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Greg on Learning From Ray Robson, Chess Child Print E-mail
By IM Greg Shahade   
July 14, 2012
B0017OB-2T (1).jpgThis month I’d like to talk about the book Chess Child and the idea of talent in chess. If you haven’t read Chess Child and you are a serious fan of chess, I’d highly recommend it. It’s a story of Ray Robson, and his path to the Grandmaster title. The book contains some important ideas for parents with very talented children.   

I loved the book and simply couldn’t put it down. I thought the attitude of Ray’s father, Gary was perfect. He had such unwavering belief in his son, and provided a healthy atmosphere for his son to succeed. It made me realize that Ray is my competition and my only chance to one day be competitive with someone like him is to work as hard or harder than he does (not easy!). 

This book inspired me to write about the most important skill for a child who aspires to become a great chess champion. There’s a big debate about how important talent is. It’s a really tough question to answer because it’s so difficult to define talent. There are other debates about studying, and how if someone just studies a lot, then maybe they can overcome a lack of traditional “talent” and still become great. 

All of this is interesting, but I think the most important skill for a young player is the ability to study on their own, in an intelligent fashion.

This may seem relatively simple, but the problem is that most children have absolutely no idea how to study. They are children after all. They want to play one-minute chess on ICC, they want to play video games, they want their coach to tell them everything. It’s very difficult for a nine-year-old child to be able to study chess on their own. When I read Chess Child, it was very clear to me that this was the skill that Ray had that other young players mostly lack. 

With a few dozen more (and newer) books on chess theory and tactics, Ray was soon spending a minimum of 25 hours a week studying chess on his own. He was reading everything he found and analyzing masters' games every day. The study time had nothing to do with my plan; instead, that was all Ray's doing. I never had to tell him to study chess. I'd come home from work, and he'd have a position set up on the board.

It is very hard for young people to study properly, and I know this from my US Chess School sessions. I get to see the top kids in the country, and get to see just how little they know in some cases. Ray attended a few USCS sessions and it was clear that he knew his stuff. Ray put countless hours in at home working on his game. However, the kids who are just one level below the top kids in the country are often clueless at how to study efficiently. Most young talents, for instance 14-16 year olds rated around 2300, don’t know things that they should if they are trying to become great chess players, such as key endgames and main lines of the most topical openings they play. 

You can only imagine how poor even younger and lower rated players are at studying chess. It’s a shame because they get so much positive reinforcement for being relatively good at chess, but  if they don’t learn good study habits soon, they will never achieve their full potential. 

If you want to help your child with aptitude fulfill their potential, here are some tips: 

1. As quickly as possible, you should teach/guide them on how to study on their own. 
2. If you have to force them to study, then probably the kid isn’t going to be great. Most likely they need to naturally want it on their own, and you should even have to occasionally pry them away from studying.
3. A coach is a very useful part of a child’s development, but it’s secondary to the child’s study habits. A coach can help a child who rarely studies chess on his or her own accord, but that child is very unlikely to be great at chess. (When I use the term great, I generally mean Grandmaster.)

In conclusion:

1. If you see your child constantly studying chess on their own without any real prodding, it’s a very good sign. It probably means they have the potential for greatness.
2. If you don’t see your child studying on their own, it probably means their potential is limited. The good news is they can still be very very strong if they have a lucky combination of pure chess talent/board vision and etc, but they will probably not be one of the best players in the country.
3. No coach can make a kid great. This is almost universal, unless that coach can actually find a way to get a kid to start studying on their own. If a kid already studies like a maniac, a great coach can be the extra push needed to propel the kid from being very very good to being great. However in almost all cases, the most important thing is that the kid studies on their own in an intelligent fashion for as many hours as possible per day.

I’ll conclude with another quote from the book, which gives us a picture of how fully Ray devoted himself to chess in his early years: 

Ray had a pile of books by his place at the table for reading during breakfast and dinner. He had a pile of books beside the chessboard that was always set up on the table in the living room. He had chess books on the table beside his bed for reading before sleeping and immediately upon rising. He had books in his school bag for reading on the 15-minute drive to and from school.

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