British junior chess has never been stronger. Sarah Hurst reports on efforts to get more children to takeup the game
Losing honourably at sport is something the British have developed into an art form. We've groaned through the penalty shoot-out against Germany in Euro 96, Tim Henman's transient glory at Wimbledon and Mike Atherton's failure to recapture the Ashes. So when the opportunity arises to nurture potential world champions, we shouldn't pass it up.
The activity in question is chess, and the way to make things happen is through schools. British junior chess has never been stronger. Luke McShane who was Under 10's world chess champion in 1992, is now the country's youngest ever international master at 13. Harriet Hunt, 19, has just become world girls' champion. But thousands of children are also taking up chess for fun, thanks to the efforts of Mike Basman, who is responsible for the UK Chess Challenge, a knock-out tournament involving 780 schools, culminating earlier this year in finals held at London's Festival Hall. Next year it will be even bigger.
Basman, an international master, devotes all his time to the cause of promoting junior chess. "At the moment it's still an intellectual minority who play chess," he says. "But if you push kids, it helps to concentrate their minds."
Rotary International in Britain and Ireland (RIBI), a sponsor of the UK Chess Challenge, supports the educational benefits of chess and has launched a national initiative to bring chess into schools, inspired by a study in New York which showed that chess improved academic performance.
The American experiment was carried out in the Bronx and Harlem, New York's most deprived areas. Children who played chess achieved higher results in literacy and numeracy than non-players, and had a better school attendance record. It was also found that the juvenile crime rate dropped and chess players became more self-confident.
This evidence has helped the chess initiative to find enthusiastic partners in some unlikely places, such as Brixton police station in south London. There Sergeant Vernon Allen is helping to introduce its chess initiative in Lambeth.
"You won't find a greater social-ethnic mix anywhere in the whole country, " says Sgt Allen. "Poverty stands side by side with affluence. We try to build bridges between the police service and the community, and chess is a natural extension of what we already do - we help kids become good citizens. Chess extends brain power; it makes people think."
Sgt Allen has made contact with 20 schools, 17 of which expressed an interest in starting extra-curricular chess classes. The RIBI chess initiative will try to raise the funds to provide them with equipment and will help them to find a coach.
The chess initiative estimates that the annual cost of running a chess club for 20 children is Pounds 2,500. Chess sets, clocks, demonstration boards, trophies and fares to tournaments come to Pounds 1,000, of which the remaining Pounds 1,500 goes to the coach. Different schools approach the matter of paying for a coach in different ways. Some charge parents a fee of about Pounds 2.50 for every session their child attends, others devote school funds to chess, and still others find parents or teachers who are willing to give their time voluntarily.
Tony Ighodaro, the father of three girls in Richmond, west London, is one such volunteer. Ighodaro learned chess from a friend at school in Nigeria, he set up a chess club at Hampton Hill Junior School in Richmond in 1993. "I found my lack of expertise to be a bit of a help in communicating with kids - top players move their hands so fast on the demonstration board that it's difficult to follow. I used to mark where a knight move started with a pebble."
Variety is the key to successful chess teaching, Ighodaro believes. "I teach what checkmate is, I illustrate the distinction between trapping something and eliminating it, I show them the moves of the pieces, I use puzzles from The Times and The Daily Telegraph, we do chess-related activities, friendlies, and an all-play-all."
Natasha, Ighodaro's youngest daughter, won the school's chess championship every year until she left. As there is no chess in her secondary school, the chances of her continuing with the game are slim. Many children drop chess in adolescence anyway, but especially girls.
"A lot of girl players start changing their interests around the last year at primary school," says Ighodaro. "They do gym and other games, they are making friends and being sociable. Chess becomes an uncool activity. Only the keenest boys continue, but they have more opportunities - there's more chess in boys' schools."
Mike Basman hopes to change this situation by a policy of positive discrimination in the UK Chess Challenge. Eleven-year-old Claire David travelled from Swansea to Nottingham for the final of Basman's event. She automatically qualified for the final because she was the only girl from the region in her age group.
Those girls who do play chess will find similar advantages at every level. If they achieve the international master title, they are likely to be chosen to represent their country and travel to tournaments abroad. They can consider turning professional, while boys of the same strength are overshadowed by the growing numbers of grandmasters. All the more reason for girls to keep playing.
Secondary school teachers need to help children of both sexes overcome their embarrassment about chess, so that early promise doesn't go to waste. "Teenage chess is so dismal," says Basman. "Teenagers are ashamed to mention that they play chess. It's like when baby turtles are immediately eaten by birds before they can run to the sea. That's what happens to chess at secondary school - it's the killing zone!" Teachers who would like chess equipment, advice on setting up a chess club or information about the UK Chess Challenge should contact Stephanie Jenkins, RIBI Chess Initiative, Russell House, 46 Uxbridge Road, Hampton Hill, Middlesex TW12 3AD. Tel: 0181 941 0808