King and Rook Checkmates

What I often do when playing young children who are lacking in confidence is head for an overwhelmingly won ending and turn the board round to let them win.

I was playing a boy at a school chess club the other day and duly turned the board round when I had a rook and lots of pawns against a few pawns. On swapping the positions my king soon captured my opponent’s pawns and, when I captured his last pawn we reached this position, with Black to move:

I explained to my opponent that he could mate me in two moves by playing a king move, and, more by luck than judgement, he was able to find it.

At the end of the club at this school I usually do a quick 10-minute lesson on the demo board for children who have finished their tournament games. I set up this position and asked if the students could find the mate in 2 (being careful to explain exactly what a mate in 2 was). There was one boy, the strongest player in the club, who had just missed out on qualifying for the Delancey UK Chess Challenge Gigafinals at the weekend, had some idea how to go about trying to work out the answer, but the rest of the class were unable to do anything other than making wild guesses.

I then changed the position slightly:

Again, they had the same difficulty trying to find the mate in 2 for Black. When they eventually found the answer I made another slight change:

When our strongest player found Rc6 I asked the whole class how many different answers there were to this question. At first they just made random guesses (2? 3? 22?) and I told them it wasn’t a guessing game: they had to work it out. Finally, someone found Re6 and it dawned on them that there were in fact five ways for Black to force mate in 2 moves in this position.

I would have liked, if I’d have had time, to have rotated the positions by 90% and 180% to see whether they would realise the answer was, in effect, the same, or whether they would go back and try to solve the puzzles from first principles. But it was the end of the session and the parents were waiting outside to collect their children. Another time, maybe.

The teacher who was in the room with me at the time, not a chess player herself, told me the lesson was very hard for them, and was impressed with their answers as well as with their enthusiasm and concentration during the lesson.

For chess players these examples are very simple and very basic. We know that, in order to play even reasonably good chess, we need to think “I go there, you go there, I go there”, but this type of thinking, even when “you go there” elicits only one possibility, is very hard and very unnatural for most young children, especially if they are not used to playing simple strategy games at home.

I suspect it’s because this sort of exercise introduces children to a totally new thinking skill that scholastic chess in the classroom might have a short-term effect in ‘making kids smarter’.

I also suspect that teaching kids how the pieces move in half an hour and putting them into a competitive environment will have no effect at all in ‘making kids smarter’. A ten-minute lesson of this nature after they’ve finished their tournament game will also have little effect unless the thinking skills are reinforced. Otherwise most of them will have forgotten it by the following week.

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.