First Things First

The other week I was talking to a boy at Richmond Junior Club. He’s an older boy, in his first year at a highly regarded selective secondary school, but is fairly new to chess and has only recently moved up from the Novices Group.

I’d just looked through a game in which he’d lost most of his pieces and resigned in about a dozen moves. I then played a game with him, helping him a bit. He made a lot of highly intelligent and knowledgeable comments about positional chess, but the idea that you should be very careful not to lose your pieces and check that your intended move is safe before playing it seemed new to him.

The following week I was playing a boy who was new to the club. He was beating everyone at his primary school club and, quite rightly, wanted something more challenging. We played a game and eventually reached a position where I (with black) had an extra pawn, a big pawn centre and two bishops pointing at his castled king against two knights. He told me that he wasn’t going to move his knight from g3 because it would allow a two bishop sacrifice. There was one problem with this: we’d exchanged queens so there was no way I’d be able to mate him after giving up both my bishops.

How often do double bishop sacrifices occur, anyway? Round about once in 20,000 games, at a rough guess. As Dan Heisman would say, studying this won’t give you a lot of bang for your bucks. It’s important to know about the idea, but more because it’s part of chess culture than because it’s of very much practical use.

I spoke to the same boy again the following week. I explained that sacrifices happen very rarely in real life. When I told him this I could see his face fall a million miles. In 1542 games on my personal database I can recall winning only one game by a (very obvious) queen sacrifice and one game by a Greek Gift sacrifice (which was so strong it caused immediate resignation). I can’t, off the top of my head, recall losing any games in this way. He told me he’d won a game with the two bishop sacrifice himself, which I don’t believe. It was more likely a two bishop blunder. Children who only watch videos about sacrifices often think that ‘sacrifice’ is just another word for losing a piece, and, if they accidentally leave their queen en prise they’ll describe it as a sacrifice.

Another boy who was watching quoted something from a video about Mikhail Tal throwing all his pieces away. Well, yes, sometimes, but only in a small proportion of his games. But a) he was a risk taker by nature b) he had enough experience to know whether or not he had practical or theoretical compensation for the lost material and c) he was a genius. A third boy then, inevitably, mentioned the Fishing Pole Trap. To be fair we were looking at the Exchange Lopez variation with 5… Bg4 6. h3 h5 at the time, and they all got the idea that, while the Fishing Pole was just a trap, this was a much better way of using the same idea.

I see this over and over again: kids who have watched videos about, or perhaps been taught about relatively advanced (and sometimes relatively unimportant) concepts before they’ve grasped the fundamental point of chess: that (other things being equal) SUPERIOR FORCE (usually) WINS.

If you continually watch videos about sacrificial attacks without knowing how to win with an extra pawn, let alone with an extra piece, you’ll end up very confused about chess. Kids will often tell me that pawns don’t matter, or even that it doesn’t matter if you lose a bishop or a knight because you can’t get checkmate with just a minor piece against a king. They have neither the experience or the cognitive maturity to prioritise or contextualise the information they’ve learnt. In books and videos, of course, sacrifices always win, which is why we show them, but in real life we probably reject about three quarters of the sacrifices we consider because they seem to be unsound.

Likewise I frequently meet children who have watched videos about openings which are either not very good or too advanced for them. (“My dad’s got this brilliant new opening. It wins every time. It’s called the Latvian Gambit!”) This is one of the problems with internet chess instruction. Firstly, there’s a lot of bad information out there. Secondly, even if you’re using a reputable website you might get confused if you watch videos explaining difficult topics before you’ve mastered simple topics.

My belief is that chess tuition, especially for younger children, should be structured in a logical way. You learn a simple topic, master it through practice, and only then move onto the next topic. Of course there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be working on different topics relating to different aspects of the game in parallel. Of course we want to demonstrate brilliant sacrifices from time to time (and you’ll find lots of them in Checkmates for Heroes and Chess Tactics for Heroes) but the concept of the sacrifice needs to be explained correctly and put into context. We also need to teach them how to win endings when they’re a pawn ahead. We also need to teach them how to put pieces onto good squares to make tactics more likely. You’ll recall Spielmann said something to the effect that he understood Alekhine’s sacrifices well enough, but not how he reached positions where he could play them.

I quoted Dan Heisman a couple of weeks ago. I’ll do so again, in case you missed it.

“In math it would be obvious that you want to learn to multiply before doing geometry or trigonometry. But in chess so many worry about subtle things before mastering important basics like how to consistently make safe moves, or avoiding trades when behind material.”

This is one reason why I’d like to see a proper structured national or international chess course which ensures that students learn these important basics before moving on to harder topics.

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. Richard is a published author and his books can be found at Amazon.