The same thing happens every year. I meet a new intake of Year 3s (7 year olds) at a primary school chess club. There are one or two who know nothing at all about chess: some parents sign little Johnny (or, less often, little Jenny) up for the chess club so that they can learn the moves. I’ll talk more about them another time. There may be one or two who come from a chess playing family and have some genuine knowledge about chess. But in the middle are the children who tell me they know how to play chess, or sometimes, that they’re really good at chess, but in fact know very little.
So I pick up one of the chunky pieces that starts in the corner. “Who can tell me what this piece is called”, I ask. A forest of hands goes up. I ask a child who seems particularly keen to answer. I know what’s coming next. “It’s a CASTLE”, he tells me. I explain that, while some people call it a castle it’s real name is a rook, so that’s what we call it here. (I’ve also seen strong players who know perfectly well what it’s called teach their children it’s a castle. No idea why.) His face falls. His implicit belief that everything his dad tells him is correct has been shattered. I might as well have told him that Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
Then I get them to play some games. After a few minutes another child raises his hand. “I’ve won the game”, he tells me excitedly. “I’ve taken his king.” I try to break the bad news to him as gently as possible (not easy when there are several other children round the room waiting to ask me questions). He hasn’t actually won the game at all, and in fact he’s not allowed to capture his opponent’s king. But his dad told him you win by taking the other guy’s king so they don’t understand.
None of this would matter too much if parents were prepared to get up to speed on learning about chess so that they could provide more useful help for their children. In this school I don’t have contact details for parents and very rarely get a chance to speak to them at all. In another school a couple of years ago, though, I had email addresses for parents so I contacted them explaining the rules of check and checkmate so that they could help their children play legal moves. Did I receive any replies thanking me for going to the trouble of telling them how they could help their children? What do you think? Instead I got replies telling me they didn’t want to know, they didn’t have time to help their children, and they themselves hated chess anyway.
One of the major problems for chess teachers here in the UK is that chess is not part of our national culture. Many people know, or think they know, how the pieces move, but they have no idea how to play properly. They use incorrect names for the pieces, they don’t know how to set the board up correctly, they don’t understand check, checkmate and stalemate, they are confused about pawn promotion, castling, and, in the unlikely event that they’ve heard of it, the en passant rule. They’ve never opened a chess book in their lives, never read a newspaper chess column, never watched a chess DVD, never visited a chess website, couldn’t give you the name of any famous chess players with the possible exception of that American guy who played the Russian guy, and they consider him to have been a nutter. Their father probably taught them the moves when they were young, he in turn was taught by his father and so on, like a Generation Game of Chinese Whispers, with less being understood each time round. They have no idea about the complexity of the game, the history, the heritage, the literature. No wonder they consider chess a simple game suitable for young children to play once a week at school without any parental support.
In the BBC TV quiz Only Connect, two teams of three compete to make connections between seemingly random things. The competitors on this programme are amongst the best in the country at problem solving, general knowledge, logic and creativity so you’d expect them to be reasonably well informed about chess, and indeed a few chess players have appeared on the show. In a recent episode one team was asked to find the next item in a sequence starting a1:R, b1:N, c1:B. They thought it might have something to do with cards and guessed that the answer was d1:Y. Their opponents were then given the chance of a bonus point by answering the question themselves. They correctly realised that it was to do with chess, but couldn’t remember which way round the big guys went, so went for d1:K as their answer.
General ignorance indeed. If we want to help young children become proficient players we have to start by educating the parents. But where do we start? My book Chess for Kids is selling very well: parents want to be able to buy a book to give to their kids so that they can teach themselves (not understanding that chess is far too hard for 7-year-olds to teach themselves). But no one is buying The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids because they have neither the time nor the inclination to help their kids. So far, at any rate, there is no interest at all in Chess for Heroes for the same reason. Unless we can break through this barrier chess as a serious adult game in this country will gradually fade away.