A summer programme for children

A summer programme for children

Aug 12, 2011, 10:07 PM |

I live in Newham in East London. The council funds programmes during the summer holidays and last year I successfully applied to run chess courses. The council must have liked the result since it approached me in Easter, asking me to run them again. I am posting this not only for the general chess.com readership but also to give ideas to other coaches and to get feedback on how what I do could be improved.

As you will see from my rating, I am nowhere near master level. I was 1900 otb in my late teens but I suspect chess.com ratings don't lie - that much.

I have been teaching chess in schools for a couple of years and from that devised my summer school programme. It comprises four daily two-and-a-half hour sessions. Last year I started with just two-hour sessions, since I did not want to stretch myself, but my experience showed that I could put on an extra half an hour. This would mean more coaching for the children and more money for me - I am not independently wealthy and around a tenth of income is from chess coaching.

This year I have had children return from last year but I do not know until the the start of the course who is going to turn up. One day I might be surprised by a 2000-rated ten year-old - but it has not happened yet.

I start with simple pawn vs pawn and pawn vs piece challenges: the pawns win if one gets to the end safely (ie, without being captured on the following move). The piece (or pieces) win if all the pawns are captured.

The first piece I introduce is the rook - it seems simple and can give the pawns a good game. I start with all eight pawns against the rook and the students pair off and play a series of games: if pawns win, keep the same sides and play with one fewer pawn. If the rook wins, then swap.

The pawns are always White - on their first move the pawn players can therefore play either a3 or h3, protecting the initially en prise pawn.

The tipping point is five pawns, but beginners with the rook often continue to get it taken game after game and sometimes beat the pawns only when they are down to two.

I then introduce the Bishops and the Knight and mix up the pieces - sometimes up to RNB vs 8Ps.

At this point the relative strengths of the players starts to become evident and I adjust accordingly. A simple way is to have in mind a ladder: the stronger player on each board moves up and the weaker player moves down - with the aim of equilibrium. I try not to say the terms "up" or "down" (children soon realise who the weaker players are - there is no need to rub it in) - rather I just suggest that players A and B (ie, the winner on the lower board and the loser on the higher board) swap.

I do find that the Knights are the hardest to teach - and this was a surprise. This is probably since I have only recently started coaching. I did not realise how difficult it was to grasp this manoeuvre, which was second nature to me. I tried the various ways of describing the Kinght move, with varied levels of success. I am not sure I have an easy answer.

Teaching the Queen gives a great opportunity for the students to play me... and win. After they have played each other for a few times (winning pawns removing a pawn, etc, as above) I then do a simultaneous: my pawns against their queen. If I have more students than sets (I have eight sets and I take up to 16 students) they work in pairs. I have had one groups where I beat each student with eight pawns, but I have always lost against at least one student with only seven. It is a delight to see the feeling of achievement on the students' faces as they realise they have beaten me.

We then move onto check and the simple checkmates - initially with Queen and Rook against King. Not all beginners and near beginners end up successfully mastering the technique, but the pattern of two major pieces bearing down on two lines against the King does stick in their minds. I have often seen students subsequently checkmate opponents this way in the middle game - one even joyfully exclaiming, "I remember that from last year!".

The technique of King and Rook against King is beyond most of my beginning students - although I do ask them, as a puzzle, to set up checkmate position with the three pieces. For the few that succeed I then give them two Bishops and the Kings. That keeps them quiet for a while!

I also introduce them to the concept of 'Kiss of Death' - a term I first hear from WFM Sabrina Chevannes. This is where the Queen delivers checkmate from right next to the to the King, helped by another piece, "Kiss [puckering lips] - you're dead". Again, I rarely teach a move-by-move technique, rather I want them to be aware of the pattern.

At this point they are ready to play full games - although I may by now have interspersed teaching from the front sessions with full games, if they have the ability. I let them play these full games to the extent that they keep their attention and that they are learning from them. I continue to bear in mind the ladder above, moving players around as games finish and adjudicating where necessary.

I then spend time going through the basics of each piece: that Knights like being in the centre and that Bishops and Rooks like open lines (my students seem to be able to easily remember that "Rooks love open files".

We then do another ten minutes on development. I devised a little mantra, "Centre pawns, knights and bishops, castle, connect the rooks" to help them remember what they ought to be doing for the first few moves. I continue to be both amazed and amused how some students do not take this on in games played immediately afterwards. Perhaps I am a bad teacher.


With smaller groups - around six students or fewer, I divided the groups into two and play consultation on the big demo board. I played with the weaker players - but allowing them to make weak moves occasionally. I will also comment on both sides' moves as we go along.

I tended not to do whole-group sessions on tactics, such as pins and skewers - but I talked about forks from the front. A better way to teach in detail is to have a training board where I play with two or three other students (based on the requirement of leaving an even number of students free to play in pairs). In such a case I play with one student, again commenting on the moves as I go along and allowing my partner to make decisions. If we are clearly winning then I sometimes turn the board round and play on the losing side. This gives the students the satisfaction of playing a winning position against me.

I also introduced them to notation and having them play a game and record it. I did a simultaneous - which they enjoyed more than I thought they would. I think they like the pressure of playing the coach and being "last man standing".

The fourth and final session of each programme was a five-round Swiss tournament. Even though by the final day of the course people were aware of who the stronger players are, all the students seem to enjoy the chance to put it all into practice. Each round lasted 20 minutes, with adjudications where appropriate.

Next year I might apply to do an additional, fifth, two-and-a-half hour session. I think the children would appreciate it. Additional ideas I have are to include looking at positions as a whole group and have the children tell me what is going on - and also a team match, dividing the students into two teams based on month of birth or where they live.