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GM Joel on the Young & Talented Print E-mail
By GM Joel Benjamin   
August 31, 2009
Hi GM Joel, 

My son is 8-year-old with a rating of 1600. He consistently beats lower rated players simply because he waits until his opponent blunders. He often lost to higher rated players because they don't blunder and his positions are getting worse and worse. Based on the feedback I have, including from his coach, a local IM, he often doesn't have a plan and sometimes he makes mistakes in the opening. He reacts to his opponents' moves, even when playing White.

Here is my question: how can we help him to improve quickly with planning and openings. Should he memorize some opening variations at this level? He plays Sicilian with Black and Scotch Game with White. He knows very little on any of the other openings. And I heard stories like the top kids in the country spend more than five hours per day studying chess and they play three tournaments per week. The time and effort my son put into his chess are not even remotely close to those numbers. Does this mean that he would not be able to compete with the top kids at the national and international level? And how much time and effort should he put into chess in order to keep himself in the top of his age group while remain healthy and also have time for other activities? Your advice would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you very much! Diana


I think your question will be interesting to a lot of parents out there.  The younger and more talented a player is, the greater is the burden felt by the parents.

The first thing I want to say is that your child is awesome to play at that level at his age.  The fact that there are other kids with similar achievements should not diminish the pride you feel for what he has accomplished.

The scenario you described against higher rated players is supposed to happen, at least some of the time.  Your son is still very inexperienced and going to make a lot of mistakes, and a lot of different kinds of mistakes.  It is all part of the learning process.

Ratings improve because children develop certain skills that are strong enough to defeat players at certain levels, but it doesn’t mean that all their skills have reached that level.

When weaknesses are exposed, the thing to do is to patiently work at improving skills in that area.  Let’s take planning:  Your coach can train him in lessons with selected positions (Silman’s books on Reassessing Your Chess provide some good examples).  The coach can also instruct your son to be more mindful of planning during his games, and quiz him about his plans when they analyze his games afterwards.

I’m interested in your term “improve quickly.”  Coaching can focus on short-term goals, which is more about rapid rating increase.  To me, improvement is a long-term, ongoing process, that doesn’t necessarily manifest itself in wins in the next tournament.

For instance, taking an approach of going deeply into a small set of openings your son plays, and focusing on specific variations is a short term approach that doesn’t necessarily lead to improved understanding, the key to maintaining an increased rating.

I think that understanding the ideas behind the opening moves comes first, and gradually learning particular opening variations can be worked in.  I hate the term “memorizing’ openings because they should always be learned.  Memorizing moves can only help if your opponent does exactly what he’s supposed to do, and won’t help for the future when they don’t.  Keep in mind that every child is different; you have to take into account your son’s memory skills.

I like to expose children to the broad spectrum of chess, which involves showing them instructive games in openings they don’t play.  It gets them started towards becoming more complete players.  Other coaches may keep a more narrow focus which could augment immediate results, but run into problems later.  I’m not going to say there is a right way and a wrong way to do this.

Most importantly, do not worry about what other families are doing.  Every player is competing against the game, to unlock its secrets and become stronger.  What other people are doing—and what their ratings are--should not affect your own approach.  Moreover, the question of how much is too much is difficult to answer.  I have seen a lot of kids succumb to the burden of too much work and too high expectations.  Some others seem okay, but their chess becomes too programmed with insufficient creativity.

It seems to me that any child who puts five hours a day into chess during the school year would have little time for any other kind of life.  Choose a regimen that seems right to you and your son.  Have him play frequently but not too much (two or three tournaments a month should be enough).  More time spent on chess can produce results, but it is only part of the story.  What really counts in the ability to process what you learn and apply it to your games.  As long as your son works diligently in the hours that he does devote to chess, he will have every opportunity to compete successfully with other children his age.

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