Using Checkmate Puzzles to Teach Scientific Method

A lot of rather vague and unsubstantiated claims are made about chess improving children’s thinking skills.

I prefer to take a different approach: to teach very specific thinking skills through chess puzzles and activities.

One thing I do is teach Scientific Method though checkmate puzzles.

  1. Consider the facts
  2. Create a hypothesis
  3. Test your hypothesis
  4. Either accept or reject your hypothesis
  5. If you reject it, create a better hypothesis using the additional facts you now have

I might start with puzzles where I just ask whether or not the position is checkmate. All my pupils have to do is Step 3. They have to ask four questions. Is it check? Can the king move to a safe square? Can I block the check? Can I capture the checking piece? If the answers are ‘Yes, No, No, No’ you accept the hypothesis, otherwise you reject it.

If I set a puzzle where my students have to find a mate in one move they have to go through the complete process.

  1. Consider the facts: the fact is that there’s a mate in 1
  2. Create a hypothesis: that move x is the solution
  3. Test move x to see whether or not it really is mate
  4. If it is, write down the answer
  5. If it’s not checkmate try another move: if, for example, the king can move to e4, you can create a better hypothesis by choosing a move which controls e4.

Here’s a simple example taken from Checkmates for Heroes:


You might start by looking at Qf6+. Black has several ways to get out of check. There’s Re7, Kc7, Kc8 or Ke8. So let’s look for something else. Qh8+ is a better try. Now Black can’t block or stay on the back rank. But it still doesn’t work: Black has Kc7 or Ke7. So try Qb8+ instead. Close, but not quite good enough: Ke7 still gets out of check.

You might then notice the rook on b1 and try Rb8+. This time it is checkmate. Black cannot capture, block or move to a safe square.

In a classroom you might move on to look at other areas where you might use scientific method, and explain how scientists work. Can your students use this thinking skill in their science lessons? In any other lessons? In any other aspects of their life?

A Visit to Oxford

My chess teaching colleague Andrew Varney (you might have read about him here) kindly invited me to spend an afternoon and evening in Oxford, shadowing him at the two primary schools discussed in the book, followed by a boarding prep school and a coaching session for the county junior squad.

It was great to visit schools where chess is really valued, and is seeing as being an integral part of school life rather than just a game played by a few children in a distant classroom after everyone else has gone home.

To be fair, there are schools in my area which take a similar approach: I’ve been involved with them in the past. But too many schools don’t value chess at all. They might run a club to keep the parents happy, or they might not even want to do that. At least one of my colleagues spends much of his time on public transport lugging a heavy suitcase full of chess sets round schools across London. If they can afford to pay for a chess teacher, surely they could also afford to buy a few sets.

I now have a lot of ideas about promoting chess in the schools with which I’m currently involved. I’m throwing out suggestions and asking both teachers and pupils how we can get more children interested in chess.

Here in my affluent corner of London, not encouraging chess shouldn’t be an option for primary schools. Having a club which attracts children who can play and children who can’t play, children who want to play serious chess and children who want to play social chess, children who are enthusiastic players and, on occasion, children who are not interested at all.

We have to start by promoting a positive image of chess, for its social as well as its cognitive benefits, and, most of all, as an amazing game which will provide some children with a lifelong interest.


Promoting Etiquette in Minichess

In competitive chess there’s a code of etiquette. At the start of the game you introduce yourself to your opponent if you’re playing someone you don’t already know. You shake hands. You say ‘Good luck’ to each other. You play fair. You avoid doing anything that might possibly annoy or distract your opponent. You play in silence so that you, your opponent, and those around you can concentrate on the game. After the game you shake hands again. You say ‘Good game’. If you lose you might congratulate your opponent. If you win you might tell your opponent he/she played well. You don’t show off or gloat when you win. You don’t cry when you lose.

If you’re playing in a team, you congratulate your team mates who have won their games, and commiserate with those who have lost their games.

Most primary school teachers will agree that these are important lessons for all young children to learn.

If you’re playing competitive minichess, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t use the same ideas. We believe that ALL children can benefit from minichess, so ALL children can learn these important life lessons.


Never Forget Anna

I was delighted to receive the latest edition of  First Rank, the newsletter of the European Chess Union’s Education Commission, the other day.

This issue describes Schack4an (Chess4), a Swedish project introducing chess to 10-year-old schoolchildren.

You’ll immediately see some similarities with UK projects such as Chess in Schools and the Delancey UK Chess Challenge.

There are some significant differences, though.

  • Children are introduced to chess in schools at the age of 10: here in the UK children usually start at 7, if not earlier.
  • The main thrust is to promote the social benefits of chess, not to ‘make kids smarter’. It is specifically described as a ‘social project’, not as an education project.
  • The aim is to produce a chess culture, not to produce prodigies and champions. Above all, it’s about Anna, the girl who found it hard to fit in, who wasn’t picked for teams, but who still gained a lot from helping her school in a chess competition. Never forget Anna.

Here at Minichess HQ we agree with all three of these points.

  • While many bright children with supportive parents gain a lot of pleasure and benefit from playing competitive chess at an early age, for most children ‘big chess’ is too hard. Not until the age of 10 will most children ‘get’ chess. So we prefer to promote minichess for younger children in schools.
  • We believe the social benefits of teaching chess to older children are at least as important as the educational benefits for younger children – and these educational benefits are better delivered using simpler games than ‘big chess’.
  • We believe that if you promote a chess culture you’ll eventually produce champions. Trying to develop a chess culture by producing champions is the wrong way round. We believe that all chess players are important: the players in your club’s lowest team are just as important as your first team players.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that a Scandinavian country is getting things right. I have a lot of admiration for Scandinavian models of education. Here in the UK we suffer from the mistaken belief that the younger you start learning something the better, which is why we start formal schooling far too young.

But that’s another topic for another article.

I have another story for you another time as well, about another child who, like Anna, didn’t fit in at school, found it hard to make friends and wasn’t picked for teams. Another child who, while never becoming a champion, gained a lot from chess. Visit regularly to find out more.





Chess in Project Based Learning

Project Based Learning is a hot topic in primary school education at the moment.

You might want to consider a chess-based project in your school. Here are some ideas.


Chess has a lot of connections with maths: both the board and the pieces can be used for a wide range of mathematical investigations.


Chess offers a wide range of writing opportunities from the ability to write clear and concise instructions to composing stories based on games of chess. The nature of chess – battle, struggle or conflict, lends itself readily to writing imaginative fiction.


Children can learn the names of the pieces and other chess terms in different languages. If, as you almost certainly will, you have children who speak languages other than English at home in your class, ask them their words for the different chess pieces and terminology.


Children can study the history of chess from its origins in India, and investigate how the game spread to Europe, and then across the world. Of course you can also look at more recent chess history: the greatest players of the past 200 years.


History and geography are closely linked, so you can look at the history of chess in geographical terms. You can also find out the names of the strongest players in the world, and find out more about their home countries.


Chess is a scientific game and, to play well, you need to think like a scientist. To study chess at a higher level you also need to research like a scientist. You might also look at the properties of the different types of material which might be used to make chess sets and boards.


Chess offers fantastic opportunities for children to design and perhaps create their own chess sets. There’s a lot of scope for creative imagination here. There are many other ways you can link art and chess: paintings or drawing depicting chess games in various ways.


Children could look at musical depictions of chess and perhaps write their own music representing each chess piece, or perhaps even a complete game of chess.

These are just a few suggestions. If you’re interested in this subject I’d really recommend the great series of books written by Alexey Root. Buy them all and devise a great chess project for your school!

Reclaiming the Curriculum

I’ve been reading, with much interest, Reclaiming the Curriculum, a collection of case studies of schools providing ‘specialist and creative teaching in Primary Schools’.

Each chapter features a different primary school (many, but not all in Oxfordshire) which has enhanced its curriculum by going beyond the traditional primary school subjects.

My attention was drawn to a chapter on Chess in the Curriculum, written by Ed Read, the head teacher of Cumnor CE Primary School, situated in a village just outside Oxford. The provides a paradigm of how to introduce chess in primary schools. All children in Yrs 3-6 (aged 7-11) have one lesson of chess a fortnight. The head teacher himself, a chess enthusiast, teaches the younger and less experienced children, while Andrew Varney, a professional chess tutor (who also contributes to the chapter), teaches the older and stronger players.  There’s also an after-school club where the really keen players are prepared for serious competitive chess.

It’s clear that this model is very successful. The children enjoy learning and playing chess, and several children from the school have gone on to represent their county.

Let’s consider some of the reasons for its success:

  1. All children are taught chess, provision is made for social chess, and there’s a club for those children wanting to play competitively.
  2. The whole school is involved, from the head teacher downwards. Putting chess on the curriculum will be a lot less successful if the school isn’t really interested and the class teacher just sits there doing her marking rather than taking part in the lesson.
  3. They employ an excellent professional chess tutor to teach more advanced skills to the stronger children and prepare the top players for competitions.

In recent years primary schools here in the UK have been very much tied down to the National Curriculum, and to their children’s test results. These are now, quite rightly in my opinion, becoming less important, giving schools more time and opportunity to broaden the curriculum in a wide variety of imaginative ways.

Other chapters of this book, for instance, deal with art, dance, drama, music, gardening, languages, history and much else. How should schools decide which to choose? A further chapter in the book features St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Oxford, a school where 70% of the children are from ethnic minorities, goes some way towards answering this question. They are a chess school (Andrew Varney also teaches there) and have been very successful in competitions against other schools, but they have a wide range of other curriculum options as well.

The whole book is an inspiring read for anyone interested in primary years education, whether as a teacher or a parent. If you’re involved in primary years chess education, you should also read it – and pass the message on to schools in your area.

Competitive Chess in Primary Schools

In an ideal world, your primary school will ensure that as many children as possible know the moves of the pieces and are encouraged to play mini games. You will also provide facilities for children to play social chess at appropriate times during the school day.

While many children will be happy just to have learnt a skill, or just enjoy playing social chess, there will be some who want to play competitive chess. Of course you might introduce competitive chess, just as you might introduce minichess, though inter-class, inter-house or inter-year matches.

Beyond that there’s an exciting world of chess competitions for children to enjoy. You might want to arrange matches against other schools in your area. Some areas also run inter-school competitions, which are great fun for everyone.

If you’re in the UK your school will also want to take part in the Delancey UK Schools Chess Challenge (a timely reminder that your school can now enter the 2019 competition). You run an internal competition over 7 rounds: the best boy and girl in each year qualifies for the next stage, competing against qualifiers from other schools in your area. For more serious schools, the English Chess Federation and the English Primary Schools Chess Association also run competitions between schools.

If you’re promoting competitive chess, this is where you’ll probably want a professional chess tutor to provide instruction which will help your children succeed at competitive levels. There’s a lot to learn if you want to be a strong player, and a lot for your children to learn if you’d like your school to be a serious chess school.

If, however, you’re doing what most schools do and running a chess club in which there will be some children who want to learn how to play, some who just want to play social chess, and some who want to play competitive chess, it’s not easy for the chess tutor to cater for all three groups at the same time.

My assumption is that, as the children have no other opportunity to play chess with their friends during the week, I’ll let them play most of the time, but use a competitive format and expect them to follow competition rules and etiquette (I’ll return to this in a later post). I’ll only do a lesson if there’s time at the end once all the children have finished their games.

If there are any children who want higher level instruction I’ll recommend to their parents that they join an external junior chess club or have private tuition.