If you know any Annoying Small Children, or if you were once an Annoying Small Child yourself, you’ll be familiar with the Why Game.
You know how it works. Annoying Small Child asks you a question. You answer, then they ask “Why?”. Every time you give an answer they ask “Why?” again. When I was a boy the game stopped when the adult gave the ASC a clip round the ear and told him to stop being cheeky, but this is no longer considered acceptable so the game continues.
When a child comes up to me at a chess club or tournament and says “I won”, “I drew” or “I lost” I will usually ask them why. If they lost the game they’ll usually reply “because he checkmated me”, whereupon I ask “Why?” again. They tend to think I’m playing the Why Game with them, but there’s actually a serious purpose behind my questioning. They’ll eventually tell me that checkmate was the reason for their loss, but if they hadn’t made a mistake and allowed the mate they might have won. Further investigation will reveal that they were probably several pieces down at the time. They may have made a mistake and allowed a quick mate, but it would only have delayed the inevitable defeat. What I really want them to say is that they made a mistake and lost a piece, after which their opponent only had to be careful to win the game. We, as experienced players and mature thinkers, understand that if we’re a piece up it’s easier for us to set up tactics, win even more pieces and get checkmate because we have more pieces to attack with and our opponent has fewer pieces to defend with. But young children often don’t think this way. They don’t appreciate my second, or rather, third, TLA of the day: SFW (other things being equal, Superior Force usually Wins). On the other hand, when I asked a younger but stronger player why he drew a game, he explained to me that he was a pawn up in the ending and thought maybe he could have won it. This is exactly the sort of answer I want.
The same thing happens when I’m playing or analysing a game with a pupil. Before I started asking “Why?” I assumed that if they left a piece en prise it was because they didn’t look (either a fundamental misunderstanding of chess or a failure of impulse control) or because they looked but didn’t see (a failure of chessboard vision, or, in non-chess terminology, eye-brain coordination). The other day two boys at Richmond Junior Club were eager to play white against me. In both games they left pieces en prise. When I asked why they told me they knew and weren’t worried about it because they were busy pursuing their attack on the other side of the board.
This is the problem with showing brilliant games and sacrifices to less experienced players. Of course we want to encourage them to be both aggressive and creative in their play, to appreciate the beauty of great games, to learn to think ahead and much else. But if they see these ideas before they’ve fully appreciated the SFW principle they may well get confused about the whole idea of chess. They need to learn to follow the basic principles of chess before learning when to break them. They need to learn to walk before they can run.
Another problem is that children at this level are not very good at defending. Witness this recent game by one of the boys I played that day. Our hero, needless to say, was Black.
It’s very true, as this game demonstrates, that you can lose most of your pieces and still get checkmate, but once you get into the habit of thinking that losing pieces doesn’t matter it’s hard to get out of it.
In his song Teach Your Children, Graham Nash advised parents: “Don’t you ever ask them why”. I prefer to parse this as a question for chess teachers: “Don’t you ever ask them why?”.