Chess Parenting 101

For parents, chess is an attractive option to offer their kids. The vast benefits of playing chess will allow children to discover a dynamic and exciting world. However, being a sort of chess experiment for my parents myself, there are some insights and pitfalls that I can alert you to.

First of all, chess expands the mind and shows kids a whole new way of thinking. This is advantageous in adult life and will allow them to see opportunities that the majority of people cannot. I discussed the varied benefits of learning chess in one of my previous articles.

The endeavour of ‘chess parenting’ must be approached with the correct mindset. In a previous blog post, I mentioned the two different kinds of player. The same reasoning is true with parenting. The parents will play a large role in instilling in the child the values that will determine which of the two main types of player he will become. The wrong parenting style can be severely detrimental to a child’s development. The typical example I see is where a child has a string of successes in his early chess career. The parent begins to see winning as a must and scolds their child for losing, or drawing against lower-rated opposition. Sometimes, the parents even pulls their child out of chess in a period where they are underperforming. Though the parent is trying to shield the child from sadness, this is injurious to the child’s state of mind. The child does not have the opportunity to recognise that mistakes are both inevitable and necessary in order to improve. Instead, the child sees himself as a failure if he does not continue to uphold his fragile image of perfectionism.

Instead, parents should drum into their children that mistakes are learning opportunities and open new doors. As the influential Irish novelist and poet James Joyce said: “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.”

With regards to money, for 99% of young chess players, chess will not be a money-making venture. For the most part, it will be a one-way flow out of the parents’ pocket. Parents must be willing to put up travel expenses, tournament entry costs and club membership costs. More serious players may have to take into account coaching costs, airline tickets and accommodation expenses.

Sure, if a player becomes good enough, professional chess will become an option, but this is highly unlikely. Professional chess involves a very hectic and stressful lifestyle which will not be suited to everyone. Chess results have high variance, so no player can go into a tournament with strong opposition and say with certainty, “I will win this tournament so I can afford dinner tonight.” The only players who really have it easy are probably players ranked within the world’s top 50, who have regular sponsors, meaning a more steady income. At the time of writing, you will need at least a 2685 FIDE rating to enter the top 50. Professional chess is most applicable in countries with a large chess presence or those where the government sponsors players; this includes China, Russia and many European countries.

Another option is to become a chess coach once a player reaches a realistic playing standard. However, chess coaches are not very high up on the income scale, so you should only pursue it as a career if you love chess and love teaching children too.

The greatest chess players start young. Young players dominate the chess scene these days. By starting young, you give the child more opportunity to grasp the game before he has to deal with the pressures of school and work. Many top players today learn the rules to the game by about ages 5-7. The oldest examples I can recall of somewhat older players becoming very notable are World Champions Wilhelm Steinitz and Mikhail Botvinnik, who both learned the game at age 12; as well as top grandmaster Akiba Rubinstein, who was taught the rules at 16. Well known American Grandmaster Maurice Ashley played his first competitive tournament at age 14.

Of course, starting young does not guarantee that a child will become a great player. There also needs to be a passion for the game and perhaps some level of natural talent, although the latter point is highly debatable. Garry Kasparov became arguably the greatest player of all time because he coupled a highly intensive work ethic with a strong deal of enthusiasm. Perhaps he had a natural talent for the game as well, although such factors are hard to pinpoint.

Hungarian Grandmaster Judit Polgár is widely considered to be the strongest female player in history. The Polgár sisters were part of an educational experiment carried out by their father László Polgár. László Polgár is an expert on chess theory and owns over 10,000 chess books. He proposed that “geniuses are made, not born”, i.e. that children could make exceptional achievements if trained in a specialist subject from a very early age.

The only proven method of steady improvement is the three-pronged approach of practice, review and study. In essence, a player needs to:

1. Play regularly in tournaments. The number of tournaments a player should play varies considerably. Some players are comfortable playing almost non-stop for the whole year, while others only play a few larger tournaments a year. However, remember that the frequency of practice does not necessary correlate with the rate of improvement. For example, it is not uncommon to see club players playing week after week and never showing any sign of improvement.

2. The reason those players do not progress is because they do not review their games. It is kind of like trying to play basketball using the rules of soccer. No matter how much you practice, you will never improve at basketball. Reviewing your games is the key to sorting out all the assorted information in your brain after playing a game.

“By strictly observing Botvinnik’s rule regarding the thorough analysis of one’s own games, with the years I have come to realise that this provides the foundation for the continuous development of chess mastery.” – 13th World Champion Garry Kasparov

3. Train your chess. You should also be on a regular diet of chess books, training puzzles and other assortments. Sure, you can potentially reach a high level merely through playing and reviewing your games; but that is a highly inefficient method which will take realms and realms of practice. Instead, studying the work others will allow you to learn from other people’s mistakes. This is a very effective way of learning and complements the previous two concepts. Chess books by stronger players can steer you away from endless hours of hit-and-miss practice and place you on the right track.

I describe this ‘training program’ in more detail in my Improve Your Chess ebook. (Right click and press ‘save target as’)

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