Chess Training Materials

Review of the Level 1 Package
By GM Patrick Wolff

Chess Life, July 2002

Professor Chester Nuhmentz, Jr.
Chess Training Material, Level 1

The training material consists of seven colorful books, clearly designed and written for young children who are just learning to play chess. The titles of the books are:

  • Chess 911
  • The Chess S.W.A.T. Team, Assignment Book
  • The Chess S.W.A.T. Team, Map Book
  • Is There Any Escape?
  • Roundup at the KR Corral
  • Unmask the Impostor!
  • Whodunnit?

The books come with a flyer that explains the chess exercises in this Level 1 material are intended for students who already: know how chessmen move and how to make captures; understand basic chess concepts such as a check, checkmate, stalemate, and castling; have played at least a few full games of chess; and are familiar with the basic idea of how squares on a chessboard can be identified by using letters and numbers.

The same flyer tells us that the chess exercises in this Level 1 material are designed to help students to practice these skills: recognizing key patterns -- checks, checkmates, stalemates, pins, forks, skewers; using a king and rook to give checkmate; identifying strong and weak opening moves; recognizing positions that are checkmate, stalemate, or neither; systematically looking for the three ways to get out of check; and using basic chess notation skills.

These explanations are generally accurate, although none of the books really covers the topic of "identifying strong and weak opening moves". The book that comes closest to this goal is Unmask the Impostor, although it focuses more on evaluating who has played the game better up to a certain point than it does on which particular moves in the opening are strong or weak. The list of skills these materials are intended to teach is a sensible list for the level of player to which the items are aimed. (Although I would have added another topic, "Recognizing when you can safely capture one of your opponent's pieces, and when your opponent can safely capture one of your pieces", to the list.)

But just as important as having a good list of skills to teach is teaching the skills in a way that fosters an understanding of chess. Some of the books in this package do this better than others.

One of the best books for teaching an understanding of chess is Unmask the Impostor!. In this book, the reader is given a fanciful story of how a game ostensibly played between two grandmasters is actually a game between one grandmaster and one impostor. The reader is shown a position from the game and challenged to "unmask the impostor" by using the position on the board.

The reader is also given a list of eight characteristics to check that apply to the position and told to select which ones are evidence of the side he or she has chosen as the impostor. While the positions could have used some editing by a strong chessplayer, in general the positions and descriptions shown are accurate. This is an excellent training tool for a beginner to recognize the difference between good and bad chess.

Another excellent book is a pocket-sized book called Is There Any Escape?. In this book, the reader is shown a number of positions. For each position, the side to move is either in checkmate, in stalemate, or in check but can escape (in which case the reader should find the move to escape from check). This is an excellent training device!

One book that is not as good at fostering an understanding of chess is Chess 911. The reader is given a set of positions where one side is in check. Each position is a "911 situation", where the reader must: report the location of the chessman who is giving check; draw a circle around every chessman who could be sent to capture this attacker; draw lines to show every move that White could make to block the check (for some strange reason, every position has White in check, never Black!); and list all the squares (called "addresses" for the "911 dispatcher") where the king may go.

This exercise would be much better if the reader was given some indication of which moves are good or bad, and why. For example, which moves lose a piece or allow checkmate, and which moves win material. Structuring the exercises in this way would have made them far more instructional.

Overall, these training materials have a number of excellent characteristics, including: each book focuses on one useful chess topic; each book is very colorful and visually attractive; and each book is cast in an imaginative story that engages the reader.

There is a website associated with the fictitious author (www.professorchess. com) that has more information and materials. These materials are clearly designed for children, and they have been written to hold the attention of even quite young children.

As mentioned above, some of the materials are better than others at teaching chess understanding. The quality of the layout and "story" material differs among the books as well. For the most part, the layout and the story for each book are terrific, but in Chess 911 and The Chess S.W.A.T. Team the layout is sometimes confusing, and in the case of Roundup at the KR Corral, I personally found the Western theme overbearing and tiresome.

I also believe the materials would have benefited if edited by a chessplayer of at least master or senior master level. This would have ensured that every detail of each position was attended to, and that the evaluation of each position was accurate.

Nevertheless, I do not want to detract from the overall excellent quality of this material. While there is room for some improvement, I believe for young beginners this material is superb for holding their attention, entertaining them, and teaching them chess!

Copyright 2002 The United States Chess Federation

GM Wolff

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