Chess is making a dramatic comeback in primary schools – thirty years after it all but disappeared completely from the state school scene.
In the past two years, a total of 175 schools – including those serving some of the most deprived areas of the country – have reintroduced the game to the curriculum.
Now the charity behind its revival, Chess in Schools and Communities (CSC), is optimistic the take-up will spread to 1,000 state schools within the next three years.
Academics are agreed the game is a major stimulant for improving pupils’ concentration and believe it can also be used in other subject areas – such as maths – to improve skills.
They could not have put it better than ten-year-old Olivia Kenwright, as she took a break from playing the game during a timetabled lesson. “It's like the brain thing she said. “It’s a really good game. It’s really good for helping out with other subjects.”
Olivia is a pupil at Sacred Heart Catholic primary school in the heart of inner city Liverpool – one of the 175 to start playing the game again.
Davidson John, another ten-year who graduated to chess from being a keen footballer and now prefers it to the ball game, agreed with her. ”It can help you with sorting out problems.“
According to Callum Phillips, aged 11, it is a ”calm game“. ”It is really, really peaceful,“ he said.”I play it with dad and grandads at home now.“
That, according to Malcolm Pein, chief executive of CSC, is a breakthrough as today's children hardly ever play board games with their parents. ”We used to play monopoly, ludo - all sorts of games,“ he said, ”but today it's just computer and video games.
“Chess fell out of favour very rapidly in state schools when teachers fell out with the Government in the 1980's and cut back on out-of-hours activities.”
As a result it became restricted to just the independent sector and became dismissed by many as an activity purely for the middle-classes.
“If you go to a state school in the UK there's a less than one on ten chance that they'll do chess and even then it may not be an organised game,” he said. “Yet it's so easy to organise and costs so little in comparison with other activities.”
John Gorman, chess coach for Liverpool schools, added: “It helps with developing children's concentration skills and they're doing calculations while they're playing - like whether a rook is more important than a pawn and how important is a Queen. They sometimes don't realise they're doing maths as they play.”
At Sacred Heart, a 180-pupil school in one of Liverpool's most deprived areas, all children have either an hour or 45 minutes timetabled chess a week except for the very youngest in their first year of compulsory schooling.. There is also a chess club after school every Wednesday..
The school won a Liverpool-wide schools’ chess competition - something which headteacher Charles Daniels, a keen chess player himself, is very proud of. “We're only a small one-form entry school - we don't win things like football and cricket competitions,” he said. “It's something the children will remember.”
Next month a contingent from the school will travel down to London's Olympia to watch the World Chess championships.
Meanwhile, Malcolm Pein is busy exorcising the myth that chess is a middle-class game. He has encouraged several pupil referral units (“sin bins”) and one young offenders' institution to take it up. “It has been popular in the pru's,” he said – possibly as a result of the calming influence it has on its players. In the United States, it is also widely encouraged in prisons.
However, he is battling against a culture which believes it is not a sport that needs financial aid - a decision that dates back to just before the Second World War when the Government produced a list of sports to be supported that would provide a nation of fit enough young people to help it fight a war. It seems it neglected the need for fit young minds.
The picture is very different in other countries - in Armenia, which has an impressive record in producing world champion teams, it is a compulsory part of the curriculum. France, too, pours state aid into developing the game in schools.
Some authorities do recognise the need to promote it. Bristol, for instance, is running it in its primary schools and Newham in east London has asked CSC to produce a plan to introduce it in all its schools.
“It grows very rapidly in schools once it is introduced because headteachers often embrace it,” Mr Pein said. “What we do is teach it in a class during the school day . Traditionally it has been an out-of-school activity.”
It is easy to see why heads are keen to encourage it. A report by Chessmaster Jerry Myers on why it should be encouraged in schools says: “We believe it directly contributes to academic performance. Chess makes children smarter.”
In Marina, in the United States, an experiment showed that after only 20 days of instruction students’ academic performance had improved dramatically with 55 per cent of pupils showing significant improvement.
The game was invented more than 1,500 years ago in India with legend having it that it was after the country’s then ruler asked his wise men to devise a way of teaching the children of the Royal family to become better thinkers and better generals on the battlefield.
From Mr Daniels' point of view, it has to compete with the pressures of the national curriculum - which has led to many schools believing they do not have time for such activities. From his perspective, though, the thrill his pupils got from winning a competition made it worth the effort.