“My father would never make such a mean move!” This statement was made by one of my beginning students after I took his Queen with one of my Bishops. I asked him what he meant by “mean move” and he told me his father always let him keep his Queen even when under attack. This is one example, in a long list of examples that falls under the heading of bad habits. Bad habits are so widespread at both adult and junior beginner levels that I’m thinking of adding a tag line to my business card that says, “Breaker of the worst chess habits, a specialty.” With children, these bad habits are harder to break because they’re often learned from a parent or equally beloved family member. Therefore, I’m going to offer some advice to parents of young beginners (this also applies to anyone teaching the game of chess to others of any age) to be used to avoid the development of bad habits. Trust me when I say it is easier to learn good habits than it is to break bad ones.
If you have a son or daughter (or both) in a chess class or club, you should become involved by playing chess with them. This doesn’t require that you play master level chess. However, it does require that you follow a few simple guidelines. Following these guidelines will reduce the possibility of the dreaded bad habit rearing its ugly head. Here are a few points to consider:
When playing against your son or daughter, play to the best of your ability! Many parents think that they should give their children a fighting chance by playing subpar chess against them. By subpar, I mean not playing strongly, allowing the children to easily win. Many parents feel that they’re nurturing their children’s interest in chess by allowing them to easily win. While I completely understand the parent’s point of view, since no parent wants to appear brutish in their children’s eyes, you’re doing a great disservice by playing weakly. When your child faces other children, those children are going to play as hard as they can, taking advantage of any mistakes made by your child. To get better in chess you must play against stronger opponents and it starts with you the parent! Play strongly against them and they’ll eventually meet the challenge.
Teach the art of patience to your child. Children have a hard time taking their time when making moves. Many children move their pawns and pieces as if they were playing Blitz. Teach your child to take his or her time. I would start by making them spend at least sixty seconds per move for the first two months, increasing the time per move by a minute every two months until they’re spending four to five minutes per move. To help them develop patience, ask them to find at least three possible moves they can make before committing to one. This not only helps the sixty seconds pass quickly (which can seem like a lifetime to a child) but forces them to examine the position more closely. Time management is a crucial factor.
Don’t teach your children cheap tricks and traps. I had a student whose father was a Blitz player specializing in opening traps. He passed this on to his son who did quite well against beginners. However, when faced against a stronger player, the young man was always beaten. This led to his leaving chess. Teach chess to your children using opening principles, tactics and basic endgame principles. While I don’t recommend teaching your child chess traps, I do recommend teaching them to spot and avoid traps. Present the subject of traps by saying “we’re going to learn how to avoid traps” rather than how to spring them on an opponent.
Don’t be a dreadful chess parent. These are the type of parents that teach their children to win at all costs. Children are under pressure at tournaments and don’t need the additional pressure of their parents living vicariously through them. Teach them to play for the love of the game not the love of ratings points. Children often get better at chess by learning from their mistakes. Allow them to make mistakes, carefully pointing out where they went wrong. Teach them good sportsmanship, such as shaking their opponent’s hand before and after the game.
Teach them to learn from their losses. Chess is a game that comes down to a battle of two minds. Children go through emotional turmoil as they grow up. Losing a game of chess can be devastating to a child. Therefore, as a parent, you should teach them that a lost game is actually an opportunity to improve. Play through a lost game with your child and determine where they went wrong. When you find the move that led to the position falling apart, look for alternative moves that would have turned the tide for your child. My students have learned to view their losses as an opportunity to improve.
What do you do if you’re also new to chess? Study the game with your child. I use a series of work books with my students and have inexperienced chess parents solve the problems in the books as well. Both parent and child learn the game together which helps develop good chess habits in both. What if you’re a parent who knows how to play chess and is willing to play with your children? Follow the chess class or club lesson curriculum. Often, parents who play chess will try to introduce more advanced ideas to their children. The problem with this is that the child isn’t able to comprehend these ideas and becomes confused. Worse yet, the child will try to employ these ideas without any idea of how to do it. This leads to lost games. Stick to the lessons being given to your child and reinforce them in your own games.
Lastly, practice what being preached in the chess club or class. If the class is studying opening principles, make sure that you as the parent are applying them. When the chess teacher says don’t bring the Queen out early and you do so in a game with your child, chances are your child will start bringing the Queen out early with disastrous results.
Make playing chess a fun experience. Be patience and don’t expect your child to play like Magnus Carlsen after six weeks of lessons. Chess improvement takes time and, as a parent, you should expect slow but steady progress. Children will make mistakes during the learning process. This is the norm rather than the exception. Let them make those mistakes but reinforce the idea that the mistake could have been avoided by applying ideas such as opening principles, etc. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!