Parent's Guide to Chess

Aleksandar Randjelovic

Chess Parenting Essentials

From beginner to enthusiast

Most parents do not have the required knowledge to guide their child on their journey through the world of chess, so they often hire a coach to take care of that. With over 20 years of experience as a chess coach and more than 10 years as a professional chess player, I have witnessed many cases in which kids were very unhappy playing chess. Their parents, pushing and pushing, couldn't understand why all the investment was not paying off. I believe I have some answers and a couple of advice on how to guide your child through the process of becoming a chess player.

The first is about taking chess more seriously. In other words, should you enroll your kid in chess lessons or encourage them to play?

You can't just sign your kid up to play and learn chess the way you choose shoes or curtains. The first and most important condition is that your kid shows some interest in playing the game. If the child is only 6 or 7 years old, waiting a bit longer may still be a good option. At that age, they may develop interests in many things, and this brief attention to chess - that you've noticed - can easily be diverted to something else. Imposing chess lessons may start to look like a punishment to them.

So, without an obvious curiosity and lasting love for the game, involving chess more seriously in your kid's daily routine doesn't make sense.

But in case your kid is eager to learn, the most natural step is hiring a chess coach. The question is - do you really need one?

You've probably heard of the Russian chess school where you bring your 4-year-old, and their team of chess coaches works wonders with their potential. It may be reasonable to involve your child in a serious training process if they show signs of being a chess prodigy. However, putting such pressure on an average child to study like that is, at best, unacceptable. This has nothing to do with being for or against playing chess but rather with good or bad parenting.

I want to emphasize that parents can play a significant role in assisting their children at the beginning of the journey to chess mastery. Just be there to help by reading and going through a good chess book with them. Discussing thoughts and ideas while moving pieces on your 3D board is an ideal way to practice chess with your child. Not only can you bond during these moments, but you can also gain insights into the game. The impact of such studying can even surpass the effects of paid, coach-guided lessons.

Now, when the time comes to hire a coach, how can you be sure that you've found a good one?

There are many elements to evaluate when assessing someone's coaching skills. However, if you have no chess experience or knowledge, focus on one crucial aspect — ensure that your child's curiosity for the game is not fading. If it does fade, it suggests that your child may struggle to follow the coach's program, leading to the conclusion that the coaching material is either not well-selected or not well-presented.
Another important element of every good coaching, especially when working with a young beginner, is that the lesson is entertaining! Every kid will pay more attention if the coach is funny and charismatic.

People often make a huge mistake by pressuring their child to study even harder, all the while ignoring signs that their kid has lost their love for the game. The coach might be the one to blame, especially if it is someone who charges a lot or has had great success as a coach in the past. However, past successes don't necessarily guarantee the same for the future.

Another question that many ask is - should we hire a grandmaster?

In case we are still talking about beginner's steps, the simplest answer is: No. Our coach should be able to understand the game, but high chess skills are not required at the beginning. Even an amateur player of 1500 rating points can teach your kid first couple of years, in case they have a good teaching technique, including skills to entertain.

After all, the best chess coach of all time, Mark Dvoretsky, was just an International Master, not a GM.

Back to our chess coach. Next question is - how important is their experience in coaching?

It is extremely important, but only if they really care for what they do. Let me provide you an example from my coaching career.

For many years this position has been part of my coaching programme. I'd ask my young students to suggest a way to increase activity of white pieces, and then to the same for black. The goal behind such an exercise is to develop sensibility and notion for active and passive pieces. However, this position may not be a perfect example to achive that goal, cause in order to find the best solution, the higher level of chess understanding is required: it is difficult to organize most of the pieces in order to become more active, unless a complicated action is taken by both sides. And when these complications are mentioned during the lesson, it only adds confusion into it. You simply notice that the student's attention drops, which is a sign that things are not done well by the coach. And the one who cares would fix this mistake in their coaching programme by choosing a different model game or position.

Let me give you another example. If the goal of the lesson is for your kid to realise how important quick development of pieces is, there are many great games out there to choose from. But some of those are not appropriate when teaching a young beginner.

In this game we can see terribly difficult opening moves to understand, and the moment a coach plays out these moves on the board, there is a dilemma - either to explain, or just skip them quickly in order to get to the critical moment of the game. I prefer to explain, cause for the beginner's mind we need to stress how logical chess moves are. Therefore, everything needs to be explained. But when you have a complex sequence of moves, and you start doing that, the whole attention and the point of the lesson is often put in the background. The student may be listening to their coach's explaination, but since they are not on the level to understand these moves and concepts, they stay confused and don't know what is happening on the board. In conclusion, the whole model game is not appropriate, and that can be noticed - again - only by a coach who has been there already.

Overall, all these mistakes of a coach affect how their students see the game, and if it continues going in the wrong direction, we would get to the point when a student, or in this case, your child, loses their love for the game and quits.

Now, since there are many successful examples of kids becoming GMs or strong chess players, a good question is - should you copy-paste their road to mastery?

Although I am also interested to hear those stories, I have never heard of any that would be useful in general, cause we are all different. You can read about rutine of Magnus Carlsen when he was a kid, or read the book about Polgar sisters, or check the story of Mishra, a kid who recently become the youngest grandmaster in chess history. You can read all that and mainly get misled. That's because except in case of Polgar sisters, some of those are kids with a certain gift for chess that gives them such a lead that there is no effort of another kid that can compensate it. And if you'd be listening to what is said about these super-gifted kid's road to the top, it would be like asking your kid to read Hegel or Heidegger, instead of the Little Prince.

Now, let's assume your kid played in a tournament, and you were disappointed by the result. What should we do?

Well, if you think your kid is broken and should definitely quit playing chess, I'm kidding. If you understand how chess progress works, you wouldn't be bothered by the overall tournament score. Instead, focus on how the games were played, your kid's attention during the games, the time spent on their clock, and their emotions - whether they are happy or sad while playing chess with other kids.

Everything is possible to fix, except of the initial love for the game, which I can't stress enough. Losing a game affects their love for the game, but your attitude is also affecting it. And if you turn their experience of losing a game into something even worse, that's a sign of a terrible parenting.

How can one encourage their kid to think longer before playing a move and take their game more seriously?

Young players are impulsive, it is not expected that they play like mature players. But the more they know, more time they'll need to think through their lines, more things they are going to be able to see happening on the board. So, the key is in their learning, and the key for learning more is - again - in their pure interest in the game. Therefore, inspire them, and eventually you'll see how they take time before each move, ending up probably more often in time trouble. Which is, actually, a good sign.

Additionally, there are other methods, though some may find them too artificial. One method I know some coaches use is asking their young students to spend at least a minute on each move, regardless of how obvious the move may be. Simply waiting for one minute and carefully observing the board before making a move, while artificial, can develop into a beneficial habit that aids them in their real-life decisions.

Meanwhile, the initial reaction of parents to these suggestions is often: 'Why would we go to the tournaments only to lose games?'

Well, if your kid loves chess, they would like to read about various chess openings, play them out on the board, then they would do a lot of tactics, they would like to play other kids and random players online, and I am sure that the good result would eventualy come. At least that's my personal story. But even if your kid doesn't do all that, try to inspire them to put more effort in chess without really pushing them. By the way, that's also one of the main tasks of the coach you hire.

At a very early age, the results are often random and don't reveal much about the real dedication and potential of those kids. Even at the professional level, one bad move can push your name 10 or 15 places down in the last round. Children are impulsive, and it is easy for one to blunder and ruin all the great work from the previous rounds. Often, only one move is to blame. Would you blame your kid for making just one blunder, ending up without a medal, even though maybe they played great games in all other rounds?

Without delving into the specifics of working with your child or how your coach should approach it, I'd like to highlight one crucial, overarching aspect here...

The key is your role, which is to inspire your kid to love the game more. You'd be surprised how quickly that leads to a situation where your child starts working on chess without anyone's assistance. What is truly intriguing is that the coach's task is quite similar to yours, essentially making it a teamwork.

Overall, what many may not accept is that you don't sign your kid up to play chess solely for the joy of their success, achieved titles, or trophies. The ultimate goal is their happiness, and playing chess should be just one of the ways for them to be creative and fulfilled.