The Children on the Hill

Published by Quartet Books Limited, 1973, copyright 1972, it says in my paperback edition of this book. So I must have bought it at some point between starting to teach chess in 1972 and starting Richmond Junior Club in 1975.

I was working in Central London at the time and during the lunch break I’d sometimes walk the mile or so down the road to Foyle’s to browse the chess books. One day, for a change, I went to Dillon’s London University Bookshop instead, and chanced upon a small paperback which looked interesting. It told the story of a family of child prodigies living in a dilapidated cottage in Wales. The second child, aged only 9, had won a national piano competition open to children up to 14 (not, as the book cover incorrectly states, 18). I started browsing, and discovered that the oldest son was, apart from being a maths prodigy, something of a chess player.

The family, who were understandably fearful of any invasion of their privacy, were not identified in the book, and were given different names, but there were enough clues for me to suspect that I knew the oldest boy by sight. At the time I was playing regularly in weekend tournaments in London, and also visited the Mary Ward Centre, only a short walk from Dillon’s, where Leonard Barden and Bob Wade ran regular junior training tournaments, and where I’d seen him play. This, of course, was the start of the famed English Chess Explosion. It later transpired that my suspicions were entirely correct, and I knew the name of the oldest child.

So I paid my 40p and returned to my office with a copy of The Children on the Hill, by Michael Deakin. The Story of an Extraordinary Family.

In brief, and I’ll probably write much more about this another time in another place, the children’s parents determined to bring up children who were both happy and moral. Producing prodigies was an unexpected byproduct of this. Their methods were based on the teachings of Maria Montessori and Jean Piaget, and involved the parents totally subsuming their lives into the requirements of their children. The children were encouraged to find their passion and, with unconditional love and totally without pressure, take it seriously (the phrase ‘high seriousness’ occurs more than once in the book) as far as they wanted.

The desire to excel came from the children themselves, while the parents made enormous sacrifices to help them succeed. Parental involvement, lack of pressure and seriousness of purpose, along with the child’s natural ability, are the keys to producing ‘child prodigies’. If you’re at all interested in the subject I’d recommend the book. It’s been out of print for many years but second hand copies are readily available from the usual sources.

While I was reading this book, a Hungarian family were just starting something superficially similar. But unlike Martin and Maria, the parents of the Children on the Hill, Laszlo and Klara Polgar decided in advance which subject should be their children’s speciality, and, as we all know, they chose chess. Dangerous, you might think, for the parents to choose their children’s passion, and it could easily backfire, but in this case it seems to have worked.

If you want to consider a contemporary family of gifted children you might well look at the Kanneh-Mason family from Nottingham, whose seven children are all classical musicians of extraordinary talent. The third of the siblings, Sheku, last year won the title of BBC Young Musician of the Year, playing Shostakovich’s first Cello Concerto. Unlike, for instance, the Polgars, the children are not home-schooled, instead attending a Catholic Comprehensive School. Sheku also finds time for ‘normal’ interests such as football.

In several places on the Internet you’ll find questions about what happened to the Children on the Hill. The identity of the family is now in the public domain if you know where to look. In fact I wrote about Adam, the name given to the pianist in the book, a few months ago, using his real name. Although he never achieved genuine stardom he still plays and teaches professionally, appearing at leading venues as part of a piano trio. A few years after the book was published he followed his brother in taking up chess, which he still plays to a pretty high level, and is also involved in teaching chess to children. The two youngest children are also classical musicians, a flautist and a cellist. The chess playing oldest son was very active nationally and internationally during the 70s, but stopped playing to pursue a successful international academic career in computing, making a brief comeback at the chequered board a few years ago.

And there I was going to leave you, but just yesterday a boy only a couple of months past his fifth birthday turned up at Richmond Junior Club wanting to try out the Intermediate Group, having already held his own in a tournament against much older children. I asked his mother if he was really ready for a three-hour club, but she assured me he had no problem playing for six hours at home. Well, we did have a problem with him: it was very hard to persuade him he had to leave when we were trying to put everything away and adjourn to the pub! As he’d arrived very early he was there for the best part of four hours, playing quietly with total concentration the whole time. It was also clear, when I played a couple of games with him, that he had an intuitive grasp of the game’s logic. I’ve come across very few children, even a couple of years older, who have the concentration, the impulse control and the logic to play good chess, but this boy potentially has these skills at only five. Speaking to his mother, it’s clear that she’s going to be very supportive. Talent: tick (I think). Passion: tick. Supportive parents: tick. I’ll be interested to see what happens next.

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.