Here at Hampton Court House we have chess sets in the Main Hall. Sometimes I come across parents using the sets to play against their (usually very young) children. It only takes a few moves to realise that many of the parents have no idea at all how to play real chess. They’re doing little more than making totally random moves.
One reason why they teach their children so young, I guess, is that, because all they know is how the pieces move, they think that’s all there is to chess. It’s hardly surprising, then, that many children in after-school chess clubs have little idea what they’re doing. It’s hardly surprising that, when I ask them whether chess is a game of luck or a game of skill they sometimes tell me it’s a game of luck. It’s hardly surprising that for most of these children it’s just a craze which will only last a short time, and that the younger they start the quicker they’ll lose interest. It may look as if these children are playing chess, but in my opinion they’re no more playing chess than a toddler banging on the piano keys is playing the piano.
If they get as far as the school chess club, we can try to teach them the basic principles of good chess, but they’ll make little progress. When children learn a new concept in maths, it will be reinforced by constant repetition over several days along with homework. With any luck, though, we might be able to teach some of them about the values of the pieces so that they can try to avoid losing material. But that’s not as easy as you might think. What sometimes happens is this: I set up a position on the demo board in which White can trade a knight for a black rook and ask them if they’d make the capture. “No”, some of them say. “We don’t want to lose our knight. They can jump, but rooks can’t.” I ask them how much the pieces are worth. They tell me that a knight is worth 3 points and a rook is worth 5 points. But they still refuse to make the exchange. Now it might be obvious to you that if we say a knight is worth 3 points and a rook is worth 5 points, by assigning a higher value to the rook we’re also saying that rooks are (by and large, other things being equal) better than knights. Children are not always able to make this jump in logic, though. If I ask them whether they’d prefer £5 or £3, 5 chocolates or 3 chocolates, some of them eventually get it.
Even beyond this level, children have problems understanding the fundamental logic of chess. Several times recently, I’ve been playing pupils with some tournament experience who play reasonably well, when suddenly they give up a bishop for a pawn and a check. “Do you really want to play that move?”, I ask them, assuming they haven’t seen that they’ll lose the bishop. “Yes, I know”, they reply. “It doesn’t matter. I often win when I’m a piece down.” Of course, if they spend a lot of time at school playing against children who either don’t understand that you’re not supposed to lose pieces, or who don’t understand that you’re supposed to look at the board so that you don’t lose pieces, then they will often win when they’re a piece down.
What it comes down to is this: most children in primary school chess clubs, and also many of the parents, have no real understanding of the principle that (Other Things Being Equal) Superior Force (Usually) Wins. Until they understand this, there’s little or no point in teaching them to solve tactical puzzles to win material. There’s little or no point in showing them that they can play a queen fork that wins a bishop if they think that winning or losing a bishop doesn’t matter.
So, if we really want to teach beginners well we need to do two things. We need to teach chessboard logic and chessboard vision. We need to ensure that children can see everything on the board and understand everything they see before we introduce tactical puzzles that involve thinking ahead. Most of all, we need to teach parents this as well, so that they can help their children constructively rather than just playing random moves against them. This is the main reason for my forthcoming book, and why I’m now writing a course designed for use by parents working at home with their children.