Chess for Africa

| July 12, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Evelyn Kelsey

As a ‘chess teacher’ of three years, but a novice at playing chess, it was with mixed feelings that I enrolled in the ‘Chess for Africa’ course.

The thought of playing chess for four days and feeling like a dunce among chess experts worried me. I also dreaded four days of total boredom. Chess from 08:30 to 16:30 for four days … possible torture?

My motivation was to learn to play chess properly myself. Added to that I was intrigued by the claims of the German Chess Federation. It claimed that controlled studies carried out in German and Russian schools, showed the clear improvement in scholastic performance of children who had been exposed to chess training for some time and at a young age – grades 2 and 3. Not only had the children’s marks improved but also their confidence, their social skills and their ability to reason and make decisions.

My impression had always been that ‘clever’ children played chess well: I had not considered that playing chess might, in fact, have developed the intellect of these children.

Chess for Africa hosted at German School

As a primary school teacher, I have always taught children, rather than subjects. I have a deep fascination with clues to how children’s brains absorb information, and how activities of one sort can form mental pathways which are able to be used in other settings. So this offer to learn to play chess myself, while teaching chess to foundation phase learners in order to develop their memories, planning, decision making skills, strategising and flexibility of mind as well as their confidence, could not be missed.

Over April this year, the Deutsche Internationale Schule (German School) in Milpark, Johannesburg, kindly hosted the 20 or so candidates attending the course presented by members of the German Chess Foundation, Joachim Gries and Karol Lalla were brought to South Africa by Mr Mathias Draeger, a publisher, and head of the German Chess Foundation. Their trip was co-ordinated by the beautiful Gianni Ngala, a Congolese national and the Chess Foundation representative for Africa.

After an ice-breaker where we introduced ourselves in pairs, we presented a brief pen-picture of our partners to the group and then shared our motivations for attending the course. People expressed feelings of not being able to take chess players beyond a certain level and wanting to spread the delight and enjoyment of playing chess and to apply chess skills to mathematics teaching and learning.

A diverse group

Who was in the group? A head of department, a student on a learnership, an architect who volunteers to teach in his spare time, an archery coach, a school secretary, a Zulu teacher, a history teacher; people from well-established private schools with thriving chess clubs, a tiny, brand-new eco-school with limited resources, large and small public schools situated in informal settlements where enthusiasm generates resources.

And our coaches? Joachim is a mathematics teacher and graded German Chess coach, shouting with enthusiasm ‘oppose and step aside!’ while banging the chess pieces down. He allowed us no error and repeated instructions with patience. Karol, a gentle teacher of young children, illustrated his lines of play with bright green glass pebbles and encouraged us to become fond of our chess pieces, to choose our favourites and get to know them like family. He showed us a cartoon film called ‘Chester and Fritz’ which introduces children to stories of knights and ladies, castles and dragons; to the rules of honour which dominated the life of that time and are the basis for chess.

The two were astonished and delighted when one of our number outwitted a famous chess move by refusing to take a sacrificed rook. Joachim eventually referred the problem to the computer, which agreed with the strange new move!

Learning through playing

The myriad rules in the game of chess were broken down for us by means of short games using only one or two pieces. For example, we played a game using four pawns of each colour on the black squares only. The winner was the first pawn to the other side of the board, and the prize the pawn converted to a queen; and we had learned how the pawns move and can ‘capture’ each other.

The last of the games – ‘Atomic Chess’ – was our favourite and was played over and over whenever we had a spare moment between sessions! Played with all the pieces and all the rules, the only difference between Atomic Chess and ‘normal’ chess is that when a piece is taken, all the adjacent pieces of any colour ‘explode’ and are taken off the board. We had to be careful not to take out our own armies. Careful thought was required and strange exploding sounds were being made around the room!

End games…a revelation!

By removing all pieces but the two kings and a pawn, we learned the strategy of ‘opposing and stepping aside’ in order to protect the pawn until it could reach the other side of the board and become a powerful queen, or blocking this move, ensuring a stalemate; which I learned is better than a draw but not as good as a win. This strategy was repeated ad infinitum until patterns started to form in our heads. Laughter and frustration, and intense conversation ensued as we were encouraged to verbalise moves and comment on errors or excellent choices. Partners suffered silences as opponents concentrated for so long they both forgot whose turn it was to move!

Day three started with computer generated re-plays of famous grand master matches. We joined in the games as a group, trying to out-wit the masters, while being entertained with stories of the strange characters who have played in the top ranks of the chess world. We were aghast to hear that we were expected to do a test on the last day, but somewhat comforted to experience a practice run of the same type of challenges and to partner up to solve these problems. We were also introduced to speed-chess and played a mini-tournament where we were given ten seconds for each move! This produced great anxiety in some and removed the chance to agonise over every move. Each had to simply play by intuition and we were surprised to see how much we had actually absorbed. We were shown how to score this type of contest and the many silly moves we made caused much laughter.

Chess reveals life skills

Joachim and Karol demonstrated a genuine speed match, each getting 5 minutes to beat the other. The winner was given a penalty and only had 4 minutes to play the next game. This continued until Joachim beat Karol in 51 seconds. My eyes could not even follow the pieces as they flew around the board, never mind follow the logic of the game! Most impressive!

The dreaded test over with, all of us passing well; we played a game of ‘tandem’ chess where two games went on in tandem and the pieces taken were passed over to the partner’s board so that the advantage of having, perhaps 2 queens and 3 bishops, with 11 pawns soon brought the opponents to their knees! Swift and cruel, but such fun! We also explored the chess sites on You-tube and Wikipedia, finding instruction on opening- and end-games, as well as opportunities for on-line chess matches.

Chess teaches children life skills such as how best to present oneself, forward planning, prioritising, staying calm in a crisis, and choosing the better of two options. They learn to think laterally while still working within set parameters, how to win well and also lose well; honourably and with good grace. Our mentor, Karol, spoke to us about how chess becomes a stylised practice for life. We are granted resources, time and location and need to manipulate, combine and sometimes sacrifice one or more in order to secure a successful outcome to a series of moves or a whole game.

A well-balanced course

After our final delicious lunch, all of us were presented with three books outlining not only the Methodical Chess introduction and modular development programme, but also copyable, graded exercises and solutions. These have been developed by Dr Ernst Boensch (edu@chess-for-africa.org) and issued by the Chess for Africa initiative of Deutsche Schachstiftung. (www.schachstiftung.de). We also received copyable chess sets for our learners to take home and were awarded a certificate for successfully completing the course.

Some delegate comments after four days … eye-opening, stimulating, extremely exciting, much gained, a new perspective, armed to face the challenge in new ways, mentally exhausted, confident, can’t wait to get back to start a team, stressed, hoping for courses like this every year, create a chess community at school, inspiring, awesome, marvellous coaches …

In my own view; a well balanced course consisting of variety, challenge, skills development, interest and fun. Thank you to the German School for welcoming and feeding us, and Mr Draeger, Gianni, Joachim and Karol for sharing their passion and vision with the chess teachers and ultimately the children of the Johannesburg area.

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