The Richmond Problem

A couple of months ago I witnessed an interesting debate on the English Chess Forum between two of our most respected organisers and arbiters.

One of them was praising all the hard work done by junior chess organisers while the other was questioning how effective they really were, judging from the disturbingly low numbers of teenagers and young adults playing serious competitive chess.

A good point, in my opinion. Those of you who are aware of my views will know that I think we start children on complete games of chess too young, teach them too quickly and put them into competitive chess too soon. But there’s another reason which I’ve touched on briefly before. This applies specifically in Richmond, but I suspect it happens to a lesser extent elsewhere as well.

I’ve mentioned before that I recently took over a chess club at a local prep school. Every week I emailed the parents tips to enable them to help their children improve their chess. The responses I received were telling. “We don’t want to support our son: neither he nor we have time”, said one parent. “I don’t think I want my son to play for the school”, said another. “If he did that it wouldn’t be fun any more.” Parents were saying I was making it too serious by giving the children worksheets to do rather than, as their previous teacher did, “showing them a new move every week”. They had a lot of serious academic work to do and just wanted to do chess for fun. Very sad. Twenty years ago, you’d expect to walk into an excellent school like this and find at least a handful of pretty decent players. Now, there’s only one pupil there with any ambition at all. He spends his holidays in his mother’s home country of Russia where he has private chess tuition twice a week.

Here’s the thing, then. Most parents here in Richmond who sign their children up for chess at school want their children to ‘do’ chess but specifically don’t want their children to be good at chess. They’re looking for a child-minding service which will entertain their children and give them the chance to play chess against their friends. This wasn’t true to anywhere near the same extent 20 years ago, but there’s been a gradual shift over the past two decades. Let’s look at the two main reasons parents give me.

The main reason seems to be that it will interfere with their children’s studies. Perhaps, but I don’t think their children get pulled out of sports or music in the same way. And aren’t we promoting chess as something that will make you smarter? In which case, shouldn’t chess be the last thing you give up?

Then they tell me that chess should be fun. Yes, you can play chess for fun if you like: most chess players do. If all you want to do is run a ‘fun’ chess club you don’t need to pay a professional chess teacher, though. Furthermore, if you ran a ‘fun’ board/card games club instead, where children could be introduced to a variety of games, it may provide more benefit to more children. It’s also unlikely that children who just play low level ‘fun’ chess will get very much academic benefit out of it. Many of us who play serious competitive chess would say that the fun comes not from actually playing the games, but from challenging ourselves to see how good we can get and from making friends who share our interest in chess.

Richmond is one of the most affluent of London Boroughs, but the far corner where I live is, in three directions, half a mile or less away from the much less affluent Borough of Hounslow. This borough has some affluent areas, notably Chiswick, but the areas near me, Hounslow, Hanworth and Feltham, are, for the most part, very different. So I emailed the schools in Hounslow and had several positive responses.

In Richmond, schools offer a wide range of extra-curricular activities. Many organisations go into schools knowing that the affluent and aspirational Richmond parents will pay good money to enable them to pick their children up an hour later from school. In Hounslow, though, things are very different, and children have far fewer extra-curricular clubs to choose from. Schools are, naturally enough, reluctant to provide services which many parents will be able to afford.

Schools in Richmond are usually horrified when I suggest putting chess on the curriculum. Many of the parents in that area would not want their children to miss anything academic, and they also think that their children are smart enough already and don’t want anything to make them smarter.

This explains why Chess in Schools and Communities’ initiative in putting chess in schools, and often on the curriculum, in more deprived inner-city areas has been so successful and so valued. In these areas, schools will be prepared to look at anything different which will approach education in a different way and and enhance their pupils’ experience of school.

Hounslow is somewhere in between: while most of Hounslow is much less affluent than most of Richmond, it is also comparatively well-off compared with some of the areas in which CSC is currently operating.

I have some more Hounslow meetings scheduled for next week and hope to start something up in a few schools in the area in September. It could even be that Hounslow, with a large Asian population and a growing East European population, will be a more fertile ground for finding serious and potentially strong players than Richmond.

I’ll keep you in touch with my progress.

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 ( 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.