Spanish schools rope in kings, knights and bishops

Pupils playing chess with their teacher at a public school in Madrid. Some studies have shown that an hour of chess a week can boost pupils' performance in maths by 30 per cent.
Pupils playing chess with their teacher at a public school in Madrid. Some studies have shown that an hour of chess a week can boost pupils' performance in maths by 30 per cent.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Chess used to help pupils who lag behind international peers in maths and reading

MADRID • Eleven-year-old Alvaro Pineda has played chess at home since he was five. Now he plays it in the classroom too.

In an effort to boost their pupils' low maths and reading marks, more and more Spanish schools are setting up chess clubs - and some may even make it a compulsory class.

"It really increases your mental capacity. I have improved a lot," said Alvaro at a chess group in his school in Madrid. "You have to really focus on the board and on where all the pieces are, and think lots of moves ahead", which helps strengthen the memory, he added.

The Spanish Parliament this year unanimously passed a law allowing regional governments to introduce chess as a compulsory or optional subject in schools. The law won the rare backing of all lawmakers from rival parties.

The opposition Socialist Party deputy who drafted it, Mr Pablo Martin Pere, cited studies showing that an hour of chess a week can boost pupils' performance in maths by 30 per cent.

SWEET STRATEGY

They learn the squares, the rows and columns, the diagonals, and we jump around on the board. I tell the smallest kids it is a land of vanilla and chocolate.

MS ADRIANA SALAZAR, an international chess master and nine-time national champion of Colombia

Education studies by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have regularly shown that Spanish pupils lag behind their peers in other developed countries in maths and reading.

Alvaro's chess class in the Madrid suburb of Tres Cantos is run by masters from the local chess club. But some say that regular teachers can be trained for the task.

One of the instructors, Mr Javier Martinez de Navascues, divides lesson time between chess games,

theory and showing pupils "cool things that they really like - moves like 'the nail' and the 'X-ray attack'". Two or three weeks' training was enough to prepare a normal teacher for chess classes, he said.

The local chess club's president, Mr Daniel Gil, disagrees. "It is just as well that the instructors be chess masters," he said, as chess classes require special knowledge. "There's a lot to chess."

The southern Russian region of Kalmykia is seen as the pioneer in using chess as an official educational tool, having introduced it as a school subject in 1996. Armenia became the first country to apply the policy nationwide in 2011. Mexico followed last year, as well as parts of China, India and Germany.

In Spain, one of the game's leading figures is Ms Adriana Salazar, an international chess master and nine-time national champion in her native Colombia. She introduces the game to children as early as pre-school by putting a giant chessboard on the floor.

"They learn the squares, the rows and columns, the diagonals, and we jump around on the board. I tell the smallest kids it is a land of vanilla and chocolate," she said.

Her method is used in schools in Spain, Colombia and Florida. She said it can help develop children's thinking and their "social skills and values".

"The aim is to make the kids love it and to charm the teachers" to show them "it isn't boring or hard", said Ms Salazar. "That is my quest."

In Tres Cantos, Rodrigo Gomez, 11, turned to his teacher in triumph.

"Javi had two defences and I still got him in checkmate!" he called out. "This should be compulsory."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2015, with the headline 'Spanish schools rope in kings, knights and bishops'. Print Edition | Subscribe