by admin on November 23, 2011

A few days ago I received the following comment on one of my ChessLectures from a longtime subscriber:

I must agree with the previous commentators that Dana Mackenzie, though not being a terribly strong player, is a grandmaster in didactics. It shows that PLAYING strong chess and EXPLAINING chess in an instructive way are two totally different skills.

This is certainly the kind of comment I love to receive! However, it’s (a) not true that I’m a “grandmaster in didactics,” and (b) quite ironic, because I know my former calculus students would strongly disagree. I never got great evaluations from my students, and always had trouble motivating them. When I was denied tenure, my alleged inadequacy as a teacher was the principle reason that was given for the decision.

What I think this shows is that didactics depend just as much on the medium and on the audience as they do on the teacher. The same teacher can be great for one audience and a disaster for another. The medium of ChessLectures is perfect for me, because it lets me hide my social skills or lack thereof. The listeners are also perfect because they already care so much about the subject. I don’t have to be a cheerleader, and I don’t have to answer the eternal question, “Will this be on the test?” I can just go out there, have a good time, and share the things I know and don’t know, and the subscribers seem to enjoy that.

However, I’m still struggling for mastery when I give chess lessons for the kids at the Aptos Public Library. Although I try hard and some lessons go very well, there are other times when I feel as I am treading water. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see what things don’t work and try to figure out why.

Yesterday we talked about the position below, number 820 from John Emms’ Ultimate Chess Puzzle Book. Mostly I take puzzles from the earlier part of the book, which are somewhat easier and which generally involve checkmates or basic tactics. However, this time I decided to mix it up and picked an endgame position from late in the book.


Black to move.

I was surprised to see this one so late in the book, because I thought it was so easy. It’s hardly a puzzle at all. Black obviously needs to defend his g-pawn, and the only way that he has any chance at all to do that is to play 1. … Ne3. Then if 2. Kf7, Nf5 does the trick. The only remaining thing you have to realize is that after 3. Ke6, Black can play 3. … Nh6!, which keeps White’s king away from the g-pawn for long enough that Black can bring his king over.

This was so easy that I saw the answer in about five seconds. I thought I had to be missing something, otherwise why would Emms put it at the end of his chapter on endgame puzzles? But nevertheless, that was the answer.

However, what surprised me when I showed this position to the kids was how totally “non-obvious” it was to them. I asked them what White’s best plan was. Then I asked them how Black could stop it. After a few false starts we got to the idea of 1. … Ne6 and 2. … Nf5. But then it was very hard for them to see why 3. … Nh6 was any better than the other options, like 3. … Nd4+. (After all, I’ve told them many times, “Look at checks and captures first!”)

There’s actually a lot of sophisticated stuff going on here. You need to understand that threefold repetition is a draw, not a win. (A lot of them are not clear on that.) You need to understand that king and knight versus king is a draw. (A lot of them didn’t know that.)

Most of all, to see why 3. … Nh6 wins, you have to have some idea what Black’s plan is. If all you do is sit around defending the g-pawn, you’re not going to win the game that way either.

When I asked them for Black’s winning plan, I drew nothing but blank stares. I asked them what piece Black has not done anything with. Oh, the king. And what can we do with the king? More blank stares. Aha! Someone raises his hand. “You can try to checkmate the opponent’s king.” Well, I explained, a king can never checkmate another king. Oh. More blank stares.

Finally I had to resort to simply telling them the answer, which I always hate to do. Black’s plan is to bring his king over to the kingside and win the pawn on g6. Then he can push his own pawn and get a queen. Then he should be able to win.

I really don’t know if anyone understood it. And why should they? I’ve never given them a single lesson on endgames before, except for the basic ones of K+Q versus K and K+R versus K (as well as the ever-popular K+2 Q’s versus K). So it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see that they had no understanding of what to do.

I drew two lessons from this. First, I should work a little bit more often with them on endgames. And second, I fell into one of the oldest traps in didactics: assuming something is obvious. When you assume something is obvious, then you aren’t going to be prepared to explain it.

And cycling back to the ChessLecture subscriber’s comment at the beginning of this post, that is why there is such a vast gulf between playing and teaching chess. Because in playing chess, you HAVE to be able to classify certain things as “obvious.” In fact, I think that one reason grandmasters are stronger than amateurs is that more things are obvious to them. Yet to teach chess, you have to break down all of those things you thought of as “obvious” and learn to see them again as “non-obvious.” No wonder it’s hard for grandmasters to teach!

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

kpolo November 23, 2011 at 11:49 am

Based on the above, I’m glad to know
a) I’ve got a normal kid that I’m teaching chess
b) My getting frustrated with my child over an obvious chess move is … my fault!


Ashish November 23, 2011 at 7:08 pm

I love reading your blog, and I learn a lot.

I think that where you really shine as a teacher is when you are explaining what you want to explain, i.e. it’s an open-ended lecture on a topic you choose. One way instruction.

Where it may not go so smoothly is when your students need your help understanding a particular topic or solving a particular problem. That requires you first of all to understand -them- and their needs and questions, which is a completely different challenge.


Matt November 28, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Your post reminded me of a concept I had a hard time teaching to a student earlier this year. I was trying to explain why winning a pawn might not matter so much right away but could be critical towards the end of the game. I found it to be a really hard concept to explain to my 8-year-old student, especially since we’re dealing with fractions.

After trying to explain it to him, I realized that he wasn’t understanding the concept because I had failed to explain it in a way an 8-year-old would understand. I went away that evening and gave it some thought. I came back the next lesson with a box full of plastic army men and we arranged them on the chess board. He had 8 army men and I had 7. We then kept taking away one arm man from each side until he had two guys and I had just one. That was when he got it… even to an 8-year-old, it became apparent that two on one is not an even fight!


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