Take Care!

A few years ago I was teaching a Reasoning class (to help children succeed at IQ tests) at a local school when a young girl explained to me that there were two types of mistake. You might make a mistake because something is too hard for you or you might make a careless mistake that you shouldn’t really have made.

If you look at children’s maths tests you’ll find that almost all young children will make several careless mistakes no matter how many times their teacher tells them to check through their work carefully before they hand it in. It’s in the nature of young children that this will happen.

If you look at chess games played by young children you’ll see the same thing. Probably about half the games played at, say, higher primary school level are decided in this way. At lower levels children will often give away pieces because they think it doesn’t matter. At higher levels children understand that Superior Force Wins but still hang pieces on a regular basis. The chessboard is a big place so it’s hard for less experienced players to see everything. Typical errors at this level might include overlooking a discovered attack, moving a pinned piece, moving a defender, blocking a line of defence, moving into a fork and so on.

What happens, I ask my pupils, if you make a careless mistake when you’re crossing the road? What happens if you make a careless mistake when you’re driving a car? What happens when a brain surgeon makes a careless mistake? What happens when an airline pilot makes a careless mistake? Learning to concentrate and avoid careless mistakes is a vital life skill, not just a chess skill.

We can help children avoid careless chess mistakes by teaching them to use a CCTV when they look at a chessboard. Looking for Checks, Captures and Threats leads to Victory. You have to look for your opponent’s checks, captures and threats as well as your own.

Then there’s the Magic Question. At lower levels the Magic Question is “Is the move I want to play safe?” At higher levels this becomes “If I play that move, what will my opponent do next?”. It’s partly a question of focus and partly a question of self-discipline.

The single thing most young children need to do which will most improve their results is not to improve their opening play, their tactical ability or their endgame knowledge but to learn to avoid unnecessary oversights.

It happens to all of us from time to time. If we lose because our opponent is stronger or just plays better we can learn from the experience. If we lose because of a careless mistake we’re letting ourselves down, and, in a team competition, we’re letting our teammates down as well. To maximise our results we need to eliminate these oversights. When a top player, especially one renowned for his solid play, makes a careless mistake it makes headline news. Here are two of the all-time greats, both renowned for being extremely solid and hard to beat, making fools of themselves.

In this game Capablanca makes a simple oversight at move 9, allowing a standard queen fork tactic, but struggles on to move 62 before capitulating.

In this game, Karpov also overlooks a simple queen fork and has to resign after just 12 moves.

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.