Thursday, April 26, 2012

Richard James On Junior Chess: 5. That'll Teach Them Again

This the fifth guest post in which Richard James develops his in-depth analysis of the junior chess, and its pedagogy. You can access his earlier installments via the side bar. The series began on Friday 20th April.

Richard James on Junior Chess

10. We should teach the moves in a couple of weeks so that they can play complete games

This is what usually happens here: we encourage as many children as possible to take part in the UK Chess Challenge and other events even though some of them hardly know the moves. Elsewhere, though, the recommendations are very different.

Look, for example, at the Steps Method. The first step, which, you will remember, should take at least a year, longer for younger children, only introduces checkmate half way through. From the introduction: “Learning how to mate is postponed as long as possible. This sounds astonishing and even incredible but up till now, practice has shown that this effect works perfectly.” And, paraphrased from their website, in answer to the question about how long teachers should spend over Step 1:
“As long as possible. The ability to solve the exercises and obtain the certificate does not always correspond to the student’s playing skills. Only then when the student can use the material in his games regularly, should the following step be introduced. It is no use to teach Step 2 to children who fail to capture their opponent’s unprotected pieces in their own games. In the Step 1 Manual you can read the following: The basic material seems to be simple and some trainers manage to complete step 1 within 3 months. That is not the best approach. Essential chess skills such as giving mate require a long learning period. It is better to devote at least a year to the first step to master the basic skills very well (there are always exceptions). The lost time can be easily recovered later.”
GM Jaan Ehlvest’s recently published Chess Gymnasium takes this even further, only introducing checkmate in lesson 21 of a 28 lesson book. From the introduction:
"This manual differs from other beginning chess books available in the United States. This is the ‘Russian way’ of teaching Chess to young children. It is not an arbitrary method but the result of decades of research. ‘Chess Gymnasium’ introduces each concept slowly, but with depth. We do not attempt to have students play legal games against each other as soon as possible, but rather to use the very process of learning the rules as a teaching tool. This is important, and what makes this manual different from others. For this reason, two lessons are devoted to each piece. Besides simply learning how each piece moves, the students solve various problems with each piece before they have learned all the rules of chess. Along the way, particularly close attention is given to the geometry of the chess board itself.

The ultimate goal of chess – checkmate - is not introduced until Lesson 21! After learning the material in this book, students will know all of the rules. However, we can say that they will gain much more, and have a much more solid foundation in chess, than if they had been taught the rules as quickly as possible without discretion.

This book is designed to be used by any adult who wishes to teach chess to a child. You do not need to know anything about chess! Thus it can be used by a master who is teaching chess in a classroom, or by a classroom teacher who knows no more about chess than the children. It can also be used by parents who wish to teach their children chess at home.”
Compare this with what happens here: a school sets up a chess club so Dad, perhaps having read somewhere that Chess Is Good For You, teaches little Johnny how the pieces move and plays a couple of games with him so that he can join the club next week, just in time to take part in the first round of the UK Chess Challenge. He’ll be delighted to get his badge in 3 weeks time but it’s really not going to help him become a good player or develop a lasting interest in chess.

One reason why this happens is that we have top down coaching within a bottom up administration rather than bottom up coaching in a top down administration. So strong players start teaching chess or running tournaments without really knowing anything about child development or how to teach young children. They encourage as many children as possible to take part because they make more money that way. And, by and large, they’re only really interested at the players right at the top.

Proposition 10: We should spend 6 to 12 months, depending on the age of the child, teaching the other pieces along with board vision and control, and attack, defence and safety, before we introduce the king, along with concepts of check, checkmate and stalemate, and then another 6 to 12 months working on these ideas before children start playing competitive chess.

11. After teaching the moves we teach tactics, endings and openings

Take your typical chess book for children. It teaches you the moves pretty quickly, followed by check, checkmate and stalemate. Then you learn, in some order, some opening principles, some simple tactics and some endings. The first version of chessKIDS did very much the same thing, but it became clear from working with some of my school pupils that there was a gap of a couple of years between being able to learn the rules and being able to do even the simplest two move tactic.

Again, if you read the Steps and Gymnasium courses all this makes sense. At first it seems crazy to spend a year or more teaching what children can pick up in half an hour or so. But then you understand that they’re not just learning the moves: they’re developing chessboard vision and learning about different methods of attack and defence. As they say, there’s no point in teaching anything else to students who fail to take their opponent’s unprotected pieces. If this method can really teach children not to leave pieces en prise within a year or so it’s pretty remarkable. But until you’re at that level there’s not a lot of point in trying to show someone a combination that wins a pawn. The main thing kids need to learn after learning the moves is quite simply how to avoid one move oversights – and, before that, to understand that you can – and should – avoid one move oversights. But most chess writers and publishers don’t understand this and think that they can write a book for less experienced adult players, put some cartoons in it, and claim it’s suitable for children.

Proposition 11: After teaching the moves we teach children how to avoid one-move oversights through exercises teaching board vision and control, attack, defence and safety.

[Come back tomorrow for Richard's thoughts on how to sustain children's interest in the game]


Anonymous said...

Not directly related, but Russian sourced software aimed at teaching chess (at an adult level) would start with an empty board and introduce pieces one by one. For example a Bishop would be placed on g7 and you are invited to marvel at all the dark squares it controls, all the way to a1. You didn't get that in Golombek's books.

Comment Moderator said...

Richard James wrote (and I accidentally deleted):-

Actually, it's very much relevant. This is very much the idea of the various step by step courses.

Another point is that older children who get interested in chess can buy a book, a DVD or whatever and teach themselves. Younger children cannot do this so are reliant on whatever support they get at home.

I learnt the moves at 10 and a couple of years later my parents bought me a book so that I could learn to play properly. Yes, it was Golombek's The Game of Chess. I suspect the sort of course you're talking about would have been much more useful. I also know for certain that if I'd learnt at 7 and joined a primary school chess club like the ones I spent 15 years teaching at, I would have made no progress at all because I would have been too young to teach myself and my parents didn't know enough to help me.

Comment Moderator said...

An anonymous contributor wrote (and I accidentally deleted):-

While I have no basis to judge the merit of such an approach, and I'd be inclined to believe it probably is, in the ideal world, a good way to go, isn't it expecting too much of children to have them 'suffer' through a year's worth of introductory material before playing real games of chess?

I am from the US, and am definitely not a fan of dumping scholastic kids into tournament chess 10 minutes after they learn how the horsey moves, but there has to be a middle ground

ejh said...

Along the way, particularly close attention is given to the geometry of the chess board itself.

On the two occasions I have taught children to play chess, I started by asking them to tell me how many squares there were on a board. I have no idea whether or not that was a good idea.

My introductory text, by the way, was Bott and Morrison.

Richard James said...

Anon - yes, I tend to agree with you and at the moment I'm going for the middle way myself. While the Steps course is very impressive I think children here in the UK and quite possibly in the US as well want to play full games quickly. But the Steps people will tell you that doesn't work so well. It's a difficult problem and I don't see an easy answer.

Justin - I ask that question early on as well, sometimes in the first lesson - schools in the UK will be impressed by this as they like the idea of cross-curricular links. I also ask how many squares there are round the perimeter. The big difference between our chess backgrounds is that you come from a chess playing family while I don't.