Should every child be made to play chess?
By Vanessa Barford, from BBC News
Armenia is making chess compulsory in schools, but could mandatory study of a board game really help children’s academic performance and behaviour?
Every child aged six or over in Armenia is now destined to learn chess. The authorities there believe compulsory lessons will “foster schoolchildren’s intellectual development” and improve critical thinking skills.
The country has plenty of reasons to believe in chess. It treats grandmasters like sports stars, championships are displayed on giant boards in cities and victories celebrated with the kind of frenzy most countries reserve for football.
Chess is nothing less than a national obsession.
It may only have a population of 3.2 million, but Armenia regularly beats powerhouses such as Russia, China and the US and its national team won gold at the International Chess Olympiad in 2006 and 2008.
Added to that, the Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has just been re-elected as chair of the Armenian Chess Federation.
Now the chess-mad country is investing nearly $1.5m (£920,000) to teach all of its children. But for other countries constantly strategising about how to boost child development and education, is making study of the Sicilian and the Queen’s Gambit a good idea?
Proponents of chess in schools do claim some evidence. A two-year study conducted in the US by Dr Stuart Marguilies found that learning chess improved reading test scores and reading performance in elementary schools.
Another study by Professor Peter Dauvergne, who is also a chess master, concluded playing chess could raise IQ scores, strengthen problem solving skills, enhance memory and foster creative thinking.
Malcolm Pein, chief executive of Chess in Schools and Communities, a programme that puts chess into UK schools, says there are lots of reasons why chess has a positive impact on primary school children.
“Not only does it give children good thinking skills and improve concentration, memory and calculation, but it teaches children to take responsibility for their actions. There are also behavioural attitudes and social attributes to the game too. Children shake hands at the start, and although it’s not deathly silent in classes, it’s reasonably quiet and disciplined.“
Far from it just being the case that more academically-minded people are more likely to play chess, he says the game is a very universal and inclusive activity that can be played at all standards.
“Someone who is four can play someone who is 104, someone that can’t walk around can play a top class athlete. Sometimes children that have been overlooked in other ways – maybe the quietest or physically smallest child in class – could be the best. Chess is a very addictive process, a positive drug for children. The other outstanding thing about chess is it’s so cheap, so it can really help children in areas that are economically disadvantaged.”
Pein is a big supporter of chess being made compulsory at school and recently made a submission to the government’s National Curriculum review. It recommended that one class of chess – “or other thinking games like bingo” - is made mandatory every week.
He concedes the game can be challenging for young children, but argues that by the age of six or seven they are more than capable of picking it up.
English grandmaster and Times chess correspondent Raymond Keene agrees with targeting six-year-olds at primary school – and not just because he thinks it is the optimum time to catch children with the potential to make it big.
“Chess draws from brain power, not experience - it’s not like writing an epic. So if a child is good at six, they could be a grandmaster by the time they are 12,” he enthuses.
He says “chess is a very addictive process, a positive drug for children”. Even when it is played online, it is much better than video games or television, he adds.
But although he thinks teaching chess in schools could be beneficial, he would stop short of making it compulsory.
“There are plenty of other things that could benefit from being compulsory too, I wonder whether it would be appropriate,” he says. “Also, in Armenia the government is knocking at an open door. Chess is already so embedded in its culture, it’s bound up in its national psyche and ambitions. In the UK making it compulsory might actually turn people off.“
Dr. Pinna says:
All my children play chess. My daughter is the weakest player, but she likes it.
I never forced any of them to play. We had chess boards in the house and I played with my friends. The boys, as soon as they passed four, decided that they could beat me, and they challenged me daily.
Chess is decidedly a military game.
Chess is also a sexual game. The Queen is the most valuable player. She can make almost any move. Beware the Queen! The King just sits around, doing nothing, but he must be protected. Sounds just like life.
Playing chess requires planning ahead. If you cannot think two or three moves ahead, take up knitting.
There is a lot of personality analysis in chess. The “gambit” is a treasured move. Throw out a piece and let your opponent take it, and, of course, set yourself up for a retaliatory move that might mean victory. If your opponent is greedy he will fall for this trick. If he is not greedy, he may ignore your offer and counter-offer something that looks irresistible.
Chess should be taught in schools. But, it should not be compulsory. Those children with weaker intelligence will be frustrated and feel inferior. This is unfair to them. They may have talent in art or music or other areas necessary for society.
But, as the Ancient Greeks noted, the manifestation of mental power is important to the group. Chess may not be practical, but, like music, it is part of the reality of the ideal world. I’m sure the Greek Gods played chess in their spare time. I doubt they were or are playing video games like every child in the world today…