“Starting from random play, and given no domain knowledge except the game rules, AlphaZero achieved within 24 hours a superhuman level of play in the games of chess and shogi [a similar Japanese board game] as well as Go, and convincingly defeated a world-champion program in each case,” said the paper’s authors that include DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis, who was a child chess prodigy reaching master standard at the age of 13.
Comment:Yo! Grand mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Sheikh, you are a barbaric idiot. Beheading hundreds of innocent humans is not as barbaric as playing chess, right? Don’t listen to this medieval moron. Chess is a great tool to fortify your brain. I believe it should be mandatory in high school.
By the way, chess IS an extreme sport. I have drenched myself in sweat while playing tournaments.
Saudi Arabia’s top cleric has branded chess a “waste of time”. He should take a closer look.
Stephen McKinney does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
The future of chess in Saudi Arabia is in doubt after the country’s most senior cleric, the grand mufti Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Sheikh, said it was forbidden under Islam. Al-Sheikh told a television interviewer that chess is “included under gambling” and a “waste of time and money and a cause for hatred and enmity between players”.
The Saudi Chess Association has since appeared to question this view, admitting the grand mufti’s charge but noting that “all sports can fall into being religiously illegal once they involve gambling, directing players away from religious practice … (or) creating hatred between players”. While we wait to see how this plays out, there are several points worth making.
First, there is of course no necessary connection between chess and gambling. Chess is valued as a game and an enjoyable way to spend time in many parts of the world. There are competing claims for its roots in India, China and Persia; but the game is usually agreed to be at least 1,300 years old and the modern version can be traced back to 15th-century southern Europe. Chess is recognized by the International Olympic Committee as a sport – not to mention the Saudi Olympic Committee, as the country’s chess association also points out. There is a campaign to have it included in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. A decision is due in August.
Far from being a waste of time, chess can be of great benefit to children’s minds. Several academics have looked into this extensively. Chess has been persuasively linked with improving children’s concentration, problem-solving, critical, original and creative thinking – and even mathematical abilities. It is also said to help with memory storage and how young brains manage information – and should not only be perceived as a game for gifted children. Children with special educational needs can improve their abilities to learn and interact with other children if they become involved in school chess programmes and chess clubs.
Children are also equal in a chess match regardless of things that might divide them. Their age, gender, ethnic backgrounds and religious affiliations are of no significance. Chess can cross socio-economic and cultural boundaries and give otherwise disadvantaged children a chance to compete on equal terms.
It is also understood to be particularly helpful for integrating migrant children. While they learn a new language or how to negotiate a new culture, chess can help them engage with other children and adults without needing good linguistic skills. As intensified migration has increased diversity in classrooms, chess (and other games) play an important role.
Game or sport?
In view of all these benefits, I find it disappointing that many children do not continue to play chess into their teenage and adult years. One of the main reasons is that chess becomes highly competitive and time-consuming as people get older. It becomes about organized competitions, with players competing for prizes and maybe even the prestige of becoming a Master.
Indeed, chess is such that children and teenagers can compete and win in these adult competitions (although these tend to be the more gifted ones). And here I must declare an interest: I supported my son in his chess career, first in the local and national competitions for children and in adult leagues when he was a teenager. The latter were conducted after school and at the weekends and involved lengthy chess games that sometimes lasted three hours.
Russian dominance of international chess is thought to be because they have traditionally been very proactive in introducing chess into schools and identifying future champions who can be appropriately trained early. But while this is an opportunity for some, it helps highlight the tension in the chess world because it is perceived as both a game and a recognized sport. All competitive sports require considerable time and commitment and take participation to a different level. This shouldn’t detract from the educational importance of chess, nor the potential for great enjoyment. The Saudi Chess Association itself was in the final stages of implementing a chess in schools programme to boost the game’s grassroots in that country. If it can avoid a total ban, young Saudis stand to reap the benefits.
The people of Marottichal, a sleepy little village in the state of Kerala in southern India, have a rather unusual passion for chess. Believe it or not, they’re all chess enthusiasts. Their love for the game is such that even when they’re not playing, they’re talking strategy all the time.
But villagers weren’t always interested in the checkered board game. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, their passions lay elsewhere – mainly in the local liquor that they made for a living. Many of the residents were addicted to the cheap brew, with disastrous consequences for the whole community. Things got so bad at one point that a few villagers actually requested government authorities to raid the village and get rid of some of their liquor stock.
But things began to change when one villager – a 10th grade student named C. Unnikrishnan – decided that he wanted to learn chess. Inspired by a news report about American legend Bobby Fischer, a grandmaster at age 16, Unnikrishnan traveled to a nearby village to attend classes and learn the game himself. And once he got the hang of it, he made it his mission to get everyone in the village hooked.
So he started giving free chess lessons at his house to anyone who was willing to learn, and to his delight, the chess bug spread through Marottichal like wildfire. Not only did they grasp the nuances of the game, they also developed a deep passion for it. Over four decades, he has trained more than 600 people, many of whom have gone on to win statewide chess tournaments.
“Around 90 percent of the villagers are chess players,” said Sreenivasan, president of the local Gram Panchayat – an organisation for self-governance in Indian villages. In August last year, he announced that Marottichal is the first “comprehensive chess literate village” or “chess village” in India. The nation’s own chess legend, Viswanathan Anand, congratulated the villagers for the achievement.
Photo: New Indian Express/Ajesh Madhav
Unnikrishnan now runs a restaurant in Marottichal, where people are free to come in and play a round of chess any time. He also has a makeshift shed beside his house where chess enthusiasts – between the ages of 8 and 80 – gather to sharpen their skills. Needless to say, liquor is the last thing on their minds.
As Unnikrishnan puts it: “Chess is my passion. Once I start playing, I forget everything. It’s kind of an addiction.”
A movie based on the village, titled August Club, is currently being filmed.
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