I was born in 1950, the older son of a non-academic and non-chess playing family. My father started his working life as a painter and decorator, served in the Royal Artillery during World War 2, and later qualified as a teacher of arts and crafts.
From the day I started at primary school it was immediately obvious that I wasn’t like other children. I’d already learnt to read from bus adverts and road signs (my mother always said I taught myself), but struggled socially, having difficulties connecting and communicating with other children. I also had serious problems with physical activities, which involved both gross and fine motor skills, balance and coordination. Today, children like me would be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and developmental coordination disorder (dyspraxia), but in the 1950s these things were not yet understood. I spent my childhood being physically and emotionally abused by my father (a good man with one fault – a short temper, who did what was thought to be right at the time) and bullied at school for being unable to do things that others took for granted.
I continued to do well at school and won a free place at Latymer. At first I showed an aptitude for learning languages, as a result of which I took my O Levels and A Levels a year early. But then I hit problems: it became clear that I had what you might consider a higher level learning disability which would probably best be defined today as a form of ADHD. I only achieved low grades and ended up studying computing at what was then Leicester Regional College of Technology. Although I just about completed my degree, because of my poor interview skills, I had no idea how, or even if, I was going to get a job. (As it happened, I was lucky enough to get the first job I applied for, and stayed there until chess took over my life, but that’s a story for another time.)
But fortunately I had a parallel life in chess. For Christmas 1960, Santa brought me a small pocket chess set. My father knew the moves, but nothing else: once I could beat him he wouldn’t play me any more. My mother never learnt, nor had any interest in doing do. On my first day at Latymer the following September, my parents advised me to take my pocket set with me as a communication tool. If I stood there holding it, another boy would challenge me to a game. The first game I played, my opponent captured all my pieces and mated me with two rooks. I also played on the train to and from school, and when my parents saw that I was becoming interested they bought me a book so that I could teach myself to play properly. Within a few years I was able to beat everyone in my form at school, so my father took me along to Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club: I’m still a member now.
I never felt I belonged in the real world, but in the world of chess I was able to make friends with whom I had much in common. I never wanted to be a grandmaster, but was more than content to be what I was: a reasonably proficient club player (I’ve played at about 2000 strength since the mid 1970s). By the time I finished my studies I knew that chess was going to be my life. But if anyone had told me I’d spend 30 years running the most successful children’s chess club in the country, a best-selling author and a much-loved mentor to two generations of children I wouldn’t have believed them.
As the years went by I gradually realised that primary school chess clubs, while superficially wonderful, only provided short-term fun rather than retention, and that children from my background no longer developed a lifelong interest in chess. The game I loved was becoming more elitist and less inclusive.
I started asking all sorts of questions, and, now retired, I had time to consider a very different approach to promoting and organising children’s chess, one that would attract children like me, from my sort of background, and to produce a wide range of coaching and other materials.
I have three new websites.
www.chesswithrichard.uk (this site) will follow my life in chess, explain my philosophy and advertise my products and services.
www.spectrumchess.uk suggests a new form of community based chess club for families and children, taking a proactive approach to targetting the sort of children who will really benefit from learning chess, and promoting chess primarily for its social benefits.
www.chess1500.uk looks at the wider picture, investigating how regional and national chess organisations might take a different approach to junior chess, looking at building communities and forging friendships rather than producing prodigies and champions.
If you’d like (your children) to learn my way, or you’d like to teach my way, do get in touch via the contact page.