Quality Control

The other day we decided to show a video to the Richmond Junior Club Intermediate Group. As our subject for the day was opening tactics we chose this video from chesskid.com.

I should start by saying that chesskid.com is an excellent site and their curriculum is one of the best I’ve seen. However, I have a few problems with this video.

You may or may not like the idea of using seemingly random positions like the one you see at the start of the video. I don’t much like this myself, but I understand that you may well disagree with me, so we’ll move on.

My first problem is the confusion in terminology. The first confusion is between the words ‘attack’ and ‘threat’. I try to differentiate: an attack is something you could do and a threat is something you want to do (which, at low levels, will be capturing a piece for free, capturing a more valuable piece with a less valuable piece or delivering checkmate). There’s also a problem with the exact definition of the word ‘fork’, and here writers and video producers differ. My definition is ‘a move which creates two threats in different directions with the same piece’. If you don’t make this clear children will play something like 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Nc3 Nf6 4. Ng5 and excitedly tell you they’ve played a fork.

For example, after the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Bc4 Bc5, 3. Qh5 is, in my opinion, a fork, creating two threats with the queen, although one of the threats is only operational because the bishop on c4 is a backup attacker. If I wanted to use this example I’d go on to explain that it’s not a dangerous fork as Black should have no problem finding a move which defends both threats.

By this definition, any piece can make a fork. Other teachers, illogically in my opinion, make some sort of differentiation depending on which piece is making the double attack, and that is what seems to be happening here. We’re told that forking is like a double attack, but done by knights and sometimes by pawns (it depends who you ask). According to my definition, queen forks are the most common, followed by knight forks, and pawn forks often happen in lower level games. As queens and knights both move in eight directions it’s quite understandable that they are the pieces most likely to create forks. There’s a whole section on queen forks in the opening in both Move Two! and Chess Openings for Heroes. I consider this seemingly arbitrary distinction to be confusing.

Continuing with the video, after a couple of minutes we see some double attacks with the rook, one of which is also described as a fork. In fact, according to my definition, the first rook moves we see are forks, but the one that’s described as a fork is no such thing, because, as is pointed out to us, the knight is defended, so that move only creates one threat.

We then continue with a practical example and learn about the Two Knights Defence, and how White can play Ng5, threatening the most common fork in kids’ chess. Excellent – and very important. But we see the move 4… Bc5, which, as you’ll probably know, is the Wilkes-Barre variation. There’s no mention of this, though, and we’re told that after this move we should continue with 5. Nxf7 Qe7 6. Nxh8. In fact I’d probably continue with 5. Bxf7+ because I know it’s the safer option, and I also realise that after Nxf7 my opponent will probably play Bxf2+, and I don’t know enough about the theory to survive.

When I’m teaching this knight fork I prefer to give Black 4… h6 rather than Bc5 to avoid the confusion over the Wilkes-Barre. Dave Rumens, one of the great characters of English chess, whose death was announced as I was writing this column, used to encourage his pupils to play this with black. Whether or not this is a good opening to teach is another matter entirely, and one I’m not going to discuss here.

The next example is slightly strange in that it appears that White has played five moves to Black’s four, but it’s White’s move. Perhaps Black played Qe7 followed by Qf6: I can’t imagine why, but we’ll let it pass. I’d also expect Black to play Kd8 rather than Kf8 after Nxc7+ to try to trap the knight on a8, but my computer has a slight preference for Kf8, so again we’ll let it pass.

I really like the last example, the final position of an endgame study, although I think it’s more an example of how beautiful chess can be rather than something of very much practical use. It looks, though, as if they’d forgotten about the f5 square and only referred to it at the end as an afterthought. In fact the whole video looks in many ways as if it was rushed.

Now you may think I’m being Mr Picky here, but chess is a complex game, and it’s very easy for young children to get confused, to misunderstand ideas or to take them out of context. If you’re talking to, or writing for, young children you need to be very clear in terms of using vocabulary which will be understood within context, using consistent and unambiguous terminology and choosing examples which avoid any possible confusion. Of course I frequently get it wrong myself!

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.