I wonder how many of you saw a recent news article about the 2013 inductees into the National Toy Hall of Fame? Chess and the rubber duck!
Well, that puts chess in its place, doesn’t it? A toy, just like a rubber duck. You can play with it in the bath. So I’ve spent much of my life playing with a toy and teaching children to play with a toy? So Anand and Carlsen are spending three weeks in Chennai playing with a toy?
To be fair, the National Toy Hall of Fame (it’s American, so nothing to do with me) have inducted games like Scrabble and Monopoly, as well as playing cards and dominoes, over the years, so their definition of a toy is rather broader than mine would be. If they described themselves as the National Toy and Game Hall of Fame I might not have the same problem.
My view of chess is very simple. It’s a fantastic learning tool for younger children, and a fantastic game for older children and adults, at which some exceptional younger children in exceptional circumstances can also excel.
My problem with chess as a game for mass participation for young children comes down to one thing. There are too many options. Children are confused by the multiplicity of choices so often do little more than make more or less random moves.
I’m very big on children learning and playing word games as a way of developing their vocabulary and improving their spelling. When I’ve tried to introduce Scrabble to children, though, they tend to get very excited when they find a word and play it straight away rather than stopping to try and find a higher scoring alternative. The whole idea of choice, of comparing one move to another, is very difficult for most young children to grasp. If you want to teach this concept, and you probably should, you might well be better off starting with games where there are fewer choices and gradually build up the level of complexity. This is the main reason why my chess course for young children starts off just with pawns.
Young children also have problems estimating the number of choices, or indeed the number of anything. I’ve been teaching chess on the curriculum at two local schools (in relatively deprived areas where the children, mostly from immigrant communities, have had little or no previous experience of chess) for a few weeks now. When I asked them how many small squares there are on the chess board I hoped they’d try to work it out, but instead they just guessed, usually giving numbers which were far too low, such as 20. Last week I introduced the rook move, got them all to place a rook on a1, and asked them how many different squares the rook could move to. Again, they guessed rather than working it out, and their guesses were all too low: many of them suggested 3 or 4.
One important way in which chess helps develop thinking skills is by getting children used to the idea that they can work something out for themselves rather than just guessing. But, for most children, the full game of chess is not the best tool for teaching this.
A toy? I think not.