I first beat Mike on our honeymoon. We were staying at some small B&B in California, and it was raining that day. Moodily, we poked around the nooks and crannies of the ground floor, until we came upon a window seat, complete with a chessboard. It was one of those beautiful, carved things — we were immediately drawn in. Our game lasted hours, and Mike, who fancies himself something of a strategist, finally eyed me over the top of the board. “Well, well, well,” was all he said.
I’ll admit: he most often wins. I’ll get distracted, or I’ll get mad and make rash moves, or I’ll go on the offensive so hard I’ll forget about my king (such a weak piece — surely we’re better off without?)…but I do love the memory of that very delicious victory.
How To Teach Kids To Play Chess: Our 5 Favorite Products
So when we had kids, obviously they were going to learn how to play chess. We’re not attempting to raise grandmasters or anything, we just both consider chess a life skill, like riding a bike, learning how to swim or properly ordering a drink.
So back in 2013, when Mike and I watched Brooklyn Castle, a documentary about a junior high chess club in Brooklyn, I reached out to Elizabeth Vicary, the coach. “I have a three-year-old, a baby, and a blog,” I wrote, “and I’d like to talk about getting kids into chess…and also get my own little guys into chess. Do you have any advice?”
Elizabeth declined an interview, but sent me her entire chess curriculum. She also shared with me her top chessboard for kids (even little kids), and her favorite book on how to teach kids chess.
Fast forward seven years…my boys love chess. It’s something we now play as a family — whether the 1-on-1 traditional game, the puzzle-solving of solitaire chess, or chess drills disguised as games (the pawn game comes to mind). Much has been made about the benefits of learning chess (see: Does Chess Make Kids Smarter or 10 Benefits to Playing Chess) and while the increased focus, critical thinking, creativity, etc., are great, the reason we play is because chess is fun in a unique, long-term and challenging kind of way. It’s rewarding to try and get better, to learn new openings to surprise your opponent, or — Mike, I see you — to stay up too late at night in bed, playing that chess app to give you an edge over your son.
Anyway, I highly recommend the game. And if you haven’t yet learned…it’s never too late. Chess becomes more and more fun the more you know. So if you recently watched The Queen’s Gambit and want to play, or if you are wondering how to get your kids into chess, here are the five things that have really worked for us over the years (and a huge thank you to Elizabeth, for indulging one mom’s questions all those years ago).
NOTE: All links below have been updated for 2022
1. The Best Way To Learn Chess: ThinkFun Solitaire Chess
When we bought this game, seven years ago, it looked a little different, but, rest assured, ThinkFun’s Solitaire Chess is the same game. For some reason, the recommended age range is now 13+, which I find baffling: Raines and Pax have been happily playing since they were 5.
The early challenges are designed to help you learn the movement rules for each piece, in a tactile, hands-on way. We’ve found that both boys basically learned chess fundamentals with very little involvement from us, just by using this game.
As you progress, the challenges get harder and harder. The ‘expert’ level challenges are the ones we now play, and it’s a race to see who can figure it out first. We’ll often choose a challenge, and then leave the game out on the coffee table. Whoever solves it first ‘wins’. And it sometimes take a few days (and many, many tries) before one of us can solve it. They’re tricky.
2. The Best Chessboard For Kids: A Traditional Tournament Board
This was a bit of advice from Elizabeth Vicary, all those years ago. I had made it a mission to find a chess board appropriately sized for my little guy’s hands…but she quickly disabused me of this notion. Instead, Elizabeth swore by traditional tournament boards, especially for kids. The pieces are large and weighted, so they won’t easily fall over, and the board itself is big enough that clumsy little hands can easily move pieces without knocking others down. Smaller, prettier chess boards can actually be really frustrating to play on.
I also love that these boards roll up, making them really easy to travel with, too.
Now that my kids are older, fun, design-y chess boards feel really special (and A rounded up some seriously gorgeous ones here), but if I had to pick just one, it would still be our old tournament board. And it doesn’t hurt that these entire sets can be picked up for around $50.
3. The Best Chess Books For Kids (We Use Them, Too)
This was the book that Elizabeth Vicary highly recommended. It’s an old one, though, so is tough to get a copy of. Books like this are helpful for quickly learning chess notation and lingo, both of which make other chess materials much more understandable. This one also contains pretty comprehensive strategy (openings, middlegames, endgames, etc).
Chess For Children (Chess For Beginners)
Because Elizabeth’s top pick has popped in-and-out of stock, I ended up also ordering this book, and this is the one we mostly use. This book also has a primer on chess notation, plenty of strategy, and a ton of games/exercises to play. It’s simple enough to pop open to a random page, read and then immediately play — you don’t have to read this book in one sitting, or even cover-to-cover. And I’ve gotta be honest: I prefer the simple language. Chess is already a pretty complicated game, so I appreciate the simplistic writing. We don’t have large swathes of time to Sit Down And Study Chess, so a book that I can pop open and immediately grasp the point is worth its weight in gold. (Even if the narration is coming via Kristy, The Grand Alligator of Chess.)
4. The Best App For Learning Chess: Chess.com
Chess.com’s app is freaking amazing. This is the app that keeps Mike up at night. There are lessons and chess puzzles and drills. You can play against the app, picking an opponent by level (adaptive, beginner, intermediate, advanced, master) or even set the computer to “celebrity” and pick a Grand Master (the computer will then play as that person, in their style of play). Or you can jump into an actual tournament, and play against others on the app. You can also send invitations to play to friends. The app also streams live ChessTV, so you can watch key matches in the chess world. We highly recommend.
5. The One Thing You Don’t Need, But Is Fun Anyway: A Chess Clock
If you find yourself wanting to get serious…using an actual chess clock is a good way to take things next-level. (Also a good way to prevent games from dragging out alllllll dayyyyyy.) Mike swears by the Chess Clock App on his phone (also for android), but I’m tempted to get an analog one for cuteness & nostalgia. Oooo…Etsy has vintage, Soviet-era chess clocks. Actually, eBay does, too, with better prices. Use the search ‘vintage jantar chess clock‘ to find them on eBay.
That’s it! Chess really has brought us many hours of enjoyment. Frustration too, honestly, and sometimes rage (haha)…but that’s life, right? There is something about learning a skill together that really seems to foster connection.
And, well…as they get older (and better) our chess-playing is now fostering what I’ll call healthy competition. Raines just beat Mike for the first time recently…which explains Mike’s late-night chess-app habit. He’s equal parts Proud Dad and NOT TODAY, SON.
Raines, on the other hand?
Well, well, well.
Watch out, Mike.
For the Pinners…