Hungary's "Chess Palace" helps kids to learn and play

By Sandor Peto

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Ten-year-old Tamas Katona hopes one day to be a chess champion, but in the meantime his love of the game is helping him to master the skills that should help him in school and later life.

The boy lives in Hungary where the world's best female chess player, Judit Polgar, has turned a school into "chess wonderland" catering precisely for students such as Katona.

Polgar and her two sisters - Zsuzsa (Susan) and Zsofia (Sofia) - won the 1988 Chess Olympiad for Hungary's female team, ending Soviet dominance. Judit Polgar joined men's tournaments and became one of the top players in the world, demolishing the myth that chess is the mental sport of smart men.

These days Polgar, who has two children, spends much of her time implementing a special teaching programme called the "Chess Palace" that puts chess thinking at the heart of learning.

"We don't want to raise chess players here, but we'd like to use chess to teach children ... to think logically and be able to use that skill in their everyday lives," Polgar said.

In the Chess Palace - as in Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking-Glass" - the pieces come to life. They have names like Jumpy Horse, Boom Rook, Tiny Pawn and are like close friends who guide the children through difficult school subjects.

The pieces range in size from 1 cm (under half an inch) tall to a meter (three feet) in height. Chairs, walls and carpets also sport chess motifs.

The pieces, whose combinations and moves represent mathematical, linguistic or musical patterns, help children develop their skills in chess and in their school studies while making the learning process a more joyous exercise.

"I love this (chess) very much as it's a game and at the same time it teaches me. It's a game of logic that develops the brain in a great way," Katona said.

A few years ago, the Dezso Lemhenyi school - which apart from its use of chess as a teaching tool serves as a normal, full-time primary school - was struggling for survival.

Now teachers come from other parts of Hungary and from the United States and Britain to see the Chess Palace.

FAST LEARNING

Chess is taught in many countries, but not in this way.

The main difference is that in the Hungarian version all knowledge that children are supposed to learn in school is integrated into a system where the chess pieces act as numbers, letters or even musical notes, depending on the subject taught.

At a class presentation for about 15 teachers, seven-year-olds moved so fast from one exercise to another it was difficult to follow what subject they were practising.

"This sword costs 17 chess thalers (dollars). What do you think we should pay for it, Csongor?" the teacher asks a boy.

"Two rooks and a knight," the boy replies promptly, then pauses for a second, computing the value assigned to each chess piece in the game. "And a bishop and a pawn," he quickly added.

The exercises also help develop memory. At the presentation the children put 16 pieces on the board randomly, and then posed questions to two boys who turned away from the board.

"How many pieces are on the white diagonal line (across the chess board)?" a girl asked. "Three," came the correct response.

Polgar has produced a Chessplayground application on iPad in which children arrive on a "Chess Planet" via a spaceship.

Chess helps children learn by playing and building on their interests in the visual culture of the digital age, Polgar said after a lesson.

"It is a complicated sport and in this respect that is very good. It has six different pieces that move in six different ways, so they can combine (them) into various games," she said.

Hungary, where the game is played everywhere, even on floating chessboards in Budapest's famous hot-spring baths, has integrated chess into the national curriculum from September.

"It may be a strange contrast that I never went to school and now we launch a school programme," said Polgar, who was home-educated by her father who had wanted to prove that with focused education kids can get to the top in anything, even chess.

"This is different as I am professional... The goal here is learning through chess rather than learning how to play chess." (Editing by Michael Roddy and Gareth Jones)

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