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My four-and-a-half year old son is learning chess. He's got the moves of the pieces down and understands how to checkmate with two rooks (or rook and queen).

I've read some good suggestions in this question for how to teach chess other than by playing games. This question is more concerned with how to make a normal game between the two of us fun for both players.

So, what are some ways that I can handicap myself so that I can play as best I know how, but still not win every game we play? I've tried starting without some of my pieces, and that seems to work well, but I've read in a couple of places that this is not a good idea -- why? The other option I've considered but not tried is a very short time limit for my moves.

Note: I'm hoping for answers that will apply to two adults with varying skill levels as well.

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Nimzowitsch gave the A-rook and moved the pawn to a3 to compensate. I do not know if he won anyway. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Sep 29 '13 at 7:48

4 Answers 4

up vote 17 down vote accepted

There are a variety of ways to level the playing field in chess. The two most common methods are material advantage and time odds, although there are also a number of more exotic handicaps that one can conceive of (e.g. giving away free moves, requiring a given piece to give checkmate, allowing the King to move two squares, etc).

With material handicaps, you give up some of your pieces, to the advantage of your opponent. This type of handicap has the advantage that it is simple to tune, and can be easily adjusted to correspond to the difference in strength between the two players. This form of odds was very common in earlier centuries, prior to the invention of the chess clock.

The main disadvantage to material handicaps is that a game played with such a handicap is quite different to an equal game. Without a Rook, for example, one cannot castle on that side. Strategic decisions may also be skewed by the weaknesses arising from the missing pieces. For example, you might prefer to focus your efforts on the side of the board missing your opponent's Knight, simply because the piece is absent. In this sense, one can argue that strictly speaking, the game you are playing is chess-like, but it is no longer chess. So there is a philosophical argument here as well - material handicaps are inelegant, and inherently unfair.

With time handicaps, a chess clock is used to disproportionately limit the thinking time of one of the players. For example, you might play with only two minutes of time, while your son has, say, 15 minutes. This effectively limits the depth of your thinking, without changing the conditions of the board itself. Time handicaps are preferred among chess players with even a little skill, because they do not change anything about the game itself, and they allow both players to have a satisfying experience. Psychologically, time handicaps feel more fair than arbitrary material adjustments. However, playing against a clock is a skill in itself, as is making effective use of the extra time you have available. This makes time advantages less effective for chess beginners.

Recommendations: For beginners and children, I would start with material advantage. It's easy to do, and children can easily understand the advantage ("oh, you don't have a Queen!"). As they improve, you can steadily reduce the advantage, until ultimately if all goes well you will be playing on even terms. The problems of material handicaps are just not an issue when you are still learning the basics. Equally important, having more time is not much help without reaching a certain minimal level of competence. You need to know what to think about before being given extra time to think is helpful. Once you have a bit more experience, consider moving to using a chess clock with different time limits for each player.

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Note that a good player also thinks in the opponents time. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Sep 29 '13 at 7:50
I have three small kids, and I have a notebook by which I keep track of the material advantage that I give them. I also log the games (we don't play that often). When I start losing way more than I win, I reduce the material advantage they start with. They objectively see their improvements over time with this method. I use this strategy for Checkers and cribbage as well. – John Apr 6 at 2:29
It is true that a good player thinks in the opponents time, but tactical opportunities tend to be more difficult to notice in the heat of the moment during your move. Positional skills will remain about the same since they tend to be thought about during the opponents time. – mojo1mojo2 Sep 19 at 1:59

There are a few handicap ideas I use:

  1. Material Advantage
  2. Time Advantage
  3. Swapping colors midway through the game

Material Advantage:

Depends on the difference in skill of the two players. For beginners playing against moderately good players, you can take off whole pieces such as Queens, or Knights (since Knights are notoriously good against beginners due to the strange L-shape pattern). Rooks and bishops are more straight forward, and could be used as deficits when the beginner has a better idea of how to play. I don't like the idea of large material deficits because it allows the beginner to think they can play more recklessly when the handicap is taken away.

For more advanced players, pawn deficits are often a good way to create balance. Peter Svidler says in this video that against a lowish 2000 rated player a f-pawn deficit proved to be one of the hardest and most fair games he has ever played. The f-pawn is the biggest pawn-weakness to make because it doesn't give any development advantages where any other pawn would. Hikaru Nakamura has had various pawn advantage handicaps against the chess engine Stockfish. With a b-pawn deficit, Stockfish won but with a h-pawn deficit, the game ended in a draw. I like these ideas because it immediately sets the player up to have a significantly weaker endgame if they choose to trade down. It also reduces their middlegame since they cannot create tension as easily, leaving the lesser skilled player with more control over the flow of the game.

The problem with material deficits, is that it does not scale very well. It is useful for absolute beginners but at higher levels, a one-pawn advantage requires the difference in player skills to be enormous. However, it does mean that opening theory is often disregarded, which is a learning-benefit since the players won't be able to rely on memorized moves and actually play the game to the best of their ability.

Time Advantage:

This requires the use of a clock, but is a fairly good way to create balance between players. The idea is to reduce the amount of time the better player has to think, which in turn leads them to have to play more intuitively rather than being able to calculate variations. This means that tactical blunders by the worse player are less likely to be noticed, and blunders by the better player become more likely. The difference in skill, will influence the recommended time controls.

I don't recommend 1 minute, because it is simply too fast to have to play for the better player (and will most likely lead to losing on time for most games). If there is a large skill gap, 2 minutes to 10 minutes can be fair, and reduce this gap as the less skilled player progresses. A good equilibrium can be figured out by playing a few games against the worse player to find where a sweet spot is. The better player will still have the advantage overall, but it is greatly reduced.

You will find that children don't use their time very effectively, if at all. When I was playing in juniors, if you gave players 10 minute time controls, they will have finished the game in under 5 minutes most of the time. It is important to emphasize that they think about their moves before playing them. This however can lead to the mindset that they should just wait 10 seconds before playing without actually thinking about any other possibilities. It can be difficult for them since their attention span is shorter than that of adults, but it is a useful skill in general to learn.

Color Swap:

While not great for a friendly game, it is a good learning resource for lesser skilled players. The game plays normally until the better player creates an advantage (the size of this advantage can depend on the difference in skill level) and then the players can swap colors to allow the less skilled player to figure out how to win. This teaches them how to win a won position, and if they can beat the more skilled opponent in a won position, their chances in winning against an equally skilled opponent will increase. Obvious drawback is that it doesn't teach the player how to obtain the won position, but that is generally pretty hard against a better player.

Extra Idea - Letting them win:

My personal favorite when playing against weaker opponents is to deliberately give them tactical opportunities which they can take advantage of. Not a true handicap, since I'm not forced to abide by this rule but it works well. I don't like to leave pieces en prise but wherever I can give them a fork, discovered attack, skewer, mating net, etc I try to allow it. If I deem that the tactic is too difficult for them to see, I will let them know that I have made a mistake for them to learn from. Against newer players, you might want to tell them every time you make a mistake, but as they improve you can talk less and see if they can figure it out on their own. As they improve, you can start to play more towards your normal skill level, and make fewer deliberate mistakes than you did before.

--- Edit ---

How the World Champion First Learned:

When Magnus Carlsen's dad was teaching him chess (at around age 6 before he started playing seriously), he would take away all his own pieces, so it would be 8 pawns+King vs Magnus' entire army. Even with this major disadvantage Magnus was unable to win. This is sourced from his Biography Wonderboy.

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Try something new. A new opening, or relying overmuch on an unusual piece.

This works best when the junior opponent knows how to play and is getting the hang of your usual opening, but you are still better. Try something wild and new, it might be a disaster, it might actually work, either way you might both learn something.

PS - Especially fun in bughouse chess.

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A "third" handicap other than material or time is a "propositional" game. An example is that you lose (or cannot win) if you have lost all your pawns before administering checkmate, no matter what else happens.

That proposition would lead you to play out your pawns more conservatively at the beginning of the game, and perhaps not use pawn storms.

Other propositions would be that you may castle only king side, or not castle at all. They would give your son an advantage by altering the dynamics of the game.

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