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Chess: The New Rook'n'Roll?

Last Edited: Sunday November 28, 2004 10:33 AM

We asked for feedback on the Guardian article (20 Nov 2004) about a perceived boom in chess and claims that more primary school children were taking up the game in the UK. Here is what full-time London-based chess teacher and co-author of the popular Complete Chess Addict books, Richard James, had to say. And further down the page, you can read what Brian Gosling and Charlie Linford have to say. If you would like to comment yourself,

Dear John,

You asked for comments on the Guardian article so here goes. For the moment, anyway, I will restrict myself to replying to Gerry Walsh’s remarks on junior chess.

Unfortunately, Gerry Walsh seems to have little knowledge of what is really happening in the world of Primary Schools chess.

"There has been a huge increase in the number of primary-school pupils playing – up to a hundred in every school." I’m not quite sure what this is supposed to mean, or whether Gerry Walsh has been misquoted, but it’s complete nonsense. For a start there are very few schools with 100 children playing – a typical chess club membership would be in the region of 20 for a single-form entry school, 40 for a two form entry school etc.. I rather suspect there has been a slight increase over the past few years, certainly not a huge increase. There has been a huge increase in entries for the UK Chess Challenge, yes, but I suspect this is due to the enormous amount of work put in by Mike Basman and his team rather than to an increase in the number of children playing chess. In my part of the world (SW London) there has been a huge increase in the number of schools employing paid chess teachers to run school chess clubs – and this is leading to some sort of increase in numbers. In affluent areas schools and parents are prepared to pay for this, but this will not be the case in other parts of the country.

There are certainly far fewer children playing in Primary Schools than in the early 1980s, when there were many enthusiastic and knowledgeable primary school teachers running chess clubs. But these days there are very few primary school teachers with any serious knowledge of the game, and, even if they were, they wouldn’t have the time to run school chess in the way it was run 20 years ago.

"At primary level (the boy-girl ratio is) about 50-50." Again, complete nonsense. From my experience it’s usually about 85-15 in favour of boys in mixed schools, although you occasionally find a girl-dominated club or year-group.

"… there is a big falling off when they go to secondary school, and we don’t know why." Yes, we do. Well I do, anyway, but no one’s bothered to ask me. And if you want to know why there are very few players under the age of 40 in your club – not to mention very few chess organisers under the age of 40 - I can answer that question as well.

The fact is that, while young children gain many benefits, both educational and social, from playing chess, and while a well-run chess club is an ornament to any primary school, primary school chess clubs, at least in the way they are currently run, far from encouraging children to continue playing, actually put them off playing in later life. The reason why there are so few chess players under 40 links up exactly with the switch from secondary to primary school chess in the late 1970s.

If you go into any primary school chess club you’d probably be surprised how low the standard of play is. In a well-run chess club with a professional teacher and full support from the school, you’ll find that the best players are probably round about 600 ELO. In clubs run by an enthusiastic parent or teacher with little knowledge of the game you’ll probably find nobody much above 200 ELO. Yes, there are one or two outstanding players around, but they are playing most of their chess outside primary school.

The basic fact is that, although most 7-year-olds can pick up the basic idea of the game fairly quickly, getting beyond that point is far too hard for them. What you need to do is break down the macro-skill we call chess into its component micro-skills. Two of the micro-skills you need to play chess much beyond about 600 ELO are the ability to perform complex logical tasks and the capacity for independent study, both of which children usually develop at the age of 11 or 12. Therefore, children are attracted to chess in the short term, but after a couple of years they stop making progress, get frustrated and eventually lose interest. Chess is essentially an adult game, not a children’s game, and the only children who will continue to play as adults are those who are receiving a lot of adult help.

I have been teaching chess for 30 years, and teaching chess in schools since 1993, and have been aware of the problem for some time. Introducing chess into as many schools as possible is all fine and dandy, but the BCF haven’t given any consideration to who is going to provide the instruction. I think encouraging low-level chess clubs – which is what they seem to want to do – is counter-productive. If anyone wants to talk to me I believe I can provide them with a solution.

Finally, perhaps you’d like to consider the words of an ex-pupil (on a very informal basis) of mine, Jonathan Rowson (taken from Interview with a Grandmaster):

"It takes some patience to appreciate chess, and this is not as fashionable as it used to be! Chess could also be called an ‘elitist’ activity, not in the sense of being unduly or unfairly exclusive, but just as opposed to readily accessible and ‘popular’. Let’s face it, it’s a difficult game and it consumes a lot of time. Perhaps we shouldn’t be trying too hard to market the game as a popular pursuit. Those who love chess tend to love it deeply precisely because of its depth. Much of the game’s charm is lost if we simplify or dilute it, and this may not be a price worth paying for making chess more popular.".

Richard James
Director: Richmond Junior Chess Club

Brian Gosling (26 November) comments on some of Richard James's points:

Dear John,

I have recently started teaching groups for chess at the local primary school, and have been amazed and very encouraged by the enthusiasm of both the girls and boys - in equal proportion. Words like "cool" and "wicked" have abounded. High praise indeed! A game for adults only? I don't think so - not from my experience anyway.

Master Harry Potter has no doubt played a big part in this renaissance, and long may it continue. Does it really matter that we don't produce GMs every five minutes? What's wrong with being a "social" player? First and foremost, chess should be fun. Chess is not the be all and end all, but if the odd really talented player develops, so be it.

Let the children enjoy it at their own level. They enjoy the challenge, and having learned the basics they will never forget them. No teaching is ever wasted. We cannot afford to be elitist, and just coach the "good" players. Every child has the right to have a go, and we may be in for some surprises. Who knows?

Chess definitely has a place in primary schools encompassing, as it does, many other subjects and encouraging different approaches to problem-solving. We must not confine chess but see it in a wider context.

Come on, let's be pleased that youngsters are discovering our game and let's be positive.

Brian  Gosling

Charlie Linford (26 Nov) on the 'rook'n'roll' article and Richard James' reply:

Having read both the Guardian article and Mr. James's response, I would say it is definitely Mr. James's that sounds more plausible. Speaking as one of the "spotty, gangly schoolboys who can't get a girlfriend" (actually I'm rather short, and have just left college, but that is neither here nor there), I found myself struggling not to laugh out loud at the thought that chess was trendy.

"Being able to play chess is fast becoming a very cool skill for young people." This is actually not far off the mark, but the quote becomes a lot more plausible if you add just one word: "Being able to play chess WELL is... a very cool skill". This is really where I thought Mr. James's letter had the ring of truth; the drop-off of chess-playing youngsters is more to do with their inability to get past the very foundations of chess than it is to do with any kind of image problem chess might have (and let's face it, it does still have one, not without justification).

At my secondary school, I was lucky enough to have an extremely devoted teacher in charge of the chess club, of about 130 BCF strength, who did his utmost not only to develop the strong players to county teams, but also to teach and involve the weaker players who came along. Given that Mr. James's figures of 200-600 ELO even seemed a little generous to me (!), this is no easy task.

To address the other question the article raises, I must say that to me, chess is not a sport. I'm sorry, I know that there are those who are working extremely hard to prove it is, and with the very best of intentions too, but it just isn't a sport. A sport, by definition, requires some element of physical skill. Chess may be physically draining, but in the end, the aplomb with which you move the pieces, the deftness with which you complete the scoresheet, and the twenty-yard sprint to the toilets in the midst of a time scramble have no impact on the game. Snooker and golf may not leave you as exhausted at the end of the day, but they do have that element of physical skill.

I also don't think that playing chess helps you with your academic studies. Yes, the game forces you to think. But so what? The people likely to play chess are likely to be the thinkers in the first place. It seems to me that those who are play chess may be academically superior, but you won't become academically superior through playing chess.

I am not without experience of this. At the peak of my interest in chess (around three years ago when I was about 15), I tried to get both my younger sister and brother involved, both of whom were primary school age. I was able to give them my full attention, they are both bright children, and they were able to benefit from the excellent training given by Sussex Junior Chess, but in the end, they just weren't interested unless they could win, and the only people that were playing were those that were winners.

It's a tough game, and only the best survive. I haven't made it, despite seven years of trying, but I wouldn't turn around and blame it on the fact that chess isn't a sport, or that my primary school never had a club. I just hate to lose. In fact, I've gotten so little enjoyment from the game, I no longer recommend it to bright-eyed parents for their children; if they're good they might just make it, but if they're anything less, it's a harsh world they're better off out of.

On this theme, and to add a quote as Mr. James did (and thus maybe add an air of respectability), this is what GM Ljubomir Ljubojevic had to say in an interview: "I have won many games that have not made me happy; and when I lose, I am also not happy. My friends ask 'so when are you happy?' That's the way chess is; you are happy only rarely; the rest is grief."

Charlie Linford

Home Page: www.bcmchess.co.uk