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Observations on Junior Chess

Arising from the result of today's Cornwall v Somerset match I have decided to write an expanded match report by making some comments on junior chess, both in Cornwall and more generally. I must begin by acknowledging the sterling work by Robin Kneebone (‘that man on a mission’) and fellow trainers Jeremy Menadue and James Hooker. There are two aspects to this renaissance, a recognition that chess tends to engage an aging population and that club chess will wither on the vine unless clubs can attract and hold a youth contingent; and an increasing recognition that chess is an important but seriously underused educational and pedagogical tool, deserving of a place on the school curriculum. I intend addressing both issues, spelling out some lessons for Cornish chess.

The development of junior chess in Cornwall, testified elsewhere on this website, is to be commended, but our clubs are inconsistently involved in this infrastructure development and few have made common cause with local schools or colleges. We are over-reliant on a few centres of excellence like Truro and Marazion. The emergence of the ‘hub’ idea featuring chess training for juniors, the ‘megafinals’ and the increased publicity for the Cornwall Junior Chess championships are all steps in the right direction. Despite excellent chess training in individual schools (and one notes the heroic role played by Truro School over the years, giving British chess both Michael Adams and Andrew Greet) the overall demography of the advance is decidedly patchy and surely more can be done at club level. Chess is an intergenerational game and in passing we might note that in the Somerset match the age gap between our oldest and youngest players was the Biblical ‘four score years and ten’ (no names, no pack drill).

In arguing for closer links with education, Cornish chess advocates need to be aware of the head of steam that is developing behind the claims for chess in education. It is armed with these arguments that we need to pitch our case for a commonality of purpose that will see stronger links between Cornwall chess and the school sector. Informed local pressure should complement efforts being made at national level.

For some time, at least as far back as the 1st International Seminar on Chess in Schools in Curitiba, Brazil 1993, there has been a growing interest in whether chess, which probably began life as a military strategy game aimed at inculcating transferable skills, could be reconfigured as a modern educational tool. The impetus towards this redefinition has been driven by at least five powerful ideas: (a) the importance of integrated and multi-faceted competence development, both intellectual and social, addressing the whole person; (b) cognitive neurological research into what predisposes the human brain towards learning; (c) the strong emergence of a ‘ludic pedagogy’ celebrating the value of strategy games and simulations in education; (d) a re-assertion of the claims of creativity over rote learning; and (e) research exploring specific links between chess and the curriculum subject areas of maths and IT.

These are perhaps worth brief elaboration.

With regard to multi-faceted competence development, one obvious value of chess in education is that it requires a juggling of multiple considerations, thus echoing many of the complex practical life situations in which bundles of individual competences need to be applied. As AI (artificial intelligence) guru Seymour Papert put it, ‘Chess is a set of gears that complement one another, and so contribute to the development of general abilities’. The Kasparov Chess Foundation Europe made a similar point in depicting chess as calling upon and developing focus, visualisation, planning ahead, weighing options, calculating risk, analysing correctly and thinking analytically. In Piagetian terms, chess facilitates movement between concrete thinking (the pieces and the position) and abstract thinking (the motifs and ideas). Chess is also a ‘noble’ social game with a tradition, largely upheld, of courtesy. At every level players lose, and are expected to learn graciousness in defeat. There have also been therapeutic claims made on its behalf, e.g. in the Manhattan Community College report Chess in Schools: a Wise Move (1995).

Although the cognitive neurological evidence is still pretty speculative there is some suggestion that exposure to chess, seen as ‘abstract language’ like Music and Maths, creates neural pathways that internalise generic patterns that predispose the learner to interpret more easily similar implicit or latent structures when they are encountered. The same kind of thinking underpins the so-called ‘Mozart effect’ in which listening to music alongside a task is said to promote learning ‘under the radar’ without necessarily involving conscious intention. There is considerable fashionable interest in the value of a ludic pedagogy, fuelled in part by the emergence of game theory as a serious academic specialism with such books as Ken Binmore’s Fun and Games: a Text in Game Theory. Game theory covers both strategy considerations in actual games and the significant presence of game-like structures found widely in everyday life. Games are self-evidently motivational activities and playing games gives insights into game-like structures that are not themselves literal games but also allows cross-schematic deep understandings. Games like chess have the advantage of offering virtually immediate positive or negative feedback, a consideration held to be advantageous in learning theory. If you make a bad move your position deteriorates immediately. Games of various kinds have virtually infiltrated almost every area of the school curriculum, often premised on a subject-based simulation. The claims of chess as a general pedagogical tool are not yet as advanced, as they deserve.

One of the tense debates in UK education currently surrounds the need felt by many to assert the value of open-endedness, the arts and creative thinking over against the content-driven curriculum that appeared to be driven by the recent Secretary of State Michael Gove. Chess, poised ambiguously with facets both of the arts and the sciences, is essentially a creative activity capable of promoting imaginative and original thinking, particularly with gifted children. But like all creativity it is not indulgence in random idiosyncrasy, but a matter of finding hard-to-imagine degrees of freedom against a background of hard facts.

On the issue of transferable skills and competences most attention has been given to the proposition that chess supports learning in Mathematics and IT. Rumiens Todd in the Manhattan Report introduced the concept of ‘the Maths environment’, concrete situations from which mathematical ideas can be exhumed, arguing that chess was a good example. Back in 1993 Jane Seymour and David Norwood wrote an article titled A Game for Life in The New Scientist linking the playing of chess to the development of the fundamental skill underpinning both Maths and Logic, that of ‘conscious reasoning’. The website Chess in Schools and Communities has summarised a number of studies related to chess and Maths development.

Whereas the general plausibility of the above arguments is impressive, there has over the entire period reviewed been an often frustrated parallel desire to seek demonstrable proof. The basic question, of obvious interest to the teaching profession, is whether well-structured instructional courses in chess do actually have the effect of impacting on test scores in subjects like Mathematics, Literacy and Numeracy. There is also, although relatively under-explored in educational research, considerable potential for a greater use of chess data bases in teaching IT, facilitated by the algebraic notation that allows games to be recorded accurately, giving rise to a sophisticated ‘opening theory’, itself not fixed but a repository of themes, motifs and strategic ideas.

Demonstrating impact is a research question, although not one without methodological difficulties. Despite very impressive anecdotal and case study evidence, the main problem is that historically chess in schools has often been with self-selected groups without the involvement of control groups as would be required in randomized control trials. However, encouraged recently by the establishment of an all-party Parliamentary Group, the Educational Endowment Foundation has commissioned the London Institute of Education to conduct a multi-site randomised control trial on the impact on subject learning of a 30 weeks chess course. There is a concern to cater for the whole age and intelligence spectrum as well as demographic distributions, as the intent seems to be deciding whether chess might become a legitimate curriculum entity. Although the proposed evaluation protocol is firmly within the experimentalist paradigm, limited process studies will be conducted in parallel. Cornwall is not one of the projected research sites and to be honest I am not sure we could meet the conditions. Nevertheless there may be the opportunity to propose a limited case study addressing one of the issues lying outside the London Institute of education’s chosen paradigm with its emphasis on measuring the impact on subject test scores. I refer to the pedagogy of chess teaching where I believe that Cornwall has expertise to share. I think we should propose a limited parallel pedagogical study framed in terms of Robert Stake’s ‘responsive evaluation’ and largely using the methods of ethnography and cultural anthropology. Do I have any co-authors?

David R Jenkins
18th October 2014