Some years ago, I ran a chess club at a highly regarded prep school in an affluent London suburb. As I had contact details for all the parents, I received permission from the school to send weekly emails out providing advice as to how they could best support their children’s chess.
After a few weeks I started receiving replies. Not, as I was expecting “Thank you for taking the time to send these out. We’ll now be able to help our children much more effectively.” Instead, I was told “We’re not interested in helping our children”, “If they played seriously and took part in tournaments it wouldn’t be fun” and even “We hate chess”.
If you hate chess, that’s entirely up to you, but, if so, why should you want to pay for your children to join a professionally run chess club?
The answer is that parents are signing their children up because they perceive a range of extrinsic benefits from chess. They may well have read articles claiming that playing chess makes children more intelligent, improves their concentration, enhances their problem-solving skills.
As I demonstrate in my book Chess for Schools (Crown House Publications) there is very little evidence that chess has a unique and long-lasting effect on children’s academic performance. However, there are very many ways in which schools can use the game of chess to positive effect if they’re prepared to take a proactive approach.
“There is very little evidence that chess has a unique and long-lasting effect on children’s academic performance.”
Learning how the pieces move is not difficult for children most aged between 5 and 7. But, because of the game’s complexity, the number of possibilities at each turn, the length of time a game lasts, young children who are only playing once a week at school will struggle to play a reasonably proficient game.
Additionally, domain specific knowledge is far more important in chess than in most other skill-based activities. Many thousands of books have been published on every aspect of the game, and, through the internet, that knowledge base is expanding day by day.
This is why I believe the best approach for teaching and promoting chess for children under the age of 11 is through minichess: games, puzzles and other activities based on subsets of “big chess”. If you think about the way you teach maths, reading, any musical instrument, or any sport, you start simple. You teach your pupils to perform simple tasks with confidence and fluency, gradually adding complexity as they progress. You teach reading through The Cat in the Hat, not through Finnegans Wake. You start golf on the putting green, not on the Old Course at St Andrews.
“You teach reading through The Cat in the Hat, not through Finnegans Wake.”
Because of its academic nature, chess is best promoted as an integral part of school life rather than through after-school clubs outsourced to external agencies. I also see it as serving a social function. In Chess for Schools, I discuss two conflicting views of the place of chess in schools: Education Chess to improve academic performance and Competitive Chess to produce champions.
A better approach, in my view is Social Chess, to enable children to form and reinforce friendships through a shared interest and low-level, low-stakes competitions. Chess can be especially beneficial for children with diagnoses such as ASD, ADHD, dyslexia, and developmental motor coordination disorder. Schools should encourage children to play at break or lunchtime rather than keeping the sets locked away in the cupboard. You can also buy giant sets for your playground.
“Chess can help children with diagnoses such as ASD, ADHD, dyslexia and co-ordination issues.”
Schools could also encourage pupils with a genuine interest to join external clubs. There are two types of junior chess club: professional clubs run by paid staff providing formal instruction, rated games and other competitions, and community clubs run by volunteers which take a more informal approach and will also be a lot cheaper. Older players will often prefer to join adult chess clubs, which will provide opportunities to play in local leagues as well as social chess.
Some schools decide they’d like to excel at chess: to take part in competitions run by organisations such as the English Chess Federation designed to find the strongest chess schools in the country. If you’d like to take this route, to encourage your pupils to become serious competitive players, that is when you’ll need a professional chess tutor to provide them with the necessary coaching to achieve success at higher levels. You’ll find a list of coaches on their website.
My message to schools and parents alike is this: take chess seriously, be proactive, get it right, or don’t do it at all.