Offering ‘instant punditry’ — in the way that journalists are often required to do — is a bit like playing ‘speed chess’, the rapidfire version of the board game, where you have just a few minutes on the clock to make snap judgements.
In this lightning-speed variant of the game (watch this!), in which our very own King of Chess Viswanathan Anand excels, you roll with your instincts and intuitions and make double-quick judgements based on pattern recognition skills.
But going by the snap verdict that mediapersons have delivered on a pathbreaking sporting initiative unveiled by Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa, it appears that journalists make very poor players of ‘rapid chess’. In this case, going by their judgements gone awry, they will likely be checkmated in next to no time.
The Tamil Nadu government has announced a plan to offer chess lessons in schools in five “backward districts” of the state from next year. This is part of an international ‘Chess in Schools’ programme that the international chess federation FIDE is promoting in many parts of the world to popularise the game.
Tamil Nadu becomes only the second state in India – after Gujarat – to introduce the ‘Chess in Schools’ programme. For now, it will not be a “curriculum subject”, although it will be compulsory. Maharashtra too is planning to introduce chess in schools.
However, in their rush to judge this programme, insta-pundits have dismissed it as a move that is unlikely to throw up grandmasters (the title for players who have attained the highest level of distinction in the game). That represents an entirely erroneous understanding of the motives of the chess-in-schools programme, and the targeting of some of the most “backward” districts in the state.
As FIDE’s Chess In Schools programme states in its resource centre (and as former world champion Gary Kasparov notes in this video), getting children to play chess has enormous academic and psycho-social benefits for the children. There is, at the most basic level, a direct correlation between learning chess and an improvement in academic grades, particularly math grades. Chess demonstrably makes kids ‘smarter’ – even if they don’t excel in the game.
Additionally, among other things, it teaches kids to improve their powers of concentration and enhances their skills of visualisation – of imagining a sequence of actions before it happens (as when they learn to ‘think three moves ahead’).
Kids also learn from chess that actions have ‘karmic’ consequences: good moves yield good results, and bad moves bad. In that sense, it teaches them to take responsibility for their actions. They therefore learn to “weigh their options” and not impulsively do the first thing that comes to their minds.
Playing chess also teaches children to think in abstraction and to alternate their field of vision between microdetails (as when they are focussing on a particular move) and the larger picture (the balance of pieces on the board and keeping up the tempo of play). And the pattern recognition skills it reinforces teaches children to draw lessons from one context to another based on familiar patterns.
In addition, as we’d noted here, chess invokes and hones the same spatial ability that is used in mathematics and driving (when you are constantly assessing your position vis-à-vis other drivers and obstacles on the road).
It is also a “democratic” sport in that beginners don’t need to invest in costly equipment and gear to get going. And the experience overseas of targeting children in inner-city areas for chess lessons has shown that incidence of crime and drug use comes down among chess player. The targeting of schools in ‘backward districts’ in Tamil Nadu is significant in this context.
When the midday meal scheme in schools was first introduced in Tamil Nadu in 1983, it was dismissed as a populist welfare scheme. But the impact it had on school enrolment and on childhood nutrition had a multiplier effect, on general health and educational attainment. Similarly, the chess-in-school programme, if implemented sincerely, has the capacity to unleash the creative and mental faculties and boost the self-confidence of children in backward districts that goes far beyond their ability to push pawns or checkmate opponents.
Above all else, chess inculcates sportsmanship of the highest order and offers lessons in humility: it teaches one to win gracefully and to lose with dignity. In that sense, on the arena of the chessboard, young practitioners of the game learn invaluable lessons in life, which counts as a worthy reward in itself – and as a source of immense joy. That alone is anand enough. But if this initiative does produce another Anand, who’s to complain…