In a recent visit to the United States, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak expressed his strong support for increased participation in chess among children. His words have sparked a renewed interest in the timeless board game and its countless benefits.
While on a tour at Friendship Tech Prep Academy in Washington, Sunak was captivated by a 3D printed chess set, a custom-made piece developed by the talented students. As he inspected the intricately designed chess pieces and the accompanying chess board, Sunak spoke passionately about his mission to motivate more UK children to engage with the game.
Sunak enthusiastically stated, “You know, I’m actually doing a little bit of work now on how we can get more people in the United Kingdom to play chess, because it’s so good for you.” His words carry significant weight, given the documented benefits associated with chess play.
Besides stimulating strategic thinking, chess is known for enhancing memory, concentration, and problem-solving abilities. The beauty of the chess set and the complexity of the chess board stimulate a unique cognitive workout. Sunak sees the value in this, adding that chess is “a great skill and it’s really good for helping you think and it’s a great hobby.”
Chess has long been revered as a ‘game of the mind,’ requiring strategic thinking, foresight, and problem-solving. These are not only vital skills for the game but also translate to many areas of life, including academic and career success. The mental workout that chess provides helps to improve memory and cognitive abilities, boost concentration, and foster logical thinking. By introducing more children to the chess board, we can provide them with a fun and engaging way to develop these essential skills. Moreover, each game of chess is unique, presenting a new set of challenges that can keep young minds engaged and intrigued. It’s a perfect blend of entertainment and education.
While the Prime Minister’s tour involved various activities, including a drone flight demonstration, planting jalapeno seeds, and assisting with a science experiment, his keen interest in the chess set was unmistakable.
Prime Minister Sunak’s enthusiasm for chess resonates powerfully with educators, parents, and children alike. His words reiterate the age-old belief that chess, with its beautiful chess sets and intricate chess boards, is not just a game. It’s a strategic tool that equips our young generation with valuable life skills.
Chess and Cuba have a long history, one that began with the Spanish colonisation of the island from the late 15th century – at a time when chess took on the general form we know today – and has remained constant in Cuban life. It boasts one of the greatest players of all time, was favoured by Fidel Castro and his Argentinian ally, Che Guevara, and is part of the country’s national education program. In 2004, Cuba broke its own world record for “the most people playing chess simultaneously”(1), when close to 13,000 people came together to play in the city of Santa Clara, including Castro himself. In many ways, with its sub-tropical climate and old world vibe, the Caribbean island is an ideal setting for outdoor games off chess, and games are not an uncommon sight on the streets of Havana and other cities.
José Raúl Capablanca
“Chess, which to me, far more than a game, is an art.”
Cuba’s chess scene is perhaps best known for producing José Raúl Capablanca (1888 – 1942), who held the title of world chess champion from 1921 to 1927. Capablanca proved himself a true chess prodigy at an early age. In 1901, at just thirteen, he beat reigning Cuban chess champion Juan Corzo (shortly thereafter he played his only Cuban championship), and, in 1909, beat U.S champion Frank Marshall.
He took the world champion title from Emanuel Lasker in 1920, who chose to resign it, citing Capablanca’s “brilliant mastery”. The decision to confer the title, rather than for it to be contested in a game, was unpopular, and Capablanca wished to secure the title by means of competition, rather than bestowal. A match between the two was scheduled to be played in Havana in 1921, under the stipulation that Lasker was now the challenger for the title. He stated that no matter the outcome of his participation he “[shall] no more be champion. Should I win the title in the contest at Havana, it will be only to surrender it to the competition of the young masters.” (2) After much back-and-forth, the match took place and Capablanca won, securing his place as champion for the next several years by play, rather than by Lasker’s resignation.
Indeed, it is partly through these events that the World Chess Federation was born, citing the need for organisation and the enforcement of consistent rules regarding the championship. Soon after, Capablanca drew up what begin known as the “London Rules”, which stipulated financial commitments for players ($10,000 at the time), a cap on the amount of games played, a time-limit for said games, among others.(3)
17th Chess Olympiad
In 1966 Cuba hosted the 17th Chess Olympiad, a biennial event in the chess world in which teams from across the globe come to play against one another. The event was hosted by Castro himself – who even participated – in the famous Habana Hilton, renamed Hotel Habana Libre after its nationalisation in 1960. However, the event was inevitably tainted by the unfolding politics of the Cold War, and the tournament was as much an ideological showdown as a chess competition. Whilst West Germany boycotted the event, the U.S team, including Bobby Fischer, was still in attendance, undoubtedly eager to face down the Soviet Union over the chess board.
The circumstances of Fischer’s attendance are intriguing, given only a year prior to the Olympiad he was denied entry to Cuba to participate in the 4th annual tournament of the Capablanca Memorial in 1965. The State Department allowed only journalists to travel to barred countries, but even though Fischer had secured a writing assignment for the Saturday Review, the State Department didn’t buy it and were steadfast in their refusal. This led to Fischer famously participating via telex, a text-based communications device! Interestingly, the text was relayed by the son of José Raúl Capablanca himself.
Ultimately, the Soviet team won, with the U.S coming in second. The Soviets would retain their superior position until 1972, when Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky in the World Championship, making him the first American to achieve the title.
Images courtesy of the wealth of media forum user Macrinus dug up over at Chess.com – it’s well worth checking out, with shots of Castro, Spassky, Fischer, among others.
The Olympiad was arguably a great success for Cuba. It was grand in scale, and Castro, however one may view the man and his legacy, could rightly claim it as a success for the country. For a full review of the event, see Olimpbase’s excellent write-up.
That chess has taken on such a prominent role in mainstream Cuban life is to its credit, and it continues to pay off. In the case of Thalía Cervantes, who now lives in the U.S, and was recently selected “as one of the 10 best female chess players under the age of 21”, it was the chess games played out in the streets of Havana that spurred her interest and skill. As she says in an interview with the Miami Herald, “I grew up playing chess on the streets of Havana with older men, smokers. They were always bragging and saying, ‘No girl can beat me.” (4)
Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, and it’s heartening to think of chess as prominent educational tool used to sharpen children’s minds. Indeed, in Cuba, chess is promoted as something everyone can get involved in and be part of – where anyone might be the next Capablanca.
For those interested in the 17th Olympiad, there’s also some great silent footage of the event here:
In Katwe, Uganda, two children sit restlessly on a bench, watching their peers play a game of football. Their coach, Robert Katende, spots their reticence, and offers them an alternative.
“There is another game you can play.” he suggests.
He refers to a board-game – chess. At first, the boys scoff at the suggestion – they’re not interested. That is until Katende describes an anecdote in which he defeated his more privileged peers at university. For these children, the prospect of proving themselves against such opponents – the “city boys” – is too good to pass up, and so they join Katende’s small chess academy – the Pioneers.
To be Born in Katwe
Katwe is the largest slum in a district of Kampala, Uganda. Impoverished and devoid of sanitation, its streets run with sewage, layered with mud and debris. To say many of its overcrowded citizens struggle to survive would be a gross understatement; they must scavenge food and water, live within often roofless shanties at risk of flooding, and endure the torment of a high crime rate born out of desperation and poverty. Although there are small signs of change, that change is slow in coming, and will likely take a very, very long time to reach the lowest echelons of Katwe’s poor.
Enter Phiona Mutesi. Born within Katwe, she lost her father to AIDS at around the age of three, and lived, often homeless, with her tenacious mother and family, selling maize in the streets. Like many of Katwe, opportunities to transform her life were few if almost non-existent – she had to drop out of school at age nine – and she seemed locked into a life of destitution and hardship. “We had become hopeless”, Mutesi said of their situation. The chance to change it for the better came with the arrival of chess.
Meeting the Pioneers
Phiona Mutesi’s introduction to chess came through Katende, an engineering graduate who created the Katwe Chess Academy – part of the Sports Outreach program – for the impoverished children of the district. Mutesi joined Katende’s group and quickly distinguished herself as his best player. Katende recognised that he had in his midst a true prodigy; Mutesi was smart, quick-thinking, and able to see several moves ahead. But whilst she came to enjoy the strategy and depth chess offered, it started off as something far more than just a game: it was a means of survival. In the beginning, Mutesi attended Katende’s chess program for the food offered to those who played. “[I] kept going back because there was something to eat.”
In time, the idea of chess as a survival tool would come to mean so much more to Mutesi, as it took her from contests in Uganda and Sudan, to an Olympiad in Russia. Chess developed her intellect and confidence, giving her the chance to escape the trappings of her origins. Her story is an extraordinary one – so extraordinary that in 2016 Disney released a film of Mutesi’s rise, titled after the book on which it was based:
Queen of Katwe.
Female-led with an all-black cast – and with chess as its sport of choice! – Queen of Katwe is a biographical sports drama that sees Disney moving away from its comfort zone of white, Western narratives, and giving Phiona Mutesi’s (Madina Nalwanga) story the mainstream, crowd-pleasing treatment it deserves. Even spotted with the occasional sports drama cliché, the film is nonetheless a heart-warming triumph. Director Mina Nair never shies away from the realities of life in Katwe, but she equally revels in its rich, colourful culture, creating a film as beautiful and vibrant as it is stark and desperate.
Chess: A Way Out
In the film as in life, Katende (David Oyelowo) seized upon the idea of sports as a means of social mobility; chess, he would instruct his students, is much like life itself. Its movements required planning, forethought, and strategy – skills that would equally serve the lives of the young children outside of the game itself. As he teaches the children how to perform certain manoeuvres, Katende uses metaphor to explain the situations they might find themselves in within the game. “When you fetch water for your mother, do you just go any time of the day, or do you think a bit first?” he asks his tutees. He uses chess to teach them their situation is not hopeless, that its applications are broad and universal, and that through it they can reach even greater heights.
As much as the film focuses on personal and communal triumph in the face of staggering odds, of kindness and determination enduring in even the most squalid of habitats, it is Mutesi’s idea of her “place” that I kept thinking about, kept coming back to. In his original article for ESPN – later the spark for his book that brought Mutesi’s story to the world – Tim Crothers describes her position as “the ultimate underdog.”
“Phiona Mutesi is the ultimate underdog. To be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. And finally, to be female is to be an underdog in Katwe.”
The film emphasises this point throughout, exploring Mutesi’s doubt and fear at simply not belonging in the place she has earned for herself. Mutesi sells maize, has no real education to speak of (she cannot read or write), and is at first rejected by the chess academy because of the way she smells – later for being a girl beating boys. This is a world in which she has been led to believe she cannot aspire for more than the life she’s been given – after all, to her mind, what else is there for a girl from the slums of Katwe? Initially, apart from her her mother (Lupita Nyong’o), she has only her sister Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) as an example – a young woman who has become a prostitute to avoid destitution. And even as her achievements grow, Mutesi continues to question her self-worth – to question her place in the world that’s developing around her. Does she deserve this place? Is there something she has missed, something wrong? Is it all just a fluke?
You Belong Here
In the film’s first contest, a tournament at the prestigious King’s College, Katende struggles to admit his “slum children” to, he pairs Mutesi with the school’s best player. The competition organiser slyly whispers in Katende’s ear that it was “good strategy, putting your weakest player on the champion’s board”, laced with all the attendant sexism that comes with it. And yet, in spite of her opponent’s goading, Mutesi triumphs, winning the Board One Gold Medal. And yet, in spite of her victory, Mutesi still questions her accomplishment “Did that boy let me win? [How] could I win a boy who goes to school here?” Even in spite of the disbelief on the boy’s face, that he snapped his pencil and toppled the pieces with a petulant swipe of his hand, Mutesi still doubts herself and her abilities.
Of course, he did no such thing, but the film’s Mutesi, and presumably her real life counterpart, would continue to struggle with the question of whether or not she deserved her place in the world that was opening up for her. In the film’s final contest, as Mutesi struggles against her opponent, Katende breaks in, and shouts, “You belong here! You belong here!” rooting her in the moment and reminding her that everything she has, everything she has earned, is right there inside her.
Now, Phiona Mutesi is the three time winner of the Ugandan Women’s Chess Championship, has been awarded a Woman’s Candidate Master Title in chess, and is currently enrolled at an American university in Washington. This young girl of formidable intelligence and, like her mother, of considerable tenacity, has more than proven her place as a master of chess, earning herself, and her family, a life beyond the deprivation of the worst of Katwe.
Although the trailer’s heavy on the corny side, the film offers far more – see it.
Spare a thought for chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen, who was embarrassed on a pretty global scale recently at the ongoing World Chess Championship in Sochi, despite eventually retaining his world title.
The Norwegian chess grandmaster was seemingly so engaged in his recent match against Vishy Anand that he actually fell asleep in front of the cameras – much to the amusement of social media commentators everywhere.
Carlsen told fans after the game that he “wasn’t in the best of shape,” but, despite his brief moment of apparent narcolepsy, still managed to draw in Game 8 of the championship. While some could maintain that Carlsen’s cranial muscles were working too hard, others could argue that he’d perhaps become so bored of the game that he took the chance for 40 winks.
This isn’t the case, however, for the ever-growing chess trend that is currently developing around the world. While some argue that chess is dwindling in popularity, it’s actually proven to be gaining followers around the globe, particularly in India. Doubtless Vishy Anand will have had his part in the Indian following, and his grandmaster status, plus engaging attitude with fans, has been praised by representatives at the All India Chess Federation.
Speaking in reference to Anand, the All India Chess Federation’s Bharat Singh said: “The game has really grown in the past six or seven years particularly.”
But it’s not just taken off in developing countries. Over in the United States, the game is set to regain its cult status thanks to developments in Hollywood. Pawn Sacrifice, set to hit screens in spring 2015, will see Tobey Maguire stepping into the role of former chess champion Bobby Fischer.
The movie has yet to hit theatres but has already been given a healthy IMDB rating of 8.1, doubtless giving its viewers incentive to give chess a try.
Maguire has made a name for himself starring in sporting movies such as Seabiscuit, promoting a sport which has doubtless caused a flurry of betting. Sports betting has grown exponentially in recent years, and if his upcoming movie is as successful, we could indeed see an influx of bets on chess championships. The Coral mobile app, for example, was taking bets on the recent World Championship Matches this month.
Whether it’s in the movies, on television or in the betting markets, there is no doubting that chess is putting itself on the map once again as the on-trend game for children and adults everywhere. As a mentally demanding and hugely thrilling sport, it’s certainly been a long time coming.
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