Monday, September 26, 2005

Teaching Chess to Kids

I recenly began teaching chess to a dozen 6-to-8-year-olds. It is a sometimes chaotic scene, especially since they all have varied skill levels. Many of them did not even know how the pieces moved, while others have played a lot (though generally without knowing the more obscure rules--such as the one where you never capture your opponent's King!) I think I did OK since reports are that friends of theirs who heard about our "club" want to get involved. But we are limiting membership for now. Chess, you see, is only for the "cool" kids...

I gave my approach to teaching a lot of thought, since I knew that if I did not create an active learning environment that I'd lose them pretty quickly. So as I introduced each piece I also presented a game or two to go with it. Playing these games allowed the more experienced kids to demonstrate their knowledge while helping the others to learn.

I started with the Rook because I think that is the easiest to explain ("it moves like a train"), and the first game we played was a "Rook Maze" that required them to get from one corner of the board to the other with several of the Rook's own pieces and some of the opponent's in the way. The trick to the maze was that capturing enemy pieces was allowed, and finding the right capture created the fastest path (sort of like having a trap door).

For the King, I first offered them checkmate with two Rooks versus King as a way of reinforcing the Rook's moves while explaining "Checkmate" to them (as best I could, since Checkmate is a hard concept for kids this age to wrap their minds around). Then we did a puzzle where a White Rook delivered a Check on the Black King and they had to find every way available to escape check (including interposing a Rook or using a Rook to capture the checking White Rook).

Finally, we played a game of "Sumo Kings" with the twelve of them against me. I got the idea from Fritz and Chesster, though I imagine chess teachers have used it forever. The idea is to teach the concept of "the opposition" and the movement of the Kings generally. The game involves setting up two Kings on opposite sides of the board with the object being to force your way from one side to the other or to stop your opponent from getting to your side (in which case it could be a draw). As you might expect, even though I presented them with a winning position to start (Kings at e1 and e8, with them as White and moving first), they lost the first game, drew the second, and did not win until the third. Then I moved their King to e2 and secured a draw, which made no sense to them at all. But we discussed the strategy and I explained (as best I could get across to them) the concept of "the opposition." At the very least they all knew how the King moved after that! I tried to keep it fun by acting like a Sumo wrestler as I moved my King, and by saying things like "Victory is mine!" or "You shall never pass me!" or "I am defeated!"

The most fun was teaching Pawns, when we broke up into pairs and played "Pawn Battle." GMs Roman Pelts and Lev Alburt call it "The Pawn Game" and you can find a summary of their description online at the wonderful Chess Corner site. Here are the instructions I wrote up for my students as part of my handout (which are different in only one important way):

" Pawn Battle."
  • Exercise 6: Pawn Battle (teaches “Promotion,” “Stalemate,” “Zugzwang”)
    Set up the pawns as they are in the opening position (along the 2nd and 7th ranks as shown in the diagram below). Take turns moving your pawns forward—and remember all the rules of how Pawns work! They can move two squares on their first move or one, and then they move one square at a time. They capture diagonally, so watch out! And don’t forget the “en passant” rule!
  • The first player to get a Queen wins. It is a draw if either side has no legal move. But if you can make a legal move you must move (there are no “passes” in chess)!
  • Strategy: There are three basic ways to win this game if your opponent is not careful. (1) You could win if your opponent makes a mistake and allows you to win a Pawn. (2) You could also win if you can get a “passed Pawn,” meaning one you’re your opponent cannot stop from Queening, or a “Pawn majority” which will lead to a passed Pawn. (3) The game can also be won because of the “compulsion to move” or “Zugzwang.” Near the end of the game, if you time things right, your opponent might have to make a move he does not want to make once most Pawns are blocked but some can still move. Play the game long enough (and without making obvious errors) and you’ll discover what “Zugzwang” means!

I notice that Alburt and Pelts say that you can win by depriving your opponent of moves while you still can move, but that does not seem to me as effective at teaching the concept of "stalemate" as having it be a draw as soon as either player can no longer move. The object is to avoid a total lock unless you can make it a zugzwang position, where the opponent must advance into a capture.

This game proved wildly popular. Once they had played it once or twice (depending on their speed), I encouraged them to play Sumo Kings against each other, trying out different starting positions. We then returned to the lesson to review what they had learned from "Pawn Battle" about how pawns work and to finish discussing the other pieces.

I then covered the Bishop, Queen, and Knight. For the Bishop there was another "Chess Maze" that required them to get across the board with blocked pawns in the way. For a Queen I put a number of pawns on the board and asked them to add up how many the Queen could capture from its starting position. And for the Knight there was another maze and then a smothered mate in one.

That all took about an hour and then we just had a free-for-all of open play until their parents came to take them home. It was a lot of fun and I look forward to lesson number two. Maybe I'll even get to play some more "Pawn Battle," which I actually enjoy and recommend to you as a fun chess variant (sort of the chess equivalent of tic tac toe).



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Mon Sep 26, 06:31:00 AM EDT  

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