Misconception

I’ve written quite a lot recently about how many young children have a complete misconception about the nature of chess. Here’s a graphic example.

Our under 11 team took part in the national inter-area finals in Northampton last Saturday. One of our reserves is a very keen player who always enjoys challenging me to a game. He attends a local prep school which is very big on chess. The Headmaster is a 2200 strength player, and as well as providing children with the opportunity to take part in internal and external competitions, the school runs two chess clubs: there’s a lunchtime club where a GM does the coaching and an after-school club run by a player with several IM norms. The boy also attends Richmond Junior Club on Saturdays and plays regularly at home against his father, an enthusiastic social player.

Between rounds we played a game. I took the white pieces and essayed the King’s Gambit. The game started something like this:

“I can take your knight”, I said. “Yes, I know”, my opponent replied. “This is the move I want you to play.”

If you play against young children at this level and ask them the reason for their moves you’ll find this sort of thing happens quite often. Now we all like to demonstrate brilliant combinations and games with sacrifices. No doubt my opponent has seen quite a lot of these. He may well have seen a game where one player sacrifices a minor piece for a pawn in front of the castled king; a Greek Gift sacrifice, perhaps, and concluded that it’s generally a good idea to give up a piece for a pawn on the side of the board where the enemy king resides.

Children at this age are usually unable to distinguish between specifics and generalities. If they see a game in which one player sacrifices pieces to win, or maybe, if we’re demonstrating a Morphy game, for example, plays without a rook and wins brilliantly, we hope they’ll think “If I learn to calculate accurately, to look ahead, and if I practise solving checkmate puzzles regularly, I can learn to play as well as that”. But instead they conclude that points aren’t important, that it doesn’t matter if you lose a piece because you can still get checkmate. If we show them a game where the winner sacrifices a piece to expose the enemy king they’ll sacrifice pieces in the vicinity of the opposing monarch at the slightest provocation, even if, as in my game, they get little or no compensation for the lost material.

Perhaps we should look at different ways of coaching children. Maybe we should start with the ending so that they get the idea that (other things being equal) superior force wins. Maybe we should teach children how to calculate by getting them to solve puzzles before we show complete games with sacrifices.

Anyway, the game continued and my extra material eventually told. While we were playing, the boy’s father had joined us. I explained what was happening and suggested he bought my book The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, which was on sale at the tournament bookstall. He followed my advice and returned with a copy of the book for me to sign for him and his son.

With any luck our player will soon get over his misconceptions about chess.

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.