Steps Revisited (2)

Continuing my thoughts about the very different chess education philosophy represented by the Dutch Steps method, let’s consider an extract from the Step 4 Manual for Chess Trainers. This would be for children aged about 12-13 who have been studying chess seriously for three years.

This section discusses when children should move into adult chess. I’m paraphrasing a bit (and I hope I’m not misunderstanding) because the translation isn’t very good.

Bear in mind also that the course is most often used within a chess club. Dutch chess clubs (and European chess clubs generally) operate more like football, rugby or cricket clubs here in the UK, with an adult section and a junior section.

“The drawback with training in small groups is that it is impossible to organise a good competition. It’s boring to play the same opponents over and over again. In many clubs this is solved by letting the students play with the adults. The problem of moving children to the adult section is essentially the same as that of allowing children to go to bed late, or of forcing them to adapt socially to their seniors (consider 11-13 year olds). The children’s chess development will stagnate because they will subconsciously adapt their playing style to that of adults. Their sharp attacking games give way to careful play, so that they will not lose too quickly.”

The authors go on to suggest that it might be good to allow young people of 15 or older to play against adults, but for 12 year olds or younger it’s not a good idea.

This seemed when I first read it, and still seems now, pretty startling. At Richmond we used to run rapidplay tournaments every two months precisely to encourage those players who were good enough to compete against adults. We also ran teams in the local (adult) chess league for the same purpose. Our experience was very much that children gained enormous benefit from playing against adults as long as they were good enough players and had sufficient emotional maturity. It was good for them to meet opponents with a wider variety of styles and a wider range of openings than they’d encounter in junior tournaments. And of course many of the adults were scared of playing children: they had little to gain and much to lose when sitting opposite a small child. We’d encourage children to play tactically and to unleash their favourite gambits against their unsuspecting adult opponents. Putting children in a position where they had to learn to adapt socially to adults also had its advantages, although it could on occasion backfire when children breached the etiquette of adult chess.

It’s also interesting to note at what point simple endgames are taught. Basic king and pawn v king endings are only encountered in Step 3, and basic rook endings such as the Lucena and Philidor positions in Step 5, by which point the students will be strong tactical players.

So the principle of the course seems to be a small group of children developing tactical skills in a cocoon, not mixing with the outside world or playing against adults, learning no opening theory and only dealing with basic endings. I’d be interested to know to what extent the system really does work like this in real life. During the nearly 30 years it’s been in operation, though, the Dutch have produced an impressive number of strong young players, and the course is still being developed with more material being added to each step. So, however strange it may seem to us, its success cannot be doubted.

Certainly, the tactical material is highly impressive: well thought out, logically structured and extremely thorough, although I suspect there are different approaches to tactics that might be considered.

Here in the UK, though, and no doubt also in the United States, we take a more practical approach, teaching children openings and perhaps endings early on in order to prepare them for tournaments.

My view is that, as with most things, the best approach is somewhere in the middle. Regular readers will be aware of my view that in this country we put children into competitions too soon at the expense of skills development. Although I can’t see many teachers in the UK adopting anything resembling the Steps method it doesn’t mean we can’t learn a lot from the way it emphasises and develops tactical ability.

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.