The Boy on the Island

Once upon a time, nearly twenty years ago now, there was a boy who lived on an island. His name was Sam: the hero of my book Chess for Kids is named after him. He must have been six, getting on for seven, when I started teaching him: a couple of years younger than any of my previous private pupils.

Right from the start we hit it off really well. He was so excited to see me every week: we’d spend much of the lessons in fits of laughter and at the end he would jump over the furniture in delight at how well the session had gone. He was good as well: not brilliant but a decent player for his age, good enough to take first place in the London Primary Schools Under 8 Championship in a year in which most of the stronger players didn’t take part. For 18 months or so things were great, but gradually frustration set in. As he got older I expected him to be more serious and deal with harder subjects. I became frustrated with him because he was unable to understand concepts I thought easy, and he became frustrated with my frustration. He told his mother he was no longer enjoying the lessons and she decided to try a different teacher, who shortly afterwards got the job of running the chess club which was starting at Sam’s primary school. But it made no difference and Sam soon gave up the game.

I always told Sam that he taught me more than I taught him, something I’ve told many children since. He didn’t understand, not that I expected him to: they never do. In fact he taught me two very important things: firstly that, unlike, I guess, most chess teachers, I really enjoy working with younger children because it’s so easy to make them laugh, and secondly, that young children often find very simple things hard to grasp and frequently get stuck and find it hard to improve their chess.

While this was going on I started teaching two more young boys, and this time I was no longer surprised when exactly the same thing happened. For a couple of years they looked pretty good but were unable to make progress. Following the progress of other chess players as well, it became clear that it wasn’t just me. While some children would get past this block at the age of 8 or 9 and continue to improve, many others would just get stuck.

Trying to work out what had gone wrong with Sam and the other boys, I started reading about child development, and soon came across the work of Jean Piaget, the subject of my previous post. Suddenly, everything became clear. You can teach children to play low-level chess, a Concrete Operational activity, at about 7, and with private tuition they’ll become stronger, but, under normal circumstances, they won’t be able to play high-level chess, a Formal Operational activity, until they’re about 11. The neural connections are not yet made and there’s nothing you can do except wait.

So, I decided that if I wanted to teach younger children, chess was probably not the subject to teach them. I eventually withdrew from most of my chess activities outside Hampton Court House. I also wrote two articles on the subject of junior chess which were published in CHESS. Then I discovered the Dutch Steps Course and mentioned it on the English Chess Forum. This led to an email conversation with the course’s co-author Cor van Wijgerden. Cor said that, while he found my articles interesting, he didn’t agree with me that you shouldn’t start teaching chess too soon. If you used his methods, teaching the basics slowly, you can overcome the problems that Sam and the other boys I was teaching encountered. He also said that, in his opinion, the main reason children gave up chess was because they got stuck and felt that they weren’t improving. Although you can, and some teachers, especially those who are themselves strong players, do, teach the basics quickly, it is not a good idea to do so. The children who learnt fast would often get stuck, while those who learnt slowly would overtake them. It’s the old story of the tortoise and the hare. Slow and steady wins the race. Or, as my old school motto (they shamefully discarded it a few years ago) put it, Paulatim Ergo Certe.

So I returned to chess, adding a lot of new features to chessKIDS academy to encourage ‘slow’ learning of chess and writing Chess for Kids: a story book in which Sam and Alice learn chess slowly, piece by piece. My next book, The Right Way to Teach Kids Chess, will be a guide for parents and teachers encouraging ‘slow’, structured chess teaching, and I’m developing a series of worksheets similar to those in the Steps course and elsewhere, but specifically tailored to follow the chessKIDS academy course. There’ll be more about this in a later post.

There’s a myth that most children drop out of chess at 11, when they leave primary school. They give up ‘childish things’ and move onto a new school, with new friends and new interests. In fact this isn’t true. About half the kids who join primary school clubs are getting little or no help at home and get nowhere. The other half, who are getting some help at home, do quite well for 18 months or so, then gradually lose interest because they are no longer making progress.

We first have to recognise that there is a problem in primary school chess. Next, we have to recognise what the problem is. Then we can start looking for a solution.

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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.