Rewind 20 years and my dad was running a chess club at the school we went to in North London. It was (and still is) an extremely relaxed environment for kids to come play chess, eat bagels and hang out. Both me and my brother would sometimes attend but I hadn’t quite caught the bug as yet… My love for the game only really began to develop in my late teens. My brother on the other hand had taught himself how to play at the age of 4 on an Atari by clicking on the pieces and then it showing him the possible squares they could move to.
Fast forward 15 years and I found myself living in a very local area of Hong Kong called Sai Ying Pun. I was exploring my art career while my partner explored her architecture and design work. I was spending most my time working in quite an insular environment with not all that much contact with the outside world. Finding me in a bit of a rut my partner suggested I explore doing some chess teaching. Having occasionally helped my dad out running his club and having since developed a far greater appreciation for the game, this seemed like not such a bad idea. I googled ‘chess teaching Hong Kong’ and clicked on a link titled Scholastic Chess. A phone call and one day later I found myself sitting in a local cafe with Benjamin Chui who set up and managed the school. The following week I began teaching sessions and developed a real love for it. Like my dad, Ben took an approach to teaching that placed great importance on the students enjoying the experience of learning the game. Ben also had an 18 chapter program of puzzles and exercises that students could dip into as and when they wished. I found the experience of working with the kids hugely enjoyable.
After six months we decided it was time to leave Hong Kong to return to London. On the way back we decided to go via Indonesia. I had never visited a country where people of all ages were so keen to play chess. I’d walk down the road holding a board and kids would rush up asking to play. We’d often spend hours just hanging out on street corners with groups of kids passionate to play or learn. Along with the children who showed a fantastic hunger for the game, we often found older men spending afternoons crowded round a board. One evening a few days before I left, I was driving down the street when I spotted someone playing chess with a couple of the local kids. I stopped my bike to ask if I could join in. It transpired he’d also spent the previous six months teaching chess to kids but back home in Melbourne.
The next couple of days weren’t spent almost entirely playing chess or surfing. Half way through a game he turned to me and asked if I thought about my breathing while playing. This was definitely not something I’d ever given consideration to in regards to a game of chess. He pointed out that my breath often became irregular and sped up over the course of a game. He on the other hand made a conscious effort to slow his breaths as he maintained focus. Over the course of the following few months I began to apply this to my chess and found sure enough I started both winning more games and also enjoying the experience even more. I’d been in contact with Ben from Scholastic chess and he’d very kindly offered to let me open up Scholastic Chess London and give me all his teaching materials, use of his logo and everything else relating to the company. Although I was hugely grateful of the extremely kind offer (and did say I’d love to have use of his 18 chapters of training exercises) I felt I wanted to set something up that took influence from my experience with him while also integrating some of what I’d been thinking about in relation to my chess since. Mindful Chess was born. I built a website and started contacting schools. After many many phone calls and even more emails I heard back from a school saying they would like a session once a week for a small group of students. Come September I turned up to find a class of 20 students eager to learn the game. Although I was able to run the sessions alone, I didn’t feel the students were getting enough input and hence decided to find someone else that would be interested in running the sessions with me. Through word of mouth over the next few months I started hearing from other schools asking us to come in to run weekly sessions. I started posting on Facebook groups to find others that were passionate both about chess and the equally important skill of communicating this to children.
After many many informal interviews in coffee shops and trial sessions, I met two other like minded individuals called Lawrence Northall and Sammy Mendell. As well as being passionate about the game, they brought a whole range of teaching ideas to how we could further improve on the speed at which students improved and the pleasure they took from the experience. Over the past two years, each term we have continued to gradually grow, now teaching over 300 students a week across 14 different schools. Along with myself Lawrence and Sammy, there are a team of other passionate chess teachers that have joined us who run many of the weekly sessions. We take an approach to teaching where we look to give the students an element of control over how they learn. Rather than just telling them to do chess drills and games, they get the choice between engaging in competitions within the class, working through our chess training program of puzzles and tactics training exercises or working with one of our coaches in small groups to develop specific areas of their game. We also now create every child their own chess kid account which means they can do additional training exercises at home or play against other students anywhere in the world in a totally safe environment. We are able to track students progress and tailor our teaching accordingly for each individual group we work with. As part of our mission to bring chess to as many students as possible, we have a policy where if parents can’t afford to send their child along, we ask them to pay simply what they can afford, no student is ever turned away.
As of the start of this year we have just started providing weekly sessions to our first two schools outside of London, Westdene Primary in Brighton and Hillcrest Primary School in Bristol. In the coming year we hope to make our teaching available to a number of other schools in both Bristol and other cities, along with starting to run evening sessions for adults that wish to either learn or further their chess skills.
For anyone that would be interested in learning or getting involved in teaching with us then please get in touch! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Instagram – @mindfulchess
Twitter – /mindfulchess
Facebook – /mindfulchess
Jake grew up in North London and following the experience of teaching chess to students in Hong Kong and Kids on the streets in Indonesia, decided to set up Mindful Chess in the UK.