Thursday, March 3, 2011

TIMELY TOPICS - Chess in the Wolf Den

My son is in Cub Scouts. He is in the Wolf Den. And I am the Den Leader this year. So far all the boys have pretty much achieved their Wolf badge for the year (and received them recently at the Blue and Gold dinner/award ceremony). So, they are now working on Electives, Belt Loops and other special achievements for the rest of the year.

Once of the belt loops they can earn is for Chess. For this belt loop they need to be able to identify the chess pieces, show how they move and then play a game of chess. Not too difficult, right? These are 7-8 yr old boys and I figured learning the pieces and moves wouldn't bee too difficult, at least the basics.

I remember being around 7 yrs old when my dad taught me how to play chess. I seem to remember it took me a few years before I could beat him (without him letting me win).

Anyhow, I called one of our Pack leaders and had her bring her 2 sets. With those and my 2 sets I figured that would be enough for if all 6 boys showed up and some ended up playing with their parents, etc.

Once we got there we had a total of 3 boys. I figured the easiest way to get started was to get only one set out and work from there. I first asked them if they had played chess before and they all said they had! Ah, so quizzing them seemed to be the best starting point.

We got out one of the scout leader's nice wooden chess boards - apparently a board passed down in the family. It has nice carved wooden pieces although the King and Queen are difficult to distinguish - they look pretty much the same but the King is taller. Otherwise, a fine board to learn chess on!

First question: Which way does the board go to start setting up? One boy knew which way the board went (correctly) but I asked him HOW he knew that. He said "Because the fold goes across the board". Ah! I hadn't even thought of that! I had always learned/remembered to put the 'white' (light) corner square on the right side (white on the right). I mentioned this as well because not all boards have a fold in them.

Next question: Can you set up the pieces on the board? It was interesting watching them decide which pieces went where. Ultimately, they got everything pretty much correct (although my son initially started putting the pawns on the 3rd row instead of the 2nd row for some reason). The biggest question was if they would get the Queen and King positions correct. Initially they set them up such that the Queens weren't directly across from each other so I talked about how the Queen always goes on her own color and they both start out across from each other.

The next set of questions involved the various pieces: What is this piece called? and How does it move and capture? We proceeded through the different pieces. Not all of the boys understood how the pieces actually moved but eventually 'remembered' / picked up on them for the most part. Of course, actually playing the game I knew would help reinforce the movements.

A couple of key things that we covered of interest was:
* The 'castle' as they called it is also called a rook (which none of them recalled)
* The 'horse' is also called a knight (some of them remembered this).
* The knights are the most difficult to remember how to move - 2 over and 1 up or 2 up and 1 over, etc.
* The Queen cannot move ANYWHERE, just anywhere along straight lines. She cannot warp around the board.
* Castling to the Queen and to the King side.
* Understanding what check and checkmate were and how to actually win the game (capture the King!)

During the coverage of the pieces, the boys were somewhat distracted due to R2D2 sounds coming from the other end of the table. The Tiger Cub den (consisting of 1 boy + the leader) were playing Star Wars Trouble (we didn't both plan to play games, it just happened that way). Apparently when you press the dice roller instead of popping like in the standard Trouble, it made R2D2 sounds. I was worried this 'new' gadgety game would distract them too much and it was a bit of an issue during learning the pieces, but not too much of a distraction.

So, JUST as we were finishing up the explanations of the piece names and movements a 4th boy showed up. We finished the rest of the pieces we hadn't covered, then I needed to start over with the new boy. I asked if he'd played before and he said he had with his grandfather. However, it was obvious he didn't fully understand how the pieces moved or even what most were called so I needed to cover everything for him so that he could earn the badge as well.

As I started going over them again with him I figured it would be a good review for the other boys. Unfortunately, they didn't really want to go over them AGAIN (boys and attention spans don't always coincide) so they started drifting over to watch the Star Wars Trouble game. Actually, this was fine because it let me focus on the one boy and quickly cover the pieces.

Finally, we were ready to play. I got the 4 boys gathered around the board and reset it. I decided that having all 4 boys play the same game with teams of 2 might be better to manage as I didn't have any other adults to help out with managing 2 or more boards and I wanted to make sure they were playing the game correctly.

So, they divided up into 2 teams and we started. Now, I hadn't gone into strategy and openings only because I just wanted them to get the mechanics down. In fact, they started moving pawns on the Queen side of the board rather than in the middle as is typical. I just let them go and watched for legal moves and suggested against really bad moves. Of course, they still made bad moves, but sometimes you have to do that to learn the difference. There were trades of knights and bishops for pawns. Thus, the balance of power swung wildly from one side to the other.

After 10 minutes of this going on several pieces had been captured on both sides. Both black and white did manage to castle however (they had quickly realized the benefit of this when I explained the rules early on).

Now, with the board opened up a bit and the Kings tucked away, I started throwing in advice before they moved. For instance, I asked white what they could do to 'attack' the King. Their suggestions tended toward the suicidal for the Queen or some other piece. I suggested that if they could get their Knight down to a certain position then it could protect the Queen to come in and put the King in check. In moving the Knight they could 'fork' or threaten the black Queen and Rook, but gave them a couple of options and explained what it meant for each move. Of course, Black was watching all of this very closely.

White decided to turn away from the board and have a huddle. They discussed their options, then turned around and made their move.

Black was about to move quickly in response so I suggested a couple of options for them. They decided out loud what they wanted to do then made their move.

Next, I pointed out to White that they could do a couple of things, one of which was to threaten black's Knight, Rook AND Queen if they moved to a particular location, but that the black Queen could, as one option, then take their Queen. I suggested a couple of other options but they ultimately (after another huddle) opted for the hard attack.

Now it was black's turn to respond. I again presented several options. One was to capture the white Queen (which would then likely be captured by the white pawn), or they could move to a 'safer' location and also protect the rook (which was advanced into the white ranks). They started talking about their options then realized white could hear them. They immediately ran to the far wall (we were in a school cafeteria) where they could consult in private. They soon returned and decided on moving the Queen out of harms way.

Well, the game proceeded on in this manner with me giving some advice and then one or both teams would go off and huddle up to discuss strategy.

Honestly, I was really surprised and encouraged by their actions. They went from simply moving and capturing pieces to starting to form a strategy and plan ahead a couple of moves in advance. They were seeing more than one option and weighing the possibilities of each move. This was more than I could have hoped for and it was truly exciting (and a bit humorous with the huddling, whispering, etc) to see them really thinking about it, discussing it and taking heart in the game. And, not that I have anything against Trouble, it was great to see they were no longer distracted by R2D2 and fully engaged in their own game.

And, while this was all going on, the younger boy who had been playing Trouble kept coming over asking if he could play chess! He can be very persistent when he wants to do something and this was one of those times as he came over asking every couple of minutes. At first I mentioned that when they were done that he could maybe join in a game when we broke into more games, but later, as time was starting to run out, I realized we weren't going to be done before the end of the evening. I let him know that he'd have to wait until a different time and I could tell he was really disappointed. (I realized later that he could have maybe played with one of the other older boys who was also butting into the game....sorry little dude)

Well, eventually we ran out of time and had to wrap things up. The chess game was still in progress and we left it set up while we did closing ceremony and announcements. My son and a couple of the other boys ran back over to the game and it ended up that he and one other boy (the brother of one of the black team members who had been butting into the game) finished the game out. I didn't provide much input, just letting it happen except for a trade of Queens that I suggested because it would put white up by a rook with only pawns and Kinds left. Eventually white advanced a pawn for a Queen and the game was all but over and we called it.

What really made me want to write about this experience was seeing young minds blossom before my eyes. I am not a school teacher, but I can understand what it must feel like for teachers every day to see that spark, that interest and, finally, to see that 'a-ha' moment in a student as they come to a realization about something new and then be able to apply it and make it their own.

One thing that I have to constantly remind myself about is that kids are smarter than we believe they are. They can often pick up higher level games, concepts, and ideas more readily than we think they can. They may not understand all of the intricacies and details, and they may not be able to plan longer term as well as some adults, but they can be formidable opponents in games and they can have fertile minds that will quickly absorb, learn, and grow.

Now, go play a game with your kids! Push them a bit and see what they are capable of. You may have to adjust things a little. Or, you may be pleasantly surprised...


  1. Don't forget to cover the 'en passant' rule sometime down the road. :-)

    Excellent work, and great post!

  2. Thanks for the reminder Farrell. We didn't cover that rare rule, but definitely will be something to add later.

  3. Great post!

    En passant seems to become a preoccupation once you teach it. The chess club I run at school is always trying to use it (incorrectly). Same with the 50 move rule. Someone is always holding out a lost position for a 50 move draw.

    You can read more about by chess club and teachning kids at my blog Zwischenzug:

    Of course, I am just getting started with this whole blogging thing...

  4. I honestly had forgotten about En passant actually (which is why I didn't teach it) but you're right, they might have been distracted by it. Like your blog!


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