Monday, August 20, 2007

First game, first book?

When on holiday in Norfolk recently, I taught my girlfriend's niece how to play chess. I've never taught anybody how to play before - in truth, until the last year or so of my life I've had very little to do with children, my family being somewhat splintered and my brother and sister being, like myself, childless.

Whether teaching a child chess is actually a wise thing to do is a subject for discussion - I'm not sure that it is, but one can only give the gifts that are in one's posession and chess is what I know. Lottie - Charlotte - is six, seven next month, bright and fond of maths: precisely the sort of kid who might find themselves attracted by the game. I made sure her parents were happy with the idea before it was broached to her, bought a cheap chess set in a shop in Aylsham, and we sat down for a lesson.

We learned in the following sequence. First, the board, how many squares it has and which way round it's placed. Second, the names of the pieces and which order they go on the board (Lottie learned the order before she could remember all the names - bishop, for some reason, took some time to stick). Third, the way in which they move and the fact that they can capture one another. As this involves some complication, what with the pawns having three different sorts of move (four, if you include en passant, which I deliberately did not) it's quite a lot for a small head to take in at one sitting, but she was doing well, listening and not wriggling.

We then, fourth, learned that if you take the king, you win, which is simpler than explaining checkmate ("the king cannot escape") straightaway. You need, I think, to explain the point of the game reasonably soon, not least because as soon as they have learned the moves, they will want to play. Then I showed a simple game - 1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Nc6 3.Qh5 Nf6 4.Qf7 mate - which, as it happens, I lost in my class championship in 1976-7. It's simple, but not quite as straightforward as you might think, since it is one thing explaining that one piece takes another, but another thing explaining that it threatens to take a piece, or that it is protected by another piece, or that the king is trapped.

We had a break - I think, before I showed Lottie that game - and the lesson finished with my demonstrating (and inviting Lottie to find) a couple of simple checkmates. The next day we played a game, Lottie's first ever.

Not bad, I think, for one's first ever game - at least she didn't play the rook pawn two squares forward and then move the rook up, which is what all the beginners used to do in my day. She was happy enough, so far.

We learned that each square has an individual number and that moves can be written down and repeated: I got her to play through the first few moves of an email game I am currently playing (1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.cxd5 cxd5 4.Bf4 Nc6 5.e3 Nf6 6.Nc3 Bg4 7.Qb3 Na5) and asked her to notice that some moves were shown with an x rather than a dash, and explain why. I also asked to to tell me when a piece was attacking another piece. We then learned about pawn promotion and castling, and the three ways you can deal with a check. (I left en passant for another day.) I set up a position with a white king on b1, a white pawn on b2, a black pawn on b3 and a black queen on a white square, then set up various other configurations where Lottie could try to find ways of blocking the check, or moving the king, or capturing the checking piece. We then played another game, which Lottie, wriggling and suffering from all sorts of distraction, enjoyed rather less than the first one - which did at least enable us to learn that it was possible to "resign".

Well, that was that, I thought, now she's discovered that chess, although easy to learn, is desperately difficult to play. The chess set goes away, perhaps for a couple of years, perhaps for ever. Or maybe her younger brother will learn next year (he identifies the makes of passing cars when strapped into the back seat, which is chessplayer behaviour if I ever saw it). But the following day - in fact,when we were already packed and almost ready to leave - she asked if she could play another game. By then there was no time left and I didn't have the chance to do what I would have liked, which was to play a longer game, keeping her in it, pointing out her mistakes and letting her correct them. And now I am in Spain and she is in Norfolk and for all I know, that may be that.

Still, if it is not, if she wants to keep on learning, what can I do? I think the best I can do for now is send her a book, so she can read and learn a little for herself. But what to send? As I said, I've never taught the game before, so I don't really know. There's a book by Michael Basman - might that be best? Usborne have one which claims Johnatahn Rowson as consultant - how about that? Chandler and Milligan's Chess for Children - I've seen it but not read it. Is that any good?

I learned from the old Bott and Morrison book from which they have taken the title - Chess for Children (and its successor, More Chess for Children). You surely remember them, with the kings and queens and castles being stormed - and as I have copies of these books, I'd happily send them to Norfolk. But they use the old descriptive notation and having shown Lottie algebraic, that's not a complication I want to introduce.

So - can you help me? Do you have recent experience of teaching chess for children? What's a good first book for a bright seven-year-old? And how do you keep them interested when they've no-one - save possibly their father - to play with?


Richard James said...

Hi Justin

Get Lottie to visit chessKIDS academy -


ejh said...

Thanks Richard, I'll pass it on.

Any print items you can recommend?

Chessbuff said...

His politics aside, Fischer's " Bobby Fischer teaches Chess " is a great introduction to the technical side of chess. It's laid out to be in a problem-solving mode that can very well hold the interest of a beginner. No heady opening theories, just win the position. A chess neophyte can finish this book within a week, and so it isn't even a major commitment in time. It worked wonders with my son. I highly recommend it.

ejh said...

Interesting, thanks. A couple of questions:

1. Is it currently in print? (Not an insuperable obstacle given that everything's available on Ebay and Amazon now.)

2. How old was your son when he read the book? Was he completely new to the game? Did he use it essentially on his own without help from an experienced player?

(Sorry for the questions, but I'm trying to remote-evaluate suitability....)

Chessbuff said...

ejh, the book is still available, new, for around $8 at i think you can find it on the shelves of your major bookstore even today as it is the kind of book that I can consider as evergreen. I had just taught my son the moves back then and we had played some games already when he took up the book. Even after knowing the moves and playing initial games, a beginner is still nowhere near a good understanding of tactics that are illustrated in this book.

ejh said...

Ta. Possibly a little adavnced?

(Also, unlikely to on the shelves of a major bookstore where I live as not only are there no major bookstores in my town, but the books are in Spanish....)

Jonathan B said...

No help to you Justin but I fondly remember an old book called "White King, Black King" (or possibly the other way around). I took this out of the Chemlsford library countless times when I was a child.

I haven't seen of it for about 30 years.