The Boy I Was

Vojin Vujosevic asked why we teach chess. My answer, like Nigel’s, is very personal. It’s also very simple. Chess saved my life, so I could do no less.

This, you see, was the boy I was. I was the weird, friendless kid who sat at the back of the class. The kid who was too shy and nervous to speak to teachers and who rarely spoke to other children. The kid who was the worst in the school at every sport. The kid who wasn’t allowed to stay for school lunch after a meltdown on his first day. The kid who hid from the bullies in the far corner of the playground at morning break. Today, kids like me get diagnosed with something like Asperger Syndrome and Developmental Coordination Disorder, but in those days there was no help or support. You just had to get on with your life.

Let me take you back 52 years: Christmas Day 1960, the tenth Christmas of my life. When I woke up I found a small plastic chess set on the tree. Red and white pieces in blue plastic. I’ve no idea why my parents thought I might be interested in chess, and I don’t think they really knew either.

I quickly became obsessed with the game and as I went through secondary school the chequered board played an ever greater part in my life. At the age of 15 I played in my first tournament and joined a local chess club. By 1972, when I finished my studies, I didn’t know how, given my lack of social and communication skills, I was ever going to get a fulfilling job or make real friends. All I knew was that, whatever else I did I had to keep on playing chess.

That summer, chess was on the front page of every newspaper as a result of the Fischer-Spassky match. Suddenly, everyone wanted their children to learn the game. My parents’ friends asked if, as I played chess, I could teach their children. Teaching was the last thing I wanted to do. I’d spent thirteen years being bullied at school, and had every intention of having nothing to do with children for the rest of my life, but I’d learnt that things were much simpler if you said yes, so reluctantly agreed.

My chess club was, in the meantime, being invaded by young children who wanted to play chess but were too young, too weak and too noisy, so in 1975, along with another club member, Mike Fox, we started a junior club on Saturday mornings. We must have been doing something right since, within a few years, we had a lot of very strong members, several of whom became GMs or IMs and a number of whom are now professional chess teachers themselves.

Sharing my love of chess with children gave my life meaning and purpose, so I was excited when the Richmond Chess Initiative was formed in 1993, giving me the opportunity to promote chess clubs in local schools. But it soon became clear that there was a big difference between after-school clubs and Richmond Junior Club. The RJCC members were, by and large, serious about improving their chess and had very supportive parents. The players in the school clubs were mostly very weak and only interested in social games. Their parents often only signed them up because it was a cheap child-minding service. It worked up to a point because we were able to feed the stronger players through to RJCC, but as the years went by, fewer parents were prepared to let their children play more than once a week.

When I started a lunchtime club at my old primary school I asked myself a question: if I had joined a club like this at the age of 7, would I have played, taught and written about chess as an adult? Almost certainly not. The children who start young and do well always have highly supportive parents who are often players themselves. My parents were not chess players. They would not have wanted, nor been able to learn enough about chess to help me and they wouldn’t have understood the importance of my having help. I would, of course, have been too young to teach myself. There would have been no Richmond Junior Chess Club, no Complete Chess Addict, no chessKIDS academy, no Chess for Kids and you wouldn’t be reading these words now. And, less important to you perhaps, but more important to me, my life would have had no meaning. By encouraging primary school chess clubs where children just played once a week during term time, I was, in a sense, taking my own life away from me.

I’m eternally thankful for the way junior chess was run in the 1960s. I’m eternally grateful to my parents for not showing me the moves until I was old enough to teach myself in order to progress and not putting me into competitions until I was old enough to appreciate and learn from the experience on my own.

So, in brief, I decided to cut down my chess commitments and go away to search for a better way of teaching and promoting the game to children. A way which prioritises giving a long-term passion to a few children over giving a passing interest to a lot of children. A system which will work for children whose parents who want to help their children even though they themselves are not interested in chess. A method of identifying children whose lives, like mine, might be transformed by chess. Most of all, something that would have helped the boy I was.

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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.