Outsmart the Guards, Capture the Flag

1/26/2008 – Igor Sukhin is a chess teacher with a method. The author of around 100 books – from chess to crosswords to mathematical puzzles – totalling around 1.3 million copies in sales, has developed special methods for teaching children the game. Especially 4-6-year-olds, for whom the study of chess dramatically improves their grades in school. Bisik-Bisik by Edwin Lam.

Chess teacher and author Igor Sukhin

Bisik-Bisik by Edwin Lam Choong Wai

Igor who? Well, Igor Sukhin is the author of the recently published Chess Gems: 1,000 Combinations You Should Know. Having written close to 50 chess educational books in Russia since 1991, Igor Sukhin is also the only chess author whose books have been recommended by the Russian Department of Education. Having reached Candidate Master’s playing strength in the early 1980s, Igor gave up his pursuit of chess glory and devoted himself to the development of methods of chess coaching to kids. With his daughters in pre-school, he created an original system of chess education aimed at general intellectual development. And, the result was impressive: both his daughters were straight-A students from elementary school through college. In this third Bisik-Bisik column, let’s listen to the wisdom of Igor Sukhin.

During a chess lesson at a preschool in Moscow in 2006

Edwin Lam: At what age did you learn to play the game of chess?

Igor Sukhin: I think I was about six years old and my father had taught me the rules of chess.

Subsequently, who was your formal coach in the game of chess?

My first coach, Igor Osipov, really helped me to understand the game. He analyzed my games and provided a lot of invaluable advice in all areas.

Can you share with us the name of your first-ever chess book?

Frankly, I don’t remember the very first one. But, there were a couple of books that made a deep impression on me: Chess by Ilya Maizelis, Kotov’s Chess Legacy of Alekhine and Aron Nimzowitsch’s My System.

How would you define your competitive chess playing strength when you were still actively participating in tournaments?

I think my level was typical for someone who started studying chess fairly late – I was a candidate-master. My highest rating was 2274.

What made you decide to give up playing chess professionally, and move on to coach kids, instead?

Chess teaches you to assess your strengths objectively. When I realized that to improve, I would need to give up a lot of other things in my life, I stopped playing in tournaments. At the same time, I was becoming more and more interested in the subject of introducing chess at elementary schools. There were very few books written on the subject, and I was happy to contribute my own ideas.

Did you set up a chess school to train the kids?

For the past 17 years, starting in 1991, I have taught chess to kids ages 4-6, in one of Moscow’s pre-school, Znaika-M.

Why this age group?

Since 1993, I have held the position of senior researcher at the Institute for the Theory of Education and Pedagogic in the Russian Academy of Education. Based on the works of numerous psychologists, including Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Piotr Galperin and many others, I have developed my own program of teaching chess to kids. I have developed a lot of interesting tools to help the kids learn about the individual pieces. They include special puzzles and games such as “An Army Of One”, “Outsmart the Guards”, “Capture the Flag”, “Labyrinth” and more. My other idea includes using a fragmented chessboard. Alongside the normal 8x8 chessboard, I would also use special positions on subsets: 2x2, 2x3, 3x3, etc. This way, it is much easier for the child to concentrate on the key issues. Compared to older kids, 4- to 6-year-olds are the toughest to teach; yet, that is what makes the task challenging.

Mated on f7! Igor playing chess with his daughters, Olga and Elena, in 1987

I also understand that you have now moved on to your next endeavor – teaching chess coaches. What is the focus when teaching coaches?

I think it is incredibly important to share experiences – to pass on to others what you have learned. And it is not necessarily limited to chess coaches; a lot of parents are interested in innovative ways of teaching their kids. The younger the kids, the harder it is for a professional chess coach to teach them. That’s why there are very few really young kids taking lessons. Yet, with the right approach, it can be done.

I understand that you are quite a well-known author of children’s educational books in Russia. Can you please share with us, on when did you make your debut as an author in Russia?

My first book was Adventures in Chess Country, published in Moscow in 1991. It is a book introducing chess to 5- to 7-year-olds.

Igor with his "canonical" chess textbooks for kids

Since 1991 how many books have you penned in Russian?

Around 100 titles, altogether. My books cover a lot of ground – from chess to crosswords to mathematical puzzles. Less than half of my books are about chess. The total number of my books in print in Russia exceeds 1,300,000.

I also heard that one of your chess books had been recommended by the Russian Federation’s Department of Education for all elementary schools.

More than ten of my books have been recommended by the Russian Department of Education. These books are given this seal of approval because they are the tools, not aimed solely to teach chess, but to teach kids to be able to think in their heads better! I am the only chess author in Russia to receive this honor.

Correct me if I am wrong, but, I believe that this "Chess Gems: 1,000 Combinations You Should Know" is your first book in English. Am I right?

You are absolutely right, Edwin, this is my first book published in English. My only other publication outside of Russia was La bolsita magica del ajedrez. El ajedrez para los mas pequenos published in 1992 in Spain. It is a chess book for little kids selected for publication by the Kasparov Foundation.

I absolutely loved your idea of arranging 1,000 chess combinations, from the shatranj days through to modern day Internet chess, in chronological order.

Thanks, Edwin. I am glad you share my fascination with the history of chess combinations! There are a lot of books about chess combinations. But, most of these books have the same flaws that reduced them to be just a collection of drills, whereby the combinations are categorized by themes and the second half of the 20th century is over-represented. In my book, the presentation is chronological which allows the reader to get a better feel for each epoch, and through the prism of combinations, survey the whole history of the great game.

Fittingly, you also managed to get Vladimir Kramnik to write the foreword to your book.

Frankly, it was my publisher, Mongoose Press who persuaded Vladimir to write the foreword. I am grateful to them for the superb job they did with the book. Vladimir really appreciates the history of chess and he felt that my book tells the story well.

What is your next chess project?

One of my goals is the ultimate introduction of chess into all Russian schools. Even though in many countries chess is making its way into the educational system, realistically it’s still 99 percent about competition.

At a seminar in 2003

There have been many instances whereby chess has helped students become smarter. What is your opinion on this?

There is a curious observation someone made recently: lots of people know who the top grandmasters are, but virtually no one has heard about the results in the area of chess education. Still, in the last 30 years, we have accumulated enough knowledge proving the benefits of chess for both adults and kids. One can easily locate the lists of these reports on the FIDE or even my own website. Needless to say, I am very supportive of such research and consider myself an active contributor to it.

Should chess be made a compulsory subject for students of all age groups in schools, colleges and universities?

Great players of the past such as Lasker, Tarrasch and Capablanca believed that chess should be an integral part of school education. I believe that there should be some chess education for all kids, followed by purely elective classes for older kids, beyond elementary school. Why hasn’t it happened yet? In a recent project in Santa Fe, Argentina, after introducing chess to all the 18,000 students, a survey showed that 27 percent have continued their interests in chess, 34 percent did not, and 39 percent stayed neutral. In my view there is only one explanation: the teachers couldn’t motivate and engage the kids. The kids are the same everywhere, the game of chess too. Therefore, the approach to teaching is what makes the difference!

Lastly, besides chess, what are your other priorities and interests in life?

My family is very important to me. Everything else is secondary. My wife and I have been together for 30 years and we have two lovely daughters. Besides chess, I read a lot as well as play tennis and football.

Earlier Bisik articles by Edwin Lam

Ni hao, GM Zhang Zhong and WGM Li Ruofan
10.01.2008 – Ni hao, pronounced second tone-third tone, is Chinese for Hello or Hi ("Ni hao ma?" means "how are you" and "Wo hun hao" means "I'm doing great"). After this short lesson in Chinese first encounters we bring you a portrait of the Chinese dream couple: GM Zhang Zhong, Elo 2634, and his wife WGM Li Ruofan, rated 2417. Bisik-Bisik (Malay for "whisperings") by Edwin Lam.

Bisik-Bisik with Viktor Moskalenko
15.12.2007 Bisik-Bisik is a word from the Malay Archipelago, and means the act of “whispering” from one person to another. Starting with this inaugural article Edwin Lam will seek to “whisper” to all our readers out there the previously unknown other side of his interview partners. He kicks off with a conversation between Edwin and Ukrainian Viktor Moskalenko, grandmaster, teacher and chess author.

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