The Last Shall Be First

The grammar school students in the various schools and school systems I visit weekly stem from backgrounds ranging from generational poverty to conspicuously affluent families. A few have participated in some form of organized competition. There are two or perhaps three notably talented youngsters among all those I teach this year, but none have had much formal chess education.

I limit my discourses on the opening to three domains:

  1. Early traps such as Fool’s and Scholar’s Mate
  2. The problem set by 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 and Black’s second move possibilities, with some subsequent analysis
  3. The problem set by 1. d4 d5 and White’s second move possibilities, with some subsequent analysis

I learned to stop at limits 2 and 3 when I found my students discovering on their own the London System and Cochrane’s 4. Ne5xf7 in the Russian Defense.

But generally, when the children are willing sit quietly and listen to a brief lecture with Q&A before breaking out the boards and sets for chessplay, I prefer to teach my afterschool enrichment students about the endgame. This has two benefits, one obvious and one more subtle. The obvious benefit is that the ending allows the student to become familiar with the intrinsic powers of the individual pieces on the open board in a fashion that is denied by the more crowded board of the opening and midgame.

The more subtle benefit is learning the concept of conversion. To wit, the task in chess is repeated conversion of the position one finds to a position more familiar and more desirable. As it is considered provable in game theory that no comprehensive algorithm exists for choosing the right move in any chess position short of calculation to all possible terminal positions, conversion is worthy of being considered a fundamental principle of chess.

Students become familiar, and occasionally fluent, in conversion after the simple lesson of 1st, 2nd and 3rd position:

  1. Kd6 Pd5 kd8
  2. Kd5 Pd4 kd7
  3. Kd5 Pd3 kd7

After demonstrating that (1) is a win with either player to move, and that (2) is mutual zugzwang revolving around the struggle to convert (2) to (1), the brightest student in the class always gets that the trick in (3) is to convert to (2) with Black to move.

Chess is solved back-to-front. If we could but see it, the entire game is a corresponding squares problem.

The game which follows is one of my more feeble recent efforts. On the heels of a tournament in which I defeated two experts and drew a third, gaining 82 rating points, this month’s first round saw me paired as White against an unrated. Preoccupied with the affairs of the day, I turned in a classic (for me) performance of being utterly artistically absent while maintaining a modicum of technical skill. I managed to draw a terrible position by conversion to a classic king-and-pawn ending.

I blogged May 2, 2015 on general thoughts about teaching chess for children.

Jacques Delaguerre