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Three Real-Life Lessons Children Learn From Chess

posted Thursday, October 23, 2014

This article was written for Wholesale Chess by International Master Danny Rensch - Chess Coach and Vice President of Chess.com and ChessKid.com.

As parents, we are always looking for moments to give our kids "real-life" lessons through the sports and activities they choose, in addition to the general experiences they have.

Here I have decided to share three of the most common life lessons a kid will learn from chess, even at the beginning of his or her chess development. 

Of course, there are many more than three things, but for the sake of my first article for WholesaleChess.com, we are going to keep it to the most critical and obvious takeaways that you, as a parent, can be sure your kids will get from playing chess!

by Clearwater Public Libary

1. Slow down and think before you move!

Real Life Translation: if you see a good move (action), slow down and look for a better one. Consider all your options. There may be more than one good way to achieve your goal. 

Is there any bigger "chess cliche" than that it teaches people (of all ages) to think ahead? To consider their multiple candidate moves? That moving without a purpose or goal is a surefire recipe for disaster?

Well, it is a cliche, but that's because it's so true, and it's one of the most important lessons chess can teach us! 

Thinking "backwards-to-forwards" or "thinking from the endgame" is a term I've used often (along with many other grandmaster coaches). A simple, real-life metaphor to draw upon is that "you may know the mechanics of driving a car, but if you don't know whether you're driving to New York to California, it will be pretty hard to know which turn to take in Kansas."

In other words, if you don't have a goal, it's hard to make the right decision (or even know if you've made the right decision) with the information that's in front of you. 

2. What is your opponent trying to do to you?

Real Life Translation: there are lots of people in this world, and it doesn't always revolve around what you want! Think about what others need, and what they are trying to accomplish.

This tough lesson is perhaps one of the first things kids learn "subconsciously" from a game of chess.

The first time they lose a game where they thought they were on the verge of winning, focused solely on their own plan, their own threats, their own wants and needs...and then BOOM! Their opponent delivers a move and plan they hadn't even considered, and the game is over.

After that moment, the chessboard never looks the same again.

At advanced levels, we call it "prophylactic thinking" to be "defensive minded" and aware of what your opponent wants to accomplish.

Often players are encouraged to make "preventative" moves to stop their opponent from gaining space, activating a piece, starting an attack, etc. -- and this lesson can make a child, almost jadedly, aware that there is more to achieving what they want in life than a tantrum!  

Even at the beginning levels of chess, kids can learn that they must be aware of their full surroundings (board) to be successful, not focused solely on their own moves. 

3. Who gets more points in this trade? (chess counting)

Real Life Translation: risk vs. reward! Cost-benefit analysis! Is it worth it?

In the beginning, a child is easily excited by a trade of any kind. You take my piece, I take yours!

The "value" of each piece is much less important than the thrill of the kill (capture). It's true, we've all seen it.

Even after you try to explain that "giving up your knight for that pawn isn't a great idea" or "if you take that rook, you give me check, which I know sounds fun, but I'm going to take your queen with my other rook," t hey don't care! A check is a check for check's sake!

But over time, this lesson truly begins to sink in. As they lose games because they're willing to trade a "more valuable" piece for a less valuable one, and experience WHY each piece is given that value (i.e., because they truly are more powerful than the other weaker pieces), they start to make better decisions. 

They learn to think ahead and evaluate the value of each piece taken in a capture. They will make sure they don't give up more than they get.

Eventually, they appreciate that "counting in chess" is about more than just "I take you, you take me," like checkers. Instead, it's a strategic decision to always strive to get more than you give up. 

And the most fun lesson and irony of it all?

If they stick with the game, they also learn all the exceptions to these rules and lessons! Just like in life, there is rarely a dogmatic, single approach to any one person, thing, relationship or situation. 

They begin to learn time management, and that always taking forever on a move is simply not an option! They learn that in some cases, it is simply impossible to make everyone happy and calculate all the opponent's options, and they just have to go for their plan!

And they learn the exceptions to giving up "material" for something greater, whether it's an attack, a control over a critical square, etc -- and you can draw your own lessons for your child on what might be greater than material in life.  Smile


Chess Coach . . . The Beginning of the Journey

posted October 16, 2014

Written by guest author Erik Czerwin for Wholesale Chess.

So you’ve been named Chess Team Coach. Awesome! Right?! Or was that a dubious move? It seemed like such a great idea at first, but now what? When I first started a chess club at the school, it was easy. All I had to do was ask, and I was allowed to let a bunch of kids hang out, play chess, and listen to bad techno. We had fun that first year; I never knew that 90s techno could strike such a chord with such a diverse group of kids. Then again, there were only ten of them. And we weren’t a team; we were just a bunch of guys hanging out.

And just when I started thinking this was a nice, easy way to end each Tuesday and Thursday, my principal tells me that next year they want me to make it competitive, and that we should go to the state tournament! Woops. Me and my big Polish mouth. You’d think I would’ve learned over the last several years of teaching to hunker down and shut up…

Of course, not every chess coach has the same experience getting started. Some scenarios are far worse. Some coaches have never played chess in their lives and they get the position forced on them by less than fortunate circumstances. No one wants to coach a team they know nothing about. Of course, I’d had a similar experience before when I was told to coach basketball. Ha! Me, coach basketball? But I guess I faked my way through that one all right. No one got killed anyway. And we did win 3 games. Out of 25. But who’s counting?

I had no idea where to begin. All I knew was that I had to start somewhere, and getting chess supplies seemed the most logical step. Can’t play chess without chess sets. Looking over the rag-tag chess sets in my classroom closet was utterly depressing. Surely competitive chess players used something a bit more attractive. So the research began.

I started clicking on link after endless link and quickly realized that I was in way over my head. Those chess pieces were wooden and gorgeous. No way I could afford those. Luckily, I stumbled on a picture of a high school chess team at some random city somewhere. They weren’t playing with those handcrafted pieces of gorgeousness. They were using plastic chess pieces; maybe I could afford those. But how many sets would I use? Figure two kids per set ought to do it, right? But how many kids would I have? Crapola. I hadn’t the slightest idea. I mean, I loved chess, but I only had ten kids showing up to a hang-out club. How many would show up to play competitively?

After asking about funds, I was told none would be forthcoming, so I had to do this out of my own pocket. After clicking link after link after link after link, I found the cheapest prices on the net. I was sure of it. My Polish/Czech heritage wouldn’t let me spend a nickel more than I had to. But after realizing that I could get ten vinyl chess boards and ten of the cheapest sets of chess pieces for around $50, I was much happier. I could afford that with only a one-to-two day argument with my wife. And hey, once I get the pieces, I’ve got them forever, right? It’s not like chess pieces wear out.

And so that was it, I ordered the chess pieces and chess boards, what else could I need? I knew how the pieces moved, and some basic tactics, maybe some basic strategies. And I’m a teacher, so I should be able to pass all that on to my students without too much difficulty.

Of course, looking back, I could have done a little more. For only a few bucks more, slightly better pieces wouldn’t have broken so easily. I could’ve ordered chess clocks right away. It wasn’t until long after I had the sets that I realized the team needed chess clocks, too. Luckily, I caught that error before we made it to our first competition. Maybe I could’ve invested in a couple of chess books to pass out. Of course, those just kind of trickle in over the years. For some reason, the kids and parents really start donating once they’re in love with chess. So maybe chess books weren’t absolutely necessary at first.

One thing I did, I’m convinced, was just the right thing at the right moment. After hearing that I would be heading up a competitive chess team, I decided it was time to get involved with some real competition. How could I coach a team if I had never felt the thump-thump of my heart in my ears as I peered over a chessboard? And heck, beating these kids was pretty easy, how hard could it be to play chess against some adult? So I searched for local chess clubs, and it turns out that one met every Monday at my local bookstore café. Awesome.

I packed up my little wooden chess set that I’d had since I was 12 and dropped in. I’d seen this before, but only in cheesy chess movies about fathers and sons. Here were a bunch of crooked-backed old men and a handful of nerdy-looking kids moving pieces and slapping clocks. Maybe 20 people in all. I felt pretty confident. I asked around about who ran the show and was introduced to Gary. He politely offered to play a game with me.

Without too much embarrassing detail, 15 minutes later, I felt crushed as I stared across the chess board at this graying gentleman having lost two games without the slightest idea why it had ended so quickly. Next year was going to be the longest school year of my career. But Gary smiled at me and immediately had me pegged. “New to the game?” he asked.

“Well, I’ve been playing for……” I petered out as I realized that telling him how long I had been playing might only make the embarrassment worse.

Over the next hour, Gary talked about how he had been a coach for 25 years and now he ran the chess club. He hosted scholastic tournaments from time to time. Most importantly, he told me not to worry; chess will happen. It’s the coaching part that counts. Since then, I’ve met a lot of other chess coaches, and I’ve realized that the only genuine support I have is other coaches. Without their encouragement, I never would have made it. Well, I would’ve had a team, but it would’ve been pure torture. Getting the right chess supplies is a requirement. Meeting the right people and becoming familiar with the heart of the game is indispensable. After all, it’s the connections we make in life that actually matter anyway.

Erik Czerwin is a self-taught chess player and also a self-taught chess coach. He founded the current Marengo Community High School Chess team, founded the Marengo Chess Club, plays at the Rockford Chess Club, and occasionally volunteers as a chess teacher at the Rockford Public Library, all in Northern Illinois. In his spare time, he's also a full-time high school language arts teacher, part-time graduate student, part-time tutor, and full-time father of two and husband to a very understanding wife.


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