Malcolm Pein in Birmingham runs a charity that promotes the teaching of chess in schools. He has managed to get chess lessons started in 70 primary schools – 1 hour per week. Children being interviewed about their chess lessons insist that, in comparison, computer games are “silly” and a “waste of time”. But chess makes them play better with their friends, and improves their maths! These are the kids talking…
Are they right? Is chess really what it is cracked up to be?
Believe it or not, Armenia has recently made chess compulsory in all of its primary schools. Children from the age of six will learn chess as a separate subject on the curriculum for two hours a week. Arman Aivazian, an official at the Ministry of education, says that chess lessons will “foster schoolchildren’s intellectual development” and teach them to “think flexibly and wisely”. President Serzh Sarkisian has been so inspired that he has committed around £1.5 million (a large sum for an impoverished country) to the scheme. His intention is that Armenia should rule the world of chess.
This is not just a pipe dream. In 1963, Armenian Tigran Petrosian defeated Russian Mikhail Botvinnik to take the world chess title. Armenia’s national team won gold at the biennial International Chess Olympiad in both 2006 and 2008, and the country’s top player, Levon Aronian, is currently ranked number three in the world.
But should chess really take the place of other national curriculum subjects? I doubt Malcolm Pein thinks so. He simply believes that young children should be taught the game and given the chance to enjoy it. Teachers involved in his scheme notice its immediate impact on children. They say the children are more aware of their peers, better at problem solving, more forward-thinking and better at building strategy: quite an extraordinary array of skills from just a little game of chess!
It is said that the great chess masters have hundreds of different chess boards memorised which they simply pull out of their head as they play. Without super sharp powers of memory and concentration, one cannot hope to win at a game of chess. So perhaps there is some truth in it.
No one wants to deny a child the opportunity of learning the game of chess. Contention only arises if one suggests that chess is more important than something else. Is it more important than music or art? What about maths or history?
Once I sat in the theatre in New York and next to me was a woman with her 8-year-old little boy who wore funny glasses and shorts. He was glued to his electronic chess board during the entire performance, obsessed with winning against the computer. It was a sight to behold. All I could think was, there is something different about that boy… something I wish I could bottle up and give to all my kids back home.
Whatever one’s feelings on chess, what I find most endearing is the comment of an ordinary Armenian man when interviewed about chess. “Chess offers us hope – the chance of salvation. For in chess, every pawn can become a queen.”
If chess does that, then compulsory it should be.