In Summary

This will be my last post on the problems with junior chess for the foreseeable future, but, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to summarise what I’ve been writing recently.

I’ve been spending the past 15 years telling anyone who’ll listen to me that the best thing we could do to promote and encourage chess in this country would be to abolish after-school and lunchtime chess clubs for children up to the age of 11.

To play chess to adult club standard you need to be able to apply complex logic to chess. Most children will, under normal circumstances, only develop the required cognitive skills at about 11 or 12.

Children who start chess at, say, 7 and who haven’t reached adult club standard or thereabouts when they leave primary school at the age of 11 are likely to give up chess unless they go to a secondary school which is very big on chess.

Children will only reach adult club standard by the age of 11 if their cognitive development is exceptionally advanced or if they are immersed in chess from a fairly early age, either at home, at school, or through a chess academy which is open every day.

Most chess teachers either have an insufficient knowledge of chess or an insufficient knowledge of how young children learn. Young children are active learners: they need to do things, not listen to lectures. You need to start by finding out what they know and build on their knowledge rather than telling them what you know. Standing in front of a demo board showing them a game is great for older and stronger children but will only confuse younger, less experienced players.

Most parents, at least in my area, teach their children the wrong names for the pieces, the wrong rules and incorrect strategy. Because chess is not part of our culture they are unaware of the extent of their ignorance and unwilling to be told about it.

Competitive chess has a poor public image and chess players are seen as anti-social nerds who are probably also mad. So while some parents and schools want their children to learn chess they don’t want them to be good at chess.

The current ethos with regard to childhood, at least among the majority of parents in my area, emphasises taking part rather than being successful, having fun rather than being serious, doing lots of things at a low level rather than excelling at a few things.

Parents in my area see after-school chess clubs as a learning tool, something that might help their children get into the selective secondary school of their choice, or as a cheap child-minding service. They are not prepared to help or support their children beyond playing low-level games with them. There is also a complete misunderstanding about exactly what chess practice entails.

Children are often encouraged to take part in competitions before they’ve learnt all the rules of chess let alone have any understanding of basic tactics and strategy. Chess entrepreneurs encourage this because they make money out of these events.

If I were Prime Minister what I’d do is this:

Set up a national chess course with an appropriate reward system.

Set up a network of individual and team tournaments linking up with the national chess course: if you pass a level of the course you get a ticket to take part in a tournament at the appropriate level.

Set up a network of junior chess clubs operating the national chess course providing outreach to local schools and individual tuition for talented children with supportive parents.

Abolish all junior chess clubs not following the national chess course.

Encourage primary and prep schools who want to take chess seriously and teach all or most of their children to play properly on the curriculum.

Encourage all secondary schools to set up chess clubs and enter teams of children who have passed the first level of the national course into competitions.

But I’m not PM and never will be, so enough of that.

I appreciate that many of my posts here have been very negative, but there’s a lot to be negative about. Veteran chess journalist Leonard Barden, as someone who, along with the late Bob Wade, played such an important part in the English Chess Explosion in the late 1970s and early 1980s, knows more than anyone about the decline in junior chess in the UK. Here’s what he wrote in his chess column in the Guardian on 1 November:

It was all so different in the 1970s Bobby Fischer boom years. Then England had a huge crop of talented juniors, many of whom became grandmasters and masters, but there was a desperate shortage of suitable older players to coach them.

This week, in contrast, England’s juniors have struggled to average 50% in the European Youth championships for under-18s to under-8s at Batumi, Georgia, whereas in the inaugural World Senior over-50 championship at Katenni, Greece, England has the two top seeds, John Nunn and Mark Hebden, with the European champion, Keith Arkell, also among the favourites.

Now, the implication is, we have a huge crop of older players involved in coaching, many of whom learnt their chess in the 1970s boom years, but there are very few talented juniors coming through.

The good news is that I’m currently talking to a few schools and clubs who might possibly be interested in doing things my way.

If anything positive happens I’ll keep you in touch, but now it’s more than time to move onto another subject.

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.