How do you teach beginners? Which piece do you start with?

With younger children I’d probably start with the line pieces (rook, bishop, queen), just like Momir Radović.

But with slightly older children I’ll sometimes start with pawns.

I’ll begin by talking about making decisions. Imagine you’re in a restaurant. There’s a menu. You have to make a choice. Will you choose the pizza or the burger? How do you decide? (You might prefer the steak, but then you wouldn’t be able to afford the ice cream afterwards, but that’s another issue for another lesson.) I also talk about impulse control. They’ll probably tell me they don’t know what it means. What do you do if you’re crossing a busy road? You’ll stop and look in all directions. What happens if you don’t?

So we’re going to play a game. Every day of your life you make thousands of decisions. If you don’t stop and think first you’ll make the wrong one. You’re going to learn a new game. If you make the right decisions you’re going to win.

I start by explaining the pawn move, and let my students make some moves on the board. At the moment it doesn’t matter if they don’t get it right at first. If they play a few games they’ll soon get the hang of it.

I place a white pawn on e2 and a black pawn on c7, explain that White always starts in chess, and tell them that the winner of the game is the first player to get their pawn to the end of the board (and ‘capture the flag’).

They have to make their first decision: White or Black? Why did they make their choice? Four ways: random (mentally tossing a coin), magic (it’s my lucky colour), false logic (I’ll be black so that I can copy you) or true logic (it’s a race: the player who goes first will win).

Eventually they realise that White can win by playing 1. e4, but if instead they choose 1. e3, Black will win by playing 1… c5 rather than c6.

I then start another game, but this time the pawns are on e2 and e7. I tell them we’re adding a second way to win. You win the game if your opponent can’t move. (Of course this is a draw in ‘big chess’ but this won’t be a problem.) Again they have a decision to make: White or Black? If you choose White will you move one square or two? If you choose Black will you copy White or do the opposite?

Once they’ve mastered this game we start again, but with the pawns on e2 and d7. Again, White or Black? What’s your strategy. Of course you’ve worked it out yourself, but it’s not so easy for young kids. You need logic and foresight.

My website chessKIDS academy features a lesson on these games.

So in this lesson kids learn the pawn move, one of the hardest pieces to learn. They also start to understand the non-chess skills of decision making and impulse control which are fundamental to good chess play.

2 thoughts on “Learning the Pawn Game (1)

  1. Hi Richard and the readers of this blog,

    Thanks really for a great piece explaining not only a simple, but educationally very effective way of how to introduce chess to complete beginners, but also a brilliant clarification on how chess isn’t just pushing wood, rather a way of clear thinking and efficient decision making.

    Yes, starting with Pawns makes perfect sense. Philidor, the best player of second half of 1700s was right in stressing how important good play of pawns is; it is “they alone that determine the attack and the defense, and the winning or losing of the game depends entirely on their good or bad arrangement.”

    When I teach I usually start with the bigger pieces. The Pawns come after two mini-games featuring long-distant officers. But, either approach has its merits. It all depends on circumstances, the age of kids, etc.

    Now what I think is critically important here is not what mini-game we start with, but educational shift from “the Moves” toward Striking Power chessmen possess and exert in Chess Space and Time. The Power is actually the main concept in chess — the moves only serve better use of men’s Power (think football, or any other Spatial game, warfare, etc.). So, no matter which mini-game one employs in their teaching kids, it is crucial to discuss with kids Power network pieces make, BEFORE any piece movement is considered. Likewise, in football, you don’t just kick the ball randomly into the air, you have to be able to “read disposition” of your team mates and other guys BEFORE you dribble, pass the ball, or make a shoot.

    Power Relations of pieces BEFORE their Movement brings a completely New Dimension in how we will teach and learn chess in 21st century.

    That is why mini-games are so potent a tool as they much more clearly and manifestly show how chessmen use and exchange their power at the board. The 16-on-16 approach right from the start is far too much confusing and overwhelming to the freshman due to the enormous number of piece interconnections and a hard-to-grasp understanding of all factors being in play.

    Thanks again, and looking forward to Part 2!


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