Unacceptable Interference?

by admin on December 24, 2014

I have a question for other chess teachers/coaches, especially those who work with kids: How much intervention is acceptable, for teaching purposes, in a friendly game between two kids?

Here’s the particular situation that arose in a game yesterday at the Aptos Library chess club.

interference1FEN: rn4k1/p1p2ppp/1p6/8/2Pr2q1/1PN1Q3/4P3/4K3 w – – 0 1

White to move.

Black is one of our regular chess club players, who has been coming for two years at least. He understands a few things very well, but still has some big weaknesses in his game. I would guess his rating strength is around 750. White is just a little past being a raw beginner, but he has been coming for half a year and has a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and eagerness to learn. I couldn’t even guess a rating for him, but I suppose it would be around the minimum, 100 or 200.

Obviously Black had been completely dominating this game, but he has just taken a pawn on d4 with his rook, leaving his back rank unprotected. This is a pretty typical mistake for him, and it is seldom punished in our chess club because most of the other kids are not experienced enough to take advantage of it.

In almost any other week I would not have said anything, because there would have been too many other games going on. But this was two days before Christmas. We only had seven kids in attendance (compared to 26 the previous week). So I was able to watch all three games pretty closely. When I saw Black play Rxd4, I took off my observer’s hat and put on my coach’s hat.

“Stop,” I said to White. “Your opponent just made a mistake, and now you have a very good move. I want to see if you can find it.”

Black, of course, immediately realized what his mistake was, and he implored me, “Don’t tell him! Don’t tell him the move!” I assured him that I would not tell him.

“Is it Qxd4?” White asked. I said I wasn’t telling. “Is it Qe5?” Not telling. “Is it Kf2?” Not telling. (Of course, the White player is not advanced enough to know chess notation yet, so he asked me these questions by showing the moves.)

By this point White’s brother, who was in the chair next to him, had also figured out the solution, so I told him not to give it away, either. White seemed totally stuck, and finally Black started counting down: “60… 59… 58…” I joined in, because I felt that some limit had to be placed on how long White could think about it.

At this point I was absolutely sure that White would never find the move. He was so distracted by the countdown and did not seem to have any idea how to think about the position.

But somehow, miraculously, when the countdown got to around 35, something clicked. I saw White’s eyes start to sparkle just like a Christmas tree, and he started to push the queen forward… and forward… and forward… all the way to e8.

“Hooray! You found it!” I cheered and White’s brother cheered too. I really felt we had made a huge breakthrough, and I wasn’t quite sure how it happened. To reinforce the lesson, I pointed out to him what a back-rank mate is, and also reminded him that in any position, you need to look at all the checks and captures. (This is something I teach them nearly every week.)

But of course, Black didn’t cheer, and he set up the pieces as quickly as possible for the next game. And after the club was over and my glow over White’s breakthrough started to subside, I wondered if I had crossed the line. I do some in-game coaching sometimes, but I try not to literally change the outcome of the game. And I also felt bad about actually appearing to cheer one kid’s victory over another. That wasn’t what I had intended to do. To my mind, I was cheering White’s breakthrough. But I doubt that Black saw it that way.

Well, I’ll try to make it up next week by giving Black a ribbon for good sportsmanship. Because he really deserves it. He has been one of our most faithful attenders for so long, who willingly plays anybody, whether they are better or worse than him, and he has also allowed us (myself and my assistant, Shan, who wasn’t there today) to help his weaker opponents on more than one occasion.

So, where do you draw the line when teaching kids? Of course, I would never intervene in any tournament game. In skittles games, I usually try not to directly suggest a move. (I do make an exception if I am helping a player who is still learning how the pieces move; I might say, “The pawn can move to here or to here. Which do you want to do?”) But it’s not uncommon for me to say, “You can mate him on this move. See if you can figure out how.” Note that I didn’t even go that far in this game; I just said, “You have a really good move,” but I didn’t say it was mate.

By the way, it might even be good for Black, the loser of the game, that I intervened this way. He does need to learn to finish developing his pieces (if he had developed the queen knight, none of this would have happened) and he especially needs to learn not to focus solely on his own plans. He has to learn to take into account what his opponent might do, too. Otherwise he’ll never break that mythical 750 rating that I have estimated for him.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Aigner December 24, 2014 at 11:21 am

Under the principle that both students need to learn something about this position, you were completely correct in intervening. As expected, Black saw it immediately. I would probably have backed off at this point, simply telling White that he has a really good move, and must carefully study the entire board to find it. Then back off and look at another game. Assuming White plays something else, you can set up this position again when they finish playing. The only challenge is for you to remember the position, or at least most of it.


Ashish December 24, 2014 at 11:39 am

Offering advice during the game is unacceptable under all circumstances. It completely ruins the *fun* of the game, and it damages the child’s (in this case: Black’s) personal relationship with you and trust in you.

Kibbitzing by peers is bad enough, but by the adult in authority … well, I hope you realize your mistake and won’t do it again. (If the position is worth study, then take a photo.)

> By the way, it might even be good for Black, the loser of the game, that I intervened this way.

No. No no no no no.

There is no pedagogic goal achieved by spoiling their enjoyment of the game that could not be accomplished by setting up the same position in a post-mortem.


Bill Merrell December 25, 2014 at 12:01 am

It wasn’t a tournament game, so I would agree that it was a good teachable moment.

I remember learning to double-check back rank mates after losing a game I thought important because I didn’t. And then being laughed at for weeks for losing to a boy. Amazing how that check becomes automatic.


Jeremy December 27, 2014 at 10:28 am

In my chess clubs I will usually wait for the player in white’s position to make another move before showing the educational position to them as a puzzle. Even once they solve the puzzle they have to play the move which has already been decided on. This may help the opponent who might figure out how to stop the threat, but most players are low enough in level that it’s a non issue.


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