons with professionals, either online or in person. They put time into chess as well. They become club secretaries, treasurers, match captains, administrators, tournament organisers, arbiters. They pass on their passion for chess to their children. Perhaps they volunteer as teachers in their chess club or their children’s school. Some of them will develop an interest in other aspects of chess such as problems and endgame studies. Some will collect chess books or chess sets. Some will become chess historians. Some, if they’re financially successful in their career, will become chess benefactors, sponsoring events which will enable the professionals to earn a living. Without a strong base of hobby players there will be no market for professionals.

I believe we have our priorities totally wrong. We should be measuring teachers’ success, not by the ratings of their pupils, but by the amount of enjoyment they get out of the game and the length of time they continue to play. I’d much rather one of my pupils enjoyed playing chess at 1500 level for the next 50 years than became a disillusioned 2500 grandmaster stuck with chess because he has no other skills or qualifications (and any chess player active in social media will be able to name several of these).

I believe we should also be wary of promoting chess using dubious claims for its perceived extrinsic benefits and instead focus on the game’s intrinsic qualities. Chess is the greatest game in the world. Quite apart from the excitement of playing, or even watching, chess, it possesses an extraordinary aesthetic beauty. It offers its devotees the opportunity for travel and friendship with like-minded people throughout the world. It has an endlessly fascinating history and heritage going back centuries. It has an unrivalled body of literature covering every conceivable aspect of the game. It has no need for dubious and unverifiable it that chess helps prevent dementia. If you promote it as something that ‘makes kids smarter’ parents will take what they can get out of it for a year or two before taking them out of chess and into some other ‘improving’ pastime.

Let’s consider the nature of chess. We all know how hard it is to play chess even reasonably well. What skills do children require to become proficient players? They need exceptional concentration and impulse control: without these skills they will make one-move oversights every few moves. They need to be able to confident at handling and manipulating complex multi-dimensional abstract information. They need to be able to consider the position from their opponent’s perspective. They need the ability to self-reflect: to understand where they made a mistake and work out how to put it right. They need emotional maturity to cope with the demands of competitive play. If they can appreciate the beauty and heritage of chess they’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of the game. All these are skills we associate more with older children than younger children. Everything about chess screams out ‘adult game’, not ‘children’s game’.

Perhaps you see now why I describe junior chess as elitist. The only children who will really understand chess at a young age are the exceptionally bright kids with extremely supportive parents. Yes, it’s among these children that you’ll find your potential Kasparovs and Polgars, but at the same time many of them will drop out, choosing to concentrate on their academic career with will lead to a job more worthwhile and lucrative than being a 2500 grandmaster. And those children who don’t have an exceptional talent, whose parents are, often for the best of reasons, unable or unwilling to support them, will find it hard to make significant progress. If we want to combat elitism in chess we need to promote chess for older children, and not just for children in top academic schools, so that children from all backgrounds can enjoy 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.