Teaching the Openings

If you teach at novice/intermediate (0-1500) level you should be aware of the basic principles of instruction. Every lesson serves a specific purpose, with direct teaching and worked examples. Avoid cognitive load problems, which are caused by students trying to process too much information at the same time and getting confused.

How do you deal with this when teaching openings at this level? There are several approaches you can take, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages.

You can take the old Soviet approach (also used, at least in theory, by the Steps Method) in which students only play within their own coaching group until they’ve learnt enough to face the big wide world with confidence.

There’s something to be said for that, at least there was, but your students will then miss out on the fun and social benefits of taking part in competitions, enjoying new experiences and making new friends.

You might want to teach your students some cheap opening traps so that they won’t lose all their games and will enjoy scoring some quick and ‘brilliant’ victories. There’s a superficial attraction to this method, and, if your students are only doing chess in the short term to gain extrinsic benefits, it’s an approach you might want to take. It’s not necessarily good for them in the long term, though.

Or you might like to encourage them to start with a ‘system’ opening like the London System with White, while choosing something safe and simple with Black – perhaps the Petroff against e4 and a simple QGD line against d4. There’s a lot to be said for this, although you’re unlikely to score many quick wins and most of your games won’t be very exciting. On the other hand, you’ll get more endgame practice!

If you get similar positions in all your games it will probably improve your short term results, but perhaps you’ll get more long-term benefit by experiencing a lot of different position types. This will also help you decide the sorts of position you most enjoy playing.

This was the approach we used to use at Richmond Junior Club, and, broadly speaking, also the approach taken by Chess Heroes: Openings. We’d start with 1. e4 e5,  which is the way most lower level games start. We’d then introduce the French Defence, which is easier to understand than the Sicilian and involves some important lessons about pawn chains. Then the Sicilian, because it’s so popular, and a brief look at other replies to 1. e4. Next, we move onto 1. d4. I might start with something simple like the Colle System, and now I’d also include the London System here. Then we’d consider the Queen’s Gambit before looking at various Indian Defences, particularly the Nimzo/Queen’s/Bogo complex and the KID/Grunfeld/Benoni/Benko complex.

Children playing in external tournaments would have to hope for the best – when something went wrong it would be the starting point for another lesson. From our results over many years, this approach was effective. Perhaps it wouldn’t work so well now, but who knows?

As a very rough general guide:

0-1000: basic opening principles, encouraging games starting with 1. e4 e5, the best place to learn the benefits of central control, rapid development and king safety.

1000-1500: once your students have mastered the basic principles and are no longer hanging pieces on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to try out different openings and different styles of play so that they can decide for themselves the types of position they enjoy playing and play well.

1500+: once they understand what’s available it’s time to start specialising in a few openings, studying them seriously and playing them regularly.

If you’re rated between 1000 and 1500, what do you think would be the best  way for you to learn openings?

If you coach students rated between 1000 and 1500 what do you think would be the best way for them to learn?

Richard James

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Richard James

Author: Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966. Richard is a published author and his books can be found at Amazon. Richard is currently promoting minichess (games and puzzles using subsets of chess) for younger children through his website www.minichess.uk, and writing coaching materials for children (and adults) who want to start playing serious competitive chess, through www.chessheroes.uk. View all posts by Richard James

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