Game plan for education

Many people regard chess as a miracle cure for poor memory and concentration difficulties, and a quick way to improve learning of languages and mathematics. But few have taken the consequences.

| Astri Sivertsen and Johnny Syversen (photos)

Bård Vegar Solhjell and Garry Kasparov (right)

Grand master.
Garry Kasparov (right) was a prestigious visitor to Bård Vegar Solhjell’s book launch.


A clutch of politicians and chess enthusiasts gathered in an Oslo bar on a wet October evening to celebrate the launch of a new book entitled Sjakk – ei kjærleikshistorie (Chess – a love story).

Author Bård Vegar Solhjell, deputy leader of the Socialist Left Party, stood at an improvised lectern by the counter to explain why he has written it and why he likes the game.

He was followed by Abid Raja, another member of the Storting (parliament) and fellow player, and Silje Bjerke, Norway’s woman chess champion.

Most of the audience appeared to know each other. The mood was convivial and the sound level high. Until a sudden silence fell. Garry Kasparov had entered the room.

Handed a microphone, the compact and energetic man regarded by many as the world’s best-ever chess player gave Solhjell an unexpected boost.

“I love this title,” he said with reference to the book. “It’s not unusual for politicians or business people to talk about chess. And this is a passionate promotion of the game.”

Now 51, Kasparov retired as a professional chess player almost a decade ago after a career which included being world champion from 1985 to 2000.

He has since been a prime mover in teaching children the game he himself learnt from his mother at the age of five in the former Soviet Union.

From his new home town of New York, his Kasparov Chess Foundation has acquired spin-offs worldwide. Asked why he wants children to play, his answer is simple: “To make them smarter.”

He backs this claim with research assembled by his foundation, which shows that chess helps youngsters to concentrate and improves their memory.

It also aids them in structuring their thoughts when having to take decisions. Through play – which chess is, after all – they acquire the ability to recognise patterns and apply formulas to different tasks. And they see that something done in one place has consequences in another.

“Kids who’ve had a little bit of chess training do much better in the general curriculum,” Kasparov contends.

He wants poor and underprivileged children, who cannot count on help with their homework, to learn the game. It gives them fundamental skills for mastering maths and reading.

Moreover, he claims, truancy decreases when pupils are allowed to play chess at school.


All youngsters Johnny Syversen (photos) benefit from chess, and not only the super-intelligent.


Jøran Aulin-Jansson

Chess can act like an enzyme, a catalyst, to boost the level of educational attainment in Norway, maintains Jøran Aulin-Jansson.
(Photo: Astri Sivertsen)



“The perfect age to learn chess is six-eight,” Kasparov says. “All the studies show that, by the age of nine, the mind is already closed.”

He supports this contention by pointing to research on the ability to learn foreign languages in childhood.

“Education still helps, but everything you do before the age of nine is like hardware. After that, it’s only software.”

He emphasises that all youngsters benefit from chess, and not only the super-intelligent. That view is supported by Jøran Aulin-Jansson, president of the Norwegian Chess Federation.

Responsible for Kasparov’s presence this evening, he is himself a very capable player but protests vehemently at the notion that chess is only for the academically gifted.

“Definitely not! I probably have Norway’s worst university qualifying exam – and spent seven years trying to pass it.”

However, he is convinced that chess has given him a better memory and improved his ability to think ahead. And the game also develops intuition, he says.

“[Norwegian chess prodigy] Magnus Carlsen can sit and think about a move for 30 minutes,” Aulin-Jansson observes. “But all he’s doing is checking his intuition. He probably thought out his actual move in 10 seconds.”

Chess takes 30 minutes to learn and a lifetime to master, he adds. Like Kasparov, he is eager to see the game adopted in schools – but then with proper teaching, which makes it more a subject of study than a leisure pursuit.

“You won’t get a job on the basis of your marks at chess,” he says, “But if it helps you to understand maths and languages better and to absorb learning much more effectively, I don’t know of any other activity with all these positive spin-offs.

“Chess is an enzyme, a catalyst, which could help to boost the level of educational attainment in Norway.”


"Chess is an enzyme, a catalyst, which could help to boost the level of educational attainment in Norway."



Torbjørn Ringdal Hansen, Carlsen’s very first chess teacher, has just begun a new job at Tiurleiken School in Oslo’s Romsås district.

After four years as a full-time chess instructor, the child welfare specialist decided to return to the education system as a counsellor.

But he devotes 30 per cent of his time to teaching chess to children aged six to 13. Almost half the pupils attend the lessons, which take place during breaks and after school hours.

“Chess gives you a feeling of mastery,” Hansen explains. “Players experience small victories all the time.”

The game has always been popular in the various child welfare institutions where he has worked, including with children who have big behavioural problems.

Even sufferers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) become absorbed in it, he explains, and can thereby manage to sit still and concentrate.

“The kids learn the consequences of their actions, and how to look and plan ahead. These skills are transferrable to everything in life.”

For his part, Solhjell believes that chess has taught him to think strategically – a useful accomplishment for a politician. He also agrees that the game improves concentration and memory.

The fact that chess is a purely mental activity fascinates him. “There’s no chance involved. If you lose, you know where the problem lay.”

Armenia, where Kasparov’s mother came from, introduced chess as an obligatory subject for the first and second years of primary school in 2010.

Several Russian republics and Indian states have subsequently done the same, and roughly a dozen countries now possess various programmes for chess in their schools.

Studies in the UK, the USA and Germany have measured progress in learning languages and maths by chess-playing pupils compared with those who are not taught the game.

Many of these investigations have identified a strong relationship between learning chess at school and problem-solving abilities in general and mathematical skills in particular.

But Solhjell, a former education minister, admits that the research is of varying quality. So he thinks it is too easy simply to advocate introducing chess to the school curriculum in Norway.

He would prefer to try it out first, and has therefore advocated a Storting hearing to establish the relationship between chess and learning.

This could lead to a trial, with some local authorities and schools testing chess as part of the curriculum for a few years. Comparing the results with control groups who do not learn chess would permit a systematic evaluation.


Teaching trials

Jone Haarr, chief education officer for Gjesdal local authority near Stavanger, has not studied the issue scientifically, but is convinced that chess has a positive impact on school performance.

He points to a study at a primary school in the German city of Trier, where one maths lesson a week was replaced by chess teaching and play for years onefour in 2003-07.

The outcome was compared with classes in similar schools which had normal teaching, and the results were surprising.

Maths performance in nationwide tests by year-four pupils at the “chess schools” was twice the national average. Reading and language comprehension were 2.5 and three times better respectively.

The Gjesdal, Time, Sandnes and Stavanger local authorities in south-west Norway have offered chess lessons to year five pupils for the past two academic years.

Combining school contests with competition at a high level under the Norway Chess umbrella, they have noted a doubling in interest from one year to the next.

Harr calls the game a “concentration sport”, and is pleased as an educator to be involved in promoting attentiveness and strategic thinking among children.

“It’s OK in Norway to be good at sport, singing and dancing,” he observes. “Ability in maths or chess has somehow lacked the same status.

“But Magnus Carlsen’s success has widened interest in chess – previously seen as a game for nerds and special enthusiasts – far more than we could have hoped for.”


Getting girls involved


Cultural factors mean that chess has tended to be male-dominated. But there is no reason why this should persist.


Silje Bjerke

Silje Bjerke wants to encourage more girls to feel at home in the chess community.


Silje Bjerke, who is on the national team and has been Norwegian champion 11 times, is one of the very few women playing high-level chess in Norway.

Only five per cent of the 3 000 or so members of the Norwegian Chess Federation are female, compared with 20 per cent of just under 4 000 participants in its youth wing.

Only six active women players are to be found in the over-45 age group, says Bjerke. The 32-year-old estimates that she plays against men and boys 90-95 per cent of the time.

Many girls become involved with chess at school or in after-school clubs, but often drop the game when they reach puberty. Bjerke attributes this to cultural factors and a masculine image.

“It’s less accepted for girls to devote a lot of time to playing chess,” she says. “Being interested in the game as a teenager isn’t seen as cool or feminine.

“Women also encounter a number of prejudices and stereotypes in the chess community. It’s common to hear such put-downs as ‘you play like a girl’.”

While teenage lads go to tournaments with their friends, many girls find themselves relatively alone among all the boys. When they also meet a lot of internal prejudice, opting for another activity becomes an easy decision, Bjerke observes.

She believes it is important to create a more appropriate social environment if girls are to be persuaded to continue playing in their teens.

Oslo accordingly has a separate girl’s chess club, which meets every week, so that members can make friends to travel to tournaments with.

Chess is generally more popular than it used to be, and Bjerke says that both parents and children are more ambitious. But she has not seen any particular change among the girls.

“It would have been very interesting to see what would have happened if we also got a female Magnus Carlsen,” she says.