Chess parents and others

There has always been a fairly strong tradition in home education for parents to push their children to develop one talent or ability to the exclusion of all other interests. The intention is usually to create some sort of genius in a particular field. Ruth Lawrence and mathematics, Venus and Serena Williams in tennis, Judit Polgar in chess; there are many examples of this, all overseen by home educating fathers. Now there is a fine line between encouraging a child in a pre-existing interests or hobby, as opposed to deciding on the child's behalf that this is what will happen. When a parent remarks of his child, ' These children are like racehorses, You've got to look after them very carefully to bring the best out of them' , one feels instinctively that this line has been crossed!

The above comment was made by the father of a home educated 'chess genius', Peter Williams of England. He is typical of the intensive, genius producing school of home educators and the path which he has chosen for his son is of course that of chess. Chess has, over the last decade or so, become very popular for this sort of thing. There are good rewards to be gained, not least a Chess Scholarship at Millfields independent school in the West Country. I used to be pretty involved in the chess world myself; my daughter used to attend tournaments and win trophies regularly, although it was never more than a hobby. There were a fair few home educators in the game at that time, many of them parading their kids like racehorses or greyhounds. For these people, chess was anything but a hobby; it was a matter of life and death. I cannot tell readers the feverish atmosphere at these tournaments. The child who lost a game would be interrogated and berated by the father. 'Why didn't you move your rook to E8? How could you have been so stupid as to lose your bishop so early on?' A not unnatural consequence was that the child who lost a game would be devastated and reduced to tears.

There are two problem with these single interest upbringings of the kind that the chess playing Williams family of Alton go in for. Firstly, there is no plan B. The child's education is typically focused upon just the one subject and everything else is very sketchy. For Ruth Lawrence, mathematics was the main thing in her life as a child and nothing was allowed to interfere with it. No wasting time playing with children her own age, or learning about the Tudors! There can only ever be a very few top people at tennis, chess or mathematics. For every child who makes it right to the top, there are many who do not. We seldom hear about these kids. The outlook for them is not very good. This brings us neatly to the second problem. When a child has been praised and told how wonderful he is and what a fantastic future career he has in the field chosen by his father, he often begins to value himself not for who he is, but for what he can do. A large part of his identity becomes bound up in being able to play chess, tennis or the violin really well. If he then fails to become the best, if he begins to lose ground, then this strikes at the very heart of who he is. And often, because of the unbalanced nature of such an upbringing, there is nothing to fall back on. Without the chess, there is nothing else; he is nothing else.

This can result in tragedy. The first child to win the Chess Scholarship to Millfields for example was one of four siblings, all of whom had been groomed for chess stardom by their mother. I attended the same chess club as them when they lived in Chigwell. They did not reach the pinnacles at which she had aimed and the result was that there was a good deal of psychological disturbance. The oldest son, as soon as he was bigger than his mother, began knocking her about in revenge for the times that she had shouted at him for losing chess matches.

There is always a risk in setting out to produce a genius. The risk is greatest when the child himself is told of the plans and begins to define himself as a genius. Those who watched the Channel 4 programme Child Genius will have seen some very peculiar children with some even more peculiar parents. The home life of Peter Williams and his son was featured on this programme and very odd it looked too. Nothing except chess and mathematics, the mathematics taught by a computer with a speech synthesiser. His only playmates were his father and grandfather; both chess fanatics. We were told that none of the children with whom the child had been at school would talk to him now and he himself said how sad this made him. Still, as he later remarked, looking at his father for approval as he said it, 'If you can play chess, you don't need school'. All the signs are that this child is not naturally gifted at chess, but that his talent is the result of many hours of intensive tuition by his father and grandfather. Despite some early promise, commentators in the chess world are dubious about his prospects for the future. Without a Plan B, things might not be looking so rosy for this child in a couple of years time. He could well be on course to become another victim of the genius producing, home educating fathers.