No stress chess - preschool edition
January 15, 2018 1:02 AM   Subscribe

Our almost-5-year-old kid really really wants to play chess. Being almost 5, he doesn't remember the rules or the ways the pieces can move, so he keeps accusing us of "cheating" and "not playing fair" and, well, you can imagine the end result. Is there an app for that?

I'm looking for online or desktop games, or Android apps for a normal or simplified version of chess which would at least enable him to get that "chess feeling" (chessboard + pieces) without getting into arguments with us and melting into an angry puddle of tears and snot. Normal chess rules are ok too, no need to be simplified, as long as it's easy enough for him to play.

(Apps/games because it's always easier to respect authority of neutral 3rd parties than your parents. I've seen the "No Stress Chess" board game, but using it would mean that it's again our "fault" if he makes a wrong move.)
posted by gakiko to Computers & Internet (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Just something to consider: what does "chess" mean to a four year old? He's only a pre-schooler. "Chess" means the board and the pieces. If they are like most preschoolers, they are going to get mad and blame someone when they feel frustrated. Board games in general are not really meant for 4 year olds; the ones that are usually are just counting and moving the piece ahead based on the number like Candyland. Complicated rules are going to be frustrating, and it would be a very, very unusual 4 yr old who wouldn't be frustrated even with a neutral source backing you up. "You're cheating" in preschool talk usually means "I'm mad that I lost that move." For a four year old the rules of chess could be anything, even just moving the pieces from one end of the board to the other based on a number value assigned to the pieces, with pawns being one and queens being five or whatever, with the numbers and their equivalent chess pieces posted on a chart. The kid isn't necessarily going to love feeling overwhelmed by the fact that developmentally he can't possibly out-strategize you and then have you backed up by some neutral authority -- "your'e cheating" is really a sign that he isn't ready for actual chess as you know it. I think if you want him to like chess later, reduce the frustration, let him feel competent and let the rules be rules he can master without an app telling him he's wrong. You could just call it anything, like "Family Chess," if you want to be meticulous.
posted by velveeta underground at 1:56 AM on January 15, 2018 [8 favorites]

My kid (a bit older) just started playing Othello/Reversi. It's a lot simpler than chess (and Go, despite looking very similar). It has a similar "grown-up game" look that the kid might like if that's part of what he enjoys about chess. There's still some depth to it however and some simple tactics to learn (edges are good, corners are really good) to help the kid learn some simple strategic thinking.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 2:44 AM on January 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think that chess is a big jump up from other board games, cognitively, because the pieces move differently from each other, and, furthermore, there are exceptions to the way they normally move (such as pawns being able to move 2 squares only on their first move, and the rule for en passant captures that was added as a consequence of this). This may be too much for young children to take in, really.

People have invented various simplified versions of chess because of this; here is one. You could make a small board by cutting up a vinyl roll-up tournament chess board.
posted by thelonius at 6:13 AM on January 15, 2018

Best answer: I was in a similar spot with my 4-year old nephew and had him play around on Lichess's "learn" page, where you can see how the pieces move. No Stress Chess card game sounds like a good idea though.
posted by starman at 6:22 AM on January 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

Play as teams. For instance...

junior teams up with mom. dad teams up with the cat.

Mom lets Junior call all the shots and move the pieces.

When/if dad (or the cat) takes a piece or calls check mate, Junior will be tempted to call cheating, but then mom can say 'no he didn't cheat, he made a super smart move! Shoot! REMATCH!' and model good sportsmanship to Junior. Junior might be more receptive to his 'team' saying that there was not cheating/chicanery.
posted by museum of fire ants at 6:22 AM on January 15, 2018 [11 favorites]

Yeah and for the record, my daughter used to accuse me of cheating on Candyland. WHICH IS A GAME PREDETERMINED BY THE ORDER OF THE DAMN CARDS!

So some of this is just a fact of growing up.
posted by museum of fire ants at 6:24 AM on January 15, 2018 [7 favorites]

Have you looked into this Beginner's Chess Teacher by Lakeshore? The moves are printed on the pieces making it easier to learn and remember; that may help with the arguments?
Also, as a side note and not what you asked, but by using this aid to learn the game he may be able to work through his argumentative nature instead of it being placated, you'll be doing him a favor in the long run. Good luck!
posted by NoraCharles at 6:29 AM on January 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My daughter has been doing chess at school since age 5. From her reports, they spent a lot of time the first year or so playing "pawn war," which sounds like they played only with pawns. Then I think they would add a piece or two and spend a lot of time on how that piece moves. I would try a more simplified version of chess like this. A quick google shows this blog with a person talking about teaching chess to kids using pawn war.
posted by Mid at 6:56 AM on January 15, 2018 [13 favorites]

We actually just got the No Stress Chess game for our son for Christmas and I think it's just arbitrary enough that it takes some of that out. The arguing does sound like typical age-related learning how to manage frustration and the cards with that set can help you point out that you are not making the moves, the cards are. You can practice learning to compliment each other on a clever move and take deep breaths when you feel frustrated.
posted by goggie at 7:03 AM on January 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:11 AM on January 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Does he want to Play Chess, or does he want to play around with chess pieces? It’s totally fine to, say, tell a story of a battle with the pieces or make silly rules. It’s also totally fine to play sort of open-hand, for lack of a better word. “Hey, before you make your move, I want to point out that I could capture your Queen on my next move. How could you prevent that from happening?” Or “I’m going to move this guy out of the way so that the bishop can get through” or whatever. You can do less of that as he gets a better handle on the rules and sportsmanship.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:58 AM on January 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

Teach him how to play checkers but use chess pieces. Be flexible with rules. Let him win, but not too much.
posted by Gnella at 8:43 AM on January 15, 2018

Best answer: I have a close friend who plays chess with his kindergartner daily and has since he was about 4. One of the things he did was draw index cards with the pieces and how they move (like this but one for each piece type), for his son to keep in front of him. I wonder if he did that for the exact reason your son is so frustrated now - so he could learn the moves. They had two identical sets, and held them like playing cards. Before a move was made, one of them would play the card first, then move the piece.

His son kept wanting to change the rules to make it easier to win, but his dad was like, nope, you've gotta play the card first and follow the movement pattern, that's the rules. Son kept pushing, until his dad said, "Once you beat me with this set, we can make new cards with new rules." And then one day his son actually legit beat him at chess, and together they made a new set of cards with different rules to play. Now they have a couple of different "sets" of cards for playing chess, all with different structures. The kid made up names for each of the different sets, but knows that others will only play "Classic Chess" with him.
posted by juniperesque at 8:54 AM on January 15, 2018 [13 favorites]

I taught chess to some five year olds recently. We started with just the rooks (stagger them at setup so they don't immediately kill each other) and the King. Then we added bishops, then the queen. This is a good way to learn strategy while keeping track of fewer things, and it actually gets the game to checkmate possibilities pretty fast.

However, nothing can make a four year old a good sport. :) I find that if I am relentlessly focused on keeping the game moving forward, it helps - I say "she got your bishop. Your turn!" They enjoy having their turn so they fuss less.
posted by mai at 9:00 AM on January 15, 2018 [2 favorites]

He might get a kick out of Really Bad Chess (free for android/ios). Real chess piece rules, but the game messes with the piece distribution which leads to really lopsided matches (in your favor, initially).
posted by neckro23 at 9:00 AM on January 15, 2018

When we taught my son chess (at 3) we mostly played "open book" - we'd narrate our choices and muse out loud about how we can attack and defend at the same time - basic chess strategy stuff. Now that he's 4 we often get 10-15 moves into a game playing "standard", without discussion or narration, and when things get really complex we start up with the commentary or point out big risks/opportunities.

We've also made a really big deal about shaking hands and saying "good game" after every game, and moving on in a friendly way.
posted by Cygnet at 9:04 AM on January 15, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, is he wedded to the adversarial aspect of it? Because if not, you can play by having him choose a bunch of pieces for each side and place them as he likes, and then the two of you work together: Now we're black, what should we do? Now we're white, how will we move?
posted by trig at 10:25 AM on January 15, 2018

"My daughter has been doing chess at school since age 5. From her reports, they spent a lot of time the first year or so playing "pawn war," which sounds like they played only with pawns. Then I think they would add a piece or two and spend a lot of time on how that piece moves. "

This is how I learned as a small child ... pawns and rooks first, IIRC.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:48 PM on January 15, 2018

Best answer: If he isn’t so into the adversarial aspect, I had many hours of fun playing imaginative games with the chessboard as a pre-schooler.

I knew how all the pieces moved (from watching a “how to play chess” OU programme that was on TV after Words and Pictures), so in my games (various adventures and escapes between two kingdoms) the pieces all had to move correctly. If the black knight wanted to talk to the white castle, it had to move over there like a knight. No pieces were ever taken, they just moved around the board acting out my stories.

If your child likes adventure stories, you could make up some together and your son could move the pieces into place. Far less high-stakes and more fun than an actual chess match!
posted by tinkletown at 2:19 PM on January 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

Playing chess is The Cool Thing To Do at my 1st grader's elementary school and they have a surprisingly robust after-school chess program there. They use an app and website called, which has the option to play live, but you can also play the computer and do leveling up activities without engaging with other people.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 7:27 PM on January 15, 2018

I realize this isn't exactly what you were asking, but have you considered taking this as an opportunity to teach your child how to appropriately deal with frustration ? I get that you went into this thinking you were going to teach them chess, but it sounds like they are asking you to teach them about managing frustration and appropriate responses.
posted by Oceanic Trench at 6:15 AM on January 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

My son started using the Dinosaur Chess app for Android tablet around the age of five. He likes the app and it really helped him learn the rules. It has tutorials and mini-games, and you can play chess against the AI.
posted by OrderOctopoda at 8:03 AM on January 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

My son started with around age six. There's an App that goes with the site, that includes good video lessons.
posted by fings at 8:58 AM on January 16, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your replies! I marked as best the answers that pointed me in directions I haven't considered before. Especially the imaginative play - of course chess is an abstraction of the battleground, how come I never thought of that?!
posted by gakiko at 3:07 AM on January 20, 2018

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