Monday, February 28, 2005

4-H Chess Club

In the winter months we have 4-H Chess Club twice a week. Mondays is grades k-3, Tuesdays I meet with grades 4-6. I have been the chess leader since Shelagh was in 2nd grade, at least that's what I remember.

The philosophy of 4-H is that we teach kids how to think, not what to think. My goal is to produce a group that has a better grasp of chess and its possibilities and, more importantly, to give some insight on how to learn new things and think hard.

I have been using instruction material from Chess for Kids. In the beginning of the year kids all need a lot of instruction, so I make it a point to play a “teaching game” with each of them. I talk them through these games, offering them the chance to rescind bad moves and explaining to them what my strategy is and how they might thwart it. I make it a point to castle early, to allow them to capture en passant, and to mention pawn promotion. They all really need end game practice so all games are played to the end, even if it is lone king vs. king rook. When there is time between games I will set them to working out basic end games, starting with king-rook-rook against a lone king.

Kids in the younger group are addicted to queen promotion and will senselessly acquire more queens because they can’t figure out how to use the material they have. Challenging them to “mate in six moves” is sometimes helpful.

If a kid gets discouraged to the point that they look like they want to quit, I like to offer to trade sides. (This works very well with the younger set because they soon forget that we switched and are so happy to win a game.) Doing this gives end game experience for kids who don’t often make it to the endgame.

I try to keep my commentary to short, factual statements:

Knights are more useful in the center of the board.
Don’t attack with your queen if another piece can do the job.
Control the center, attack on the side.
You can’t castle in check; you can’t castle through check.

After a while I hear the kids repeating these statements to each other as they play.

Checkmate vs stalemate is a hard concept to get across, especially for the K-3 set. They instinctively feel that the object of the game should be to physically grab their opponent’s king by any means possible. I check out a finished game by asking them “how did it happen?” If the conquering player did not say “check” then they need to go back to that point and play it over again.

If they come to me and ask “Is this checkmate?” I refrain from answering that question for them, but ask them the three questions: “Can you move? Can you block? Can you capture?” as in moving the king, blocking the check, or capturing the attacking piece. If the answer is "no", then it is checkmate, but often it turns out that there is a way out of the mate. Eventually they start asking themselves the question, instead of just moving the king when they are checked. Nothing like being trained to consider all options when under stress.

I encourage “touch moves” but I make it clear that we are here for chess playing, not lawyering. I will get kids who want their opponent to be bound to a ridiculously bad move because “he took his hand off.” I avoid adjudicating these deals but point out that if they won’t cut their opponent some slack then they can’t expect courtesy from their opponent in the future. I discourage bad etiquette like touching pieces before you have decided your move and (ARGHHH!) mindlessly tapping pieces on the table.

We often forget to start games with a handshake but I try to make sure that they end by shaking hands. I insist on a real handshake: palms together, good grip, eye contact; not the phony hand slaps after the ball game.

Chess is unique among the activities available to kids because in chess you make your own decisions and then live with the consequences of your actions. Eventually I get a few kids in each group who think so hard about their games that you can almost see the steam coming out of their ears. These are my favorite moments, knowing I am helping to produce kids who can stick with it in the face of adversity and who are not afraid to think.

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