‘Oh you can definitely learn it as a mere mortal. Nobody’s born knowing how to move a knight!’ After watching Netflix phenomenon The Queen’s Gambit, I am picking the brains of Jennifer Shahade, the two-time US women’s chess champ.
I’m relieved by Shahade’s assurance that there’s no need to be naturally gifted, but with Queen’s Gambit Beth starting at the age of nine, am I too old to learn? ‘No way! Older learners catch onto certain things more quickly, and they appreciate the beauty of chess,’ says Shahade, who learnt it while most of us were still eating mash via imaginary airplanes.
With chess set sales surging by 1,000 percent, I’m not the only one inspired by the series. So how can I set myself apart from all the other upstarts and come across as if I’m a doyenne of the chess world? ‘If you’re a total beginner playing with friends you might say “check”, but it’s rare for anyone to say that in a tournament because it’s unnecessary noise and it’s obvious anyway.’
Excellent! If Beth could rake in riches after chess tutorials from janitor Mr Shaibel, just imagine the dizzy heights I’ll reach learning from a Chess Olympiad silver medalist. Here’s what she has to say…
Kid at heart
Kids and grown-ups learn in a lot of the same ways. Repetition, for example, is valuable to both, so adults shouldn’t be afraid to use kids’ resources. It’s also fun being a kid again. Apps like ChessKid, Play Magnus, Magnus’ Kingdom, and ChessMatec are all great. They gamify the learning of the rules and you’re forced to practice the piece movements.
With a book, you don’t know if you’ve fully internalized what you’ve read, but if you’re forced to move the rook 20 times in a row, you know you’ve got it! I play Magnus’ Kingdom with my son. It’s like an adventure world and I would have loved it when I was a kid — or if I was learning as a grown-up! It doesn’t take long to learn the rules this way, and once you’ve got it, the practice opens up a lot.
Chess and reading is a marriage made in heaven and chess books are some of the oldest books in the world. The diagrams show you frozen positions in time, so you look at those and try to visualize them. It’s like Beth Harman seeing things on the ceiling, but it’s easier, because it’s there for you.
Chess books are great because they force you to think for yourself, and the combination of pictures and words makes it fun to read. While it’s useful to learn the rules online, when you’re a little better try books by British chess master Sabrina Chevannes, American grandmaster Yasser Seirawan and Canadian chess master Jeff Coakley.
Enjoy the tactile element of playing live with a nice wooden chess set. Escaping from your screen means you can focus on chess without checking emails. Play people about your level or better, because if you’re getting checkmated in four moves every game, it’s boring, and neither of you will improve.
Social distancing makes this trickier, so if you have a skill differential with the person you live with, experiment with ways of evening it out so you win about 50/50. Try giving one player more time than the other.
In The Queen’s Gambit, they had beautiful clocks, but you can use an iPhone app that’s like two stopwatches — so for each move, the newer player has five minutes and the stronger player has one minute. You can also do it with the chess pieces. So if your opponent is very good, maybe they try to win without one of their rooks.
If you’re both beginners, you can learn together. If a stronger player can watch, that’s great because they can tell you where you’re going wrong, or you can send them a photo saying: ‘We reached this position, what do you think?’
Once congregating is no longer restricted by COVID, join a chess club and go to chess events.
If you want to hire a chess coach, look on YouTube to find someone whose style you like, but who isn’t too popular to have time for you. It’s good to get a reference and also to check their rating on the International Chess Federation. For a beginner, a coach with a rating of 1,800-2,400 is plenty, because they’re many levels ahead of you.
A 2,600 rating might be overkill. It can be better to have a coach who’s not one of the best, because they might be able to explain better. Sites such as Chess.com have directories of chess coaches. There can be good deals if you sign up for lots of lessons at once, but just start with one to see how you like it.
The major sites, Lichess, Chess.com and Chess24, all have sections to learn chess. It’s good to play online because if you can’t do something, it won’t let you — so you know you’re playing with the right rules.
My friends who are serious chess coaches rave about the Steps Method, an intense program of getting better at chess, step by step. There are also great free videos. The Saint Louis Chess Club has lessons you can watch online and other YouTubers do the same.
Online group lessons are valuable because you can get a world class elite coach for a smaller price. Sign up with a friend and learn together, or see if you can meet a training buddy in the group. Although chess is an individual game, a lot of it’s social, and friends are helpful for getting better.
Don’t try to memorize too much at the beginning, but do memorize the names of the squares. So if I say a square’s name, eg ‘E4” you know if it’s black or white. All the books and videos use this language, and it should only take 10 minutes.
Do hold off for a week or two before learning about En Passant because it’s a confusing rule. It only comes up every few games — even less, probably – but once you learn it, you’ll understand why it needs to exist.
This article was originally published on Spectator Life.