The London Chess Conference 2023

When the London Chess Conference was first held in 2013, it was supposed to be a one-off, but it is still going strong 10 years later. What is the secret of its success, and what can we expect at next month’s event?

John Foley

The London Chess Conference, which will place from 17-19 March, is a gathering of some of the leading lights in chess and education from around the world. The venue is the sparkling, newly-built Elm Grove Conference Centre at the University of Roehampton in south-west London. This year the theme of the conference is Chess and STEM. We examine how chess teaching can be adapted to help children to learn about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. There are places available for those wishing to attend the conference. For more details and to register, visit the conference website.

STEM subjects are seen as fundamental to careers in the 21st century, and any methods that assist children to learn are to be welcomed. If STEM are the vital academic academic subjects, then the vital skills that are needed in order to succeed in the future are the 4C’s: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. We expect to see examples of how chess helps children to acquire these skills.

The range of sponsors indicates the importance of the event. The partner sponsors, whose backing ensured the event took place, are the International Chess Federation (FIDE), the European Chess Union (ECU) and Chess in Schools and Communities (CSC). In addition, we have received sponsorship from the English Chess Federation, ChessKid, Chessable, Chess Manager and ChessForEdu. Chess and Bridge has also committed material support. As a result, we are able to secure the attendance of noted international experts to present at the conference.

Elm Grove Conference Centre, University of Roehampton

The conference started in 2013 alongside the London Chess Classic. The two events were co-located at Olympia until 2017. Due to the growth of the events, the conference was held separately at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith in 2018 and 2019. The Covid pandemic forced the conference to be run online in 2020. Finally, we are able to meet in person again at Roehampton. The conference themes reflect the wide range of intersections between chess and the spheres of culture and education.

  • 2013 Chess and Education
  • 2014. Chess and Mathematics
  • 2015 Chess and Society
  • 2016 The Didactics of Chess
  • 2017 Scholastic Chess
  • 2018 The Future of Chess in Education
  • 2019 Chess and Female Empowerment
  • 2020 ChessTech
  • 2023 Chess and STEM

The number of attendees has grown each year, and 140 people registered for the last in-person conference in 2019. These included some of the movers and shakers of the chess education world, including officials from FIDE, ECU and other international representative bodies, officials from national chess federations, politicians and policy makers, managers of chess education projects including Erasmus Plus, organisers of school chess teaching, chess tutors, chess trainers, teachers, chess authors and journalists.

John Foley opening the 2019 conference, with Malcolm Pein sitting behind. Photograph: John Saunders

This year, the format of the conference continues to evolve. We have moved to a hybrid format so that some talks will be presented digitally – either from a remote presenter or in some cases pre-recorded. Pre-recording guarantees that the playout does not suffer from poor internet problems. It is also more useful when the language is not English and subtitles or a voiceover is required.

The opening event of the conference, on the afternoon of Friday 17 March, consists of a seminar on pre-school chess. The first part will comprise digital presentations and the second part will comprise in-person presentations. This seminar has been organised by FIDE and is probably the most expert gathering on early-years chess that has ever taken place.

The conference proper kicks off on the morning of Saturday 18 March with opening speeches by Dana Reizniece-Ozola, the chief executive of FIDE (and former finance minister of Latvia), and Malcom Pein, the chief executive of CSC as well as a board member of the European Chess Union.

FIDE started sponsoring the conference in 2019 and now treats the conference as the world’s premier chess and education conference. It has expanded the scope of the conference with the early-years seminar and has enabled several important chess officials from outside Europe to attend the event. The conference sequence would not have been possible without the continuing support of CSC, which has sponsored the event from the beginning. ECU has been supporting the event since 2016 and we are grateful to Jesper Bergmark Hall, chair of the ECU Education Commission, and Theodoros Tsorbatzoglou. ECU’s general secretary, for their unwavering commitment.

Dana and Malcolm are followed by Jerry Nash, chairman of the FIDE Education Commission, who will focus on how chess develops critical thinking, which is the foundation of the scientific method. Thereafter the day is structured around each of the STEM disciplines, with experts exploring the different ways in which chess engages a specific discipline.

For science, we have Mark Lawrenson from STEM UK, the network of teachers who teach STEM subjects. A physics teacher, he provides insights into how to inculcate children with structured ways of thinking. We will also hear about the Chessable research awards from Alexey Root – the application of chess-related ideas to real-world problems.

Audience at the 2019 conference. Photograph: John Saunders

For technology, Boris Bruhn from Hamburg and a member of the FIDE Education Commission will give an overview of classroom technology used for chess. This includes how to make use of the large interactive screens as well as digital devices held by the pupils. Taking into account all of the software available, this is a large undertaking. Mike Klein (aka FunMasterMike), along with Carey Fan, will give an extensive overview of ChessKid, the leading software platform for learning chess.

For engineering, Rolf Niemann from the science centre at Lund University will show us how to control a robot using coding. A chessboard is a convenient space on which to drive a robot given its built-in co-ordinate system. Chess offers a ready-made domain for the practice of controlled movement rather than having to fabricate an artificial environment. Paolo Sartorelli will describe the new project Chess and Artificial Intelligence which is being funded by Erasmus Plus. Paweł Kacprzak will show us some AI in action – the ability to scan a document or indeed a chessboard and convert that into a digital format where it can link to a chess engine or a video about that very position. It has to be said that chess naturally lends itself to artificial intelligence. This was recognised by Alan Turing, who developed the world’s first chess evaluation algorithm.

For mathematics, Tiago Hirth from Ludus, the maths and games centre, at Lisbon University and Monika Musilek from Haus der Mathematik, the mathematics teacher training institute in Vienna, will talk about their work together investigating how children learn mathematics through play. They will show some strategy games which the participants will have a chance to try.

On Sunday 19 March, the conference looks at broader topics. The first session in the morning will look at how chess and games can help children who are struggling with academic subjects. We will hear from Marion Schöttelndreier, who is an assistant school principal with particular responsibility for science and technology at a secondary school in Lund, Sweden, who will outline some of the notable social benefits of chess. Mikkel Nørgaard from Skoleskak in Denmark will show how chess can in some cases improve mental health. Anastasia Sorokina will talk about the Infinite Chess Project, which finds ways to relate to children with some forms of autism. Brigitta Peszleg from ChessPlus will show some strategy games, such as Halma, which bring joy to all ages and makes learning effortless.

The second session looks at chess teacher training. Currently, there seems to be a lack of interest by schools in the professional accreditation of chess teachers, but the trend is that some formal training will be required, especially as the qualifications endorsed by official chess bodies gain credibility. The speakers include teacher trainers who have taught the basic European course (known as ECU101) and FIDE’s introductory course for teachers known as the Preparation of Teachers course. Other approaches to teacher training will also be covered.

Teaching chess to Year 4s

After lunch, there is an opportunity to hear about innovative chess projects from around the world. The session will be headed by the former education minister of Georgia, Mikheil Chkhenkeli, where chess has been incorporated into the curriculum. In a round-table discussion, we will hear from speakers from Armenia, Germany, England, Romania, North Macedonia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Botswana.

Overall, it is an ambitious conference which, like a good chess move, tries to achieve several objectives at the same time. It brings together people who are genuinely committed to having games available to STEM teachers. People will come away having had their preconceptions blown away by the infectious enthusiasm of chess proponents from around the world.

It has been 10 years since the first London Chess Conference. It was originally the brainchild of Stefan Löffler and Malcolm Pein, and was only supposed to be a one-off. Its longevity is due to the fact that people liked it and want to come back again. It is the unique mix of people that gives the event its magic. The programmes are devised to capture the current state of play in the worlds of chess and education. Yet attendees value more the opportunity to meet others with whom they share a common interest – a community of practitioners.

Networking is done during breaks, in the evening, at side rooms, and even coming and going to the airport. New projects are hatched and collaborations begun. We can point to several major projects and methods which would not have occurred had it not been for the London Chess Conference. Ultimately the success of the conference is due to the perception and belief that we need to keep trying for the benefit of children everywhere so that they will become thinkers of the future.

It takes a lot of work to construct a professional event. I am proud that it is still running after 10 years and has achieved a measure of international recognition. Many people are involved in making it happen. This year, recognition for their contributions is due to Brigitta Peszleg, Leila Raivio, Rita Atkins, Kate Cooke, Etienne Mensch, Karel van Delft, John Upham and Stefan Löffler.

The keen-eyed reader will notice that the London Chess Conference is organised by ChessPlus Limited. This is the name of the chess consultancy which provides training for chess teachers. The pedagogical approach condenses many years of experience from chess teachers across Europe to integrate chess into the educational framework. ChessPlus runs a programme of courses comprising The Smart Method to Teach Chess, Chess and Mathematics, Chess and Logic, Chess and Critical Thinking and so on.

John Foley is director of the London Chess Conference