All posts by John Foley

About John Foley

Director, London Chess Conference Member, Education Commission, European Chess Union Promoting chess as a way to develop thinking skills

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.

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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.

 

 

 

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.

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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.

Agnieszka

 

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.


 

organisers-meeting

2016 Conference: The Didactics of Chess

The fourth edition of the London Chess and Education Conference will take place on 10-11 December 2016 at the Hilton Kensington Olympia. As usual it coincides with the first weekend of the London Chess Classic held at the Olympia Conference Centre. The theme of the Conference is “The Didactics of Chess”. The event is supported by Chess in Schools and Communities.

Hard Maze

An experimental number game

Chess is a wonderful board game which brings insights into the broader topic of Game Theory which is a more mathematical approach to analysing competition and co-operation. This type of thinking is very influential amongst economists  – eleven game theorists have won the Nobel prize for economics.

When playing chess, you are really playing two games – one is the logic of the position – the other is trying to outguess your opponent. You have to assess how likely it is that your opponent will fall into a trap. You have to consider not only your opponent’s calculating ability but also their sense of danger. Conversely you have to be on guard whether you are being lured into a trap even though you have not seen the denouement.

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Björn Frank experiment in game theory

We now introduce a number game devised by one of our presenters, Björn Frank. All you have to do is choose a number. The number you should choose depends what numbers you think other people will choose. Sounds simple? Give it a try. Take a quick look and decide your number. You don’t have to be a chess player. This is a serious study and the results will be announced at the conference.

2015 London Chess Challenge

There is a prize for the winner, claimable only by those who attend the conference.

4NCLGuardian

Chess Pains

An article published this weekend in the Guardian newspaper examines the current state of chess in England, with a particularly harsh light being shone onto the English Chess Federation.  The journalist Stephen Moss, a keen player, has spoken to many of those involved in the game, at club and grandmaster level, and identified problems which are unlikely to be restricted to England. Top of the list of concerns is the continual inability of the Federation to raise sufficient money to support top players and to develop juniors. It seems that those involved in the administration of the game are prone to squabbling amongst themselves to the detriment of pursuing strategic objectives. In spite of this, we should note that England acquitted themselves reasonably well at the European Team Championship in Iceland which finished today. They came 10th after tie-break compared to a ranking of 5th.  In days gone by this would have ben a cause for concern, but today this outcome can be regarded as something of a relief.

Much of the article content is familiar to chess insiders. However, it will probably be surprising to the general public that the ECF Council ousted the Chief Executive and Marketing Director, replacing them with empty chairs, ducking the challenge of how chess is going to make a positive impact in the media and win support from government and funders. A myopia afflicts those who run the game: organising the next event takes precedence over deciding what type of events should be organised.

One of the issues the article highlights is that there is a flipside to the brilliant problem-solving mind for which chess players are famous. Problem solvers can also be problem creators. Single-minded determination can get you a long way in chess but beware losing contact with the real world.

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Stephen Moss: argues that brilliant people create problems too.

 

Stephen Moss will be hosting a debate on Making Chess More Friendly on Saturday 5th December 2015.

 

 

 

 

Top photo: John Robertson at 4NCL Birmingham

 

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Railway station chess

An unprecented number of refugees are crossing into Europe to escape the civil war in Syria and strife in other places. They arrive at the main railway stations in Europe full of stress and fear but also hope. They are hoping a safe future.

In these troubled times, concerned citizens have stepped forward to help in any way they can. One group of chess volunteers led by Kineke Mulder, a web designer, got together to greet the refugees as they arrive at Vienna’s main railway station. They are part of an initiative known as the Train of Hope which offers a welcome and emergency aid to new arrivals. The project started as a Facebook page (Twitter #hbfvie) and just grew.

The problem, as always, is how to communicate with people when you do not speak their language such as Arabic or Farsi and they do not speak German or English. Chess provides a common language – allowing self-expression in a throng of anonymity.

Kineke and her colleagues provide a special chess welcome. They started by setting up several chess boards with tables and chairs in the station concourse. They were immediately surrounded by curious onlookers. Some gladly accepted the challenge to play chess. Others preferred to watch and learn. As usual there were the kibitzers. Soon there were concentrated and happy faces – of volunteers as well as the refugees. Vienna was representing European culture at its best in the form of chess.

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Johannes Lentner                                    Christian Srienz

Kineke, Johannes Lentner and Christian Srienz are spending between 5 and 15 hours per week on the chess boards. They are keen for other people to join them or to start their own version of meet and greet chess.

Kineke will be speaking at the Conference.

Top photo: Kineke Mulder

Railway station chess photos

 

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Chess with asylum seekers

What can you do when you hear that asylum seekers have come to the old prison in your town and besides their worries they are also bored? You gather old chess sets from everywhere and you ask your chess club members to donate a new chessboard. That is what happened to Niels van der Mark in Doetinchem in the Netherlands a year ago.

Now, one year later they play weekly in the centre and meet a lot of refugees. Most of the time they exchange only a few words of English. But they play chess the whole afternoon, shake hands and sometimes hug and that’s good. The refugees that come to Doetinchem, a small town near the German border and stay there for about 6-8 weeks. During they stay they learn whether they can stay (most of the time for 5 years) or have to leave. Although they know they know they can stay safely for period of when they come from the civil war in Syria,  they are naturally worried about the process. Somehow playing a game of chess eases there mind. It provides a distraction from thinking about their relatives who may also be on the run if they haven’t managed to escape from Syria. On the chessboard they are solving other problems on the chessboard that they have a  chance to solve.

ChessClubCardDuring their stay in Doetinchem, the club offers asylum seekers free membership. The club is one way to help them to get into Dutch culture and customs. The club made a business card with its address and a QR-code they can scan which opens Google Maps and the route to the playing location. The card is issued if they would like to play a serious game of chess.

Another way they have found to stay in touch is through Chess.com.  Niels invites the asylum seekers to create an account so they can play online once they have left for another centre for. Besides playing chess they can still stay in touch.In this way, Niels kept in touch with Mohammed and learned that he wanted to start a chess club in the centre where he was staying. Niels organised ten boards and pieces and brought it to him. And so he started a chess club in the centre at Deventer.

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Chess with asylum seekers in Deventer, Netherlands

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Niels Van Der Mark will be speaking about his project at the conference.

Local press report.

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Chess as a mental health therapy

JulianWayJulian Way was reading Classics at Oxford immersed in the literature and philosophy of Ancient Greece and Rome. He was also a strong chess player – a FIDE Master – and had authored a monograph on the Queen’s Gambit. Given his intellectual talents, he could legitimately have expected a glittering career but suddenly everything changed. He had a mental breakdown and ended up in hospital. He never returned to the dreaming spires to finish his degree. Instead he spent years in and out of mental institutions.

 

His depression lasted fifteen years and it was only when he took control of his recovery and eschewed medical input that he felt he made significant strides. The standard treatment model for mental illness places emphasis on medication. Julian feared that this model takes responsibility away from the patient and can make them feel disempowered. Instead, he prefers developing life skills and strategies ranging from a common-sense self-assessment, with inevitable trial and error, to submitting to the more scientific Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. These skills and strategies are also pertinent on the chess board. According to Julian, recovery from long-term mental health issues has strong parallels with chess. He cites planning, problem solving, self-awareness, emotional stamina, stubbornness and patience.

Mental illness is by its very nature difficult to manage for the individual concerned. Julian advocates adopting a strategic approach. He counsels against impulsive, short-term measures as personal experience suggests these will probably not suffice. Playing chess can provide individuals with scenarios to hone a different kind of thinking. Being able to develop, harness and sharpen thinking skills is integral to chess and essential to recovery. The parallels are abundant and useful discussion may well yield further areas of overlap.

Julian’s view is shared by many but remains controversial given current scientific practice. Julian is not dogmatic about his view that chess presents a microcosm of life itself – he is more concerned to create a dialogue and get a debate going.

Over the last decade Julian has been rebuilding his life. He holds down a job as a social worker in the mental health field. He took a degree in creative writing at a local university and is now working on a Masters. He is writing a therapeutic autobiography and is playing chess happily once more.

Julian will be attending the conference.