A winning gambit

7th June 2013 at 01:00
A chess takeover is occurring in schools around the world. Students in England, India and the US are discovering how the game can improve their concentration, thinking skills and even their chances of a university education. Helen Ward gets on board

Rochelle is an American teenager who wants to go to university. She comes from a poor family, so she needs to find a way to pay for her studies. For her, that way is chess.

She is one of five students from IS 318 school in New York City to star in a recent documentary, Brooklyn Castle, which follows the triumphs and setbacks of the school chess team. Against a breakbeat backing track, we are introduced to the young people in a series of shots: parading 3ft-high trophies (pictured, right); with heads dipped in despair; reading chess manuals on the train; and, of course, studying chessboards.

A boy, his voice not yet broken, raps: "We are IS 318 from Brooklyn, New York. We're going to crush all our opponents at chess and take all the trophies home. Uh-huh."

It seems the epitome of the American dream: 70 per cent of students at the school live below the poverty line, but year after year the chess team has swept the board at tournaments against prestigious schools.

This success comes as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has pointed out that the US is the only country where the current generation is less likely to have a degree than their parents.

Being able to play chess at such a high standard may seem a distraction from more pressing concerns, but educationalists increasingly believe that it is less a long shot for Rochelle and more her best chance of a college education.

It may not be such a bad idea even for those who fall short of grandmaster standard. Worldwide, interest is growing in how chess may help children to make the most of education.

Armenia, for example, made chess compulsory in schools in 2011. The country, which has a population of 3.1 million, is already a big player in the world chess rankings, at sixth place. But the game is now taught twice a week to all children in grades 2-4 (ages 8-10). Education minister Armen Ashotyan recently told broadcasting network Al Jazeera that the move was designed to foster creative thinking and develop decision-making and strategic planning skills.

This trend seems to be accelerating. Fourth in the world rankings is Hungary, home of Judit Polgar, the highest-ranked woman in chess. The Hungarian Institute for Educational Research and Development has officially made Polgar's skill-building chess programme available to elementary schools (for children aged 6-14) from September 2013.

All the right moves

Fide, the world chess federation, reports snowballing interest around the world. "While many people have always been aware of the educational advantages of chess, it is comparatively recently that the message has got through to people outside the chess world," says Kevin O'Connell, executive secretary of the Fide Chess in Schools Commission. "It has reached a tipping point."

He rattles off a list of countries that are introducing Fide's schools project, including Slovakia, Slovenia, Moldova, Peru and Lebanon.

"The biggest one we're working with is India. India is the biggie. We are working with the All India Chess Federation and, together with them, working with the state chess federations. A number of states are now introducing chess into schools as part of the curriculum, most notably Tamil Nadu, which is introducing it statewide."

But it is not as if the benefits of playing chess are a recent discovery. Chess is believed to have originated in India about 1,500 years ago, before spreading through Persia and into Europe. Its popularity has had peaks and troughs since, but it has never gone away.

Right now it seems to be peaking, especially in schools and especially in its homeland of India. In this vast country, its popularity has been heightened by the rise to fame of Viswanathan "Vishy" Anand, world chess champion and the 2012 CNN-IBN Indian sportsperson of the year.

Take, for example, Suchitra Academy, a private school for four- to 14-year-olds near Hyderabad in southern India, where the game is actually on the curriculum.

"Chess is taught during regular study hours for grades 1-4 (ages 5-10)," principal Renu Shorey says. "For other grades, it is offered as an optional club activity. The benefits accrued have never been under debate, from the thrill of the game to acquisition of higher-order thinking skills, planning and strategising, patience and concentration. Parents are absolutely delighted that we have put this in (the) regular curriculum."

In the neighbouring state of Maharashtra, the Fide scheme was launched in 20 schools in 2011. By the following year, 87 schools had introduced the programme, which is aimed at children aged 7-10 and offers chess for one hour a week, for one year. "We expect the numbers to increase up to 5,000 schools in the next five years," says Satish Thigale, a director of the Maharashtra Chess Association.

Master plan

A recent YouGov poll found that about 70 per cent of people had played chess at some point in their lives, and that in India about 70 per cent of middle-class adults still play. In Russia, the country ranked world number one, the proportion of adults who play is also unsurprisingly high, at 43 per cent. In Germany it is 23 per cent; in the US, 15 per cent. The UK has the lowest proportion of the countries polled, at 12 per cent.

But, while it has a small adult participation rate, England is another of the countries now exploring the benefits of chess in schools. And if anyone can claim credit for it, it is Michael Basman, one of the central figures in British chess. The Spectator magazine has described Basman, a 67-year-old with the rank of international master, as "in many ways the most important person in British chess". He may be a devastating tactician but it is his work in organising the UK Chess Challenge that has proved his legacy.

This year the challenge has about 60,000 entrants, and over the past 17 years more than a quarter of a million children have been introduced to chess through the event. Some have gone on to become chess masters and grandmasters. The chess world is grateful, but Basman, whose father was an immigrant from Armenia, has ambitions beyond simply organising competitions.

"Chess also has the potential for creating better thinkers and better leaders," he says. "That's the eventual aim of the competition: to develop people's capacity to think, to make decisions and resist pressure, to have faith in their own abilities and withstand criticism from opponents. It reveals character. You need kindness, honesty, knowledge and the ability to work with others."

But Basman finds that the game is more widespread in fee-paying schools than in state schools, which is why he believes that a new charity, Chess in Schools and Communities, is good for the UK. "I think the next chess champion could easily come from an inner-city school. Chess is a very cheap lifeline to an intellectual world," he says.

Eight-year-old Hilary Mabossa would agree. Leaning over the back of her chair, she watches Amu Sainbayar, a chess tutor with Chess in Schools and Communities, demonstrate the importance of castling early to protect your king.

"Before Miss Amu came, I didn't know about chess," Hilary says later, during a game with a classmate at St Antony's Primary School in Newham, East London, one of the most deprived areas in England and one where chess is due to be introduced in lesson time for all nine- and 10-year-olds in 64 schools. "But now I know about chess and I like it. My parents like it, too - they even bought me my own chessboard."

Hilary's brother is four years old but she is already teaching him to play. "He's starting to move the pawns properly," she says, proudly.

It is a sunny spring morning and the sounds of children playing outside rise up to the first-floor classroom. But they do not distract the students who are scratching their heads or eagerly raising their hands to answer Sianbayar's question about openings.

Renee Sancho, 9, is full of enthusiasm. "Before this happened I was waiting to learn chess," she says. "I had signed up for chess club but Mum said, 'It costs money', and I got a bit upset. But then, literally the next day, Miss Amu came in to teach us chess."

Knight after knight

In January, the school went a step further and introduced an hour of chess a week, in lesson time, for all 60 students in Year 4 (aged 9-10). The initiative is costing the school #163;200 for two terms' teaching. "This country is obsessed with football," headteacher Brian Lucey says. "I'm obsessed myself but there are other things children can participate in. We want them to have new experiences. Chess can open whole different areas of thinking. Our students live in a very busy part of London; life runs at 100mph here. It is good for them to sit and focus for a period of time."

Some children in the school have proved to be gifted at the game and will be entered for competitions. But producing chess champions is a welcome side effect rather than the main aim.

Malcolm Pein, a British international master and director of the London Chess Classic tournament, where the world's top players compete, is also chief executive of Chess in Schools and Communities, which runs schemes at St Antony's and a further 192 schools in England. "Chess used to be unbelievably popular," he says. "It still is, it's played by millions of people in the world, but it fell off a cliff in British schools in the 1980s, when a lot of extra-curricular stuff declined.

"We're asking for about 0.3 per cent of a child's primary school time. And we've found it's a very easy sell. Headteachers want children to have the kind of skills you develop when you learn chess, the soft skills of improved concentration, patience, memory and thinking flexibly."

But does it have a measurable effect on hard skills? Over the next year, the effect of chess on children's mathematical skills will be scrutinised: Chess in Schools and Communities has won a bid for almost #163;690,000 from the Education Endowment Foundation to set up a randomised, controlled trial in partnership with the University of London's Institute of Education. Established by the UK government, the foundation selects educational initiatives that already hold some promise, and rigorously evaluates them. Its conclusions carry weight.

Raising your game

The research is the latest of many studies into the effects of chess. Forty years ago in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dr Albert Frank, in cooperation with the psychology department of the National University of Zaire, conducted the Chess and Aptitudes study. It found that students who had learned to play chess performed better on arithmetic aptitude tests and verbal logic at the end of the year. The study included replacing two of the seven hours of maths teaching a week with chess lessons for 90 students aged 16-18, while leaving another 90 as a control group.

Other studies in Belgium, Venezuela and the US have also found positive benefits. A spokesman for the Education Endowment Foundation says: "The strongest study we are aware of linking chess to attainment was a randomised, controlled trial carried out in Italy. This study, combined with a considerable amount of indicative but weaker evidence - for example, tests without comparison groups - led us to the conclusion that conducting a rigorous evaluation of the impact of chess on attainment was worthwhile."

That 2011 study concluded that children taught how to play chess in grade 3 (ages 8-9) made statistically significant improvements in mathematics.

You wouldn't need an armful of research documents to make the case to the students of IS 318 in Brooklyn. This enthusiasm, however, is not automatically accompanied by bottomless funding. In fact, the school is dealing with the effects of the worldwide recession. At the beginning of the year, the budget for the chess programme was cut, and while chess teacher Elizabeth Speigel is still paid a salary, the money for students to travel to tournaments now has to be raised separately.

"It's very hard to run a programme like this because you have no idea if you can plan ahead or if you will even exist next year," she says. "But it's hard to make the case that students travelling to a chess tournament is more educationally important than struggling children learning to read, so I understand why it happens."

Despite Speigel's admirable attitude, it would be a shame if the school's extraordinary chess programme were to close. Journalist Paul Tough followed Speigel's teaching style for two years for his book How Children Succeed, and concluded: "She tries to lead her students down a narrow and difficult path: to have them take responsibility for their mistakes and learn from them without obsessing over them or beating themselves up for them." Her philosophy, he says, includes teaching students that "losing is something you do, not something you are".

The smallest, weakest piece on the chessboard is the pawn. In some sets, these pieces are not even given the vaguest human attributes of head and body. Instead, the black and white pieces face each other as ranks of interchangeable slabs. But pawns - if they succeed in avoiding varied attacks and traps - can go on to become queens, the most powerful piece on the chessboard.

"I'm not here to come second," says one of the students from IS 318, filmed as he arrives at a tournament with fellow players. "I don't know about you, but I'm not here to come second."

The school's most famous former student is rapper Jay-Z, now worth US$500 million and winner of 17 Grammy Awards. He plays chess. "My pop taught me chess," Jay-Z reveals in his autobiography Decoded. "But more than that, he taught me that life was like a giant chessboard where you had to be completely aware in the moment, but also thinking a few moves ahead. By the time he left, he'd already given me a lot of what I needed to survive."


Ask students to name the chess pieces and write instructions for each one. How is it used? Where can it be moved to? bit.lyChessInstructions

In this ideal activity for beginners, children cut out pictures of chess pieces and a chessboard and match them to key words. bit.lyChessMatch.

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