It was in the very early days of Richmond Junior Club, 40 or more years ago. One Saturday morning a boy approached me accusingly. “Mr James, you made me lose!”, he said.
I soon discovered what had happened. The previous week I’d demonstrated Legall’s mate to him. A few days later he had a school chess match and was presented with the opportunity to move his pinned knight, following up with a check when his opponent captured his queen. Sadly, there was no mate there: the position was similar but not the same. Of course this is one reason why chess is so hard. you learn an idea: there will be many similar positions where the same idea will work and, equally, many other similar positions where it won’t work. You can’t just use memory. You have to calculate as well.
I was reminded of this the other day by something one of my private pupils said to me. When he arrived for his lesson his mother told me that he had a tournament coming up in a couple of weeks time so could I teach him some openings? At his level chess is about not making oversights and understanding what’s happening at the start of the game, not, as many parents assume, about learning some moves off by heart before a competition.
I printed off what I’ve done so far on Chess Openings for Heroes, which takes a very different approach to the begnning of the game, and decided I should start by making sure he knows how to stop Scholar’s Mate. In this sort of tournament there are always kids who will try it on. We’ve done this several times before, but unless it’s reinforced at home, children will forget. I played the moves 1. e4 e5 2. Qh5 Nc6 (he argued with me that Nf6 was better because he seemed to remember someone once told him that was the move to play) 3. Bc4. To his credit he played Qe7. I told him that was fine, but that he could also play g6. He looked horrified by this suggestion and told me his chess teacher at school, who is a much stronger player than me as well as a very experienced chess coach, said that this was a bad move. No doubt he was told not to play 1. e4 e5 2. Qh5 g6 but had remembered the advice without understanding the reason and was unable to differentiate between the two positions.
At this level children remind me of Eric Morecambe’s attempt to play the Grieg Piano Concerto in the famous Morecambe and Wise sketch: they play all the right moves, but not necessarily in the right order.
There was also a boy at a school chess club more than 20 years ago who had remembered that after 2. Qh5 you could defend by putting one of your big pieces on e7, but couldn’t remember which piece to use. So week after week he played 2… Ke7 and week after week lost game after game in three moves.
Children who try to memorise moves without understanding and without calculating will inevitably become confused and frustrated. But memory is much easier than calculation and understanding for young children, and their parents often suffer from the mistaken belief that chess is mostly about memory.
It’s not just the moves that can leave children confused: it’s also the rules of the game. A few months ago another of my private pupils played in the Megafinals of the UK Chess Challenge, just failing to qualify for the Gigafinals. He told me that in one of his games he was winning and decided to castle. When doing so he accidentally knocked his king over. His opponent claimed a win on the grounds that my student had resigned. His father then came up (I don’t know why he was in the playing hall at all) and explained that the result was correct: if you knock your king over you forfeit the game.
I’ve seen children cheat in this way but you can also see how a misunderstanding might arise. You’re watching a video of a game between two grandmasters. One of them turns his king over to indicate that he’s resigning. Your child asks why he did that and you reply that if you knock your king over it means you resign.
Some years ago, another pupil was playing in the Megafinals. In one game he was winning but his opponent moved his king next to my pupil’s king and claimed a draw. My student, thinking this was a rule he didn’t know about, accepted the result. Again, you can guess what might have happened. The other player witnessed a board with the kings on e4 and e5. He asked the reason for this and was told that if two kings stand next to each other it means the game is drawn. Taking it out of context, he assumes that if you move your king next to your opponent’s king at any time you can claim a draw.
Most children are resilient and get over this sort of experience pretty quickly, but a few aren’t, and don’t.
You see misunderstandings at a more basic level when children first join school chess clubs. They’ve been told ‘you win the game by taking your opponent’s king’ and ‘you castle by swapping round your king and rook’: maybe because their dad really believes that these are the rules, but more likely because he doesn’t explain checkmate and castling clearly and make sure that his children understand.
How can we avoid these misunderstandings and ensure that children are well prepared before they join a chess club and before they play in their first tournament?