01 August 2017

Lesson One

Where do you begin when teaching chess to a beginner? Certainly, the first steps should be the board and how the pieces move, as Daniel Rensch offers in "Everything You Need to Know 1: Start Playing Chess" on Chess.com. Or, perhaps there is a flaw in this approach. Momir Radovic claims the approach that starts with the moves is flawed, quoting Aron Nimzovich, "How I Became a Grandmaster" (1929).*
Let's start from the beginning -- from the very first lesson. "Moves were shown" to me -- was that the right thing to do? Well, of course, my dear reader would say, it's impossible to play chess without it. But the thing is, the reader makes a mistake: this method is utterly wrong.
Nimzovich, trans. by Alexey Spectra
"Utterly wrong" in this translation is presented as "fundamentally flawed" by Radovic (see "How We Fail Big Time in Teaching Chess"). Nimzovich asserts that one should begin with the board, specifically mentioning the border between the players and the center; then with the rook and the concept of ranks and files. Radovic suggests contacts, which appear to be embodied in Nimzovich's lesson with a White rook on e1 and a Black pawn on e6. Yuri Averbakh. Chess Tactics for Advanced Players (1972) develops a theory of contacts that I imagine must be part of what informs Radovic's approach.

Through work as a guest teacher in elementary classrooms for more than a decade, I taught more than one thousand children to play chess. I developed a curriculum that could be covered in four visits. I always started with the board--ranks, files, diagonals, and the names of squares. Each visit would then introduce the moves of one or two pieces. Sometimes, I started with pawns and then students played pawn wars. Sometimes, I started with the rook and the king and the concept of check. Sometimes I started with the queen and king and the concept of checkmate. None of these methods were perfect, but children did learn to play.
Rensch's First Checkmate

Rensch starts his video with the board's alternating colors, then ranks, files, diagonals, and names of squares. Then he teaches the moves, beginning with the rook. Fifteen minutes into the video, he introduces check and checkmate. His first checkmate is with a queen. The second is with two bishops. Then, he shows a stalemate with the two bishops. Finally, en passant and castling are introduced.

The Nimzovich/Radovic approach deserves further exploration, but the links to his site do not seem to be working for me this morning. Also, his articles on his blog and on Chess.com generally offer teasers only. He suggests the problems that provoked development of his system, but one needs to hire him as a coach to get the details. Or, do a bit of research and find the links, such as his article, "Introduction to the Contacts Method," The Chess Journalist (Fall 2011).

Nearly two centuries ago, William Lewis (1787-1870) presented a "scientific" approach to learning chess. His book, Elements of the Game of Chess (1822), begins with rules and moves and then proceeds to checkmates with queen and king against king. His assertions of the pitfalls of teaching chess the wrong way remind me of my own childhood.
The great objection to the works hitherto published, as far as regards the mere learner, is that they commence too soon with all the pieces, and the reader is expected to manoeuvre all, before he understands the use of one or two; the powers of the pieces are imperfectly taught, and the numerous combinations and difficulties which so early present themselves to the reader, confuse and fatigue him, and he begins to fear that very considerable time must elapse before he can be come, with great study and patience, even a moderate player.
Lewis, Elements, viii.
Lewis observes that a young beginner wants to use all of the pieces, but urges restraint. He asserts that a person who wants to reach a level where he or she can compete with first rank players should defer using all of the pieces until after working through the combinations with few pieces that he offers in Elements of the Game of Chess.

My younger sister taught me the moves after learning them from a neighbor. I was eight years old. A short time later, my uncle corrected some errors, or so he tells me. My memory extends to my sister's instruction, but not my uncle's. In any case, I played chess for several years before I had the faintest idea of strategy and tactics. These, and the beginnings of skill, developed when I discovered chess books shortly before or just after my fifteenth birthday (see "My First Chess Book"). As I learned to read chess notation and began playing through miniatures, my skill rose rapidly.

Lewis advocates using few pieces in many combinations. One almost gets the sense from careful study of his approach that Nimzovich and Radovic are merely refining lessons in a forgotten book. He does not begin with the rook, however. The queen is a terribly difficult piece with which to begin. Even so, Lewis's first checkmates are exemplary for teaching how a queen and king can coordinate their efforts. In particular, his "second situation" offers two solutions (28).

White to move

First, he presents checkmate in five. Then notes, "This method is very simple, but the other is more masterly and shorter; replace the pieces and play." We see that White's king does not move and Black is checkmated on the fourth move.

Step by step, Lewis walks his reader through simple checkmates when the Black king is already confined on the edge. Then, we reach the "fifth situation" (30).

White to move

It is checkmate in five moves. When a young player starts with such a checkmate, he or she is already well ahead of the one who played 58...Qc4+ in this next position.

Black to move

After six moves, White resigned in disgust, embarrassed to lose to a player who cannot execute a simple checkmate in three.

*This work in Russian has not been generally available in English, but Alexey Spectra, known on Chess.com as Spektrowski offers a translation on that site (link embedded).


  1. James, a great piece. I don’t think anyone has ever presented a review of different approaches to how to start in chess. It would be great if it provoked a broader discussion within chess circles (hopefully including big guns) on this important issue of how to start teaching at Chess Ground Zero.
    The problem we are facing is this: people generally don't challenge established dogmas. This has nothing to do with their intelligence, it is simply the way we are indoctrinated to get wired in a certain way. With our minds controlled by media, “fake news,” technology and government, there will be even less attempts to challenge the status quo of anything, some peripheral chess teaching included…
    In chess, every one of us has started with the moves shown first. A fact indisputable. Ask any living GM and they would tell you the same story. I once asked GM Mark Paragua, when he was on a visit here in Marietta, GA. As any other of his distinguished colleagues who we respect so much for their deep chess knowledge, he fired like: "the moves, centralization,” etc.
    And that's okay. Although, it’s always been easier to defend the established order than to dare some big truth (assuming you have identified where the problem lies and have a fix, no one ever thought of, in mind).
    But there is always some Copernicus, who starts challenging a never-challenged, never-changing, truth of eons. In chess, that Copernicus is Nimzovich.
    There is really no need here to say a single word about who he was and what he did for our better understanding of the game that still holds firmly up to date.
    Now, if he, one of the greatest chess thinkers of all time, in the same company with Philidor and Dr. Lasker, suggests in his 1929 article that the traditional approach with the moves is really a flop, then there must be something real big in this deal.
    The thing is, no one gets it what Nimzo wanted to communicate to us.
    The British GM Raymond Keene, OBE, in his "Aron Nimzowitsch: A Reappraisal," first published in 1974, then renamed as "Aron Nimzowitsch: Master of Planning" in 1991, even omitted a part from the 1929 "How I became a GM" article Nimzovich wrote for Shakhmatny Listok, that is DA most important, actually crucial piece for our understanding Chess Moment One, the Big Bang from which all our chess experience starts expanding in Space-Time.
    Very sadly, for most people, this Big Bang turns into a Big Flop, as 99.5% percent of all people who take up chess at one point in their life, never move out of Chess Level One, i.e. beyond the moves.
    No matter how impossible it may sound to all of us, THE PRIME SUSPECT appears to be THE MOVES FIRST!https://www.chess.com/blog/MomirRadovic

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