The Castlie

If Stephen Moss, a player with a perfectly respectable grade (slightly above average club strength) considers himself a rookie, perhaps we need a different word for those who really are rookies.

Just before the start of term I received an email from a parent of a boy at a school where I run a chess club asking me if I had any vacancies. She told me her son was 10 years old, was passionate about chess, and had been playing regularly against his father at home for several years. As it happened I had some vacancies so invited him along for the first week of term, and offered him a game to find out what he knew.

He started off by setting the pieces up incorrectly, reversing the black king and queen, which was clearly how he had been taught at home. When I asked him the name of the chunky guy in the corner he shrugged his shoulders, looked bemused, and proposed “the tower?” – not unreasonably as he’s Italian. He started the game with 1. h4, explaining that he wanted to play Rh3 next move. When I asked him about the values of the pieces he thought that the bishop and knight were both worth four points. A nice boy, friendly and enthusiastic, but not (yet) a chess player.

The same day the school asked me if I was prepared to take a 6-year-old boy, two years or more younger than the other boys (sadly, no girls there) in the club. They told me his mother claimed he was a brilliant player, and that he was mature enough to cope in an environment with older children. They were right about the second point, but not the first. He was playing white against one of the stronger players in the club, and when his opponent moved a knight from d5 to capture a pawn on b6, he protested that his opponent was playing an illegal move because knights didn’t move like that.

Now if I’m told that a 10 year old is a passionate footballer I’d expect sensible answers from questions like “Which position do you like to play in?”, “Who’s your favourite player” or “Who do you think will win the Premier League this season?”. But if I ask most kids who claim to be passionate about chess similar questions, like “What’s your favourite opening?”, “Who’s your favourite player” or “Who’s going to win the world championship match” I’d get no more than a blank stare and a shrug of the shoulders.

Most kids who play chess at home, and, for that matter, most adults who play chess in this country, have little idea about competitive chess, would be hard pressed to name very many famous chess players, wouldn’t be able to give the name of any opening, would probably think the best first move is a4 or h4, would be completely unaware of the en passant rule, and would think that rooks were called castles.

If Stephen Moss is a rookie, we need a new name for players like this. There seems little point in calling them rookies anyway, as they wouldn’t understand the pun. Perhaps we should call them Castlies instead. As Stephen wrote in his book, chess has slipped under the radar in this country, and I don’t see much hope of it returning to anything like its post-Fischer popularity in the near future.

Of course we have to realise that most kids in school chess clubs just want to play games with their friends, with someone there to help them if they’re not sure whether or not it’s checkmate. It would help a lot, though, if they all knew the very basic stuff that any adult who already knows the moves could pick up in half an hour or so. I’ve tried a lot of strategies to encourage parents to help their kids in this way, but none of them have had any effect: most parents just don’t want to know. The general view of chess seems to be that learning the moves is very hard, and that if your young child manages this he’s a genius, and that playing chess is about little more than playing random legal moves. I once asked a school chess club whether they thought chess was a game of luck or a game of skill. Most of them voted for a game of luck.

If you can think of any good way of getting through to the adult Castlies and giving them a few pieces of very basic knowledge about chess, please let me know. I’ve tried writing a book: no one buys it. I’ve tried offering free consultations for parents and children: I’ve had no takers. I’ve tried sending emails out to parents: they reply telling me they don’t want their children to be good at chess. I wish I knew what the answer was: perhaps you, dear reader, can help.

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.