Is It the Chess?

It was great to see a chess player, Sharon Daniel, win Child Genius 2014 on Sunday evening. Sharon actually mentioned that one of the reasons she liked chess so much was because the tactics and strategy helped her mind.

My impression whilst watching was that she was better under pressure than the other competitors and I thought she’d win after watching the early rounds. But can chess turn your child into a genius?

I’m fairly sure that it helps, though everything depends on degree. Doing an hour of chess a week at school may have some effect but this is in no way comparable to studying the game deeply for 10 or so hours per week and then testing your abilities in competition. I believe that the latter is where the real gold lies.

Actually I’ve had an opportunity to test this, and on my own son. Prior to teaching him chess he was languishing at the bottom of his year in every subject at school. His mental arithmetic and memory were very strong, but a dire weakness in English comprehension undermined his ability to grasp anything.

Four years on and he’s moving up strongly, getting glowing reports at school and becoming very interested in both academic and chess success. How did the ‘miracle’ occur?

Even members of staff at his school now put it down to the chess. Basically he has done something like 60,000 chess ‘problems’, from basic captures and material saving moves to forced checkmates. With English comprehension being taken out of the equation it gave him an opportunity to build his confidence by getting things right, and then competing on even terms with other kids. More recently he has been dipping his toes in adult tournaments and within a year or so should be well established there.

Knowing that we take it rather seriously I’ve had plenty of well meaning comments of the ‘as long as he’s enjoying it’ variety. Actually I can say that he would have enjoyed some XBox games much more, especially Grand Theft Auto and the like. But I’ve seen my job as helping him develop rather than providing entertainment, and it looks like it’s working.

Can other parents do the same? Well for chess it helps a lot if you know something about the game yourself and can at least supervise any training activities. But I’m fairly sure there are other fields that will work very well, for example playing a musical instrument, reading or developing mathematical skill. Many people have some sort of skill that can help their kids develop, but do they have the time and patience? In most cases it looks like they don’t.

Nigel Davies

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The Second Front (4)

The first player to write extensively about the concept of two weaknesses was Nimzowitsch, who had a chapter on “Alternation” in his classic book, My System. By a coincidence of truly Plaskettian proportions, my own new book, “Nimzowitsch Move by Move” (see http://www.amazon.co.uk/Nimzowitsch-Move-Steve-Giddins/dp/178194198X ) has just been published by Everyman, and includes 30 of Nimzo’s best games, deeply annotated in the Q&A style used in the series. That seems a suitably tenuous, but nonetheless sufficient excuse to give a classic example of the man himself employing two-front strategy.

The game that follows is annotated extensively, over some 9 pages, in my book, but what principally concerns us here is the way in which Nimzowitsch keeps switching his attack from the kingside to the queenside and back again, especially starting from move 29. Whilst preparing a breakthrough down the g-file, Nimzo also keeps torturing White with threats against the a2-pawn (29…b5!, allowing a later Qa6, etc). White sets himself up to meet gxf4 by taking with the bishop, keeping things blocked, but Nimzo’s alternation tactics induce some discoordination in the white camp, and the constant switching of the attack between the two flanks eventually sees Black force a collapse of the white defences on the g-file. But then at move 38, just as the kingside looks about to cave in and both white rooks have had to come over to shore up g3, Nimzo switches his queen back to a6 again and calmly lifts the a2-pawn, and it is Black’s passed a-pawn which actually delivers the final blow. A perfect demonstration of two-wing strategy.

By the way, did I mention that my book is available from fine bookstores everywhere?

Steve Giddins

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Drop Outs

We saw last week that most children will only be able to play ‘real chess’ at secondary school age. (For readers from other countries, children in the UK usually attend primary schools up to the age of 11, at which point they transfer to a secondary school.) Our experience at Richmond Junior Club, and, yes, I’ll return to its history later, is that children who start chess at primary school (usually at about 7 years old) and fail to reach adult club standard, ‘real chess’ in other words, will see chess purely as a children’s game, and, unless there is significant chess activity in their secondary school, will fail to make further progress and soon drop out of the game.

For those of us who were at secondary school in the years between the end of the Second World War and the late 1970s, chess was something you did in your teenage years. Many of us are still playing. In the recently concluded British Championships the British Senior Championship (for players aged 60 and over) attracted 61 competitors while there were also two grading restricted sections for seniors . By contrast, there were only 25 players in the Major Open, which in the past would have attracted many ambitious younger players. I played in it myself a few times in the 1970s.

Sometimes my colleagues at Richmond Chess Club ask me why so few members of Richmond Junior Club graduate to adult chess (and, on occasion blame me personally for the decline in club membership). Sometimes questions are asked on chess forums about why, with more young children playing chess and more chess players making a living out of teaching chess to young children, the number of teenagers and young adults playing chess is not increasing. These are good and important questions.

In other countries things are different. In many East European and Asian countries chess is taken much more seriously. Their chess clubs are open every day, not just once a week, and children learning the game are given regular homework. Here in the UK, by contrast, parents want their children to have a rounded education and don’t want them to spend more than an hour or so a week on chess.

In other West European countries chess clubs operate very much like football, rugby or cricket clubs, meeting at weekends, with members getting involved in coaching and with a natural progression from junior club teams through to adult club teams.

Primary school chess, whether in the form of using chess as a learning tool on the curriculum or through after-school or lunchtime chess clubs, is great in itself, and provides many extrinsic benefits for children, but for the past 30 years, and there’s no sign of improvement, we haven’t been successful in feeding children through into adult chess. For reasons I explained last week, playing adult standard chess is just too hard for most children of primary school age.

There are two things the English Chess Federation could do to help improve the situation. One of them, promoting chess in secondary schools, is already happening with some success. The other, providing a path to take children from learning the moves to playing ‘real chess’, is not. Future posts will consider this in more detail.

Richard James

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Paul Morphy

A parent of one of my new students asked me the question “what’s up with that Paul Morphy guy?” For some reason I found this question delightful in its vagueness. Many times, parents will ask very specific questions that are designed to make them look like they know something about chess, such as “which variation for Black do you prefer against the Ruy Lopez.” Of course, my answer to such a question is usually “ ah…the winning variation,” at which point said parent mutters something about my lack of sanity and wanders off. However, I found the question regarding Paul Morphy to be one worth exploring. I told the parent, I would answer the question in this article. So Ian (parent), this one’s for you!

I think what Ian was getting at was the question of why Paul Morphy is so prevalent in my teaching program and the programs of many others. It’s a good question if you look at it from Ian’s point of view. His son goes to chess class one day, comes home and does nothing but talk about the amazing Paul Morphy. Ian looks up Paul Morphy online and becomes perplexed because he managed to find the one website that published descriptions of some of Morphy’s more eccentric non-chess habits. Fortunately, Ian did continue to read on and discovered that Paul Morphy played chess. Ian had also been trying to get his son interested in George Washington and American history with no luck. Ian wondered how his son could be so fascinated with one “old historical guy” (to quote Ian) and not with another. So what is it about Paul Morphy?

The question is really, what is it about Paul Morphy’s chess that appeals to both young and old alike? With that said, it should be noted that there are a plethora of chess players who find Morphy’s games to be unrealistic and ridiculous which makes this topic even more interesting. Love him or hate him, Morphy made an indelible mark on our beloved game. To answer Ian’s question, we must first look at the period in which Paul Morphy played. This was the romantic era of chess when gambits and all out daring attacks were the order of the day. The game of chess was played differently during the 1800s. Bravado seemed to be the watch word of Morphy’s day. I mention this because many modern players simply dismiss Morphy because he’d never hold up against today’s more sophisticated players. However, I would say to my modern counterparts that they need to look at Morphy in a historical context. Here’s an analogy: The Model T would certainly be an impractical car to drive around today. However, the Model T paved the way for the cars we do drive today and we should appreciate that! Morphy paved the way (along with others) for modern chess.

Chess students learn about specific chess players because those player’s game provide excellent examples of specific concepts. Those player’s games are published in books and used by chess teachers in their lectures. Chess teachers love games that clearly illustrate a specific point or multiple points. Clarity is the key when presenting a game during a lecture or lesson. Paul Morphy’s games clearly illustrate a number of crucial concepts beginning chess players need to learn. Those concepts include opening principles, attacking, defending and checkmating to name a few. However, what really makes Morphy so irresistible to many (but not all) chess teachers is the clarity of specific chess concepts combined with the excitement of his games.

I teach the game of chess to my beginning students in a rather theatrical way due to my past as a musician. I want them to share my passion for the game so I try to make the game interesting to them. I want to show them games that are both educational and exciting. This is where Paul Morphy’s games come into play. The majority of my students are young and youngsters like excitement. They want to see outrageous moves made on the board. I want to teach them specific fundamentals. The games of Paul Morphy allow my students to embark on an adventure and learn something during their travels across the sixty four squares.

One idea young beginners should embrace is the concept of playing attacking chess. Junior players should start their chess careers being attackers rather than defenders. Of course, they cannot be careless attackers or their careers will be short lived! Morphy’s games are ripe with brilliant attacks. To add intellectual icing to the educational cake, those attacks are extremely clear in scope. Take the first three moves of the game Morphy versus Charles the Duke of Brunswick and Count Isouard de Vauvenargue. Morphy, playing the White pieces follows the opening principles to the letter (1. e4…e5, 2.Nf3…d6, 3d4…Bg4) while the Duke and the Count do their best to hold on. Move three for White demonstrates a very straight forward attack to deny Black’s foothold in the center. 3. d4, attacks the pawn on e5. The d4 pawn is defended by the Knight on f3 and White’s Queen on d1, introducing the idea of counting attackers and defenders. Black’s Bishop on g4 pins the Knight on f3 to the Queen with 3…Bg4, introducing the pin to students and a subsequent discussion regarding this tactic. Three moves into the game and some very important ideas have cropped up!

Another lesson that can be learned through the games of Paul Morphy has to do with putting pieces on the rim or edge of the board. We teach the beginner to develop pieces toward the board’s center where they’re more powerful or influential. However, there are times when moving a piece to the a or h file makes sense. One of Morphy’s signature moves was to put his Queen-side Bishop on a3 where it attacks the f8 square stopping Black from Castling on the King-side.
Morphy was also a great Gambiteer. His Evan’s Gambit games were stunning in their Blitzkrieg-like assaults. I use his Evan’s Gambit games to introduce my students to the idea of the Gambit. While there are plenty of other great chess players who play the Evan’s Gambit better than Morphy, their games are nowhere near as user friendly to the beginner. Morphy’s games are beginner friendly and that is extremely important to someone who is new to the game. After all, to learn from a game you have to be able to follow along.

So Ian, there is your answer. Morphy’s games are exciting, educational and relatively easy to follow. I know some readers will disagree but Morphy’s games work within my program and most importantly, my students are crazy about the pride of New Orleans. Here’s a game by the great Morphy to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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Playing Chess in a Modern Age

Here is a game from the first international event that I played on the ICCF server. Both of us had provisional ratings of 1800 points at the start of this. Now, my established rating on ICCF is 2027. My opponent’s established rating is now 2192. 

The opening that I played is known as both the Modern Defense and the Robatsch Defense. I usually call it the Modern Defense , even if I start off with a different move order. In chess openings there are two schools of thought. The first one is called the Classical School and it teaches players to occupy the Center with pieces and pawns. The second one was developed by Aron Nimzowitsch and Richard Réti and is called the Hypermodern School of thought. This school of thought teaches players to not occupy the Center but to attack it from the wings instead. I have played both styles and which one I will use in a particular game depends on my mood and what my opponent is rated. Also, if I know or suspect that my opponent is going to play some kind of anti Sicilian opening I will play the Pirc or Modern Defense.

Although we both played a couple of second-best moves there were no outright blunders until I decided to trade queens on move number 20. That lead to the loss of a Bishop for a pawn and then I resigned. I can’t explain that kind of a blunder in a correspondence chess game! At the time that I played this game I did not know that ICCF rules allowed me to use chess engines. If I had used an engine in this game I would not have made that blunder.

Mike Serovey

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When Weaknesses Didn’t Matter (And When They Did)

When one first begins learning about “positional chess”, one quickly learns concepts such as “weaknesses”, such as

  • weak square in your territory (a square you don’t have much control over, especially if you cannot protect it with one of your own Pawns)
  • backward Pawn (a Pawn that is behind its neighbor Pawn(s) and therefore cannot be protected by another Pawn)
  • weakness on a half-open file (such that the opponent can multiply attack your Pawns and pieces by means of a battery of Rooks and a Queen)

These are very important concepts, and one is taught to recognize these patterns and avoid weaknesses. One is often also shown instructive games in which one side had these weaknesses and eventually lost. This is all well and good, and an important step in chess improvement is to understand these structural weaknesses and to try to avoid them for one’s own setup as well as try to induce them and exploit them in one’s opponent’s setup.

However, time and again, when I work with chess players to help them improve, I get asked some very good questions:

  • “The position looks bad, but is it really that bad?”
  • “What do I do if I end up in one of these positions with weaknesses?”

In other words, many chess books geared at improvement present a biased view of the game, showing “how to plan an attack” and “how to punish weaknesses”, rather than “how to defend” and “how to deal with having weaknesses”. They present exciting games where somebody wins. Well, today I present a “boring” game where nobody wins, despite Black having all three of the example weaknesses I mentioned at the beginning of this article! And in fact, nobody was really ever in danger of losing. I think boring, “correct” games have much to teach as well as the exciting, flawed ones.

Summary of the game Baramidze-Leko, Dortmund 2014

I saw this game while following the Dortmund 2014 tournament earlier. Nobody annotated it, because it was so boring. But I thought it would be a great illustration of when “weaknesses” don’t matter, and why.

At move 12 in an Open Catalan, a characteristic Pawn structure arose, in which Black can be considered to have certain weaknesses: the backward c-Pawn on c7 cannot advance to c5, because of White’s bind with the Pawns on b4 and d4 controlling c5, and White has the half-open c-file. Also, White has the extra center Pawn (d-Pawn) vs. Black’s c-Pawn. So it could be considered that Black might be in trouble.

But a “weakness” is a problem only if it can be exploited. In this kind of position, White usually tries some combination of these ideas (see the game Kramnik-Carlsen, Dortmund 2007 at the end of this article, for example):

  • plant a Knight on c5 or a5
  • plant a piece on c6 to constrict Black
  • double Rooks on the half-open c-file
  • win Black’s c-Pawn
  • advance e4 to get the big Pawn center

However, Black in this game basically thwarted all of these ideas:

  • Move 13: maneuvered the Queen to a8, controlling not only c6 but the long diagonal and prevented e4
  • Move 15: advanced with c6 after the light-squared Bishops were traded off, so even though the c-Pawn is still backward, it is defensible; also, this prepared for a5 counterplay
  • Move 16: White, under danger of a5 counterplay against the b-Pawn, decided to trade Knights to allow the dark-squared Bishop to protect b4.
  • Move 17: maneuvered a Knight to b6, noting that White’s attempt to bind the c5 square had the side effect of creating a White weak square at c4
  • Move 19: a5 created counterplay against White’s b-Pawn and ensured that White would end up with an isolated Queen side Pawn
  • Move 20: Nc4 put the Knight on a great outpost in White’s weak c4 square
  • Move 23: White could not bear to leave Black’s Knight on c4 and forced a trade

After the final simplification on move 23, the game could have been called a draw already. Each side had a Queen, two Rooks, and a dark-squared Bishop.

White still had a bind on c5, but so what? In the rest of the game, he tried putting a Bishop there, then a Queen, then a Rook, but to no avail. That “outpost” did not help with any further penetration. If White had a Knight to put on c5, the story could have been very different, but note how in the game, Black virtually forced two Knight trades. Every trade brought Black closer to a comfortable position, because Knights are the best pieces to use against weaknesses, since if they can reach a good outpost, they can attack effectively from there.

All of Black’s most important Pawns (b5, c6, e6) were on light squares, which meant they were immune from attack by White’s only remaining minor piece, the dark-squared Bishop. Meanwhile, White had an isolated a-Pawn on a dark square to attend to on a3. Given this situation, and no Pawn breaks on the King side, the inevitable conclusion to the game was a draw, and it was agreed so after almost thirty more moves of shuffling around.

What conclusions can we draw from this game? One is that it is quite feasible to attempt to defend a position with weaknesses, if you play actively and force simplification in your favor so that your weaknesses do not matter. Another conclusion, unfortunately, might be that this main line opening variation of the Catalan, in which Black willingly plays dxc4 and then goes for counterplay with b5, allowing White to create a bind on c5, is drawish for both sides when each plays correctly.

However, there was once a time when this plan by White was very powerful, in the hands of Vladimir Kramnik, against those who did not adopt the right defensive plan as Black. In fact, 7 years ago at Dortmund 2007, Kramnik beat Magnus Carlsen with the Catalan. I have attached this game below so that you can see what it looks like when White’s idea works perfectly! Make note of every mistake that Carlsen made as Black, allowing White to execute his plan cleanly.

The complete game Baramidze-Leko, Dortmund 2014

Kramnik-Carlsen, Dortmund 2007

Franklin Chen

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Dealing With Crisis

Handling a crisis in business and over the chess board are quite different because of external factors, but there are also some unique similarities. Whether it is chess or business, we have to deal with three common elements. These are:

a) Threats
b) Element of surprise those are hidden counter threats
c) Short decision making time

In chess, these elements are sometimes favourable and sometimes not. How you deal with these elements is all about handling crisis. How to handle it? I will try to explain it with the following discussion:

You Must Be Cold Blooded!

By this I mean to say that you should handle the situation calmly in order to recognise all the available resources at your disposal and your opponent’s. If you mix-up emotions you will be nowhere. For example in the following position Nakamura is facing a critical situation as there are so many threats in the air. However he came out of it using the element of surprise, a move which wouldn’t occur to most people. A good annotation has been given on this position in Chessbase’s Megabase.

Changing the Position

Rather than suffering in a difficult position it makes sense to try and change something so as to set your opponent some problems. Creativity is a great asset in such situations.

For example, I once saw a game of Karpov’s where he was unable to save the isolated pawn, so he sacrificed it by playing it on d5 and in return gave his opponent an isolated pawn and saved the game. I tried to find that game but could not.

Keep Away From Mess

This mainly concerns time trouble, and it stands to reason we can avoid a crisis if we don’t complicate when in time trouble or get into time trouble in complex positions.

Ashvin Chauhan

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Rust Exploitation!

Many players see chess as a winter pursuit, packing up in June and then resuming in September. But in doing so they leave themselves very rusty for when the next season starts and also miss out on a golden opportunity. By staying in practice they could exploit the rust of other players and get off to a flying start!

How should someone keep their chess in shape during the summer? Well the obvious answer is to keep playing, but failing that there are other good ways to keep the engine ticking over.

First of all there are always tactical positions to solve and there are plenty of good venues for this kind of work. It can also be useful to read a good book on chess, something that you were always planning to read but never found time. Taking this with you on holiday can be a good idea; even if your schedule wouldn’t appear to allow it, what happens if you get some unexpectedly bad weather?

I recently posted a more extensive video lesson on this topic at my Tiger Chess site which full members can access here. Meanwhile let me wish you all the best with your summer preparations!

Nigel Davies

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The Second Front (3)

This week’s example sees an impressive grind against the master of such things, Anatoly Karpov. White emerges from the opening with the better endgame, thanks to the weakness on d5. Gelfand’s note to move 23 reads “White needs to create a second weakness, as in Nimzowitsch’s book”. The plan behind 23.a4 is to advance the pawn to a5 and fix a6 as the second weakness. This duly happens, and after a long grind, the combined effect of the two weaknesses eventually sees the black defences collapse.

Steve Giddins

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Cut Out and Keep

As promised last week, here’s your handy cut-out-and-keep guide to how children of different ages learn and play chess.

  • Piaget Classification: Pre-Operational Stage
  • Approximate ages: 2-7 (Infant School)
  • UK school system: up to Year 2
  • US school system: up to 1st Grade
  • Logical ability: only very simple egocentric logic
  • What children can learn: the moves of the pieces, will struggle to understand check/mate: will benefit from playing mini games rather than complete chess
  • How children learn: constant repetition of the moves of the pieces until they remember them:they will not be able to teach themselves
  • How children play: either with no logic or with flawed logic: will not be able to consider their opponent’s perspective: they may see threats but will not check that their move is safe before playing it
  • Where should children play: at home or at school on the curriculum or with other beginners: unless they are working hard at the game at home, children at this level will benefit little joining an after-school club and playing against more experienced players. It’s best to wait for children to get through this level before encouraging them to play in tournaments.
  • My term for chess played at this level: illogical chess
  • Dan Heisman’s term for chess played at this level: Flip-Coin Chess

  • Piaget Classification: Concrete Operational Stage
  • Approximate ages: 7-11 (Junior School)
  • UK school system: Years 3-6
  • US school system: 2nd-5th Grade
  • Logical ability: simple logic: if you attack my queen I’ll move it
  • What children can learn: all the rules (but may struggle with en passant), the basic logic of the game (superior force wins)
  • How children learn: repetition and reinforcement, mimicry and memory. Children will need to repeat what they’ve learnt over and over again because they won’t have a higher level understanding. Children will mimic what they see: if they play regularly against a proficient player they will start to play well but if they play against weak players they will copy their bad habits. Children at this level might be able to teach themselves the moves but will need adult help to get any further.
  • How children play: simple logic is used: children will focus on just one aspect of the position, identify one criterion and choose the first safe move which meets that criterion. They will not consider alternatives or look ahead in any meaningful way.
  • Where should children play: at this level children will benefit from joining a school or community chess club and taking part in low-level competitions against other children of their age. They will not be ready for playing in open-age competitions against adults. They can also benefit from playing chess on the internet.
  • My term for chess played at this level: simple logical chess
  • Dan Heisman’s term for chess played at this level: Hope Chess

  • Piaget Classification: Formal Operational Stage
  • Approximate ages: 11 and over (Secondary School)
  • UK school system: Years 7 and over
  • US school system: 6th Grade and over
  • Logical ability: complex logic: if you attack my queen I’ll consider all the safe squares and choose the one I prefer. Children will be able to draw conclusions from examples, switching between the general and the specific and back again.
  • What children can learn: children can start to learn aspects of chess that require higher level understanding as well as just memory. They will be able to appreciate strategic concepts and start to learn openings.
  • How children learn: at this level children will be developing understanding which will complement their memory skills. They will still benefit from either group or individual tuition, but will also be developing self-teaching skills. This will enable them to teach themselves through books, DVDs or websites. They will also be developing the power of self-criticism so they’ll be able to identify the mistakes in their own games and learn from them.
  • How children play: children can now apply complex logic to chess. They can learn to consider every aspect of the position, to consider their opponent’s thoughts and intentions, to make a choice from several alternatives and to look ahead.
  • Where should children play: children should be playing regularly in chess clubs and taking part in tournaments. They can start to play in competitions against adults as well as against other children. If they are still at primary school they will not gain much from attending the chess club, although they may wish to do so for social reasons. Playing chess at secondary school will be great as long as there are opponents who play to their level or above, or who are keen to learn.
  • My term for chess played at this level: complex logical chess
  • Dan Heisman’s term for chess played at this level: Real Chess

  • Please bear in mind that the ages quoted are approximate. Some children will achieve these cognitive milestones earlier, in some cases very much earlier, so, provided they have help from a Real Chess player, they may be able to play Real Chess before the age of 11. Other children will achieve them later, or not at all. Children who are attracted to chess are quite likely to be cognitively advanced for their age. Of course the vast majority of adults who play chess may well be using complex logic in other situations but have never learnt how to apply it to chess so still play Flip-Coin or Hope Chess rather than Real Chess.

    Parents who themselves play Flip-Coin Chess might think that’s all there is to the game, teach their children how the pieces move, think they’re really good and sign them up for their school chess club. Children will need help (ideally one to one) to understand the basic logic of the game and reach the next level.

    Parents who themselves play Hope Chess will take things further, and will be able to help their children to some extent. If children want to play Real Chess, though, they’ll need further help, ideally from playing and learning at a club with other children at the same level or higher along with one to one tuition.

    So, within a primary school club there will be children who play Flip-Coin Chess because that’s what their parents play, or because they’re too young to understand Hope Chess, but they will usually get frustrated after a couple of terms because they keep on losing to the Hope Chess players without having any idea why.

    There will also be children playing Hope Chess because they’ve learnt something about the game from their parents. They will do well in their school club, but will associate the game with their school and are likely to give up when they change schools. There will be few, if any, players within a primary school club playing Real Chess.

    But understanding young children’s limitations regarding chess will enable us to produce lessons, coaching materials and courses based on how they learn and what can realistically be expected of them. It will also help us dissuade well-meaning parents who are ignorant of chess from thinking chess is suitable for their three-year-olds.

    Richard James

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