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Sweden - Schack4an - Never Forget Anna!
Tuesday, 14 June 2011 11:40

Never Forget Anna!

S4an_2011_final_IMG_0719More and more chess federations have successfully introduced chess in school programmes during the last years. The key has been to use chess as a pedagogic tool that develops important skills in the children. The question is, what is the best way in this environment? It is to use the appeal of the game’s social side.

Jesper Hall narrates the Swedish success story ”Schack4an”, tells of its driving force, Göran Malmsten, and about the attempt to create a Swedish culture of chess.

It all started with a conversation I had with Grandmaster Lars Karlsson about the future of chess. Over a couple of beers, we went back and forth over the possibilities of how the Swedish chess elite could make their money and how chess could gain higher status. In the end, we had reached the grain of truth, and Karlsson concluded:

“We have to create a culture of chess. We must get chess associated with something positive, and we must succeed so well that when anyone hears the word chess, the lips of this anyone should form a smile. From that moment on, chess can grow strong at all levels.”

What happened next was, surprisingly, not that we resigned and ordered a new beer, but that we realised that the perfect tool already existed in Sweden, “Schack4an”.

 

Ideas have a tendency to take root in many people at the same time, and only a year after my discussion with Karlsson, in 2006, the Swedish chess federation declared that they would employ a project leader for Schack4an, to establish the tournament nationwide.

In my eyes, the work of creating a culture of chess had started, or, should we say, had been renewed. Behind this lay a regional success-story that started in Västerås in 1979. And behind that, there was an unique driving force who saw a possibility that through chess it would be possible to give the weakest links of our society a value.

”Now I am going to reveal what Schack4an is.”

Göran Malmsten, the seventy-six-year-old founder of Schack4an, lowers his voice. The bubbling enthusiasm takes hold and the next words are accentuated one by one.

“Schack4an is Anna. Anna was small for her age and had difficulties in school. Even so, she wanted to be in a normal class, nothing else. But it was tough. It was not easy to make friends. That class participated in one of the first years of Schack4an, but Anna did not dare to enter for the qualification tournament of the city. During the tournament the class realised that the more pupils that participated from the class, the more points the class would get. In the first lesson after the tournament, the teacher asked which pupils wanted to go to the semi-final, and everyone raised a hand, except for Anna. She was not used to be included in anything. But the girl beside Anna now said: ’Anna must join’. The children of the class looked at each other and they all began to chant: ‘Anna must join, Anna must join, Anna must join’, and so it happened. Anna lost all her five games in the semi-final, but every game played counts for a point and her contribution of five points for her class helped them qualify for the final. Anna played in the final, and she even won two games. I drove Anna home after the final. Everyone that had participated got a prize in the shape of a twenty centimetre wooden king. I saw in the rear-view mirror how Anna held that king tight. I saw a new lustre in her eyes. The lustre of someone who counts.

You see, Schack4an is not about the elite of chess. It is not even about what is called the mass of chess players. Schack4an is about THE REST, those that through the tournament can find a fellowship and a feeling of being counted.”

Göran Malmsten suffered from polio in 1950, when he was sixteen years old. His legs were paralyzed and he had to go to the Apelvikens Sanatorium outside Varberg on the West coast of Sweden. For six months he fought to learn how to walk with crutches. One day he found the book Chess Fundamentals by Capablanca in the library. Now a new world opened up that did not judge people by their physical abilities and he started to play chess against some of the other patients. When Malmsten returned home, chess was an important leisure pursuit and he joined the local chess club.

After finishing his education, he became a radio- and TV-engineer in Gothenburg, then he moved to Arboga in the Swedish district of Västmanland. There, Malmsten got an engineering job, working on the calibration of measuring instruments.

In 1963 a friend told him that he had started youth training in Arboga, and wondered if Malmsten wanted to help. He said yes, and soon he was responsible for the activity and started to develop it according to his own ideas. Almost at the same time he was selected to become the district instructor for the chess federation of Mälardalen and had influence at both club and district level.

His first move was to divide the district into three parts, and to let each part act independently. The one Malmsten himself had charge of was the youth section of Västmanland, called U-chess.

“The construction with three autonomous groups is an important part of the explanation for the success of the district that followed. It helped creativity and ensured that any money generated stayed with the youths. Of course, it helped that all of those in charge were both inventive and had great drive”, says Malmsten. That was exemplified by Arne Nyberg, whose lifetime achievement was to start the international youth tournament in Hallsberg.

U-chess soon reached the limit of its financial resources and looked for support from the county council. The council guidelines for granting such help required mass-participation in the whole district. Malmsten reflected on how to fulfil that and what a real mass chess event would look like.

One Friday night he came up with the idea of making a chess version of the popular Swedish TV quiz show: “We in grade 5”. Malmsten’s idea was that every class 4 [10-year-olds] in the district should participate with a team of four players in a tournament. The next day U-chess had arranged a course for leaders and Malmsten thought he would try out the idea on the other leader that he was presenting the course with. But Malmsten happened to mention the idea to that other man’s wife, while waiting for him to collect his things.

“I remember it so clearly. We stood in the doorway. Her reaction came as fast as it was hard. ‘Not one more tournament where a small elite represents a whole class, while the rest only stand there looking on.’ You know, we are talking of a woman who was both clever and sharp. I objected that we were not capable of running such a tournament, but my argument was crushed with: ‘Everyone must be allowed to participate, or there will be no tournament’. I simply had to reconsider.”

Everything then developed at furious speed. The concept of Schack4an was constructed, a playing hall booked, advertising material produced, the Swedish chess federation was involved and last, but by no means least, schools and teachers all over the district were visited. The response was enormous. 116 classes and almost 1 000 kids came to the qualifying tournaments, that were held in eleven cities.

Even more fantastic was that 1 000 kids also came to the semi-final. How was that possible, when the number of participating classes was reduced?

“The first tournament had 116 classes with an average of 9 pupils participating from the class. These pupils told the ones who did not play how much fun it was, and they also realised that even if you lose your games, you gain points for taking part, so they applied peer pressure to get everyone to come to the next round. The average for the semi final was 18 pupils per class, and in the final, 23 per class, with many classes complete.

After this success, one might expect that Malmsten would have been satisfied and let the tournament trot along, but soon he started to develop the concept further. What was needed first of all were leaders that could cater for the interest that Schack4an created.

Therefore Malmsten asked the schools if he could come and make a fifteen minute presentation of Schack4an at the parents’ meeting that each class has when they start grade four. With such a successful tournament behind him, this was not a problem. Besides informing the parents about Schack4an, Malmsten also took the opportunity to offer the parents themselves membership of a new club: Västerås Chess Alliance. If at least three of the parents would volunteer to train the class, once a week for the tournament, he would provide them with chess sets, clocks and all the training material they needed, but foremost he would take care of all the administration. In addition, every single penny that the class generated would go back to the class. Two months later, 50 new small clubs had started.

The second initiative Malmsten undertook was, according to himself, his best, other than the tournament itself. U-chess started to arrange courses for young chess instructors, combined with training camps for participants in Schack4an, parents and other potential leaders.

“Here we caught many birds with one stone. We had training with kids that were interested, and we trained fresh leaders who could immediately test their new knowledge in a practical situation. The best, though, was that the courses were arranged by former Schack4an kids who had turned 13-16 years old. It was fantastic to have those teenagers take care of 100 children and adults for a weekend; book the location, the lodging, prepare the food and run all the activities. Every year the youths did a tremendous job,” says Malmsten. In 1982-1996, U-chess arranged 15 courses per year on average, of which one every year was a week-long summer camp. Arranging those camps became the most important task for U-chess.

We are now getting close to the area which I have tried to steer the interview towards: Malmsten’s ability to find new leaders and how he encouraged them.

“I get a bit worried that you may think that I am the one behind all this. I was only one cog in the machine. If you only knew what great people I have met during these years, and what efforts they have made. I do not dare to mention anyone by name, as in that case I will forget someone. Just write that many made incredible efforts for chess. You asked how I encouraged them. Hmm ...”

For the first time during our four hour interview, Malmsten becomes quiet. Then he suddenly starts laughing to himself, and the words start tumbling out.

“That is easy. You just show them what a fantastic situation it is to be a leader of a chess group. These kids, ‘forced’ to go to school every day, come voluntarily to you to learn the most inspiring mind game. With total attention, they listen to you and you can follow their development. Can it be better? Of course, the new leaders must get tasks that they have a chance to handle, and they must also have the best conditions as far as working tools and instruction materials are concerned. Under these conditions, they grow fast and become able to take care of even tougher tasks. One other key connected to this, is to have a group of experienced people ready to help if needed. I would also like to put forward that we in U-chess never paid a penny in compensation for these efforts. Not for driving, no fees, nothing. If you start to give economic compensation, it feeds a system that will die by its own hand. Instead we have staked our money on education for the leaders and on the best chess education tools.”

When I continue to question how this was possible, Malmsten says that to make it in practical life, the ones in charge must act under the same conditions. In his own words:

“If you work harder than anyone else and never ask for compensation, no one else will.”

Schack4an seems to be a success story without end. But for Malmsten, it did end, fifteen years ago.

“Money flows from the mass to the elite, not only in the chess world. I was, and I am, focused neither on the elite nor on the mass, but on THE REST. How can chess be something positive for them. It’s not just a matter of money, but also commitment must be right. When, in the early 1990s, U-chess decided to begin taking some money, and giving that to the elite, I felt that I had done my bit. It is wrong when the ones who have created the money, and for whom they thought it would be used, do not get it. But I had been waiting for this moment, when the elite comes in and takes over, as we had generated a lot of promising players in U-chess that had won plenty of titles in, for example, the Swedish championships.”

But is it so wrong that a small amount of the money generated by the mass goes to the elite? According to Malmsten it is, as it starts the wrong way of thinking and as it is also a question of justice.

”The real challenge for U-chess was to concentrate on getting and supporting new leaders who could take care of THE REST. But who does not want to take care of the development of talented children in chess, especially when they rapidly become better and start winning tournaments? It is so easy to be seduced by these talents, and suddenly you want to develop and intensify the training. But who will then look after THE REST? I have always tried to keep this in mind in my leadership, but you should also know that my first pupil in Arboga in 1963 was Ulf Andersson. You see, the talents will always find their way.”

Bearing in mind how Malmsten, throughout the interview, put the social environment in focus beside the personal development, rather than the development of chess skills, I ask if Schack4an could have been Badminton4an, or connected to any other sport.

“In principle, yes, but chess has its advantages. First of all, it is easy to have five chess sets in the classroom, and secondly everyone is able to play chess. Besides these factors, schools see that chess is a fantastic way of training the ability to concentrate. Many times I have met teachers who have said that Schack4an is probably good, but in their class they have a couple of boys that cannot sit still, and then they have been surprised to see how the “savages” have been totally captured by the game.”

In conclusion, I ask how it feels that Schack4an is still a great success in Sweden 30 years after he invented the concept? Malmsten regains the controlled voice from the beginning of the interview and answers:

“This is, of course, very pleasant. But there are three words I would like those now in charge of the tournament always to carry with them ... Never forget Anna!

Facts about Schack4an

  • Schack4an started in 1979 in the district of Västmanland in Sweden, an initiative of Göran Malmsten.
  • Schack4an is a tournament for the many. The goal is that children in grade four learn that everyone is important for the group and that everyone can make a contribution. For the Swedish chess federation, the goal is to give kids and their parents a positive view on chess.
  • In the 2010-2011 tournament, 12 200 ten-year-olds participated, which means that about 24 000 have learned to play chess.
  • Schack4an is played in 22 of Sweden’s 25 districts.
  • The goal for the organisation behind Schack4an is that all of Sweden’s fourth graders shall have an invitation to the tournament by 2013. By then Schack4an shall be located in all districts of Sweden, and 15 000 kids shall participate in the tournament and 30 000 shall learn to play chess.
  • In 2006 a project leader for Schack4an, Per Hultin, was employed by the Swedish chess federation.
  • In 2010 Jesper Hall was employed by the Swedish chess federation with the task to capitalize on the interest that Schack4an creates.

 

Rules of the tournament Schack4an

  • Schack4an is a tournament for classes of grade four (ten-year-olds).
  • Each class is offered a visit of one hour for free, during which the kids learn how to play chess. The class also gets a box with 5 chess sets and instructional material. If the class then decides to participate in the tournament each kid has to pay a fee to become a member of the Swedish chess federation.
  • The tournament is decided in three steps. First a city qualification is held, then a regional qualification and, at the end, there is the final in the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm with 2 500 kids playing at the same time.
  • The more kids of each class that play, the more points the class gets.
  • A won game gives 3 points, a draw 2 points and a loss 1 point.
  • In each part of the tournament the kids play an individual tournament in 4-6 rounds. They play only against children from other schools, never against their classmates. Each individual result is added together to make the total result of the class.

(complete rules and regulations are at www.schackfyran.se)

 

 
 
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