The Steps Method for learning and teaching chess
IM Cor van Wijgerden - one of the developers of the Steps Method

The Steps Method for learning and teaching chess

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The US Chess Federation asked me to give a presentation on the Steps Method at the US National Chess Open in Orlando this month. The presentation was developed in cooperation with IM Cor van Wijgerden and If you are interested in a copy, then please send me a message with your email address. 

I am a certified trainer in the Steps Method but have no commercial interest in the training method. The method is distributed in the USA by Chess Steps USA (Victor Hendriks from Amsterdam). 

The Steps Method was developed in 1987 by Rob Brunia and IM Cor van Wijgerden. Rob Brunia was a pedagogue specialized in the development of highly gifted children. I worked with Rob Brunia in Rotterdam when I was doing my master's in Operations Research. Rob died too young at the age of 57 as a result of a brain hemorrhage.

IM Cor van Wijgerden also has a background in education but devoted most of his life to chess. He was the national coach of the Dutch women's and youth team. His most well-known students include GM Loek van Wely and GM Erwin L'Ami. 

The Steps Method is the official method of the Royal Dutch Chess Federation and is widely used throughout Europe and gaining popularity in the United States.

Given the background of the 2 developers of the method, it will not come as a surprise that the development of the child is the starting point of the method.  It is rooted in strong didactic principles. This curriculum follows the material - spatial - time development of a child, lessons are structured in small building blocks and are based on concentric learning (explicitly checking required prior knowledge). Playing and analyzing games are an integral part of the method and necessary for knowledge transfer (going from knowing to understanding to applying). The Steps Method describes how to best analyze the games of children.

The whole course consists of 6 manuals, specifically for chess trainers (and parents), and 27 workbooks which can be used by the students themselves.  The exercises in the workbooks are categorized by subject. A typical page has a title indicating the theme and 12 exercises. The manuals contain complete scripted lessons for the teacher, as well as aids that address the learning stages and development of children. There are in total over 14,000 exercises in the 27 workbooks. This allows a trainer to easily differentiate their training between weaker and stronger students.

The complete course takes you from novice to national master level. In Step 1 the student learns the rules of the game and basics like mate, capturing and defending.  Step 6, the first self-study step, continues with training attacking the king, tactics, and endgames but has more lessons on positional aspects of the game (increasing piece activity / reducing vulnerabilities) and opening preparation. Many IMs en FMs use Step 6 as preparation for a tournament to sharpen their chess skills again.

To get a better impression of the method, you can download material from each step here: Steps Method Examples. Let me show a few diagrams to highlight certain aspects of the Steps Method.

In Step 1, the student learns to play chess. The method includes many mini-games to practice the movement of pieces.

Step 1: White has to try to promote a pawn. The 2 black knights have to try to capture all the pawns.

In the Step Method, there is a lot of attention to board vision. In Step 1 that translates to seeing what the opponent can do and seeing which squares are 'safe'.

Step1: White to make 3 consecutive moves and move his bishop from e1 to b2 without stopping on an unsafe square. (An unsafe square is a square where Black could have taken the bishop with one of his pieces.)

There is a lot of attention in the Steps Method for defending.

An example from Step 1 (rating up to 800).

Black To Move
Black has to stop the promotion of White's pawn on f7. The student has to find that giving up the knight with Ne6 followed by Kg7 stops the promotion of White's pawn and that the future promotion of the h4 pawn will decide the game in Black's favor.
The Steps Method learns children to See (Board Vision / Orientation) and Think (Visualization and Calculation and Application of Chess Concepts). Board vision means looking for unprotected pieces, vulnerable king, pieces with limited mobility, pieces at a knight's distance, pieces on one line, pieces on a battery, pinned pieces, pieces with a central defending task, etc.
The following example is from Step 4 - Plus.
White To Move

What do we See when we look at this position? Many children answer with moves when you ask them this question, but that is not what we are after. We are looking for position characteristics.

Black has a direct threat: Bxf3 (damaging White's pawn structure and weakening the safety of the king) followed by Nxd4 winning a pawn. Black has an unprotected pawn on f7, White controls the e-file with his rook, Blacks queen on d6 is a bit vulnerable (it can be attacked by Nb5 and does not have many squares to go to). The king on c8 and the bishop on g4 are on 1 diagonal. Both kings look relatively safe. The concept Defending as defined in the Steps Method leads us to the following possibilities Protect (Be2), Capture (not possible), Interpose (not possible), Move away (Ne5) and Counterattack (Nb5).  Be2 is passive move: the bishop is given a defensive task and White lost control over e4 and the e-file. After evaluating the position, we can now work with the students on calculating and visualizing the consequences of Ne5 and Nb5. 

A common asked question is why the Steps Method is not online. There is a clear philosophy behind working with manuals and workbooks. When students work online they seldom take the time to See and often guess the answer to a puzzle. If the student guesses wrong then he is often provided with the solution and it becomes a 'memorization' exercise instead of a 'Search and Solve' exercise. In addition, with online exercises, the puzzle often becomes '5 times - one-ply' exercise instead of a '5 move' exercise because the countermove of the opponent is played by the computer. This is a severe limitation on practicing your visualization skills. Finally, correcting the workbook answers is a good way for the teacher to see whether the knowledge he taught has been understood and whether the student is able to apply it correctly. 

The Steps Method is a comprehensive method for learning and teaching chess. It helps school teachers to be good chess teachers by providing a well-structured chess curriculum. It helps strong players like IMs and GMs to be better teachers by providing a chess teaching method that is rooted in strong didactic principles. It helps chess program directors to have a proven uniform teaching method across teachers. For them, the Steps Method is a way to ensure quality assurance across their total program.

If you have a student, who is eager to learn, and supportive parents, who invest time and money in their child's chess development, and a teacher who is using proven training techniques then it can go fast with the chess development of a child.

Below you will find the rating graph of one of my students who I started to train over the board 2 months ago. I train him 2 times a week for an hour. He gained 1,100 rating points in 8 months!