The First Lesson

I explained in my previous post that I prefer to start by teaching the pawn move. Here, in more detail, is my first lesson. The order in which I do things will change slightly depending on the age of the children: with younger children I’ll only tell them about captures when I introduce the third game.

I start off by explaining the pawn move and capture, and, if necessary, let them play about with the pieces to make sure they understand it. I then explain my ‘Capture the Flag’ rules: you win by getting a pawn to the end, taking all your opponent’s pawns or ‘stalemating’ your opponent.

If they seem to understand this I explain that we’re going to play a game and set up the starting position with a white pawn on e2 and a black pawn on c7. I then give them a choice of playing white or black. At this point, younger children will almost certainly give an illogical answer, choosing their favourite colour, for example, instead of analysing the game before making a choice. I try to persuade them to play white, but if they insist, I’ll play white myself and win by starting 1. e4. If they decide to play white I explain that they have to make another choice: whether to move their pawn one or two squares. At this point they usually, although sometimes some prompting is required, give a logical answer: that moving two squares gets them nearer the end of the board.

Somewhere round about here I explain the mechanism of choice. Imagine I have two flavours of ice cream: strawberry and chocolate. If I offered them some ice cream, which flavour would they prefer? This is purely a question of preference, but there are other decisions in which you have to take into account what is going to happen next before making your choice. For instance, are you going to play computer games or do your homework this evening? You may well prefer the first option, but if you look ahead you’ll probably choose the second option.

At this point they may well look at you in open-mouthed astonishment. This sort of thinking is very difficult for children to grasp, at least within the context of a game. As teachers and parents we usually find it easier to tell young children what to do rather than giving them anything more than non-trivial choices.

Eventually they will realise that if they firstly choose white and secondly choose to advance two squares they will win the game. This can be reinforced by repeating the game but starting the pawns on different (non-adjacent) files.

We then move onto the second game. This time White starts with a pawn on e2 and Black with a pawn on e7. Again, I give them the choice of White or Black. Usually, they will choose White, partly because White won the last game, and partly because they haven’t yet fully come to grips with the rules. If I can’t persuade them, I’ll take the Black pieces, and, when they play e4, will reply e5 and ask them to remind me of the rules. Once I get them to play black, I’ll first play e4. I’ll explain that again they have a choice: one square or two. Once they understand that they will win at once by moving to e5, but lose by moving to e6, we start the game again, but this time I play e3 on my first move. Again they have a choice, and they have to look ahead in order to make the correct choice. I then ask if they can come up with a rule as to how Black should play this game. This sort of generalisation is difficult for young children, so they will probably need help to be able to explain that Black can win by copying White’s first move.

In the third game, White starts with a pawn on e2 again, but this time the black pawn is on d7. Again, they have a choice of colour, and this time, because Black won the previous game, they usually choose to go second. It’s a good idea to check that they remember how pawns capture before starting this one. Again I play e4. They remember that in the previous game they advanced two squares and try to do the same thing again before realising what’s going to happen. If they notice in time they’ll play d6 instead. After I play e5 they again have a choice: if they capture they automatically win, but if they advance I’ll get to the end first. We then start again: I play e3 this time. I encourage them to think carefully before making their choice. If they choose the correct option, d5, I play, as I have to, e4. Now they have another choice. This time either option wins. Capturing wins at once, but pushing will also win by one tempo.

At one level, chess can be seen as a game of decision making. Every move you have to make a decision. There are two steps in the decision making process: first you consider what your options are, and then you look at each one in turn and decide what is going to happen next. The player who is more successful at making these decisions will win the game. This doesn’t only apply to chess. If you make good decisions in life you’re more likely to be happy and successful than if you make bad decisions. So this very simple lesson, with just one pawn each, can, if it is reinforced by parents and teachers, be enormously powerful. The art of decision making is the basic of success in chess – and in life.

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.