Has Harry Potter cast magic on centuries-old game?

Chess champion Max Miller.
Chess champion Max Miller.

Who knows whether Harry Potter was to blame, for weaving his wizardly magic over a nation of young readers and making them interested in chess.

But years after the JK Rowling craze, when a thrilling game of chess was played at Hogwarts in the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, somehow the fascination has stuck and today Northamptonshire boasts hundreds of regular young players and several competitors playing in nationwide, and even international, tournaments.

In an age filled with iPads, Blu-rays, social media and countless other digital distractions, I wondered if I was the only person to be mildly surprised by the enduring fascination of a simple black and white board and a battle of wits.

I met some of Northamptonshire’s young chess stars at Ruskin Junior School in Wellingborough, where they convened during a recent weekend to compete for a place in The Delancey UK Schools’ Chess Challenge.

While there are believed to be at least seven chess clubs in the county, not all of them cater for the development of skills in the under 18s.

ChessPoint, which was set up by Tony Robson in 2007 and now meets on Saturdays from 11am to 4pm (apart from Bank Holiday weekends) at Northampton Academy in Wellingborough Road, Northampton, has both adult players and youngsters under the age of 18 from across the county.

Chairman David Miller said: “Chess has become more popular, possibly because in one of the Harry Potter films, a game of it was played.

“It is more social playing chess than being on a computer. There are team events and there is also the fact that young players can play against older people. And it is good for kids to play chess, there has been a lot in the press saying that it improves children overall.”

He continued: “Fortunately the Government has now discovered that chess is good for children. The more schools that set up clubs, the better.”

David hands me an old magazine article, which lists many of the benefits of chess. Points include the facts that research has linked chess playing with the elevation of IQ, that it teaches children skills in planning ahead and acting on plans, and that it encourages creative thinking in the young.

Chess in schools has been given a boost, with the recent launch of a programme to test the impact the game has on the academic ability of 10-year-old pupils.

The Education Endowment Foundation, a Government-funded charity, last month announced the award of a £689,000 grant to help boost uptake of the game in state primary schools.

The charity Chess in Schools and Communities, which receives no Government funding, also works to introduce chess in inner city schools and communities.

Meanwhile, in this county, some schools have been offering chess club sessions under the guardianship of the Northamptonshire Schools’ Chess Association, which has been going since the 1970s.

The chairman is John Warren, from Wellingborough, who – along with his team – is dedicated to going from school to school teaching chess skills and holding tournaments for young players.

The schools in which he holds sessions include Cedar Road, Blisworth and Kings Heath primaries, Kettering Park Junior and many more.

He said: “I have been doing this for 18 years, I found I had a natural ability to bring the best out in children and I’m quite happy with that. At the moment our county team comprises about 10 different schools.

“Effectively the NSCA organises clubs at county level for under 11s but we do have older players at times as well. We are recognised as the group that organises county chess for juniors.

“We have chess clubs, school teams and individual children. We organise county chess afternoons and, if they are good enough, players will go right up the ladder. We will nominate one person a year for an England trial and if they are good enough they will be chosen. We have four players now playing for England in the under 11s. I wouldn’t say it (chess) is extremely popular but it is limited by the fact we only have a certain number of hours in the day and we can only teach at certain schools. I’m retired so I can go into schools and do that work but we are limited by the pure number of potential volunteers there are.

“If you saw how keen some of the young players are, we have players of six or seven-years-old. Chess helps with thinking skills and planning, it helps in problem solving.”

ChessPoint member nine-year-old Max Miller (David’s son), from Great Billing, is one of the leading lights on the Northamptonshire chess scene, having competed in the national junior squad championships for his age group.

Max, whose triumphs include winning the South of England Chess Championship (under eights), said: “I was three or four when I saw Dad’s chess set and asked him what game it was and he started teaching me.

“When I was six I played my first chess tournament and came first, then I started doing more tournaments. It is a good strategy game and I like strategy games, sometimes it is hard and sometimes easy. I would like to be a professional chess player one day.”

David Collyer, aged 10, from Daventry, is one of the players who competes for Northamptonshire and who has been nominated for the England team.

He said: “I started when I was about sixish but I hardly played at all until I started at ChessPoint when I was eight or nine. It is fun really. At school they don’t play it, but luckily I can come here to play chess. I think it helps me see the patterns in places.”

His father, Adam, said: “I was never that into chess, I just learned a lot from playing David. His mother is Russian and she was the one who took him to ChessPoint. It is a super thing for kids to do as it teaches them to compete and focus on something, a lot of kids could benefit from getting involved with it.”

The NSCA is currently looking for more chess coaches who must have teaching experience and a good knowledge of chess. Training will be provided. Ring John on 01933 678499 or email johnwarrenchess@aol.com

For more information about joining ChessPoint, log on to wwww.northants61.
freeserve.co.uk/chesspointservices.html. The club charges £1 per session and it is currently seeking to attract more members.