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Raising an international chess star

Joe at the European Chess Championships
Joe (right) at the World Cadet Chess Championship

Usborne author Katie Daynes reveals how she was inspired by her own international chess star son Joe, to write a new chess book for children.

On a wet holiday in a farmhouse in Sicily, my husband Malcolm found a chess set and decided to teach our three-year-old daughter Rosa the game. She listened patiently, learned how the pieces moved and played along in a first, tentative game.

Then she turned the tables.

‘We’re playing my rules now,’ she said, and she introduced her own game of happy families, with the queen and the king as the mummy and the daddy, the bishops and knights as the aunts and uncles, the rooks as the grandparents and the pawns as the children. Malcolm begged to differ, but was told pointedly that she’d already played his game, now it was his turn to play hers.

Rosa playing her unique version of chess with Malcolm
Rosa playing her unique version of chess with Malcolm

It was a few more years before Malcolm dared to get a chess set out again. This time it was for our three-year-old son, Joe. He’d been obsessed with Snakes and Ladders for several months and Malcolm was bored of playing a game that relied entirely on chance. ‘Let me teach you a proper game,’ he offered.

From the start, Joe was hooked. He loved the way each character had its own role and way of moving. Unlike his sister, he wasn’t inclined towards imaginary play, unless it was Obelix beating up the Romans, but the rules of chess gave him a structure and a challenge which instantly appealed. For the first time since he could walk, he didn’t snuggle into our bed in the morning, but snuck downstairs instead to play himself at chess. Soon the only way I could get him round the supermarket was by pretending to be chess pieces on the black and white checked floor.

Joe discovering his love for the game
Joe discovering his love for the game

My own chess knowledge was rather limited, but fortunately one of my first jobs at Usborne had been researching web links for the Usborne Starting Chess book. I rooted out a copy, swatted up on the basics and managed to beat Joe a couple of times before his understanding escalated far beyond my reach.

And he was still only four.

As he pestered me to play him at all hours of the day, I found myself desperately googling local chess clubs and winging an email off to the Lancashire Chess Association. Before long, we were entering a strange new world of junior chess competitions, school chess clubs and, once my husband’s chess knowledge was exhausted, even a chess coach. I struggled with this last decision, but Malcolm pointed out that we were already happily paying for Rosa to have piano and ballet lessons – it was no different to support Joe in a hobby he was passionate about.

And so our crazy chess journey continued. Joe became Lancashire U8 champion, Northern U8 champion and then English U8 champion. An invitation to the World Cadet Championship followed, taking place in Batumi, Georgia.

Playing a three-hour chess game in a massive sports hall only to lose against a Russian who’s been coached by a grandmaster might not be everyone’s holiday of choice, but Joe came back buzzing. He’d got his England shirt, been part of the England team and together they’d played table tennis and football, gone out for pizza and watched DVDs back in the hotel room. This solitary board game had enabled our son to grow more sociable and confident by the day.

England chess team
The England chess team (featuring Joe!)

The chess bug even rubbed off on Rosa, who earned a place on the Lancashire U11 chess team – once she’d agreed to stick to the standard rules.

When I heard that Usborne were planning a new beginners’ chess book, I instantly put my hand up for the job.

‘But you’re the worst chess player in the family,’ piped the kids, incredulously.

No matter. I’ve got Joe and Rosa to turn to for advice, not to mention Joe’s brilliant chess coach, Sarah Hegarty, who’s acting as our expert consultant. And I have first-hand experience of how chess can be enjoyed from a very young age.

I’d encourage every parent to get out a chess board at some point, however sketchy their own knowledge. 800 English primary schools now have chess as part of their curriculum. It does wonders for your concentration and strategic thinking – and who knows where it might take your child!

My First Chess Book by Katie Daynes is available now.

Katie Daynes

Tags: chess

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