Chess is a Game of Skill - how do children get Skill?

Having established that chess is a game of skill, we have to turn to another question: How does a child ‘get’ skill?

Here is how I see it: A tournament game is a set of problems the child has to solve to the best of their ability. Some of the problems have one, unique solution, but many of them can be addressed in more than one way. Some have a wide range of plausible answers, but some of them will be much better than others. The more problems are solved well, the better the overall quality of play will be, the better the results. Fortunately, this solving skill can be trained!

In the justly famous book “Peak”, by Anders Ericsson, the author describes the idea of ‘deliberate practice’. This is mindful practice that replicates what you have to do when you are actually performing the task in question. His example of deliberate practice for chess players is what tournament players call ‘solitaire chess’: Playing over Grandmaster games, hiding the moves of the winning side, and trying to figure out the best moves for yourself. This is indeed extremely useful: I remember doing this with examples of Opposite Colored Bishop middlegames Alex Stripunsky sent me, and quickly noticing a marked increase in my skill in this type of position. But this is a tall order for a young beginner - actually it is a tall order for almost any young chess player. How can young children apply the concept of deliberate practice in their own studying?

To make it as simple as possible: Mindfully solve high quality exercises. Children should work with a level-appropriate book of exercises, try to solve them to the absolute best of their ability, and check their answers. The quality of the work is extremely important: Work that is done ‘to get it over with’ - and every chess teacher has seen this type of work - is not useful. I have told parents it can even be harmful, as children build careless habits that can carry over into games.

How can we make ‘high quality work’ more concrete for children? There are some guidelines I have given to my own students. Of course, the main challenge is not knowing what to do, but having the willpower to carry it out. . .

  1. Work independently, in a quiet place. No playing around with siblings or screen time competing for your attention.
  2. Think as if you are playing a tournament game: Take your time, try to get as many problems as possible right on your first try. In a real game you only get one try!
  3. Write down all your answers, with all the relevant variations. In this way, you take responsibility for the move you pick. Otherwise it’s too easy to fool yourself, and say ‘I saw that’ when you see a critical variation in the answer key!
  4. Check the answers regularly. (This depends on the age of the student; sometimes the coach will check the answer, sometimes a parent will check using the answer key, etc).

In our camp, we do a great deal of high quality solving in every group. This is an indispensable part of how children learn to apply the ideas they are studying, so they are available to them in tournament games.

Good luck, and good skill! Remember that the main determinant of how strong a child becomes is the amount of time they spend working on chess independently.