Misunderstandings

Something I remember from nearly thirty years ago. My friend and colleague Ray Cannon is going through the solution to a tactics puzzle on the demo board. I’m watching at the back of the room together with some parents. One of the dads asks me: “Why is he doing this? They’re never going to reach that position in their games.” I try to explain the reasons: that children need to learn how to calculate tactics, and that, although they will probably never reach that exact position they may reach an analogous position where a similar idea works.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago. I was teaching a private pupil, not much more than a beginner. His grandmother, whom I’ve known for nearly twenty years, came to pick him up. She’s a passionate educationalist who has founded no less than three schools. I talked to her about the importance of children solving tactics puzzles. She was astonished. “Puzzles? Why do they need to do that? Chess is just memory.” Again, I tried to explain. “Oh, you mean like those square things in The Times every day, but at a much lower level?” “Yes, exactly!”

Richard Teichmann is alleged to have claimed that “Chess is 99% Tactics”. Well, I think ‘calculation’ is a better word than ‘tactics’ (since strategy involves a different type of calculation to tactics) and I think 99% is something of an exaggeration, but, even so, calculation is the single most important skill in chess. Yet most non-players and most of those who know the moves but nothing else, I suspect, have no understanding that this is the case. The general public’s idea of chess is, I suspect, that it’s mostly about memory.

Well, memory is a complicated subject. It’s hard to become a proficient chess player if you have a weak short-term (working) memory. Long-term memory is also important, and the stronger you get the more important it becomes. You’re going to have to remember opening theory, how to play typical endings, middle game strategy and standard tactical ideas. But without understanding, and without calculation, you won’t get very far.

Here’s something else that happened the other day. When I visited one of my youngest private pupils he and his parents had a specific request for the content of the lesson. He wanted to know the best way to play when he’d lost his queen. Further questioning as to exactly what he meant confirmed that he didn’t want to learn how to play queenless middlegames or endings, but the best way to play after he’d blundered and was a queen behind. Of course the answer is easy: don’t lose your queen! He loses pieces every few moves in his games because his concentration and impulse control are not yet fully developed.

Week after week, my younger pupils argue with me that it doesn’t matter if you lose a piece because you can still win. At their level this is true, but to raise your game to the next level you have to understand that good players, by and large, don’t leave their pieces en prise or move them to unsafe squares. Yes, if Chelsea have a player sent off they might still beat Manchester United, but they are much less likely to do so. Good players might sacrifice a piece because they’ve calculated that they can achieve checkmate or gain a material advantage by doing so. They might play a positional sacrifice because their assessment of the position, combined with their knowledge and experience of chess, that the positional advantage they game provides adequate compensation for the material they’ve lost, but this is a very hard concept for beginners.

Chess is basically this: other things being equal superior force (usually) wins. An advantage of two or more points is, with a few exceptions, enough to win, and an advantage of even one point will often win. Very strong players will sometimes resign even if they’re just a pawn down. Chess is mostly about calculation: looking ahead (I go there, you go there, I go there) to work out how you can get checkmate, win pieces, get your pieces on better squares or get your opponent’s pieces on worse squares. If, by some unlikely combination of circumstances, I find myself sitting opposite Magnus Carlsen in my first Thames Valley League match next season, if I don’t make any mistakes I won’t lose, and, if Magnus makes a mistake, I’ll win.

Yet most non-players have a totally mistaken idea about what chess is and the skills you require to play the game well. Even many strong players and teachers, to whom chess comes naturally, are unaware of the importance of teaching calculation skills and concentrate purely on passing on their knowledge of chess to their pupils.

You need to do just three things to play chess well:
1. Put your pieces on good squares
2. Calculate everything that moves
3. Avoid careless mistakes

How can we get this message across to parents and teachers, so that they can be more proactive in helping their children play 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.