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London Chess Conference 2019 – Opening Plenary – April Cronin

London Chess Conference 2019 – Opening Plenary – April Cronin


So thank you very much John and
thank you very much everyone for being here this morning and for being so
interested in chess and female empowerment I’m we just take two words
out of what John said one was informal that made me feel a lot more relaxed and
the other is ideas rich and that made me feel a lot less relaxed so I hope I have
a few things to say that will be of interest. I have to tell you that when I
spoke to a very good friend of mine about being asked being given the honor
of you know opening giving the opening talk at this conference and he said
what’s it about and I said it’s about chess and female empowerment and he
looked at me went my that’s a pretty niche topic so I think we need to be
aware of that I mean I think it’s something that will be closed to all of
our hearts but we’ve a job of work to do to spread it in the outside world not
only the importance of chess and female empowerment but the importance of chess
generally in terms of my particular interest which is children’s development
okay so as John said I’ve been chess teaching and coaching for many years in
my capacity as primary school teacher primary school head teacher but even
before that trying to boost numbers at my local chess club. I took in kids and
and taught them chess so I’ve been at this for a long time so a lot of my
ideas are based on my own observations rather than – I’m delighted to hear
there’s going to be some statistics and stuff later but I don’t have much of
that – but I have a lot of observations to make so they’re supposed to come up now yes what
am i giving the speech I’ve always kind of gone to conferences loathed and
despised the keynote speech idea so it’s kind of karmic revenge that I have to do
this but essentially this is where I’m coming from this is my school it’s chess
club in action and you can see it’s it’s a pretty popular event okay that’s only
half of them by the way. My experience in the schools that I’ve taught in has
often prompted me to think about gender in chess. I’ve worked with boys and girls
have worked in two schools both co-ed and I’ve exactly the same chess program
has been open to both genders obviously girls and boys can also all be on the
school team and I am a woman obviously and a stronger chess player than most of
the kids that I’ve chose so I am a kind of a good role model for girls in the
sense that you know their first experience of a relatively strong player
it was a woman and yet I’ve had the same experience as I’m sure many of you have
had which is that there is a preponderance of boys on the school team
a preponderance of boys at the top and even a preponderance of boys who
volunteer to come to the after-school chess coaching I have a club in school
time and I also have a club out-of-school time so that would be the
children’s you know voluntary choice and a lot of girls do participate but it
would be about 75% boys 25% girls and of course this this raises issues in my
head okay and for any woman chess player I suppose it’s very obvious when you go
to chess term and certainly in Ireland is interesting to hear what Malcolm said
about the British Chess Federation and the scene in the UK but in Ireland will
be pretty much the same maybe five percent participation at adult level you
know so why this should be I think is a very interesting topic I’m not going to
be able to address all of that I’m sure by the end of this weekend we’ll all
know. OK, now the title of my talk has John oh go back little title of my talk
as a john said was “Does chess empower girls?” because that’s
my experience really is a mostly primary level primary school level and I when
John asked me to speak to this the first question I asked myself well you know
does it empower anybody really just chess empower anybody it does it doesn’t
genuinely empower children I obviously believe it does that’s what I’ve been
doing for it for so many years it had a very empowering effect upon me and I
think it had the sort of effect upon me that generally being involved in
extracurricular activities has this is just a precis of a little article in
Wikipedia about all the longitudinal studies that have been done to say that
any worthwhile extracurricular activity you know is worth doing and brings
children on, has hugely protective effects in terms of social development
and staying in school and all these kind of benefits so I certainly experienced
that personally. However, you know there are a lot of
extracurricular options and, even if chess was just one of those, it’s still
incredibly worth doing and incredibly empowering for those children who get
interested in it. If every child in the world learned to play chess well, at least they have the choice to pursue it further they’ve one more
enjoyable leisure time activity to do and one more little corner of a newspaper
that they’re going to understand so there’s nothing wrong with all of that
but I think we believe that chess can be a little bit more than that. I’m
reminded of something that one of our attendees said to me and it’s Liam
Murray my co-Irish person many years ago when I met Liam first when I asked him
why had he become interested in chess in schools – he didn’t have you know
particularly a competitive chess background – and he said to me well I’ve
taught in a couple of schools now where there was chess going on and it’s
just clear there’s something very powerful happening and this
was the perspective of a non-chess player watching children play and I’m
just getting this feeling there’s something very powerful going on and I
have become maybe a little bit blasé about that because I’d be
doing it for so long and I just thought well of course kids love chess but you
know now that I’ve stopped I’ve retired a couple of years ago and I’ve started
giving courses to teachers in how to teach chess and you know how to how to
get school chess clubs and schools chess programmes started and everybody
comes back with the same story: we start we thought it would be a dozen kids we
thought it would be one class we thought it would be a few you know particularly
maybe a few of the nerdy kids who don’t like soccer or whatever it’s always
turned out to be their inundated more and more kids join but the clubs become
overcrowded kids – love chess so why I can see it when I’m when I’m looking at the
majority of children between 7 and 11 just love playing chess maybe later on
in later years that changes maybe you know before 7 fewer of them would be
able to grasp you know every aspect of the game but 7 to 11 year-olds which is
my area of observation they absolutely love chess there are very very few
children who drop out of the chess program and sort of say they don’t want
to do it. Why should this be? I know that parents are massively approving of
it. They see chess as a “brainiac” activity. and if their child is in the school
chess club it’s you know really good thing they think about chess developing
concentration and all that so that’s one thing there’s widespread social approval
for chess and maybe kids pick up on that and that’s that’s part of it
but I also think it comes back to that word power the center of empowerment
which is the number of decisions a child needs to take during a chess game at the
number of decisions he’s allowed to take or she is allowed to take you know it’s
your little army it’s your Little Kingdom nobody can tell you what to do
there’s no roll of the dice it doesn’t matter how big your opponent is you know
it’s just you and your decisions and I think whether they win lose or draw I
think they actually enjoy that experience that’s the best explanation I
can come up with anyway okay so I’ve turned my attention in the last
only in the last few years to the use that we as
educators can put to chess because children love it so children are very
motivated by chess so what can we do through chess. In the past when I ran Junior
chess programs I was thinking of it from a chess player perspective I was
thinking of improving my school chess team I was thinking of improving the
Irish chess scene by producing more chess players and more people who
are interested in chess. Now I’ve become more much more interested in what
chess can do for all children okay and I know that there’s some current research
to say that it has not been proved at all that chess has any kind of
crossover effect in terms of literacy and numeracy for example. I actually
think there’s scope for and perhaps there have been right that I wouldn’t be
aware of there have been perhaps studies to show the emotional benefits of chess
the benefits of chess in terms of emotional intelligence and I think maybe
the wrong potential benefits have been focused on and if we focused on these
emotional intelligence benefits and we would you know we would maybe find very
powerful effects. I think it’s because chess provides “hot moments” you know in a
child’s life – there’s intense disappointment at the the chess board sometimes. I’m sure you’ve all seen this sure we’ve all seen
perhaps the sad sight of a child crying over a chess game and it’s about, to me,
chess can really be used if you make make it very specific and make it very
explicit to the children it can be used to build resilience. I do a little bit of
chat with the children at the start of every chess club session and it’s not
about tactics or gambits or anything like that. It’s about what are you going
to do if you’re very disappointed? What are you going to do if you win a game
and you’re really pleased how are you going to avoid gloating and sort of
being unempathetic to your opponent – all these kind of social and emotional benefits and all
the benefits of also what we know those of us who are chess players know the
importance of managing your emotions and the importance
of looking before you leap, pausing, thinking, examining the best options – they
are all fantastic life skills but I think if we’re teaching them through
chess we do need to make them explicit for the children otherwise there
possibly won’t be any big crossover. I saw on the Chessity documentation which
is outside on display that the mention of this growth mindset I those of you
who are educators you’re probably sick of hearing about growth mindset but just
in case anybody hasn’t come across this this is a wonderful educational tool to
look at how we should how we should build our educational programs in
general not just chess I think chess fits into growth mindset
magnificently because it is a genuine challenge see the third one down there
on the green side I want to challenge myself I do think that a lot of both
boys and girls but particularly perhaps girls in my experience find primary
school curriculum generally quite easy and find it quite possible to be
excellent, to be perfect, and chess offers them the opportunity to not be perfect
and I think this is the kind of nub of perhaps chess and girls and the fact
that perhaps girls don’t progress in chess you know in a general sense as
well as boys and you know they interestingly it has been shown that a
lot of girls when they move into secondary school having done very very
well at Primary School being top of the class and all the rest of us when they
come across things like maths and physics at a higher level they tend to
go oh right okay so I didn’t understand it at first go you know the teacher is
speaking and I’m for the first time in my life I’m coping with the idea that I
don’t understand the concept that she or he is explained and their instant
thought is well I’m a very good student so if I’m not understanding this that
must mean maths or physics is not for me so I’m just going to bow out whereas
chess would give them that experience at a much
eh that experience of coping with something that’s very very dynamic very
hard to pin down you can give children all sorts of guidelines you know don’t
bring your queen out too early and then they got scholar’s mated on move 4. So you it’s that sort of incredibly difficult and complex task
and they have to learn to kind of swim in the soup of that and cope with difficult
ideas okay so another thing I did when I was asked to do this was looked up a few
things on the Internet in a bit of a panic and I found a good article by a
lady called Hannah Shank and an American lady and she wrote an article called
Where’s Bobbi (with an i) Fischer all about how little girls sign up to play
chess and drove sorts so why are so few of the top players in the world women
and she wrote very interestingly about the experience of being the only girl in
a tournament when she was a little girl and noted that her daughter had had a
similar experience and she talks about the kind of stereotype threat business
that you know girls join and they’ve kind of realized that this is actually
not for girls there’s there’s so many boys here and very few girls I don’t
know whether it’s a particularly United States thing this wouldn’t be as
widespread in Ireland but she was talking about the fact that boys young
boys tend to play chess very aggressively
you know whack pieces down on the board and sort of shout check and all this
kind of thing maybe puts girls off. She talked about the
widespread opinion that – widespread in the chess world I believe
Nigel short said it again recently that women just simply aren’t hardwired to
play chess well and that you know basically should leave it to men and
then she was introduced to the concept of well there’s girls prizes there’s
girls tournaments women’s tournaments women’s FIDE titles that kind of thing
which are very genuine attempts to help women you know development to help grow
the number of women playing chess I’m not going to get into whether that’s a
good thing or a bad thing because I really think the jury is
out on it a little bit and I benefited hugely from all the ladies prizes and
ladies tournament some ladies Olympiads and all the rest of it so I’m not going
to diss them but Hannah did make a remark in the article and
it was about how she thought, when she was a little girl, and she heard about
girls or ladies chess tournaments particularly she said “Are the chess pieces that
adults play with so heavy that only men can do them” so this was an
opportunity for me to put a hunk into my into my powerpoint so you know OK,
so on my observation of girls playing chess I think the one thing
that would strike me and I am hugely generalizing here because as I said very
often my Board 1 is a girl. I’ve had several school champions I would say 50%
of all my school champions have been girls. I’ve nearly always had one or two
very strong girls: it’s mostly one, and on the team then one girl and the rest boys so
why aren’t there more girls I’m talking about the other girls, right. What I’m
struck by when girls start playing chess at the very earliest stages so once
they’ve learned how to move the pieces I’m struck by their caution at the board
um I’ll I’ll quite often see girls games that look a little bit like this okay the Hedgehog should really be at
the top of the bottle but you know I couldn’t get that to work and you know
the pollens moving up and then the rooks moving up and then the bishops moving up
and everything is just sort of sitting there and nothing crosses the central
line this is particularly if two girls are
playing each other obviously in my school often boys and girls play each
other and actually the main thing I’d like to the main remark I’d like to make
about that is that that makes chess a very boring game you know the girls our
typical chat session would last like half an hour 40 minutes I come by I look
down at a position like that and I say “Draw!” What did anybody learn
about chess from that – what enjoyment did anybody get out of it? So now that I’ve
become aware of it I I kind of tend to really talk to the girls about it and
make it really explicit and say look this is Hedgehog chess – don’t play
Hedgehog chess – get your pieces out – it doesn’t matter if you lose pieces. It
doesn’t matter if you get checkmated. You learn something you learn nothing by
coming along every Friday and playing half an hour like this and disappearing
so I’ve noticed an improvement from that point of you since I have started you
know nagging them about it essentially. I don’t think girls are more fearful than
boys. I don’t think they’re less competitive. What I do think is it’s
going back to this perfectionism thing girls like to be perfect particularly at
primary level. My personal belief is that this is a socialization process
rather than something that’s kind of neurological but it could be hormonal as
well – I’m not sure. Girls want to please the teacher. They want to do well. They
want to score 100 percent. When they do a penmanship exam or a spelling exam or
anything like that they can work hard they can learn the
stuff and they can get a hundred percent. They can’t do this with chess so they
find a way of doing it which is I’m not going to lose any pieces I’m going to
play like a hedgehog okay so I think girls have an extra hurdle to clear in
terms of when they learn chess developing a little bit further and
their fear of making mistakes. They are afraid not to be perfect. Again I
have started to make this very explicit with
girls and that has improved things a bit so in terms of approaches that we could
all take to improve the situation with regard to initial chess education and
girls, I do very strongly stress the business that you know mistakes are okay
we use as our motto, I’m sure many of you do, but we use as our motto – this
motto here – should come up, I think it’s a great motto for a chess
club or for any kind of activity really especially anything competitive and I
also find that when I’m doing my initial lessons my absolute baby beginner
lessons that I focus on mini games for a good long time longer much longer than I
used to I would make a class play mini games for maybe 10 to 12 weeks and I
find that this gives the girls it’s a more sequential form of chess and makes
them feel a little more confident in it when they eventually come to play a
full game. In the past, I think my attitude would be “O look, showed them how the
pieces move and then get them playing and then get them into the Chess Club and
you know let them sink or swim” sort of thing but I really do not think for
girls particularly I don’t think that’s the right approach I think a more
structured and sequential approach is much better and also then once the
children have learned to play and once they’ve joined my after-school club. I
have about 40 in the club, as I say about 75% boys 25% girls and I have two other
school levels which I run in the same way. The children have to do for 10 or 15
minutes at the start of the session they have to do puzzles and I have a
sequential series of puzzle books going right from the very beginning up to you
know more advanced tactics and then they get certificates for each
puzzle book they complete or whatever I’m sure most of you are doing something
similar if you if you are a chess instructors but just recently I asked, I
surveyed, the children and asked them “what do you think about the puzzle
book approach?” and this is the result I got
okay over on the left it’s on a scale of one to five how much do you enjoy coming
to chess club so I am very pleased that 4.6 percent four point six is the
average score for a girls four point two for the boys but if we look at the
puzzle solving element the girls are overwhelmingly in favor of this approach
compared to boys. They like the feeling but at least for 10 or 15 minutes they
can achieve if they lose the game that they play afterwards, well they lose the
game but they’re still scoring points, they’re still achieving something there
and they feel they’re achieving mastery. I think that is an important aspect
of what we do as a chess coach and as a chess organiser to improve things
for girls and chess. So my answer to the question that was
posed at the start of the session which is “Does chess empower girls?” is
this it’s a bit more nuanced than a Yes or a No. Chess can play a unique
role in empowering all children I would say, or almost all children, but to make
sure girls can avail of this empowerment we need to modify our approach and
present chess in a more sequential way and once the critical mass of girl
chess players is achieved then the sky will be the limit as far as female
empowerment in chess is concerned and thank you all so much for listening.

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