Friday, April 20, 2012

Richard James On Junior Chess: 1. Where Are We Now?

The Streatham and Brixton Chess blog is delighted to host a series of guest posts by junior chess trainer Richard James. He is known to many as a foremost authority on the theory and practice of chess pedagogy for young people.

His views on the state of junior chess in this country, and how it should be taught and developed, are based on years of thought and experience. Accordingly they are forthright and trenchant. So, to give his arguments the space they deserve we have taken the unusual step of clearing next week's schedule and giving it over to Richard.

Today there is a taste of things to come, and he will continue to set out his stall on Monday through to Saturday next week - and that's every day, Tuesday and Thursday included. Your comments throughout the series will be welcome.

Now, over to Richard, where he develops a number of propositions to contest claims which we will all recognise, but that, he argues, don't stand up to close examination.

Richard James On Junior Chess

1. England leads the world in junior chess

A generation ago, England really did come pretty close to leading the world in junior chess, but now things are very different. In the past we would have had potential medallists in many age groups in the World and European Youth Championships while today we get excited if someone scores 50%. Of course we still have a few outstanding young players, and it’s good that there is talk of providing better facilities for them, but it’s more in terms of strength in depth that we are lagging further and further behind other Western European countries, not to mention Eastern Europe and Asia. The current FIDE list has 19 active English players born in 1995 (two of whom are based in France) and 258 active Spanish players of the same age. The 2012 French Junior Championships have 593 boys and 426 girls playing in 7 age groups (roughly U21 down to U8, to link up with the FIDE youth/junior events), all of whom have qualified through a network of regional leagues and chess clubs within leagues, along with another 211 players in two open sections.

I believe, from nearly 40 years’ experience teaching chess that one of the problems starts right at the beginning: that the experience young children get in primary school chess clubs, or, in many cases, the way they’ve been taught the moves at home before joining their primary school chess club, leads to low standards of play and only gives them a short-term interest in chess. It became clear to me 15 years or so ago that the way we were teaching, organising and promoting chess for young children was misguided, and, for this reason, I eventually felt obliged to give up most of my junior chess commitments and start searching for an answer. At first I thought that we were simply starting children too young but looking at the way chess was taught in other countries and an e-mail conversation three years ago with Cor van Wijgerden, the co-author of the Dutch Steps Method convinced me that it wasn’t quite as simple as that: if you start children young you need to go about teaching them in a different way. But before we can make any real process we have to acknowledge that there’s a problem.

I would put it to you that one of the major reasons for our decline is that some other countries are using structured teaching methods for young beginners rather than the ad hoc methods, if you can call them that, that we seem to encourage here. I don’t have much knowledge of the methods used in France and Spain, and would be very interested to hear from anyone with experience of junior chess in these countries.

Proposition 1: England is way behind much of the world in junior chess, specifically in terms of strength in depth. We need to look at what’s happening in other, culturally similar, countries in Western Europe, and see how we can learn from them.

[Please come back on Monday, and the rest of next week, for more Richard James On Junior Chess.]


Jonathan B said...

As has been pointed out - including perhaps by you, Richard - the decline in the quality of English junior chess appears to have coincided with a huge increase in the number of people who are paid to teach children how to play.

Richard James said...

Indeed, and there are various complicated historical reasons why this happened. I think the two are partly but not completely related. Later posts will deal with this and suggest ways in which we can make better use of those who are paid to teach chess.

John Cox said...

I don't think anyone imagines we lead the way in junior chess, do they? We haven't been any good in junior chess for about 25 years.

Anonymous said...

Quoting from the Danny King interview in the April 2012 BCM

"In some areas the English game is doing very well: junior chess at primary school level, for example.

It doesn't translate into success at European and World level.

Also in this issue, is a former British champion who interrupted the long run of Penrose, making a complete pigs ear of a King and Pawn ending.

Richard James said...

John and Anon, many thanks for your comments.

John, chess clubs, in my experience, are full of very insular people who haven't read chess magazines for 25 years and have no idea what's going on in the rest of the world. I suspect those on the tournament circuit see, and sometimes have to play, the strongest juniors, and assume things are going well.

Anon - quite. I disagree with Danny: I don't think junior chess at primary school level is doing well at all. The numbers may be good but the standards are unacceptably low and the drop-out rate unacceptably high. I won't say more at the moment as later articles in the series will examine the reasons for this.

Yes, I was amazed at how badly that K+P ending was played. A few weeks ago I'd been through exactly this with one of my private pupils, a boy of primary school age who is also taught by Danny King at Twickenham Prep. It's all in Chapter 8 of Move Two which you can find at or the complete book plus much else at I guess it demonstrates what happens when you have fast time limits in evening league matches. But that's a subject for another time.

Martin Smith said...

You can find the links in Richard's comment above here and here.

ejh said...

I waned to ask Richard something I've asked him off-site, but which I think is a question is liable to occur to anybody who reads this piece.

England certainly don't lead the world in junior chess, but they did - give or take a much larger state which no longer exists - when I was young. Hence they did so without putting into effect Richard's recommendations in this series of articles.

So why couldn't they do so again, without the help of Richard's ideas?

Richard James said...

The world was very different back in the 1970s - there wasn't a lot of kiddie chess like there is now. The English Chess Explosion was very much due to the efforts of Leonard Barden and Bob Wade. We're not going to return to those days. These days the countries which are successful are those which get kiddie chess right. The Dutch Steps and Russian Gymnasium courses suggest one idea. I suspect France and Spain are doing something different but I don't know what. It's clear we're getting it wrong - and Kevin Spraggett's comments suggest that Canada (and no doubt at least part of the US) are also getting it wrong.

Anonymous said...

Spraggett hasn't lived in Canada for the past 20+ years. He doesn't have a clue what is going on with regards to kid or any other type of chess there. Canadian kiddie chess is stronger than it has ever been.