We’re into playing strategy games quite a bit right now. Blockus is one of the favorites. It involves placing uniquely shaped tile pieces onto a big grid according to specific rules, particularly that like colored tiles must not share edges but connect at corners. At first my strategy was to try to get rid of all the largest and most awkwardly shaped pieces right at the beginning so that I wouldn’t have the struggle of fitting them in when the board gets more crowded, but I soon began to realize that at times I needed those pieces; they could wind around other player’s pieces and allow me to access other parts of the board. So each piece is both a potential expense if one ends up stuck with it at the end of the game, but also a potential tool. In taking a turn and placing a piece one is gaining something and losing something. The giving up part of Blockus is a bit different than in Chess, because in chess a piece can be useful in ways other than sacrificing it, while in Blockus the whole point of the piece is to let go of it at the right time in the right place.
We’ve been playing chess quite a bit this past month, and I decided that I wanted to learn more about how to play. I used to watch enviously the odd television show where someone would say things like, “oh, you’re making the such-and-such opening.” The part in me that loves patterns and stories and old names wants to know the names and stories behind different chess openings. What is the scholars mate or the Queen’s gambit?
I borrowed a couple of books from the library and discovered the first thing I needed to learn was how to read the notation. From the whites point of view, the files (columns) are left to right from A to H and the ranks (horizontal rows) are numbered 1 – 8, and what a perfect time to discuss the term “rank and file”!
The second thing I found I had to learn, after the notation, was that there are in fact library books on chess that rely very strongly on the notation with few pictures and other books that included many more pictures. Since I wanted my children to learn chess along with me, I choose the ones with lots of pictures, starting with Play Better Chess by Rosalyn B. Katz & David Lawrence Katz. This book is fairly simple and although I found it in the adult section of our local library the book is simple enough for me to give to my seven year old directly. It has large pictures. After discussing the movement of each piece and their strengths and weaknesses the book shows a handful of simple strategies such as forking (setting up so that one piece could capture either of two pieces) or skewing (setting up so that if the piece you’re aiming to capture moves you can capture a piece behind it).
The book Chess for Kids by Michael Basman has some little games. In one game white plays with just a queen and black with just pawns. White wins if it can stop black from queening, and black wins if it gets one pawn across the board. In a different challenge both players use only pawns to try to get across the board. I like using those and minigames like the ones on the King’s Chess Club website.
I also made a “Queens on the Moon” board. Queens on the Moon uses a special large moon-shaped board, so I wove one out of paper strips. The goal is to position four queens on the board so that every square is under the control of at least one queen but no queen can directly attack another. I used tokens to mark which squares the each queen could move to.
I had thought of having the children pretend to be castles, and I’d put one in the center of the board and one at the edge. I’d have two other children assigned to count the number of squares where those two castles could move. Then I’d repeat the demonstration with bishops, to show how rooks do fine along the edge of the board but bishops will have less squares to move to if they’re along the edge. I thought about placing a couple of kids as pawns and then ask children to choose to be either a castle or a bishop in moving around them. But the children were too busy playing chess, and that was good.