I was discussing the pawn game with my virtual friend Paul Swaney a couple days ago. He told me that two of the most prominent US chess teachers considered it silly.
I don’t agree – but perhaps because the aim of Minichess in schools is very specifically NOT to produce prodigies and champions.
(A word of explanation for non-UK readers about our school system. Here, children start school at 4 (you might this too young: I’ll discuss this in another post at some point), and usually change schools at 11. Schools tend to separate Infants (up to age 7) and Juniors (age 7-11), The Junior years, are Yr3, Yr4, Yr5 and Yr6 – roughly the equivalent of 2nd grade to 5th grade in the US system.)
Instead, we’re trying to get ALL children, not just the brightest in the school, enthused and excited about chess, but only when they’re ready for it. Many children will not be ready for chess until they reach secondary school. So we start with minigames.
There are many minigames which are excellent for tuition purposes but not so suitable for competition. If you don’t have a lot of little guys to get in the way, games will be over too quickly, and with too many big guys as well as little guys the games will last too long.
The pawn game can be learnt in five minutes by all children, certainly from Yr3 (7-8 year olds) upwards, and the games can be played in five minutes. Teachers can learn the rules in a couple of minutes and teach it themselves. You don’t even need chess sets to play it: all you need is a paper board which you can download here and two sets of eight counters of contrasting colours for each player.
As well as physical competitions in running, jumping and throwing, let’s run some mental competitions based on minichess. You can easily run a pawn game competition in half an hour one lunchtime. Suppose you have a two form entry school. You’re then talking about eight teams, one from each form between Yr3 and Yr6. An ideal number for a knock out tournament, but it’s better to run a Swiss System so that everyone plays in all three rounds. Let’s have, say, five children in a team. More if you want. We want to encourage both girls and boys to take part, so you might want to have at least two girls and two boys in each team. Five minutes for each round should be plenty. If you’re running a Swiss you might want to decide whether to use game points or match points to decide pairings and overall winners. Five minutes between rounds for the pairings and five minutes for presentations at the end. Get the whole school involved, either as participants or spectators (you might like some cheerleaders) and in half an hour you’ve got 240 kids really excited about minichess. If your school runs a house system, you could run teams representing houses: perhaps a boys’ team and a girls’ team from each house, with at least one player from each year in each team. You might want to run a handicap system: Yr5 and Yr6 children start without one of their pawns when playing against Yr3 and Yr4 children. You might want to include a teachers’ team, or get the winning team to play the teachers. If you run it after school you could have a parents’ team as well. Run one of these events every term, one every half term, or one every week if you like.
Publish the rules on the school website and in the school newsletter. Put posters explaining the rules in every classroom. Don’t forget: it’s (virtually) free as well. You don’t need expensive chess tutors like me. You don’t even need any special equipment. With any luck it won’t just be fun for the children: it will bring both academic and social benefits as well.
If you’re in my part of the world I might even come in for free and help you run it if you ask me nicely.