When it’s time for “big lunch” in Blarney Street CBS, you might expect the boys to make a mad dash outside to play chase or football. Instead, many make a move in a different way: their lunchtime sport of choice is chess.
The strategic board game has been a feature at this Cork primary school for years, a tradition principal Billy Lynch brought with him from his primary school days.
At a time when screens are blamed for shortening children’s attention spans, Lynch finds chess is luring pupils away from their phone screens and helping to foster crucial skills we once took for granted.
“It’s quite social, during lunch they chat away while they are playing,” says Lynch.
He has also noticed how chess is helping his students develop emotional resilience. “You bare your soul when you are playing chess because it’s all about you – you can’t blame the equipment,” says Lynch, “Chess teaches you how to lose.”
But it is the impact of the strategic game on students’ concentration that really stands out.
“In this day and age, when concentration levels are not what they were previously thought to be, you can see them thinking two or three moves ahead.”
Up and down the country, other schools are embracing chess too and seeing the benefits among schoolchildren.
April Cronin, a retired primary school principal and former Irish chess champion, runs chess workshops for teachers in Dublin.
She has noticed social awkwardness becoming more prevalent in her chess clubs of late. It prompted her to teach basic social interactions during her chess lessons. “The first thing I taught them was how to actually shake somebody’s hand and look them in the eye. It was extraordinary how many children didn’t know how to do that,” she says.
Cronin also uses chess to teach children how to cope with disappointment and the importance of winning graciously. Unlike online games such as Fortnite, in chess there is no victory dance.
“In chess you respect your opponent,” says Cronin.
Chess is also teaching children about impulse control, in both academic and behavioural terms. “On the chessboard, the person who plays the first move that comes into their head will almost certainly lose, said Cronin. “Chess motivates the highly impulsive child to stop and think.”
Toufik Messabih is a psychotherapist who also teaches chess to boys and girls at Scoil Phádraig Naofa in Rochestown, Cork. He also sees the game's importance in promoting "self regulation".
“When you play chess, you are going to deal with winning or losing, you’re going to deal with frustration, mistakes and, of course, with challenging emotions,” he says.
“Even we, as adults, are getting more and more caught in the instant gratification of things, whereas in chess you learn to slow down a bit,” says Messabih.
When teaching chess to children, Messabih adopts a staged, progressive approach to ensure learning the game is fun, playful and easy for them. He uses a method promoted by Judith Polger, a female grand chess master.
By introducing one piece at a time and teaching games like “anti-chess”, Messabih encourages the students to use creative thinking in the game.
“When playing ‘anti-chess’, the aim is to lose as many pieces as you can in as short a time as possible,” explains Messabih. “Games like this encourage them to adapt, adjust and react in a fun way.”
A study into the connection between mathematical problem-solving abilities and chess found that playing chess helped make abstract concepts in maths more accessible and helped improve concentration levels as individual players became aware of the virtues of enduring attention.
The educational merits of chess have not gone unnoticed. In 2012, a declaration of the European Parliament announced the introduction of the "chess in schools" programme.
It acknowledged the role chess plays in improving “children’s concentration, patience and persistence” along with their “sense of creativity, intuition, memory, and analytic and decision-making skills”.
Spain and Italy have followed the advice given by the European Commission and introduced chess onto their school curriculums.
In 2015, the Spanish parliament adopted a law allowing regional governments to introduce the game in schools as an optional or compulsory subject.
But the benefits of playing with chess pieces move further than academic squares: chess is also an inclusive game.
“It doesn’t see gender, age or creed,” says Messabih. “It doesn’t matter if you can’t read or write or if you can’t speak the language.”
Messabih would, however, like to see more girls playing and acknowledges they are underrepresented in the sport.
“There are fewer girls playing chess and there are different reasons for this,” says Messabih. “It is traditionally seen as a male game. Is it because girls are less exposed to chess that there are less girls playing?”
Cronin has also noticed smaller numbers of girls in her chess clubs throughout the years.
Even though all the students – boys and girls from second class up – in St Catherine’s national school in Dublin 8 are taught chess, the number of girls attending the after-school chess club is consistently lower
Typically, the clubs would be about 75 per cent boys and 25 per cent girls. However, despite the lower ratio of girls playing in the school club, Cronin points out that “the current school champion is a girl and it has been like that for many years. The keen girls are very good and very keen.”
It seems that when the girls play chess, they play to win.
Irish secondary school triumphs in ‘triple crown’ chess tournament
It’s known as the “triple crown” of chess tournaments.
The Millfield International Chess Tournament pitches teams from a variety of schools in the UK and Ireland against each other.
This year, Gonzaga College in Ranelagh, Dublin – one of four Irish secondary schools that regularly qualifies to compete – chalked up a remarkable statistic.
It succeeded in retaining the “crown” by winning the tournament for the fifth year in a row.
Catherine Tempany, a member of the parent's council at the school, says while there is a longstanding of tradition of chess at the school, much of their recent success is down to maths teacher Daniel Lynch.
“He imbues a sense of ‘can do’ in the students,” she says.
Although her son Max also played chess at primary school “it wasn’t until he started playing in Gonzaga that it really started to click in to place”.
The school is also preparing to send a team, in conjunction with the Irish Chess Union, to compete in the Under-16 World Chess Olympiad, in Turkey, in the coming weeks.
Along with competing in tournaments throughout the country and beyond, the students also organise the Gonzaga Chess Classic, an annual tournament held in the school.
The event, which is becoming one of the biggest chest tournaments held in Ireland, runs in January and attracts many titled players, including grandmasters, from around the world. All proceeds from the student-run event are donated to charity.