Yes2Chess ... with Felix Magath

by Patrick Goldsworthy
3/10/2014 – Two weeks ago, as part of the "Yes2Chess" scholastic chess initiative, patron Felix Magath attended a discussion panel evening at a prominent location in Hamburg. Representatives from the fields of sports, education, politics and business talked about the further development of chess in schools in Hamburg. Afterwards, Felix Magath explained why he had chosen not to go to Hamburger SV.

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Recently, one hasn’t been able to move about in Hamburg for the sheer number of chess-related events. Only two weeks ago, just one week prior to the largest scholastic tournament in Europe, the Alsterufer tournament, numerous representatives from the fields of sports, education, politics and business assembled at a Yes2Chess discussion panel event on the development of scholastic chess with Felix Magath, the initiative’s new patron, who is incidentally the new manager of Premier League team Fulham FC (and former manager of Bayern Munich) and who had only just turned down Hamburger SV.

If you are not up to speed on Yes2Chess, it is the name of a scholastic chess initiative brought to life in Germany by the German Chess Federation, Barclaycard and ChessBase. In other countries, the initiative is being developed by the UK charity Chess in Schools and Communities, Barclaycard and ChessBase. Yes2Chess is an internet-based tournament experience for schoolchildren that offers pupils the opportunity to play chess online with children from other countries. The innovative event will see the participation of primary/elementary schools from eight countries: UK, Germany, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and the USA. Between now and July 2014, schools will compete for the grand prize of an all-expenses paid trip to London for the finals day. One or more schools from each country will be invited to London, with a whole host of prizes for schools that reach the runner up stages.

The significance of this idea is not to be underestimated, and spanning 8 countries, could help see chess become a permanent fixture of the school curriculum in more than one nation.

As well as supporting the Yes2Chess initiative, Barclaycard is also the main sponsor of this year’s Alsterufer tournament. The bank’s German office is located in Hamburg, and has received many awards for its contributions to social projects. On hand from Barclays was Carsten Höltkemeyer, who set up the program after being inspired by Alsterufer tournament – 2600 schoolchildren shaking hands, and then silently concentrating on their games made an impression, and showed him the massive impact the game can have on youngsters. This led him to found “Yes2Chess” in cooperation with ChessBase and the DSB.

Carsten Höltkemeyer

Heated discussion about introducing chess into schools with local education officials

Discussions at the event covered chess and its scholastic implementation in all its facets, and cited several studies that had shown that chess lessons help to promote a wide range of skills in children. These included improvements in subjects such as maths as well as improvements on more general areas, such as behavior. Even so, a member of the panel from the German Education Authority was still somewhat skeptical as to the rollout of chess lessons in all schools, particularly “because we are concerned that the children could be overworked by adding more mandatory commitments”, while Björn Lengwenus, a school director in Hamburg who has contributed a great deal to scholastic chess in Germany expressed his desire to see dedicated contacts within the Education Authority for the introduction of chess lessons.

Also present was Prof. Robert von Weizsäcker, who explained correspondence chess to the non-playing members of the audience.

Prof. Robert von Weizsäcker

He was taught chess by his father – and chess played an important role in the von Weizsäcker family – “but he taught me badly. Whenever I lost, I was never told why”. Initaitives like Yes2Chess are a step in the right direction in showing pupils how to learn from defeats at the board – or setbacks in real life.

Obviously, the star guest of the evening was the new patron himself, Felix Magath – and football fans will certainly recognize him!

The man himself - Felix Magath

Born in Franconia in Southern Germany, Felix Magath has close ties to Hamburg and to chess. In his days as an active player at Hamburger SV, he had a long period on the bench as the result of an injury, and followed the chess world championship between Karpov and Korchnoi to pass the time. Magath was impressed by the commentary, and decided to take up lessons with Gisbert Jacoby, a chess coach from Hamburg.

“I was 24,” he explained, “and unfortunately just slightly too old to learn to play chess successfully. I was often at my coach’s house, and played against his son – I didn’t stand much of a chance.” Nevertheless, he didn’t let that frustrate him, it was more for practical reasons that he didn’t pursue chess more actively: “I joined Hamburg Chess Club, but the club nights were Tuesday and Friday. On Tuesdays we always had physical training, and I would travel straight from there to the club - but it was hard to concentrate on an empty stomach. On Fridays I was often at the training camp or already on my way to away fixtures.”

Moving on, he explained why he is so behind this initiative and talked about his own chess beginnings and his hopes for the future:

“I have been a great fan of chess for over 35 years, and would like to get young people into the game – something which Yes2Chess is ideally suited to. Pupils of all ages are able to take part in an international chess tournament, learn new skills, test themselves in the rigors of tournament competition, and have a great deal of fun with their friends.

I myself have transferred a great deal of valuable knowledge from chess to football, including the notion that every move has a deeper meaning, for example, or that every move should, as far as possible, pose the opponent problems. In football, that means reducing the role of chance or increasing the tempo decisively while remaining in control.

Chess teaches you that thinking strategically is fun, and promotes the development of children and young peoples’ social abilities, which is why I would like to see as many schoolchildren taking advantage of the Yes2Chess initiative as possible.”

Indeed, Felix Magath is a chess enthusiast who developed his interest for chess during the 1978 World Championship, while he was suffering from a long illness. In 1985 he even played in a simultaneous exhibition against Garry Kasparov.

A historic photo of Garry Kasparov and Felix Magath together in June 1985 – Kasparov had visited the German magazine Der Spiegel for an interview during a match against Robert Hübner.

When asked about the parallels between chess and football, he responded by saying that “occupying the centre”, “playing where the opponent is weak” and the concept of “initiative” were ideas that he had tried to introduce to his players as a trainer – but the young millionaires of the football elite were not all too interested in getting better.

Magath explaining the difference between chess players and football players

A scholastic chess tournament was held just prior to the start of the panel discussion – and it received a great deal more media coverage than is usual for chess tournaments – members of the press and several camera crews, who had really come to see Magath, had already arrived, and got filming.

Even though football wasn’t the evening’s topic, there was no escaping it. A raft of film crews had arrived to find out about the state of negotiations between Magath and parts of Hamburger SV with regard to his possible role at the club. “If the managing board, members of the supervisory board and the HSV Plus initiative are against me, then I can’t achieve anything there”. After this question, which marked the end of discussions about chess in schools, a media scrum formed around the trainer, and he gave a few more statements for the cameras.

The media scrum surrounding Magath

Finally talking to the camera crews

Of course, it wouldn’t have been an event discussing the impact of chess on schoolchildren without a few schoolchildren in attendance, and in the audience, some of them took part in the discussion too. 

A presenter asked a pupil what he thought was the best thing about chess – “Winning!” came the reply – much to the mirth of the audience.

The Yes2Chess initiative is going strong, and indeed, the future popularity of chess is dependent on this type of event – combining associations with people from all walks of life with the message the chess can make a positive impact on young lives everywhere.

 Tournament victory – lifting the trophy for chess in schools.

How to get involved

If Yes2Chess sounds like something your students would enjoy, here’s all they need to do to be a part of it:

  1. Create a chess team made up of five people
  2. Ask their teacher to register the team – click here to register.

It’s that simple! If you have any questions about Yes2Chess you might find this FAQ section useful. Who knows…one of your students may be a Grandmaster in the making! You can find more information in our recent report on Yes2Chess here - or alternatively, you can visit the Yes2Chess website at