Category Archives: Chess and Society

What Can Chess Teach Us About Life?

Jonathan Rowson is a grandmaster, three times British champion and an applied philosopher. Many players know him as the author of The Seven Deadly Chess Sins and Chess for Zebras in which he provided deeper insights into the psychological traps of playing than any other chess writer. Yet, Jonathan is neither a professional player nor a coach. His studies in philosophy at Oxford and Harvard led him down the classical road of exploring wisdom on which he wrote his doctoral thesis. His core theme is the ecological crisis and mankind´s failure to act. He has been working for an influential London think tank for many years and has spun off his own project Perspectiva.

Jonathan has never completely stopped playing and continues to follow top-level chess as attested by his twitter feed. Now he has returned to chess with another fascinating book. The Moves That Matter will be released in the UK next week and is out in the USA this Tuesday. To mark the occasion he contributed an op-ed to the New York Times.

He digs deeper than former writers in his comparisons of chess and life. “Chess simulates the meaning of life because it is a ritual encounter with death in disguise, where we experience the responsibility to stay alive one move at a time”, writes Rowson. On the pursuit of happiness which is fundamental to political philosophy in America and elsewhere, he comments: “So if we are pursuing happiness, both in terms of process and outcome, chess does not look like a good way to do it.” He rather thinks “of chess not so much as a path to happiness as a ritual where we free each other from the pressure to be happy”, and his best guess is that we are seeking joy in chess and in life.

Jonathan Rowson will present The Moves That Matter at our conference on Saturday, 30 November, from 1 pm to 2 pm during the lunch break. He will be interviewed by Stephen Moss from The Guardian, himself author of a unique chess travelogue. Jonathan Rowson will also answer questions from the audience and sign copies of The Moves That Matter which will be available at our book desk.

The Moves that Matter

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

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)


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

Programme Confirmed

The full programme for the 6th London Chess Conference has now been confirmed and it can be found here.

The theme of The Future of Education in Chess is a very important one and we have experts from all over the world who will be presenting their thoughts and ideas.

We believe this to be our strongest line-up to date and we are sure the weekend will provide plenty of food for thought for teachers, tutors, chess players and, indeed, anyone else interested in the role of chess in education.

Limited places are still available but with just over one week to go we strongly advise you to book as soon as possible. Tickets can be purchased here.

Grandmasters on Board

We are delighted to announce that we have a few Grandmasters as speakers this year.

Smbat Lputian, who won the Chess Olympiad with Armenia in 2006, has since initiated the most ambitious national school chess project in his home country where all primary school children are learning chess for several school years now. Smbat has recently become the new chairman of what used to be FIDE`s Chess in Schools Commission and has just been renamed the Chess in Education Commission. Smbat will explain this name change and line out the future strategy of FIDE.

Bachar Kouatly, born in Damascus and later on the first French Grandmaster and organiser of the Kasparov-Karpov world championship match in Lyon in 1990, has recently been elected as FIDE Deputy President. Bachar is also the President of the French Chess Federation since 2016, where he is spearheading a significant push for chess to be used for pedagogical and social purposes. He will talk about this exciting turnaround and how to run a federation strategically.

David Smerdon has represented Australia at seven Chess Olympiads and is a respected chess author. He is also a behavioral economist, and after several years as a PhD student and Post-doc in Europe he returned to Australia where he is now on tenure track at the University of Queensland. David is keen to direct research into effects of chess interventions as for example in Chess in Prisons projects. He will also deliver a keynote on What an Economist Can Learn from Chess?. His commendable blog, which focuses on the subjects of chess and economics, can be found here.

Visions: International Baccalaureate

The programme for this year’s conference offers a rich and varied assortment of guest speakers, covering a wide range of topics within the theme of The Future of Chess in Education.

The Saturday morning session takes Visions as its subgenre and it promises to start the conference in fine style.

One of our speakers will be John Claughton, former Headmaster of Solihull School and Chief Master of King Edward’s School, Birmingham,  from 2006 to 2016.

John, a keen advocate for the International Baccalaureate – the international education foundation – will discuss the battle between depth and breadth in education.

Are schools being forced to specialise the children far too early? Should they be offering the alternative to A Levels, with more respect given to the arts?

It is quite clear that chess (along with many other enrichment opportunities) is being squeezed out of the Secondary School system. What can be done to reverse the trend?

Would the introduction of the International Baccalaureate bring more breadth to the education of our children and, if so, what (if anything) is preventing schools from making the change?

I am sure we are in for a fascinating and passionate discussion.

More About IT

The conference is not far away and NOW would be an excellent time to enrol if you have not already done so.

IT will feature prominently on the programme and here is a teaser as to what to expect:

  • Chess Explanation Engine using Artificial Intelligence (Decode Chess)
  • Embedding chess lessons in the classroom digitally (Learning Chess)
  • Chess and computer coding using chess (French Chess Federation)
  • Enhancing memory of chess openings and patterns (Chessable)

This is shaping up to be the best conference yet. We hope to see you there!