In the week before the Easter holidays I decided to ask my pupils some very simple questions. I presented them with six positions, five after Black’s 2nd move and one after Black’s 3rd move, and invited them to find the best move for White, giving their reasons. What was interesting was that none of the children in Years 3 and 4 (aged 7 to 9) at the private school where I recently started teaching managed to get every question right, whereas in the state school a mile away where I’ve been teaching for some time many of the children scored 100%.
The first question came from a Facebook discussion with Paul Swaney, an award winning chess teacher from Arlington, Virginia. He had given this position to his pupils, most of whom selected f3 as their answer, refusing to capture the bishop because they didn’t want to bring their queen out too soon. I guess he’d probably advised them not to bring their queen out too soon the previous week. Most of my students solved this correctly. I did get a few f3s from the Year 3s who hadn’t realised they could capture the queen.
By and large, children were much more confident about winning material than getting checkmate, possibly because I’d been repeating over the last few weeks the idea that they should take a piece for free or capture a higher value piece with a lower value piece. Most of them had seen Scholar’s Mate before but would they recognise it? Some did, some didn’t. Several children saw the attack on their queen and moved it to a safe square. Others played Bxf7+ “because it’s checkmate”, “because it’s check” or “because it captures a pawn and is safe”. Some also played Qxe5+ “because it’s safe” or “because it’s checkmate”.
This was one of the other starting points of this exercise. I wrote a few weeks ago about watching a game in which a boy failed to capture the rook here so I’ve been drilling this position into all my pupils since then. Gratifyingly, most of them did indeed capture the rook in this position, telling me that they’d win 5 points and lose 3 points. I suspect, though, that if I’d given them this question a month or so earlier many of them would have failed.
Most students solved this correctly, telling me that they’d win their opponent’s strongest piece, or that they’d win 9 points. Several chose to capture the pawn on e5 rather than the queen, telling me that it was safe or would win one point. Typically, children will go for the first move they see that looks good rather than considering or comparing alternatives.
Most children had seen Fool’s Mate before but many were unable to recognise it here. One of two of those who selected Qh5 did so “because it’s check”, not realising that it was mate. Instead, Bxg5 was a disturbingly popular move, as was e5. I guess I need to give my pupils more practice at solving checkmate puzzles.
Another exercise in winning points. Many of the students correctly captured the knight but some chose exd6 instead, making the first capture they saw rather than looking for the best capture. A popular answer was Bb5+ which several thought was mate, forgetting that you can block a check from a bishop, while others played it just “because it’s check”. I guess I also need to remind them that “because it’s check” is not always a good reason for playing a move.
I have another simple question for you. There are three ways I could approach after-school chess clubs of this nature. I could just let them play, while providing individual advice, keeping track of the results and perhaps running league tables with promotion and relegation. I could spend 15 minutes of each lesson standing in front of a demo board or smartboard giving a lesson – which is what I suspect most teachers do. Or I could spend 15 minutes of each lesson getting children to solve simple worksheets. Which do you prefer, and why? In the past I used to choose one of the first two options, depending on the wishes of the school. My experience was that the standard of play tended to be higher at the schools where I just let them play. Perhaps this was partly because I’m not very good at standing in front of a class talking, but perhaps it’s also because, although children might enjoy the lessons, they’ll just be confused because they haven’t mastered the basics. After all, if you’re teaching maths, when you introduce a new concept you’re going to repeat it, reinforce it, test your students to make sure they all understand it, before moving onto the next topic. If you give them a lesson on multiplication one lesson and on division the next lesson I suspect it’s not really going to work. So now I’m giving children worksheets to find out whether or not they really understand the basics of chess: winning material and getting checkmate. Once they all understand this we can move on. The problem is, though, that while some children enjoy doing worksheets, others do not. At my new school, where the children were used to listening to lessons from their previous teacher, some of them have stopped coming, perhaps because they don’t like being expected to work.
So what I need to do is ask the school another simple question: do you want me to run a fun after-school activity where the children will make little progress or do you want me to run a chess class which will perhaps have less appeal but provide more benefits?