Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Online Go at 361 Points

This is cool. You can play a "full" go engine, Gnu Go, at 361 pts. No software required, except java maybe.

Chess Fever

The chess bug is spreading through the family like a virus. We had Auntie Kumi visiting us this week and learned that she's taking chess lessons. She's a natural puzzle afficionado (Sudoku, number puzzles, etc.) so it doesn't surprise me that she's started enjoying chess, especially chess puzzles. She gave us a book by Lazlo Polgar called appropriately enough 5334 Problems, Combinations, and Games.

Thanks a lot, Kumi. That's 5334 more things on the To Do List.

Even Grandma Yoko has gotten bit by the bug and has been learning chess so she can play with some of the kids she works with at her job. We even rented Searching for Bobby Fischer which Richie took some interest this time around. (He had seen it before he knew how to play and wandered off to do something else 15 minutes into it).

Right after the movie Richie wanted to play chess. I brought out a chess clock for fun because there are a lot of scenes where the players are dramatically banging the clock after their moves. Richie played some excellent aggressive moves and was banging the pieces down on the table like they were (!!) worthy! I have noticed a definite step up in his strategy lately. He requires fewer prompts and is finding out on his own the effectiveness of bringing the rook down to the opponents 7th or 8th rank, and even more sophisticated, in endgame situations he has been able to keep threats on both sides of the board against a lone King.

He's started inventing some games on his own. He wanted to play Kumi with his side missing bishops and her side missing knights. And last night he wanted to show me a checkmate puzzle so he put down a bunch of pieces around the King until it was checkmate. Then I got the idea to start removing unnecessary pieces so I'd point to one and say "Do you really need this, or is it still checkmate if we get rid of it?." The results were sometimes surprisingly elegant checkmates.

Dinosaur Chess

We got Dinosaur Chess from Convekta for Christmas for the kids. I'll start by pointing out this comprehensive review to which I'd like to add my own thoughts. As Robert rightly highlights, this product gets good marks for presentation which is graphic, engaging, and fun. Since my children have already learned almost all of the basic rules of chess, I was less interested in the introductory lessons and more interested in the game engine and tactical training. Unfortunately, for me, the real strength of the program is for introducing the game to complete novices right from how the pieces move. In order to grow your dinosaur, you must do the lessons which I thought were nicely done but the training exercises were short and there were only a few of them per lesson. I give the authors credit for building up playing strength through very basic sub-games (e.g. just pawns, or just pawns + knights vs. pawns).

The game playing engine adjusts to playing strength. I think this is probably the highlight of the program for our purposes. I tried having the kids play the weakest levels on the ICC Dasher program who is rated 1000 and that opponent is simply too strong for them right now. Dinosaur Chess starts with advantage games that are appropriate for day 1 players and the full game engine (T-Rex) also starts at a weaker level as far as I can tell than 1000. I have no basis for this, but I think it's probably a good milestone for a child to be able to play a complete winning game on their own against T-Rex before they are ready for tournaments.

The kids really were engaged by the lessons, Richie more so than Alyssa, but both of them disliked the exercises with little raptors walking around on the board. They didn't like the pressure, or they were "scared" of getting touched by the raptors and didn't want to do the exercises. They knew everything already, except for en passant, so it was only marginally useful for them.

My biggest gripe with the program, however, is that there is no exercises for introducing the tactical topics that I had hoped for. I was really hoping they had lessons on pins, forks, skewers, discovered checks, and basic mating patterns. I think these could be best learned with software, but I've yet to find a good program for very young kids (3-5) that has them. I believe Chessmaster may have it but that is aimed at slightly older children.

OK, here's a multiple choice question.

Which person spent the most hours consecutively playing Dinosaur Chess since we got it?
A. Richie
B. Alyssa
C. Auntie Kumi
D. Grandma Yoko
E. None of the Above.

Highlight below for answer:
Grandma Yoko! She didn't even know how the pieces moved before and got obsessed learning how to play and trying to beat successive levels of opponents. Maybe there really is a chess obsession "gene"...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

How kids think about Go

Lately, Richie and Alyssa have been taking interest in Go again. After a brief respite where Richie only wanted to play chess, in the last few days we've played at least 1 game of go a day and I've also seen them playing each other.

Go is a simple game to explain the rules to, so they basically know how to play already, and I think they even know the concept of Ko now, as well as how to score the game. They like to play on the 19x19 side of the board. I guess even kids have pride and think that the 9x9 game isn't the real thing.

But as anyone who plays the game knows, the strategic aspect of Go is very deep, and it's hard to know how to start explaining it.

Without any instruction from me, I noticed two tendencies of their play that needed to be addressed: 1) too much focus on capturing/contact and not enough almost no attention paid to making territory and 2) no concept of efficiency of play, or preferring solid structures.

I think some of the first problem I was able to address by showing them several times how we count points at the end and after I demonstrated a few times that a 2-point jump, for instance, could surround territory faster than solid connections and was just as difficult to break into.

Initially they had difficulty understanding that the opponent couldn't just cut through the space made by the jump, but eventually I showed them some variations where they could wait to fill the space until I approached or tried to cut and still end up with a solid territory line. I called this "dot-to-dot" fence building. I said they should build fences using dot-to-dot and connect the dots later if someone came close. I admonished them not to play too close to the enemy since that ends up making the enemy stronger but I am having a difficult time explaining when conditions are good to attach. They also have a tendency to want to save stones that are dead but it's hard to explain why that is the case.

They were excited to learn to learn that there was a "knight's move" in Go as well as chess and that double-atari was like forking in chess too.

The Inventor of Trophies was a Genius

At the last chess class Richie got the idea that he had "won enough games" to get a "Piston Cup"*. Here's an interesting dilemma, do you tell a 4 y.o. that he can't have a trophy until he wins it in competition? Or do you allow the chess teacher to award him with a trophy for participation or some minor milestone?

Well actually his chess teacher decided for us by offering him a trophy based on his progress so far, so Richie (and Alyssa) were thrilled. They got to choose the colors of their trophies and displayed them proudly in our house.

In chess they have started working on 2-move checkmates. Michael introduced the problem by noting that they had already solved some before (Alyssa protested that they would be too hard), and then worked backwards from a 1 move mate to a position where the 1 move mate would be forced after a simple check on the king. They also learned how to notate the moves. Alyssa took particular interest in this part, and later on was attempting to write down moves of a game between me and Richie.

They got homework of 6 chess problems to solve. We'll have to do them on the board together as they don't have as much interest in solving the puzzles from looking at them as a diagram.

* My son loves all things related to the Disney movie, Cars, and naturally thinks all trophies are "Piston Cups" which is the what the top racing prize is called in that story.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Chess Variant for Kids and Encouraging Multiple Move Considerations

Michael recommended that I play a game with the kids where I give them all of the pieces vs. my lone king. The idea is that it is difficult for young children to coordinate several pieces or visualize the lines of force from multiple attackers. It also reinforces the concept of stalemate which can be hard to avoid when there are too many pieces in play.

I played a few times with Richie, who really likes this variant because of the huge advantage, I guess. On Michael's suggestion I enforced the touch-move rule. The first game ended in stalemate and I captured one piece that was left hanging. The second game he checkmated me by getting a second queen.

After that I decided to remove his two center pawns and Queen, and I told him he was not allowed to make a new queen. At the start of the third game, he hung a piece again and was a making a few aimless moves when there were "obvious" better moves available. So tried a new experiment which worked out pretty well, I think. He was in the habit of touching a piece before actually deciding where it should go. That's pretty natural for new players. I can remember doing this myself--keeping my finger on the piece after I moved while I "looked around" to see if it was a good spot. But in order to slowly get him used to planning his moves a little more, I asked him before each move to point (without touching) to the piece he wanted to move and then point to where he wanted to move it. Then, I asked him to pick another piece (or I suggested another piece to consider), and I asked him to point to a move for that piece. Finally I asked him which of the two choices he preferred and asked him to move. Interestingly, when I did it this way, he was reasonably likely to choose the stronger of the two moves, usually picking the move that checked the King. At least once, though, he preferred his initial move.

The last game ended with R to f8 checkmate which he found after I said "you can checkmate me in one move!" but it was a bit of an accident as he didn't immediately see what prevented me from escaping to d2. I think he's figuring that checkmate usually happens when he moves a piece next to the king! I also was surprised when he used a discovered check on me for the first time on purpose.

Alyssa's attempt using all pieces demonstrated a preference for symmetry which I found interesting. All of her moves were made to preserve symmetry up until the end.

I produced the ending position diagram with this editor. I recommend it as it's very easy to use. "You can set up an arbitrary position (as many queens as you want or black pieces at the bottom) and generate a JPEG image of the chessboard. Everything happens online through your browser. No downloads, no applets."

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Chess Lecture vs. Ice Cream

Richie and Alyssa enjoyed another chess lesson this weekend. Michael started by having the kids play through a game where he suggested the moves for both sides. Then he reviewed some Q and K checkmates, along with introducing a few new patterns involving a Bishop and Q versus a castled king position. He touched on escapes, and he introduced the concept of stalemate. At one point he was about to demonstrate the strength of a rook battery to create a back rank checkmate against a castled king when Richie surprised him by grabbing the first Rook and quickly playing through the 3 move sequence. This didn't surprise me too much because he often says "if I go there then you go there then I'll go there and eat you!" but Michael was pleased.

On Michael's suggestion we decided to try Richie out in Alyssa's afterschool chess class. I arrived at the end to pick them up and learned that Richie was a mini-celebrity. Michael played a small prank on his class by telling them that Richie was the world's youngest chess master. They got a thrill out of having him visit and several mentioned to me that they thought he was so "cute" and were surprised he could play because he's so young. I thought that was pretty funny coming out of the mouths of 1st and 2nd graders. Richie got an ovation at the end. I think he's enjoying his star status.

Later we stopped by another of Michael's weekend classes for advanced scholastic students to see if that format might be a good addition or replacement to their private lessons. The class was held at Norwalk community college, which turned out to be a really nice venue, and the lecture room was perfect for the 20 or so students. Overall I've been pleased to see the levels of participation in scholastic chess in the area and I'm beginning to realize that Michael's organization, ACTA, is probably the driving force behind everything. There were no kindergardners in the class which makes Richie the youngest by a big margin. I thought this might be a problem but he took to it like a fish to water. There class starts with a free playing period and then transitions into a lecture.

This week's lesson featured an ending combination that the kids were asked to find. I have to admit that I couldn't see the forced victory which involved a bishop sacrifice followed by a knight fork on the king. Richie was enraptured by the lecture, to my surprise. I thought he'd only be interested in playing.

Alyssa was bored by the lesson but seemed to have a fun time playing and was pleased with herself after she checkmated another girl at the class.

Of course the real highlight for both of them was the 15 minute snack break where everyone brings a dollar or two down to the cafeteria and gets to buy an ice cream or cookies from the vending machines. I'm realizing that Michael is a clever motivator. As a funny aside I saw all the kids playing chess with a few dollars in front of them at the beginning of class and was a little disturbed because I thought they were gambling! But at the break everything was illuminated.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Disturbing Event

This is my first post using email to

We were at a chess tournament this weekend and I witnessed a very disturbing thing.  To be honest I don't know if it's fair of me to write about it since I don't even know the people involved.  But anyway, I feel compelled to mention it nevertheless.

I remember watching Searching for Bobby Fischer and thinking that the part about chess parents being worse than the kids was satirical.  Well, this weekend I saw that there's more than an element of truth it.  We were allowed into the tournament hall to quietly observe since our kids were not in the tournament.  We had gone just to meet some other chess parents and maybe set up some play-dates for our kids and give them a chance to play some friendly games.  Inside the tournament hall I was watching one boy who was kindergarden-aged and seemed a likely candidate for a playmate for Richie.  He was having a truly grand time playing a game with another boy.  He was clearly quite talented and was up in his game a substantial amount of material.  Towards the end he was up at least 2 rooks and a queen.  I think he didn't really want the game to end, though, so as he played a move he would suggest to his opponent moves for him, even going so far as to allow him to take back moves to prolong the match.  I stepped away for awhile and when I looked in again, it appears that they had both eliminated all the remaining pieces, ending the match in a draw.  His father, who had seen how far ahead he was earlier, was not pleased.  What began as a stern lecture, devolved as the boy started to cry.  This brings up the difficulty that chess parents may have in becoming too invested in the results of their children achieve.

It was a humbling experience, and a reminder for me that there are much more important things than playing chess or winning tournaments.

On the bright side, Richie and Alyssa both seemed to enjoy themselves.  They played several games with older kids.  I saw a toughness in Alyssa that I haven't seen before.  She fought on to the end in a lost game but never stopped trying--it made me quite proud to see.   And Richie made me happy as well--at the end of the day he told me, "I love to play chess!"

1 month update on Dad's Go progress

I wonder how far I'm going to get without learning any Joseki. I'm still at the point where I'm getting better just from playing games, without too much study. I used to frequently lose large groups because I wasn't staying connected and that's happening less frequently. I'm also starting to get a little better at keeping groups alive by making eyes I think. I've been watching a few of Guo Juan's audio lessons which are excellent. I highly recommend them. I think I'm on number 5 now in the beginner lessons. I enjoy watching them a lot which I guess means that's a good way for me to study.

Richie's First Chess Lesson

We had Alyssa's school chess teacher, Michael, come to our house to give the kids a chess lesson. Alyssa has been in his after-school class since the start of the school year. Richie, who is in Pre-K at the same school is not in the same class since the starting age is Kindergarden. I had talked to Michael after class about enrolling my son since he started to show interest in the game a few months ago. When he started trying to teach to our nanny, and some kids we had over for a play-date chess, I figured he was ready to ge some instruction himself. But Michael said he needed to see Richie himself since in his experience kids don't usually have a long enough attention span to benefit much from 1 hour lessons until they're a little older. Anyway, after Richie continued to show interest, I decided to have a test lesson to see how it goes. Yesjavascript:void(0)
Save as Draftterday was the first one.

Michael began the lesson by explaining how the pieces moved. Throughout the lesson he used little rhymes to teach a point or he would animate the pieces (this bishop is a cow eating grass on this square, the rook comes and eats him, chomp chomp, but then this other rook says hey you just ate my cow, now I'm going to get you!) The kids liked that a lot.

I think he was a little surprised that Richie already knew how the pieces move, but when Richie started to get distracted by a toy on the table, I think he figured it out and moved on.

Next he explained the point value of the pieces. This was setting up a later discussion about whether or not a trade is a good trade. I haven't really emphasized this at all, that might explain why both kids have shown willingness to sac pieces for pawns.

After that he showed them a few basic checkmates and had them play a game. He pretty much directed them on which pieces to move. He did enforce touch-move and at one point Alyssa hung a bishop because she dropped it down on the wrong square and he allowed the play to continue. Richie captured and was up a piece. During the middle game several opportunities to initiate exchanges occured. Michael tried to have them count attackers and defenders to emphasize that if there were more attachers than defenders it was a good exchange sequence.

He introduced the rook battery, as well as making a few rules that he wanted them to follow such as always opening with the King pawns, moving knights and bishops before the queen, and castling early.

He flattered us by mentioning that he was pleased with Richie's grasp of the game already and said that it was rare to see such a young player pick up this quickly which he thought meant that Richie would probably take to the game well and could compete in the K-1 nationals later next year or the following.

He mentioned that he had one other student who he thought highly of that he'd like us to meet to set up a play date.

Coffee shop chess

A couple of weeks ago we went to the new Barnes & Nobles bookstore in the Stamford mall. It's really huge. I think it might be the biggest one in Connecticut and it has a Starbucks inside of course. We brought the chess set because Richie wanted to play. I put him at a table and told him to set up the board while I stood in line to get a coffee. After a minute or two, some curious kids--obviously wondering what this little guy was doing playing chess by himself--came over to talk. When I got there with the coffee, they asked if they could play with him. Richie loved it and was very happy with his game which he won by taking all the opponents pieces. He didn't know how to checkmate. His opponents were a trio of kids in the 4th to 6th grades. Both sides barely knew how the pieces moved (though Richie gleefully pointed out when his opponent made a move he knew was illegal) but they older kids still got a kick out of being run over by a 4 year old. I hope the praises they gave him encourage him to play more. Since then he's been asking to play chess at the bookstore a lot. I picked up Janice Kim's series of books on Go. So far like them a lot. They're full of diagrams are easy to read in short sessions.

Friday, November 30, 2007

First Recorded Game

This is the first game I've recorded between Alyssa and Richie. I tried to avoid giving any advice except to point out rule violations (of which there were a few). About 5 moves into the game I started asking them to tell me after the opponents move whether any of their pieces were threatened. My idea is to gradually build up a move thought process and impress on them they should think a little before each move.

In response to my question before each move where I asked them to identify if the last moved piece could capture anything, they answered correctly about 25% of the time. I think they may be getting confused between whether it's a legal move or if it's a "good" move, meaning one that isn't immediately punishable by recapture. Of course they are looking at most 1 ply ahead.

At this point I ended the game. Richie was inconsolable because he thought he was losing and that I was helping Alyssa (even though he's actually winning). Not sure exactly how to get them to play out to checkmate. Maybe I need to start with fewer pieces, but the problem is that they like having the whole army.

Thanks to this tool, though, I showed the kids the game again and we talked about some of the opportunities each of them had to make better moves.

They thought seeing the game was cool and both want to play again! As a little test, I showed Alyssa the moves and asked her if she recognized the game, but she didn't. I guess that's not surprising. Once I told them that it was their game though, they were able to recall some of the things they thought of during the game. Neat.

The game was generated using this text PGN without headers:

{This is the first game between Alyssa and Richie that I've recorded} 1. e4 Nc6 {They're geniuses!}
2. Be2 Nf6 3. e5 Rg8 {I have told Richie that he should move his center pawns and
minor pieces before trying to move rooks, but he seems to have forgotten}
4. Nf3 b6 5. exf6 {I started asking if anything can be taken here and Alyssa spotted it} exf6
6. O-O {Alyssa has remembered to castle early} Nd4 7. Nxd4 d6
8. Bg4 Ba6 9. Re1+ Be7
10. Qe2 {After Qe2 I asked if anything could be taken. Richie spotted that the Bishop was attacked.
But then confused himself by asking if he could castle and got distracted} Rf8
11. Qd1 {Alyssa was paying attention, but didn't see the better move} Rb8
12. Nc3 h6 13. Ne6 {A daring foray. But there was no plan behind it as far as I can tell} Qc8
{Both said No when asked if anything was threatened}
14. Nd4 Qb7 {R: If you move your knight you can eat my Q!}
15. Ne6 {If at first you don't succeed, try, try again! Neither one can see Rook under attack} Ra8
16. {This is a critical point, they've both run out of ideas and don't know how to proceed, I made the suggestion
that A should move the minor piece that's furthest from the center, a variation on a blitz rule of thumb,
when in doubt reposition your worst piece} a3 {But she couldn't tell which one was furthest.
I said just move a pawn but not one in front of your king} d5 17. d3 c5 18. Nxd5 Rh8 19. d4 cxd4 20. b4 fxe6
21. Nxb6 Qxb6 22. Bxh6 gxh6 23. Rxe6 Qb5 {Here I showed a few variations of what could happen with different Q moves but
Richie got upset because he thought I was helping Alyssa and not him}
24. c4 Qxc4 25. b5 Bxb5
26. Rc1 Qd3 27. Qxd3 Bxd3 {Richie is inconsolable because he thinks he's losing when in fact he is
winning but I can't convince him. We ended the game here.}

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Chess comic

And now to complete the round-trip back to chess via comics, I recommend this chess comic strip by Scott McCloud. It's nicely done. I usually enjoy these auto-biographical comics for some reason. I find the characters quirky and amusing I suppose. Anyway there are some eerily familiar things in this story made me smile as I reflected on my own experience with chess. I even lived in Cambridge, MA for awhile so the reference to Au Bon Pain gave me some happy memories. I wonder if the Chessmaster, Murray, is still there? I used to play him for kicks. I never won a game but I had a "won" game once when I used the 4 pawn attack and came out ahead piece but I lost on time when he made some tricky stalling moves. I suppose the thing I have most in common with narrator, though, is a tendency for serial obsessions.

Empty Triangle Comics

While on the subject of Go related entertainment, I thought I'd mention this strip which I found through ChiyoDad's blog. Empty Triangle is nice and I like the perspective of a novice (and a girl) in the Go world. Very well done. I wonder if I can commission the artist to do a drawing for my kids? They would definitely get a thrill out of that...

Hikaru no Go

One day while searching on Netflix for some cartoon movies to rent for the kids I came across the Hikaru no Go series. I knew almost nothing about Go at the time, though I did learn the basic rules when I was in high school. Since I never had anyone to play against, I had pretty much forgotten about the game until seeing this anime series. Strangely, Netflix didn't have the first disc available so I ended up starting with the second disk. My kids both really liked it as did I so I ended up just buying the series from Amazon. I really liked the way they dramatized all of the games and it had the nice effect of inspiring all of us to give the game a try. After having Chinese food in Flushing, NY one day I tried to drop by a local Baduk club. It wasn't very English friendly, unfortunately, but the proprietor was able to point me to a local Korean grocery store when I asked where I could buy a baduk board. We found the store without much trouble and picked up a cheap go board. I searched online to remind myself of the rules and went through the exercises on Hiroki Mori's site, the Interactive Way to Go.
I also used this teaching guide but it turned out that after watching Hikaru no Go, the kids had sort of picked up the rules already. I didn't bother explaining eyes, but they do manage to sort of play games. I actually found that using a chess board (9x9) in Go was the best balance. Much smaller than that and it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense and of course bigger than that is too much to handle for them. But at 9x9 I can play Alyssa with a 4 stone handicap and if I correct obvious mistakes where she misses that I'm about to capture a large group because she's failing to make an easy connection, she gives me a pretty good run for my money. It's surprising how easily they seem to grasp basic defensive plans. Strangely, enough they can play games with each other and (after correcting major oversights) Richie seems to usually get the upper hand over Alyssa. I've tried to teach them about scoring the game but they seem to lose sight of the goal of the game sometimes and will typically make "dead" moves near the end of the game as they start running out of open space to fill. They also seem to prefer building long walls and prioritize taking prisoners over taking space. Well anyway, I don't try to instruct them much, I'm just having them play as many games as I can right now.

Richie and Alyssa both enjoy playing. We got in a few games over Thanksgiving at Ben and Christine's house.

Posting Chess Games with Java Applet

Here's a test game posting using Chess Publisher by Andrew Ooi. This is a really nice free service that gives me an easy way to embed a game into the blog. Thanks and great work!

Right now I can only seem to get version 1 to work. Version 2 looks nicer and has some improvements.

While searching for a publishing tool I ran across this chess teaching blog.

Stopping by an ACTA chess tournament

The weekend before Thanksgiving, Michael ran a scholastic chess tournament. It's a USCF rated affair which apparently runs every other week or so. Michael's organization ACTA runs the tournaments so he invited us to stop by. I thought it would be a great idea to show the kids what a tournament looks like and maybe get them excited to learn. I wasn't disappointed. The event was held at the Stamford Holiday Inn which is just 15 minutes from our house. We stopped by around 10:00 am and found the event to be lively as expected with something like 30 kids of all ages competing in different rooms. There were a lot of parents at various spots in the hotels waiting for their kids to finish or playing games with them. Interestingly there was only 1 kindergarden-aged contestant who had to be moved to the 1st grade pool.

The highlight of the visit, however was the awards ceremony for kindergarden and 1st grade I think. There some really nice lighted trophies on a display table and every child got a participation ribbon. Michael graciously gave Alyssa and Richie ribbons and medals even though they weren't officially entered in the event.

The trophies left a big impression on Richie especially and he's been asking to be taken to a tournament to play because "he wants a trophy." I plan to wait until an event in December or perhaps a later one in January that "guarantees" a trophy for him. I imagine that if he missed getting one he would be devastated. Perhaps I'm being too soft but I want to keep the good vibes going.

A cute anecdote: we asked Alyssa to play chess in a friendly game with one of the kids there. There was a boy there and we talked briefly with his mother. She asked him to play with her. He seemed reluctant at first since he appeared to have more pressing matters to attend to downstairs, but eventually relented and agreed to one quick game. Then Alyssa refused to play. This didn't surprise me too much as she can be shy at times and was probably nervous about "performing." We tried to tell her that the outcome didn't matter but she wouldn't budge.

Surprisingly, though, Richie volunteered in her place. The boy, Sean (I think) who is probably in 1st grade or maybe 2nd, said something funny to me like "don't worry, I'll go easy on him." I was glad to hear that as I wondered how Richie would react to losing, and breaking his "undefeated" streak (since I've always let him win our games in the end before the tears start rolling). Sean proceeded to purposely hang most of his pieces, even pointing out as he moved his queen en prise that Richie could take it if he wanted to. They played out and with a little help from me we maneuvered Richie into winning with a bank rank mate. Richie was thrilled with his "win" and left with a glowing smile on his face. And was it a tiny spark of genius or an accident when on one move he ignored my wife's recommendation to take a pawn with his bishop and instead snapped up a rook across the board?

How to teach chess to very young kids?

After trolling the internet for some clues on how to start really teaching the game to my kids, I found the following sites useful:top

From Duif's Place
This has some suggestions on how to play a game fairly. I had never heard of switching side mid-way. He suggests giving the child the option to switch sides but this sort of bothered me because of the obvious perfect strategy of waiting until the situation was completely hopeless and then calling for a switch.
I tried this once and she seemed to like it as there wasn't any real pressure on her to find good moves. I'm not sure that's such a good thing but anyway I suppose it's more important that she just plays at all than that the method have merit as a didactic tool.
I read about a young chess star whose grandfather played her without rooks when she was young which she claimed makes her "vision" for knights and bishops quite strong to this day while she occasionally misses good moves for rooks!
The kids liked the idea of playing with a clock but don't have any real conception of the consequence of taking time or losing on time so playing with time odds doesn't make a lot of sense right now.

Michael Goeller's blog, The Kenilworthian, has a 8 part series on his experience teaching a class which I thought was excellent.

I think he'd be an ideal tutor for the game, but he lives in NJ so I think that's probably too far for lessons. I especially liked his mini-games approach which I imagine is a much better way for young players to absorb concepts naturally through play rather than being taught these concepts directly. I also found his "pattern of errors" analysis very interesting. I think it too is an excellent way to classify areas of improvement and are a way that a coach can naturally add tremendously to the speed at which a young player can develop.

This list on Amazon with comments by David Small was a real eye opener for me.

It made me rethink the way I should probably approach improving my own game.

I would love to find a product like CT-ART 3.0 that is appropriate for absolute novices children. I'd bet that if the presentation is done well in a game like setting that it would do well. Or even video lesson sort of like the game of the week videos on ICC, but for kids and at a more elementary level.

[Update: I found Chess Tactics for Beginners by Conveckta to be ideal for young children]

I actually bought Susan Polgar's instructional DVD and was really disappointed with it. I don't think the content is bad but it was way too dry to keep my kids interested. It also started at too advanced a level.

But most annoyingly, the computer display makes no use of the great features that most chess programs have like arrows, or marks for critical points. Since it's just a video and not interactive at all I can't imagine any kids really getting into it.
A far better approach would be something like Bruce Wilcox's Go Dojo which teaches Go. That's for adults and is sort of rules based, but it's interactive: you actually make moves to answer questions and reinforce concepts, there are quizes and a game walk-throughs.
With a little modification that would be a great way to teach kids I think. My daughter even likes Go Dojo and did better at some of the elementary quizes than I did.

I am aware of a few chess software products for kids: Chesster and Chessmaster come to mind. I bought Chesster 2, and found it too difficult for teaching a 4 year old and even a little too difficult for my 6 year old with zero experience. It was also buggy and crashed my computer so I've given up on it for now. Chessmaster holds some promise. I may get a PlayStation 3 just to have a safe and easy way for the kids to use a chess program (really, it's just for the kids). But since we already have Nintendo Wii and there's supposed to be a Wii chess game in the work, I think I'll just wait awhile to see that.

[Update: I found Dinosaur Chess to be good for my 4 year old. It's also, in my opinion, the best way to introduce the rules to a complete novice]

The chess teacher at Alyssa's school has written a book for kids about checkmate motifs. I think it's a fine book, but I really believe that interactive programs are the way to go.

Perhaps I'm jumping the gun, though, looking for a computer based solution. Perhaps there is something about physically playing and learning with people that cannot be replaced.

Well, I'm taking care of that too. I'm arranging for 1 on 2 private lessons with Michael from Alyssa's school. They start this Saturday.

First home lessons by Dad

After trying to teach Alyssa how the pieces moved and "playing" a few games with her I broke out Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess and began trying to explain checkmate to her. We didn't get very far. Even though I was quite surprised that she was able to answer some of the problems and felt she had some potential talent she didn't seem to have real interest in the game yet.

I decided not to push her and gave up again on teaching her for awhile.

When Alyssa turned 6 and entered a new school for 1st grade, they also offered a chess class as a once a week after school program for a few months. Though feeling slightly burned by our last experience, ever the optimist, I decided to put her into the program against her protests.

Thankfully this time it seemed to work out a little better. When I asked her which teacher she liked better she instantly responded "Michael," the new teacher, and from that I inferred that he was doing a better job of teaching to her level. We even began to "play" though a few games.

Around this time the kids enjoyed watching me click through games on the computer (I picked games from Paul Morphy since there are a few great short/open games to choose from) .
Unfortunately their attention span was short and we rarely made it through a full game unless it was a very short one.

One funny story: it occured to me that they might actually like to move the pieces physically on the board so I got them much more interested when I told them that they'd "play" chess against each other. I used one of Morphy's games and assigned Richie to move the white pieces and Alyssa to move the black pieces, simply pointing out their respective moves in turn. They enjoyed this a lot. The next day I set up the board again and picked another game and they started fighting over who
would be black. Richie said he wanted to be black and Alyssa also wanted black. When I finally thought to ask them why, Richie looked at me angrily and said "last time Alyssa got to win, I want black because I want to win!" In the previous game, Morphy as black had busted Paulsen with a devastating queen sacrifice and in the inimitable logic of kids--therefore in chess black wins.

Even now, almost 6 months later, Richie still prefers black and is disappointed when, after deep consideration he selects my left hand while choosing for colors only to find that it contains a white pawn. I let him play black anyway. I'm not sure whether to be pleased or alarmed when I notice him peeking from the side of my hands to get a read on which one contains the black pawn. I decide to save the ethics lesson for later.

Interestingly, most of the time I've tried to teach the kids to play I was really focusing on Alyssa. I just assumed that Richie was too young to learn much. Surprisingly, he seems to have learned almost as much as Alyssa has. I can see why, in families with several children, it is the youngest who generally seem to end up the more proficient at the game. I can think of a few examples: the Polgar's, Nakamura's, Shahade's. That's not to belittle the elder siblings accomplishments, but just to point out that the drive to beat the older sister or brother, can be a powerful motivator and accelerator of learning a game like chess.

JCC Stamford Chess Class

It all started last summer when Alyssa was 5. Although my plans were hatched at her birth (I have photos to prove it), I patiently waited until Alyssa was 3 before prosletyzing Chess to her. After she was born, I gave a gift to myself of a House of Staunton chess set which is housed in a heavy wood briefcase. Naturally, this mysterious latched item had piqued the curiosity of my children for years but they had never seen the game played. I took it out once or twice before as I was mildly curious myself what their reaction to it would be. But when Richie was 2, he used to grab the pieces and sit on the board so it was a little difficult to even begin showing them how the pieces moved.

Having failed at these first half-hearted attempts to teach my children chess, I realized that Richard was not yet ready and even when I was able to show Alyssa how the pieces moved in a rare quiet moment, I had hardly a clue how to start teaching her the game.

So until Alyssa turned 5, the extent of the 'game' was setting up the pieces in the right order and putting them back into the proper cut-outs in the foam casing. They both really enjoyed that part and even fought over which ones went where.

Then I discovered that a local community center offered chess class for kids and got the bright idea to outsource the teaching to a more qualified instructor. JCC stands for Jewish Community Center. It's a wonderful family center with a great swimming pool and gym and operates sort of like a YMCA.

My eyes lit up when I noticed that the instructor had a Russian sounding name and day-dreamed of having Alyssa magically converted into a mini-Kasparov while I swam laps in the pool. Those that know me would be hard pressed to tell which of those two is the more unlikely.

Anyway, in my fantasy-state I gladly signed the check and enrolled young Judit, I mean Alyssa, into the chess class. It was only after attending the 2nd class that I realized my mistake. I am sure that the instructor had the very best intentions but the problem was that the class was too large and there were kids of all levels from complete beginner to the instructor's son. It was a madhouse. He was struggling to keep control of the kids and when they finally quieted down 20 minutes into the allotted hour, he started the class with a sample game with a difficult minor piece checkmate. Alyssa's eyes glazed over. Then he paired them off, putting my daughter together with one of the other 2 girls in the class. Neither knew what to do and the instructor wasn't available to help them. I tried to show them a few things but then we ran out of time.

Needless to say after two more sessions, my daughter started saying "Oh no, not chess! I don't like chess," whenever it was time to go to class. Little did she realize that she was breaking her poor father's heart...

Well, at least she liked her swimming class.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Let there be light!

Let there be light!
1:1 - In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
1:2 - And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
1:3 - And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
1:4 - And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

As a first post, what could be more appropriate than a reference to the book of Genesis? Of course, as far as creations go, a blog isn't exactly on par with the celestial heavens but hopefully any readers will forgive my enthusiasm.

Welcome dear readers to our humble blog. Allow me to describe the who's, what's, where's, when's and why's.


There are three principal characters you will read about.

Richard. My son Richard has just turned 4. My friends claim he's built like a 3-foot tall linebacker. I like to think that his density will later be unleashed in a terrific growth spurt, catapulting him to a starting spot on the school basketball team, but I have to admit that he seems to be following in his father's footsteps in the vertically challenged department. Nevermind that though--let's hope he makes up for stature with character and with a little luck, some mad chess and go skills. He has a sweet disposition, is very affectionate and has a surprisingly long attention span for his age. He really dislikes losing, though and wakes up grumpy in the mornings.

Alyssa. My first-born recently turned 6. She looks...well she looks a lot like me, much to my
wife's consternation. Alyssa has always been Daddy's little girl and I think my wife felt a bit jealous that Alyssa took so much after me when she did all the work so somehow she made sure that Richie got her features. Alyssa is a quick study and very good with puzzles. She has a bit of performance anxiety, however, and sometimes shrinks from challenge.

Dad. I tend to get serially obsessed with my hobbies: chess & go, golf, reading, poker, computer games among others. I've been a life-long game player but only started playing chess in high school and go just a few months ago. I am cursed or blessed depending on how you look at it: my love of the game exceeds my talent by a huge margin. Lack of talent is difficult to admit. I have always wondered why my progress in chess, for example, seemed to have peaked at about the equivalent of a USCF 1500 despite numerous efforts to improve.Is it really lack of talent? Or is it lack of work? Or perhaps inefficient learning methods? Are games like chess and go only masterable if the brain is wired for it at an early age?

Mom. My lovely wife who puts up with my quirks. She is truly the light of my life.

What? I am teaching my children chess and go.

Where? Somewhere in Connecticut.

Why? Though I'd love for my children to sprout into super-talents at the game, I have a more selfish plan in mind: I'd like some playing partners in the family! I hope to bring them to a level above my own so I can learn something from them as they get better. While that's half a joke, the truth is that I'd like both of them to know the same joy that I get out of games of strategy. I'd like them to develop their powers of observation, gain confidence in the face of challenge, learn the merit of hard work and hopefully go a few places, meet a few people, and make a few friends.

So the title of this post refers not just to the birth of this blog, but to the opening of little Richie and Alyssa's minds to the wonderful world of strategy games.
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide