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Opening gambit

The benefits of playing chess go far beyond the board, says John Dabell

How would you like to lead an army of 16 soldiers? You'll need a head for problems, nerves of steel, an eye for detail and the will to win. With training, you'll also get better at maths and reading.

Maths teacher Paul McDonald, of Bell Baxter High School in Fife, knows how to get children interested. He runs a successful chess club three times a week for 45 pupils aged 12 to 18.

However, his efforts are not just extra-curricular. He regularly seeks to incorporate chess into the maths curriculum and advocates making it a compulsory part of the curriculum from an early age.

Chess is a game of imagination and strategy; it provides rules, order and opportunities for intellectual growth. Paul McDonald believes that it helps to develop critical thinking skills, builds self-esteem and discipline, fosters social skills, motivates academic achievement, and empowers children to succeed.

An effective educational tool at all levels of academic achievement, chess teaches students to think logically and take responsibility for their actions and the resulting consequences. And it encourages children to look ahead and anticipate.

Paul McDonald invited a group of pupils with behavioural problems along to a chess session and he says that, for many, there was no looking back. "One pupil was a low attainer but chess allowed him to compete and pitch himself against more academic children. He was more motivated, his self-esteem improved and his quest for learning snowballed. After a while he made a massive jump in achievement."

Students who take up chess make contact with a core of high achievers and compete on an equal footing. With success, many gain recognition and respect.

In the classroom, Paul McDonald uses chess as an effective tool when teaching maths. With a projector, a laptop, and music to simulate a battle scene, he is able to make chess a big-screen experience. "I have kept it fun using it as a strategy game," he says. "And have been able to demonstrate mathematical concepts such as two-dimensional shapes, co-ordinates, algebraic notation, patterns, simultaneous equations, logarithms, probability, straight lines and gradient. Pieces can be assigned different values and so prove an excellent means to improve mental maths."

The goal of teaching maths through chess is to develop efficient strategies for solving problems and understanding mathematical concepts, and to cultivate the ability to reason and to explain why and how. Chess is a potent multi-sensory resource that can promote creativity and three-dimensional thinking skills.

Paul McDonald uses investigations such as "How many squares are there on a chess board?" to improve problem-solving skills and encourage positive attitudes towards maths. He has noticed that many chess players not only improve their maths skills but also get better at reading. This is no coincidence. Research demonstrates the positive impact of chess on academic performance and emotional intelligence. The cognitive processes used in chess and reading are very similar. Both involve decoding, thinking, comprehending and analysing - all higher order skills. Chess and reading are decision-making activities and some transfer of training from one to the other may be expected.

Chess masters believe the game develops general intelligence, self-control, analytical skills and increased ability to concentrate. They argue that enhanced reading skills naturally follow.

Paul McDonald would like to see more competitions in Scotland and he hopes to organise chess tours to Russia, Germany or the Czech Republic. In the meantime, he'll be busy playing against his son, who became Scottish under-eight champion this year. (interactive chess lessons, quizzes, games, puzzles) (animated chess tutorial for new players)


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