Running A Children's Chess Club
I had been chess champion of my grammar school, and I had run a chess club at my sixth form college. One January, when there was a flu epidemic, I even played Chess for Durham University. My perception was that I was potentially a strong chess player, but I did not wish to put the time and effort in to become an incredibly good player. I had other things to do with my life.
I had just qualified as a lawyer. I was staying at Wimbledon YMCA while I looked around for accommodation. The YMCA was good value, and so I was not in a terrible rush to move on.
There was a call on the loud speaker for "Charles James to come to Reception". I was surprised by this because I chatted to the Reception staff fairly often. I had never been paged before. It was odd, and I went down to see what was going on.
Your YMCA Needs You!
One of the duty receptionists explained why I had been paged. The YMCA had a program of activities for non- residents. There were various activities going on for children including judo and chess. A child had booked in for the children's chess starting that night, in about half an hour. People come and go, and whoever had been intended to run the chess club was long gone. The staff had seen me playing chess. Would I run the children's chess club?
I had no pressing engagements on Monday evenings. I thought it would be interesting so I said I would. The receptionist gave me the key to an activities room, and in a cupboard was all the chess equipment.
In those innocent days it did not occur to me to ask for payment. With hindsight I realise that the judo teacher was paid. I was happy to do it for the "Y". I didn't do anything else to contribute.
The chess club just grows!
I cannot at this distance in time remember who the first child was, but within weeks I had over a dozen children aged from about 6 to about 13. They were all boys. Obviously there was something about the way I ran the club that chimed right because I cannot remember any children dropping out. One useful little player and his brother lived in a children's home, and when they were adopted they moved to another part of London, but other than that loss, children just kept coming.
Numbers built to 22 within a few months. The receptionists recruited a helper for me when I had about 14 kids.
I varied the format each week, trying out different ideas and techniques. Some of the children could not play at all, and some had played for a few years. I divided them into ability groups. The stronger players could play properly, so they tussled with each other. With the less strong children I taught the classic end game positions of Kings and pawn/pawns, Kings and Castle, and got them playing weakly. Then we discussed "pins" and "forks" and "skewers". And of course "What Am I Trying To Achieve?", about controlling the centre and grinding down your opponent.
Children have short patience with waiting for each other to move, and at any one moment nearly half the kids were frustrated because it was their opponent's move. We moved to having the tables in a "U" formation. At the centre was the best player, playing Players 2 and 3 simultaneously. Player 2 was playing Player 1 and Player 4. Player 3 was playing Player 1 and Player 5. The kids loved it because each was playing two games at once, except for the very weakest players at each end of the line who played only one game each.
I had a Chess ladder, with the additional twist that I quite often forced the stronger players to accept challenges. One could challenge a player up to I think three places higher, and the strong players did not want to waste time defending their current positions.
Sometimes I took the stronger players and we worked on how to use a small advantage of even a pawn towards becoming a bigger advantage.
I would illustrate the "sacrifice" concept.
"Here you are. Something for nothing. There's your "Something". Now what's my "Nothing"?"
The four player chess board I made up and brought in was very popular with the better players.
I encouraged the better children to start recording their games. When I introduced chess clocks the excitement and enthusiasm was breathtaking. These of course were the kids who were fed up with waiting for the other player to move.
Manners and behaviour were part of the teaching, but these were pretty well behaved kids generally.
I was somewhat nonplussed when the kids told me they were "Charlie's Angels", after the popular TV series. They really were very good kids.
Playing Other Clubs
One of my friends told me that her mother was head teacher of a school. Would I Iike to bring my kids to play her mother's kids? I organised a few parents to act as chauffers and we visited to play,
We played a few other schools. I encouraged the children to take part in individual tournaments organised by the British Chess Federation.
The London YMCA
Wimbledon is a suburb of London. One day I received a letter inviting our YMCA to take part in a children's chess competition to be held at the Central London YMCA. The Central London YMCA was famous for chess. World Champions and Grand Masters played simultaneous events there.
I thought the outing would be good for the kids. My helper and I took a dozen kids to Central London by Underground. With a dozen kids we were the largest group. There were 8 children from the London YMCA and another 8 from the London Polish YMCA. Poland has a tremendous Chess tradition. Had I realised the only other teams were London Central YMCA and London Polish I would not have entered my kids, because we were not in the same league. One of my kids achieved a draw, earning him an award for "Best player from a Losing Team".
On the way back I showed the dozen tickets to the turnstile supervisor. Counting the kids through I got to "Thirteen". I was utterly surprised, and this showed in my face. The turnstile supervisor told me I had better go down after them. Down on the platform I looked at the kids. Well over half of them were much the same size, virtually all with blond hair. I recognised one of them as being from the London Central players. He explained he liked my kids better than the London Central kids, so he was travelling with us until he had to leave us at his stop, about four stops down the line.
Time To Go
I moved out of the YMCA eventually, and carried on with the Chess Club. We closed down for a long summer in about May. We reopened in September with a full house. Alas in October I moved to another part of the country. My able assistant John took over, and I had to leave Charlie's Angels behind.
Around the time I left we were looking for a female chess player to become involved, to try to encourage girls. I could not believe there were no girls interested in playing chess, but I realised that they needed a woman present. One older lad I encouraged to join an adult chess club, but he was really just too young. He was at grammar school and moved on.
Charlie's Angels are now all over 40. I doubt they think of me as often as I think of them.
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