The Belgrade Method for Complete Beginners Trial
© Paolo Fresu (Italian), Re scaccho e il suo magico castello

The Belgrade Method for Complete Beginners Trial

RoaringPawn
RoaringPawn
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REFLECTIONS ON A TRIAL OF MOMIR RADOVIC'S 'SQUARE ONE' METHOD OF TEACHING CHESS TO BEGINNERS

I’m Jim Stevenson, a reasonably experienced chess player and coach. (ex-Scottish International player; 4+ years coaching professionally). I work with schools, clubs and individual students. Mostly with rapidly improving juniors, but often with classes of beginners in both the state and private education sectors. I’ve recently started teaching beginners on an individual basis.

Though I make no claims to being an expert educator myself, I have been on friendly terms for many years with several who certainly are / were, and I have learned quite a lot from discussions with them.

To cite two examples: the late IM Bob Wade, well known arbiter, chess administrator and leading pioneer and director of junior chess in England in the years leading up to and through the so called “English Chess Explosion”. Secondly, Richard James, co-founder of the well known and currently thriving Richmond Junior Chess Club back in the 70’s, and still going strong today. A well respected coach and author, Richard is currently developing the minichess.uk project.

CHESS SQUARE ONE

Through Richard, and the wonders of Twitter, I recently came across the work of Momir Radović, a chess thinker and educator based in Atlanta, Georgia. Momir makes a compelling argument for the need to rethink chess instruction for beginners right from Day One.

In essence, he argues that we need to minimise formal rules and superfluous information, and in particular abandon the formal emphasis on how each piece moves, replacing it with a dynamic approach which immediately emphasises what each piece can actually do (attack) and crucially, the relationship or interconnection between our own and our opponent’s pieces. A dynamic, practical approach. See his articles on chess.com (handle: Roaring Pawn) or via Twitter (handle: chessContact).

THE PRACTICAL NEED TO ENGAGE A STUDENT'S INTEREST AS SOON AS POSSIBLE

No doubt like many teachers, I soon learned that the most important thing is to quickly engage a student’s interest in the subject. Especially with young children, and especially in a subject like chess, which has a reputation, deservedly or not, for being a difficult game with too many rules, supposedly only for “clever people”.

Let’s destroy this awful notion once and for all! Though undeniably rich and complex, chess is just a game like any other. It is fun and it is accessible to almost everyone. The way to engage interest is by getting the students thinking, reasoning and actively involved solving puzzles straight away. The only danger is killing a child’s enthusiasm by teaching it in a boring and ineffective way!

A LITTLE HISTORY

Momir, and others, hold that even today chess is taught in a formal, ineffective and stereotyped way. This is not helped by famous masters perpetuating this sad state of affairs, often by lending their name to obviously ‘ghost written’ low quality material, or equally, by lazily rehashing decades old stereotyped ideas.

As Momir reminds us, the greatest minds, as always, should be our inspiration. For example, Grandmaster Aron Nimzowitsch, one of the most original thinkers in chess history advocated a much more dynamic and interactive approach.

The legendary World Champion and polymath, Dr. Emanuel Lasker, in his profound “Manual of Chess” was pretty scathing about the inadequacy of unstructured chess teaching. He strongly argued that he could create a master strength player in only 200 hours of properly guided study and practice. I believe this to be absolutely true, with the right approach. This was all nearly a century ago, and yet it remains our current task.

A PRACTICAL TRIAL

As the new academic year begins, I shall be teaching some chess as part of the classroom curriculum. A bold initiative which thankfully is thriving in London at the moment. As I mentioned, I teach in both the state and independent education sectors. Naturally, I cannot give specific details here, but suffice to say that the group I taught yesterday was fairly typical. The first session. 9 year olds. A class of c.25/30 students, about half of whom had some prior exposure to chess, typically in the home environment.

This is obviously a more challenging environment in which to get ideas across than in an individual one to one lesson, but equally it provides much better feedback. The class lasted about 55 minutes, and included an initial 15 minute introduction on a demo board before the students began “moving the pieces” themselves at their desks.

I always make my classes as interactive and all inclusive as I can, constantly asking questions, and encouraging full class participation. Usually, about one third of the students confidently offer multiple answers, while the others vote for their choices as a group in the quiz format. I place a great emphasis on explaining the reasoning behind each move or idea, and also encouraging the students to give their reasons for their choices. No one said it should be easy, hopefully it is stimulating.

THE MATERIAL COVERED

It is best if I simply refer you to Momir’s recent articles on chess.com / via Twitter. Starting with “Joe learns chess the outlaw way.” In summary, introducing the four lines of Force, vertically and horizontally for the Rook, then later, diagonally for the bishop. As this specific approach is new to me too, and I wanted to follow Momir’s method precisely, I tried to remember to emphasise simple and practical learning aides like tracing the lines of attack on the board with one’s finger, and getting a feel for the striking power of the piece all along the line of attack. Remembering not to overdo the technical terminology!

THE RESULTS

With the obvious caveat that this was simply the initial session ( I will teach the same material with other classes in the coming weeks, and I will also be working with this group over the coming term.) what differences did I notice from a perhaps more traditional lesson?

A) ENGAGEMENT OF STUDENTS INTEREST

This was remarkable. Almost every student got involved, worked through the puzzles on their board, and got involved in the discussion. The enthusiasm was quite infectious! In addition, the time ‘flew bye’, and the children were disappointed when the hour was up, many wanting to continue.

This does not happen with every class! More usually in a mixed ability group, some children will inevitably disengage, first from trying to understand the lesson, and then from listening at all, within a few minutes.

B) QUALITY OF ANSWERS

This was very high. Most students worked out for themselves how the pieces moved. For example in the example Re4/ Pb6, they confidently moved either Re6 or Rb4 to “attack” the pawn. Why? “The pieces are now on the same line sir”, came the smiling replies. It was instructive to see the students work together, pointing out the ideas.

C) THE AGE OLD PROBLEM: THE KIDS WHO THINK THEY CAN PLAY CHESS ALREADY WANTING "TO PLAY A REAL GAME OF CHESS NOW"

One would think this question to be inevitable in a mixed group of complete beginners and some novices. But amazingly, this did not happen yesterday. Only one girl, who clearly confidently knew the moves, asked to do so a couple of times. As soon as we began the Two Rooks v Two Bishops mini-game, she got enthusiastically involved, and told me afterwards how much fun it was.

D) THE TRICKY ROOKS AND BISHOPS GAME

This was enjoyed with much enthusiasm and generated some excellent ideas. Most students, after some though, grasped the idea of how to win. Attacking two pieces placed on the same line. We had a great discussion about the position Bb2/ Bg2/ Rc8/ Rh8, and how ...Rc2?? which looks attractive (attack the Bishops!) loses because you did not consider the opponent’s idea, and then discovering ...Rh2! which double attacks the Bb2 “ through” the Bg2.

As Momir says, lots of typical and quite advanced tactical concepts are absorbed subconsciously.

SUMMARY

All in all, quite an eye opening initial lesson for me, which exceeded my expectation on each criteria of engagement, understanding and enjoyment.

These are simply my initial thoughts, thrown together quickly in draft form. I shall add to them as we go along. Please feel free to comment on my views, or to provide feedback from your own experiences, or to reference the information I have mentioned here as part of a (hopefully) ongoing discussion.

Jim Stevenson
20/09/2018

@Jimovskytwenty3 on Twitter