Sunday, January 21, 2007

Teaching Chess to Kids, Part V

I will be teaching a chess class to ten 10-year-old boys on Thursdays from 4:00- 5:30 p.m. for a few months and thought I’d reflect in these pages on my lessons. We have met twice so far and I think it is going quite well.

This is mostly the same group of kids I taught last year (see my earlier parts one, two, three, and four), so they all know how to play and have picked up the basics, plus some sense of how to win with material superiority, how to mate, and how to open the game.

Some rules need review, however, especially since kids often get confused about things and then confuse others in the course of play. During our concluding tournament last year, for instance, several of them caught a disease (from one especially aggressive player) where they thought you always had to move your King when in check and if your King could not escape check on its own then it was checkmate. This led to some incredibly silly positions where both sides thought it was checkmate after, say, 1.e4 e5 2.Qh5?! Nf6!? 3.Qxe5 “checkmate!!!” [sic]. I thought they had understood the three methods of escaping check, but it is definitely something I’ll need to review--along with refreshers on castling and en passant capture.

To make sure they are all clued in to the basics, I ordered the excellent booklet Chess Rules for Students by John Bain (very inexpensive at $3 each). This was assigned for homework the first day with the recommendation that they get through as much as they could. The more serious half of them finished it completely in one night (or so they claimed at our second meeting).

For the first lessons last year, I had started with the endgame, getting them to play "pawn battle," "sumo kings," "king and pawn battle," and various "chess mazes" as we learned the basics. With this more prepared group, I realized they’d want to get to playing with all the pieces right away. So we started by talking about the pieces, in a lecture I like to call (in a voice like Darth Vader's) "Time, Space, and the Material World" -- with most of the emphasis on material.
To get their attention, I came up with a fun gimmick. In teaching the value of the pieces, I took one of each piece and lined them up in order of their value. I then took out some cash (singles and a couple five-spots). Even small bills get kids excited, of course, and their visible presence helped to focus their attention on my lesson. I told them that a pawn was worth one dollar. Then I got them to try to figure out what the other pieces might be worth.

Though several still valued Bishops and Knights over Rooks, they were remarkably good at getting to the traditional values, suggesting that some remembered when I discussed this last year or they had heard this somewhere before. I made things a little more complicated by suggesting that a Bishop is probably worth about three dollars and ten cents to three and a quarter, which means it is slightly better than the Knight. When I started getting them into comparative values, this helped to explain why three pieces were better than a Queen. I had them compare Queen versus two Rooks (a real shocker for most) and Queen versus Rook and Bishop (I think some are still puzzling over how to explain that one, as am I, since those two pieces do combine the moves of a Queen).

We came to the King and they suggested it might be worth $20. Others said it had no value. I finally got one to call out that it was worth "infinity!" and I pursued that to its conclusion, getting them to realize that the King is the game, and to checkmate it is "priceless!" (like in the MasterCard commercials).

In reading through Todd Bardwick's Teaching Chess in the 21st Century and Chess Workbook for Children (only the latter of which is useful for experienced players and teachers -- see review at Chessville) I was reminded that, at this level, most of them are still hanging pieces left and right, so the most useful lesson is to show them how to get all this "free stuff" (as Bardwick calls it). Continuing with my money metaphor, I decided to call it "found money," which turned out to be a familiar term for this group. Getting a definition from them was a little tricky, though, and led to someone saying "money that you find?" of course, but they got the concept. "Lots of people overlook found money," I told them. "How many of you walk past pennies on the street?"

"Always be on the lookout for found money! You have to look if you are going to see it. Because if you don't see it, you are going to walk right by...."

I then gave them a "found money problem." The chief purpose was for them to see everything that was out there for the taking. The secondary purpose was for them to begin comparing possibilities -- making evaluations before jumping to decisions.

"Found Money" Problem
White to play: "show me the money!"

They saw right away that the Knight and Queen were hanging, of course. But then they had to figure out which was better to take, since you can't have both in one move. The Queen is more valuable, of course, at nine dollars. What's more, I pointed out, "if you take the Knight you are going to end up losing your Queen to ...Nxc4! That's like stopping to pick up three dollars and dropping your wallet in the process!"

It took them longer, and some coaxing, to evaluate 1.Nxe5 or finally to see 1.Qxf7+ Kh8 2.Bxf6+ and mate next move.

"So what was the most valuable piece of 'found money' on the board?"

"The King! Checkmate!" they called out.


When I teach a concept, I always try to have an activity to get them to put it into play right away. In this case, I just set them to playing a game with each other and then went around calling out whenever I saw "found money" laying on the table. They really got into that and would often look over when I called it out to say "oh yeah -- I see it, too!" I also began to see which players were a little more attuned to the game than others, and I was pleased to see one board where there never seemed to be any money to be found....

I then talked about how "material is just one chess currency. There are others, and these include Time and Space. Besides being able to exchange pieces for each other, you can also exchange them for these less tangible things. Sort of like when you go to the grocery store, you can trade your money for food--or you can go to the toy store and trade your money for toys. It's usually best to hang onto your money, but if a really cool toy comes along it might be worth it."

To illustrate, I looked at a standard opening gambit with 1.e4 c5 2.d4 cxd4 3.c3 dxc3 4.Nxc3 and led them in a discussion of how White gains Time and Space in exchange for the relatively small Material investment of a Pawn, or one dollar. I think it is good for kids at this level to think about sacrificing pawns, so long as they are getting some initiative for it.

I then returned to the idea that even a pawn can be a significant investment, since if Black can hang onto it into the endgame he can make a Queen. I showed them a simple position where White forces a Queen by using his majority (White Kg1, Pa5, Pb5 vs Black Kg8, Pa7). We played this out to mate with Queen and King versus King. I then had them alternate mating with Q+K vs. K to make sure they remembered it and got the concept. Material is what you usually need to win....

After working through this most basic mate, I gave them a tough problem. It was probably too tough for them, but I got them to work it out practically by brute force.

Mate in five.

In the end, White sacrifices all but one of his pawns in order to effect a breakthrough to the queening square, which leads to immediate mate. He surrenders material but still converts the win.


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