Sunday, March 27, 2011

do it for the children

       I think it's stupid when chess teachers refuse to teach openings. I've met a whole range of these people with a range of explanations: it's superficial to make the kids memorize things, they want to teach how to think, they're all about discovery learning or creativity, they teach only endgames, and leave it to the kids to intuit middlegame principles, they teach through a "critical positions" approach.
        This is their problem: they think too much about teaching and not enough about learning. It looks good but it doesn't work.
        People don't learn the deep stuff first; you learn the superficial stuff first, and later, once you can do it, then you learn why it's like that. When you learn a foreign language, you learn how to say "hi, my name is Elizabeth" before you know what a possessive is, or a predicate nominative, or how to conjugate the verb "to be."
       Beginners have no idea what is going on in a game of chess, they are the semi-blind, lost in a new world. They need and want to be told what to do. Teach a kid the colle, even better, the colle zuckertort, give them a plan to play for, and they will learn how to make and carry out a plan. They will get the same type of positions and structures, so they will be able to use their experience from past games and post-mortems to orient themselves in the future.
    teach them critical positions when they're 1500 and endgames when they're 1800.
    they need to know openings now. it's good for them, I promise, plus they'll love you for it.   


Anonymous said...

anyone who teaches children the colle zukertort is basically f---ing them up for life....

joking joking hehe

Anonymous said...

But how far is too far? I know a particular GM who likes to teach 1200s 30+ moves of theory in Botvinnik Semi-Slavs. At some point, surely, other parts of chess become more important. To your analogy of learning a language, sure often classes begin with memorizing a few basic phrases (perhaps the equivalent of play e4/d4, and a few moves further than that). Then they go straight into learning grammar.

Frisco Del Rosario said...

A kid — any player — could take a complete library of opening books to a chessboard, and take an open book test for as long as the library holds up.

After that, the kid is on his own, and if he can't mate with a rook, or promote a pawn, he isn't allowed to put pieces back on the board to return to an opening position found in one of the books.

Anonymous said...

"This is their problem: they think too much about teaching and not enough about learning. It looks good but it doesn't work."

It sounds like they just assume the kid is going to play and study chess for the rest of her life and never consider that that may not be true.

Rick Massimo

Anonymous said...


What would you recommend be the focal points of teaching children chess at say, a rating of 700? And then once those become effective, and they reach 1000, what will catapult them closer to 12-1300? And from there, to 15-1600?

You have so much experience with these rating groups, and I know that it obviously changes with each child/group of kids - but do you have any general advice for newer chess teachers?

Elizabeth Vicary said...

it's not so easy to just say what a rating class needs to work on. everyone has their own problems. also, I think adult 900s and child 900s probably have very different problems.

This is what I do: I teach openings; we do a lot of tactics; they play and go over their games as much as possible.

That's most of it.

tactics= 2 sheets from Coakley's blue book, due every Tuesday, plus a period of ct-art a week for the 7th and 8th graders.

I guess I teach things other than openings occasionally. My beginner lessons are almost all from Coakley's green book. His stuff is like magic, I really can't express how perfect his lessons are.

I attribute the success of the IS 318 chess program entirely to the instructional materials of Jeff Coakley.

having said that, I do have my own unit on isolated queen pawns, the minority attack, and improving the worst piece. I try to teach a lot of lessons comprised of positions from kids' games: the puzzles I put up here.

The single most important thing is that the kids play a lot.

Anonymous said...

I haven't given a lot of attention to openings beyond the basic principles (center pawns, development, castling for king safety), but just before we went downstate, I did have a two-practice "cram session" in which I blasted through all the basic openings and explained why each player was making each move, just deep enough for the team to recognize them and understand what was generally going on in each one. From there, I think it's a matter of letting students try different openings out and figure out which ones are producing good results for them, then building on that success.

Anonymous said...

Hi Elizabeth--

Was just wondering what you meant by a "critical positions approach." Critical positions as in standard middlegame positions? Or critical moments in a game? Or something else?

Paul McC

Leon Akpalu said...

I was once at a Pan-Ams where one of our 1700 players asked me what he should do against the Petroff, because it was sooooo borrrring. I happily showed him the Boden-Kieseritzky gambit, where after 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Bc4 Nxe4 4.Nc3 Nxc3 5.dxc3 White not only has a lead in development, but Black has to find 5...f6 just to keep his extra pawn, because of things like 5...d6? 6.Nxe5! dxe5?? 7.Bxf7+

In the very next round, I see him play the first three moves of this and am inwardly smirking; imagine my horror when I see our guy play 4.Bxf7+? Kxf7 5.Nxe5+ with negative randomness. They ended up agreeing to a draw in a pure R + B vs R ending because the guy with the extra piece remembered hearing somewhere that it was a draw...

Torbjörn Björklund said...

You are right. It's important to know something about the openings. What's the fun with endgame knowledge when your are total lost already in the opening.
I learned most of my chess as beginner from reading the chess columns in some newspapers, written by for example GM Bent Larsen, reading a book with Anatoly Karpov's games (1975-78), another book with games by Bobby Fischer.
It gave me a good knowledge about the opening, the middlegame and the endgame. I studied also some basic endgames you will find in any good beginners endgame book. And I played a lot of games to practice what I learned. Later I started to use Chess Informant (beginning with #27) and the openings books ECO A-E. Also some special opening books, like Geller's about King's Indian and Watson's about French, also some RHM about Sicilian Kan, Sicilian Najdorf and Nimzo-Indian.

Anonymous said...

Do so agree about "openings now". Start with the fun stuff. Colle Zukertort for white is inspired--teaches pattern recognition/tactics--and I'd throw in for even easier fun for beginners the Englund as black. Let'm get a few quick mates and queen wins and then they'll start to wonder what's up when it doesn't come so easy!
Lots of parallels with teaching writing here: I can't learn you to write, but I help you towards writing to learn...

Montreal Meany said...

I couldn't learn to roll my R's. That's why I never touched the Torre Attack.

charles said...

I agree with you. Teaching the colle, and later the london and torre for white, plus the scandanavian and stonewall for black always has good results. They are easy to learn and leave more time for tactics and endgames.

Philip Sells said...

Elizabeth, I don't teach my students openings, at least not the scholastic students (which is all of them, right now, though I'll have at least one adult student starting soon). But here's the thing: I don't teach them openings in the way you mean--as in "this is how you play opening such-and-such". I do teach them some opening ideas within the context of their own games that they show me, or in the course of showing them some of the classic games. But this is the furthest that I go at this point in the direction of "teaching openings". It's a way of expanding upon something that they've already seen from a different direction, in other words.

Other than that, I do lots of tactics, of course, and I do use Coakley's books--your recommendation of them was quite useful. I actually gave away my copy of the red book to one of my students who got addicted to chess mazes. :) And yes, I do endgames with them... lots of endgames, basic ones, tactical ones, things like that. I use Rosen's book a LOT. People around here don't study the endgame much at all, which I've always felt is a very sad thing.

Anonymous said...

I am nowhere near the rating level of Elizabeth and her best students.
However, if you don't work on openings, you are going to get crushed by players who are one rating class above you. I see kids
get tricked or trapped all the time
by better players in openings. What good is your tactical prowess in the middle game or your ability
to play well in endgames if you are either a pawn/piece down or in a cramped position after the opening?

Gurdonark said...

I'm glad you wrote this post. I believe that every beginner needs to be taught a few openings. The London, the Koltanowski or Zukertort Colle, or even the king's indian attack/Modern/KID complex.

I also think that teaching kids systems in 1....e5 and 1....d5 is a good thing, not only in and of itself, but as an introduction to why the other defenses exist.

It's still amusing that one can see kids play Sicilian lines they don't get at all, but never learn, say, the Berlin defense to the Ruy, which is easier to get and yet intriguing.