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How to raise an alpha kid: the super-rich parent's guide to chess. As The Queen's Gambit.

How you can raise a child chess genius, boosting brain function and resilience

The first lockdown piqued a new interest in chess among the younger demographic and families CREDIT: South agency/Getty Images

Children’s chess was having a major moment even before Netflix dropped its latest blockbuster. The Queen’s Gambit, a fictional story of an orphan prodigy who crushes male grandmasters, has been a word-of-mouth triumph. Parents are reportedly dashing to dust off or buy chess sets for their own proto-prodigies (while putting to one side the show’s, er, substance abuse subplot).

But it was the first coronavirus lockdown, starting in March, that really shook up the ancient game, despite the havoc it wreaked on clubs and tournaments. “It’s been totally unprecedented,” says Malcolm Pein, a former child prodigy and the Telegraph's veteran chess columnist. “We’ve had this huge bonus of not only parents wanting to find constructive activities that they can do together with their children, but also that chess is something children can do alone. And it’s also absolutely perfect for the internet.”

Online chess sites have seen a surge in people playing online since the first lockdown CREDIT: Getty Images

By the end of April, reported a “bonkers” rush in new members (the site has more than 1.5 million players in the UK alone). And it’s a trend that is folding into winter and the second lockdown, as tutors field inquiries and retailers report runs on chess sets.

With mountains of evidence to show that chess boost kids’ brains and prospects, there has perhaps never been a better time to get them on board. But how?

Why is it worth the investment?

“There are very few hobbies that also equip children with skills they need for life and careers,” says Pein, 60, who founded and runs the Chess in Schools and Communities charity. Chess, Pein says, teaches the power and importance of concentration, rewards hard work, promotes resilience, and shows that failure is “something that happens - it’s not who you are. You can always come back and win the second game”.

Studies repeatedly show that chess skills correlate with high reading ability, as well as memory and maths skills.

The most direct career application would be computer programming, Pein says. “Chess is about pattern recognition,” he explains. “And if you say to a kid ‘you’re going to learn to code, they might sit and do it if you’re lucky. If you say, ‘here’s a game you can play with your friends and siblings and you’ll probably end up beating me’, then they’ll learn these attributes through play. It gives children skills for the new economy.”

Perhaps our most prodigious coder is Demis Hassabis, a London-raised child chess genius who moved into computer science and neuroscience. He co-founded the artificial intelligence company DeepMind in 2010 - and sold it to Google four years later for £400m.

Where is the very best place for your child to learn?

There are few more accessible pursuits, nor more universal games. A three-year-old is capable of learning the basic rules of chess and any kid can enjoy it with the most rudimentary chess set and instruction. But rewards await those who go deeper.

Pein says chess books for kids are a useful and affordable first step. Chess for Children, by Grandmaster Murray Chandler, is an enduring classic with lively illustrations (Chandler is also the author of How to Beat Your Dad at Chess for slightly more advanced kids). The game also lends itself to interactive learning. Pein heaps particular praise on Fritz & Chesster, an award-winning CD-Rom that is now available for download and as a phone app, in which children learn via a series of animated games and contests built around the titular characters.

Children of different ages at a chess club tournament CREDIT: Alex Potemkin

Further online resources include Chesskid, a huge global platform of games, puzzles, and lessons designed for young players with tons of online safeguards.

Outside the home, Pein recommends joining a chess club, lockdowns permitting (he says the Chess in Schools charity can help direct parents to one, or seek out a tutor, who can offer lessons on Zoom if necessary). Grandmasters are often approached by parents to give their children one-to-one coaching.

“But it’s better to find a very good teacher than the greatest player,” Pein warns. Top players may also have little patience for all but the most promising kids (Pein politely turns down ambitious parents pretty regularly). Tutors can be found via clubs or it’s worth contacting Chess in Schools or the English Chess Federation for advice.

Many private and grammar schools have chess clubs but it is not a part of the national curriculum CREDIT: Seventy Four/Getty Images

While Pein campaigns for more state schools to offer chess - and ultimately for chess to be part of the national curriculum - private and grammar schools are great places for children to develop skills. Almost all have a chess club. Westminster, St Pauls, and Manchester Grammar have always had good reputations, and North London Collegiate School is the best place for girls. Millfield in Somerset has its own grandmaster in Matthew Turner, the school’s head of chess. Very talented kids who play a few tournaments will get an English Chess Federation grade, which they can use to track progress in the ranks. The very best children are identified by their grade and invited to attend the federation’s academy - a launchpad for the big time.

What’s the best age to get serious?

“The younger the better,” Pein says. He says most kids aged three and a half will quickly learn how to lay out the pieces and learn how they move. Any age thereafter is fine, but only if the child shows interest. One of the great advantages of chess, Pein says, is its blindness to age.

Pein suggests children can start learning chess from as young as three and a half years old CREDIT: Getty Images

“Children can’t compete with adults on a football field but walk into any chess tournament and you’ll see grown men being reduced to rubble by little children and it doesn’t bother anyone,” he says. Seriousness is relative but a child who shows promise and enthusiasm will need to play competitively every day and get regular tournament practice to develop and stay sharp.

What’s the experience like for both parent and child?

Competitive chess can be “incredibly cruel”, Pein warns. But that’s where much of its value lies. He finds an analogy in ice skating. “You can get to the last three seconds of the most exquisite routine and slip at the end and lose it all,” he says. “But you learn that a loss is merely a lesson and that resilience is vital.”

Yet Pein says it’s a misconception that chess has to be a solitary, nerdy pursuit played by mute monomaniacs. It is above all a social game. At the same time, as with any sport, dedication requires sacrifice and - often - a crunch time when a child moves up to secondary school. “Children who are good at chess are often good at everything but at some point, you have to decide whether you’re going to carry on doing football practice on Saturday or go to that chess tournament,” Pein adds.

Pein advises against children playing chess with parents and instead of learning from coaches for those who want to compete on a serious level CREDIT: Westend 61/Getty Images

Child chess can be loneliner for the parent than the child, and make the football touchline seem like a walk in the park. “The biggest thing to remember is that you know nothing,” Pein says. “I’ve seen so many children’s progress hampered because the parent thinks they can read the game or know something clever about openings. Leave it to the coaches.”

Pein runs regular tournaments and always forbids parents from even being in the same room as their kids. That can add to the burden on a chess mum or dad, who will also clock up thousands of miles driving to uninspiring school halls. Each family must decide whether the huge joys and benefits of competitive chess outweigh the commitments.

Where can I get the best kit?

Beyond the books and apps that help a kid learn, he or she only needs a basic chess set. Pein recommends a simple wood or plastic number made in the Staunton style, the most recognizable design for chess pieces used at the competition level. Avoid fancy or themed sets in which the pieces can be harder to identify. “You just want a functional boring one, not a Lord of The Rings set,” Pein says.

What do the former child prodigies say now?

“Playing the game seriously at such a young age was an extremely formative experience and the transferable skills I honed through chess have continued to influence and inform all aspects of my life.” Demis Hassabis, CEO and Co-Founder of DeepMind and former England junior chess team captain.

How much does it cost?

Even with books and an app, plus a standard chess set, a child can easily be set up for future grandmasters for a lot less than £100. But one-on-one tutoring will inevitably add a lot more to the bill - anything from £40 to £150 per hour, Pein says. Tournament fees are small but the cost of travel will mount for any child who - lockdown permitting - follows his or her dream around the country.