Primary Schools Chess: Defining the Problem

Many thanks, first of all, to Nigel for giving me space on his excellent blog.

I started teaching chess forty years ago as a result of the Fischer-Spassky match and in 1975, together with the late and much missed Mike Fox, I started Richmond Junior Chess Club. In 1993, the Richmond Chess Initiative was started, giving me the opportunity to work in local schools.

At first things looked good, but after a few years it became clear to me that most children, while enjoying their school clubs for a year or two, were not developing a long-term interest in the game, and were not reaching a high enough standard for them to be able to return to the game later. Given the low level at which they were playing, I could see no evidence either that chess was improving their thinking skills.

We could see the evidence ourselves in the decline in the standards at Richmond Juniors, and, as we were still equally successful in national competitions, it was clear that this was a national, not a local phenomenon. We also witnessed a dramatic national decline in the number of teenagers and young adults playing competitive chess. Our status in world junior chess was also in steep decline, both in terms of strength at the top, and, even more so, in terms of strength in depth. While this was a national phenomenon, though, it was not an international phenomenon. The same thing was not happening in other countries: chess amongst teenagers was booming not just in Eastern Europe and Asia, but in other, culturally similar, Western European countries.

One thing in particular struck me. If I’d been a member of a primary school chess club like those I was helping run there’s no way I would have played – or taught – chess as an adult. The only children who were doing well were those who came from a chess playing family (which mine wasn’t) and those who had extremely proactive parents (which mine, while wanting the best for me, would not have been).

I could no longer justify working within a system which seemed to me to be failing a whole generation of children, so I gradually cut down my chess teaching commitments and took a step back to look at what was going wrong and what we could do to put it right. I started asking myself some questions. Are we starting children too young? Are we teaching them the wrong way? Are they being taught by the right teachers? Are we putting them into competitions too soon? Are we promoting chess in the right way? Are the right children being encouraged to join school chess clubs? How are other countries teaching and organizing chess for young children?

I’m now back with a lot of big ideas about how we can give young children a much better deal from early years chess. In this series of articles I plan to look at a lot of the misunderstandings concerning early years chess and suggest how we can improve what we do and offer kids the best possible start in the world’s greatest game.

Please feel free to visit my website, www.chesskids.com, and, if you’re in my area, www.rjcc.org.uk and www.chessforkids.info. You’ll also find more about me at www.richardjames.org.uk.

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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.