Chess helps pupils sweep the board in thinking skills and problem-solving

4th September 2009 at 01:00
Capital pupils are at the top of their game and there's a pay-off for their school work, as Emma Seith finds out

A "cluster of excellence" in school-based chess coaching has formed in Scotland's capital, and now the local secondary has ambitions to open a "chess academy".

The chess club at Sciennes Primary is bursting at the seams with more than 80 members, and children from other schools are clamouring to join.

Chess has even started to filter into primary lessons. Teachers have adopted the computer game Dinosaur Chess after being introduced to it by club leader Derek Mills, who was using it to hone young players' skills.

Mr Mills, however, is not the only Edinburgh parent determined to promote the sport. In this part of the city, "a cluster of excellence" exists, according to former schools director of Chess Scotland, Craig Pritchett.

South Morningside Primary and James Gillespie's Primary also have flourishing chess clubs, producing some of Scotland's best young players. Each is run by a parent, with Mike Scott at the helm of James Gillespie's and Norman Skillen leading the way at South Morningside.

"The key factor in their success is individual, one-on-one coaching which is something a lot of school clubs just don't have," explains Phil Thomas, international junior director for Chess Scotland. "Another stronghold is in Giffnock, in East Renfrewshire."

James Gillespie's High, the local secondary for two of the three Edinburgh primaries, is reaping the benefits. It scooped this year's Scotsman Cup for Scottish secondaries and at the weekend 18 Scottish youngsters headed to Italy for the European Youth Chess Championship, with around half of the players coming from the Edinburgh schools.

Surprisingly, Gillespie's has no chess club. However, headteacher Alex Wallace has ambitions to set up a "chess academy" at the school. It will be up and running before the end of the year, he predicts. The academy will be a centre of excellence for the area, accessible to all Edinburgh schools, he says. "It is vital that when pupils achieve success we give them the recognition they deserve and, where possible, support them."

When Sciennes's chess club, which is open to pupils from P1-7, meets on a Monday night, it can barely squeeze into three classrooms. It takes four adult volunteers, two learning assistants and three junior trainers to run it. Lucy Gallagher, principal teacher, feels the rapid expansion over recent years is largely down to Mr Mills. His enthusiasm is infectious, she says.

Now chess has begun to spill into lessons after Mr Mills introduced Ms Gallagher, also the school's ICT co-ordinator, to the computer game Dinosaur Chess, available free from Chess Scotland.

The software has been installed on the computers in the school's IT suite and was trialled by teachers from P1-7 at the end of last term. This year, the school hopes it will be used in classes.

"I had no negative feedback from teachers," said Ms Gallagher.

She and the headteacher, Alison Noble, say that as a result of playing chess, the children's critical thinking skills, ability to problem-solve and concentration have all improved.

Now, Mr Mills is applying for lottery funding to buy laptops for the club which will be used to allow pupils to play children from different parts of the world. "In India, they actually have a chess school," he says. "The kids need to be challenged."

If the bid is successful, the computers will also be used by younger players to play Dinosaur Chess.


At the tender age of 12, Rhian Hughes, an S5 pupil at James Gillespie's High in Edinburgh, was the youngest member of the Scottish team competing in the olympiad in Turin in 2006. Last year, aged 14, she became the youngest ever titled Scottish player after obtaining the Women FIDE Master title in the Dresden olympiad.

Last weekend, she represented Scotland at the European Youth Chess Championship in Italy with 17 other Scottish junior players. Jonny Scott and Shivan Murdochy, both 14, also attend James Gillespie's and are also competing in Italy.

Rhian and Jonny's fathers are avid players. Mike Scott (Jonny's dad), runs James Gillespie's Primary chess club, while Jeremy Hughes (Rhian's father) used to run the South Morningside Primary club.

Shivan, however, was only introduced to the game at the age of 11 when he joined the chess club because the art club was full.

Now Shivan practises daily, as does Jonny; Rhian plays when her schoolwork allows. The pupils, along with Fergus Skillen, formed the school's team which scooped this year's Scotsman Cup for Scottish secondary schools. "It's really satisfying to out-think your opponent," says Jonny.

The stereotype that chess is a game for geeks rankles with them. Scotland needs to change its attitude towards the sport, they feel, if it's to have more success on the international stage.

Shivan, however, has thought of a way to sell chess to the other teens. "My friends can't believe I've got two weeks off school to compete in Italy," he points out.

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