This excellent free site will teach your child to play chess during lockdown

Malcolm Pein
·6 min read
Clementine (7) and Florence (9) play chess
Clementine (7) and Florence (9) play chess

“Chess is a sea in which an elephant may bathe, and a gnat may drink”', goes a proverb from India, the birthplace of Chaturanga, the first board game that resembled chess and was played around 1500 years ago. 

The world’s most enduring game is often regarded as too complex for ordinary mortals. There are more possible moves in a game of chess – about 10120 - than atoms in the universe. Yet teachers know better. Chess has just a few simple rules that children grasp easily, opening up a game of almost limitless depth that can be enjoyed for a lifetime.

When I set up the charity Chess in Schools and Communities (CSC) in 2010, my objective was to bring the game back to the state education sector, from which it had almost disappeared. In a survey, 170 out of 171 private schools I contacted had a thriving chess club, while I struggled to find state schools that even knew whether they had any chess sets.

ChessKid offers simple explanations of the game and its strategy
ChessKid offers simple explanations of the game and its strategy

Over the past decade, the charity has supported more than 1,000 state schools in developing a chess club. Before lockdown we were conducting more than 800 chess lessons a week in class time, teaching primary school children the game from a specially devised 30-week curriculum. It starts with the humble pawn and ends in the summer term with checkmate and that anomalous rule that’s started a million fights in the pub: en passant.

Chess boosts kids’ cognitive skills and self-esteem

The benefits to children of playing chess have been well documented in academic research and in an abundance of anecdotes from teachers and parents that we at CSC call ‘chesstimonials’. The game teaches essential skills such as problem solving, logical thinking and concentration. It can boost non-cognitive, or softer skills, such as the ability to delay gratification and to follow through on a plan. Knowing they can play a game their parents do not, and which is a mystery to many of their peers, boosts children’s self-esteem. Perhaps more than anything, chess helps to instil the attributes psychologist Angela Duckworth describes in her book: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

Chess can contribute to social mobility

The game can assist social mobility, with many of the children using their prowess at chess not only as a confidence booster, but also as an enhancement to the CV that can get them to a higher achieving secondary school. The game is a tool for social mobility and can be transformational for some. The award-winning documentary Brooklyn Castle showcased the children at IS318, a New York middle school, where “the cool kids are the chess team”.  

Paul Tough’s bestseller How Children Succeed: Grit Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character includes a chapter entitled: How to Think. The author describes his time spent with the chess players of IS318, nearly all of whom came from disadvantaged immigrant backgrounds, yet routinely defeated children from elite fee-paying schools like Spence and Dalton in national competition. 

Tough describes how the instructions from chess teacher Elizabeth Spiegel, while conveying chess strategies, also act as exercises in developing the key executive functions of cognitive flexibility and cognitive self-control. That is, being able to think out of the box and adapt to new situations as well as the ability to inhibit instinctive responses and optimally, substitute a better one. 

I’d liken my experience of competitive chess to taking a series of exams where the question changes every five minutes. Or as Grandmaster turned philosopher Jonathan Rowson puts it: “Your ability to recognise and utilise your emotions is every bit as important as the way you think”.

Chess has no boundaries of age, gender, ethnicity or disability. In the age of lockdown, it is uniquely suited to the internet, can be played on any device and connect friends and family of all ages during this trying time, in an engaging way.

ChessKid breaks down different pieces and the moves children can make with them
ChessKid breaks down different pieces and the moves children can make with them

Chess: perfect for lockdown on and off-line

While schools are closed, schools and parents need activities for children that keeps them entertained constructively and impart some learning objectives. I’ve launched a campaign to get 1 million children playing chess in partnership with the world’s biggest online children’s chess platform, ChessKid. On ChessKid, children can learn to play chess with thousands of videos, puzzles and lessons in a secure online environment. Once they are proficient, they can play others from all over the world.

Parents can claim a free Gold membership of ChessKid for each child, valid to July 20th at chessinschools.co.uk. Teachers or head teachers may have a Gold membership for every child in school.

Malcolm Pein is the Telegraph’s chess correspondent

10 top chess tips:

1. Control the centre. Chess is like football; control the midfield you control the game. 

chess board idea opening move
chess board idea opening move

2. Advance both centre pawns in the first few moves where possible.

chess board advance both central pawns
chess board advance both central pawns

3. In the centre the knight has 8 possible moves, in the corner just two. Don’t develop knights sideways at the start of the game. A knight on the rim is ugly and dim!

chess board knights positions
chess board knights positions

4. Develop knights and bishops first, leave the queen at home, she can be harassed if she ventures out too early and you don’t want to lose her. Here is an ideal setup.

chess develop bishops and rooks before queen
chess develop bishops and rooks before queen

5. Castle your king every game, he is much safer behind a pawn barrier. You can castle in two ways. It’s the only time you can move two pieces at once.

chess: castle your king every game
chess: castle your king every game

6. Bring everyone to the party. A common beginner’s mistake is to forget about the rooks.

chess: don't forget about rooks
chess: don't forget about rooks

7. In answer to a check, think: A – avoid, B-block, C-capture. Choose what works best, don’t instinctively run away. What should Black do now? The king is in check from the white queen.

chess: to answer check think A, B, C
chess: to answer check think A, B, C

8. After every move by your opponent, ask yourself: why did they play that? Look at the coordinates on the edges. White has just played Rook on f1 to d1 why? 

chess: analyse opponent's move
chess: analyse opponent's move

9. Pin and win. A pin is when a piece is attacked and cannot move without exposing a more valuable piece to capture or the king to check. Here both queens are pinned to the king.

chess: pin and win
chess: pin and win

10. En passant. It may never happen but… this unusual pawn capture can only occur after a pawn makes a move of two squares from its starting square, across a square where it could have been captured by an enemy pawn had it advanced only one square. You must capture immediately.

chess: en passant
chess: en passant