Teach Them Chess

  • Posted: 9/7/11
  • Category: Family

It’s about life.

They learn consequences. They learn to like winning. They learn that losing isn’t death.

They learn to look ahead. They learn to anticipate. They learn to deal with complexity, one step at a time.

  1. They don’t try to eat the chess pieces.
  2. The chess pieces big enough for little hands - you’ll need a weighted set, perhaps $50 or more. And when enough pieces become lost, you’ll need to buy another identical set. Look at it as an investment in their future.
  3. They will need sufficient hand-eye motor skills so they can move the pieces without raking the board clean.
  4. You will need time to give to your children.
  5. You will need patience and perseverance, and you’ll need them through good days and bad.
  6. You must lose, a lot. And as time goes on, you must lose more and more expertly. It won’t matter that they eventually figure this out. You are the teacher, not the opponent. You are their partner, not their adversary.
  7. And it will take years if you start them as soon as they can. Not quite so many if you start later. But if you wait too long, you won’t get started. Then it becomes “never”.

I started my kids and grand kids somewhere between four and six, depending on their readiness and my availability. (I travel a lot for work. Finding time for chess, something you need to do in person, has always been a challenge. You have to make it more important than paying the bills, and then stay up another hour to get the bills paid later.)

Did I say years?

Silly me, I meant to say it just takes a few minutes. It just takes a few minutes to get to the fun. And there’s lots of fun in Chess.

Mastery? Who cares about mastery when we’re having fun?

Start with the Rooks, two on each side, set randomly on the board. Let them place the pieces – they’ll soon figure out that in-line with each other is either bad for them, or that it soon becomes boring for them.

Tell them to imagine light beams shooting out from each Rook back and forth and side to side across the board. Where do those light beams intersect? Do they shine on an opponent’s piece?

Quick, take it when it’s your turn!

Stay at that level until they look away distracted then stop.

Put the chess board and pieces away for a day or two. When you have another half hour to invest, bring it back out but add two Bishops per side, all eight pieces set at random.

That’s two lessons, mind you. Rooks in the first lesson and then add Bishops in the second. They can handle the complexity. Just be patient. Maybe it’s time for a fruit snack?

When you play, put the board on a table but sometimes move the chair aside and sit on the floor so you can see how things look from each piece’s perspective. “Be” each Rook as it makes it’s move. Let them hear what the Rook might say. Try giving your Rooks a personality – Monty Python’s French castle guards who “unplug my nose at you” may not be a phrase you’ll want to include but you can make your Rooks French and your Bishops snooty pontificators if you like. (It’s called “play.” Remember?)

When the laughter stops, tell your child, your student, your future adult how good they are to deal with all these pieces and moves. This really is something, you know? This is amazing! Those minds are ravenous for this kind of stuff. Feed it!

Stay at this level, with randomly placed Rooks and Bishops until you see they need more challenge. When it becomes too easy, make it harder.


Don’t be afraid of a couple of month’s rest. Just bring the board back out and leave it sitting where they can see it. When you notice them looking, ask if they want to play?

Eventually they will. It will come.

When Rooks and Bishops get boring, add the Queens - “Off with his head!” - the slow and clumsy King - my King mumbles aloud talking to himself as he slowly ambles to the next square - and introduce the traditional starting positions.

But that won’t last long because they will soon realize that white’s Rook can always take black’s Rook on the first move, and that the Queens have a similar first move advantage. So, have them visualize where the light beams go as they shoot out from the Rooks, then the Bishops and finally the Queen and add Pawns (guards!) in front of the vulnerable pieces to protect them. Show how the lowly pawns move but only their simplest move of one space and only dead-straight ahead for now. No pawn captures. No double first step. Always forward, never back.

And only now introduce the object of the game, getting the opposing King. Wait until this stage to say that this one piece, the King, is all that matters. All of the other pieces are immaterial. He is the sole object of the game.

(There are many tools in life but only a small number of objectives.)

Finally will come the Knights with their ability to vault over pieces both friendly and foe. You can add in the rest of the pawns now.

Those are the last of the pieces. Tell them that. Announce that they now know all of the pieces and almost all of the moves.

This is a big day.

“You are so smart to learn all this!”

In the coming sessions and as you see opportunities coming up for them to make an advantageous move, show them the pawn’s initial double step, their slashing attack on the diagonal, and how to castle and spirit away the clumsy King in some dark but secure corner of the castle, surrounded by his loyal subjects.

Uhm, what else?

Oh, that’s it. You’re done.

They now know all the pieces and all the moves.

Make sure you celebrate this. A cake, suitably decorated with knights and damsels is certainly in order. This is a very big day!

And if you are both having fun, play a game while you eat the cake because there’s every reason to keep playing in the coming years. It’s called a relationship, and it’s one with memories that belong to the two of you like no one else.

Chess is competition, thinking, analyzing and planning.

Life is competition, thinking, analyzing and planning.

And a relationship is doing all of that, and doing it together.

Teach them.

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