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Chess In Schools: Making the Right Move

Updated: Oct 28, 2022

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Claimed to be the oldest game in the world, the ancient pastime of chess has a long, rich history. Debatably originating in India in the 6th century and spreading quickly through China, the Middle East, and eventually Europe, the ultimate game of strategy has thrived across the world for centuries – including in Hong Kong – which boasts an active chess community for school-aged children.

“Chess requires logical-mathematical and spatial thinking,” says Mr David Garceran Nieuwenburg, Managing Director of Caissa Hong Kong Chess Club, the city’s leading chess facilitator. “It helps with training skills around calculation, memory, critical, systematic and effective thinking, as well as linguistic capabilities. Also, anticipating cause and (immediate) effect trains restraint and thinking twice.”

With the chessboard’s cast of characters an allegory for the variety of fans it attracts, Mr Garceran Nieuwenburg also highlights the game’s accessibility and global reach. “Chess rules are relatively simple – the movements of the pieces can be learned in about one or two weeks, with two hours of instruction per day. Chess can also bridge gender, religion, age, social status and nationality. It is such a strong enabler of increased interpersonal skills and long-lasting friendships across the globe.”

Educators are also recognising chess as a tool for learning. Malvern College Hong Kong is among a growing number of educational institutions incorporating chess into school life via a rich co-curricular programme. “As chess is a game of prediction, calculation and pattern recognition, we are researching ways that we can use the game of chess to teach mathematical concepts and enhance our students’ planning, analysis and problem-solving – all critical thinking skills required in this 21st century,” said Dr Robin Lister, Founding Headmaster of Malvern School Hong Kong in an interview with Top Schools. “In addition, one of our play areas will include a giant chess board and chess pieces. This will promote the game during play and will certainly foster some ingenious creative play from our pupils.”

Dr Lister is excited about the research into the ways chess can benefit the individual’s capacity to thrive in a classroom setting. The intrinsic benefits of healthy competition and camaraderie appear to neatly complement the prospect of enhanced cognitive function. “It demands both inductive and deductive reasoning; requires students to look at a problem, break it down, and then put the whole thing back together; involves recall, analysis, judgment, and abstract reasoning; improves decision-making skills; increases players’ self-confidence; and improves organisational habits,” says Dr Lister. “Especially when it comes to youngsters: it helps develop crucial higher order thinking skills, the most of important of which are to analyse your actions and know their consequences.”

Dr Lister cites the experience of the Scholastic Director of America’s Foundation for Chess (AF4C), Ms Wendi Fischer, as indicative of the game’s suitability to young students. “If you teach an adult to play chess,” wrote Ms Fischer, “they quickly comprehend where they should and shouldn’t move pieces to capture or avoid capture. Young Kate knew the names of the pieces and how they moved, but initially moved her pieces randomly. Soon she was saying, ‘If I move my piece here, you could capture it, right? Then I’m not going to move there.’ You can almost see the mental changes taking place.”

Dr Lister sees the trained chess player as an embodiment of the Malvern ethos. “There is research to suggest that chess helps develop five ways of thinking in young people: effective, critical, creative, spatial and social thinking. More specifically, chess helps improve concentration, patience and perseverance – all qualities that Malvern hopes to instil in all its pupils. We believe these skills are most valuable because they are widely transferable to many other aspects of school life, such as sport, music and academics, but also the wider world.”

Around 800 primary schools in the UK have added chess to their curriculums; partly to provide critical maths and problem-solving skills, but also as a way to distract social media–addicted students from their screens. Encouraging engagement with the offline world, improving concentration, critical thinking, and a healthy dose of competition, the prevailing appeals of chess have remained ahead of the game.


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