It’s hard to play chess when you have a toddler who wants to get his hands on everything. Luke and Noah (our latest foster child) wanted to play together the other night. I managed to help them get the board set up but then I had to take Nathan into another room to keep him from grabbing all the pieces. In my absence, the game quickly devolved into cries of “You can’t move it like that; you’re wrong.” and “I just want to play the game and he’s not letting me!”
I realized that while Luke knows the rules of chess, he’s a little short on the diplomacy required to teach them. It doesn’t help that Noah gets very upset if he loses or is otherwise thwarted from his goals.
As I brushed my teeth the next morning, I pondered the problem and had an idea: what if I put the kids on the same team and had them play cooperative chess? Instead of pitting them against each other so that one of them is doomed to lose, I could be the opponent and give them enough of an advantage that they would be able to beat me reliably. The two of them would get the satisfaction of winning and I would get the satisfaction of a peaceful bedtime game.
I tried it out and it’s been working pretty well!
How to Play Cooperative Chess
Give each child a piece of the same color to control and take the opposing king for yourself. Rooks are good to start with. In later games they can graduate to two pieces, but keep it simple to start out.
Place each piece in its standard starting position. The kids take turns moving their pieces according to the regular rules of chess. Instead of taking turns in a circle (kid-kid-grownup), the grownup gets a move after each kid move (kid-grownup-kid-grownup). For the very simple game with just three pieces, the grownup wins by capturing one of the kid pieces and the kids win by capturing the grownup’s king.
(I think the concept of checkmate is a little abstract to start out with at this age. It’s hard to for them to pursue a goal if they can’t visualize it. Physically capturing the king is concrete and easy to understand.)
Our Initial Experiences
We played a couple of these basic rounds and it’s been great so far! I like how Noah gets to focus on learning one new piece at a time. It really cuts down on his frustration when he doesn’t have a constant sense of failure. He still makes the occasional illegal move but I can give him a gentle reminder and have him try again without too much drama. I also give him a warning if he moves a piece into danger so he can take a do-over if he wants to.
I think Nathan is old enough to learn basic board game etiquette (i.e. don’t knock down the chess pieces), but he can only learn to follow these rules if I give him the opportunity. Instead of limiting our games to times when he’s asleep, I’ve been letting him hang out at the table with us. There are plenty of extra pieces for him to play with and when he does take a swipe at the board, it’s easy to recover since we only have a handful of pieces in play.
Since then I’ve learned that it’s important not to let them talk me into adding too many pieces to the board and I shouldn’t let Noah join my team — at least not right before bedtime when he doesn’t have a chance to play again if he loses. The sweet spot for us right now is two pieces per kid plus a king for them to defend.
Though maybe next time I will see how it goes if they each get four pawns…