For years its been kept in the shadows of British sport, but could chess be on the brink of a resurgence? Sarah Freeman reports.
There are a lot of things I have to thank my brother for.
Six years older, where he led I followed. It was Ben who introduced me to the simple joy of the Marmite sandwich and without him I might never have watched the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road films and I almost certainly wouldn’t have such an impressive working knowledge of the career of Jackie Chan.
If Ben said something was good, it generally was, but there was one of his hobbies we never shared. Chess. He played for the local club and for a couple of years did his best to convince me that I should set my sights on becoming a grandmaster. He reckoned that because so few girls played chess, it would be pretty easy to make a decent living out of it.
He was probably right, but I wasn’t a willing pupil. Not wanting to disappoint I learnt the basics, but I’d seen the pasty-faced teenagers he spent Wednesday nights with and I didn’t want to become one of them. In the end he gave up, I went back to my Sindy dolls and we never spoke of opening gambits again.
Truth be told, the subject never came up, when I was growing up chess was always seen as minority pastime. Not so any more. Thanks in part to Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, chess has been undergoing a bit of a revival. The 22-year-old, who was a grandmaster at 13, became World Champion last November - the first European to hold the title in 76 years - and has emerged as a bit of a pin-up for the game.
Not only that, but in this country, chess has suddenly found itself being championed by MPs. The newly formed all-party parliamentary group on chess recently met for the first time with the aim of working “to promote chess and the benefits it brings”.
Spearheaded by Bolton MP, Yasmin Quershi, the group boasts a dozen or so members, including Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves who learned the game while in primary school.
“Chess teaches concentration, forward planning, observation, as well as numerical skills and problem solving,” Reeves told Yorkshire Chess. recently “I think it’s a great game.”
Reeves is also part of the Chess in Schools and Communities which aims to get more youngsters involved in the game. According to its founder Malcolm Pein, nine out of 10 private schools have a chess club whereas in the state sector the figure is less than 10 per cent.
CSC wants to establish a chess club in all 17,000 primary schools in England and Wales. If it succeeds it would allow one million children to take part in the game which was described by one former champion as “the gymnasium of the mind”.
While it’s still early days, according to research carried out by Manchester Metropolitan University, year four children involved in the programme outperformed those who weren’t on a variety of exercises testing numeracy, spatial awareness and problem-solving.
Britain is coming a little late to the party when it comes to chess. In Armenia, which has produced countless world champion teams, lessons are a compulsory part of the curriculum.
“In countries like Armenia chess is treated like football in terms of exposure,” added Reeves, who back in the day was under 14 UK girl’s chess champion. “We haven’t had a tradition of that in Britain so it’s always going to be harder to secure big name sponsorship for competitions or get it on television.
“But perhaps with styles like rapid chess we’ll see a format which works for TV emerge. A sport like darts you might not think as being naturally suited to TV, but is hugely popular. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same happened with chess in the future.
“And more politicians should learn chess – it teaches you how to stay one step ahead.”