The Magic Question

Last week there were two new boys at my Wednesday after-school chess club. Now this really shouldn’t happen. The parents should get the message that the club is for children who know how to play chess, not for children who want to learn. Complete beginners in a club of this nature need individual attention, and this doesn’t give me time for the other children in the club. Anyway, I quickly introduced them to the pieces and taught them to play the Capture the Flag pawn game (just 8 pawns each: in my rules you win by getting a pawn to the end, capturing all your opponent’s pawns or stalemating your opponent). As I usually do with complete beginners I played without my c and f-pawns. On his third move the first boy I played deliberately placed a pawn where I could take it for free, saying “My dad says you have to take risks when you play chess”.

“Hey ho!”, I thought. Another kid who’s been given bad advice by a well-meaning but ill-informed parent, or who has perhaps taken advice out of context.

On Saturday there were two new 8-year-olds at Richmond Junior Club. The first boy had been recommended to us by the chess teacher (a former pupil of mine) at his school club where he was beating his contemporaries and was looking for something more challenging. He played a couple of games against other children, but he was losing by hanging his pieces. So I played a game against him. After a few moves he said to me “Points don’t matter”. I’m not sure whether this was something he’d learnt from his father or whether he’d misunderstood something he’d been taught at school.

Every week I’m more and more convinced that most children in primary school chess clubs think points don’t matter, that they should take risks, that chess is a game of luck not a game of skill. Every time we show children who have this misapprehension a brilliant sacrifice to force checkmate we’re actually reinforcing their beliefs. And there’s no point in showing them combinations to win material if they think that points don’t matter.

It’s easy for us to assume that children automatically understand that it’s an advantage to have more points than their opponent but they don’t, and very often it seems that their parents don’t either. Unless and until children understand this, teaching anything else will only confuse them. Who, I ask them, would win a football match between Chelsea and Manchester United if Chelsea had three men sent off? (Given Manchester United’s current form the answer is probably Chelsea but that’s another story.)

Once children understand this we can introduce the Magic Question that will take them to the next level. The Magic Question is what they have to ask themselves before playing their move. For beginners, the Magic Question is simply “Is it safe?”. If points don’t matter, safety doesn’t matter either. Once they’ve mastered this the Magic Question changes: “If I do that, what will my opponent do next?” – you have to look at the whole board, not just the piece you’re moving, to avoid moving defenders, moving pinned pieces, moving into forks, overlooking discovered attacks and so on.

A few children, though, seem to pick things up straight away. We had another new 8-year-old at Richmond Junior Club last Saturday. I was contacted by his parents: they’re a Japanese family who have just moved to England. The family are keen Shogi (Japanese Chess) players but their son had only just learnt the basics of Western chess. I wasn’t sure he’d be ready but suggested they brought him along for a trial session. I gave him a game when he arrived, expecting to take all his pieces and win easily, but it became clear after just a few moves that he knew exactly what he was doing. He negotiated his way through some middle game complications to reach an ending with level material. Fortunately for me, my king was nearer the centre and I had fewer pawn islands, so I was able to win a pawn and eventually the game. Although he’d only been playing Western chess three weeks he was already close to 100 ECF/1450 Elo standard. Compare this with most primary school chess players who, after three years are still unaware that they have to look at the board and avoid losing points.

Talent undoubtedly has a lot to do with it, but perhaps we should start by educating the parents so that they get the right message across to their children as to what chess is really about.

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.