Friday, April 27, 2012

Richard James On Junior Chess: 6. Keeping Kids At It

This is the last but one in this series (which began on Friday of last week) of guest posts by Richard James. Today he examines the challenge of maintaining a developing interest in the game.
Richard James on Junior Chess

12. We should put children into tournaments as quickly as possible

I really don’t see the point of putting children into even low-level tournaments when they hardly know how the pieces move. We’re fooling the children, along with their parents and teachers, into thinking they’re real chess players when in fact they’re no such thing. Giving children all the accoutrements of real chess such as clocks, scoresheets and grades when they are more or less playing random moves really does them no favours. Children find the baubles and trinkets they win in the UK Chess Challenge attractive but the superficiality of bogus rewards of this nature is well documented. They go to the chess club because they want to win the prizes, not because they want to play chess, and as they get older and the attraction wears off they drop out of chess. If we want to give prizes of this nature (and that’s open to debate) we should do so for demonstrating improved skills rather than just for winning games. There’s another thing as well: in many countries there is concern about putting children into competitions too soon, not so much because they’re not good enough players, but more because they lack the emotional maturity to cope with the pressures of playing competitive chess. Some young children can deal with this, but others cannot.

Proposition 12: we should only put children into tournaments when they have reached an appropriate level, and when they have sufficient emotional maturity to deal with victory and defeat.

13. Children give up chess when they leave Primary School because there’s no chess at their Secondary School

A few do, yes, but most give up long before them. Typically, a Primary School chess club might have 16 children in Y3, 8 in Y4, 4 in Y5 and 2 in Y6. Inevitably there will be a high drop-out rate: chidren will try a lot of activities when they’re young, and only choose to continue those they like best, but we need to ensure that the drop-out rate is as low as possible.

Here’s Cor van Wijgerden, in an email to me: “Lacking a proper board vision and not applying things they have learnt are, in my view, the main reasons why children drop out”. From my experience and observation I’m sure he’s right. If children are just playing chess and getting no instruction they will not develop board vision and continue to leave pieces en prise, and not to take the pieces their opponents leave en prise. If they’re getting instruction from strong players they will be taught things that are too advanced for them, and there will be no reinforcement or checks to see that they’ve really understood what they’ve learnt. (I spent years doing exactly this myself before giving up because it clearly didn’t work.) Remember that the Steps Method recommends that children spend a year or two teaching children not to leave pieces en prise and ensuring that they don’t do this in their games before moving on to anything else, teaching in small groups so this is possible. Here, we either teach nothing or too much too soon.

In most secondary schools there’s little or no chess. The exceptions are almost all large selective schools, usually boys’ schools, and always have an enthusiastic member of staff who is actively promoting the game. In some areas there’s little opportunity for younger players to play and learn, but even where the opportunity exists, most children give up after a year or two because they fail to make significant progress.

Proposition 13: Most children give up chess long before they leave primary school because they are not taught the basics correctly so fail to make progress.

14. Promoting Primary School chess clubs will produce a lot of strong players

No it won’t – at least not the way we’re doing it at the moment. If anything, it will have the opposite effect. Thirty years or so ago there were a few primary schools where the Headteacher or a senior member of staff was genuinely interested in chess, taught all the children to play and provided opportunities to play every day. There were two such schools in my area: one produced a GM and the other produced two IMs. This still occasionally happens, but almost always in the private sector.

In most Primary Schools where chess is ‘done’ there’s a club which meets for half an hour one lunchtime or an hour one afternoon, and children get no other opportunity to play. There’s no way children in this sort of environment will ever get anywhere unless they’re doing significant work on chess at home as well. Parental support is absolutely essential for young children to become good players, and the younger they start the more support they need.

If you want to produce strong young players you need to set up junior chess clubs rather than encourage chess in primary schools. Parents need much more commitment to take their children to a club than to pick them up an hour late from school. Clubs will have higher standards of play, attracting children from a wider area, and will be able to meet longer hours and perhaps more often.

There’s also some evidence from Cor van Wijgerden that running a proper course within a school or a club encourages more parental interest: “The most common order: Manual and Extra and Plus books (supplementary material – RJ) from a mother! Her child has got Step 1 and she is interested as well.”

Proposition 14: Promoting Junior Chess Clubs will produce more strong players. Promoting chess in Primary Schools, unless is it taught correctly, will produce weak players with only a short-term interest in the game.

[Come back tomorrow for Richard's recommendations on the way forward]


Anonymous said...

Proposition 12: we should only put children into tournaments when they have reached an appropriate level, and when they have sufficient emotional maturity to deal with victory and defeat.

Perhaps this should apply to adults as well ?

Anonymous said...

How would you judge if the child has sufficient emotional maturity to deal with victory and defeat?

Richard James said...

It's really up to the parents - but they should be aware of the issues.

Nick said...

Great start! I commend the organizers who started up teaching and training kids on how to play chess then send them to tournaments. I think it's a valuable venue for for everybody to gather at to play chess. It's a healthy recreational activity plus it is a very intellectual game to play among the people. Children may actually join in the matches. is another venue where not only adults but children as well can learn how to play chess.