Last Sunday the Scholastic Quick Start was held here in Atlanta. It was designed for beginners to get the feeling what playing in a tournament may look like. Here is one of the games witnessed there: 1.e4 Nf6 2.e5 Nh5 3.e6 dxe6 4.Qe2 and so on…

I am not sure for how long these two boys have been in chess, but according to GM Andrew Soltis [1], who cited the Russian GM Levenfish, it should take two to three months for board vision to develop to the point where players become aware of how pieces interact, when they get under attack etc. In other words, to the point where they don’t act like in the game above.

Without visual thinking there is no effective learning and later acting in any domain. The visual helps knowledge develop quickly from the beginner’s “blank slate.” If taught inadequately during this first critical period [2], the beginner forms destructive thought patterns, dangerous in its perpetuation, developing mental habits that will determine how later, mature chess capacities are structured. This will also decide the player’s future performance and limitations. [3]

Cartoon by Jovan Prokopljevic

Cartoon by Jovan Prokopljevic, a Serbian architect, award-winning cartoonist and caricaturist; he is known after his gnomish chess players with large noses and rotund bodies.

Dr. Elizabeth Spelke, an American cognitive psychologist at the Department of Psychology of Harvard University and director of the Laboratory for Developmental Studies has studied how visual perception and visual processes develop with infants from their minimal state. By analogy, we may assume that a similar process occurs in the “baby mind” of the chess beginner.

“Since our earliest developing perceptual capacities give rise to the first experiences through which we learn, the things we learn will bear their imprint. Initial visual capacities will therefore tend to remain central to our experience of the visual world. Moreover, those initial capacities will set boundaries on what we are capable of learning, limiting the states of the world that we are able to perceive or understand,”  Dr. Elizabeth Spelke [4]

Now the question is, what the beginner should focus attention to to properly develop these initial visual capacities? What kind of impressions the unformed featureless chess mind should start receiving to create a sound core which is to remain central for further expansion of chess knowledge?

The beginner learns from their teacher what they should be paying attention to, to what counts, what is rewarded and how to categorize and prioritize all that does count. This is where great responsibility of the teacher lies. So what is and what is not worth paying attention to in the chess nursery?

Cartoon by Jovan Prokopljevic

Cartoon by Jovan Prokopljevic

As mature chess knowledge is encoded at several levels, we should turn, quite obviously, to the lower perceptual level (as opposed to the higher, conceptual level where information about plans, evaluation etc. is stored).

Chess vision and perception should start with spatial relationships between pieces. Geometry, that is. And luckily, geometry is one of our core ancient mental modules that we share with other animals. For example, “babies are born Euclideans.” “Infants and toddlers use geometric clues to orient themselves in three-dimensional space, navigate through rooms and locate hidden treasures.” In other words, the blank chess slate should start populating, first and foremost, with the elementary contacts. That is what GM Nimzovich thought us. Not with how pieces move.

What are you talking about? You must teach individual moves first! I hear you say.

Well, pieces establish contacts along the lines of fire and movement anyway. So it is the same damn thing. But the message that is sent to the developing “baby” chess brain with “the moves first” is way different cognitively speaking and extremely damaging in the long run.

Again, whatever it is, the proper teaching content should be reinforced with proper teaching methods during the initial critical period of two to three months.

Critical period is a phase during which a learner has heightened sensitivity to stimuli that are compulsory for the development of a particular skill. If the learner does not receive the appropriate stimulus during this critical period, it may be difficult, ultimately less successful, or even impossible, to develop some functions later,” Dr. Robert Siegler [2]

* * *

There is no time to waste. With proper teaching every one should finish the chess pre-kindergarten in a matter of weeks. Otherwise, it might take years, or even never happens at all.

Too bad. That’s how too many people have never gotten to truly enjoy chess…


1. GM Andrew Soltis, How to choose a chess move, Batsford, 2005.

Levenfish also said that tactical vision was a “gift of nature” which helped explain how teenagers became grandmasters so quickly. While I totally agree with the latter, I tend to feel Dr. Lasker was right to negate the former. He said that education in general and in chess in particular went on in a most haphazard fashion and claimed that even a young man with no talent at all might advance to a high level following his 200 hours of proper teaching, Lasker’s Manual of Chess, Dover 1947, p. 336.

2. Dr. Robert Siegler, How children develop, New York, Worth Publishers, is a Professor of cognitive psychology at Carnegie Mellon University and recipient of the American Psychological Association’s 2005 Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award; his research focuses on children’s thinking, particularly their mathematical and scientific thinking and on improving mathematics education.

3. Too many people never reach the point of leaving the chess pre-kindergarten, never fixing the behavior as in the above game. Dr. Lasker claimed in his Manual that most chess players slowly climbed to a certain rather low level and stayed there. Andrew Soltis, What it takes to become a chess master, Batsford, 2011, also states that even “the vast majority of players who take chess seriously will hit the wall. Your rating may be steadily rising when suddenly it stops. Some players will hit the wall at about 1500 strength, others higher.”

I strongly believe this all happens because of the initial teaching methods being flawed (to the neglect of developing solid “contacts” vision).

4. Dr. Elizabeth Spelke, “Origins of Visual Knowledge”

© 2012 iPlayoo


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