The man from Mensa

2008-08-29 00:00

LAST year I attended a Mensa meeting — as a journalist, rather than a member of the intellectual elite. I came away with less of a handle on intelligence than the impression that everyone likes to feel that they belong somewhere, even if it means feeling slightly superior. And that everyone likes to have fun, especially with people they consider to be “like-minded”.

It was here that I met Desmond Rooplal. The 29-year-old Durban IT administrator with an interest in etymology (as well as astronomy, psychology, mythology, epistemology and philosophy ... ) was one of the few prepared to engage objectively with my observation that the group was predominantly white. I didn’t mean it as a criticism, but a new recruit to the group became quite emotional, defending her right to participate in a society that offered her what life had thus far failed to deliver: bright company and respect for her intelligence.

Fair enough. But my concerns that evening were of a more sociological nature, like how we understand and measure intelligence in a world fraught with educational inequalities and limited opportunities.

Rooplal had most of the answers. He engaged me on the origins and definitions of intelligence, which led (unsurprisingly with Rooplal as I was later to discover) to the topic of chess as a tool for stimulating intelligence, which is what this story is really about.

Over the past year, I’ve been in touch with Rooplal on and off, following his efforts, as a member and deputy chairperson of the Durban Metro Chess Academy (DMCA), to bring chess into disadvantaged schools around the province. Chaired by Bongani Mgaga, who is among Durban’s top five chess players, and supported by eThekwini Municipality, DMCA’s motto is “Push Pawns, Not Drugs!”.

I followed Rooplal one day to Wartburg where I met local Spar manager Kevin Daniel who was keen to support the introduction of chess in local schools. His store has since bought 20 chess sets to be put to use in schools. More recently, Rooplal was called out to meet some parents and teachers in Empangeni who were keen to set up a junior chess team.

Ultimately, Rooplal would like to see chess introduced as an academic subject in primary schools. So committed is he to the benefits of the game that he persuaded American chess teacher David MacEnulty to visit Durban in August last year to share his wisdom with disadvantaged school children.

MacEnulty was the first full-time New York City public school teacher to teach chess as an academic subject. His success with pupils in the disadvantaged South Bronx area inspired the 2005 made-for-TV film called Knights of the South Bronx starring Ted Danson.

While in Durban, MacEnulty also ran a six-hour training workshop at KwaMashu’s Sivananda High School in which he showed chess teachers how to make the game fun, how to give positive feedback and the importance of being patient with young learners.

For Rooplal, the film which fictionalises MacEnulty’s successes illustrates all of the benefits of chess, particularly in poorer contexts, and he uses it as a tool to convince educators and sponsors of the capacity of chess, when properly taught, to enhance not only academic performance but concentration levels, creativity, problem solving and, perhaps most importantly, individual self-esteem.

Another collateral benefit is that chess helps you learn to accept responsibility and lose with dignity. “This is often difficult, even for adults,” says Rooplal. “We encourage pupils to analyse their games, their opponent’s game and understand where they went wrong. If you don’t admit something is wrong, whatever that something is, it will always be a stumbling block.

“Chess is a great leveller. That’s the message we try to send — that chess isn’t just a game for rich children from good schools; but that anyone who applies him or herself can play the game.”

He’s also anxious to show that’s it’s “cool”. “My idea is to get Will Smith (see box) to be a chess ambassador,” says Rooplal. “Role models are obviously important when it comes to appealing to children.” Other high-profile devotees are people such as actor turned politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, and rapper GZA who produced a chess-themed album in 2005 called Muggs vs GZA: Grandmasters. GZA was apparently mentored by Maurice Ashley, a product of the hip-hop generation and the world’s first black grandmaster.

Can chess raise your IQ, I ask Rooplal.

“It can probably improve it,” he says. So if you are at 100 on the IQ range you can probably take that up to 115, but like anything, it depends on the intensity of effort.”

While any mental activity that places strain on the brain will encourage neural pathway development, chess also offers a package of benefits.

But it’s not only about logical reasoning. “That’s the myth about chess. It’s not completely a logical game. Intuition plays an important role as well.”

• The DMCA and the Durban Chess Club are hosting the 2008 uShaka Rapid Chess Championships at uShaka on Sunday starting at 8.30 am. It’s an open tournament and spectators are welcome.

the benefits of chess

The Susan Polgar* Foundation website lists the following benefits:

• development of analytical, synthetic and decision-making skills, which can be transferred to real life;

• engagement in chess research helps children build confidence in their ability to do academic research;

• helps children gain insights into the nature of competition which will help them in any competitive endeavour;

• the development of higher-order thinking skills, analysis of actions and consequences, and visualisation of future possibilities; and

• ability to recognise complex patterns which consequently results in greater success in maths and science.

* Susan Polgar is the “winner of four Women’s World Chess Championships and the first woman in history to break the gender barrier in chess”.

will smith on chess

“My father taught me how to play chess at seven and introduced beautiful concepts that I try to pass on to my kids. The elements and concepts of life are so perfectly illustrated on a chessboard.

“The ability to accurately assess your position is the key to chess, which I also think is the key to life.

“Everything you do in your life is a move. You wake up in the morning ... and you walk out on the street — that’s a move ... Whatever move you’re going to make in your life to be successful, you have to accurately access the next couple of moves — like what’s going to happen if you do this? Because once you’ve made your move, you can’t take it back. The universe is going to respond.”


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