I am trying something a little different this year with the kids, since many didn’t even know the rules and all but three never had any formal instruction. Generally I start all my teaching to groups by getting the kids to play simplified games such as “Pawn Battle” and “Sumo Kings.” But this year, I’m trying to stick to a strict program where I introduce only a piece at a time and get them engaged with an activity with that piece (or in combination with any others we have discussed).
Usually, because the kids already know how the pieces move and are anxious to get to play with the full set (as they are used to doing), I generally have to give up on the strict progression method and just jump into full-blown play. One of the inevitable problems with full-blown play, though, is that the kids start to teach each other the game, so a lot can go wrong. If one kid doesn’t understand that there are three ways to get out of check (you don’t always have to move the King, of course!) then he can start spreading that mistaken idea to the rest of them as fast as a stomach flu. And if the kids have only a tenuous grasp of how en passant capturing works, they’ll be using their pawns to capture Knights, Bishops, and Rooks en passant and exercising that right in every mistaken situation conceivable. Besides getting the rules all muddled, they also start to learn bad strategy, like the inevitable plan of getting their Rooks out first or, for the somewhat more sophisticated, going for the three move mate every time. I’d prefer to have the chance to teach them some good ideas before letting them loose on each other.
So far the approach is working well. Whereas last year, I struggled to the bitter end to teach some less attentive 10-year-olds the meaning of “stalemate” and “en passant,” this year’s younger group already have mastered those ideas completely and even understand things my previous kids never got, such as “zugzwang,” “a pawn majority,” and “the passed pawn’s lust to expand” (OK, maybe I didn’t put the last one quite that way with them). And when one of the kids pulled off a masterful stalemate combination in Pawn Battle, I knew I was already making more rapid progress than I’ve ever seen before.
The handout helped a lot, and eventually I hope to have several like it, including one on “Kings and the Opposition” featuring “Sumo Kings,” “Queening a Pawn,” “The Szen Position,” and “King and Pawn Battle.” I’ve even decided to get them learning Rook endings by lesson four. I’ll tell you how that works out. But if I succeed, none of them will have my own nagging doubts about playing an endgame if they go on to take chess more seriously. As a friend once told me, winning an endgame is at least 50% attitude. If you believe you are a great endgame player, your chances of actually winning in the endgame go up tremendously, no matter what your actual skill level. I hope I can instill such confidence in these kids. And I think we are off to a great start.