‘Game of Kings’ on Armenia’s school curriculum

Authorities in Armenia are making chess a compulsory part of the country’s national curriculum. Pupils will study the game as a subject like science or maths. Smart move?

Britain goes mad for football. Indians obsess over cricket. In Armenia, a tiny country in the shadow of the Caucasus Mountains, they have a stranger passion: chess.

Despite having a population of only three million, Armenia is a titan of the game. The national chess team, led by Grand Master Levon Aronian, recently won the World Championships in China, and the top players are major celebrities. All are inspired by the memory of the great Tigran Petrosian, a man who was so hard to beat that one opponent said playing him was like trying to put handcuffs on an eel.

Now, in an effort to maintain this great tradition, Armenian officials plan to make chess a compulsory part of the country’s national curriculum. Children will take chess lessons alongside conventional subjects like Science, Geography and Maths.

Chess teachers certainly won’t run out of things to teach. Since the development of the modern game back in the 15th Century, a huge body of literature has grown up to analyse the deep complexities of chess strategy. And ‘deep’ is an understatement. No one knows how many different ways a game of chess could theoretically be played, but some mathematicians estimate there are more possible positions than there are atoms in the universe.

Apart from strategy, there is the game’s rich history. Pupils could learn about the great masters of the past: Raul Capablanca, the ‘human chess machine’; Mikhail Botvinnik, who revolutionised the theory of openings; Paul Morphy, who was beating top players by the time he was nine years old.

Then there are the great matches: the ‘immortal game’ of 1851 which is reenacted each year with humans standing in for pieces to honour its exquisite brilliance; the great world championship of 1972, when the battles of the Cold War were fought on a black and white board. The brutal struggle between Garry Kasparov and the computer, Deep Blue.

Just a game

That’s all very well, some will argue, but chess can’t possibly count as a real school subject. ‘Whoever will be excellent in the play of chess,’ wrote the Renaissance courtier Baldassare Castiglione, ‘must bestow much time about it... and yet in the end in bestowing all that labour, he knoweth no more but a game.’ Many today will agree.

Lovers of chess say it is much more than a game. It is, they argue, an arena in which minds meet in the purest contest of wits; a mental space where important qualities like initiative, flair and imagination can be developed, where logic and discipline can flourish. It is the perfect preparation for life.

You Decide

  1. Should schools be teaching chess?
  2. What is a good education? Are there any other things you think should have a place on the school curriculum?

Activities

  1. Can games and sports teach you life skills? List some games or sports you play. What, if anything, do you think you learn from them? And are the lessons always good?
  2. How many different squares are there on a chessboard? It may be more than you think. Clue: more than 64.

Some People Say...

“Chess is just a game, but so is life.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How old is chess as a game?
It is thought to have been invented by the Gupta empire in Northern India some time in the 6th Century AD. It was based around four kinds of military unit: infantry, cavalry, chariots and elephants.
How did it get to Europe?
The game was picked up by the Persians (of modern day Iran) who called itchatrang. The Arabs discovered it when they conquered Persia in the 8th Century, and then travelling merchants brought it into the Western world. The word ‘chess’ comes from the Persian ‘shah’, meaning king.
Who played it?
In the Middle Ages, chess was a game for aristocrats and the nobility. It was only around the 17th and 18th Centuries that it became a popular intellectual pastime. Today it is played by around 600 million people worldwide.

Word Watch

Titan
In Greek mythology, the titans were a race of divine beings that ruled the universe before the existence of the Olympian gods (like Zeus or Athene). Metaphorically, to be a titan is just to have impressive status or reputation in some field.
Grand Master
Only the very greatest chess players are awarded the title Grand Master. It is the highest rank the chess world has, except for World Champion.
Cold War
The long conflict between the USA on one side and the Soviet Union (based around Russia) on the other. The 1972 championship set an American player against a Soviet Russian. Both felt victory was essential for national pride.
Deep Blue
The first computer ever to beat a world chess champion in a proper match. Deep Blue’s victory over Garry Kasparov was seen as a huge step forward for computing.

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