Monday, June 29, 2015

Teaching Chess to My Children

When they turned 5, I taught my daughters how to play chess using Lev Alburt’s Comprehensive Chess Course (vol 1 and 2).  My older daughter was not very interested but my younger daughter continued playing and, now 11, is rated 1100 USCF, plays regularly in rated tournaments, and has been the strongest player in her school club since the second grade.

I learned quite a bit over the last several years about how children learn chess, and  for the past year I have been using a totally new approach with my older son.  He just turned 5 this week and I’m nearing the end of “phase 1”.  The point of this blog is to get my thoughts down about how that phase went and outline what phase 2 will look like.

Why did I decide to change my approach?  I believe Alburt's book moves too quickly into complete games, and does not focus on enough on the more fundamental aspects of the game.  He goes from teaching the basic piece movements right into learning how to castle and basic opening theory.  That’s great if you want to just start playing, and I have to say my daughter has done great with this foundation.

But I took an entirely different approach with my son, and I’ll likely use this with my now 2-year old as well, who is already interested in chess from watching his older siblings.  This approach is discussed in the Step Method teacher’s manual, in the introduction to Sukhin’s series, and in some detail at Momir Radovic’s website  I love the ideas on his website, but unfortunately I did not find any suggestions about how to actually implement them (I guess you have to hire him as a coach?).  That’s where Step Method and Sukhin come in.

The core idea is to spend a LOT more energy on basic board vision.  Vision is the fundamental ingredient to all of chess, and there are three things to “see” (this is my summary of ideas from

  1. Bottom-up perception.  See the individual piece AND how it moves as one inseparable unit.  See the lines of power (like an aura) emanating from the piece.
  2. Top-down processing.  See the functional relationships between the pieces (there are six, see below).
  3. Interconnected system.  See the entire board as (5 to 6) groups of pieces with functional relationships (not unconnected sets of individual pieces).

I used three different books (Stepping Stones, Sukhin’s Chess Camp Volume 1, and Chess is Child’s Play) to go through the basic ideas, which I have divided the ideas into three phases, with phases 1 and 2 lasting roughly one year each:

Phase 1 – “pre-checkmate” (covers first two kinds of vision)
Phase 2 – “mate in one, simple threats, and simple checkmates” (covers all three kinds of vision)
Phase 3 – “mate in two, complex threats, and other checkmate patterns” (covers all three kinds of vision)

Phase 1 – The key element of this phase is to use a very small amount of material on the board, and no checkmate (that comes in phase 2).  I have introduced what checkmate is and basic rules like the king cannot step into an attack, and must move if he is being attacked (we do call it “check”).

We first completed almost all of Chess is Child’s play.  This book is really great for teaching basic piece names, and the concepts of move, attack, capture, and defend.  The teaching method used in the book is extremely clear and simple, and there is a lot of great “Q&A” from other parents on each step of the process.  The authors have included lots of ideas for mini-games to play along the way.  There is not a better book out there for teaching these basic concepts, and we took almost six months to slowly work through this material.  We took things at his pace.

Then we started on a mix of Stepping Stones 1 worksheets (from the Dutch Step Method), and 500+ simple positions from Sukhin’s Chess camp.  Both of those books end with checkmate-related issues, so I’m ending phase 1 by introducing those ideas.  Here is a summary of the ideas we covered in phase 1:

  • Pieces: names, relative values, and movement
  • Board: orientation (light on the right); naming files, ranks, diagonals, and squares; board vocabulary (squares are “light and dark”, pieces are “white and black”); the “center”, etc.
  • Vocabulary/Concept of SIX FUNCTIONAL RELATIONSHIPS: 
    • Allied pieces:  (1) directly defend, (2) defend by blocking, and (3) limiting (interfering)
    • Enemy pieces:  (4) attack pieces, (5) attack important squares (restriction), and (6) physical blockade 
  • Other concepts:  undefended pieces, capturing up/down, equal trades, zugzwang, stalemate, alignment, etc.

Some of this might sound too basic or too advanced, but it is all attainable even by a four year old.  The positions in Sukhin’s chess camp are incredibly simple, but for a beginner can be very complicated without knowing these basic interactions.

They key in this phase is to be able to very quickly “see” all the pieces on the board (yes, that bishop all the way in the other corner matters!) along with seeing how the piece moves, and then to understand how all the pieces relate to each other.  These are the first and second “vision” elements outlined above.  This gives ideas about what is happening in the position, and only then can you start to think about what kind of move you should make.

I used a colorful vocabulary to elicit fun (and hopefully meaningful) images about piece movement, and piece interactions.  My idea was to help him create his own images about these fundamental elements of the game that may help him see and feel the piece “auras” and the relationships between other pieces.  I am going to put more work into this vocabulary when I teach phase 1 to my youngest son.

In addition to reviewing the Sukhin/Stepping Stone positions, we play lots of mini-games, and also do easy skill builder exercises in Maurice Ashley’s ‘Learn Chess!’ app.

So phase 1 is now almost over for my older son.  All three books end with checkmate themes, and my plan is to end phase 1 by teaching the core checkmate concepts and vocabulary.  He knows a lot of chess terms and ideas, and seems to genuinely enjoy the game.  So hopefully I’m doing something right!

Phase 2 will be all about checkmate (in addition to drilling phase 1 things).  We will build up from static positions where the quesiton is whether the position is “mate, stalemate, or is there a move”.  Then simple mate-in-ones with one mating piece and no “noise”, then adding more pieces involved in the mate, and then adding more noise (pieces not involved in the mate).  We’ll do the basic checkmates with two rooks, a queen, one rook, etc.  We’ll also do basic endgame stuff like minor pieces plus pawns, minors vs pawns, some piece-only endgames (queen vs bishop, queen vs knight, and maybe rook vs bishop/knight), and lots of king and pawn endings.  There are other concepts I will pack into this phase as well, like more tactical ideas using checks/mate threats, knight forks, etc.  I’ll possibly introduce each tactical idea so he knows the vocabulary and core idea, but we won’t really drill them until later (once he knows checkmate very well).  The other stuff is nice to have, but the core of this phase is checkmate.  Lots of checkmate.

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