Monday, July 21, 2014

Teaching Chess to Kids, Yet Again

Pawn Battle position
White to play and win.
Every year, about this time, I teach chess to rising-9th grade students as part of the Rutgers Future Scholars summer program.  It's a fun class and gives me a chance to think about teaching chess to beginners, about which I have written some things over the years.  There are many benefits of learning chess and it is a valuable tool for helping kids develop "self control" and the ability to "learn how to learn" (as Josh Waitzkin argues in The Art of Learning).  It also gives a teacher a chance to talk about how to make decisions after examining multiple variables, which is one of my main themes.

I have developed most of my techniques teaching chess to groups of young people. But I do not think a group setting is the best place to learn chess deeply, even if it does have the advantage of  providing motivation through friendly competition, which drives some kids to pay attention and study.  But to get the most benefit from chess, it has to be studied independently, and kids who do that will gain more confidence for when they finally go to a serious chess club or begin to play in tournaments.  I generally think it is a mistake for young people to play any rated chess until they have studied a bit on their own or with a coach. 

With groups of kids just learning the game (or who only have a basic familiarity with the rules), I generally use the "one piece at a time" method of instruction, using mini-games to accompany each lesson.  This way kids don't get bored and I can create an active, experiential learning environment where everyone can play as equals.  The first lesson is always on pawns and ends with "Pawn Battle" (handout / blog), where the first player to reach the other side of the board to make a Queen wins.  I learned the basic game from Lev Alburt's Comprehensive Chess Course (where he says it is an old Russian teaching game), but I modified it so that if either player has no moves it is stalemate, which is a great way to teach kids the stalemate concept.  I also use the game to teach them the power of zugzwang and all sorts of pawn theory (from pawn majorities to backward pawns), as you can see described in my handout.  The big advantage of starting with pawns, if you do it right, is they can learn some tough rules like en passant and stalemate and concepts like zugzwang and passed pawns right from the get-go.  I find it especially useful for teaching en passant in a way that sticks with them.

Our first lesson was on Friday, when I saw one of the games reach the position in the diagram at the top of the page after 1.d4 d6 2.d5 e6 3.e4 c5(?).  The player of the White pieces quickly showed off his new knowledge of en passant by capturing with 4.dxc6(?) -- and I was glad to see someone had fully understood en passant on day one!  But I noticed something else and later used the game to illustrate the power of the "breakthrough sacrifice."  I think this might be the quickest way you can win at Pawn Battle, with the powerhouse move 4.e5! (not something I'd expect a student to find on day one).  No matter what Black does, White is going to get a pawn to the queening square at d8 and win the game, e.g.: 4.e5! dxe5 5.d6 etc. or 4...exd5 5.exd6 etc.  It made for a nice lesson -- including a reminder about how en passant works and how you are not required to capture (like in checkers).

Later today, in our second meeting, I will follow up pawn battle with a game I call "Anteater" (download PDF), which teaches the relative value of the pieces and the concept of time vs. material, and another I call "Magnetic Sumo Kings" (download PDF), which teaches the opposition.  By Tuesday or Wednesday, though, I expect these older kids will lose patience with focusing on one piece at a time, so I will have to introduce the other pieces, teach them about checkmate, and then just let them play "real chess" -- following up by looking at a master game each day with them.  They will play and I will have them record their games so we can look at them too.  All along the way, I will also use their games to teach them lessons, trying to address their "patterns of error."  I have written about my first year of teaching like this on my blog:
Those looking to employ some of these techniques to teach chess to their own children might check out the book Chess Is Child's Play: Teaching Techniques that Work, which also uses an "active learning" approach with similar mini-games.  This would be the ideal book for a parent relatively new to chess who wants to get his or her child interested in playing.  It would make a good guide for those rainy summer days, which are ideal for getting young kids started with chess.




You can also find free online lesson plans, including Teaching Chess the Easy and Fun Way with Mini-Games, which looks especially appropriate for early elementary kids and features some creative mini-games that are new to me.  

Technology has definitely sped up the process by which kids can learn the game and practice getting better at it, and computer chess instruction has put the mini-games approach to good use.  Over the past eight years, my own children have tried out practically every chess instruction software I could find -- beginning with ChessBase's Fritz & Chesster (all three volumes, now combined), which does the best job of using the mini-game concept to help kids master the pieces and basic tactics.  Other programs my kids tried include Lego Chess (probably discontinued -- and a bit repetitive), Dinosaur Chess (excellent and the one my daughter liked best), and Majestic Chess (which my son liked best since it creates a mysterious medieval atmosphere). When the kids were using a DS (which they have since abandoned), I picked up Learn Chess for that, which is very good and has a story featuring ghosts and pirates.  I think Fritz and Chesster made it to DS eventually, but we never tried it and I cannot find a good link (maybe it was discontinued).  All of the programs use the mini-games technique to some extent to give kids practice in using the pieces and learning chess concepts.

Though modern technology has made it more accessible, the mini-game concept is really the classic way of teaching the game, beginning with "The Knight's Tour" puzzle, which is sort of the Rubik's Cube of chess.  In the 19th Century, masters used to give exhibitions that would include a demonstration of the Knight's Tour from whatever square the audience named.  It is an excellent exercise for young people to practice, and some used to play it with 64 pennies by the side of the board, laying a penny on each square that has already been traversed.  You could practice by giving yourself 80 pennies and work to reduce the number of pennies you "spend" each time.  However, this classic puzzle works most efficiently online and I found a couple fun versions:
  • Renegade Knight -- the most fun version of the puzzle that I came across.  
  • Free Chess Game - Chess Knight -- this version allows you to cross over the same squares with the goal of reducing the number of turns it takes you to cover every square.
In searching for those Knight's Tour games, I also stumbled upon the Troyis Online Puzzle Game, which also looks like a fun resource for helping kids get better at using the Knight.
There are a tremendous number of great online tools for learning chess, and a kid who is looking for some amusement might be directed to videos on YouTube, Chesslecture.com, Chess.com, and many other sites -- and to playing over master games at Chessgames.com.  The kids I am teaching now, though, prefer the social aspects of the game and are not likely to become serious students or spend time looking at chess online (though many of my former students definitely play online).  I think the game still has a lot to teach even those who try it out casually.  And you never know: once they learn, and know how to read chess notation, they might just end up reading a chess book some day.

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