Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Teaching Chess to Kids, Part VII

Black to play. Mate in one.

Teachers often ask themselves whether or not their students are actually learning. "Yes, I've been teaching them and we have covered what is important. But are they any better?" Sometimes it's tough to know for sure, especially when they are still making mistakes.
At a recent lesson, I played a simultaneous exhibition against my chess students, spotting Queen and move. We only had space, time, and materials for five boards, so most of them had to pair up. Two were absent, so that meant that the two better players could face me solo. The others played in teams of two.

I told them that a prize was at stake--that anyone who could beat me would get something big. I have candy and book prizes always handy, and we have medals and trophies prepared for the final tournament. But, frankly, if anyone had beaten me, I think I would have gotten him something REALLY big, like a video game or an entire video game system.

With my Queen off the board and some mystery prize in the offing, they were really into it and tried their confident best to beat me. Even as they started dropping pieces, they did not quit. One student even caught me off-guard with a check I had not noticed.
In the end, however, it was a shocking slaughter. I routed them in under 30 minutes. I must admit, I played with a mixture of disappointment and glee. One of my better games ended in a nice mate (see diagram above). On the other boards, I simply collected pieces until my advantage was overwhelming. One game began 1.e4 c5 2.Qh5?! (a GM move -- if your name is Nakamura!) 2...e6 ("You saw what we were planning, didn't you!" one declared) 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3?? Nxh5 etc.
At the end of fifteen minutes or so, as the tide turned and one team dropped their Queen with a groan of agony, a player called out, "Man, we are losing bad! How are you guys doing?" They universally acknowledged that all seemed lost. "He got our Queen a while ago!"
Fortunately, they all kept score, so I had some of their games to discuss the following session, to emphasize the importance of development, watching for threats, trading when ahead, and getting the king to safety through castling. I emphasized that when they were ahead in material, they not only should exchange but they should be more willing to play aggressively. "Make threats, don't get into a defensive posture. You have the Queen on your side, I don't," I said, "use her like a bully or a bodyguard to push me around! But most importantly, get your king to safety...."
As they arrived at our following lesson, I gave them a review of castling, setting up a "puzzle" on each board where the question was, "How many legal ways are there for each player to castle on his next move--and what are they?"

How many legal ways are there to castle?

I then showed them my better win where castling early might have made a difference for White.
At another lesson, I began by setting up some opening positions where one player disregards his King safety along the short diagonal, as follows:
A) 1.d4 f5 2.Bg5 h6 3.Bh4 g5 4.e3 gxh4??
B) 1.f4 e5 2.fxe5 d6 3.exd6 Bxd6 4.Nc3??
C) 1.d4 Nf6 2.Nd2?! e5!? 3.dxe5 Ng4 4.h3??
D) 1.e4 e5 2.f4 Bc5 3.fxe5?
E) 1.e4 e5 2.f4 Nc6 3.Nf3 f5 4.Nxe5?
Once they solved the problem position, I went over some of the moves to show them the basic patterns leading to mate or the win of material. I then showed them a game that two of them had recorded beginning 1.e4 e5 2.d4!? f6? 3.dxe5 fxe5? 4.f4? exf4? 5.Nc3? Qh4+ and White quickly got into some trouble. Obviously they needed a lesson on the short diagonal motif!
The simul was useful, and not simply for gathering sample games and gaining their respect. I also was able to correct any persistent errors, especially involving the more difficult rules. For instance, there is one kid who wants to capture en passant whenever anything passes one of his pawns, including a piece!
More importantly, the simul gave me my best chance yet to rank them by playing strength.
I always end each lesson period with a final tournament, which is a 4-round Swiss with each round lasting 16 minutes. As we gear up for that event, I have to begin ranking the players so that the swiss pairings will work most effectively to determine a champion. Last year, but for one surprising player who came in second, I had them pretty much as they finished. This year, but for the top three players who are real standouts, I was not certain. So the session after the simul, I also started pairing them off to help me make the more difficult distinctions between the ones who are relatively even in skill level. As of this writing, I have practically decided the first round pairings for the tournament.
One reassuring thing is that there are clearly some kids who are beginning to excel at the game beyond their peers. That suggests to me that some of them are learning something, even if not all of them are as devoted to the game. In the end, I guess that's all I can hope to achieve.


Anonymous said...

Thanks a ton for this series on teaching children. I'm planning on teaching my almost nine-year-old daughter soon and I can really use the advice and ideas.

Michael Goeller said...

Thanks for the feedback. I will say that the best tool for teaching chess to kids is the computer game Fritz & Chesster (widely available from online sellers, in three editions already), which is also the most girl-friendly chess game for kids on the market, IMHO. My 4-year-old son has played it quite a bit. And I got quite a few teaching ideas from its approach. I should write a review at some point...

The only downside to the game is that it introduced him to the computer, and now he is playing quite a few computer games--both good and bad. But once they are on the computer, you do have something to hold over them ("clean your room or no computer games!") But you have probably discovered that already with a 9-year-old.

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