Chess grandmaster wants to replicate success of local chess initiative in other African countries

11th November 2011 By: Kelvin Kemm

The thirteenth world chess champion, grandmaster Garry Kasparov, is coming to South Africa from November 12 to 15. The aim of the visit is to announce a collaboration between the Kasparov Chess Foundation and the local educational chess initiative, Moves for Life (MFL). I am one of the five trustees of MFL.

Kasparov was so impressed with the programme of MFL that he wants to take our proven formula and process to other African countries.

MFL formally launched a year ago at a dinner with President Jacob Zuma as guest speaker and also as patron of the initiative. Since then, we have been proud of our achievements. We are now training over 6 000 children each week, have trained 200 teachers as class instructors and have opened in 47 schools. We have also just deployed our first intern trainer from Soweto to the rural area of Nkandla, in KwaZulu-Natal. The interns are young folks whom we have trained and who will typically serve a six-month stint as an on-site trainer in a particular region.

We are using the age-old game of chess to improve science and maths performance in schools. We are succeeding with measurable results.

Chess teaches children logical thinking, strategic planning and general analytical thought. These are attributes needed for success in maths and science.

Many years ago, when chess was used in this manner in various countries, it was discovered that it also resulted in an improvement in literacy and, in fact, in all school subjects. This initial surprising result was later explained in that children gain self-confidence, learn about rules, respect their opponents, appreciate time pressure and gain instantaneous feedback as they play. If you make a wrong move, you get chopped instantly. So, the concept of ‘look before you leap’ becomes a very real concept to the chess players.

We start teaching chess to five-year-olds, and it is exciting to see just how quickly they get into it.
From our perspective, chess is cheap and easy to introduce. A person can learn to play chess in a couple of hours – it is easy. Playing as well as Kasparov does is a different matter; such a level of skill takes years of dedicated study.

The point is that any child can benefit instantly. Chess is cheap in that it does not require expensive computers, laboratories or equipment. Chess equipment consists of a chess board, chess pieces and a table, and that is cheap to introduce. It is also fast. We can start making a difference in a couple of weeks.
Of course, we still need significant corporate money to be able to get into urban and rural areas to get our system going. We are teaching thousands of children from inner-city areas to far rural areas. So, we appeal to companies for financial support. Our biggest sponsor so far has been BHP Billiton’s Aluminium Division, in Richards Bay. As a consequence, we have a strong presence in Richards Bay and also as far down as Nkandla, in KwaZulu-Natal.

We have asked other companies for support and considerations are in the pipeline. One that made me roll my eyes was one of the major banking organisations. When we applied to the bank for assistance, we received very posi- tive signals from high-ranking persons but then the bank’s final decision was no. The bank turned us down on the basis that chess is too elitist and it does not support an elitist sport. That just showed that the bank completely missed the point – worse than that, its corporate social investment people must have done zero research on the issue. A moment’s investigation, by checking on the Internet for MFL, or Zuma’s involvement, would have revealed children with no shoes in mud buildings playing chess. Perhaps those kids would like the label of being ‘elite’.

Kasparov is visiting us with his wife, Dasha, who is MD of the Kasparov Chess Foundation. They certainly know what chess training does to a person’s mind. Mind agility training is far more important than learning loads of data and information out of books. An agile mind can hold down a good job, but a walking data bank cannot. A local butchery in Pretoria, the Uitkyk Butchery, has made a substantial donation to our trust – over R100 000. That amount is substantial for the butchery; of course, Uitkyk Butchery is not in the league of the large corporates, but the butcher folks can see what others cannot see.

The Kasparovs want to work with us to take chess into as many African countries as possible – a tall order, but something that can make a visible difference rapidly.

We are really pleased with this association with the Kasparovs. Garry Kasparov has also publicly complimented Zuma for his wisdom in appreciating the value of chess. Zuma is himself a player and I have sat with him as he played against some of our chess kids and his eyes sparkle as he plays. The kids get to tell their friends that they played the President.

With more company support, MFL can achieve great things. We are already recognised worldwide and are forging ahead with the big names linked to us.