Today I want to look at a forgotten story from the heady days of the English Chess Explosion.
The year was 1980. Chess in the UK was booming, and, in particular, the game was becoming very popular in Primary Schools. What could be better for catching the Zeitgeist than a chess teaching scheme, combined with a series of tournaments?
And so it was that Pitman House, part of the company originally founded by shorthand pioneer Sir Isaac Pitman, published Learn Chess, the first volume of the Pitman Chess Teaching Scheme. The scheme incorporated three Progress Tests, with certificates and bronze, silver and gold badges awarded to successful candidates. The tournaments would be sponsored by Morgan Crucible, and, we were told, the first tournament would be held in 1981, open to teams of five, plus one reserve, whose members had all passed the third (lowest) level Progress Test. The early rounds would be held at local level, followed by regional and zonal competitions, with the top eight teams playing in London at the sponsor’s expense.
I have the Teacher’s Book in front of me now. The course was written by Edward Penn and John Littlewood. John Littlewood, of course, was a brilliant attacking player and the author of several other chess books. By profession he was a French teacher. Eddie Penn was described as ‘one of Britain’s most stimulating teachers of chess’ but was better known as an organiser and purveyor of chess books and equipment. Other contributors included many of the great and good in British chess: Michael Basman, Bernard Cafferty, Bill Hartston, John Nunn, Mike Price and John Roycroft.
The course starts, predictably enough, by introducing the pieces, starting with the pawns and the king. We then look at some king and pawn v king positions before moving onto the other pieces, the knight, bishop, rook and queen. A slightly strange order, you might think. By the 14th lesson we know all the rules and are now ready to play a complete game. We look at ‘pieces in action’ and are suddenly plunged into some pretty complicated tactics.
The supplementary material for this lesson includes, for example, this position. You might like to analyse it yourself before reading on.
We’re told there are two equally effective moves: the spectacular Rd5 and the only slightly less spectacular Re5. In fact my computer tells me that Rd5 is mate in 7, h6 (not mentioned) is mate in 11 and Re5 is mate in 18. It’s not entirely ridiculous to demonstrate this sort of position to beginners: if you give hints such as “What would you play if the black rook on d8 wasn’t there?” and “What would you play if the black queen wasn’t there?” You might like to compare and contrast something like the Steps Method, where students spend a year solving hundreds of puzzles involving looking at the board and another two years solving 1½ move tactics before moving onto more complicated positions. Two courses based mainly on tactics, but two very different approaches to teaching chess. One going very slowly and the other very fast: a Pitman Shorthand chess course, perhaps. (My own views, you won’t be surprised to hear, lie somewhere between the two extremes.)
So what happened? Was the course successful? Did lots of schools take part in the local, regional and national competitions? It seems not. I may well be mistaken, because my involvement in schools chess was only indirect at that time, but I can’t recall hearing about any local or national tournaments at all, or encountering any children proudly showing me their badges and certificates. There seems to be nothing in the BCF Year Books in the early 1980s.
I’d be interested to hear from anyone with any more knowledge than me about exactly what happened, but it seems like it wasn’t as successful as the publisher and sponsor had hoped. Perhaps the course went too fast. Perhaps there just wasn’t a market for that sort of course within school chess clubs.
In 1984 a second volume appeared: Learn Chess 2. John Littlewood was credited as the sole author, but thanked Michael Basman and John Nunn for their contributions. Mostly advanced (at least by my standards) tactics, expertly chosen, but with some endings as well. An excellent book, but, in my view, far too difficult for a second book for near beginners. The two volumes look identical: same rather unusual size and same distinctive cover design, but closer inspections reveals a change of publisher. The second volume was published, not by Pitman House, but by Adam & Charles Black. There’s no indication that Pitman had gone out of business or had sold anything else off to Black, so I’d assume they opted out of the second volume for commercial reasons. In his introduction, Littlewood apologised, particularly to teachers, for the delay in producing the second volume, adding that it was not economically viable to produce a separate Teacher’s Book. There’s no mention at all of badges or certificates, of tournaments of any nature, or of Morgan Crucible and their sponsorship. And of course it’s no longer the Pitman Chess Teaching Scheme, just Volume 2.
The scheme was a brave attempt: I’ve written before, on many occasions, about the need to combine a systematic method of skills development with competitive chess. It’s a great pity it wasn’t more successful.