Half-term might be over, but kids at Charlton Manor primary have one reason to look forward to going back to school. MERCURY MAN meets Richard Weekes, who teaches children there and across London the joys of playing chess.
I needed a quick lie down before this one because the very thought of the subject – Richard Pittman Weekes II (his dad was the first) – brings on head-shaking mental exhaustion in your favourite freelancer.
I’ve been known to irritate people with my energy and enthusiasm (You can say that again – Ed) but mine is like the water fountain in Manor House Gardens compared to Richard’s daily torrent.
Richard teaches chess to kids. 300 of ‘em. Six days a week since 2006. At schools and clubs. All over London. Zipping here and there with his knights and bishops and kings and castles (Rooks – Ed).
But what really gets me is that he never, ever looks the least bit narcoleptic. He’s always buzzing. Before you meet him you need a lie down. And afterwards, you need a nap.
I’ve done a tiny bit of teaching myself: headlines, intros, interviews, etc, but only to small groups of would-be journos, six or eight of them.
Even then I had to hit the Glenlivet the moment I got back to MM Towers and turned on At The Races…
And if I may digress for a second (hmmmm… Ed), it made me realise how wonderful real teachers are and how Ofsted would be better served Ofstedding themselves instead of driving everyone bananas with endless box-ticking. And another thing…
How does he do it?
Anyway, the only really relevant question when I treated Richard to an extra-hot latte at Halcyon Books in Lee High Road (well worth a visit) was how?
How on earth does he do it? How does he keep up his relentless roster while appearing to tiptoe through the tulips?
(It’s taken you 262 words to get to the point. Can you *please* get on with it?! – Ed)
“Well,” grinned Richard, “I don’t get tired because I’m always upbeat. I’m managing, if I can, to get five hours sleep a night. I don’t feel like going to bed until about 1am. I’m up at six to pick up my grandson, Jaydon, and take him to school.
“My wife works as well so it’s all action from quite early. We chill on Sundays when I like to watch black-and-white films like Casablanca.
“With the children I try to engage them with different concepts. I give them tips and ways of exploring the game. Trying new things. Before we play we talk about what we’ve done before. When they answer a couple of questions correctly it relaxes them and they are ready for more.
“I always try to teach them something new. It can be daunting but I tell them not to worry and that I will explain it in ways they can understand. I try it all the time and it works.”
Richard’s key quality, though, is his personality. He’d cheer Kafka up.
“You have to let the children know a little bit about you. You have to intersperse your teaching with little anecdotes (Not him as well… – Ed). I might tell a joke or deliberately say one of their names wrong. Just the pronunciation is enough!”
‘Start with the board first’
Yes, but what about that moment when you’ve got a class full of kids and you’re introducing them to chess for the very first time? Look what it did to Donald Trump.
“I start with the board first,” said Richard, originally from Kilburn but now long settled in Plumstead.
“The board is the battlefield. I also tell them that everything comes from their mind and how clever their minds are. Then I introduce the key piece – the pawn. I explain to them how the pawn moves, then we play a few games just with the pawns. Chess can be seen as a difficult game but it’s not complicated, it’s complex. But if you break it down for a child they get it.”
(Aside: I popped into that amazing primary school, Charlton Manor, the other week to see how the bees were doing and happened to pass Richard’s class full of seven or eight-year olds. You could have heard a pawn drop on a shaggy rug…)
(I don’t know how I let you get away with that – Ed).
So what’s the best age for a youngster to start learning the game? Richard, predictably, didn’t hesitate.
“Six,” he said. “That’s when children cognitively start to understand ideas. I did a lot of research and found out that the things they learn at six stay with them from seven.
“If they learn how to capture and move around the board it will stay with them. Then I build on it and build on it. The children keep me young. They make me laugh. They’re looking for new information and they need encouragement for that. So give it to them, check what you’ve told them and then move on to something else.
“I don’t know where the idea came from to teach children chess. Sometimes I think it just found me. At my clubs (he’s got half a dozen) I have to get the parents to take them home because they enjoy it so much an don’t want to go.”
The journalist in me wants to tell you about 61-year-old Richard’s time as an engineer, a mini-cab driver and – believe it or not – a private detective. But teaching kids chess is his thing, his passion. He thinks it should be far more widespread, advertised on the backs of buses.
Until then he’ll carry on tirelessly through www.rwcworldwide.com or call him for a chat on 07538 035896.
Me, I’m just popping upstairs for 40 winks.
Got a story for Mercury Man? Or a tip for Wednesday’s races at Kempton Park? Drop him a line at mercuryman.853[at]gmail.com or leave a comment below.