Voter Registration is Fun

by admin on September 23, 2015

Yesterday, like every Tuesday, was chess club day at the Aptos Public Library. We had a good turnout of 18 kids, from April to Zoey. Lately we’ve had an unusual number of girls, which I’m pleased to see. I think we had eight this week, which has to be an all-time record.

This week we had to make do with only three tables, because some other group was using the fourth table for a voter registration drive in the lobby. Emily, the first child to arrive, asked where the other table was and I explained to her. She went out to investigate, came back five minutes later, and announced, “I signed up!”

“What did you sign up for?” I asked. She said she don’t know what it was for, she just wrote her name down.

At this point I had some questions, and you might too. How does a 7-year-old sign up to vote? And is it really a good idea for a 7-year-old to sign her name to any paper that happens along? Some education about being careful what you sign may be in order, but I’m not the one to give it to her.

After chess club I figured out what it was she had signed her name to. In fact, it was quite innocent. The voter registration people know that a lot of kids frequent this library. So in addition to the real voter registration forms for adults, they had also made some pretend voter registration forms for kids and put out some crayons. There was a line where the kids could write their name and a rectangle where they could draw a picture of themselves. I imagine that the registrar explained to Emily what it was all about, but you know how kids are at age 7. Voter registration, blah blah blah. Too many syllables. Don’t know what the words mean.

I’ll leave a space here for any jokes you might want to make about people voting in Santa Cruz at age 7:

Okay, back to chess. For my lesson I used the following position from the chess World Cup.

hook1Position after 36. … Rb8. White to move.

FEN: 1r3bk1/5pp1/p6p/1q6/1P2Q2P/4R1P1/5PK1/4B3 w – – 0 37

First, a great thing happened. I said that the game was from the World Cup, and Benito said, “World Cup? That’s in soccer!” This gave me an opportunity to explain that there is a World Cup in chess too, and it’s almost as important as the one in soccer.

This position is from the game Motylev-Giri, round two, probably in the second stage of the playoffs (10 minutes + 10 seconds/move for each player). The themes in the position are unusually clear-cut for a grandmaster game, so I thought it would be a good teaching example.

First, what is Black’s threat? The more experienced kids saw immediately that Black is threatening to win White’s pawn on b4. For the less experienced kids, I explained the principle of counting the number of attackers and defenders. We also talked about which piece Black should take with first. Joshua didn’t want to take on b4, but play … a5 instead. We talked about the pluses and minuses (of course, mostly minuses) of that move. Many beginners will cheerfully attack their opponent’s pieces, never even thinking whether the opponent’s piece might be attacking them back.

Next, how does White defend the threat? The move 37. Rb3 was immediately suggested. It took a little bit of hinting to get the kids to see what Black would play. Finally I had to ask directly, “Do you remember the move that Joshua suggested?” This gave me a chance to once again reinforce the idea of pins, which for some reason is very difficult for kids at this skill level.

So, direct defense doesn’t work. Is there any tricky way for White to defend? At this point I showed them what Motylev actually played: 37. Rd3. “What’s the idea behind this move?” I asked. “What is he going to do if Black plays 37. … Bxb4?

Of course the kids saw 38. Bxb4 Qxb4 39. Qxb4 Rxb4, winning a pawn for Black. Obviously that isn’t what White had in mind. (I didn’t talk about the fact that White can probably save a draw in the R+P endgame, as that would be too advanced.) Is there any other option for White after 38. Bxb4 Qxb4?

I really didn’t expect anyone to get this, and I wasn’t sure what kind of hint I could give them without giving the answer away completely. But I had a very, very pleasant surprise! Luke, who is probably our most advanced player, raised his hand and said,

“Check with the rook on d8!”

That’s right, folks, it’s the Hook and Ladder Trick! The tactical motif I wrote an article on for Chess Life and gave a name to. This was the first time I had ever gotten a chance to teach it at the Aptos chess club. And I didn’t even have to — Luke discovered it for himself!

Well, of course Giri didn’t fall into the Hook and Ladder Trick, so now I asked if Black had any better options than 37. … Bxb4. And that’s when I got my second surprise of the afternoon. Luke’s hand went up again.

“Rook to e8!” he said.

“Fantastic!” I said. “You could play in the World Cup!” In fact, Luke had seen what the 2600-player Motylev had missed, after 37. Rd3?? Re8! his queen and bishop are skewered and White must lose material. I think it’s ironic that he saw the Hook and Ladder Trick (or maybe he didn’t? Maybe he was just going for a pawn-down R+P endgame?) but missed the skewer. In the game, Motylev resigned immediately after 37. … Re8.

At this point I stopped the lesson because I was satisfied. If we had more time, perhaps I could have pointed out that Motylev had the right idea but the wrong execution. If he plays 37. Qf4 or 37. Qg4 instead, he would still set up the Hook and Ladder but would not leave himself vulnerable to the skewer. This position would be dead even, as White can follow up by defending the b-pawn with Re4 and there is then no way for Black to break down White’s barricade.

So, we learned about counting attackers and defenders, and about pins, skewers, and the Hook and Ladder Trick. We also learned that other sports than soccer have World Cups, and maybe we  learned that chess is a sport. To top it all off, we learned that voter registration is fun and easy. What a great chess club!

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Kuhner September 24, 2015 at 2:59 pm

We have a couple of *really* young Experts and Masters locally–#3 9-year-old, #6 10-year-old, #5 14-year-old–and it never fails to amaze me that someone can have a child or teen’s understanding of life in general and such a complex and mature understanding of chess. The two younger ones are mainly tactical hotshots, as Carlsen describes himself at that age, but the 14-year-old is a strategist–it comes through both in his play and in his annotations.

I drew a pretty K+P endgame after much thought, and during the game the 10-year-old came and looked at it for about a minute. The next day a chess coach and some kids were asking me about the ending, and the 10-year-old set the pieces up and rattled off the drawing line instantly.

I feel the same way when I read Daniel Naroditsky’s columns and books–being able to play so well is awe-inspiring, being able to write cogently about it perhaps even more so.

I didn’t start playing seriously until I was 15, which I regret. You’re opening a lot of doors with your club work.


admin September 25, 2015 at 3:20 pm

Thanks, Mary. Yes, it’s important to remember that they are still children! You have to worry about somebody who is basically treated as a god at a young age, like Bobby Fischer, and doesn’t have any parental guidance as a reality check.

(Of course, sometimes it’s the parents who need a reality check! The Little League parent syndrome.)

As a person running a chess club for children, I also have to remind myself not to judge the worth of the chess club by whether I produce the next Naroditsky or Sevian. The experience of all the children is important. That’s why I love it when little random things happen like the voter registration drive. Maybe Emily will forget all about the chess lesson but will remember about voting.

And finally, try not to lose too much sleep on regrets! I started tournament chess at 13. Before that I had been playing semi-seriously with my friends in the junior high chess club, but I certainly didn’t get the intense fire-hose type learning that today’s young stars get. If I had started younger, I’m sure I would be higher-rated now. But I can’t change the past.


Mary Kuhner September 27, 2015 at 3:14 pm

A story I tell in my blog: I played a young 1500 player and beat him, and we were deep in post-mortems when his coach showed up. “Why didn’t you castle?” My opponent and I both mentioned some of his reasons. “WHY DIDN’T YOU CASTLE?! What have I been teaching you?!” My opponent just sighed, but I was thinking that as a 1500 player I was a club member and tournament competitor, and various of my elders would give me advice, but *no one* got to tell me to castle! I’m not sure I would have stuck to chess with that kind of pressure, frankly: I loved that it was mine and mine alone. So the heavy coaching may promote some kids but drive off others. Hard to tell.

My school’s chess club had a very “guys only” vibe. I never even considered joining it. But I belonged to the city club from 15 on, and that was a good experience.


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