Tips For Parents of Young Chessplayers

If you’re the parent of a young chessplayer, you know both you and your child face special challenges. Chess is a game without any luck at all, so how do you maintain a child’s interest while they’re going through the novice stage? What’s a fair way to play against children? Is your child ready for tournaments? Any itps on starting a club at our school? Whether your child is just beginning to learn the Royal Game, or is already an established tournament player, on this page we discuss some of the issues that parents face. If you’d like to leave your own questions or comments use our contact form.

1.0 What’s a Fair Way to Play Against a Child?

I’m a scholastic coach (my students fall into three groups: preschool (ages 3 to 5), lower elementary (1st grade – 3rd grade) and upper elementary (4th grade – 6th grade)), and this is a question that I hear quite often from parents.

Keep the Game Honest

The most important thing is to keep the game honest. Never deliberately lose to a child; they will learn very quickly what you are doing, and it will take most of the fun out of the game.

Although you can give piece odds, this can also distort their view of the game. There are several good ways to approach the issue though: here are some of the ones that have worked for our families.

Individual Tips For Playing Against Children

  1. Find other children at about the same level to play with.
    In your case, you have two which makes it easier; also teach some of their friends to play. A group of about 6 makes a large enough pool that you can avoid feuds. The kids will have fun seeing how –relatively– well they can do against you. πŸ™‚
  2. Use time odds.

    This is what most IM’s and GM’s do with their own students, and it’s much more effective in teaching chess than piece odds. Get a chess clock and give the child about 6 or 7 minutes, and yourself 30 seconds or 1 minute. Not only may you lose on time: you will make –natural– errors in rushing yourself. Even if you win most of the games, they will be much more exciting for the child, and they will encourage them to think longer and harder.

  3. Turn the board around mid-way through the game.
    I’ve had some games where we’ve turned the board 2 or 3 times. In fact, one of the games I play with my students is “turn-around”–the child gets to decide at any 3 points during the game when they will change sides. The only rule is that they cannot change when it is mate-in-1. πŸ˜‰ With older students, “turn-around” ends after the first 30 moves. These are fun, too, and interesting for both sides.
  4. Play puzzle games.
    I often set up simple problems with the kids. For example, the student gets two rooks and a King (the easiest mate), I get one King. If this a confidence builder, they simply have to mate me in the requisite 50 moves. If we are trying to make it a bit challenging, we will also use a clock: they get 2 or 3 minutes, I get 30 seconds. These are good, challenging games.
  5. Get any simple tactics book and do puzzles with the child.
    These are very satisfying, and give the children a chance to show you (and themselves) how well they are doing.
  6. Play the pawn game
    Recommended by GM Lev Alburt and Roman Pelts in their COMPREHENSIVE CHESS COURSE. Set up all pawns in their normal starting positions, with NO OTHER PIECES on the board. Play continues normally, all pawn moves (including en passant) as in a regular game. You win the game if: a) You capture all of your opponent’s pawns; b) you get any pawn to a queening square; c) your opponent has no legal moves, but you still have a legal move. The game is drawn if: a) you agree to a draw; b) neither side has a legal move (all pawns are blockaded). This is more challenging than it first appears, and I have had a number of reports from parents of a 5 or 6 year old beating them at the pawn game!
  7. Get a copy of the Nintendo version of CHESS MASTER.
    This is available for both the original Nintendo and SuperNintendo. It has an advantage over computer chess games in that most parents are willing to let a child play this on their own, while they might require supervision with a computer. Of course, with older children, any computer-based chess program with a novice level might be good.

I hope this helps! Most children do NOT want an unfair advantage at chess, and many are secretly delighted with a parent that beats them at chess regularly (I hear, “My dad is a GREAT player” quite often πŸ˜‰ ) –at the same time, you want to keep enough of a sporting element that the child sees their own improvement and develops a personal sense of accomplishment.

Best of luck!

What are some good books to use with young kids?

First, you have to define “young.” My classes are divided into three groups:

  • ages 3 to 5 (preschool)
  • lower elementary (grades 1-3)
  • upper elementary (grades 4-6).

All of these might be considered “young kids,” but I would recommend very different books for lower elementary than for upper elementary.

Second, you have to look at three kinds of books:

  • those intended for use by a coach/parent working with an individual child
  • those intended for classroom use by a coach with a group of children
  • those intended for self-study/enjoyment by the children themselves.

There’s also a distinction between books that teach the basic moves, and books that go one step further.

Some Good Books for Coaching

  1. COMPREHENSIVE CHESS COURSE by Lev Alburt and Roman Pelts
    A great classroom book, good for an entire year’s worth of study
  2. WEAPONS OF CHESS by Pandolfini
    Excellent short lessons
    Fantastic selection of classic games
  4. LESSONS OF A CHESS COACH by Sunil Weermantry
    Intermediate lessons from one of today’s top coaches

Some Good Books for Self-Study by Children

    A classic, and deservedly so.
  2. Usborne’s Chess Puzzles book
    About $7, with very brightly-coloured illustrations of chess puzzles and a “chess treasure map” towards the back: excellent problems at a scholastic reading level, and the kids really enjoy it
    A bit more complicated in its vocabulary, but very straightforward in its ideas)
    (Yes, the same book as in the coaching section.) This one is written for juniors, and has a good mix of problems, games, text, and cartoons.
  5. Any book of chess problems at an easy level.
    I use a lot of Reinfeld’s books, and a few others for these. I try to mix them up that not all the children get the same book, that way they are more interested in the problems.
  6. More Intermediate Books
    The books by Silman and Seirawan, and the ones by Pandolfini, are also good for older children, but I wouldn’t give them to a third grader for self-study unless the child was highly motivated with a very good reading level.
    An outstanding book for upper elementary students, but too hard for those below 4th grade.
  8. CHESS FUNDAMENTALS by Capablanca My absolute favorite adult beginner’s book, but I’ve found it too difficult for most elementary school students. I would definitely use it with high schoolers.

I am currently evaluating two additional books: John Bain’s TACTICS FOR STUDENTS and another elementary book from Dover, and will report on those in April.

Hope that helps a bit. Of course, it’s just one coach’s opinion: there are so many excellent books out there, and much depends on the individual teacher’s and student’s temperament.

What chess software do you recommend for junior players?

There are many good programs available. Personally, I prefer to stay away from programs that provide cartoon graphics of battle scenes, like BATTLECHESS or NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHESS. In my experience as a coach, these simply turn chess into a videogame, and kids don’t make a good transference to regular board play. The “special effects” can also distract a child from learning visual pattern solving.

I’ve had good reports from parents on most of the “serious” chess software out there, from Kasparov’s Gambit to Sargon and Chessmaster. The favorite computer program for kids seems to be Maurice Ashley’s new CD- ROM program, although I haven’t personally evaluated it yet. Bobby Fischer teaches chess also gets high marks from kids and parents. Finally, there are several inexpensive programs available: one nice package, sold at many K- Marts, is MicroStar’s GAMES OF STRATEGY, which includes a simple chessplaying program. This disk costs less than $10, and is a good choice for schools, too. (It’s Windows only, but there are similar “classic games” packages available for most platforms–just look in the discount software section at K-Mart of a computer store.)

One of the newer options is for Windows 95, from You can download a free copy for Windows 95.Β This is a nice program that combines three features: an interface for playing chess on the Internet, a chess database of grandmaster games for study, and a chessplaying program. We’re testing this with my scholastic team right now, and the kids like the program a good deal.

My own personal favorite is still Chessmaster. For kids, I especially like the Nintendo version, which is available for both SuperNintendo and the regular Nintendo. (I believe there’s also a version for Gameboy, although I haven’t seen it.) This is an excellent program, with two beginners’ modes, a tutorial mode, and several other features. One of the nicest things about it is that it plays on the Nintendo. I don’t know about your house, or school, but most of my young students are not allowed unlimited access to the computer before the age of 9 or 10. With a Nintendo version, even a 5 year old can have access to chess software that THEY can play, whenever they want. It also works well as a two- player version, so they can play with their friends. All in all, I’ve found this the most practical choice for many children, particularly those with limited computer access.

As far as chess database software goes, while this has become a must for any player rated 1800 and up, it’s not really useful at lower levels.

Finally, there are a few specialty chess “trainers” out there like Chess Mentor. Our teams loved the demo versions of this program, which offers a series of specially selected problems to solve, with teaching hints. The cost, though (over $100), with no way to enter new problems except to buy additional problem sets (about $40 each) put it out of range of most of our parents and schools. We also found that kids “solved” the package within the first three months of school, and didn’t go back to again, unlike the chessplaying software which continued to hold their interest. It’s a fine product, but budget constraints may make it impractical unless you’re purchasing for a classroom. [The Chess Mentor company has just informed me that they have some new options for this system, as well as some new pricing–I’ll be evaluating it in April.]

Chess for Kindergartners?

I have a number of 5 year olds students from the kindergarten class. They take to it very well.

One thing I would recommend: I’ve found that one of the most important things for kids this age is that they have other kids to play with. It can be well worth teaching a group of 3 or 4 of your child’s friends to play as well.

Also, Chessmaster is available for both the Nintendo and SuperNintendo. While there are also many computer versions of chess available, I’ve found that parents are less likely to let a 5 year old have access to the computer whenever he/she wants, while the Nintendo is usually the child’s domain anyway. Again, being able to play with friends will help support both her learning and her enjoyment of the game.

(Personally, I prefer NOT to give a child BATTLE CHESS or the National Lampoon Chess or any chess game that has highly detailed cartoon figures in combat situations: these turn chess into a video game, with the result that the child doesn’t develop a love for the game away from the “special effects.”)

Finally, my number one recommendation for ALL parents: always play touch-move and touch-capture, even in offhand games. This is a critical factor in developing the kind of cause-and-effect thinking that leads to both improvement and a great enjoyment in a much deeper game. Even a five year old can learn to play touch move, and it will make everything go much more smoothly if you always follow this practice.

“What does ‘touch-move’ mean?”Touch-move is required in most chess tournaments, including USCF and FIDE events. It means that if a player touches a piece and that piece has a legal move, the player must move the piece. So in the starting position, if White touches the Knight (which has a legal move available), then the Knight must be moved.

Touch-move does NOT mean that the player must make an illegal move. For example, if White’s King is in check and White doesn’t notice it, and White touches another piece that cannot block the check or capture the attacker, then the touch is simply ignored and White must make a legal move to get out of check. If a player does this too many times (touch pieces that cannot make legal moves), it will be ruled a distraction and the game may even be forfeited.

Touch-move also means that once a player lets go of a piece that is in the process of being moved, if that piece is on a legal square, it must stay there. So let’s say we’re in the starting position. If White moves the Knight to f3 and takes his/her hand off, then stops and says, “Wait” and then moves the Knight to h3 instead, that would be violating touch-move. The piece must “stop” once the player takes his/her hand off of it. (The idea here is that it becomes too confusing for players to remember the position if pieces keep changing squares.)

I recommend touch-move even for nontournament players, because I feel it greatly improves chess “vision”–the ability to visualize what the position will look like after the move is complete. You should first use your mind to imagine what the move will do. Examine several moves in your mind if necessary. Then, when you are certain of the move you wish to make, pick up the piece and move it.

Touch-capture is also a tournament rule. It means that if you touch an opponent’s piece that you can legally capture, you must do so.

The most common exception to the touch-move rule is in very fast games, for example 5 minute blitz where each player has only 5 minutes to complete the entire game. Under these conditions, many players play “touch-clock” instead of “touch-move”–the player’s turn ends only when the clock is pressed, and touch-move is not enforced.

It is a good idea before a nontournament game begins to verify whether you will be playing touch-move or not. In tournaments with games over 30 minutes, assume touch-move applies. For time controls that are 30 minutes or less, check with the tournament director or the posted rules before the first round. If you are tournament director for a scholastic or club event, make sure you announce and publish the rules that apply to your event, including touch-move if applicable. And if you are a parent or a coach working with children, I highly recommend encouraging them to play all their games touch-move, as it will greatly improve their ability to visualize chess moves before they happen.

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