Teaching Chess to Children

Teaching chess to children is the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life. I fell into my current position literally by accident. I had been a chess player most of my life (just a chess player as opposed to a good chess player) but my true love was music. For over thirty years I had played guitar professionally and figured that would be my life’s work. In 2007, my musical career was going great. Then I was diagnosed with cancer and things looked bleak. I thought about my life and realized that being “that obnoxious punk guitarist” was a rather depressing legacy. As with many people suddenly in a dire situation, I thought about making a deal with fate: “Fate, if you get me through this, I’ll do whatever you ask of me.” Of course, I thought the better of it since making last minute deals with fate seemed a bit tacky or downright rude. Therefore, I simply decided that if I got through my medical troubles, I’d do something positive with my life. I’d create a legacy I could be proud of. Two weeks after I got a clean bill of health the telephone rang. A friend of mine wanted to offer me a job teaching chess to children. I needed a sample lesson for my presentation so I did an internet search and found the Academic Chess website. I also saw that they were hiring. I ended working for Academic chess rather than the other organization and couldn’t be happier. Here are a few things I’ve learned about teaching chess to children that should be of help to the parents of budding chess players.

Play chess with your children. If your child takes music lessons, you know that they must practice to improve. Learning to play a musical instrument requires constant practice. The same holds true with chess. We can only get better if we study and practice. You have to do both, studying key game concepts and then applying those key concepts to your own games. You could read a stack of books on how to play the guitar but you’re not going to play well unless you pick the guitar up and play it! Unlike the guitar, chess requires two people to play. I don’t recommend using computer software programs as an opponent for your child when they’re first learning the game because the computer will not explain, in a way they can understand, why the child’s moves are weak. This is where you, the parent, come into the learning process. Play chess with your child as much as possible. If you haven’t played chess before or haven’t played much chess in general, there are a plethora of books your child’s chess teacher can recommend. There’s also nothing wrong with learning the game alongside your child. Chess can create a lifelong bond between parent and child that often transcends those rough teenage years, keeping your family bond strong. However, I should note that if you play chess with your child you must be wary of passing on any bad habits.

The only tough part of my job (I can’t even call it a job since I’m essentially getting paid for doing something I love) is correcting bad habits. Compounding this problem is the fact that many bad habits are picked up from well meaning family members. Often, I’ll be walking around my student’s chessboards in our classroom and notice a poor move being made or a problematic position. When I ask my student why they made the move in question or how they ended up in such an awkward position I often hear “my dad always makes this move” or “my father always plays this position.” You have to be careful when telling a student that they’re father’s favorite move may not be the best choice! Remember parents, your children love you and consider you the family chess expert. Because of this exalted status in your child’s mind, a bad chess habit you have will be passed onto your child as easily as a virus (requiring some serious intervention to eliminate). Therefore, as a parent, you need to be very careful when imparting or passing on any chess wisdom to your children. Again, use a book recommended by your child’s chess teacher to teach them the finer points of the game. You are your child’s role model in life and in chess. This means that you must tread cautiously when teaching them this wonderful game. There are plenty of excellent books to guide you, such as the numerous works of Bruce Pandolfini. Bruce’s books will give you clear and concise explanations of the finer points of good chess.

One of the hardest parts of teaching chess to children is patience. Patience is the chess teacher’s best friend. Children have not yet developed the ability to focus on a subject for long periods of time. A child’s mind can easily wander so you need to work with your child in short blocks of time (to start). Thus, if you plan on having your child study chess for three hours a week, don’t plan on a single three hour session. Break it up into six thirty minute study sessions. Be patient! I cannot stress this enough. As adults, we often forget that children can struggle with a key concept, becoming frustrated. That key concept might seem simple enough for an adult but it’s an entirely different story for a seven year old child. If your child has trouble understanding a key concept, take your time explaining it. Explain it two or three or four times. Use analogies a child can understand. For example, when talking about pieces working together on the chessboard, I use the analogy of a sports team working together to win the game. When you start to become impatient because your child isn’t getting a particular concept, take a deep breath, stop the lesson and take a walk around the block with your child. Then go back and try to work on that concept again. Ask your child’s chess teacher for advice regarding an explanation of the specific concept in question. My student’s parents know I’m always available to help them with their explanations.

When playing a game of chess against your child, don’t play weakly because you want to see them win. Playing bad moves intentionally will only hurt your child in the long run. Do you think their opponents at tournaments are going to “go easy” on your child? As your child’s primary opponent, you need to make moves that reinforce the lessons they’re learning in their chess classes. Your child will improve by learning from their losses. Write down the games you and your child play. Go over those games later on and point out where they went wrong. If you’re new to chess as well, have your child’s chess instructor analyze the game (I do this all the time for my students). Don’t get in the habit of allowing them to take back a move once they’ve progressed a bit. Your child should think about a move before making it and, if they know you’ll let them take back their move, they’ll put less time into thinking about each move. Introduce the “touch-move” rule early on. If you touch a piece you have to move that piece (unless doing so would be illegal).

Exercise good sportsmanship. I’ve encountered many junior players with a bad attitude at the chessboard, throwing tantrums when they lose or gloating when they win. Much of this behavior is learned at home. You as a parent serve as your child’s role model so if you gloat when an endeavor goes your way, chances are your child will to! Lastly, have fun! If you play through a famous game with your child, make the game’s back story fun. I’ve been known to spin some wild yarns around chess games that turn a lesson into a crazy adventure. Children like fun. Here’s a little homework. Play through this game and create a fun back story, the wilder the better. Then try the game and story out with your child.

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).