Category Archives: Prisons

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

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.

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!

Chess in Prisons: a big deal

Kajetan Wandowicz writes:

I was somewhat surprised one Saturday to receive apologies for the absence of one of the regulars when I arrived for my weekly chess club at HMP Bristol. “He says he’s very sorry he can’t make it today,” said the guard, “but his sister is visiting.” Don’t get me wrong: it is of course good manners to excuse non-attendance but, after all, it was only a leisurely, drop-in, voluntary chess club session. I never even made any assumptions who would be there and who wouldn’t, much less expected regular participation.

This must have shown in my face as Chris looked at me and said, “You know, it’s a big deal for them. Most men have told their families not to visit on Saturdays because they’ve got chess. He’d never miss it if his sister wasn’t flying back home to the States tomorrow.” I’m sure you can imagine how much of a testament to our little chess club that was. Weekends are naturally more convenient for families to schedule visits, with no work or school to arrange around. Weekday visits are not only trickier to schedule, but they also carry higher cancellation risk. But Saturday is chess day.

I started thinking about prison chess a couple of years ago. Sometime around November 2013 thinking turned to planning, planning turned to excessive e-mailing, lobbying, shameless gate-crashing and all other sorts of prodding which the prison decision-makers had to endure. This in turn led to meetings, and meetings led to us finally starting to work together in January this year.

Theoretically, chess can have huge benefits in a prison – intellectual rigour, channelling aggression, positive attention focusing, cheap and inclusive, teaches social rules, decision making, logical thinking. If the above looks strangely familiar to every single reader, that’s the point: our pitch to prisons can pretty much be a carbon copy of our pitch to primary schools that we all know so well.

The benefits of chess for children, which we always communicate to schools, are directly transferable to this environment. Well, perhaps except boys playing with girls. And even more, actually: whilst we do go to some tough schools, children generally don’t struggle with drug or alcohol abuse. Anyone who’s read John Healy’s brilliant The Grass Arena will have seen what prison chess can do to combat these.

The bottom line is that many many prisoners are there precisely because of their unfortunate inability to make sensible decisions, either through not thinking before making one or through mis-evaluating potential outcomes.

Thanks to CSC’s support, the project is now developing. We’re getting close to securing some key partnerships with other organisations interested in prisoner welfare. Since May, chess clubs have started in one more wing, and we’re hoping to team up with a local charity to open a free chess school for prisoner’s children. As with our chess programme in primary schools, the prison school’s numeracy course has weekly chess.

KajetanWandowiczKajetan Wandowicz grew up in Poland and tried living in France, Cyprus and Spain before discovering that the food and the weather were much better in England. He lives with his fiancée in Bristol, where he teaches 16 CSC classes and a weekly library club.