The great chess revival: how the ancient game sharpens young minds

After all but vanishing from schools, the game is undergoing a revival thanks to its problem-solving skills 

Legend has it that the 1,500-year-old game of chess was invented after India’s then-ruler asked his wise men to devise a way of teaching royal children to become better thinkers and better generals on the battlefield.

Now, 30 years after it all but disappeared from state education, chess is making a dramatic comeback in British primary schools. Teachers have come to see it as a major stimulant for improving pupils’ concentration, if not their war-winning abilities – with academics believing it can also be used to improve maths skills.

A total of 175 schools – including those serving deprived areas – have reintroduced the game to the curriculum in the past two years. The charity behind its revival, Chess in Schools and Communities (CSC), is optimistic that the take-up will spread to 1,000 state schools in three years.

As 10-year-old Olivia Kenwright took a break from playing the game during a timetabled lesson, she agreed she was pretty sure it was helping her brain. “It’s really good for helping out with other subjects,” she said.

Olivia is a pupil at Sacred Heart Catholic Primary School in Kensington, in the heart of inner-city Liverpool – one of the 175 schools to start playing the game again. Davidson John, another 10-year-old who was a keen footballer but now prefers the board game, agreed with her, saying, “It can help you with sorting out problems.”

According to Callum Phillips, 11, it is a “calm game”. “I play it with dad and grandad at home now.” That, according to Malcolm Pein, the chief executive of CSC, is a breakthrough because today’s children hardly ever play board games with their parents.  “It’s just computer and video games,” he said.

“Chess fell out of favour very rapidly in state schools when teachers fell out with the Government in the 1980s and cut back on out-of-hours activities.”

“If you go to a state school in the UK there’s a less than one in 10 chance that they’ll do chess,” added Mr Pein. “Yet it is so easy to organise and costs so little in comparison with other activities.”

John Gorman, the chess coach for Liverpool schools, said: “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. ”

At Sacred Heart all children have either an hour or 45 minutes of timetabled chess a week, except for those in their first year of compulsory schooling. There is also a chess club.

The school won a Liverpool-wide schools’ chess competition, something which the headteacher Charles Daniels is very proud of. “We’re only a small, one-form entry school. We don’t win football and cricket competitions,” he said. Next month, a contingent from the school will travel down to Olympia in west London to watch the World Chess Championships.

Meanwhile, Mr Pein is busy exorcising the myth that chess is a middle-class game. He has encouraged several pupil referral units [PRUs] and one young offenders’ institution to take it up. “It has been popular in the PRUs,” he said, possibly as a result of its calming influence on players – it is widely encouraged in prisons in the US.

However, Mr Pein is battling against a culture which believes it does not need 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 fit young people to help 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 the game in schools. Some authorities do recognise the need to promote it. Bristol, for instance, offers chess in its primary schools and Newham in east London has asked CSC to produce a plan to introduce it in all its schools.

It is easy to see why heads are keen. A report by the chess master Jerry Meyers says: “We believe it directly contributes to academic performance. Chess makes children smarter.” An experiment in the US showed that after only 20 days of instruction students’ academic performance had improved dramatically, with 55 per cent of pupils showing significant improvement.

From Mr Daniels’ point of view, it has to compete with the pressures of the national curriculum – which have 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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Imperial College London: Safety Training Administrator

£25,880 – £28,610 per annum: Imperial College London: Imperial College London ...

University College London: Client Platform Support Officer

£26,976 - £31,614 per annum: University College London: UCL Information Servic...

Guru Careers: Instructional Designer / e-Learning Designer

£30 - 32k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking an Instructional / e-Learning De...

Recruitment Genius: Schools Education & Careers Executive

£30500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Schools Education & Careers Executive ...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor