Talent Spotting

Last week I considered three reasons why you might want to promote junior chess at a national level.

One reason might be to produce strong players, potential IMs and GMs, young players who will do well in international junior competitions like the World and European Youth Championships.

Top grandmasters almost always start competitive chess young. If you start later it doesn’t mean that you won’t become a very strong player. The English IM Jonathan Hawkins, for instance, only started playing competitively in his teens and was not especially strong until his early twenties. But if you want your children to become world class players, these days they need to start playing competitively fairly young. Not necessarily at 4 or 5, but certainly by 8 or 9.

From my experiences, children who do well at chess at an early age have five things in common:

1. They usually have a very strong mathematical/logical intelligence. Some are strong academic all-rounders while others are maths specialists. They may excel at jigsaw puzzles or build Lego models designed for much older children. They may have a particular interest in computers or science. They may have an exceptional memory and excel at verbal and non-verbal reasoning and have a high IQ.

2. They are competitive by nature. They want to win, to be the best, and are prepared to work hard to achieve that aim. The children who cry when they lose are often those who eventually become strong players. If you don’t mind whether you win or lose you have no incentive to improve.

3. They are, or can be, mature for their age. Chess at its higher levels is an adult game: children who do well in competitions are able to switch off from being children and become adults for the duration of the game. They have the ability to control the impulse to play the first move that comes to mind and make the effort to find the best move. They have the emotional maturity to learn from their losses and the resilience to overcome setbacks. I’ve met so many children over the years with the talent to do well at chess at an early age but not the maturity.

4. They have highly supportive parents who will take them to clubs and tournaments, arrange tuition and encourage them to study and practise regularly. They have parents who themselves love the game of chess, whether or not they are good players, and who want their children to be the best they can be at whatever they do. Their parents encourage them to learn chess because they thing it might be something their children could excel at, not just because it might make them smarter or be an enjoyable after-school activity.

5. They have regular access to a coach who is knowledgeable about how children learn chess. This might be a family member who happens to be a competent player, but more often it will be a professional chess coach who is experienced at working with young children and who understands children’s cognitive and emotional development.

Now have a look at the top 11 year old players in the USA. Do you notice something about the names? If you look at the English junior lists you’ll find a higher than expected number of Asian and Russian names, but not to the same extent as in the USA.

I’ve written before about the difference between what I call ‘Eastern’ parenting, where children, from an early age, are expected to excel at whatever they do, and ‘Western’ parenting, where young children are encouraged to take on activities because they will be ‘fun’ or lead to extrinsic benefits. Some ‘Western’ parents, though, do take a more serious approach to chess, usually because they themselves have a particular interest in the game.

So, if we want to find children who might have the potential to become GMs, where should we look?

We’re probably going to look in more affluent, middle-class areas. I appreciate this may not be politically correct, but, whether we like it or not, it’s where we’re most likely to find our future stars.

We might want to look in areas with a higher than average ethnic minority population.

We might want to encourage schools in these areas to start chess clubs if they don’t already do so.

We might want to work closely with schools to identify children who have the first four attributes listed above (our job is to provide the fifth). Children who come from chess playing families will learn at home, but we also want to find children whose parents are not themselves chess players.

We might want to run tournaments (both individual and school) and coaching workshops in these areas, and use these to feed children through to junior chess clubs and private coaches.

We might want to work closely with junior chess clubs, or start junior chess clubs in areas without one close at hand.

We might want to provide resources for parents who do not play chess themselves but want to support their children’s chess.

We might want to make a specific effort to encourage more girls both to learn chess and to compete at higher levels.

Because parents in affluent areas are, by and large, prepared to pay good money for services they consider beneficial for their children, it’s not actually going to cost you very much. By bringing more children into serious competitive chess, in the long term you stand to gain.

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.