The game of chess is not known for its ability to break down socio-economic barriers and appeal to the most disadvantaged in society. But a recently launched South African initiative is attempting to use the game to do just that – and with some initial success.
The Moves for Life (MFL) programme aims to unlock children’s latent intellectual potential through structured exposure to the game of chess – which stimulates the same analytical cerebral functions as academic subjects such as maths and science – and ultimately improve the national performance in these areas.
“Chess essentially rewires the brain, encouraging one to think in a far more logical fashion. It is not just a game,” explains nuclear physicist and MFL cofounder Kelvin Kemm.
He points out that it provides rich, early-age ‘brain training’, and encourages an understanding of concepts such as instantaneous feedback, problem solving, planning and anticipation, and emphasises that the earlier these thinking skills are stimulated, the better.
MFL cofounder Marisa van der Merwe, a long-time chess tutor and developer of MFL’s junior programme, MiniChess, adds that it is critical to expose children at the earliest possible age.
“Many children in South Africa who come from underprivileged homes are not stimulated and, as a result, the necessary brain development does not take place. This programme will eliminate the issue of children who are not mentally prepared to deal with the start of their academic career,” she says.
The MFL programme, which has been implemented at more than 70 schools across the country since its inception in 2010, hosts over 11 000 children each week and has also produced some unexpected results.
“The most surprising upshot of this process is the degree to which the children’s self-confidence has improved, because, for some of them, this is the first time they feel capable of learning and sense that they are part of a group,” explains MFL cofounder Mickey Scheepers.
Educators also report that absenteeism has decreased and discipline has improved among learners who participate in the course.
Despite the obvious benefits for children in disadvantaged areas, the programme is not exclusively designed for socioeconomically depressed schools, but is also implemented at private institutions.
Held in a trust, the MFL initiative is a registered public beneficiary organisation through which contributors receive full corporate social investment credits towards their broad-based black economic-empowerment rating.
Significantly, it comprises two separate syllabi – the MiniChess programme, aimed at children between the ages of five and eight, and the MasterMoves programme for children nine and older.
MiniChess is a holistic, wholly South African-designed curriculum, where each learner is supplied with a workbook, manual, training and other necessary equipment. Educators also receive training, which enables them to teach the children in an enjoyable, creative way.
Scheepers emphasises that despite using the basic principles of chess, MiniChess is not designed simply to teach the children how to play the game.
“The big difference between what we are doing and what other chess-related programmes have done in the past is that we use the rules of chess to teach maths skills. The kids only touch a chess piece in lesson eight,” he asserts.
Van der Merwe developed the MiniChess programme following the realisation that the chessboard can ultimately be deconstructed into a simple numbers grid. The grid is then used to teach concepts such as ‘in the middle’, ‘outside’ as well as a comprehension of graphs, lines, rows and spatial orientation.
In addition, the fact that the MiniChess programme targets children who are still undergoing the formation of their analytical brain processing skills means that it induces them to think and com- prehend in a problem-solving manner, which is instrumental in later academic successes.
Alternatively, the MasterMoves programme teaches the actual game of chess and is operated and registered at schools as an extracurricular activity once a week.
While not currently acknowledged as part of the official academic curriculum, the ultimate object of MFL is for it to be rolled out nationwide as an official subject.
“While the Department of Basic Education does not yet sustain the programme financially, they are supporting our going to schools. Ultimately, however, we want it acknowledged as a government-sanctioned subject,” says Scheepers.
MFL has received no greater show of support than from charismatic Russian chess grandmaster and former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov. Commonly considered as the greatest chess player of all time, Kasparov stumbled across the MFL programme and was smitten.
“He says it is the best, most scientific junior chess programme he has ever observed, and that is quite a vote of confidence,” says Kemm.
Since the launch of MFL, Kasparov has visited South Africa twice to show his support, and has established the Kasparov Chess Foundation: Africa, through which he hopes to implement the MFL concept in other Southern African States.
Adding to the programme’s high-profile support base is South African President Jacob Zuma who, after hearing about the initiative, contacted the founders and invited them to visit him at his official residence in Pretoria, where he accepted their request to become the programme’s patron.
“He wanted to know all about the programme, and explained that, as an avid chess player, he understood the impact the game could have,” says Kemm.
Zuma explained at the launch of MFL that he believed chess should be mainstreamed as a sport, and that its ability to supercede barriers contiguous to age, language, wealth and race is significant.
“I learnt to play chess in unfavourable conditions, on Robben Island, serving a ten-year prison sentence, where we used to make chess boards from thin cardboard and chess pieces from corks. Given the opportunity, I would have loved to have learnt how to play at an earlier stage of my life,” he noted.
He added that no amount of video games could teach a child the same level of patience, strategic thinking, concentration, analytical skills and attention to detail than the game of chess.
Zuma has since participated in a chess tournament organised in his KwaZulu-Natal-based hometown of Nkandla, where MFL has been rolled out to six primary schools in the area, following contributions from mining giant BHP Billiton, which operates aluminium interests in nearby Richards Bay.
Like BHP Billiton, sponsor companies can select their areas of contribution to coincide with those parts of the country in which they hold considerable interests.
Alternatively, funding is often secured by the parents or teachers, who recognise the value of the programme and canvass for financial contributions among their peers.
Inherent to the success of MFL in such schools is the fact that the amount required to fund a learner for a year is limited to between R150 and R200, provided that it is executed in at least five schools in the vicinity. The cost of the second year drops to around R140 and even more in the third year.
“It is inexpensive because you need virtually no infrastructure. Chess can be played indoors or out, rain or shine, with or without electricity,” notes Scheepers.
The bulk of the capital expenditure goes towards the training and employing of coaches and educators, as well as providing supporting materials such as workbooks and chess sets. These skilled coaches, who are employed on a six-month contractual basis, are deployed to areas where they are then responsible for training the teachers in the MiniChess programme as well as instituting MasterMoves.
“This adds a significant job-creation aspect to the programme, as the majority of the current coaches are unemployed students looking for work,” says Scheepers.
Interestingly, the MFL programme, while unique in its focus and approach, is not the first chess-based programme to be introduced to the African educational system.
In 1974, scholars who participated in a study conducted in the Democratic Republic of Congo, previously Zaire, demonstrated significant advancement in spatial and numerical abilities, compared with the nonplaying control group.
Additional findings proved that ability in chess is not a result of the presence of only one or two abilities in an individual, but that several aptitudes complement one another during the learning, and playing, of the game.
“That is exactly what we are finding here,” says Scheepers, iterating that one of the most important elements of the programme is guiding children from a belief that they cannot do something to proving they can.
“Essentially what we’re doing, for R200 a year, is feeding the brain,” he notes.