Gone Fishing

Give a man a fish, it’s said, and you feed him for a day. Show him how to catch fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Parents often ask me for a couple of lessons for their children before a forthcoming tournament, and demand that I teach them some openings, or, even worse, some ‘traps’.

When I took over a school chess club from another teacher a few months ago I handed out worksheets in order to find out how the children were thinking and what exactly they knew about chess. Did they understand the importance of material advantage? Were they able to find simple checkmates in one move? (The answer to both questions, for the most part, was ‘No’.) I received emails for parents saying they preferred the previous teacher, who, using a computer and projector, showed them a ‘new move’ every week so the parents and children all thought something had been learnt, while they learnt nothing from worksheets.

One of the ‘new moves’ they’d learnt was Scholar’s Mate. When I tried to make them start their games with 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 several children protested that Nf3 was a bad move ‘because it blocks Scholar’s Mate’.

As I explained when discussing the Fried Liver Attack a few weeks ago, teaching ‘new moves’ to children is dangerous because they lack the experience and skills to contextualise the information in a meaningful way, and will either attempt to play the ‘new move’ at every opportunity or fail to play it in appropriately analogous positions.

Yet children, parents and teachers all have a fundamental misunderstanding of how to teach chess to young children. You need to start by teaching visual skills: how to look at the board (many children play for years without realising, because nobody tells them, that you have to look at the board at all), logical skills (understanding the fundamental logic of the game: other things being equal, superior force usually wins), thinking skills (looking for forcing moves: checks, captures and threats, how to consider alternatives, how to make decisions). By taking this approach to chess you gain in two ways: children are more likely to become good players because they get the basics right, and they learn transferrable skills which will help them in other aspects of life.

Teaching a young child a ‘new move’ is like giving a man a fish. You’ll teach him how to play one position but that’s all. If anything you’ll confuse him because he’ll play the same move in a totally different position where it doesn’t apply. If you teach him a new thinking skill he’ll be able to apply it in any position, just as if you teach a man to fish he’ll know what to do every day in order to enjoy his fish supper.

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.