At a party on Boxing Day I met a former professional footballer, his wife and 13-year-old son. There was a chess set out and the father challenged me to a game. I took White in the first game, won a piece early on and had no problem converting. The second game, though, was different. After a good opening I contracted some weak pawns and eventually just about managed to escape with a draw a pawn down in a rook ending.
Later on I played his son, and something similar happened. Again I won a piece quickly on the white side of a Ruy Lopez, but unlike his father, he resigned at once and turned the board round. I managed to win the second game as well, but only after a long struggle. He told me after the game that he usually beats his dad because he knows his weaknesses. It was clear that both father and son were more than competent players who would be welcomed by any chess club in the country.
Now this may sound surprising but there’s one fact I’ve so far neglected to mention: the family are Bulgarian and have been in England a couple of years. The father told me his son had received training in Bulgaria up to the age of 11 but hadn’t played since coming to England. Instead he’d been concentrating on sports as, like his father, he’s a talented sportsman.
There are a number of cultural reasons why it’s difficult to run a successful (and by ‘successful’ I mean that a significant number of children will become competent players and continue their interest beyond the age of 11) primary school chess programme here in the UK and this is one. In Eastern European countries, I suspect that many adults, even if they don’t play competitively, are reasonably competent players with a basic understanding of what the game is all about. Here in the UK most parents who try to teach their children chess know little more than how the pieces move themselves.
While I was playing the father, his son was engaged in a game of Monopoly with three younger boys whose parents were hosting the party, and who had received the game as a Christmas present the previous day. The children were clearly enjoying themselves, but, more than that, were learning a lot from it, and not just about capitalism. By playing together they were developing social skills, with the older boy helping his three younger friends. They were also improving their maths skills by working out the sums of money involved and trying to give the right change. This is clearly a family that enjoys playing board games together, and quite rightly so too. This, I suspect, is much better for young children’s cognitive development than sitting in front of a screen. There was a Scrabble set on the table, as well, which looked as if it was much used. Again, children will learn a lot from Scrabble. They’ll improve their spelling and vocabulary, develop their maths skills by adding points and multiplying double and triple scores, and pick up some strategic thinking. Playing any or all these games will be, at a low level, beneficial to children, and it may well be that children will gain more benefit from playing a lot of different games rather than concentrating on being very good at one game.
Now you can treat chess in exactly the same way, just as a parlour game, and that’s absolutely fine. Learn how the pieces move, go away and play. But in Eastern Europe they take a very different approach: chess, as a serious game, not just as a parlour game, is part of their culture. It’s all very well putting compulsory chess lessons at the age of 5 into Armenian schools, because many of the parents will be able to help their children at home, but trying to do the same thing over here in the UK will just end up putting most children off chess because, without parental support, it will just be too hard for them.
It seems to me that we have two options: we could concentrate on promoting chess in secondary schools while establishing a network of junior chess clubs to cater for younger children who want to take chess seriously and have supportive parents. Or, if we want to promote chess in primary schools, we need to get the message across that, if you want to do well, you need to put a lot of effort in, just as you would if you wanted to excel at, for instance, playing the piano, or playing tennis.
I had piano lessons as a boy. I didn’t get very far, but far enough to give me a lifelong interest in classical music. My parents didn’t play the piano themselves, but they encouraged me to spend time every day practising my scales and arpeggios as well as the pieces my piano teacher had taught me. We need to provide parents with materials that will enable them to help their children on a daily basis even if they know little about chess themselves. Probably only a small minority of those children who learn chess while they are at primary school will take this route, but we need to recognize that there are parents out there looking for help. And providing that help is what I’m trying to do at the moment.