Hunters and Farmers

Imagine, I ask my pupils, that you were a caveman living in the Stone Age. You’d have a choice of two jobs. You could be a hunter or a farmer. Which would you prefer? I don’t need to know very much about them to predict which children will choose each job.

Now the two jobs require very different skill sets. The hunter has to think and act fast, have quick reactions, make snap judgements. Otherwise, the wolf or the bear will have run away, and there’ll be no meat to go with the vegetables grown by the farmer.

The farmer, on the other hand, uses long-term planning to determine which crops to grow, when to plant them, when and how much to water them. If he gets it wrong, the crops will fail and there will be no vegetables to accompany the meat provided by the hunter.

We might see chess as a ‘farmer’ game rather than as a ‘hunter’ game, requiring deep thought rather than speedy decisions. But the slower you play the more likely you are to get into time trouble, at which point you’ll need to switch into ‘hunter’ mode. Anyone who’s played bullet chess on the Internet will also be aware that this is very much a ‘hunter’ game rather than a ‘farmer’ game.

Looking at chess in a slightly different way, we can also see the hunter as the tactician, quick to strike when the opportunity arises, and the farmer as the strategist, devising long-term plans.

I’ve recently started teaching two boys: both good but not brilliant, similar age and playing strength. One, like the majority of my private pupils over the years, is a hunter. If I set up a tactical puzzle for him he’ll reply instantly with the first move that comes to mind, right or wrong. The other boy, though, is a farmer: if I set up the same puzzle he’ll think intently for some time before coming up with a solution.

In my book Chess for Kids, Sam and Alice represent Hunter and Farmer beginners. Sam is impulsive and chooses his move without any thought, while Alice is indecisive and finds it hard to know what to do. Boys, generally speaking, are more likely to be hunters and girls to be farmers. In the days when I was running junior tournaments, it was always the girls whose games were the last to finish, not because they were thinking deeply about the position, but because they couldn’t decide which move to make.

The hunter/farmer analogy was first proposed by the American author and broadcaster Thom Hartmann as a model for the origins of ADHD, which might be considered in some cases (I have a lot more to say about this to anyone who’s interested) extreme ‘hunter’ behaviour. My view, for what it is worth, is that the popularity of computer games has a lot to do with the increasing proportion of ‘hunters’ as compared to ‘farmers’. If you’re playing a shoot-’em-up computer game you need to be a hunter, to act and react quickly and zap the aliens before they get you. Reading a book, on the other hand, is very much a ‘farmer’ activity. It’s no surprise that my ‘hunter’ pupils usually tell me they prefer playing computer games while my ‘farmer’ pupils usually tell me they prefer reading books.

So, if you’re teaching private pupils you need to be aware whether they are hunters or farmers in order to direct their thinking so that they both end up in the same place. You have to help the hunters to control their impulses, to consider alternatives and check their calculations before making a move: and encourage the farmers to be more decisive, to zero in on the most important factors of the position and decide which moves to consider. These are among the lessons that Sam, the ‘hunter’ and Alice, the ‘farmer’ have to learn as they develop and mature, as people as well as chess players, though the narrative of Chess for Kids.

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.