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Questions that help you think: the secret to chess success

Oct 21, 2016
StaffCoach 2147

Most successful people tend to ask questions, search for hidden clues and think outside the box – in other words, they don’t expect the answer to a problem to be given to them on a plate. This is also my main focus when teaching the secrets of chess to children.

The saying that 'Smart people ask better questions' is a cliché, but like all clichés, it springs from the truth.

So why not teach children how to ask questions, instead of providing them with answers? Spoon-feeding them answers is no good: if they find themselves in an environment where there’s no one to give them the answers, they’ll be lost.


Questions are what matter. Questions, and discovering the right
ones, are the key to staying on course.

                         - Garry Kasparov, How Life imitates Chess. 

In chess, learning to ask questions is an easily acquired skill, as beginners tend to start with a defined focus. Let's take the situation in which a child needs to defend his or her piece. Since there are numerous answers, the quesion ‘How would you defend?’ is too abstract.

Questions that help you think in chess

So what do you ask? The answer is: make your questions more concrete, for example:

  • Are there any unprotected pieces?
  • Can you move away the unprotected piece?
  • Can you use one of your other pieces to defend the piece?

These quesions give a child focus, allowing him or her to actually make a relevant decision himself.

In others words, the main idea for chess coaches or parents who are teaching and motivating children to play chess is to make the game as concrete as possible. The best way to do that is to learn how to ask the right questions.

Defend by counterattack

If I notice that a student is caught in a situation where the opponent is one move away from taking a strong piece, I advise the student not to look at what that piece can take from him, but rather how he or she could make a surprise counter-attack with a bishop that is quietly sitting in the corner, unnoticed.

This concept takes some practising, but children often greatly enjoy it. If you want your students to train counterattacks, refer them to the two Knight Level lessons about this topic: Counterattack (1) and Counterattack (2)

Do's and don'ts in chess communication: tips for teachers

You should…

• Try to make chess as focused and obvious as possible for children. To do this, give your student concrete pointers on what could be better, for example ‘Remember that the knight can jump over other pieces’. Or better: ‘What can Knights do that no other piece can do?’ This way, you don’t give the answer straight away, but you give some room for thought.

• Encourage your student to copy the questions you ask. After a while, you will notice him or her actually asking those same questions. This is a great improvement, since the child will be less dependent on your help and will try to solve the puzzles on his/her own.

You shouldn’t…

• Supplement answers or give obvious clues – give your student time to think, find an answer and reply. Be patient.

• Provide negative advice, for example ‘You just gave away your rook’. Instead, try a different approach, which isn’t so negative: ‘That was a nice pawn move, but take a look at what will happen to the rook.’

These are just some examples of how to make the chess learning experience as fun, pleasurable and beneficial for children – by asking questions instead of giving solutions.


How do you teach children?

Any thoughs?

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