zwischenzug (ZVI-shen-tsoog) — noun

A chess tactic in which a player, instead of playing the expected move, first interpolates another move, changing the situation to the player's advantage (such as gaining material or avoiding what would otherwise be a strong continuation for the opponent).

Showing posts with label chess. Show all posts
Showing posts with label chess. Show all posts

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Better Late Than Never

Wow.  This has been a pretty different year.  Lots of things in my personal life have worked against my gaming, which is why I haven't posted as much.  Here's a quick recap.

So far, I am on pace with last year.  In other words, I am having another bad year in terms of number of games played.  At this point in time last year, I had played 28 games of twelve different titles.  This year, I have played 27 games of 14 different titles - though seven of those games are a special case as you will see below.  It's amazing to me that I have dropped off that much.

I have received a lot of fun by learning new games.  I have found that I learn a new game, and I am much better able to teach a new game, by playing the game through by myself with several players.  It's a sort of "multiplayer solitaire", but it's been good.  Of course, that's also kind of sad; I am getting the most gaming enjoyment from playing a game by myself.  Ugh.

The good news is that the gaming group is managing to meet every month.  The group was very hit an miss last year.  Right now, we are hitting on all cylinders, and it looks like there isn't anything to get in the way this year.  That's great, because my gaming outside of the group is down.

We also finally got the chess club started at the school.  With only a month left, there was some question as to whether or not it was worth doing, but the kids really wanted it.  We are just going to play, and not give much formal instruction.  I played seven of the kids at once this past Wednesday, which is what I was referring to above.  So instruction will be on an individual basis, as I point things out to the kids as they play. 

We are going to try something different this year.  I play a lot of chess on, which is a great site.  (My number of plays doesn't include online chess games.)  They have an associated website for kids, on which parents and coaches can control the amount of contact their kids have.  I will be introducing it to the parents, so that the kids can continue to play over the summer with each other, and with me.  I will be able to comment and keep track of their progress.  If I can keep them playing, I will.

It's their move!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Case for Complexity

Complex games often require a little more thought or a few more plays to wrap your head around.  Nonetheless, there are complex games that can be a great experience for casual or family play.  Blogger Keith Medlin was kind enough to contribute his thoughts on complex games.

Two popular threads in the wargames forum on BoardGameGeek right now are about wargames than can be played in less than 1 hour. Generally, though certainly not always, shorter games can mean less complexity. The other thread is looking to put a page limit on the rules for a wargame. Again, fewer pages doesn't guarantee less complexity, but it often facilitates it.

So, before I begin...what is complexity?

* Is Chess complex?
* Is Dominion complex?
* What about Mage Knight Board Game

Complexity is difficult to capture in a single defintion unfortunately when it comes to boardgames because of it's non-boardgame meaning:

1. The state or quality of being intricate or complicated.
2. A factor involved in a complicated process or situation.

By these definitions Chess most certainly is complex. Not because it is intricate, but because of the factors involved in the process and situations that the game presents. Mage Knight is complex for the opposite reason. The rules are intricate, but the problem-solving doesn't offer the same level of complication or situational evaluation.

Dominion, on the other hand, is not. The process for the game is relatively simplistic, though more than 4 players and the strategy ratchets up a bit. The puzzles aren't difficult to resolve for it either.

So, does complexity mean success or that a game is "good?" Absolutely not. Rather than extol the virtues of complex games on individual terms, it's important here to talk about the processes that go into playing distinctly complex games versus less complex ones. There is a strong case for complexity because it helps support problem solving, deduction, and cognitive reasoning.

First, let me say that I love non-complex games. Lost Cities is a great way to spend time with a loved one or friend. Ticket to Ride brings families together and gives an great introductory train game for kids of all ages who are into trains. There's nothing inherently wrong with easy to play, learn, and solve games. They provide incredible fun and allow players to enjoy the social aspects in the forefront of the in-game experience. It's lovely.

Complexity, however, is something designers and gamers shouldn't shy away from in any way! Complexity offers a new set of challenges, depth, and (as the definition says) intricacy. It's often in these nooks & crannies that we find some powerful cognitive abilities. Stroking those through practice is a great way to give yourself the mental workout you deserve! Keep that spongy thing between ears in tip top shape.

In fact, gaming decreases your chances for long term cognitive impairment according to the peer reviewed Neurology magazine ( Fernand Gobet, Alexander J. De Voogt, & Jean Retschitzki identified two types of complexity in board games in their 2004 book, Moves In Mind: The Psychology Of Board Games.

Mutational Complexity - This relates to how a player evaluates the given board state and the effects that moves will have on the changes that are made. This is particularly evident when there are many moving pieces or multiple sources and levels of information necessary to calculate with each move.

When I think about this, I think about the armor rules in Advanced Squad Leader. Not only am I determining the motion state of the vehicle, but also the facing of the turret, the vehicle's covered arc, the weight of the vehicle and what terrain on which I can move, the speed I can move, the effects of the potentially dozen units that are observing that move and what armament they have which can be brought to bear on me as well as the goal for my move. Each move I make with that tank can totally reshape the board state. This is true if successful or if I turn into a burning wreck because now I have smoke, fire, and defensive cover potentially.

Computational Complexity - This has to do with the relative game state with relation to it's end, how many "moves" must be considered in a branching state, and what their effects may have on the overall progress toward the goal.

Chess is handy here. When evaluating moves in chess you're thinking ahead not 1 or 2 steps, but rather 4 or 5 for an average level player. You need to consider HOW the pieces will move in order to achieve your given strategy. This is particularly true in the opening where both players are computing the probabilities involved in a variety of openings and responses that will shape the mid-game.

So what do we benefit from these skills?

Simply put, these are skills that can be applied across domains. Working through problems in your career can be aided by considering how the different components of game cognition are applied in your complex career. While not everyone is trying to solve the world's problems, there are definitely stressful situations and complexity that arise at all workplace environments. Whether it's the lunch rush at McDonald's or trying to negotiate a contract with a vendor, understanding how you can approach the situation using strategies you may have honed in a game of Go is handy!

Should you run out and try to tackle The Campaign for North Africa? Absolutely not! I am suggesting...strongly...that you consider adding more complex games into your rotation if you're not already doing so because of the scientific benefits for your mind.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Father Geek Article on Buying Chess Sets as Gifts

Last year I wrote this post about buying chess sets for the Holidays.  I covered the topic again over at  Father Geek.  If you read last year's post you won't find this one that different.  Whichever version you read, it makes sense to buy a child a good chess set that will last for years.

It's Your Move!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Teaching Chess to Kids – One Rule to Wring them All!

 Most people think chess is a hard game to learn.  It’s not.  Once someone learns how to move the pieces they can play.  Sure, there are a few slightly complicated moves like castling or en passant, but generally speaking moves aren’t an issue.  Learning how to move pieces in combination, that is where the game gets involved.  It’s not the rules; it’s all of the strategy and tactics that make the game complex.

Except with kids.  Now we are into a whole different area.  First of all, kids want to know all of the odd-ball rules, not only castling and en passant but also the three-position and 50-move rules.  Normally, I try to just move past these topics, but generally someone has heard of them and I eventually end up explaining these rules.  They will try to invoke them, and be completely wrong; this is particularly true of the three-position rule.* However, we get past them and put them away.

So what is the concept that wrings all the certainty out of their heads, leaving the idea that chess is hard?  What is the hardest thing for children to learn (that actually does show up in their games): the knight’s move? No, they need some help with that, but it comes pretty quickly.  The key to that is not only the shape of the move, but the fact that the knight changes the color of the square he stands on with every move.  If the knight is on a dark square now, it will finish on a light square.  What about the pawn?  The fact that the pawn moves differently when it attacks causes a little confusion, but that’s cleared up quickly. 

The toughest part of chess to teach is check (and by extension checkmate!)  Then how do they end the game?  They end the wrong way, at least in the beginning.  Here are the most common misconceptions:

  • “If I threaten the king on this turn, and don’t call check, I can capture it next turn!”  Of course, the king is never actually captured in chess.  When the king is threatened, it’s in check, and must get out of check.  If the king can’t get out of check, then it is checkmate and the game is over.
  • “But you didn’t call check!”  Check is check, called or not.  Often it doesn’t need to be said, because it’s that obvious.  This is a common source of disagreements, because this statement will probably follow the previous thought!
  • "I’ll move my king next to theirs and put my enemy in check!”  The problem with this is that two kings next to each other are both in check!  Since a king cannot move into check, it’s an illegal move.  Last night I actually had an 8th grader, who has been playing for a year, suggest that doing this would allow a player to win with just a bishop and a king – wrong!

How does this get solved?  In the immediate game, I try to back the players up to the last legal move, and then continue the game.  Otherwise, I call it a draw.

Speaking of draws, stalemate is also a problem concept, but not as hard to overcome.  It is truly amazing how often stalemates occur at this level.  Last year our youngest member played his first ten games without a loss – 3 wins and 7 stalemates! 

As frustrating as it can be, teaching chess has its own rewards.  It is wonderful to see their enthusiasm, and fun to watch their faces as the “light comes on”.  Even though my son graduates from the school this year, I can’t imagine giving this up.

It’s Your Move!

 * The three position rule says that an exact board position occurring three times is a draw.  For this to happen, every piece and pawn must be in the same position all three times with the same moves available.  As a result, a piece captured or a pawn moved means none of the prior positions can be repeated, since those pieces can never go back to where they were.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Chess Sets for Gifts

One of my last posts was my buying guide for holiday gifts.  I suggested that the dedicated chess player is so focused that buying chess items for him or her is more likely to fail then succeed.  However, that's not true of the starting chess player.

This year's Chess Club at school has a lot of new kids in it.  I am so glad my wife is there as the librarian, so that she can use her classroom management skills to my benefit.  In the interest of crowd control, she has taken all of the new members and is walking them through a short introductory course in the game which will finish soon.  This is mandatory, even if you know how to play.  Meanwhile, I have the veterans, who are starting their chess ladder.  I will go into this another time, though I talked about it briefly in a post from last year.

With all of these new kids, I know there will be a few Christmas Lists that have chess sets on them.  Wednesday was the Feast of St. Nicholas, so jolly old St. Nick picked up all of those lists as he stopped by and dropped off tangerines and candy (at least at our house!).  So, where should Santa go if he needs a few more chess sets then he has ready?  I will give you two ideas:

The Chess House is a great place to find a chess set.  I have personally purchased from there, and the transaction was quick and easy.  I would buy their   Quality Regulation Tournament Chess Set Combo .  This set has several advantages: 1) this set (or one VERY similar) is the set used in the school, so children are used to it; 2) this set is a regulation tournament set, so it can be used in official events; 3) it transports easily; 4) it's nearly indestructible.

Similar sets can be found at the US Chess Federation's online store. Their are more options here, with different styles of bags, combinations that include chess clocks, and some that include the book How to Beat Your Dad at Chess.  Always popular.

The US Chess Federation (USCF) is the governing body for chess in the United States.  While you're there, consider getting a gift membership for your little chess player.  It will be well worth it.

I will apologize to my overseas friends; this post is very US-centric.  However, I am sure there are scholastic memberships available in your part of the world too, so the advise still holds.  Regardless of where your live, support your little chess enthusiast and your school's chess program!  There are studies that show how beneficial chess is to young minds, and there are measured results.

It's Your Move!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

I'm Not Ready Yet!

Tomorrow is the first day of chess club at our school.  We wait until after football season is over, since my son and several of the other boys play football.  That just makes it too hectic for my wife and I to get every place we need to be, so chess waits.  Of course, as I mentioned in previous posts, I made great plans for moving forward this year.

I love the "whooshing" sound that great plans make as they blow right out the window.

We bought a chess curriculum last year, and I might still be able to use it.  Hopefully I can do that enough to becomes at least familiar with it.  I have a little more time, since this week is just the first week, and is really about getting acquainted.  As I said this morning, the kids should break down into four groups, who can be generally dealt with separately.

The first group are the kids who were coming last year.  They all know the rules, and can actually play a game.  Some of the older kids are decent players.  We will set up a chess ladder like last year, although I need to look at some of my "lessons learned" from last year.  Nonetheless, those kids can be turned loose to play for the first day if need be.  This is an easy group.

Group two consists of those kids who willingly admit they have no clue how to play.  These are the children who just admit up front they can't even move the pieces correctly.  This is the other easy group, since we have material to teach them with, and nearly anyone can use the material.  Typically, my wife takes this group and brings them along.

The last two groups are the hardest, since they need assessment.  The better of the two are those kids who are mature enough to know if they can play chess or not, but don't have much experience.  They may fit in great with the returning members, but also could be intimidated.  Helping them level the playing field is important.

The toughest group are the kids who truly believe the know how to play, but don't.  In the same group are those who are too embarrassed to admit they don't know how to play.  Either way, you have to get them to the point where they know it's okay to be learning the game from the ground up.  That's a particularly tough job. Last year, I had a girl in the club who could not grasp all of the rules, but insisted she did to the frustration of her opponents.  She was crying at the end of the year, because she never won a game.  How could she?

In the end, all of these groups will resolve into two; those who know the rules and those who don't.  When we figure out where everyone is at, then we will know how to proceed.  All that really matters is that the kids get a bit of a mental workout, and have fun playing!

It's Your Move!

Related Posts:

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Getting back to it...

I probably owe an apology to anyone who regularly looks for my posts.  Life has been crazy, as I have mentioned, and I have had no time for gaming.  This has resulted in a combination of writer's block and tiredness for the past several weeks.  Another issue with these circumstances is that I can find the time (thanks to the wonders of smartphone technology) to troll eBay for games.  As a result, my gaming purchases have gone up a little.

So now I am getting back to playing.

I am getting ready for this Sunday's monthly Game Day.  Our gaming group will be playing one or more of the following games, all with a Halloween theme.  Which games will depend on how many people show up, and what they pick:

  • Fury of Dracula
  • Fearsome Floors
  • Coach Ride to the Devil's Castle
  • Spooks
We have only played the first one, which is fairly complex; I have read the rules of all but Coach Ride to the Devils' Castle. I have that in my briefcase, and will read it at some point.

The next thing coming up is the school chess club, which starts again in a few weeks -- November 2nd to be exact.  I am a little scared, over 50 flyers have been taken by students, and I have no idea how many of them will show up.  This is probably the year to start taking dues.  Just a few dollars from each would help with some equipment needs, and it will help cut down on those kids who want to just wander in.

I am having a lively discussion over on BoardGameGeek about starting a chess club.  Another BGG member is taking up the task with his wife, and asked for advise.  One German gentlemen and I have a friendly debate going on over including chess variants and chess clocks.  He favors including both; I would exclude both.  Nonetheless, as Shakespeare says, "The play's the thing."  What ultimately matters is that the children learn to play the game!

Which leads me to ask if it's time that YOU get back to it.  Clearly, you have some level of interest in games, or else you wouldn't still be reading this.  There is a school out there where the kids are itching for someone to teach them chess.  The benefits are so clear for those kids who do play.  Is it your time to "get back to it"?

It's Your Move!

Related Posts:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Chess is now a Boy Scout Merit Badge

This just has to be announced.  Boy Scouts of America has just approved a merit badge for chess.  I guess I will add "merit badge councilor" to my titles "school chess coach" and "troop leader"!

Friday, August 26, 2011

3 Reasons Why Your Child Should Play Chess

Last month I wrote about whether or not chess was good for schools.  If you read that post (and I will put a link at the bottom), you realize that I think chess definitely belongs in schools, but it needs to be carefully monitored.  There are ways it can go astray.  Regardless of whether or not your school has a chess club, parents should make sure their children are playing chess.  Homeschoolers should be teaching it, even if they have never played themselves – learn it together!  I will give three reasons why this is true: what it teaches, the wide open opportunities to play, and it’s lifelong nature.

First of all, chess teaches logic, which directly impacts a child’s performance in schools.  Studies repeatedly confirm this fact.  Kids who play chess get better grades; it’s that simple.  What’s not always mentioned is that chess is also teaching the ability to plan ahead, which is important in academics and in life in general.  Hand-in-hand with lessons on planning are lessons on consequences.  Often enough, right behind that comes lessons in digging yourself out of a hole.  (At least that’s true when I play!)  All of these things exist just as much in the classroom as they do in the game of chess.

Dayton's Chess club is a landmark downtown.

Secondly, chess is a game that can be played anywhere.  Opponents are easy to find if you want to find them.  An obvious possibility is the school.  It’s so obvious I’ll move on.  For those children who are homeschooled or do not otherwise have school opponents, there are local chess clubs.  Most small cities have a chess club; larger cities may have several.  They will be in the phone book if nowhere else.  Often a club will have a Kids’ Night, in which children are the focus of play.  They may even have some adult players providing some casual coaching.  Libraries are increasingly involved with gaming, which is particularly true for chess.  Our local library in Dayton has at least one chess night a month.

If the local chess club or library isn’t an option, chess is one game that can be played online very safely.  They should be monitored of course; I strongly believe in knowing where your kids are both in the real world and in cyberspace.  However, chess is often played with no conversation between online opponents.   There are sites exclusively provided for children like, which is run by the people at  This a very user friendly site that allows parental control.  I play at, and I find the entire experience to be easy and fun.  There isn’t any software or crazy connections, and games can be downloaded for study.

One of my boards is this old Tandy 1650, which is great!
Another way to play is against a computer opponent.  This can be a computer program either on an actual computer or on a gaming console.  Nearly all of the consoles have them for sale.  It could also be an electronic board, complete with pieces.  I have an old, small Tandy electronic board, and it is great.  I will say I rarely use it, though, since I play online and can use my phone.  I would recommend a program, since they generally have tutorials or some way to rate play, and are therefore better at helping a new player improve.  Don’t worry about buying the best software.  Anything sold these days is far better than most people will ever be.  Go with what fits  your budget.

The third reason to teach your child chess is that it is a lifelong activity.  Chess is a lifestyle game, which means that it can become a major hobby by itself, exclusive of other games.  Bridge and go are other lifestyle games.  Magic the Gathering and poker are too, but they can be much more expensive!  In any case, introducing your child to chess may give them something they enjoy for the rest of their life.

Don’t worry about equipment at first.  A simple dollar store chess set will do.  So will books out of the library, if you are on your own.  As your child shows interest, it’s easy to find more books at any reasonably sized book store.  Nicer chess sets can be found all over the internet, and tournament sets and boards are not expensive.  The important thing is to make sure your child is having fun.  The learning is in the play, not necessarily in the lecture.

It's Your Move!

Related Posts :

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Gambit – Is Chess Good for Schools?

Okay, if you have been reading my blog, or even just read the title block, you know where I am going to come down on this.  I teach chess in my son’s grade school.  Nonetheless, there are issues with teaching chess in schools:  promoting an elitist attitude, scaring kids off, and finding adults to help!  At the same time, there are alternative games that encourage some of the same thought processes. 

First of all, chess can be elitist.  There will be kids who join to prove they are smarter than everyone else.  Worse, there are parents who push their children into chess to prove to the world that their kid (and by extension, the parent) is smarter than everyone else.  I have been to conferences for gifted children where chess clubs were promoted specifically for gifted children, and I have mixed emotions about it.  Chess is a great way to provide more challenge to gifted child.  It doesn’t focus too much on one academic area, and doesn’t feel like “school work”.  Lastly, because chess is “the game of kings”, there are behavioral expectations that go with the game, including playing quietly and with self-control and good sportsmanship.  I worry about gifted children growing up to be “egg-heads” and lacking the softer, interpersonal skills that are so necessary for success at work and in relationships.*  I don’t want to see chess become the exclusive territory of the gifted, however.  “Normal” kids need fun mental challenges that help nurture the thinking processes and teach personal skills too.

Yet, so often (and maybe because of those gifted programs) those “normal” kids are scared by chess, feeling if they are not “smart enough” to play the game.  I frequently hear adults say this very thing; we should expect their kids to feel the same way.  This just isn’t the case.  Anyone can learn the game.  The child, or adult for that matter, may never be the next Bobby Fischer or Judit Polgár, but can love the game and get something out of it nonetheless.  I am a great example of this; I love chess and yet, with a rating in the low 1400’s, I am only a class C player.  I read chess books when I have the time, but honestly I don’t expect to even break into the B class at 1600.  Having fun is far more important than winning or even being a great player.  (Otherwise I wouldn’t game at all!)

Lastly, finding the adults who want to participate is difficult.  In the public school system for Columbus, OH, there has been an employee specifically hired by the district to provide those schools with a chess program.  That is by far the exception to the rule, and that completely leaves out private schools and small districts.  It’s sometimes tough to find adults to teach the gifted kids.  Finding someone to deal with the rest of the school population can be nearly impossible.

Nine Men's Morris - Promo image at Amazon
If chess proves to be too much of a problem, what can be done?  Don’t give up; start a gaming club instead.  There are plenty of classic, quick and relatively inexpensive games that are suited to teaching problem solving skills and sportsmanship.  A short list of abstract games would include Reversi (Othello), Mancala, Backgammon and Nine Men’s Morris.  These games do not need a teacher/coach who is familiar with the game.  The rules are more simple and straightforward and the strategy not as deep as chess.  

There actually are some advantages over a chess club with this approach.  First of all, younger kids can be included with games like checkers.  There are a lot of games that are variants on checkers, both more and less difficult.  As the kids get older, they could be introduced to pool checkers, which someday I would like to learn.  Furthermore, the list isn’t limited to just abstracts.  My wife has had great success playing 20 Questions for Kids as a team game with the after school program.  There are teachers running gaming clubs at schools who are playing some of the other types of games I discuss in this blog.

Games are so important to intellectual and social development that I think all kids should learn to play them.  If your school doesn’t have a chess program, consider a gaming program.  If there isn’t someone to start it, why not you?  If none of that is available, at least play at home.  If you keep playing and reading, I promise to keep writing!

It’s Your Move!

Related Posts:

Related Links:
Othello – Board Game Geek entry
Mancala – Board Game Geek entry
Nine Men’s Morris – Board Game Geek entry
Backgammon – Board Game Geek entry
20 Questions for Kids – Board Game Geek entry
Judit Polgár – Wikipedia entry
Bobby Fischer – Wikipedia entry

* A few years ago, it was suggested to my wife and me that our son might be gifted.  I am not sure how that actually is measured, but I do know that he is a straight-A student.  Our concern isn’t that he is provided an advanced curriculum to further advance his intellect, though that would be nice.  Our main concern is that he learns empathy, compassion, teamwork and leadership, growing up to be a productive citizen and a faith-filled man.  That’s our job as a parent.  In my engineering career, I have met lots of incredibly smart people who couldn’t lead hungry Boy Scouts to lunch, and can never see when someone is hurting.  That’s not who we are raising Daniel to be.

Friday, July 1, 2011

I am asking too much...

I have been listening to the Ludology Podcast to and from work.  There are several podcasts that I listen to regularly; this particular one is more of a once-in-a-while type of thing.  The topic was family games, and it ventured into a discussion on the developmental stages of children and what games work well at those stages.  I came to realize something in this podcast -- I am asking too much from my chess club kids.  Simply put, chess offers too many decisions with too many options that impact too many moves down the road for these kids, particularly the younger ones, to grasp.  I thought starting at 4th grade would allow for more cognitive ability, but I was wrong.  Some of the junior high kids should start to get it, but the younger ones, no.

I guess that really means I am a chess teacher, and not a chess coach.

It's Your Move!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Games in the Car – While Waiting!

Like many people, our family can be waiting for our turn, whether it is at a restaurant, the doctor’s office, or some other place.  Like many gamers, my solution is to have games available to play.  I have seen “car kits” put together by gamers to put in their automobiles, but I was never completely convinced on the solution.  I guess I was looking for something neat and tidy, and many of these kits were in plastic storage boxes; the kind I really don’t like in the car.

Then I saw someone had used a backgammon case for their car kit.  Whoa!  What a great idea!  After all, backgammon is a great game that many people can play, and our son needs to learn how to play.  I decided that was the way to go.  I grabbed our backgammon set (the full size one, not one of the two travel sets we own!) and opened it up.  The pieces and dice have their own space.  Aside from the dice cups, the playing area can hold a few items.

What to put in it?  What games should I carry?  I ended up with the following games in my car kit:

  • BackgammonKind of obvious, but worth mentioning if only for to make sure I count right at the end of this post!
  • Chess.  I have a small Drueke chess set from around WWII that fits nicely inside.  Chess is my favorite game, how can I not have a set in the car kit?
  • Brandubh.  This is sometimes referred to as Irish Chess, though that’s not entirely accurate.  The game predates chess in Ireland though, and is related to a family of tafl games that is various traced back to the Vikings, Welsh, Saxons, and Irish.  It is a print-n-play (that you print at home and make in a small amount of time), with aquarium/floral stones of different colors used as the pieces.  Printed on card stock, the board takes no room, and the 13 stones take very little.
  • Zombie in my Pocket.  This game has been around for a few years as a print-n-play game.  Zombies are chasing you through a home that you have never seen before, but which you know has the talisman inside which needs to be buried in a mystical place in the back yard.  This is silly, solitaire fun that can keep me entertained for a little while.  It easily fits inside a 3x5 plastic baggie, and then into the car kit.
  • Standard Playing Cards.  We are set for solitaire and two-person games, but there are three of us in the family.  A deck of cards is also a pretty obvious choice, since it’s essentially a whole bunch of games in a pocket sized packet that will work with any number of players.  With that goes a…
  • Cribbage Board.  This can be played multi-player.  The only problem with this is than I am the only one who knows how to play.  That can be fixed though.  To conserve even more space, this tiny folding board fits inside the backgammon dice cups when they are placed top-to-top.  Not much else would fit in there.
  • Bandits.  This game might be taken out of the car kit and go permanently into a Scouting bag of games.  The younger Scouts seem to love it, but it seems a little light.  While my wife likes lighter games, this one isn’t her style.  I will look for a replacement if I do.
  • Bananagrams.  The whole family likes this game; I reviewed it a while back.  This game is a little thick to go in, but I will push it a little bit.  It might help if I took it out of the banana-shaped bag, but what’s the fun in that?

That makes eight different games that can be in this kit.  Yet, as the infomercial says, “Wait, there’s more!”  With these components there are a few more games that can be played, and that’s not counting standard deck card games:

  • Liar’s Dice.  Many people who are aware of this game know it through the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie.  This is a centuries old game with many variations; my favorite is Mia
  • Fox and Hounds.  This is really a checkers variant, but could easily be played with the chess pawns. 
  • Lines of Action, Crossingsthese are games published in the great book, A Gamut of Games by the late, great Sid Sackson (who also designed Acquire, another favorite of mine.)  You might have to use more of the chess pieces, or draw a checkerboard to use with the backgammon disks.  This might be a little ugly, but what the heck.

Promotional Image for Treehouse Pieces
There are other systems to include too.  There is a whole set of games surrounding Treehouse (aka Icehouse) pieces for example.

As you pack the car for your summer outings, what will be in it?  Don’t forget the games as you head out of the house!  However you pack them, in a box or in a backgammon case, having a few games along might be the difference between your time being fun in the sun or bland in the sand.

It’s Your Move!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Chess and the End of the School Year

We ended this year's incarnation of the chess club this week.  As much as I love the kids and I love chess, I am glad this is over for the year.  It does get tiring to keep these things going.  There are several healthy tensions that cause this, and finding the right course through them is where the effort comes in to play.  These tensions are somewhat about the differences between my expectations for the club and the kid’s expectations.  They are:
  • Teaching vs playing
  • Basic skills vs more advanced skills
  • Motivation vs discouragement
  • Accessibility vs focus
I once asked the kids how many of them wanted to read books on chess.  The answer was no one did.  I brought my modest chess library in, and even managed to avoid the word “study”, but nonetheless there were no takers.  In fact, on a day to day basis, the kids would just as soon I never teach.  They would rather play.  It doesn’t matter whether it is something specific – say an opening – or something very general, like being more aggressive.  The boys and girls would rather just play. 

What aggravates this problem are the various levels of knowledge the kids have when they arrive at the beginning of the year.  They either don’t know anything or are an expert player – just ask them!  In reality, there are several different levels of play going on at the same time, and with only two people who are instructing (my wife and me), it just doesn’t work.  At a minimum, you have three levels:

  1. Kids who know nothing about chess, but want to learn,
  2. Beginners,  who can move the pieces, but have no knowledge of tactics or strategy,
  3. Relatively experienced players, who know a little more and need more of a challenge.

It would be easy to think that you could hold off the second group until the first group catches up, but in reality the first group needs to be constantly monitored to be sure they are moving legally.  It takes one adult just to do that.  (I had one girl – I will call her Sally – that said she knew how to play when she came at the beginning of the year, but still was making basic movement mistakes at the end.)

Sally also highlighted the third issue very clearly for me.  Most of the kids want to compete.  Late in the year, we started a chess ladder, which is a method of ranking within a group mathematically too small to use a regular rating system with.  Most of the kids liked it.  It provided motivation to improve, and might have even brought them to the point of being willing to learn lessons to get better.  I started it too late to find out.  Sally, though, was reduced to tears because she never won a game.  I suspect this would have been swept under the rug without the chess ladder.

Lastly, anyone who has read this blog knows I want the club to be accessible.  However, I am starting to feel as though there may need to be pressure to “get in or get out”.  There were too many kids that just showed up a few times.  It sometimes felt like it was dependent on whether or not after-school care was appealing that day or not.  I think being a little less open would concentrate the group to those who, well, want to concentrate!   Maybe a few kids on the fence would be left out, but the total value of the experience would go up for those kids who are in the club.

There are two adjustments my wife and I are planning for next year.  The smaller adjustment will be dues of some type.  This forces a commitment from the kids and their parents.  It will also allow us to purchase some supplies, like a few chess clocks, bags for pieces and boards, and notebooks/score sheets for the kids.  We have to think about the right amount, but there will be some dues nonetheless.

The big adjustment has to do with a chess curriculum bought through our Home and School Association.  (Our private school version of the PTA.)  We picked the Championship Chess program, having met the founder at an educational conference at the beginning of the school year.  I can’t endorse it yet, since we have to plan out next year with it.  I do have some reservations, particularly about the lessons on chess openings.  However, there seems to be far more good than potential bad.  Furthermore, it has DVDs, and two very specific benefits related to them.  Firstly, the program is designed through the DVDs to allow non-chess playing adults to present material.  Secondly, it allows the one or two kids who are older and uniquely experienced to work on their own.

The end result is that I have my homework for the summer.  I need to digest this program and figure out how to present it in a way that fits my kids.  That will give me some ideas on when and how much I want to close the doors, which in turn will help me set dues.  As I move forward I will keep you informed.  Some of you might be curious, and one of two of you readers might have kids in the club next year!

It’s Your Move!

Well, I guess not this time!