Chess Builds Brains

Chess is one of the best educational games of all time.  Even the most casual player will admit that the game forces you to think critically —  just to stay alive and not look like a fool.  There is no way to simply stroll through even a single move in chess.  You must think creatively and carefully before each move.  And while some may say that kids today are not capable of sitting still for an hour to play a game that has no electric power source, there are millions of kids today proving that assumption wrong.  Kids who play chess will tell you that it’s fun and challenging and they wish more kids would join in with them.

Now, there are other games which require similar thinking skills, but there may not be a better game for sheer educational value.  The number of thoughts per minute is staggering.  Offensive options, defensive trouble-shooting, cause-effect relationships, spatial awareness, calculating numbers, imagination, and creative thinking are just a few of the thought processes that are involved in every move.

It’s an intense game, which is perhaps why it is not the most popular game in America.  It requires (and therefore builds) patience, self-control, and mental discipline.  It requires and builds mental toughness and good manners, especially in the face of defeat.  Since it is a purely mental game, physicality is totally meaningless in chess.  And needless to say, it is not made for television or sponsorships.  So, it may be the most un-American game in the world, and we are the worse for it.

In fact, it is a Russian-dominated game. All the world’s great chess players have been Russians, and for good reason.  “Chess has been part of the curriculum for most Russian schools for over 40 years.  Adolescents were encouraged to play chess at a very early age to increase their problem solving and reasoning skills.”  You have to hand it to the Russians, they picked a good game to master.

A study by Watson-Glaser “appraised the value of chess as a learning tool and showed overwhelmingly “that chess improved critical thinking skills more than the other methods of enrichment.” Included in the study were future problem solving, problem solving with computers, independent study, creative writing and fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons (Milat).

Improves Social Skills
While the pop culture pokes fun at chess players, the truth is that chess is not just for smart kids who can’t play sports.  Chess attracts a very diverse crowd, and that is one of its greatest assets.  Young and old, rich and poor, black and white, boys and girls — play chess and become better friends after a game or two.  “Many students social habits improve when playing chess. The game allows for students of dissimilar backgrounds to integrate with others. Many disadvantaged or special education students are becoming actively involved in chess programs. Chess steers youth away from trouble by keeping them off the streets as well as being a useful learning tool.

Jerome Fishman, Guidance Counselor, Queens, NY says: “I like the aspect of socialization. You get into a friendly, competitive activity where no one gets hurt. Aside from developing cognitive skills, chess develops their social skills. It makes them feel they belong.  The kids become better friends when after the game they analyze possible combinations” (Milat).

Improves Attention-Span
Principal Jo Bruno, Brooklyn, NY: “In chess tournaments the child gets the opportunity of seeing more variety and diversity. There are kids who have more money than they have, but chess is a common denominator. They are all equal on the chessboard. I believe it is connected academically and to the intellectual development of children. I see the kids able to attend to something for more than an hour and a half. I am stunned. Some of them could not attend to things for more than 20 minutes” (Milat).

Increases Responsibility
Chess teaches kids to be responsible for mistakes, and it encourages them to learn from them.  Even seasoned veterans make mistakes often, for the game tends to keep its players humble.  “The player undertakes responsibility. No one else can be responsible. When playing chess, the player has no excuses for his blunders. A teammate didn’t drop a perfect pass or miss a shot. He and only he is responsible” (Kaech).

Builds an Artistic Eye
There is an artistic side to the game of chess.  There is a beauty in the pieces and a visual pattern that changes with each move.  It requires visualization as much as calculation.  “Chess, with its aesthetic appeal and inherent fascination for students of all ages, is catching the attention of educators, who are beginning to realize its academic and social benefits: To the players, the game is like an unfolding drama… The players live through the emotions of an exciting story… The best chess games are works of art. They are the products of original and creative thinking…. The beauty of chess is as compelling and pleasure giving as any other art form. The endless opportunities for creating new combinations in chess are perhaps comparable to painting or music” (Celone).

Better Grades
Kids who play chess get better grades, and it’s not because only academically-successful kids are drawn to chess.  Many school districts with failing schools have instituted chess into their school culture with great success.  “Research shows, there is a strong correlation between learning to play chess and academic achievement. In 2000, a landmark study found that students who received chess instruction scored significantly higher on all measures of academic achievement, including math, spatial analysis, and non-verbal reasoning ability” (Smith and Cage).

Other Benefits
The New York City Schools Chess Program included more than 3,000 inner-city children in more than 100 public schools between 1986 and 1990.  Among a variety of benefits, they concluded that:
* Chess teaches the value of hard work, concentration and commitment.
* Chess instills in young players a sense of self-confidence and self-worth.
* Chess teaches children to try their best to win, while accepting defeat with grace.
* Chess allows girls to compete with boys on a non-threatening, socially acceptable plane.
* Chess helps children make friends more easily because it provides an easy, safe forum for gathering and discussion. (Celone).

Suggestions
1.    Buy a young person a nice chess set.  A quality set that kids use in tournaments costs about $25, and it will last forever.  Click here for an example. If they have their own set, they’ll use it more.  Christmas, Graduation, Bar Mitvah, Birthday…
2.    Teach the basic rules of the game, and let them play with a partner who can coach them through their first games.  Remember, kids love to play adults, especially if they have a chance of winning.
3.    Level the field: Let them play against more experienced players by handicapping the other player (take the queen and rooks away; two moves for one; do-overs allowed)
4.    Consider finding a local chess club, or just start offering to teach other kids and their friends how to play.  Most kids are intimidated by it, but with a little encouragement, they feel great pride in their ability to play such a challenging game.

Works Cited
Celone, Jim.  “Why Chess?” 2001. Web.
Kaech, Randy. “Benefits of Chess for Youth.” 2003. Web.
Milat, Marcel. “The Role of Chess in Modern Education.” Web.
Smith, J. P. and Cage, B. N. “The effects of chess instruction on the mathematics achievements of southern, rural, black secondary students.” 2000.

Author: Andy Kerckhoff

I'm a husband, father, teacher. I'm doing my best, wishing I could do better, and trying to help others to effectively lead kids through early adolescence.

3 thoughts on “Chess Builds Brains”

  1. Wonderful post! For a long time I have known some of the value of chess. Your post reminds (and informs) me why I need to continue to play it with my children. Thanks for such a quality post.

  2. I think that kids’ brain would be used greatly while learning and playing chess. A mental transformation will become evident to kids as they will learn to decide on their own and eventually solve problems on their own. It’s practically an effective medium to be used to kids for the academic growth and improved mentality towards studies.

    http://smartdolphins.net/school-chess-classes/ also supports the same program on chess, you might want to check it out also.

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