The Cynical Chess Teacher

Forgive me if I sometimes feel cynical about chess teaching. If I share some of my experiences with you, you might understand why.

Some years ago I was teaching two boys, aged about 8 and 5, who lived in a multi-million pound house and attended a local prep school. The older boy was not really interested and his brother was far too young. The only chess set in the house was a Simpsons set, so when I didn’t remember to bring in a set we had to play on that. I could never remember which piece Bart was supposed to be.

“Yes, I realise they’re probably too young”, their mother once said to me, “but they won’t have time when they’re older”.

Within this area, parents very much see chess as something you do when you’re very young, but give up at 8 or 9 because you have too much schoolwork. Our chess clubs have lots of children in Years 3 and 4 (age 7 to 9) but then they all stop. Previous posts here have suggested several reasons for this: lack of progress as well as lack of time. We need to get across a different message – that if you like the game you must find time to continue because you’ll develop thinking skills which will help you academically.

Then there was the girl from a local prep school who was a complete beginner, but whose parents insisted that she should learn. Every week I asked her mother to ensure that her parents played against her during the week so that she’d be able to put into practice what I’d taught her, and every week they promised to do so. The following week, inevitably, her mother would apologise profusely that they’d been too busy to practise the previous week, but promised me faithfully that they’d do so in future. Needless to say, the girl made little progress.

There was also the boy who was being home-schooled in order to pass a scholarship to one of the leading prep schools in London. He was often tired from a 3-hour French or Maths lesson before his chess lesson, I was teaching him sitting next to him (inappropriate for more than one reason) in a small study and the lessons were interrupted by his two out-of-control younger brothers, one of whom kept on trying to eat the pieces. He didn’t seem very interested in chess and his parents seemed unable to give him much support.

It’s because of experiences like this that I no longer offer private tuition for young beginners. I don’t want to waste my time or the parents’ money. Instead I email them a copy of Journey Through Chess, encourage them to buy a copy of The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids when it comes out, tell them that the younger children start the more help they’ll need at home, and add that if their children are really passionate about wanting to play chess every day then I might consider private tuition.

For the vast majority of children, private tuition is not the best way for young beginners to learn chess, anyway. If the parents are themselves enthusiastic about chess then learning at home is great. Otherwise, the best option is to learn with a group of friends, either at school or in a junior chess club.

If you’ve read some of my earlier articles you’ll know that I’m pretty cynical about after-school chess clubs as well. Although children are enthusiastic about chess in the short term, the standards are low, they make little progress and soon drop out. Many of these children would have been taught the moves in half an hour by parents with little knowledge of the game and consequently join their school club before they have any real comprehension of its underlying logic.

I believe there is an answer, though. You run a national chess curriculum for primary school age children. At each level you receive a badge or certificate or whatever. Passing each level would be based partly on a written test and partly on an assessment. Children are used to this idea: many children do Martial Arts where there are regular assessment days after which successful candidates receive a different coloured belt. You run beginners’ groups: on the school curriculum, as after-school clubs or in community chess clubs. If you want to join your school chess club or a junior chess club you have to pass an assessment. You’d then move on up into higher groups as your chess expertise increases. Schools, by and large, would only run lower level clubs, and could decide whether they just wanted chess to be a fun activity or provide tuition to take children up to the next level. Very ambitious schools might want to run higher level groups as well, possibly opening them up to children from other schools in the area. Junior chess clubs would run groups at higher levels, feeding children who want to make further progress through from local primary schools.

I’ll expand on what the curriculum might include in a later post if there’s interest. But what do you think? Is it workable? Would something of this nature make me less cynical about chess teaching?

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.