Apr 232012

My kids caught me playing chess with the computer and wanted to play too. Jason5 – the five-year old learned very quickly how to move the pieces. Even the knight was no problem: “two forward and one to the side”. The “magic castling to protect the king” was special fun as the king can  hop over the rook and – anyway – two pieces seem to move together. The other special fun feature was that pawns can transform into anything when they reach the other side. The goal of the game is to “eat” the king (to make it less abstract than a check mate).

Jason5 learned the moves within an hour or so mostly by watching and playing with the computer. Maybe 10 games  later I introduced  the concept of protecting the “fighters” which he became very fond of. His biggest problem was that he was mostly focusing on protecting and eating the pieces of the opponent – not at all on finding a way to eat the king. Interestingly he was – also often reluctant to eat something that is not protected claiming that he did not want to. It seems he did not want to hurt his opponent (usually me) too much. Of course I let him win most of the time and maybe he began to feel sorry for me.

After a few weeks (he played maybe one game a day or less on average) he discovered how to attack the king with a piece that is covered like a queen covered by a bishop as I “casually” pointed out once. I try to not give much advice generally. The only major rule I left out so far was en-passant. They also know which side of the board is for white (the number 1 side) and to place the white queen on a white square – this was no problem at all.

Chess with children can be fun for everyone.

Chess with children can be fun for everyone.

Jason4 learned to move most pieces nearly as fast as his older brother. The exception was the “horse”. “Two forward, one to the side” seemed problematic. I remembered then that he tends to count the square he is on as “one” – at least in some board games like Ludo. So I changed it to “three forward and one to the side”.

Interestingly this did not improve his accuracy (he still  got it right only 50% of the time). He seemed to memorize the movement of the horse however, intuitively, as if he remembered the “L” shape – but not so much consciously, which I could see as he was moving the night less confidently. He also had problems accepting that pawns can only move forward. That they can only eat diagonal took also a little longer.

Eventually we found a way to work out the knight jumps: “ One forward, one diagonal.”

To my surprise this worked best. Even though “diagonal” was a new word and hard to pronounce – it became the mnemonic technique of his choice and now his knight moves are perfect. I actually suspect this was  because of the strange / funny “diagonal” word in the rule. It also includes “one this” and “one that” a kind of symmetry that seems to help.
For Jason4, the hardest skill to master  was losing a game. I had to let him win at least 9 out of 10 games – which was not even always that easy but kept his mood and interest up. We occasionally use the “check” word but since the goal is to “eat the king” it makes more sense not to use it and use a surprise attack on the king. I often “overlook” that the king can be eaten by a “horse” (maybe the hardest one to see for them) or my king gets caught behind the three pawns by a rook or a converted pawn. Jason4 also likes to change the rules “just this time” for the movement of some pieces when it suits him and I usually accept it – “just this time” (that way we both confirm that we know the official rules avoiding possible confusion).

Lately he repeatedly suggested to let me win – but never did so far. I did make him lose once in maybe 20 games more recently and it was ok-ish.
The biggest challenge for me is to find a way for the two boys to play together without either of them ending up crying or complaining. Typically the older complains that the younger either  doesn’t play right or simply he doesn’t want to play with him as the younger now often plays better moves than I do. They can now play together though , as long as I take over at the end and lose :)

My youngest Jason2 (a girl) also occasionally joins the “chesso” team. Sometimes she plays against Jason4 with him pointing out where she can move what. Jason4 also enjoys explaining the right movements to her and she listens patiently for a while.. and often follows his advice.
Unlike Jason5, Jason4 has no “ethical” problems eating any piece or even to cheat a little i.e. bend the rules temporarily to accomplish that. Sometimes a pawn wants to move back or sidewards.

Now after a month of playing about 3 games a day (mostly with Jason4) I started introducing strategies like trying to control the center – which is appreciated  mostly (albeit only a little) by Jason5.

I am curious to hear experiences or advice from any readers to help me  keep “chesso” a popular game for the whole family. I am not aiming to create chess masters but it helps to keep them away from the tv and the computer.

One problem I will face sooner or later is to explain how I can be such a bad chess player when I go the chess club once a week where I play with grown ups .. and do occasionally win as I tell them – they often ask how I lost and if I still had a queen .. :)

Oh, and did I mention that we sometimes use funny words like “pawnie” and “rookie” and “horsie” – although they are perfectly aware of their official names including “knight” for “horse”. Jason4 also likes to misplace some pieces on purpose which is fun but most of the time he automatically prefers the correct setup.

Jason5 sometimes likes to see bishops as missiles and I called the knight also a “hot air balloon”. He also chose to turn the h-rook upside down so he knows which one is which throughout the game (he is a bit of the careful thinker type..). This habit was also copied by Jason4 but both have abandoned it recently. Now they know the letter “h” well.

Update January 2014: Suddenly Jason 5 and Jason 7 are both playing decent Chess. I have to fight seriously (if I start with a rook and a queen down) and don’t always win anymore. So losing becomes more natural and is anyway not so much of a problem anymore. Their rating is between 700 and 800 on the computer program Chessmaster (I am around 1700 there, at the moment). Jason 5 can mate me with King and rook when I don’t defend too well. They only played a couple of games per month since the original post. I am curious to hear some stories of any readers playing chess with children ..who is so brave to share something? ;)


  6 Responses to “Playing Chess with Children (Toddlers and Pre-Schoolers)”

  1. My father taught me how to play chess at age 3, I remember I had heck of a time trying to learn how the “horsie” moves – but I had to do it – how else would I be able to play checkers if I don’t learn chess first? I suppose I learned patience on dealing with this Anxiety, frustration – which lead to quite satisfying success when finally doing the Knight move & being able to play checkers.

    My father played maybe 1800 level – but he never let me win (probably he did but not that I rememver), the best game against him I remember was trying to mate him with 2 knights, a lot of exercise in futility trying to beat him lead to beating everyone else I played with (including a blindfold against my mom age 5). After I joined chessclub at age 7 I managed to beat him, never lost to him again & had some reasonable success in national junior level. I made it to 2200 level but stopped serious chess at age 16-18, I’m getting back into chess again now 10 years later, and I doubt I will improve too much, nevertheless I hope with the kids on the way they will make it to 2600 level and beat Magnus Carlsen one day :-) and they ain’t gonna get there without suffering a lot of chess losses and frustrations on the way

    • Thanks for your interesting comment Chessnatic.
      I suspect our father did let you win in the first year at least :) Few people have many memories before age 5 or so.

      You must have been an extraordinary chess talent with the skills you describe. I would love to know if you feel you wasted time playing this much chess when you were young or if you think it was rather helpful and helped you develop other skills.

      I am not too keen to push my kids into playing chess more than they voluntarily choose to do. I would rather see them be more physically active and solve all sorts of different puzzles (not just chess).
      I am aware of the (dangerous?) addiction factor in chess – much of which comes from the amazing rating system that allows fairly accurate measurement of chess skills and your progress.

      Would you like to see your kids have the same or a better chess career when they are young? I am not sure how serious you were with your comment about Magnus Carlsen :)

      I know Josh Waitzkin, the American chess protege (a decade ago) seemed to have mixed experiences with his intense chess life and eventually quit because of all the media attention (after the movie about him – inspired by his ambitious father: “Searching for Bobby Fischer”).

      Actually, I think his rating progress was roughly like yours – perhaps a little bit better – but not that different. I read his interesting book “The art of learning” – I think he did the right thing moving on to other passions like Tai Chi and using the meta skills he developed during his chess training.

      I also know of other people who moved on to playing professional poker as there is money in it and again apparently many meta skills are the same: logical reasoning, memory, stamina, fighting spirit, discipline to train, controlling emotions etc..

  2. It’s amazing how unique persons children can be. They have their own logical mind and their own logic in their doing which is often unclear to us adults. Every boy and girl has his/her own personality but they also share certain characteristics together. This shared “material” is mostly the skills and knowledge children learn from each other and from their role models (=friends, parents, tutors, neighbors etc.) .

    It’s fascinating to see how small kids solve problems. The solution is not necessarily “right” or even a rational one but they have much more interesting ideas and arguments behind their doing than we ‘adults’ have. (Sometimes we can ask who actually is the adult and who is the child?) We usually do without thinking or execute the same specified task every time. A child may found something interesting out of that dull basic task (s)he is doing and think about that and already after a couple minutes do something else. We should learn something from them: not to worry about things constantly. We should give ourselves time to forget our worries at least for a moment. Children are masters to take a moment at a time and live here and now without worrying the things to come.

    • You make some interesting points “Distant Observer”. I agree there are so many things we can learn from children – if we want to and pay some attention. There are always surprises.

      For example my three little ones – although different ages (3,5,7) have recently discovered how much fun typing letter in wordpad is… although the fascination faded after a few days it lasted for about an hour for three or so days and occasionally pops up again. Wordpad is now the typing game and seems pretty much the same “game” as mummy and daddy play so often..

  3. I agree with you. I have already stepped up the losing frequency a little for the boys inspired by your support :)

    I did notice it becomes a bit easier for them already – although the pieces usually end up flying in that case (but lower now..)
    I also think being able to lose has to do with confidence but I also suspect it may be a bit more complicated than that as it is also affected by the general personality (like you said) as well as their development level which is likely to correlate with age but also environmental specifics. But yes, maybe personality is the main factor and development level is part of personality – depending how we define it.
    Oh, and I did not post this because I think my kids are smart – they may or may not be. I posted this with the hope to inspire more parents to try out chess with their toddlers at an earlier age – regardless of any apparent or not apparent “cleverness”. In my case it was a pure coincidence – I would have probably waited a few more years before introducing it to them. I was also worried about the little one interfering and spoiling it..which is not a big problem so far.

    In fact I myself was at least 10 years old when I was introduced to chess – I think. I also remember that my 12 year old neighbour – a girl – taught me and wrote down for me how the pieces move. I remember I studied the paper carefully and I think it took me longer than my toddlers to learn the basics.. it felt as if it took ages to get started with this rather interesting looking game..

  4. I am impressed that you have taught chess to your children but am not surprised at their ‘smarts’ in catching on so efficiently as you are so clever as well. In my experience, less confident children seem to get really upset about losing and while you should acknowledge those feelings (usually expressed via angry tantrums) it is also really important to allow them to lose more often so they can build an understanding of loss and of the other person’s right to win and flourish. I don’t think it has to do with age, I think it is a personality trait. It often causes a lot of suffering for those around him/her but worse still a lot of suffering for the child.

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