So Frankly...

So Frankly...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Teaching Chess to Kids – One Rule to Wring them All!


Most people think chess is a hard game to learn.  It’s not.  Once someone learns how to move the pieces they can play.  Sure, there are a few slightly complicated moves like castling or en passant, but generally speaking moves aren’t an issue.  Learning how to move pieces in combination, that is where the game gets involved.  It’s not the rules; it’s all of the strategy and tactics that make the game complex.

Except with kids.  Now we are into a whole different area.  First of all, kids want to know all of the odd-ball rules, not only castling and en passant but also the three-position and 50-move rules.  Normally, I try to just move past these topics, but generally someone has heard of them and I eventually end up explaining these rules.  They will try to invoke them, and be completely wrong; this is particularly true of the three-position rule.* However, we get past them and put them away.

So what is the concept that wrings all the certainty out of their heads, leaving the idea that chess is hard?  What is the hardest thing for children to learn (that actually does show up in their games): the knight’s move? No, they need some help with that, but it comes pretty quickly.  The key to that is not only the shape of the move, but the fact that the knight changes the color of the square he stands on with every move.  If the knight is on a dark square now, it will finish on a light square.  What about the pawn?  The fact that the pawn moves differently when it attacks causes a little confusion, but that’s cleared up quickly. 

The toughest part of chess to teach is check (and by extension checkmate!)  Then how do they end the game?  They end the wrong way, at least in the beginning.  Here are the most common misconceptions:

  • “If I threaten the king on this turn, and don’t call check, I can capture it next turn!”  Of course, the king is never actually captured in chess.  When the king is threatened, it’s in check, and must get out of check.  If the king can’t get out of check, then it is checkmate and the game is over.
  • “But you didn’t call check!”  Check is check, called or not.  Often it doesn’t need to be said, because it’s that obvious.  This is a common source of disagreements, because this statement will probably follow the previous thought!
  • "I’ll move my king next to theirs and put my enemy in check!”  The problem with this is that two kings next to each other are both in check!  Since a king cannot move into check, it’s an illegal move.  Last night I actually had an 8th grader, who has been playing for a year, suggest that doing this would allow a player to win with just a bishop and a king – wrong!

How does this get solved?  In the immediate game, I try to back the players up to the last legal move, and then continue the game.  Otherwise, I call it a draw.

Speaking of draws, stalemate is also a problem concept, but not as hard to overcome.  It is truly amazing how often stalemates occur at this level.  Last year our youngest member played his first ten games without a loss – 3 wins and 7 stalemates! 

As frustrating as it can be, teaching chess has its own rewards.  It is wonderful to see their enthusiasm, and fun to watch their faces as the “light comes on”.  Even though my son graduates from the school this year, I can’t imagine giving this up.

It’s Your Move!






* The three position rule says that an exact board position occurring three times is a draw.  For this to happen, every piece and pawn must be in the same position all three times with the same moves available.  As a result, a piece captured or a pawn moved means none of the prior positions can be repeated, since those pieces can never go back to where they were.

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