When to Take Lessons

The question is not should my child take chess lessons but when should the lessons start. The reason we’re seeing so many highly rated and talented young players has a great deal to with when they start studying under a qualified coach or instructor. Many professionals believe the target age for starting chess lessons is between five and eight years old. The reason for this has to do with a child’s ability to absorb information. However, we should explore this notion in greater detail. Young children tend to spend less time second guessing instructional information and are more open to accepting guidelines as fact. I know this seems counter intuitive to the way children think, exploring ideas by testing them, but in the right hands (a good teacher), young children will absorb the information with little intellectual resistance which develops good habits from the start.

Many parents will have a chess coach or teacher handle the entire process, meaning the coach or teacher teaches the rules of the game. As much as I’d enjoy collecting a high hourly wage for explaining the rules, I tell parents not to waste their hard earned money on something they can do on their own. Thus, parents should teach their children the rules of the game before starting them with a coach or teacher. Parents should keep their expectations low, meaning they should set realistic goals such as the child simply being able to move the pieces correctly. Too many parents jump into specific game principles before their child has a basic command of pawn and piece movement which is frustrating for both child and parent alike. Children learn at different speeds so patience is an absolute must. Just because your child’s friend learned to correctly move the pawns and pieces very quickly, doesn’t mean your child will do likewise. It also doesn’t mean your child isn’t going to be a good chess player. He or she make just take a bit longer to catch up. On the flip side, just because your child picks the rules up quickly doesn’t mean he or she will be the next Magnus Carlsen. Take your time and set small realistic goals. Make it fun by telling stories about each piece and define the piece’s special way of moving as the piece’s super power (as if that piece was a comic book hero). If it isn’t fun, your child will be less likely to enjoy the game. If you’re new to chess, pick up a copy of Richard James’ book, The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids.

As for which person to choose for your child, coach or teacher, go with a teacher because there’s a difference. Coaches tend to work with children who already play chess and play it well. Coaches have to prepare their students for tournaments which means they have to cover a lot of conceptual ground and quickly. They often don’t have the patience needed to work with an absolute beginner. Teachers, on the other hand, have more patience and specialize in the basics. Choose a teacher over a coach unless your candidate does both. Finding one depends on your location. If you’re in a big city or near one, you can generally find a chess club. Many schools offer after school chess programs. The important thing is to find someone who works well with kids. Why? Because kids require a teaching program that is on par with their intellectual level. A good chess teacher needs to explain complex ideas employing simple analogies. A teacher who speaks as if presenting a dissertation on particle physics to a room full of rocket scientists is probably going to sound as if they’re speaking ancient Sanskrit to your child. Teachers who specialize in teaching chess to children know how to simplify explanations and more importantly, make those explanations fun.

Of course, there are a lot of people who fancy themselves chess teachers but in reality couldn’t teach well if their life depended on it. Therefore, interview the teacher. Better yet, ask them to define a chess concept for you. See if their explanation makes sense, not only to you but your child. Is that explanation suitable for a child? Remember, you’re hiring this person as a teacher so they better be able to teach. Put them on the spot, After all, you’re paying them for a service. Another good source for finding chess teachers is on college campuses. Put up a flier in the mathematics and science departments (not the music department or you’ll get a roguish character such as myself). College students are generally excited and passionate and this will translate to passionate teaching. Some of the most passionate chess teachers we have at Academic Chess are college students and the kids love them!

You should start your child off learning chess at a young age but the younger the age, the more patient you’ll have to be. As your child gets older, they’ll be more apt to question everything. While there’s nothing wrong with this, in fact I tell my students that questioning everything is their youthful job, it can make the learning process a bit slower. However, there is no age maximum for learning chess. While we’re on the subject of questioning things, there’s nothing wrong with this idea. In fact, most children who learn the game even at an early age will question why they should do something, such as following the opening principles. Let them ignore those principles because they’ll quickly learn via experience that the principles do work. Again, it comes down to being patient. Start your child off young, be patient and let them learn at their own pace. After they learn the game’s rules, hand over the job of teaching to a professional but be proactive. Ask your child what he or she learned during their chess lesson. Have them explain it to you. You’ll know if the teacher is earning his or her keep and if your child is progressing by your child’s response. Don’t be afraid to switch teachers if your current teacher isn’t working out. It’s not a marriage, it’s a paid position! Speaking of positions, here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).