Thursday, February 6, 2014
University of Haifa launches chess research project
By Sarah Carnvek
courtesy of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs
The University of Haifa, in collaboration with world-ranked Israeli chess champion Boris Gelfand, has announced a new research initiative that will study how playing chess can contribute to social and scientific development.
“This initiative is introducing chess and the disciplines involved in the game’s development into the academic world as never before,” says Vice President and Dean of Research Prof. Michal Yerushalmy.
“Through advanced studies in the University’s Department of Computer Sciences and other innovative facilities, and with the ongoing guidance of Grandmaster Boris Gelfand, the program will provide an opportunity to achieve breakthrough research and social outreach in a field that has not yet been fully explored.”
The initiative will examine the impact of chess on students’ math skills, language acquisition and other skills.
The program will include research on the connection between chess and cognitive enhancement; develop the first Hebrew-language educational software program for teaching chess in schools and kindergartens; and establish an international program for training chess instructors and coaches.
“I am sure this will make our society better -- I know leading intellectual professionals who succeeded thanks to their playing chess in school and continued playing alongside their professional development,” said Gelfand.
At the 2012 World Chess Championship in Russia, Gelfand [narrowly lost] to Viswanathan Anand of India. "Thanks to Gelfand's achievements, interest in chess in Israel grew dramatically," says Shay Bushinsky, who developed the software program to be used in the project.
Bushinsky was given the task of building a blueprint for teaching chess in the classroom. "It's the first time an Israeli academic institution is taking upon itself a scientific research project focused on chess," says Bushinsky, a University of Haifa researcher and chess software developer who is best known for co-authoring the award-winning computer chess programs Junior and Deep Junior.
“I am honored that the University of Haifa has decided to develop studies connected to chess and I do believe that through these studies we can help children and people of all ages develop their interest and play chess," said Gelfand.
Bushinsky notes that it is widely believed that chess helps everyone – young and old – with cognitive skills.
"For the young, we believe chess is an excellent vehicle for promoting many skills, namely linguistic and mathematical ones. With older [people], it's known to be a preserver of cognitive skills. This is empirical knowledge that we're trying to prove scientifically," says Bushinsky, who, together with University of Haifa Vice President for External Relations Amos Gaver, came up with the idea for the new project.
While there have been many international research projects on the benefits of chess, Bushinsky says the Haifa study stands out mainly because its testing ground is rich in high-quality chess players. He points to the wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s as the reason Israel's chess scene today includes many strong chess players and coaches.
"We are fortunate to have a significant proportion of the population that knows and plays chess. We have a broad sample that will help us ascertain aspects of this study," he explains. "We also have very good research tools as far as computer science is concerned, trainers and people who are actively involved in chess professionally."
Bushinsky says the study can also help groom a new generation of Israeli players.
"Israel is blessed with many elite chess players and there's a fear that these skills are going to vanish. We want to help facilitate and preserve these skills in the realm of academia and build a framework for professional chess training," he says.
Prior to Gelfand, Israeli chess players have won many international contests but, because there has been little investment in this field, "all these achievements are endangered," says Bushinsky. "There's not a next generation that you could foresee repeating those achievements."
The educational software program for chess instruction was written in Hebrew. But Bushinsky says it's clear that it will eventually be translated into all languages. "Around the world, there's a growing interest in chess as a vehicle for improving studies and disciplines of research in many fields. It's only natural that this will draw interest outside of Israel," he says.
Moreover, the University of Haifa’s Grandmaster Chess Research Program will initiate and take part in multiplatform collaborations with international experts and grandmasters to explore the multidisciplinary aspects of chess – including the scientific, cognitive, political, cultural and historical.