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The Gift of Chess

Here’s an article I wrote for my chessKIDS academy website eight years ago, in 2010.

I’d probably write it in a slightly different way today, but, for now, I’ll repeat it without comment.

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THE GIFT OF CHESS

Dedicated to my parents, Howard James (1919-1998) and Betty James née Smith (1921-2010)

It was fifty years ago, almost to the day as I write this, Christmas 1960. I was ten years old. Amongst the other presents on the Christmas tree was a plastic chess set, red and white pieces in a blue case.

What possessed them to think that chess would interest me I’ll never know. There was no chess background in the family. My father just about knew how the pieces moved while my mother knew nothing at all.

You see, I was a strange, silent, sad and solitary child. At home my behaviour infuriated my father and puzzled my mother, while at school I never spoke to teachers and rarely to children, mostly standing on my own in the playground, forever the target of bullies.

Today, children like this, and I’ve met and taught several, are diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, but in my day there was no such diagnosis and no understanding.

Anyway, my father soon taught me the moves, with the help of the instructions that came with the set, and we started to play. Soon I could beat him, after which he wouldn’t play me again.

That July I reached the age of 11 so it was time to move to a new school. I was fortunate enough to have won a scholarship to a school in London, and my journey every morning and afternoon involved two train rides. On the first day I took my chess set with me and, for the first time, played a game against another boy. He took all my pieces and mated me with two rooks.

Throughout my first few years there my chess set acted as a communication tool, through which I was able to relate to other children. I played on the train to and from school and still remember the thrill when, towards the end of my first year there, I beat a boy in the year above me for the first time.

At that point my parents, seeing my growing addiction to chess, decided I needed more help and bought me a chess book, which was to be the first of many. It’s on the desk beside me now as I write this.

Through that book I learnt about chess notation, openings, middle-games and endings, and about the world champions of the past. Chess was placed in context. While continuing to play at school I spent a lot of my spare time playing games against myself and writing down the moves in an exercise book, which, sadly, I didn’t keep. I also spent a lot of time in libraries, borrowing every chess book from every library within reach.

For my Christmas present in 1964 I received a year’s subscription to the British Chess Magazine. Every month I’d play through all the games, and, on the first of the month, wait eagerly for the next issue. By the end of 1965, five years after learning the moves, I could beat everyone in my form at school so my parents thought I should move on. The London Junior Chess Championships took place (as they still do) during the Christmas holidays, so I was entered for my first tournament. I did quite well in the Under 16 Reserve section, so my mother made enquiries about chess clubs in the area, and got my father to take me along to Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club, which at that time met in a dingy room above a pub. 44 years on, I’m still a member and play regularly for their teams.

In college I got involved in chess administration, and, on leaving college, I had the chance to start teaching chess to children, and, a few years later, to write about chess. But that’s another story, which I’ll tell another time.

I spent 15 years helping run chess clubs for young children in primary and prep schools. It soon became clear to me that, if I had learnt the moves at the age of 7 and been thrown straight into a semi-competitive environment, there’s no way I would have maintained an interest in the game. The only children who do well are those who receive significant help at home, and my parents would have been unable to give me that.

In these days, where everything has to be faster, louder and brighter than ever before, we are pushing children too fast too soon, in chess as well as in many other ways. If you start something slightly too late you can catch up, but if you start something slightly too early you can be put off for life.

I’ve always been painfully aware that chess not only changed but probably saved my life. Without the outlet that chess provided as a way to meet and make friends with like-minded people I would have found the world very difficult to cope with.

So that’s why I’ve devoted my life to teaching chess to young children, and why I’ve spent 10 years (so far) developing this website. Nothing other than chess would – or could – have had the same effect on me. I’m passionate about ensuring that every child has the opportunity to learn chess, but also about ensuring that every child, and every parent and teacher, has access to coaching materials and advice to enable them to get the most out of the game.

Remember, it was 8 months after learning the moves that I first played another kid, and 5 years before I first played in a tournament. Is it really best to do what we’re doing now: teaching children the moves one week and putting them in a tournament the next week?

 

Another Open Day

Continuing last week’s blog post, yesterday I went along to the second open day.

There were probably half as many children there as last week (I assume the presentation in assembly hadn’t happened this time) with a good mix of boys and girls, and of different ages. Some of the children were already members of the chess club, while a few others had been members in the past. Most could play a bit but there were a few who wanted to learn.

They’re not now going to be able to repeat the exercise next week as they’re filming for a Christmas production, but they’re planning on promoting chess once every half term in future.

It’s a step in the right direction towards splitting the three functions of primary schools chess: teaching beginners, providing facilities for social chess and providing a club for children wanting to play competitive chess.

 

 

Open Day

Following last week’s visit to Oxford, the following day I asked the members of one of my school chess clubs how they could get more children in the school interested in chess. Some of them suggested running an open day to promote chess to the whole school.

This week the children told me they’d had an open day that morning. The teachers involved in the club and one of the club members spoke about chess in morning assembly, and at lunchtime they invited anyone interested into a classroom, splitting them between children who couldn’t play at all, children who knew some of the moves and children who could play a complete game. They had 41 children in total, 26 boys and 15 girls (there’s only one girl in the school club).

They’re going to do the same thing again the next two weeks. I said I’d come along for free and bring some copies of Chess for Kids to show the children. I’ll also write a letter for them to take home to their parents explaining how they can help and advertising my books, websites & coaching services.

The teachers were happy with this, and also hoped that there would be enough interest to run a beginners’ club next term, while keeping the current club for children who know all the rules. They were also interested in the idea of running an inter-class tournament at the end of term. I suggested four players per team representing each class from Yr3 (7-8 year olds) to Yr6 (10-11 year olds), with at least one boy and one girl in each team.

I’ll post again to let you know what happens next.

 

Using the King and Queen Checkmate to teach Algorithms

An algorithm is a sequenced set of instructions. All dynamic computer programs are algorithms. If you’re cooking a meal, assembling some flat pack furniture, or setting a digital chess clock, you’re following an algorithm. It should be a clear and unambiguous description of how to produce a delicious plate of food or a cupboard for your chess books.

You always need a plan when you’re playing chess. In endings in particular, concrete plans are important. You’ll very often develop and follow an algorithm to achieve your aim.

All chess endings are, in effect, minichess games, as they use a subset of the pieces, and so are ideal learning tools. Perhaps the most important minichess game of all is King and Queen against King. It’s absolutely vital that every ‘big chess’ player can do this quickly and efficiently while avoiding stalemate. If you follow an algorithm it’s not so hard.

Here’s one possible algorithm, taken from Chess Endings for Heroes.

  1. Place your queen one row away from the enemy king. Whenever he moves towards the side, again move your queen to the next row.
  1. Place your king two rows away from the enemy king.
  1. Force the king towards the edge of the board. Every time he moves towards the edge place your queen on the next row.
  1. When the black king reaches the edge move your king towards him, keeping two rows away, until you can get checkmate. Remember to put your queen in place first to avoid stalemate.

Many children prefer an alternative algorithm, which is also explained in Chess Endings for Heroes.

Place your queen a knight’s move away from the black king. Then keep on doing the same thing until he is stuck on the side of the board. Just make sure you don’t stalemate him in the corner. Then approach with your king until you’re close enough to get checkmate. (You might well think this is not sufficiently clear.)

There are several ways to run competitions using the king and queen checkmate. Here’s one idea. Start with a white king and queen, and a black king. Black chooses the starting position of the pieces (with the black king not in check). White wins by checkmating the black king within 15 moves (you only count the white moves). You might also want to play that illegal moves lose, so White can capture the black king if it moves into check. Black wins by surviving 15 moves, by getting stalemated, or by capturing the white queen.

Alternatively, take it in turns to play White. Count the moves: the winner is the player who gets checkmate more quickly.

Get children to write their own algorithms, for example to plan checkmate with two rooks. Or, for a harder task, to plan checkmate with king and rook against king. These tasks involve both language and mathematical skills so are great for schools.

 

 

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:

minichess3

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.