When the Cold War still occupied the hearts and minds of adults and kids everywhere — when the division between the East and the West was stark — many viewed chess as a way to demonstrate superiority of one or the other way of life. People followed the great chess battles and made heroes of chess masters because, though limited by an 8 by 8 board, they were representing more than just skill and prowess in a game — it was the primacy of one or the other ideology.
It has been more than 20 years since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the conflict. Since that time it seems like chess had all but disappeared from British education. According to the Independent, however, the game’s long decline in Britain is at the point of being reversed.
In the past two years over 175 schools around Britain have reintroduced the game into their curriculum. The chess renaissance is chiefly being orchestrated by a charity group called Chess in Schools and Communities, and their ultimate goal is to reach 1,000 schools in the next 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.”
Eleven-year-old Collum Phillips says that ever since he picked up chess in school, he’s gotten so into it that he’s now playing it with his father and grandfather at home. For Malcolm Pein, head of the CSC, this is a true measure of potential popularity of the game. When kids have the option to play computer and video games and choose to dedicate that time to a chess match with a family member, that proves the 1,500-year-old game hasn’t lost its ability to draw in even today’s youth.
“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, who coaches the chess teams in Liverpool schools, explains that chess is an excellent tool to teach kids the skills that they’re currently struggling with, like the ability to concentrate on a task and make well-reasoned decisions. Administrators at Sacred Heart agree with this assessment, which is why each of their students spend between 45 minutes and an hour of every week on the game. Those whose thirst for the game is not satisfied by the compulsory time can join the school’s chess club.
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.