23 July 2013

Papy Teaches Chess

This afternoon, on the way home from her morning Italian lesson (her dad's side of the family is Italian), my four-and-a-half year old granddaughter asked me to play 'checks'. (The conversation was in French, so I'm taking liberties at translation.) Her grandmom quickly figured out that she meant 'chess', and just as quickly I changed the subject -- it's easy to do with young children and I have no experience teaching chess to that age group.

After we got home, where we're looking after her until her parents finish work, she again asked to play 'chess', mentioning the set she had seen in my study. She wanted the 'yellow' pieces (yes, they're old) and I could have the black. The set that she meant is half covered with paperwork, and I knew she wouldn't give up asking, so I started looking for another set. Through the years I've given away most of my sets, but found one of unknown origin with a 6 cm King, a good size for small hands. I also found a beat-up board that I would have been embarrassed to take out for anyone else. Little kids don't care about those things.

After carefully taking the pieces out of the box one-by-one, she took all of the White pieces and set up the Pawns on the third rank -- she once learned something about chess from her dad, who played in a couple of junior tournaments -- then randomly scattered the other pieces behind the Pawns. I asked her if she knew the names of the pieces, which she didn't. I don't know how children do it, but they learn words after hearing them once or twice. In a few minutes she knew the names.

How to continue? I started by explaining the Pawn moves. First I showed how the Pawn moves forward one step at a time and we played a Pawns-only game -- starting from the second ranks -- until all of the Pawns were blocked. Then I explained the two-step rule on the first move and we played another Pawns-only game with the same result. Then I explained the capture. When I captured her Pawn she wanted it back immediately and when she captured mine, she promptly handed it over.

At this point I remembered about a children's game called the 'Pawn Game', where the object is to race your Pawns forward to reach your bank rank first, playing only with Pawns on the board. I explained the rule and she promptly won, after trying to make some captures of Pawns separated by several ranks or files. Then I showed her how to set up all of the pieces for the traditional game (no chess960 on the first lesson!) and started to explain the moves.

While I was explaining the first piece, the Knight, she suddenly said, 'Papy (that's me), you've been choosing the games, now I get to choose.' She swept the pieces off the board, put the 'horses' back in the box 'where they can sleep', and grabbed the Bishops, one in each little hand. While she was banging them up and down on the board, she told me to do the same, and then started rushing her Bishops at my Bishops, making swooshing noises while the Bishops were attacking each other.

After 60 seconds of battling Bishops, she put them to the side and grabbed the King and Queen, calling the Queen 'the princess'. She's been obsessed with princesses for well over a year now and must have hundreds of Auroras, Ariels, and Rapunzels, plus dozens of other names that I can't keep straight. (My Papy role was much simpler in the 'Hello Kitty' phase when there was only one character.)

The father of the princess, the King, and the princess danced together all over the board while my granddaughter hummed some sort of waltz. I just sat and watched. After 60 seconds of that, I asked her if she wanted to know how the other pieces move. She said, 'Yes!' and I explained the Rook. She said, 'That's easy!', and started pushing a Rook all over the board, respecting the ranks and files of the Rook's move. Just as I started to explain the Bishop, grandmom ('Mamy') called for lunch and the session was over. I knew from past experience that there would be no further interest in chess today, so I put the board and pieces back where I had found them.

How do professional chess teachers work with young children? A friend has asked me to teach her two young grandsons and I really don't have a clue. Further investigation is required.

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