All posts by Stefan Löffler

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)


Computers in School Chess

Hardly anyone who is teaching chess today refrains from using technology to find materials and methods. As in previous years, we welcome several exhibitors at the conference who will demonstrate how their products can be used for chess in education.

David Kramaley will introduce you to the learning opportunities created by Chessable, which encapsulates a scientific approach to memorising chess patterns and positions. They create digital versions of leading chess books. Their impressive scope extends beyond school chess and junior chess all the way up to training for ambitious competitive players. Mark Szavin from Hungary will walk you through the exciting features of the latest release of LearningChess, an embedded school platform that supports teachers in the classsroom. Carey Fan is the new CEO of ChessKid which is hugely successful in the United States and is now rapidly expanding in Europe. He will show you how you can deploy Chesskid for lessons in school, with a chess tutor or at home.

Theo Wait is head of Legal & Regulatory Compliance at the open source chess server LiChess which has been making waves in the online playing world due to its dazzling array of features and its rapid growth. Theo will describe how the platform is now poised for the education market. Gideon Segev, a computer scientist at Oxford University will present DecodeChess, a remarkable AI-based programme from Israel that explains chess moves with their purposes and shortcomings in an intelligible way. 

The software will be viewable at desks around the venue.  In addition, there will be in-depth half-hour demonstrations scheduled for Saturday afternoon from 14.00 to 16.30 in Room 2. Second demonstrations will take place on Sunday at times to be announced at the conference.

Before personal computers and smartphones came into widespread use, computer chess was associated with tabletop computers. These have lost their visibility in competitive chess but have never gone out of use in the domestic market and have sold in the millions. The German manufacturer Millennium 2000 has teamed up with the London Chess Conference to find out how its products can be applied in the classroom and what features a scholastic version should contain. Alexis Harakis and Stefan Löffler invite you to debate this question, to participate in an explorative study and to check out the products in the exhibition at the foyer. 

Attendees with a special interest in game design are refered to the exhibition Video Games at the V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum, £18). 

Which Workshops for You?

During the parallel sessions of the conference you will have a choice where to go to. Here are brief summaries of the workshops in chronological order.

Saturday afternoon

Chess in Education Strategy This two-part workshop picks up key issues from the first plenary session and addresses how strategic processes can be organised and communicated within organisations and towards stakeholders. (15-16 and 16.30-18)

Chess in Communities Chess projects that are serving social purposes in its immediate surroundings require a different outlook than competitive chess. Three project leaders share their challenges and provide inspiration. (15-16)

Chess in Prisons Chess has been a popular pasttime of prisoners for a long time. Recently it has been picked up as an intervention to educate inmates and young at-risk delinquents. Prison chess leaders come together to exchange experience and develop a joint research project. (16.30-18)

Sunday morning

Large Scale School Chess Events They are a corner stone of promoting and marketing school chess. Presentations on the UK Chess Challenge, Belaya Ladya, Linkes Alsterufer gegen rechtes Alsterufer, Schack4an and the K12 (Super)Nationals will elaborate what makes each of theses events special, and maybe why none has a conference attached to it yet. (9.30-11)

Business Development How can you put your school chess project or teaching business on firmer ground and make it more efficient? Neil Dietsch, who after a long corporate career is running school chess in Alabama, will conduct this hands-on workshop (9.30-11)

Book Presentation: The Learning Spiral Kevin Cripe, a retired teacher who is now running a chess project for disadvantaged kids in Panama, will present and discuss his new book on chess didactics. (10-11)

Teaching Coding and Computer Skills through Chess Strategy games, and chess in particular, provide a great pathway to introduce young students to coding and teach them other computer skills. Boris Raguet, a French teacher and teacher trainer, shows how this can be accomplished. He will be introduced by David Kramaley. (10-11)

Sunday afternoon

Early Years Chess Starting out on chess with preschoolers or first graders comes with special challenges but also with opportunities to use chess to promote basic numeracy, literacy and psycho motor skills. (13.45-15.15)

Making School Chess Research More Relevant Most studies of school chess have concentrated on cognitive benefits and simple comparisons with control groups of children that didn´t learn chess. While their results may be useful for marketing, different research questions and methods are required to improve the quality and efficacy of school chess. (13.45-15.15)

Promoting Social Skills through Chess Initially often targeted at mathematic and logic skills, those who teach chess in schools often find that social skills are promoted equally or even priorily. (13.45-15.15)

Workshops provide ample opportunity to answer questions, discuss and start cooperating

Pick Your Two Debates!

The saturday afternoon of the conference will start with a special debating format, the so-called „World Café“. Five interactive debates will be going on at thesame time. Each debate will be designated by a flipchart in adifferent part of the main hall. Each debate has one or two protagonists that will lead the conversation and engage those who join. After half an hour everyone but the protagonists will beinvited to change and join a different debate for the next thirty minutes. So you are supposed to pick two debates from these five on our plate this year:

Debating circles at a past London Chess Conference

Should after-school chess be taught by volunteers or by professionals? Boris Bruhn brought up this question which bugs many organisations as it has consequences on the quality assurance,trainings and support structure. What is the future of chess clubs? This question, presented by Vince Negri and Paul Barasi, arises inthe context of the relative boom of school chess at an earlier age. How should we relate to parents and teachers? These are the major stakeholders of school chess and the backdrop of the debate is a survey among parents and teachers that Graeme Gardiner has run in Australia. Kerry Turner, a consultant and academic who is far from being a chess activist, asks: Do schools teach the right subjects? What does it take to get the status of a subject? This is a goal, or at least hope, that many activists and officials are hedging.

The purpose of the debates is to exchange knowledge and to collect interesting arguments and perspectives on your debating question and to learn how aconversation on this question is evolving. All of the four debates mentioned so far are relevant for the Strategy workshops that will start later in theafternoon. The fifth debating theme is quite different: What cantable top computers add to the chess classroom? Is there a role for consumer electronics in today´s chess teaching environment? This is brought to you by Alexis Harakis and Stefan Löffler on behalf of theexhibitor Millennium Computers. Make your pick!

Strategy Matters

Our conference theme The Future of Chess in Education begs the question where we are heading to and how our goals can be reached.

One aspect is organisation. At our early conferences we discussed if education-oriented school chess or, as we like to call it, scholastic chess needs an umbrella organisation of its own. Many projects and activists are distant from and in no way represented by the chess organisations in their countries.

One aspect is the orientation. Should school chess serve the interests of clubs and federations or should it put the educational needs of children and schools first? The ECU has rebranded its former school chess commissions as Chess in Education in 2014. Just recently FIDE did the same.

Strategy is a core theme of the conference and therefore very present from the start. In our introductory session (Saturday 11-13) key players like CSC (UK), ECU, FIDE or the French Chess Federation will present their vision and reflect on their current strategy.

Some strategic questions will then be discussed in the World Café Debates (Saturday 14-15): Should organisations rather work with volunteers or with professionals to provide after school chess? What is the role of chess clubs when the game is widely used for pedagogical and social purposes?

The introductory visions and debates will be followed up in an extended workshop that comes in two parts (Saturday 15-16 and 16.30-18) to accomodate all its lined up contributors. The start will be made by two speakers who report on strategy processes: Roberto Schenker will introduce the Swiss Chess Federation´s School and Youth Chess Strategy that has been developed together with a University. Boris Bruhn will report on a recent School Chess Strategy Day in Germany.

Of strategic importance to the conference team is a more effective dissemination of our findings and results. Our answer for now was to hire the French videographer Etienne Mensch. Watch out for what we will come up with this time!

Workshops to Break New Ground

Workshops form a large part of the London Chess Conference programme. They provide ample opportunity to present projects and findings, exchange best practices and to discuss challenges and new ideas. Many ongoing conversations and cooperations have started at our workshops. The range of workshop topics reflects the diversity of our attendees.

Chess in Communitities (Saturday 15-16) and Early Years Chess (Sunday 13.45-15.15) gather best practice examples in the respective fields. Chess in Prisons (Saturday 15-16) has the specific goal to start an informal network of chess-in-prison projects and also link them with a researcher interested in studying the effect of chess on inmates. Making School Chess Research More Relevant (Sunday 13.45-15.15) brings together scientists and school chess leaders to discuss methodological challenges and ideas for future research.

Increasingly we hear that chess not only helps with numeracy and literacy. Therefore we introduce a workshop on Promoting Social Skills through Chess (Sunday 13.45-15.15). Maybe surprisingly, we never had a workshop before on Large Scale School Chess Events (Sunday 9.30-11) even though the UK Chess Challenge, Schack4an, K12 Nationals, Linkes Alsterufer gegen Rechtes Alsterufer and Belaya Ladya are legendary events whose strategic value for public affairs and marketing cannot be overestimated. Speaking of Strategy, another ground-breaking topic is School Chess Strategy with so many speakers and organisations lined up that this workshop will come in two parts (Saturday 15-16 and 16.30-18).

Following up on this is a workshop on Business Development for School Chess (Sunday 9.30-11) which promises to be highly relevant for aspiring project leaders and professional chess teachers. Neil Dietsch is leading this. Also on Sunday morning we will feature two pioneers: Kevin Cripe, a Californian school teacher who has started a chess project for impoverished children in Panama, will discuss didactic innovations as described in his new book The Learning Spiral (Sunday 10-11). Boris Raguet, a French teacher and teacher trainer, will show how to apply chess to teach coding and other computer skills (Sunday 10-11). Make your pick!