The Belt System

Teaching students in the school system presents a number of challenges regarding the measure of a student’s improvement. In a perfect world, the student’s progress would be measured in terms of rating’s points earned through tournaments. However, because my classes only take up seven or eight months of the school year, students don’t have the opportunity to play in many rated events. Therefore, I just recently started using the martial arts belt system for measuring my student’s progress. Like a martial arts class, students earn belts based on what they’ve learned and how they employ that knowledge, in this case, on the chessboard. This is a new teaching method for me and one that I’ve just started using so we’re still in the testing phase!

So far, this system has had positive results because students tend to put more into their studies when they know that their efforts are rewarded with a belt, which in this case is actually a program certificate. The belt order I use, from lower to higher skill levels is white, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown and black. The certificate has a color image of the belt, the student’s name, achievement and the date of passing their test.

My students have always had a healthy interest in the martial arts, many of them having taken classes. Running a chess class like a martial arts studio or dojo has advantages because you can work discipline into you teaching program. Since chess improvement requires discipline, this is an excellent way to help students develop this much needed skill. Chess classes don’t work unless students are fully engaged, otherwise, you’re simply working as a babysitter! Running a chess class like a martial arts studio keeps my students actively involved. While I use the belt system as a means to measure my students progress, and students have to pass tests for each belt, I’ve incorporated one other condition into their ability to progress from belt to belt. The more experience students must help the less experienced students improve. Students wishing to move up to the next belt must tutor students of lower belts. Teaching fellow students helps to improve one’s true understanding of the ideas and concepts being taught. It also helps solidify the idea that our class is a team and a team is only as strong as its weakest member. We work together for the common good of the dojo.

If you’re looking for a way to manage and measure your student’s progress, the belt system works well (so far) because often, in school based chess classes, you have a mix of students with different skill levels. If you try to present a game with intermediate concepts, the advanced students will become bored and the beginning students lost! It is very difficult to employ a one or two sizes fits all approach. What I started doing recently was presenting a game and pointing out concepts based on my belt system. When a key point for absolute beginners comes up, I’ll announce “white and yellow belts pay attention. All other belts be prepared to explain this concept to your students” When an advanced idea is presented, I’ll say “white and yellow belts this is an advanced idea which we’ll discuss later, one on one, so don’t worry about it if you don’t understand the idea right away.” It is now important for advanced students to pay attention to ideas they already have a basic understanding of since they’ll need to teach them to less experienced members of the group and it’s more important for less experienced students to know that they’re not expected to understand more advanced ideas right away. I’ve been using this system since the start of the this session less than two weeks ago with good results, so far.

So now we’ll look at qualifying for belts. All students who are brand new to chess start out as a white belt. To earn their yellow belt, they must know how the pawns and pieces move, castling, check and checkmate. White belts are expected to help other white belts learn these rules. To pass the yellow belt test one must also know the rules of promotion, capturing en passant, piece value and chess notation. Yellow belt candidates must also tutor at least one white belt to earn their belt.

Orange belts must learn and master three opening principles, starting the game with a centralized pawn move, development of minor pieces to active squares and when to castle. They must demonstrate that they’ve used these principles correctly during the three games I grade them on. I watch Orange belt candidates play three consecutive games and base their grades on the application of these three primary opening principles. Of course, they must tutor at least one yellow belt to advance.

The green belt test includes the three primary opening principles plus some additional principles regarding what you don’t want to do in the opening. I thought about including this in the orange belt test but wanted to make the student’s progression through the belt system easier at the start and more complex as they move up the ranks. The things they cannot do during the opening are making too many pawn moves, moving the same piece twice unless necessary (which requires a full explanation by the student) and bringing the Queen out early. Again, they also have to tutor at least one orange belt to advance.

The blue belt is more complex in that there are two levels within this belt. Students have to have taken classes with me for at least six months. This belt is all about introductory tactics. Students must learn and employ forks, pins, skewers, discovered attacks, etc. I watch as they play a number of games and while playing, when they execute a specific tactic, I grade them on it. They pass if they are able to set up and successfully execute each tactic. To pass the first belt level, students must simply set up and execute the tactic, one per game. To pass the second level, at least two tactical plays must be made in a single game. There is no limit to the number of games required to pass level two. They might meet the requirement in two games or twenty. Of course they have to tutor a student who holds a belt below theirs.

The brown belt requires learning basic middle and endgame play. This belt requires that the student has been taking chess classes with me for at least nine months. A brown belt candidate must demonstrate the ability to improve piece activity during the middle game, before attacking, and employ tactics during this game phase. Their endgame work requires the ability to deliver checkmate using their King and pawn, as well as the King and a combination of pieces. Their is also a test in which they play a pawn and King endgame against me, demonstrating ideas such as King opposition and using their King to promote a pawn. They also work with lower belt students.

Finally, the black belt requires two years of working with me. We work one on one, going through opening theory, advanced middle and endgame ideas, etc. Students, through hard work have the opportunity to work with their instructor (me) directly, playing a game and analyzing it afterward. Black belt candidates work with brown belt candidates.

Since this system is new for me, I’m working with yellow and orange belts only but expect to see more advancement towards the end of the year. Because I have a new crop of students, I thought this would be the right time to test this teaching method out. I’ll keep you posted regarding what works and what doesn’t. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

This entry was posted in Articles, Children's Chess, Hugh Patterson on by .

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).