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Opinion & Analysis

#Alice'sTable: Chess is the word at any age

China is next on his travels. Why? Quite simply because chess has a huge following there and this is where chess specialist, journalist, commentator and presenter Leontxo Garcia has been invited to present his next lecture on his favourite sport.

The fact is Leontxo travels world-wide promoting, writing and talking about the positives of this ancient game. But he always finds time for Gibraltar. This year he is back at the Gibraltar International Chess Festival, a festival he has fully supported and written about for 17 years and been a part of for 15.

I have known Leontxo for those 15 years and his knowledge on chess is limitless and would astound anyone – even the grandmasters. So, as we catch up, I invite him to sit at my table this week. His commitment to the game is catchy and his enthusiasm rubs off on everyone. I reckon he could teach anyone to play. I know of no one else with his passion for the game.
“Great for the mind,” I hear him say.

“Young or old, this game is good for the brain and everybody should learn to play.”
You may have seen his name in El Pais where he has had a regular daily column since 1985.
Just last month he proved to the powers that be that the coverage of chess in any media has a massive pull.

As he went live on the newspaper’s website with the results of the World Championship ‘tie break’ the page was red hot, producing maximum hits, competing with Brexit and even Donald Trump.

“No one could believe what was happening,” he smiles, proud of his achievement.

You can start to play chess at 10, 20, 40 or 60. Now it is easy as you can learn on line.
The internet, he says, has completely changed the chess world.

“It is the only sport which can be practiced through the internet with a player on the other side of the world and where you can also be taught how to play.”

25 years ago, if a player was invited to play a round robin tournament, even if they knew the name of their opponents three months in advance it was extremely difficult to get information on their game and how they played.

“You had to send a letter to someone in that country and if you were lucky you got an answer in time. Now I write the name in my data base and instantly I have all the games played by any player throughout their whole career.”

In fact in his own data base he has nine million games which have been played all the way back to the 16th century. There are now chess programmes which calculate millions of moves per second.

“Can you imagine how the training of a chess player has changed?”

Gibraltar’s 17 year history in this sport has been instrumental in expanding its appeal on the world-wide-web and organisers used it wisely as prime movers in reaching out to millions of chess players.

Over the years tournaments in other countries have mirrored Gibraltar’s festival and introduced its innovative approach to the game by fully making use of its growing on-line audience.
Again the Gibraltar International Chess Festival has participation from over 60 countries from as far afield as Mongolia, China, Iran and Australia. Many annually make the effort to reach our shores against some adversity.

Over the years Leontxo has been a regular contributor on Radio Nacional and later Cadena Ser.
He is a quiet gentle man who chooses his words carefully and always speaks in soft tones but with great authority.

I have often referred to him as the face of chess. He is certainly well-known by all in this unique world and carries with him great influence.

He first learnt how to move the pieces on the board at the age of 13 but it was not until he turned 16 that he took the game seriously.

“I got hooked.”

But on reaching a semi-professional stage he soon realised that his real vocation was in journalism.

Making his voice known today he remains at the forefront of the game so it was no surprise when he was asked to join FIDE’s team as its Councillor to help promote chess in education.

He strongly believes chess should form part of every school curriculum.

“It can play a part in every lesson,” he says adamantly.

But he is also keen to promote it as a sport for all ages and quickly gives me a breakdown of the many benefits at any age. He genuinely believes it can help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.

“Chess is a thinking game. It stimulates you to think. It allows you to have fun. Through thinking and learning and playing the game it can produce the best in people.”

And he quickly presents a list of well-known studies which have reached the conclusion that chess is very good for children as an educational tool and can also delay brain aging.

“So, what else do you need?” he asks in his broad smile.

Yet, although he believes chess should be in every school he is not calling for it to be taught as a subject as such.

He wants schools to use chess together with “emotional intelligence” which he describes as an essential subject in the future of education this century.

“Chess can be very useful on this issue. A scientific study comparing children who played chess with those playing football showed that although team sports theoretically are supposed to be better in the development of social skills the results of the study showed the opposite.

“It was found that chess students were better when it came to adapting to the school environment, the teachers, other students, in controlling their emotions and working as a team.”

2 chess can be played anywhere

In one session, he explains, teacher Lorena Garcia, one of the co-authors of this study, showed that a group of disruptive students could work as a team and be friends after having been introduced to chess and played together on the chess board.

“They worked as team. The captain chose groups to memorise the white pawns, black pawns, bishops and knights, and so on. The point is that hours before they all had a negative approach to each other and the atmosphere in the classroom was unbearable. But as they played chess and competed with other groups whilst building a bond between them their relationship improved dramatically.”

Leontxo believes that chess can work with all subjects: language, mathematics, technology and history.

“A big part of geometry, algebra and arithmetic can be explained in a very funny way but very effectively through chess. In history chess has 1,500 years of documented accounts so in a school where chess is popular the history teacher can combine chess and world history.

“The great advantage of this is that you do not need to remove another subject from the curriculum because you are using chess as an educational tool together with other subjects.

“In schools where this has been effective they have introduced an hour of chess a week because they have seen the benefits.”

Now, have you ever thought of taking up the game? Perhaps, you thought it was too late for you to start playing chess. But Leontxo is of the opinion that anyone can learn to play chess at any age.

“Life expectancy is on the increase in every developed country. Spain is now the second in the world after Japan and by 2040 it will be number one. This is good news but the longer you live the bigger the risk in developing health problems and not just dementia or Alzheimer’s.

“Our grandparents already understood that physical exercise was important for our health now most people are beginning to understand that some kind of mental gymnasium or exercise for the brain is also very important if we are going to live longer.”

Here again he presents me with more scientific studies.

At the Albert Einstein Institute in New York a 21 year study placed more than 400 people in different groups learning foreign languages, playing musical instruments, participating in physical exercise or in debates. It proved this was all good for brain development especially when it came to playing chess.

“There is a false belief that chess is complicated and is only for intelligent people. This is completely wrong,” he underlines.

He then compares a marathon runner to someone who runs on a beach. Both are running but they are very different. A chess grandmaster or someone who plays chess and uses it as an educational tool or therapy are also different, he adds.

“To be a grandmaster requires genetic factors and you have to work consistently and very hard for many years but to enjoy the game for ones enjoyment is something anyone can do.”

Did you know that the number of hours you need to enjoy playing chess is less than 10?

It is a statement more than a question but it leaves me wondering that maybe I should start to make my moves.

Want to join me in a game of chess?