Learning how to play chess

The say that chess is a sea where a gnat may drink from and an elephant may bathe in. In these housebound times, your children may want to take on the role of the metaphorical gnat or elephant and learn to play the game of Kings. Learning how to play chess, despite some claims made recently, does not lead to improvements in mathematical or reading ability. However, it does lead to being able to play chess (!) and that in itself is enough. Here are some brief thoughts about how you may go about teaching and encouraging the learning of chess at home.

Before embarking on chess, I would suggest that your child has developed the strategic and tactical awareness gleamed from simpler games such as noughts and crosses, connect 4, card games and draughts. This is important because they need to understand that chess is a game which rewards thinking and patience. I would advise that 7+ is a good starting age but I know children who have started younger and it is also never too late to start learning! I didn’t learn until my mid-twenties. Chess is a skill that does take time and persistence. Therefore, it’s important to keep ‘lessons’ fun and enjoyable. If your child isn’t enjoying the basics, perhaps it’s not the right time and waiting a year or two before trying again is the best course of action.

Chess sets can be bought cheaply online. Plastic ones offer better value for money as for the same money, the pieces are generally larger and easier to handle than wooden pieces. The boards with coordinates along the edges are useful for beginners so that squares can be easily referenced.

There are only six different pieces in a game of chess. Mastery of each one, individually and collectively is the goal. If you don’t know the basics yourself, this article described each how each piece moves.

The worst thing you can possibly do is set up the board and start playing straight away. I would recommend many hours of engaging with the pieces by playing ‘mini’ games with fewer pieces first. Although children might want to dive straight in, they will not know enough about their army to deploy their forces with any skill or thought. By isolating individual pieces, students start learning about the characteristics of each piece, their advantages and disadvantages, and crucially, are thinking hard during these small scale games. To borrow from a recent trendy term in mathematics education, atomisation is what is required first. Too often I see children moving pieces with no thought or reason behind moves – probably because they’ve been told to play a full game before they are ready to. It’s then hard to scale back to these mini games which develop the skills needed to develop.

The first mini game I recommend is known as the Pawn Game or Cross the Board and involves the pawns (the souls of chess). Details of this simple game are here. If children can play the pawn game reasonably, it is a good indicator that they will be able to play and enjoy chess. This is because pawns are the pieces whose moves are most complicated; they capture pieces with a different movement to their ‘regular’ move and can move forward one or two squares on their first move.

Every few days I will be posting ideas for mini games on twitter (@geomathsblog) – feel free to join in and let me know how it goes!

A comprehensive chess course for beginners has been made available by chess author Richard James and can be found here. More advanced players can find plenty more in something like a sequel to the above here.

For much more information, I recommend the book ‘The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids’ by Richard James and the website chess.com for articles, exercises and eventually full online games.

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