All posts by Stefan Löffler

“While Chess Brightens up Life, Women Brighten up Chess”

The lower pick-up-rate of chess by women and the male dominance in competitions have been a matter of discussion since ages. Many commentators treat the topic with galantry as has Savielly Tartakower in the above quote. It is taken from an impressive collection of statements, arguments and clippings that were excerpted by Edward Winter, the eminent chess historian, and span from the 19th century to the present day.

Apart from the male dominance among the commentators one can also observe that the disregard of chess by women is rationalized. Places and social circles where chess is played are not welcoming for women. On the other hand “Lasker´s Chess Magazine” warns in 1906 that the creation “of ladies’ chess clubs is a means of perpetuating mediocrity among its members.”

It has often been asserted that women lack the recklessness and ambition required to succeed on the board. Hermann von Gottschall, the Deutsche Schachzeitung´s editor, argued in 1893 that the typical female tendency for intrigues should empower their play. In the same light hearted fashion he went on to claim that their preference for light chatter should not at all hinder women, because in the usual café or club game talking takes precedence over the actual moves.

Von Gottschall wrote for a nearly exclusively male audience, as did so many after him. More recently, explaining the male dominance in chess has become a minefield, and that can also be established from Winter´s collection (which also contains the above photo from a book on the German Chess Congress 1905 showing an actress performing Caissa in the opera “The Royal Middy”, which features a notorious checkmating trick).

Inclusion on Board

Is chess the ultimate inclusive sport? Physical differences due to age and sex do not prevent us from competing with each other. Even physical impairments can be overcome. A chess set that enables visually impaired players to recognize the position of the pieces was invented in London as early as 1848. Theodore Tylor, who was among England´s leading players in the 1930s and drew Alekhine and Capablanca in regular games, was nearly blind. Chris Ross, a blind player who spoke at our conference earlier, gave a simultaneous exhibition in Belfast. The Global Chess Festival in Budapest on 12 October has a fascinating programme on how visually impaired and deaf players train and compete.

Nowadays there are international associations for blind, for physically impaired and for deaf players. Each is a member in FIDE and represented in the Chess Olympiads with an international men´s and women’s team.

Just as there are more and more female only tournaments, there is also an increasing number of separate competitions for the players with handicaps. A few months ago the first World Championship for Physically Disabled took place in New Jersey. CNN produced a moving report. But maybe there are already too many separate competitions. The World Disabled Open, Youth and Cadet Championship that was scheduled in Cardiff for the week of our conference, has just been cancelled due to a lack of registrations.

Alessio Viviani, an amytrophia patient who cannot move a piece without an assistant, caused a sensation in Italy by winning the Open in Porto San Giorgio in 2015 ahead of several professionals. The Italian insists that he would not participate in a separate competition. This begs the question if resources should rather enable players with impairments to participate in mixed, open competitions and thereby increase their participation and visibility.

The ECU recently ran a workshop on Equal Opportunities in cooperation with FIDE´s DIS Commission in Thessaloniki, where guidelines for organisers, recommendations for federations and training needs were worked out. Inclusive Education is the focus of the latest edition of the ECU´s First Rank Newsletter.

We are looking for discussants for a Round Table on Inclusion and Equal Opportunities. We are also inviting contributions for a workshop on Chess for Children with Special Needs. Please write us at info@chessplus.net

Parallel Streams (and a bit of Overlap)

We have been asked about the structure of our conference. We have parallel streams throughout both conference days on our title theme “Chess and Female Empowerment” as well as on Chess in Education with a bit of overlap. Here is our planned schedule:

Saturday 30 November
9.30-11.00 Registration
11.00-12.45 Opening Plenary: Female Perspectives
12.45-14.00 Lunch
Book Presentation
14.00-16.00 World Café Debates
Round Table Inclusion and Equal Opportunity in Chess
Workshop
Software Presentations
16.00-16.30 Coffee
16.30-18.00 Parallel Workshops
18.30-20.30 Games on 8×8 Evening
Sunday 1 December
9.00-10.30 Parallel Workshops
                      Software Presentations 
10.30-11.00 Coffee
11.00-13.00 Keynotes
World Café Debates
Parallel Workshops
13.00-14.15  Lunch
14.15-15.30 Round Table The Woman Question in Chess
Parallel Workshops
15.30-16.00   Coffee
16.00-17.30 Parallel Workshops

This doesn´t mention the numerous side meetings that are informal or by invitation only nor the planned film screenings.

The world class action in the Grand Chess Tour final will start on the day after the conference on Monday, 2 December. If you participate yourself in the London Chess Classic, your playing schedule will allow you to attend a part of the conference on Saturday, 30 November, and most of it on Sunday, 1 December. Several bus lines run between the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith and the Olympia Kensington. It is just under a mile or twenty minutes to walk. Considering that you won´t be able to attend the conference at full length, as a registered participant of the FIDE Open or Weekender you are eligible to attend the conference on both days with the purchase of one day ticket.

Please keep our call for contributors in mind contact us with your suggested presentation or debate topic.

Call for Contributions

The London Chess Conference (30 November and 1 December 2019) is looking for your contributions related to the theme of “Chess and Female Empowerment”. Don’t be shy to present or debate. You may contribute an article, a poster about your project, research or experience. We want to have a lively informed debate which give people the opportunity to embrace new ideas, make new contacts and develop new projects.

Workshops typically comprise 10-20 participants exploring a topic in detail. You may wish to contribute as a workshop chair or presenter. Potential workshops titles are:

  • Making clubs and competitions more welcoming (not only) for women and girls
  • Increasing the role of women in chess organisations
  • Empowering female teachers in school chess
  • The growth mindset in junior chess
  • Prejudice, sexism and how to fight it
  • Innovation and diversity in chess organisations
  • Project evaluation
  • Conducting surveys

Another cherished format of the London Chess Conference is the “World Café Debate”. All debates take place simultaneously in the main hall. Each debate is moderated by the same person. The participants will be invited at (30 minute) intervals to move along to another debate. Possible debate topics include:

  • Should girls have separate competitions?  
  • Should women-only titles (WFM, WIM, WGM) be abandoned?
  • Policy focus: decrease the performance gap or the participation gap?
  • Equal pay for woman players?

We are also planning two round tables with discussants and questions from the audience. Are you up to debate this:

  • One century of promoting females in chess: what have we learned?
  • Inclusion and equal opportunity in competitive chess

Please contribute your suggestions to us at conference@chessplus.net

Note that we already have several sessions lined up with speakers and debaters. The call for contributors does not detract from currently planned topics.

Chess and the City

Cities provide a fertile ground for innovative formats to promote chess. “Chess Unlimited” started out in 2015 as a welcome initiative when tens of thousands refugees reached Vienna every month. Kineke Mulder, a Vienna based web designer, understood the integrative potential of chess as a game that transcends language, culture and religion. Hundreds of refugees met with local players, made friends or joined existing chess clubs. She installed chess meetings in several locations of the Austrian capital, including the main branch of the public library and the Platz der Menschenrechte, where up to fifty chess lovers meet every friday in the open air from five in the afternoon until midnight.

There are numerous media reports on Kineke´s innovations including this one in English.

Giant chess boards and chess tables in public spaces can give chess great exposure but they require maintenance. At the popular chess meeting point on Max Euwe Square in Amsterdam urban guards are taking care of the giant pieces every morning and evening. Otherwise they will be neglected or even abandoned. Jesus Medina Molina, a Dutch IT consultant specializing in the travel industry, is initiating “chess courts” consisting of at least three chess tables in public parks throughout the Netherlands. He always starts by creating a network of chess lovers that will feel responsible and organise activities at the chess court several times a year. Making sure that pieces can be picked up in a nearby place is the easier part. Since the first chess court has opened in the Maxima Park in Utrecht in spring 2018, more than a dozen cities and communities have become interested to invest in chess tables.

Chess initiatives that especially welcome women often start outside of traditional clubs. “Frau Schach” is an Austrian initiative that connects women with an interest in chess. They come together once a month in a traditional Vienna coffee house, Café Schopenhauer. The “Schachbretttulpen” in Hamburg also meet every month, and they do so in different, friendly locations. London´s Casual Chess Club is open to all genders several times a week. Learn more about these and other initiatives at our conference in a workshop on “Urban Chess”.

Chess Therapy: Launching Research

Launching Research on a Novel Approach against Addiction

Sabine Vollstädt-Klein

People suffering from a substance use disorder often have cognitive impairment in several domains (e.g. a poor working memory and short attention span). Cognitive training has therefore become a part of the range of addiction therapies. We invited Sabine Vollstädt-Klein, the German addiction scientist, to talk about chess-based therapy for substance use disorders at the 2016 London Chess Conference.  She was sceptical at first but after reviewing the evidence on anti-addiction cognitive training and taking into account the positive responses to her lecture and workshop presentation at the conference, she decided it was worth exploring further.

Recently, we caught up again with Sabine at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim. She had some very good news. She has secured funding from the German Research Fund (DFG) to pursue two research projects. This type of funding is highly competitive and allocated on purely scientific merits. She will apply chess-based therapy as an add-on intervention to treatment protocols with patients suffering from alcohol abuse disorder. Patients in the control group will get treatment as usual. Similarly, chess-based therapy will be applied in a larger project on nicotine addiction in which the Central Institute is partnering with several German universities. Sabine expressed her gratitude for the suggestion that chess could be used for therapeutic purposes. 

Sabine became acquainted with chess and chess-based therapies from other participants at the London Chess Conference. She has just returned from Spain where she observed it in action. Chess-based therapy has been developed by the psychologist Juan Antonio Montero and is applied in two dozen institutions in the western province of Extremadura. It is deployed not only with addiction patients, but also with prison inmates, people with Down Syndrome and other conditions. The therapy is not intended to develop chess playing strength but is oriented to improve cognitive functioning. 

“They have very good results but no control group and therefore no robust research to show if and how chess-based therapy works”, she told us. She explains that chess-based therapy has a probable advantage compared with other cognitive therapies against addiction: other therapies tend to be repetitive and boring. Chess offers a more structured and gamified approach.

Professor Vollstädt-Klein is now looking for a PhD student to work on both research projects with her in Mannheim, a vibrant town in southwest Germany. It is crucial that the candidate has the appropriate academic background and scientific training. Only a rudimentary chess knowledge is necessary to deliver the cognitive trainings, Also, because of the need to interact with the patients. the candidate should speak some basic German but fluency is not expected.

Official vacancy advert

Conference in Armenia

FIDE Education Commission Chairman and conference host Smbat Lputian, FIDE Vice Presidents Judit Polgar and Nigel Short, and FIDE Education Commission Secretary Kevin O´Connell (in the foreground – photo: Armenian Chess Academy)

A very well organised and fruitful conference “Current trends and developments in chess education” took place in Tsakhkadzor, a resort town north of Yerevan in Armenia. Most of the speakers were connected with the Armenian school chess programme, which is easily the most ambitious in the world: all children in the 2nd to 4th grade in Armenia have two chess lessons each week. When the scheme was established the President of the Armenian Chess Federation was conveniently the President of Armenia.

As the schools chess programme developed, more and more scientists became involved. In 2018, the Chess Scientific Research Institute was established at the Armenian State Pedagogical University in Yerevan. It comprises 18 scientists from education, didactics, psychology, sociology and philosophy. The Institute’s Director, associate professor Vahan Sargsyan, is also initiating a new scientific journal that will be cover scholarly publications about educational and social aspects of chess. 

The conference opening speech was delivered by Armenia’s Minister of Education Arayik Harutyunyan. Foreign speakers addressed practical angles. Belarus, Iceland and Kazakhstan sent representatives in preparation for the national roll-out of their own national school chess programmes. The character of the conference was more academic than at the informal London Chess Conferences organised by ChessPlus. The conference comprised a single stream rather than parallel sessions of workshops and debates as in London.

Smbat Lputian, the founder and leader of the Armenian school chess programme, is also the Chairman of the Education Commission of FIDE (the World Chess Federation). This newly constituted Commission held their first meeting to coincide with the Conference. The Commission sees its main objective in helping school chess programmes worldwide to raise their standards. Communication is crucial in improving the effectiveness of its mission. The construction of a new website is underway. The former system of FIDE directly providing training courses for teachers and tutors is being revised. The main link to FIDE’s former Chess in Schools Commission is that its chairman Kevin O´Connell has moved over to become Secretary of the new FIDE Education Commission.

All presentations are available in English here. A more “chessy” report on the conference is on Chessbase. There is also a video summary of the conference.

Videos and Presentations

Most presentations and videos from many of them are now available on our presentations page which we added in the menu. This will be continually updated as the remaining presentations are coming in. The videos and presentations are merged in a convenient way as you can see from this exemplary one:

We have also created a playlist of conference videos on youtube. There you also find accompanying summaries of the presentations. All thanks to our many contributors and to the fantastic efforts by our digilent and always helpful videographer Etienne Mensch who joined the conference team this year.

Etienne is Digital Director at a vocational training centre in Strasbourg. He is an International Master and experienced chess coach, among the talents he nurtured is Grandmaster Bilel Bellahcene. He was also Education Director of the French Chess Federation and managed live transmissions of several high level chess events.

Our conference videographer Etienne Mensch (photo: John Foley)

We wish everyone a merry festive time and all the best for 2019!


With only Competitive Chess We Remain Weak

France is the must-watch-country for all chess federations. Bachar Kouatly has devised an exciting turnaround of the French Chess Federation (FFE) to “a broad direction, a transversal direction, not only a narrow focus on competitive chess. Without it, the federation doesn’t exist, but with only competitive chess we remain weak.”

Chess is now helping to improve social cohesion and inclusion, explained Kouatly in his remarkable presentation: “We are a tool in the public policy in France.” The prime example is an agreement with the Ministry of Justice´s Department for Youth Protection. Adolescents at the brink of prison can now learn and play chess. The Ministry is paying the chess teachers and club membership fees.

When Kouatly was elected as Federation President two years ago, Jean-Michel Blanquer was one of his election team. Blanquer has since become Minister of Education and is opening doors for chess in France. The Federation has signed agreements with the national associations of sport in primary schools (USEP), sport in secondary schools (UNSS) and with French schools outside of France (AEFE).

An important meeting with the latter prevented Johanna Basti from coming to the London Conference. She negotiated the contracts with the national institutions on behalf of the Federation and is a member of the new Education Commission of the European Chess Union. Blanquer and Basti believe in the social potential of chess but are not rooted in competitive chess. In the past, the French Federation had been run by school teachers who, perhaps paradoxically, were oriented to competition rather than education. Their commitment to the conventional implementation of chess left no room to develop chess more widely within society.

Bachar Kouatly, who was the first Grandmaster in France and is a successful technology entrepreneur, appealed to chess federations everywhere to bring in more people from the outside: “If you are able to bring other people with fresh blood and fresh ideas who will put you out, it means you succeeded!”

Cooperative Spirit

Cooperation is a big objective of the London Chess Conference. Therefore we are very pleased with the first results of the workshop on Chess in Prisons. We had this topic earlier at the 2015 conference. Soon afterwards Carl Portman, who lead the workshop and coordinated prison chess for the English Chess Federation, published his wonderful book Chess Behind Bars. This summer the Spanish chess club of Villalba 64 started to work in several prisons in Madrid, and Luis Blasco de la Cruz asked us to include this topic in this year´s conference.

This was a well-timed suggestion. The Guardian has recently reported on Carl´s initiative together with Chess in Schools and Communitites. Pilot projects at Wandsworth, one of the most crowded adult prisons, and Isis for juvenile offenders shall lead to the introduction of chess in up to 50 prisons throughout the UK within two years.

We searched for others working in the field and found that the Norwegian, Swedish and French Chess Federations had recently started promising projects. We also knew that David Smerdon, assistant professor of Economics at the University of Queensland, is interested to study the effect of a chess intervention on inmates.

We brought them together at the conference, where they were joined by other activists who are planning to bring chess to prisons in their countries. They created an informal network and have already planned their next steps, which could very well lead to a joint funding application at the EU and a research project.

Please contact us if you are also working with chess in a prison and want to be connected to the network. Good luck to all involved, and we keep you posted.

Participants of the Chess in Prisons workshop (Foto: Aga Sapkovska)