Forty-five years ago this month, the world was captivated by a competition. It wasn’t the Tour de France, the Major League Baseball All-Star game or even the British Open golf tournament. It was a chess match.
Chess was never more popular than it was between 11 July and 31 August, 1972 when American challenger Bobby Fischer played Soviet World Chess Champion Boris Spassky in a best-of-24-game match in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Set in the geopolitical intrigue of the Cold War, the match was viewed by many people around the globe as more than just two people playing chess, but as an ideological battle for intellectual superiority. The world was enthralled. In the United States, millions of people actually watched the games, which lasted up to five hours, on television.
Fischer won the match and chess, for really the first time, was considered “cool” in the United States. As the decades ensued, however, chess slid back into the recesses of “nerdom,” played by brainy students in small voluntary school clubs. However, chess in schools is being looked at differently now after research has consistently shown that playing chess improves thinking skills in children.
GOOD FOR CHILDREN
English chess grandmaster Nigel Short had just turned 7 when Fischer played Spassky in 1972.
“I was 5 when I started playing. My father would take out his chess set on wet weekends in Manchester and he would play us, but that was basically it,” he said during a recent visit to Grand Cayman. “The real impetus for chess for me was the Fischer/Spassky match, which attracted international attention. I started playing on a regular basis after that.”
Short believes chess offers many intellectual and developmental benefits to children.
“One of the things you realise rather quickly is that your moves have consequences,” he said, adding that you also learn you must take personal responsibility for those consequences.
Scientific studies have also shown that playing chess is linked to better critical and creative thinking, and improved visual memory, attention span, concentration ability, spatial reasoning, problem solving and decision making. Chess, it turns out, is fantastic exercise for young minds. Short concedes that those who like to play chess tend to also like mathematics.
“I think there’s a clear positive correlation between being good at chess and being good at math, but I don’t think you need to be a mathematician,” he said. “Not everybody likes chess, but so many do once they get into it.”
Because of the links between playing chess and improved thinking skills, there’s a move to make chess more prominent – or even mandatory – in schools in many places. It is already mandatory in the entire country of Armenia.
Although not mandatory in schools here, the organisers of the Cayman Chess Club have founded the Cayman Chess School to help teach children how to play chess. Short’s visit to Grand Cayman was organised to raise funds for the “Chess in Schools” programme, for which Dart Enterprises’ Minds Inspired is a major sponsor. Candidate Master chess player Adrian Palmer has been hired to provide instruction for the Chess in Schools programme to Year 4 students at all the government primary schools.
“I think playing is very important to kids, in particular for learning,” Short said. “Chess is an outlet where you find young people in long periods of concentration and it grips them in a way that an hour-long lesson may not.”
Short does see more boys playing chess than girls, something he hopes will change.
“I would like to see more girls playing,” he said. “I’m very glad to say the chess coach [in Cayman] is a woman, so maybe that will help attract more girls into playing here.”
For those who learn chess and like it enough to want to continue to improve, the road isn’t easy. Becoming a great chess player not only requires regular play, but a lot of reading as well.
“Chess is a very demanding mistress and it requires a lot of attention and time for study,” Short said. At 52 years old, Short is the oldest person still ranked in the FIDE (the international chess-governing body) “Top 100 Players” list. He says players generally hit the peak of their chess-playings skills in their mid-20s to mid-30s.
“My best year was 1991 when I was 26,” he said. “I reached the final in the World Championships at 28 and was in the top 10 players of the world for a decade, the last time when I was 32.” Short lost to legend Garry Kasparov, widely considered the best chess player of all time, in the 1993 World Championship.
For many players, their skill begins to gradually decline in their 30s.
“There are different views as to why people’s skills diminish,” he said. “Motivation is a big issue. After a while, people want to do other things in their lives than just play chess.”
For those wanting to learn and improve, today’s technology offers many tools, from computer and internet games to easily accessed archives of every move of millions of historical games.
“People have plenty of advantages these days,” he said. “We’re living in the internet age and this reduces the tyranny of distance, something that is a great advantage for places like the Cayman Islands.”