Hungary's 'Chess Palace' helps kids to learn and play

Hungary's 'Chess Palace' helps kids to learn and play

BUDAPEST - Ten-year-old Tamas Katona hopes one day to be a chess champion, but in the meantime his love of the game is helping him to master the skills that should help him in school and later life.

The boy lives in Hungary where the world's best female chess player, Judit Polgar, has turned a school into "chess wonderland" catering precisely for students such as Katona.

Polgar and her two sisters - Zsuzsa (Susan) and Zsofia (Sofia) - won the 1988 Chess Olympiad for Hungary's female team, ending Soviet dominance. Judit Polgar joined men's tournaments and became one of the top players in the world, demolishing the myth that chess is the mental sport of smart men.

These days Polgar, who has two children, spends much of her time implementing a special teaching programme called the "Chess Palace" that puts chess thinking at the heart of learning.

"We don't want to raise chess players here, but we'd like to use chess to teach children ... to think logically and be able to use that skill in their everyday lives," Polgar said.

In the Chess Palace - as in Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking-Glass" - the pieces come to life. They have names like Jumpy Horse, Boom Rook, Tiny Pawn and are like close friends who guide the children through difficult school subjects.

The pieces range in size from 1 cm (under half an inch) tall to a meter (three feet) in height. Chairs, walls and carpets also sport chess motifs.

The pieces, whose combinations and moves represent mathematical, linguistic or musical patterns, help children develop their skills in chess and in their school studies while making the learning process a more joyous exercise.

"I love this (chess) very much as it's a game and at the same time it teaches me. It's a game of logic that develops the brain in a great way," Katona said.

A few years ago, the Dezso Lemhenyi school - which apart from its use of chess as a teaching tool serves as a normal, full-time primary school - was struggling for survival.

Now teachers come from other parts of Hungary and from the United States and Britain to see the Chess Palace.

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