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More than just a royal game PDF Print E-mail
Saturday, 21 April 2012

If I had to refer to my chequered thinking some people will probably immediately think they know what I mean. But maybe not all will guess that I am referring to the influence of chess, and its chequered board, on my thinking and imagination.

 

The impact has been so deep that I had no hesitation in recently joining forces with the former world champion, Garry Kasparov, to push for chess to be taught in schools across the EU. 

 

Together with a handful of other MEPs, the European Chess Union and the Kasparov Chess Foundation, we promoted a written declaration that called on the European Commission and the European Council to encourage the introduction of a scholastic chess programme in the educational systems of the member states and to fund it. The declaration gathered enough signatures to be put to the vote in the European Parliament and there it gathered the support of the majority of MEPs. 

 

Since the declaration also asks the Commission and the Council to take into account studies on the effects of this programme on children’s development, let me say something about the impact of chess on me, despite the lack of programme and the rather more idiosyncratic way I was introduced to it. 

 

Chess is one of the things I associate with my mother. It is one of the two things, the other being reading, that she taught me to love. I was about three years old when I learnt to play chess and she was my only opponent at the time. In time she was replaced by my father. Today I like to play chess against an electronic gadget. 

 

Despite playing it in such limited company, the game did not make me retreat from the world. The game grew on me. It fired my imagination and opened my mind up to a kind of mental travel, an imaginary world of armies and generals, strategies and tactics, great victories and horrifying losses. 

 

Perhaps this had to do with my first visit to Europe when I was around eight years old. My parents had decided that I was becoming a proper street urchin and needed a good dose of culture. So off we went for a month, to the Capo di Monte in Naples, the Louvre in Paris and the Prado in Madrid. 

 

I vividly recall our entry into Genova harbour on the Giulio Cesare. We disembarked and ambled along the roads and narrow streets until suddenly I froze. I had spotted a beautiful chess set. 

 

The white pieces represented the Romans, the black pieces, the Carthaginians. It was magnificent. I had brought with me all my savings, almost 15 pounds sterling, which at the time was considerable. When we asked the price, my jaw dropped. Thirteen pounds! Which meant I had enough, but would be left with only a small balance for the rest of the trip. 

 

That night I did not sleep. I just brooded about the chess set. I wanted it at all cost. But the ship was going to sail to Barcelona at 11.00 am. My state of excitement persuaded my father and early in the morning we set out to retrace the shop. Eventually we located it, but it was already 10.00 am. We had to run back to the ship and almost missed it. But then, I had my chess set. 

 

Chess is not the only sport that fires up children’s imagination. However, beside doing this it also teaches them how to think strategically. It is all about assessing your strong and weak points and making plans. It is about strategy and counter-strategy, thinking out your moves but also factoring in the probable ones of your opponent. 

 

With experience you begin to think several moves in advance. Therefore you can anticipate a series of counter-moves as well. Wishful thinking is punished by a good opponent. Chess teaches one to be honest with oneself. 

 

All these are skills that can be transferred to other areas of life. The thinking skills that chess hones are directly useful for business, for example. The pattern of thinking about assets and liabilities, pieces one needs to keep and others one needs to eliminate, are the same one needs in thinking about one’s business edge and how to develop and increase it. 

 

In the process of associating myself with this initiative I have familiarised myself with some studies of chess and its impact on child development. My own personal experience has largely been confirmed as the general one. 

 

In addition I was gratified to learn that what used to seem an insurmountable gender divide between boys and girls where chess was concerned (with boys having much better results) is no longer the rule, although there appear to be gender differences in the style of thought. 

 

Furthermore, chess may help less academically gifted children learn how to concentrate, focus and persevere. It teaches both critical and creative thinking. We politicians are always talking about empowering people but we do less to insist on the generalised teaching of how people should assess their choices and take decisions. 

 

Chess has often been called the royal game. However, it can also be the royal road to a society that genuinely offers more equal opportunities by teaching thinking and decision-making to everyone.

 
 
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