Kogarah High School English teacher Philipa Tlaskal discusses the renaissance of the ancient game of chess that is taking hold in primary and secondary schools across Australia.
At a time when school students are criticised for their Tik Tok video length attention spans, the 1400-year-old game of chess has never been more popular in Australian schools.
Srijan (15), Chess Captain at Kogarah High School (KHS) in Sydney’s south-west, puts the surge of interest amongst his peers down to a combination of lock-down boredom, the hit Netflix series (2020) The Queen’s Gambit, and the former longtime reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen’s accusations of his opponents cheating on bathroom visits with cameras hidden in their shoes, which riveted the media.
With the World Chess Championship just wrapping up in Azerbaijan, a record 11.4 million hours of games were viewed and a first ever Chinese World Champion, 30-year-old Ding Liren, was crowned. One billion games were played on chess.com in February this year – about 2.8 times more than what was played at the same time last year.
In Srijan’s experience, social media influencers are the greatest reason why chess is a new-found passion for school students, starting at primary school and flowing into their secondary education. Influencers like Gotham Chess, who produces hilarious instructive videos, and Hikaru Nakamura – a Grand Master at age 15 with his audacious gameplay, memes and reacts – make the chess world more of a magnet for young people.
Mr Brett Tindall, owner of the Sydney Academy of Chess, credits migrant families who “want their kids to be smart” with the upswing of interest. “Previously, there was a huge drop off in participation from keen primary school students to high schoolers but now that has levelled out and students are continuing through to high school and beyond.”
Toula Kohilas, Librarian at KHS, has bought 10 new boards this year and says the library is taken over every lunch time with students playing chess. Srijan is keen to play other schools through tournaments run by the Sydney Academy of Chess and he’s to make chess matches faster and more competitive at his school using timers.
Speed of play is key in making the games more attractive to young people. Adrenalin-fuelled ‘Blitz’ chess games are 10 minutes or less and ‘Bullet’ game players have three minutes each for a 40 move game.
Never has chess been more accessible to be played on phones on public transport or late night in bed. The addition of a computer commentator like Gotham who can tell a good or bad move and can point out mistakes, makes the once slow game as engaging as a footy match.
KHS Chess Club Coordinator Nick Grose is excited about the explosion of interest in chess since about midway through last year. “I think one of the pleasing things to see is that students, who you wouldn’t typically expect, have deep chess acumen and ability,” he says.
“Also, our students from the Intensive English Centre (IEC – especially our new Ukranian arrivals) are able to transcend language barriers by playing chess. If KHS kids can concentrate on chess, then they can have success elsewhere.”
Science host, former Triple J presenter and self-confessed chess tragic, Mr Adam Spencer, says on the Sammy J podcast on ABC Radio: “The beauty of chess is that there is always someone better than you, and that could be a nine year old girl in India.”
Former chess nerds are even returning to the game. Queenslander Mr Ronan Neville, 21, has been playing since he was 8-years-old. He gave up in high school and recently had a random game with a mate, then downloaded the app on his phone.
“My style is fast-paced and risky and I was surprised at how thrilling the games are,” he says.
In this era of AI, humans still play differently to a computer and former kids’ chess coach and now lawyer Edwin Alexander, 34, thinks that it is the close interaction with a family member, and the one-on-one time of playing live chess, that is its real attraction. Sure, he likes testing out different ideas by playing against the computer but says what he most remembers about playing chess with his busy barrister mother was the closeness they shared.
“Having her focused attention for an hour at a time is what I treasured,” he reminisces.
Laura is a 13-year-old Colombian student at KHS learning English. She played chess with her grandfather before migrating to Australia six months ago and now is a regular at the library chess sessions and teaches other girls to play.
Meanwhile, in China, Ju Wenjun (32) is the reigning female chess champion, despite 95% of professional chess players being men. According to Edwin, this is because female players “are more into collaboration, rather than competition”.
In a chess lesson he kindly gave me, Edwin reduces the pieces on the board to kings and queens. “You don’t give a novel to a toddler, you give them a picture book,” he says, and proceeds to teach me how to checkmate with my royal couple.
As a recent father, he is keen for more chess teachers in schools but thinks that there are not enough who play themselves.
“You can teach chess at any age; for primary students it teaches them spatial awareness and addition and you can just start with pawn vs pawn and see who makes the most blunders. I get them to master two to three pieces before moving on to whole board games.”
The game continues to evolve. Hybrid forms of the game such as ‘chess boxing’ have taken off in Melbourne where Blitz games of chess are interspersed with rounds of boxing, though younger participants hit punching bags, not each other.
While chess.com instantly matches you with a player anywhere around the world, identified by their flag on the app, nothing beats sitting around with your mates in the school library, be they from Ukraine, Lebanon, India or Macedonia, and battling it out on the 64-squares grid that offers endless off-screen possibilities for young people.