I’ve been saying for nearly 20 years now that typical primary school chess clubs are not the best model for developing chess in this country. Let me explain, in brief, why. I’ll be covering some of my points in more detail in later posts.
Before I continue, I should add that there are a few primary (and prep) schools which have the interest and resources to provide an excellent product, but they are very much the exception, not the rule.
Now don’t get me wrong. Superficially primary school chess clubs are great. The children have a good time and, at least in some clubs, play reasonably quietly. The teachers are happy because they see the children concentrating (more or less) on their games. The parents are happy because it’s a cheap childminding service which might ‘make their kids smarter’. The chess tutors are happy because they get paid for something they enjoy. But the standard of play, by and large, is low, and the number of children who continue playing after primary school is pretty close to zero.
Here’s the sort of thing that usually happens.
A couple of parents knock on the door and say “Hello. My children play chess. Why don’t you start a chess club?” The Head says “What a lovely idea! I read in the paper the other day that ‘chess makes kids smarter'”. So she asks in the staffroom: “Does anyone want to run a chess club?” She’s met by a sea of blank faces. “Chess? No, I don’t know how to play.” “I tried it at school 30 years ago but didn’t get anywhere and can’t remember much anyway.” No success, but never mind. Most of the parents can afford to pay £5 a week for after-school clubs, so she types ‘chess teacher’ into Google and contacts the name at the top of the list. Would she appoint any other teacher in the same way? Probably not, but there we are. Financial arrangements are made, safeguarding checks are carried out and, at the start of next term the parents find ‘chess club’ added to the list of extra-curricular activities.
So the chess teacher arrives. Who is there? There might, if he’s very lucky, be one or two kids who are pretty good and have played on tournaments. There’ll be some kids who have played at home, and because their parents are reasonably proficient players, have some idea what they’re doing. There’ll be some kids who think they’re really good at chess because they can beat their dad, but think a rook is called a castle and that you win by capturing the king. There’ll be some kids who can’t play at all. There will also be a wide age range in the club. It’s not at all easy to keep everyone involved at once.
At one level, yes, it’s great. But, at a higher level, it really doesn’t work very well, does it? I think our children deserve better than this.
The basic problem, it seems to me, is that most children have been taught the basics incorrectly by well-intentioned but ill-informed parents. In principle, there’s a simple solution: put chess on the curriculum. I’ll consider this later, but next I want to consider how we might approach schools and encourage them to be more proactive about how they think about chess.