Category Archives: Counselling

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.

Chess mediated counselling

Fernando Moreno is a school counselor based in Maryland near Washington DC, the US capital. He has for over a decade been developing chess as an instrument of psychological counseling. His approach focuses on improving the social and emotional skills of his students and consequently their academic performance. For new migrants, he supports their adaptation and integration by increasing the involvement of the family in their new school. His innovative technique is to present real life situations as carefully chosen chess positions. The chess position models in some way the decisions that they have to make.

The children that Fernando supports did not start life with many prospects. His school has the lowest income population in the district with 95% of the pupils receiving free school meals. Furthermore, three quarters have limited knowledge of English. Many of them received little schooling in their home country before immigrating. The families may have experienced war, poverty, violence or persecution.

Chess does not have any bounds: it is played in every country. Fernando relates to the newcomers by telling them about chess in their culture. He tells stories of the players and refers to a chess library illustrating games from Central America (El Salvador, Mexico), South America (Colombia, Peru, Bolivia), Asia (China, Vietnam), Africa (Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa), Spain and Russia.

Fernando tells the newcomers that their move was not a free choice but was due to external circumstances. He correlates this narrative with chess: if you learn the rules of the game then you can move your own pieces according to one’s own plan. He teaches the children the new rules of the environment, how to take appropriate measures to improve and feel better at the new school, and how to get on with their new teammates.

BigBoardChess with Fernando is a noisy, boisterous affair. Playing and talking at the same time gets across his messages more powerfully. The key to the therapeutic effectiveness is a synchronously shared experience. He can sense the feelings and thoughts of his students and this creates a positive atmosphere of trust. They talk through the student’s decisions about their life situation. Fernando recommends using a large floor standing chess board because this results in more insightful conversations, perhaps because body language is more evident.

This is pioneering work and some may question whether it is possible to replicate Fernando’s therapeutic approach because it depends so much on his interpersonal skills. However, he points out that it is not necessary to be a strong chess player – only to play at the same level as the pupils. It is even a bonus if the pupils can beat him sometimes. He can explore decision making in circumstances of inexperience and ignorance. They learn together to find the best chess moves as they might do in real life.

Fernando will be presenting his approach at the conference.

Top diagram:  Fernando is introducing parents to chess.

Bringing Refugees into Play

By the end of the year, more than a million refugees who are seeking asylum will have been registered in EU countries. Projects in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands have deployed chess as one of the elements assisting the rehabilitation and integration of refugees. One of the features of chess is that it is an international language in itself. People from different coutries can begin to communicate across the board.

One of Germany´s biggest refugee reception centres is located in Munich in the Bayernkaserne. The Münchener Schachstiftung (Munich Chess Foundation) started the initiative in 2011 and then raised support from other foundations. Chess tutors are employed to supervise chess events each Friday where instruction is given to beginners and intermediate players. In another project, a special school for unaccompanied young refugees, Schlau-Schule, ran four classes were run during the last school year. Several of the students had learned the game at the chess meetings in the Bayernkaserne Project supervisor Dijana Dengler of the Münchner Schachstiftung is moved by the memory of how Afghan youngsters started to invite everyone interested to late night chess sessions.

Mustafa is one of the students of the Schlau-Schule for refugees in Munich - and he loves chess a lot. (photo: Münchener Schachstiftung)
Mustafa is one of the students of the Schlau-Schule for refugees in Munich – and he loves chess a lot.
(photo: Münchener Schachstiftung)

During the first weeks after they have registered their application, many refugees have little to do. When Niels van der Mark learned about refugee boredom in November 2014, he decided to give chess a try. Together with club mates from Schaakvereniging Doetinchem he started to pay regular visits to the reception centre in the Dutch town near the German border. “We were surprised how many Syrians know chess and play it quite well.”

Those who show an interest are also invited to the chess club. Offering tournaments makes little sense, as the refugees are usually just staying for a few weeks. Van der Mark encourages them to join one of the free chess sites on the internet in order to stay in contact with others who keep playing. He has also make some connections with chess clubs in the refugee’s new place so that they receive a welcome. Chess can provides a ready-made social network.

Van der Mark is unaware of other Dutch chess clubs that have followed the example of Doetinchem, “because we didn´t make a noise about this”, but the local media found out about the project and loved it. Here you can see a TV report (in Dutch)..

Only men and boys joined the chess sessions. As Van der Mark noted “They kept saying that women don´t have a place in war, and they pointed out that what we call queen is in Arabic a vezir – a minister”. Some of the Syrian children would move the pieces in a different way. They play a variant called “damen” (a word which means “draughts” in several European languages).

In Sweden, instilling an interest in chess fever has been found to improve the mood of formerly depressed and isolated youth. Ake Drott, a therapist and social worker specialises in unaccompanied young refugees at Steget Verdare (One Step Further), a non-for-profit organisation in Mölndal near Gothenburg. Two years ago he started using chess and has been passing on his lifelong enthusiasm for the game to the young people he is assisting. “Chess works tremendously well: they feel better, they get better at school, they get along better with others. Everything!” says Drott.

Last year Ake and his team leader, Pontus Teiler, participated in a graduate seminar on chess teaching at the University of Malmö. They documented and analyzed their experience which now comes as a basis for a presentation at our conference. Drott, Dengler and Van der Mark will all share their experience in our workshop Chess for Refugees and encourage others to establish projects elsewhere.