The Fish Sermon

You know, of course, of the story of St Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes.

St Anthony travelled to Rimini to preach to the heretics and convert them to the ways of righteousness. But there was no one in church, so instead he went to the seashore, where the river met the sea, and preached his sermon there.

Behold, a miracle occurred! The fish emerged from the river and the sea to hear the sermon. As Anthony continued to preach, more and more fish came to listen. They were really impressed by his oratory as he exhorted them to renounce their wicked habits and turn to God. It was the finest sermon any of them had ever heard.

But what happened afterwards? The short answer is: nothing. The pike continued fighting and stealing. The eels were still lecherous. Even the crabs still walked sideways. The sermon was completely forgotten.

It strikes me that much chess teaching, especially that directed at young children, has the same sort of effect as St Anthony’s sermon. I’ve seen too many lessons where a teacher is demonstrating a game to a class of small and not very strong children. (Come to think of it, I’ve probably taught too many lessons like that myself!) If the teacher is charismatic, like St Anthony, the children will enjoy the lesson and might even be able to guess some of the moves, but it will have no effect at all on their play, except possibly to confuse them. Whereas older students might be able to pick up a general piece of advice from seeing a game by Fischer or Kasparov, young children are not able to use inductive logic in this way. If they try to move from the specific to the general, or from the general to the specific they often get very confused. If they do anything at all they’ll pick up on one move and play it at every opportunity whether or not it’s appropriate. If they see Kasparov make a sacrifice they’ll start giving up pieces randomly in their own games because it’s what Kasparov did.

“If I hear, I forget. If I see, I remember. If I do, I understand.” Well, up to a point. If you’re an auditory rather than a visual learner the first two might just be reversed. But for much of chess, you have to do it yourself to understand it. If you want to teach your pupils about knight forks, give them a worksheet full of knight forks rather than just showing them on the demo board. If you want to teach them how to mate with a king and rook you’ll have to show them on the demo board first, explaining your moves as you go along (visual and auditory teaching) before getting them to do it themselves. You’ll also need to ensure that (as they may just be mimicking you rather than understanding at a higher level) they can still do it next month – and next year.

The secret of Richmond Junior Club’s success over many years was actually nothing to do with the quality of the teaching, but more to do with the fact that we did very little teaching at all, instead ensuring that our members played lots and lots of games under serious conditions. I knew I wasn’t very good at standing up in front of an audience talking to them so I just let them play instead, watching their games and keeping track of all their results, and accidentally stumbled on a very effective way of running a chess club for ambitious kids. I also found that the schools where I did little teaching were more successful than those where I was expected by the school to do more teaching. Perhaps young children, if they’re serious about chess, learn more from playing than from someone talking to them in front of a demo board.

The best lessons for young kids are those where they learn one big thing, not where they learn lots of little things (or even lots of big things), and preferably one big thing that relates to something that happened in their games so that they have a personal relationship with the lesson. Generalised lessons might be fine for older and stronger players, but for younger, less experienced players, they’ll have as much effect as St Anthony’s sermon to the fishes.

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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 ( or 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 ( 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.