Murder on the chess board

Clare Maclure

The South London Chess Initiative aims to set up clubs for primary schools in the capital. Clare Maclure reports on the opening gambits of its crusade. When children at the Richard Atkins Primary School play chess in their after-school club, shouts of "I am going to kill him" ring out when they take pieces.

Macabre it may be, but it stems from the day they acted out a chess game playing the way medieval kings in Morocco liked to play with slaves as pieces who were killed off when captured by another. It was all part of the first lesson in a six-week course run at the school by Richard Pruce and Marek Turowski, who have developed an innovative approach to teaching chess. In less than two years they have introduced hundreds of primary school children in south London to the game.

When Richard and Marek go into a school, they immediately dispel any impression that chess is boring or only for eggheads. Weather permitting, they mark out a giant chess board in the playground and tell the story of the kings of Morocco. The lessons also involve stories about the history of chess and famous people, past and present, interested in the game, from Aladdin to footballer Glenn Hoddle.

"The boys tend to be more aggressive and we have to be aware so we can keep the girls interested," says Marek. "We have tried to find role models for girls. There are not that many well-known female chess players apart from the Polgar sisters from Hungary, so we also include famous people like Katharine Hepburn and Queen Elizabeth I."

They have made up mnemonics to help the children remember chess terms, such as "run a mile up a file" and "walk the plank across the rank". They also use a magnetic demonstration board and show the children the pieces a couple at a time. "But children want to get playing as quickly as possible, so we set up mini-games with just a few pieces," says Richard.

"When Richard came and drew a board on the playground, the kids thought it was wonderful. He got them very involved and interested. They still say 'I am going to kill him' when they take a piece," says Barbara Hogan, headteacher at Richard Atkins. "There was quite a lot of interest here before, but he really seemed to channel it."

Rita Meek, the headteacher of Horniman's Primary School, was impressed by the way Richard and Marek related to the children of different ages and ability. "They were very good with the children. Certainly they appeared to give good, clear instructions that the children could follow and they all got a certificate at the end, which was great. I was really surprised how much some of the children had learnt."

The two men have been involved with school chess since the summer of 1993 and have worked with about 30 schools, fitting their hobby in around their jobs. Richard (27) runs his own carpet cleaning business while Marek (26) is a removals contractor. When Richard went to clean the carpet of a primary school in Richmond, the headteacher mentioned she wanted to start a chess club in her school. He volunteered to do it and roped in Marek to help.

Another customer then asked Richard to give her eight-year-old son a game of chess. "He did OK, so I started teaching him. He then came second in a tournament and his school got to hear about it and got in touch," says Richard. This resulted in club number two. The third was Richard and Marek's old school, Dog Kennel Hill Primary in Peckham. The deputy head, Pauline Quinton, suggested they volunteer for a police check so schools would feel confident about them working with their children.

As their involvement with schools grew, the two decided to form the South London Chess Initiative, with the ambitious goal of setting up chess clubs in all the primary schools in the London boroughs of Wandsworth, Lambeth, Southwark, Lewisham and Greenwich. They wrote to more than 350 schools asking if they would like any help starting chess clubs. They also set about trying to raise funds for the project.

Not surprisingly, it has been easier to generate interest than money. About 30 schools responded quickly and further replies have trickled in. Richard and Marek designed their course to get schools going. After six weeks, they hope a teacher or parent will take over, running a regular club. They lend the school chess sets and other equipment, such as a demonstration board, clocks and books, for the duration of the course, and charge Pounds 10 per child.

Richard and Marek estimate that with Pounds 6,000 they could set up 30 chess clubs providing the six-week course and the equipment. In his pipe dreams Richard imagines each school equipped with a giant outdoor chess set as well, but at the moment these are beyond the reach of most schools and the funds of the Chess Initiative. Richard and Marek are clearly chess mad and believe fervently in the benefits of chess. "It helps children develop strategic thinking, forward planning and problem solving. It brings people together and is accessible for boys and girls of any age or nationality," says Marek.

In future, Marek wants to do more with handicapped children. Richard is having to pull back from weekday commitments to focus on his business, although he still runs a Saturday chess club in a library. Thanks to his work in schools, new business opportunities are arising he has recently been asked by some schools to tender for cleaning work.

SouthLondon Chess Initiative, 14 Waghorn Street, Peckham, London SE15 4JZ. Tel: 0171 252 9284.

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