Category Archives: Research

Quality Issues

Can quality in school chess be measured? This was one of our debating questions on the first conference day. Sarah Kett, who lead the debating group (pictured above), reports: “The desirability of measuring school chess depends on the context. In Armenia, where all children learn chess for several school years, there is definitely a need to justify the use of taxpayers´ money.” Another key aspect was whether the students should be measured (as is usually done in research projects) or the teachers, respectively their teaching materials and methods.

If the pupils are measured, chess-related measures would be relatively straight-forward (such as ratings, proportion of children in chess clubs, proportion of children to play outside their school, proportion of children continuing to play as teenagers and later as adults) compared to measures ofeducational benefits.

There followed a workshop Quality in Chess in Education with participants from the Educational Commissions in ECU and in FIDE. Vahan Sargsyan from the Pedagogical University Yerevan, who is advising FIDE, differentiated four domains where quality can be evaluated: The quality of the curriculum, the assessment of pupils, the learning environment, and the qualification of the teachers.

The Armenian psychologist stressed that quality cannot be measured once and for all, but should be thought of as a permanent process “plan, act, check, improve, plan, act” and so on. He differentiated between universal standards that apply everywhere, and quality standards that depend on the context. Everyone in the workshop agreed that chess-related outcomes don´t matter and that educational outcomes are crucial.

Karel van Delft has captured segments from the workshop´s key speakers (in order of their appearance) Jesper Hall (ECU), Kevin O´Connell (FIDE), Vahan Sargsyan, Mads Jacobsen (Danish Scholastic Chess) and Smbat Lputian (FIDE).

Chess brought her back to science

We have interviewed key speakers of the conference. First up is Delia Duca Iliescu. In Romania, she is well known as the presenter of a weekly chess show on TV. She conceived and pitched “Strategy in Black and White” herself. A promising player as a child she went on to win junior titles but hated to study opening theory. At tournaments nowadays you rather see her as an arbiter than as a player.

Recently Delia has become a lecturer of computer science at the University of Brasov after ten years as a software engineer. AlphaZero inspired her to start a PhD in machine learning. She is connecting Artificial Intelligence with her chess speciality: chess problems, particularly chess compositions. In our interview, she tells more about this.

Delia Duca Iliescu was interviewed by Stefan Loeffler.

Announcing a new Chess Journal

This year’s London Chess Conference will feature a presentation on a new journal for the field of chess in education. The session will feature editorial board members, offer an overview of the journal’s scope, and provide an opportunity for questions and feedback.

Jerry Nash

Chess: Education and Science is the official journal of the Chess Scientific Research Institute (CSRI) at the Kh. Abovyan Armenian State Pedagogical University. In 2019, Jerry Nash from the USA was selected as Editor in Chief and the journal’s Editorial Board was expanded. The Editorial Board anticipates the release of the first issue during the first half of 2020. 

Chess: Education and Science will include news in the field of Chess in Education, pedagogical issues in chess education, chess-related research, and literature reviews.

Journal articles will include emphasis on the following areas:

  • Psychological (cognitive processes, intelligence, psychological conditions and phenomena, etc.)
  • Sociological (the educational potential and possibilities of chess and social attitudes towards chess as an educational innovation)
  • Pedagogical (aspects of teaching chess, interdisciplinary interconnections and issues of professional training)
  • Chess (research based on the essence and uniqueness of chess in the context of education).

Contributions are being accepted for upcoming editions of the Journal. For additional information, contact Jerry Nash.

Explaining the Gap

Why are there so few women in competitive chess? Why are less than two per cent of grandmaster title holders female? One apparently explains the other. In a journal article from ten years ago Fernand Gobet and his coauthors calculated that the lower participation rate accounts for 96 % for the performance gap. He later acknowledged a flaw in their calculation and estimated the explanatory power of participation to be closer to 60%.

In his recently published book The Psychology of Chess (Routledge 2019, GBP 9,99) Gobet has included a chapter “Men vs. Women”, in which he also considers biological, sociocultural and motivational factors. He mentions psychoanalytical explanations but calls them the least likely.

As keynote speaker at our conference on “Scientific Explanations of the Performance Gender Gap in Chess and Science” (on Sunday 1 December at 11) Gobet will go beyond chess and make comparisons with other fields. Male performance is usually more variable, and the standard deviation is higher for men than for women.

The Swiss International Master was briefly a chess professional in his 20s, before he started a PhD in cognitive science. Working with Herbert Simon, a most versatile social scientist and Nobel Laureate in economics, put Gobet on track for an academic career. His specialty is the study of expertise. Chess is a neat test case thanks to the availability of performance data. Gobet´s impressive publication list is including many more chess-related papers.

Gobet has spoken at most of the London Chess Conferences. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the ECU Education Commission. Both, scientific advisors and commission members, will meet ahead of the conference as in the past years. Until recently Professor of Decision-Making and Expertise at the University of Liverpool, he has moved on to become Professiorial Research Associate at the London School of Economics.

The Psychology of Chess is a new book by conference keynote speaker Fernand Gobet

A journey for a fairy tale

Tatyana Ogneva

When I started teaching chess to primary school children after all the basic lessons, I had to face the problem of children’s fatigue. Tired children and chess are incompatible. Taking into account that chess lessons are conducted in the afternoon, some children tend to sleep. Other children are too tired to keep their temper in line, and they are not able to sit quietly at the table. In both cases, all these conditions hinder chess teaching since children’s attention is distracted. 

I started searching for a resource that would open up a source of energy for children. Finally, I found it. It turned out to be children’s imagination. I animated chess pieces and pawns, endowing them with aspirations and goals that children were able to understand. In this chess kingdom, pawns were children, and chess pieces were adults taking care of these children. Once upon a time, the pawns-children came up with a cunning plan, which resulted in a chain of events. When I told these stories to pupils, I noticed that their fatigue disappeared without a trace. Their faces brightened up, there was interest in their eyes and their only desire was to get to chess as soon as possible and play these stories themselves. They turned into characters of these chess stories and were completely immersed in the game activity. I was very surprised by the fact that children who had just got to know the rules of moves played the game very reasonably. It was obvious that they did it mindfully, with an awareness of the purpose that they understood through the image that lived in their imagination. However, the surprises did not end there. In addition to playing out these stories, pupils solved chess problems presented in the form of a hunter’s struggle with a monster trying to take possession of a treasure chest. The biggest challenge for me was to make children walk and not run when they went to the classroom. The children, burning with impatience, often broke into a run.

Since then, working with children’s imagination has become my main method for teaching chess to beginners.

Once, I saw on the FIDE website an announcement about a chess conference in London dedicated to chess and mathematics. The organizers of the conference arranged a competition for the best chess mini-game. I sent my game called “chess football” and a description of the exercise about the hunter and the monster to take part in this competition. John Foley sent me a letter with his comments about “the hunter and the monster”. The point was that to fight for treasures is very mercantile and is beneath a real hero. One must save the princess; this is the mission the hunter must fulfill. John Foley, the organizer of the competition, invited me to the conference. As a result, my game “chess football” won the competition. I was happy to personally attend this event and receive congratulations from the audience.

Football Chess

John Foley’s remarks haunted my mind. I started thinking about the princess. At first I was confused: “Where did she come from and how did she find herself in the monster’s cave?” I thought. The more I thought about the princess, the more I began to imagine the circumstances leading up to this sad event.

Eventually, she was rescued and it ended well. As a result of these reflections, the fairy tale “The Adventures of Alex in the Chess Kingdom” was born. The idea of the fairy tale unfolded in front of me in its entirety, but there was one problem. I did not know how to start it. The main character’s motivation to learn the chess game was not clear for me. “Why will he do it? What will be the driving force behind his intention?” I asked myself and could not find the answer.

I received the answer to this question when I took part in a Skype conference organized by the Nizhnevartovsk Methodological Center where I presented a report about my trip to London. Vladimir Poley from Belarus, who now works in Sweden, also was among the speakers. He spoke about the annual school championship of classes, where everyone’s participation is valuable, as it can have a decisive influence in the fight for the title of the champion of school teams. This information helped me to understand what could be the driving force for the hero of my fairy tale to learn chess. He did not want to let his classmates down, because they prepared for this competition. So he decided to learn to play chess.

The Prince’s Adventures

Last year I submitted this fairy tale to the competition among chess teachers of Russia and became one of the winners. This year I published a textbook on teaching chess to children, which included this fairy tale. To date, I have written four educational chess fairy tales with beautiful illustrations by the talented artist Tatyana Bogacheva. I am very grateful to John Foley for the incentive that I received when I took part in the conference in London.

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.

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.

Clearer Objectives in Scholastic Chess

International co-operation and a stronger commitment towards education is the way forward for school chess. This is the main conclusions of the fifth London Chess Conference which brought together eighty activists and researchers from 24 countries during the first week-end of the London Chess Classic, that was sponsored by Chess in Schools and Communities, the European Chess Union and benefiting from Erasmus Plus mobility grants.

Networking during a coffee break (photo: Leila Raivio)

Most attendees accepted that a distinction must be made between scholastic chess that is oriented towards school curricula and delivered by regular teachers who have been trained on chess didactics and how to integrate chess with the school curriculum from competitive school chess that is mostly an after-school activity delivered by chess tutors or teachers with the goal of finding and nurturing chess talent. It was noted that whilst most research scarcely details the method and content of chess instruction, future studies must look at precisely how chess is taught and how it is connected to the school curriculum.

Conference Director John Foley with Grandmaster Maurice Ashley who works in schools in St. Louis and New York City (photo: Leila Raivio)

Another flaw with existing research studies is in their design. One cannot prove a causal effect without having both an active and a passive control group. “Chess instruction is not a magic bullet but has a good placebo effect”, said Professor Fernand Gobet who has been warning against this flaw in the study design for fifteen years. He reckons that most studies were conducted by chess proponents who were satisfied to produce a positive result irrespective that the basic design is inadequate. Three-group-designs are standard in video games as well as on music instruction and cognitive training, which Gobet and his PhD student Giovanni Sala have systematically reviewed. Their verdict is that cognitive effects of these several types of intervention are close to zero. If anything, chess is doing slightly better, said Gobet, and encourages us not to focus only on cognitive effects: “Decide what you want to reach in scholastic chess and customise your tools!”

“Chess is not a magic bullet but has a good placebo effect”, said Fernand Gobet (photo: Lennart Ootes)

In order to move ahead, scholastic chess organisations should not only focus on their impact but also what their learn during projects. The value of formative evaluations was argued in a lecture and workshop by Jakob Rathlev from the Danish Scholastic Chess Association and Professor Brian Kisida from the University of Missouri professor who advises the Chess Club and Scholastic Centre of St. Louis.

Professor William Bart´s several suggestions to improve the state of research found a mixed response. While a centre for scholastic chess research would be a very useful resource, it is not likely to materialise in the near future. More practical would be the establishment of a Journal of Scholastic Chess. The consensus is to start with the creation of an international network of scholars and key activists engaged in networking and project building. The next step will be to create a map of knowledge on which to base a future research agenda. Progress on this front as well as on the CHAMPS (Chess and Mathematics in Primary Schools) Erasmus Plus project that was launched at the conference will be reported at our sixth edition during the London Chess Classic in December 2018.

Planning is underway for our sixth conference in December 2018 (photo: Leila Raivio)

High Marks on Creativity in Indian PhD Research

While our attendees from places like Brazil and Australia are currently based in the UK, Ebenezer Joseph has the longest trip to London. The veteran chess teacher and activist has taught and trained 7000 kids in Southern India. In Chennai he founded and is running the Emmanuel Chess Centre in the Russian Cultural Centre. After observing big cognitive improvements for many years he thought up a research project.

Ebenezer Joseph during a TV interview with NEWS 7 Tamil

A trip to the first London Chess Conference 2013 got him on track. Right afterwards he registered for a PhD in Coginitive Psychology in Madras University and became Principal Investigator at the Department of Science & Technology for a project funded by the Indian government to study “The Influence of Chess Learning on Comprehensive Cognitive Development of Children”

Now Ebenezer is returning with results of this study which followed 200 children, half in the experimental, half in the control group, from two government and two private schools. In one of the longest chess studies over two years
measures on intelligence, creativity and academic performance were taken, including tests like WISC IV, Binet Kamat for intelligence and Wallach Kogan for creativity as well as cognitive functions such as working memory, processing speed, verbal comprehension, perceptual reasoning, verbal reasoning, conceptual thinking, numerical reasoning, social intelligence , creativity and language skills.

The improvements on intelligence and creativity in the experimental group that received chess instruction were highly significant. “This study could possibly be a trigger to incorporate chess in Indian schools”, writes Ebenezer. Promoting Creativity is a hot topic in Indian education policy, and his presentation in our opening session will focus on this aspect.

Increasing Co-operation in Chess Research

William Bart, professor of educational psychology and director of the Thinking Lab at the University of Minnesota, is rather positive about the effects of chess on scholastic achievement. He is giving the opening keynote talk “Making School Chess Research Relevant“ (Saturday 13.15-). He writes:

Although there have been empirical studies on the educational and psychological effects of chess in schools and studies of correlates of chess competency, many questions remain unanswered. To answer such questions in a scientific manner, collaboration among scientific researchers and practitioners of scholastic chess is required.

Professor Bart proposes three courses of action:

  1. The establishment of an International Center for Chess Research (ICCR) would advance the scientific study of scholastic chess through empirical research on the effects of scholastic chess.
  2. The establishment of an International Fund for Scholastic Chess Research (IFSCR) would provide financial support to and basis for the ICRR.
  3. The establishment of a Scholastic Chess Network would promote communication among and collaboration between scientific researchers of scholastic chess and practitioners of scientific chess for the purpose of the design and implementation of scientific studies of scholastic chess.

These provisions would provide the basis for answering many questions regarding the effects of scholastic chess in a scientific manner and facilitate the scientific study of scholastic chess and the effective expansion of scholastic chess.“

William’s suggestions will be further discussed in a workshop on Sunday 9.00-10.30. Research Co-operation, the workshop´s theme, is on the rise, even though an attempt to establish a joint academic publication, the Journal of Chess Research, has failed to get off the ground so far.

The European Chess Union, which is a co-sponsor of the London Chess Conference, has recruited scientists to advise the Education Commission. The first, non-public meeting of the ECU Academic Advisory Board on Monday, 4 December, is one of many side meetings of the conference. One of the advisors is Fernand Gobet from the University of Liverpool who has cooperated with colleagues and PhD students in many chess related studies.

Scientists at the University of Girona have formed a Chess Observatory. Its director Carme Saurina Canals, a professor of statistics and econometrics at the Faculty of Economics of Girona, will share how this unique interdisciplinary group interacts.

In October the International Society for Applied Chess was formed during a conference in Bulgaria. Sabine Vollstädt-Klein, an addiction scientist at the University of Heidelberg and the German Institute of Mental Health, will present this brand new organisation with its goals and strategy. With researchers from five continents expected the workshop will boost transnational cooperation.