This is the first of two posts outlining the format used by Richmond Junior Chess Club during the decade from about 1996 to 2005.
Although a number of our members over the years became IMs and GMs this was never our priority. Instead, our aim was to introduce children to serious competitive chess, and encourage them to continue their interest, regardless of the level they reached. Our success over the years (and we’d spent 20 years developing our methods) was not due to the quality of our teaching, of which we did very little, but to having a very tight and efficient administrative structure, to knowing each of our members individually, and to being aware of everything that was going on in the chess world, so that we could recommend tournaments to our members and keep track of their results. Perhaps it also helped that I like most children, and, for some reason I never quite understood, most children seem to like me.
Contrary to what most people think, successful junior chess programmes, whether in clubs or in schools, don’t require good teachers so much as good administrators.
The Morning Group ran for two hours: from 11:00 to 13:00, later changed to 11:30 to 13:30 as the demands of Saturday football clubs and other activities increased. This section was for less experienced players of Primary School age (up to 11). We expected children to have learnt the moves, either at home or at school, and to be able to play fluently, although we could provide some limited assistance for those of a lower level. Typically, we’d have round about 75 players on our lists for this group, and we’d usually have about 40 of them present. We were closed in August and for one or two weeks over Christmas, but open the rest of the year: about 45 weeks. My colleague in leading the morning group during this period was IM Gavin Wall, one of our earliest members back in 1975/76, who has been a professional chess teacher for many years.
When children arrived they were greeted with a puzzle on the demo board, usually taken from Ray Keene’s Saturday column in the Times, which was of an appropriate level for this group. For the first 15-20 minutes children had the chance to meet their friends and play casual games while we welcomed new and prospective members and spoke to their parents.
We then called everyone together for the lesson. First, we went through the puzzle on the demo board. Then there were announcements: welcoming newcomers, results of Richmond teams, news of forthcoming tournaments and so on. Then came the main lesson, usually based on the Opening of the Week.
One of the principles of RJCC is to give children the opportunity to play a wide range of openings. Left to their own devices, children will play countless rather dull games with the Giuoco Pianissimo and Spanish Four Knights: we wanted to move them away from this. In the Morning Group all tournament games started with the moves 1. e4 e5. There was an annual programme which ran from September to July, with two or three weeks on each variation, and while it helped if you started at the beginning it didn’t matter too much if you came in half way through. We started at move one, then introduced 2. Nf3 Nc6. We then moved onto the Four Knights, encouraging 4. d4 as well as Bb5 or Bc4 (they learnt to meet this with Nxe4). We continued with 3. Bc4, showing them the main lines of the Giuoco Piano and the Two Knights, including the famous Fried Liver Attack. Then onto the Ruy Lopez, which took several weeks, and then onto the Scotch Game. In the Summer Term we introduced the concept of Gambits, playing the King’s Gambit and its close relation the Vienna Game, and finally, as a special treat, our favourite, the Danish Gambit. For the last few weeks children could choose any of the openings starting with 1. e4 e5 that they had learnt over the year.
After the lesson the children moved into their divisions to play tournament games. The divisional system was the main focus of the Morning Group – and we also used the same system, with minor modifications, in Primary School chess clubs. In the RJCC morning group there were usually about 4 or 5 divisions of about 15 players each, constituted using our internal rating system, of which more later. Newcomers would join the lowest division unless we already knew about their playing strength from elsewhere. The divisions were run using all-play-all playing charts (which are available as part of the chessKIDS academy schools download package) so that within the life of the division children would play as many different opponents as possible. After a few weeks, when the regular attenders and faster players had played most of the other members of their group, we produced a new rating list and restructured the groups with promotion and relegation.
The divisions also gave us an opportunity to introduce clocks and notation: the top two divisions used chess clocks (30 minutes each for the first game, but towards the end of the session we’d play quicker games) and the top division also had to record their games, which we would then, if time allowed, go through with them.
Between games, and at the end of the session, we ensured that children had a basic endgame knowledge – simple King and Pawn endings, basic checkmates and so on.
Every term the children who had reached the top of the top division would be invited to join the Afternoon Group. Children who reached Secondary School age would usually also move up in September. We were flexible in allowing children to move up earlier if they had older siblings in the Afternoon Group or if they couldn’t make the Morning Group.