The Effects of Chess Instruction

Three of the people who have been involved with the London Chess Conference since the beginning have written a paper summarising the state of research into the effects of chess instruction.  Giovanni Sala, John Foley and Fernand Gobet have summarised the state of the art and theoretical challenges. The paper, which is an opinion piece in the the online journal Frontiers of Psychology, places the recent EEF study in a broader context. The EEF study was a large study in England conducted by the Institute of Education and funded by the Educational Endowment Foundation. The study found no long term effect of chess on academic performance. This study finding was regarded as disappointing by many in the chess community. However on closer inspection it turns out that the study had some serious weaknesses.

A major problem is the use of public examination results to indicate whether any intervention has an impact. The trouble arises because mathematics exam results in primary school in England appear to have been getting better and better over the last two decades. This may be because children are getting smarter or it may be for other reasons to do with school league tables and teaching to the test.


In the upper diagram we see the latest results for KS2 mathematics (children aged around 11). Rather than the expected Normal distribution, we find what can only be described as a Half-Normal distribution.  Half the children have scored 75% or more. This is an extraordinary result because our traditional experience with children is that some are good at maths but most struggle. The skewed shape of the exam results deserves some explanation.

The lower diagram shows how the shape of the exam results distribution has shifted over the past two decades. What we are witnessing is the accumulation of effects of educational policies which produce good results irrespective of the underlying differences in personal ability of the children. Finally, in 2015, we see that the shape has shifted so far to the right (called negative skew) that the results in maths cannot be regarded as very helpful in representing the underlying reality.

The technical term for this artefact is the “Ceiling Effect”. If examinations produce an artificial limitation on the distribution of results then we cannot distinguish those children who might have done much better.  If most children are doing great, then how can an educational intervention such as chess make any noticeable difference? More generally how can any educational intervention be detected?  This is a wider issue for the mathematics education research community to resolve.





How time flies! The Didactics of Chess are well behind us, if still fresher in our memories than the previous three editions.

Beginnings were modest. The first London Chess Conference, back in 2013, could fit in one of the commentary rooms at the London Chess Classic. With a grand total of 15 speakers (distinguished though they were), the gathering had a decidedly cosy ambience. “Plenary workshop” was not a contradiction in terms. By the first afternoon, everyone had met everyone else. Forget cursory introductions: one would have had a long, stimulating conversation with every other delegate over the course of the weekend. Sessions ran consecutively, aministrative work was minimal, and the networking gathering was an affair so quiet and serene that many would entertain ideas of a quick game of chess. Those were simpler times.

Fast forward three years and we all found ourselves at an eight-room conference centre to discuss teaching chess with 150 delegates working in 25 countries of the world. The 4th London Chess Conference was by far the largest and most international ever gathering of educators, researchers, schoolteachers, coaches, organisers, civil servants and non-profit executives interested in how chess can be used as a force for driving educational attainment. Disappointment was universally voiced at having to choose between concurrent sessions, all equally excellent. But there was no alternative: who would have time to attend a fortnight-long conference? That is what it would have taken to run all talks, workshops, seminars, debates and panels consecutively.

The diversity of topics was staggering and the quality of sessions universally excellent. As has become a tradition, a competition was also held: this time for the best chess exercise involving collaborative problem solving. In the end, the judging panel could not decide between two very different entries, and awarded a shared first prize.

As is unavoidably the case with an event at such scale, there were organisational challenges, but we hope that they remained hidden behind the scenes. At the end of the day, it is not our work as organisers that made the Conference what it was, but the expertise of over a hundred unbelievably clever and dedicated delegates along with your love of chess, passion for education, and selfless enthusiasm for sharing your knowledge and experience.

Our job was gathering all of you together in one building; if we could do that, the event was guaranteed to be a success. We hope that everyone left London feeling as inspired as we certainly did.

From all of the organisers to all the attendees, thank you for making the 4th London Chess Conference so unforgettable.

Competition results

The jury in our competition for the best original classroom chess exercise involving collaborative problem solving decided to award a shared first prize. The winners will share equally the cumulative prize fund for places 1-2, receiving EUR 400 each. Congratulations!

Full results and winning entries:

  • Shared 1st-2nd: Alison Bexfield (“Partner chess”: download here) and Tim&Sarah Kett (“Knight’s tour snooker”: download here)
  • 3rd: Jerry Nash (“A safe journey home”: download here)
  • Special commendation: Jerome Maufras (“My kingdom for a horse”: download here)
  • Special mention for an excellent entry but outside the scope of the competition rules: Mahwish Khan (“A scientific enquiry using chess”: download here)

Congratulations to the winners!

Competition deadline extended!

The Jury of the competition for the best classroom chess exercise have resolved to extend the deadline for submissions to 5pm London time on Thursday 8 December.

We appreciate that some who have already submitted entries may consider that they would have preferred to work on them longer had they known that the deadline would be extended. Anyone who wishes to amend their earlier submission is permitted to do so.

The prize fund of 1000 Euros is provided by the European Chess Union.

Collaborative Problem Solving in Science

For more details, how to submit and competition regulations, go here. Prospective entrants may also find very helpful a recent note about the competition by John Foley, the Conference Director.

National Mind Sports Centre

Plans are afoot to establish a National Mind Sports Centre where chess and Go and other strategy board games can be played.  The project is a joint venture between the English Chess Federation and the British Go Association. It has long been desired to find a place to play league games and competitions and to hold gaming events.  Teaching and training would be part of the mix to encourage the next generation into the boardgame realm.

The latest initiative arose from Go player T Mark Hall who left a substantial legacy for the establishment of a centre in London.   He fondly remembered the place where he played go as a youngster and wanted others to revive the concept.  We are all familiar with the problem of finding a space for community activities.  Pubs and church halls serve the purpose but are not ideal.

The original National Chess Centre was in the John Lewis department store in Oxford Street.  John Spedan Lewis was a devotee of the game.  Unfortunately the Centre was bombed during WW2.  After the war,  a number of coffee houses, such as the Prompt Corner in Hampstead, open from 10-midnight, kept the spirit alive. It was popular with intellectuals such as George Orwell and European emigrés but eventually all these unique places disappeared.

A recent trend is the rise of board game cafés in which patrons pay a board fee and are expected to buy some drinks and maybe a meal. These are popular with young adults who are to be found socialising in fashionable places like DraughtsLondon in Shoreditch.

Casual Chess Cafe
Casual Chess Cafe London

Chess and Go have traditionally been played in relative silence, certainly at the higher levels. This factor has made it more difficult to find suitable venues and to attract people to clubs. Bridge, being an inherently social game, does not suffer the same problem. The Casual Chess Club which is held daily in the BFI bar off Tottenham Court Road shows that playing chess in a bar with chatter and music in the background are not always incompatible. There is scope for more than one type of playing area within a venue.

The latest plan is to concentrate all the activities related to mind sports into one place and to combine flexible game playing spaces with in a cafe and a merchandising outlet. The revenues generated from the commercial activities will help to defray the cost of the game activities.  Fundamental to this plan is the acquisition of a property which will cost at least £3 million. There are many issues to be resolved regarding funding options, corporate structure and charitable status.

Amanda Ross, who runs the Casual Chess Cafe, has been commissioned to conduct a feasibility study on the National Mind Sports Centre. She will outline her current thinking in a presentation at the London Chess Conference on Monday 12th December 2pm – 4pm. This session is open to all and does not require registration at the conference. Please come along if you would like to share your ideas and enthusiasm about how to achieve this laudable objective.



Special showing of the Magnus film documentary

We are delighted to announce that there will be special showing of Magnus for those attending the London Chess Festival (including the Conference and the London Chess Classic).  The film is being shown at the Bertha DocHouse, the home of documentary based inside the Curzon Bloomsbury.  The film will be shown on Sunday 11th December at 8.30pm.

Magnus Carlsen
Magnus Carlsen, London, England 31 March 2013 FIDE Chess Candidates Tournament Foto: Morten Rakke / NTB scanpix

Magnus  is a delightful documentary following the emergence of the greatest chess champion of modern times, Magnus Carlsen.  Watch the TRAILER.

The film lasts one hour and 18 minutes.  The adverts at the Bertha are short so you should be away by 10pm.  Even if you know the story of Magnus (and who in the chess world does not) there are some new images and videos from Magnus’s childhood which are worth seeing.

The Bertha DocHouse has a bar on each level of the cinema; the one on the ground floor is a nice meeting area, comfy sofas etc.  Travelling to the cinema by public transport from Olympia, go to Hammersmith (bus or walk) and then take the Piccadilly Line to Russell Square, the nearest tube stop.

To book tickets directly BOOK HERE (go to non-members on the left)

There is a concessionary rate available (£7 instead of £9) for advanced group bookings provided you email  Agnieszka by Friday 9th December. The cinema only has 55 seats and may get full.  You must go via Agnieska to get the concessionary rate – you cannot obtain this deal by booking direct.



ECU Prize Competition : New Chess Exercise

We want to encourage the adoption of new teaching ideas that can be used in the classroom. Each year the conference promotes the development of chess education through a prize competition. The prospect of a reward may tempt you to submit an entry. The first prize is €500 with second and third prizes are €300 and €200 respectively, generously sponsored by the European Chess Union. The objective is to devise an original chess exercise involving collaborative problem solving. The competition is open to everyone.

We want exercises in which children must work together to solve a problem. There is no template or standard problem – it is up to your imagination. We are aware that many chess tutors already use group exercises with children. It may just be a matter of writing down what it is that you do. The answer is that it should be something that you have devised yourself or adapted from another format.

The exercise must involve children working together as a pair, a table or the whole class. It is essential that they interact with each other in solving the problem. It is necessary for the children to exchange information with each other about the problem.

So what type of problems are we looking for? We are completely open and flexible; there is no standard format. However, a standard chess problem (e.g. of the form “White to play and checkmate”) will not succeed if it means children work individually. There must be something about the problem so that the children must work together towards a wider objective.

Exercises will typically involve exploring and solving a structured problem where children organise themselves to conduct a number of tasks. Fruitful areas concern construction and decomposition tasks. In a construction task, the aim is to create an arrangement, for example, a chess position. Can the problem be decomposed into several parts? If so, then can the children work on these separately?

A route-finding example is the traditional knight’s tour which involves moving a knight around the board so that it covers all of the squares without landing on the same square twice. Solving the tour in practice requires placing counters on each square on which the knight lands. Several roles emerge: for example, moving the knight, pointing out the next square, placing the counter, counting the unoccupied squares at the end (the team with the fewest unoccupied squares is the winner). More advanced teams could be given several rules to test e.g. clockwise, edge-hugging etc. which can be worked on separately.

The deadline for submissions is Sunday 4 December 2016 at 5pm London time.

UPDATE: The Competition Jury have extended the deadline for submissions until 5pm London time on Thursday 8 December 2016.