What Kind of Game is Chess?

What sort of game is chess, anyway? The question is quite important, when you start thinking about how children can improve efficiently. I want to talk about an interesting distinction I first learned about when I was in graduate school, working for Chess In the Schools. 

I was discussing opening principles with Mitch Fitzko, a National Master who has been successfully teaching children the fundamentals for many years. He made some insightful points that had never occurred to me - I was impressed! I realized that Mitch’s chess knowledge and understanding went far beyond his official US Chess rating. At the time, there were some very strong young chess players at IS318k, where Mitch was teaching the beginners one day a week. I asked Mitch if he thought he would be able to teach the strongest kids - it seemed to me that his knowledge could be useful on a high level. Again, he made a strong impression on me. . . by casually dismissing my suggestion!

“A chess game is not a test of knowledge. It’s a test of skill. They have more skill than me!” Of course this is not a definitive statement on whether a coach can work with players stronger than them, and there are numerous examples of successful coaches who do just that. But the essence of his point was true: Not all knowledge can be translated into skill during an over the board tournament game!

Chess information has never been as accessible as it is today. Popular streamers produce YouTube videos, free and instructive content is available on all the major sites, live tournaments are accompanied by world class commentary, etc. To be sure, all of this is useful. A student who immerses themselves in chess, drinking from the fire hose, will absolutely pick up things they can use in their games.

But this is not the be all and end all of children’s chess improvement. In fact, I would argue that it’s a relatively small part. Because this type of learning - watching videos, listening to commentary, reading articles - is almost purely geared towards increasing knowledge. It doesn’t do that much to move the needle in terms of a child’s skill - their ability to play strong moves during a game. I view this type of learning as a complement - an excellent complement, to be clear - to learning that builds a child’s skill.

So, what type of learning builds skill? More on that next time!