Help a first grader level up his chess skills
March 20, 2016 12:00 AM   Subscribe

After a challenging chess tournament, my first grader wants to improve his chess game. I'm not very good at chess. How do I help?

My seven year old attended his first ever chess tournament today and won 2/5 games, which was awesome! But it was a really tough day for him. He's never been challenged like that before, took the losses very hard, and left with a bad case of trophy envy. Now he wants to play even more chess and go to more tournaments, which is great, but I'm afraid that if we keep doing what we've been doing he won't improve quickly enough for his tastes and will lose interest.

At home, we play occasionally, but I don't know any strategies or openings to speak of and we just wing it. (It's not uncommon for us to fail to notice somebody's been in check for a few moves.) I do still win most of the time, but I bet that won't last long, and Mom already can't keep up. Aside from that, he sometimes uses "Play Magnus" on the iPad, or plays his five year old brother which goes as you'd expect.

At his school he attends a weekly chess club. He says that the other kids aren't as good as he is. That might be an exaggeration, but I will note that only one other child from his school attended the tournament.

I'm hoping to find more things to help him start improving his game, ideally with a mix of things we can do together along with self-paced activities. He does great with puzzles and enjoys paper-and-pencil problems (plus he needs to work on his writing anyway). iPad is also an option to some extent but it's also easy to get distracted by Angry Birds.

Additionally I need to start learning more myself so I can speak the language and understand how to record and break down a game.

Any ideas?
posted by rouftop to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I would look for a good book on how to play chess. The one I got for us when my son was about that age took things a good pace (not too fast or confusing) and had lots of little exercises to practice what you are learning. You can read the book and do the exercises together - to help him translate what the book is saying and so you learn the lingo too.
posted by metahawk at 12:27 AM on March 20, 2016

Facebook's chess app is powered by It will match you with people of your level of skill, and you can set up multiple correspondence games (you have three days to take a turn). You could do this with your son and talk over the moves together. has lots of training exercises, but to access many of them you have to subscribe.

Chess is a game which, while you will get better by playing more, is certainly amenable to study as there are lots of lines of play to learn (setting up forks and pins, defending a pawn to promotion, how to mate with certain piece combinations)
posted by Cannon Fodder at 2:34 AM on March 20, 2016

I played scholastic chess but haven't played seriously since high school (and I wasn't really any good then). First graders are mostly in the stage where they get better by playing more and learning to slow down and look.

He might get something out of Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess (if nothing else, he'll be amused by the way the book is first read right-side up and then upside-down). Depending on his reading level, you might have to read it with him. It's basically a series of paper and pencil exercises teaching you how to think.

Sharpen Your Tactics is great and has no words. It's very likely too hard for him right now, though, but it might be worth a shot as something to do together. (I can't remember offhand how many of the exercises are one star (the easiest). Two stars is likely way too hard right now.)
posted by hoyland at 6:23 AM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I saved this last year when I started actively trying to improve my game. Some of the advice is probably too much for a child, but if nothing else, it should help you improve enough that you can then find a way to pass on some of your newfound skill.

In terms of apps, I never really liked Play Magnus. Too unstructured. I used to have a Daily Chess Problem app that I enjoyed, but it stopped updating. I'm sure there are others as well. There are a bunch of chess tactics apps out there too. If I could toot my own horn here a bit, I write a little script that generates randomized starting positions for you to play out of. It's not perfect, but it gives you something to think about.

Good luck!
posted by kevinbelt at 7:51 AM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ask the tournament organizers about any local chess groups. They should have connections with your local club. Adult clubs are almost always very happy to support kids. The best thing you can do is make it possible for your son to keep playing with kids about his own skill level. I believe him that the group connected with his school isn't serious enough for him. There's such a wide range of possible skill levels in chess.

A club will also be able to recommended chess teachers. A good chess teacher is irreplaceable.
posted by cotterpin at 8:20 AM on March 20, 2016

Get him a FICS account and a decent iPad FICS client. If he starts playing rated games on FICS and following along with the lectures its Lecturebot provides, he will improve quite quickly.
posted by flabdablet at 8:38 AM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, all his (and everybody's) FICS games are accessible for review on, which also has a tremendously useful openings explorer. is another very useful training site.
posted by flabdablet at 8:45 AM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Local library? Our children's library offers free chess games (and lessons) once a week after school. There are also many volunteers who enjoy playing chess and are happy to play any day of the week. Maybe your library is similar.
posted by eisforcool at 8:47 AM on March 20, 2016

Learning to let go of the attachment to winning is also a big part of getting better at the game. If you genuinely aren't bothered by being beaten - if it's not an ego thing for you any more - it frees your brain up to confront and analyze what's just been done to you, so that you can build that into your game the next time an opportunity arises to inflict it on somebody else. I know of no better way to improve rapidly at chess than being beaten up by superior players and paying attention to how they did it.

If you can help your kid to learn to enjoy an elegant victory regardless of whether it was his or not, you'll be doing him a great service.
posted by flabdablet at 8:52 AM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My son's been in weekly chess club at school (we live on the Eastside) with stellar coaches since Kindergarten. He's now in 5th grade, still playing. He had a difficult time transitioning from the protected, "everyone gets a trophy" kindergarten tournaments into the reality of experienced tournament players in first grade, so I can relate to your situation. He became really sad about not getting trophies and so I had a heart-to-heart with him about why he played chess, if he wanted to play casually or work seriously at it: go to weekly quad sessions at Chess4Life, get extra coaching, do all the tournaments, etc. He gave it some good thought (for a 7 year old!) and decided he wanted to play "for fun" and so we did a scaled back plan of ~3 tournaments a year and picked ones where many new and lower-ranked players were also signed up. You can check the rankings in the sign-up systems like on; often ones run by elementary schools will encourage all their chess kids to sign up so you get a good slate of novice players. We went to some but not all of the weekend sessions his chess club coach offered, did a week of summer chess camp, and basically kept it casual and fun. It's great that you want to learn alongside with your son as you can check in on his motivations and continued interest and whether to dial the learning opportunities up or down. My son is now over his trophy envy and plays chess to play chess, it isn't a cause for anxiety, and he's even qualified for State this year from just one tournament. He sees all the extra time and coaching the kids who get the trophies put in and seems satisfied with how he's approached it. Good luck!
posted by girlhacker at 9:55 AM on March 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

My 6 tear old is obsessed with, playing puzzles, watching videos, and playing games. Well worth the subscription in our case.
posted by fings at 10:13 AM on March 20, 2016

My chess teacher (expert level) recommends the book "How to Beat Your Dad at Chess".
posted by Soliloquy at 10:44 AM on March 20, 2016

As a 30-something trying to get better, I've found chess books are not the best, especially when you are just starting out. Books take a ton of patience and a strong understanding of notation.
A coach/mentor would be a good first step. It will probably be the most efficient way to learn.
Next best after that, I would personally recommend YouTube. ChessNetwork is one of my favorites. He recently starting publishing his "Beginner to Master" series which really takes a measured approach to learning the game.
The channel is decent for some basic opening ideas.
The Chess Club and Scholastic Center in St. Louis (which is really worth a visit if you are in the area) has really great lectures and breaks it down into different skill levels. Ben Finegold especially has a sense of humor that might go over well with kids.
It sounds like is worth checking out but my personal favorite site is Lichess. It has free analysis so you can see all your glorious mistakes and blunders.
I would also recommend learning endgame before openings. Also, simply playing a lot of games is not a good way to improve... maybe spend your time 10% games, 90% study.
(if he or anyone else wants a friendly opponent on lichess, feel free to MeMail me)
posted by starman at 10:50 AM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

(Also Lichess has a good tactics and openings trainer)
posted by starman at 10:53 AM on March 20, 2016

For you, I would recommend chess for dummies. I had a string of losses to my sister, read it in a week, then after checkmating her she msg'd me with "what changed? "
Notation, names, a little theory.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:12 AM on March 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

The best way to improve (until you are a lot better) is to do lots of tactics problems, and the best way to do lots of tactics problems is Chess Tempo. It keeps track of your progress and serves you problems that are selected according to your rating. I've seen many people on the forums there say that they've had good success using it with young kids.

I second the recommendation of looking for local chess clubs and stopping by. Just a little bit of human guidance can make a big difference.
posted by dfan at 10:39 AM on March 21, 2016

I agree the best way to improve is to do tactics training, but I think you need to learn what tactics is before you start hanging out on the tactics websites- that can lead to frustration.
I think Yasser Seirawan's books are good- Winning Chess Tactics explains it. (Others do too- I learned from Winning Chess)
I have heard good things about 'How to Beat Your Dad...', but have not read it. It looks like a book about opening traps though, rather than providing a solid tactical background.
Learn tactics, then learn a little bit about openings. (Seirawan is good here too)

...and learn some kind of notation to write down your games.

Some chess clubs are good places to learn, but some are not. My local library had a program for kids that was great. Check the web for local kids' clubs.
Or you could try Orlov if you have the bucks.
posted by MtDewd at 12:15 PM on March 28, 2016

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