Employing a Chess Teacher

I got two interesting calls this week regarding private chess instruction. In the first case, a woman called to ask if I would be willing to teach her son how to play chess. The second call was from an adult who had never played the game before. I asked the woman first, if her son had ever played chess before. The answer was no. I then asked her if she or her son’s father played chess. Both mother and father knew the basics of the game. I asked the other caller, the adult, if he was willing to study on his own for a few weeks before starting his work with me. I suggested to the woman that she or her son’s father show their boy the basics rules and then start lessons. The woman asked me why I would suggest such a thing. My answer was simple: You don’t want to pay me $50.00 an hour to teach your son something that can easily be learned free of charge.

Too often, I’m approached by parents who think, because I teach chess fulltime, that I have some magical way of teaching piece movement and general rules that will help speed along their child’s journey towards mastery. This simply isn’t true. Investing in a well written chess book for beginners is a much better investment for the budding chess master. All the methods I employ, with the exception of a small few, I’ve gotten from beginner’s chess books. I think it would be a crime to charge anyone an hourly rate if they can get the same information from a book. However, there does come a time when you’ll want to invest in some lessons or coaching. This time comes after the game’s rules have been learned and your child shows more than just a passing interest in the game.

Many parents will enroll their children in a school chess class or club to introduce them to the game. While this makes sense from an economic standpoint, since group classes are generally less expensive than private lessons, the classes are often mixed from an experience point of view. Typically, my classes have a few absolute beginners and a few more advanced players with the bulk of the students being in the middle. This makes it difficult for a student who has never played chess before. While the beginner will learn the games rules, they’ll have a difficult time understanding more advanced concepts because they haven’t mastered those rules. What I recommend to parents considering enrolling their children in a chess class or club is to teach them the rules of the game before letting them sign up. If the parent doesn’t play chess, I suggest they purchase a children’s chess book and learn along with their child.

Age plays a critical factor in this discussion. Too many parents (at least here in the United States) enroll their children into chess classes at too young an age. While I seem to have a great gift for amusing and entertaining children while teaching chess (mostly because I never grew up, have a childish sense of human and don’t trust adults), my students have to come into my classes with at least a small attention span which we can subsequently develop further. Children in kindergarten are too young to sit through a one hour class. Their job is to not sit still and explore everything around them! That is part of growing up!

Let’s say your child has learned the basics of chess, enjoys it and wants to take it further. Now you should consider outside help. Here, you have two options. The first is chess classes, such as those offered in many schools now. This is a good way to go. Knowing the rules prior to enrollment, a child will be better able to understand the specific lessons being taught such as opening principles, tactics endgames ,etc. I tell parents considering enrolling their children in my classes to drop by, sit in on one of my classes and test drive my teaching methods. You don’t buy a car sight unseen so you wouldn’t do the same when shopping for a chess teacher!

Of course, there are schools without a chess program, so what should a parent do? The parent should start shopping for a suitable chess teacher. Here, you have to be really careful. You need to find a teacher that works with children. Believe me, there is huge difference between teaching children and teaching adults (of course, I’ve been known to blur the line by teaching children like adults and adults like children). Teaching children requires vast reserves of patience. If I was looking for a chess teacher for my child, I would ask two questions: First, do you teach children and second, how many children have you taught. As for teaching credentials, don’t assume because a potential chess teacher has a master’s certificate and a roomful of trophies that he or she works well with kids. Ask lots of questions, after all, you’re the employer interviewing a potential employee. Ask your potential chess teacher if he or she’s ever heard of Pokemon. If the answer is no, keep looking.

Let’s say that you’ve found a chess teacher for your child. What comes next? Obviously, the lessons come next, but there are a few points to consider prior to starting. The first point is that you need to play an active role in your child’s chess studies. I recommend a lesson review after each session with your child’s chess instructor. Doing this does a number of things. First, it helps reinforce what your child has learned. Second, it teaches you a bit more about the game, allowing you to participate in your child’s progress by being able to apply the instructor’s lessons to games you play with your child. Do not deviate from the lesson taught. This is how bad chess habits are born. Lastly, it allows you to monitor how well your child is learning from his or her chess teacher. If you notice your child having problems with specific concepts, make a note of them and discuss it with their teacher.

Practicing is extremely important! You don’t become a world class violinist without practice and the same holds true with chess. This is why it is important for parents to play chess with their children. If you, the parent, are new to chess, follow along with your child’s lessons, learning as they do and testing out your newfound knowledge with them on the chessboard. Be proactive.

Now back to our adult beginner. I tell potential adult students to first learn the rules of the game and then start their lessons with me. Adults should save hard earned money by investing in a good book on the basics and then take lessons. In the case of my adult beginner, I was able to give him three book titles to choose from. When he asked me which book he should choose, I told him to preview each and purchase the one that seemed clearest to him. While most beginners’ books cover the same information, some are written much more clearly than others. I emailed him a syllabus of what he should know prior to starting his lessons with me. While I might never see him because he decides that he can teach himself or decides against pursuing the game, I know that he’ll at least got pointed in the right direction.

In closing, don’t assume that the more a teacher charges the better they are. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the teaching and learning process. Ask your child how they like their chess teacher. This is extremely important because there has to be a positive connection between student and teacher. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson


Author: 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).