In non-Pope related news, there was a superb event at Stratford Library yesterday. The joint operation from Chess in Schools and Communities, East Village London, Newham Council launched a programme which aims to introduce chess into every school in the borough. You'll find a pictorial report below, but we'll start with a quick chat with Malcolm Pein ...
I mentioned this when we began chatting and at first he thought it must have been later as he hadn't set up his chess company until 1992. Then he had a bit of a think ....
When I started selling Chessbase which was 1984/5, I just decided to add one extra product line which were these chess t-shirts which were printed by an Englishman who lived in Alaska.
I remember now … he had the most wonderful designs.
So how did you get from selling that t-shirt to this event.
Well I suppose the seminal episode in my chess life – because obviously I was never really much of a player – was first of all when I met Frederick Friedel of Chessbase. I looked at Chessbase for five minutes and realised this was going to change everything and promptly decided that I’d better get the UK rights to it and sell it. I did that from 84/5 and I used to advertise it in CHESS magazine.
When Maxwell jumped off his boat I realised that CHESS was going to disappear and I realised that the only way I was going to keep my advertising going, and reach the chess public in the UK for Chessbase, was to get hold of that magazine. I picked up a few partners on the way. We bought Pergammon Chess & Bridge and one of the people involved wanted the publishing side so he took that and I took the magazine and the mail order business.
I did that for about 16, 17 years and then one day I got an email. It was one of these circular emails: so and so’s looking for a chess teacher. I thought OK - I was on the ECF’s coaches list.
I had a look at it. I looked at the email address it emanated from and I thought, “That’s interesting. That’s a very interesting email address.” I replied it to it instantaneously.
It was somebody who was buying chess lessons for his brother. And his brother turned out to be an incredibly brilliant man who ran a hedge fund. So I went to teach him chess. OK, I’m a pretty good teacher, but he’s just a very brilliant person. He became very good very quickly. And he was really enjoying it as well.
He actually knew one or two people - he knew David Norwood, he knew Ali Mortizavi - and one day he said, “what’s going on in the chess world at the moment”. This was 2008 I guess.
I said, “Well Anand’s playing Kramnik for the World Championship” and he said, “Let’s go.” I said, “Alright then, let’s go.” So we went. A few of us went.
He really liked that and when he came back he said, “Why don’t we run a world championship?”
I said, “Well, steady on.” I’d run lots of chess tournaments. I’d run Kramnik versus Fritz in Bahrain in 2002 and all sorts of other stuff.
I said, “Why don’t we run a really nice tournament first. So I can show you that I can do it. We haven’t had top class tournament in Britain for 25 years.”
He said, “Alright. Do a budget and tell me what it'll cost.”
It took me a week to get over the shock that this was actually possibly within my grasp. I gave him the budget. He said “That’s fine” and we had this wonderful London Chess Classic. The Classic I think exceeded everybody’s wildest dreams because we did it really nicely. There was an incredible atmosphere by adding all these side events and the giant sets and the schools ...
And so he said to me, “What’s missing in British Chess.”
I said, “British Chess is pretty much moribund. Very few junior prospects. We’ve got a federation" – the BCF as it was then – "that stands for Basically Cannot Function. We’ve still got some strong players" - we had Short and Adams and Luke McShane coming up - "If there’s one thing that really upsets me it’s the way chess has vanished from schools."
He said, “Well what can you do about that?”
And I said, “What I’d probably do is set up a charity, raise some money and get it back in.
He said, “Go and do it.” And he gave me the seed money for it.
I then went and spent about four or five months, not only researching charities but researching chess in this country and the situation of chess in schools. And I realised that probably less than one in ten schools had any chess provision in the state sector. Nine out of ten private schools had chess.
What I did with the money he gave me was look at something called the Child Welfare Index which is an indicator of economic deprivation and social deprivation. I chose the areas that were highest up the Child Welfare Index. Which are the usual suspects. You don’t need me to tell them to you.
I managed to put some chess coaches in there and tried a few different ways of doing it. And in then end I figured out that right the way to do this is do it in class.
Alright I’m a complete beginner at charities. I may be 2400 at chess and 2500 at entrepreneurship if you like, but I was 1500 at charities. I had to become 2400 at charities as well. And what I discovered is that the way these things work is in order to raise money you need an impact assessment. You have to be able to convince people who are giving you money that it’s actually doing some good.
How can you demonstrate that an after school chess club is doing anyone any good when you don’t even know who’s going to turn up? I realised that if we were going to do this properly and measure it you have to do it in class.
So I just ripped up all the conventional things and started going to headteachers and saying “I want to do it in class time.” I’m not surprised actually, but they all went for it. You know 90% of the headteachers went for it and that’s how we started it.
I’ve heard a lot of people say, “there’s evidence that this improves academic performance” but I’ve not seen any peer-reviewed academic journal that says that. Would you say that you are that research?”
In two weeks time you’ll see that we are going to be, but I can’t tell you the details right now.
But actually there is some pretty good stuff out there. I agree with Professor and IM Fernand Gobet when he says there is a lack of peer-reviewed stuff, but there is some recent stuff that’s very very good. For example in Germany. Very very good sampling. Very good control group. They took one hour of maths out and put chess in instead, with very good results.
And is there a link to that on the Chess for Schools website?
No, because it’s all in German and I’m having it translated now. As soon as I’ve finished it will be up there. Literally I’ve found a translator and that should be ready in a few weeks time.
I completely agree with you and I thought, “look it’s brilliant. Head teachers will rave and rave about how wonderful the chess programme is, how it helps the children. I’ve go this section on the Chess for Schools website called chesstimonials which is full of all of this and it’s brilliant” but that only gets you so far. That’s good for donors. If you’re going to approach government and say, “actually you should be helping chess because ….” you need some hard scientific evidence in a UK context and that’s what I’m working on next.
So the answer is, “Yes I agree with you, but I’m on the case.”
With thanks to Malcolm for his time.
Ready to go ...
Publicity Shots. Life-sized queens came ...
... and went
Stratford Library has a fabulous photocopier
(sorry about the guys milling about in the background ruining the shot)
Champ meets mayor ...
... Champ plays mayor ...
... Mayor gets some advice ...
... pitch invasion ends the game
The kids went upstairs for some chess tuition ...
... leaving Gawain Jones downstairs with a free moment. Some bloke who happened to be passing got a personal lesson
The kids came back down for a simul
Goody bags were available
(everyone got a chess set)
(everyone got a chess set)
Time to go home
And everyone did it all again with another four or five different schools.
Everyone save for your humble scribe, that is, who left early and popped next door for a cup of tea