Biggest Mistakes of a New Coach?

Biggest Mistakes of a New Coach?

| 13

"What's the biggest mistake a beginning chess coach makes?"

That was one of the questions on today's Q&A with Coach Heisman TV show (5-6:30 PM ET first Friday of each month).

One listener offered "Not listening to the students!" and that has to be a good answer. A coach in anything is not going to get very far not listening to the students. But what about an answer that is more chess-specific?

I think we can break down the "new coach" category into perhaps two principal types:

  • An expert+ (~2000+) rated player teaching his first ~1400 level student, and
  • Any experienced chess player first instructing a class of beginning elementary age players.

I think the biggest mistake a new instructor in the first category (expert+ teaching 1400) is thinking that teaching openings will somehow make the student an overall better player. Maybe microscopically it will.

The single biggest skill that correlates with overall playing strength is analytical ability. That's why 11-year-olds that have read only a few chess books can be rated 1900 while 40-year-olds who have read hundreds might still be at 1600. Progressing at chess is a lot more than acquiring knowledge.

In his book Chess for Zebras, GM Rowson spends a bit of the first chapter explaining how he learned that giving 1700 players more "chess knowledge" (e.g. openings and endgames) had little effect on their rating. I smiled when I read that, in that I had learned long before the same lesson: instead, teach them to become better analysts!

As for the second category (teaching young beginners), I think the biggest mistake new (and most!) chess instructors make in teaching is, after they teach the rules, they skip over the basic ideas of safety (which I have dubbed "Counting"), to go for more sophisticated tactical ideas like pins and double attacks. They also throw in some basic strategies, like "In the opening try to develop all your pieces, castle your king into safety, and control the center", which is not only fine, but necessary for the 'fun' aspect to get the students started.

But not including those basic safety/capturing/Counting issues is a mistake. Take the following position as an example. Ignore the kings (I can't take them off the board) and concentrate only on the capture on d3. Is the white rook safe?

 OK, to any experienced player this is absurdly easy: of course the rook is not safe. Black can play 1...Bxd3 and after either recapture Black has won "the exchange" (a rook for a bishop or a knight).

But I have given this problem to many near-beginners (it would be less fair to give it to someone who just learned how to move the pieces and just learned the "base" average value of each piece, but had not had a chance to use these values in games).

Many beginners either got the problem wrong or felt that it was difficult and they were not sure. Many were wrong because they assumed the "checkers" rule that you have to keep capturing and thus after 1....Bxd3 2.cxd3 they assumed Black had to play 2...Qxd3 and lose the queen, and thus the capture of the rook to begin was inadvisable. They did not consider that Black had the option to stop capturing at any point that was advisable, such as when he was ahead material.

This is but one example of the type of safety/capturing sequence issues that should be taught before multi-square concepts like pins and double attacks. There are many examples of Counting which, as you can see from just this one, involves much, much more than just letting your students know the average value of the pieces (e.g. what I call the popular "Reinfeld" values for beginners: 1,3,3,5,9). Besides several Novice Nooks on Counting and the first chapter of my book Back to Basics: Tactics ("Introduction to Safety and Counting"), there is also my article The Greatly Misunderstood and Potentially Challenging Counting Tactic.

So I think the correct basic teaching order is rules (including checkmate and the most common draw concepts), safety/counting, basic strategies, other common tactical motifs (pins, forks, removal of the guard, basic mates).


"If an expert played an International Master and got the handicap 'every N moves a 1200 player makes the move for the IM', what would "N" be such that the expert would become the favorite?"

I must admit that, in 14 years of doing my radio and TV shows, I never had this question before!

Clearly N has to be greater than 1, when the 1200 would make all the moves. And N likely has to be less than 40 since, at that rate, the IM would probably already have won before the first 1200-player move (though it may ruin his technique on move 40 if the expert purposely does not resign...!).

After thinking a few seconds - I can't take too long on the show! - I pulled the number "17" out of the air. A 1200 player's move can be pretty devastating, and experts are not that bad - they can beat IMs occasionally without the handicap. On further review, that may have been a little high. Perhaps 14 is closer to the right number to encourage me to bet on the expert. At 10 I definitely would feel I was the favorite but of course the IM would often win even at 10, especially if the 10th-20th-30th move was not that critical! Smile

Join us for our next show Feb 6 and catch my new column in the Master's Bulletin: Puzzles with a Point.