Some Thoughts on the Educational Merits of the Game of Chess

Bobby Fischer Searching for Bobby Fischer

Some Thoughts on the Educational Merits of the Game of Chess

(Phil Shapiro at pshapiro@his.com previously published…)

The movie “Searching for Bobby Fisher” helped make many people more aware about the educational benefits of chess. The following article discusses some of the school-sponsored chess projects currently underway around the country.

Berkeley, California

At more than a few schools around the country chess playing is being promoted as an afterschool activity. One of the most successful afterschool chess projects was launched about eleven years ago by a parent-volunteer in Berkeley, California.

Elizabeth Shaughnessy, a former chess champion, organized an afterschool chess project at her children’s school in Berkeley. Her chess enrichment project has since expanded to 30 other private and public schools in the Berkeley area.

New York City

The American Chess Foundation has also been getting into the game, with their “Chess-In-the-Schools” project. This latter project promotes chess playing “in inner city schools with high populations of at-risk children.”

Teaming up with the Manhattan Chess Club, the American Chess Foundation helps organize tournaments and arrange for chess instructors to visit the New York City schools. Teachers have found that students who become involved with chess develop a much improved attitude to their academics.

The Palm Report

Back in 1990, the American Chess Foundation funded a study to investigate the educational benefits that accrue when inner-city students are introduced to chess. A 37-page study was produced by educational researcher Christine Palm. Copies of this study can be purchased from the Foundation for $2 a piece. (Including postage). A discounted price applies if you’d like to order larger quantities of this study.

Here are a few inspiring quotes from the “Palm Report”:

“The most wonderful thing about chess is the way it transforms people from the inside out,” believes John Kennedy, a NYCHESS teacher who spends several hours each week in New Yorkschools like C.I.S. 166. “Once they’re exposed to the instruction, kids get chess fever. And once they get hooked, their desire to apply themselves soars. The ability to concentrate — really concentrate — takes a quantum leap the minute chess sinks in.” p. 14

“Then too, there are equally dramatic stories of children blessed by good homes and intellectual prowess. Along with the troubled kids, there are students like K.K. Karanja, who at age 15 is a candidate master (the third highest level of proficiency in chess) and the top player in his age group in the United States. In the simultaneous match played last year against World Champion Gary Kasparov at P.S. 132, the Bronx, Karanja managed to draw.” p. 19

“One of our Special Education students, Tracy Elliott, was featured on the PBS series ‘The Mind.’ She was not playing chess when she came to our Special Ed department. When the camera zeroed in on Tracy’s face, what you saw there was hard to describe. There is something about the expression on her face in that film that lets you know you can’t leave her alone. You
have to work with her to help her develop her potential. With chess, it’s so easy to see.” Testimony by Florence Mirin, teacher, C.I.S. 166, Roberto Clemente School. p. 25

“Chess is one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever seen enter the school system. It’s a tragedy the Board of Education can’t do chess throughout the schools.” Testimony by Oscar Shapiro, parent of student in P.S. 9 p. 27

The end of the Palm Report gives citations to articles that have been written about the chess-in-the-schools project. One of the most interesting sounding articles appeared in the June, 1989, issue of Reader’s Digest magazine. The title of this article is: “From Street Kids to Royal Knights.”

The Chess-in-Schools Video

Following the old maxim that “seeing is believing,” the American Chess Foundation has also produced an inspiring short video on the New York chess-in-schools project. This eight minute video is available from the Foundation for $10, postage included.

The video starts off with an interesting quote from Goethe: “Chess is the touchstone of the human intellect,” and then goes on to show live examples of chess-training activities taking place in the New York City schools.

> One teacher in the video comments: “Chess teaches patience, foresight, long-range planning, and the ability to find alternative solutions.” A special education teacher, Nadine Kee, has the following to say about chess’s influence on her special needs students: “When students start playing chess, you can see the [academic] improvement immediately. From the first day when a child learns how to move a pawn, you’ll a difference in their attitude, their behavior, and their
success in school.”

The video ends with students briefly telling what the game of chess means to them. You can’t help be touched when one of the students earnestly says: “Chess, to me, is like music to a musician.”

Educational Literature About Chess

After having viewed the chess-in-schools video and having read the “Palm Report,” I was curious to see what other articles or papers might have been written on this subject. A search through the ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center) database turned up two papers that had in-depth discussions on the educational merits of chess.

The first paper I uncovered is a passionate position paper on the educational merits of chess. Written in 1983 by Oregon junior high principal Ralph L. Hall, the paper contains hauntingly eloquent remarks about the educational value of chess.

I jotted down notes from a few of the more stirring passages:

“Chess requires that individuals become actively involved in a mentally demanding competition; its effects are stimulating, wholesome, and healthy.”

“Chess is a game of ‘quiet intensity.”

“To the players, the game is like an unfolding drama. Tension builds and a crisis is reached which decides whether or not there will be a happy ending. The players live through the emotions of an exciting story.”

“Chess masters subject themselves to much the same kind of discipline as that of great music composers. Success at the highest levels in both art forms comes from: constant practice and study; memorizing; trying new ideas; developing a unique style; holding to an unwavering faith in personal ability; and genius.”

“Chess success is an intellectual achievement appropriate for schools. It belongs in schools because: it is a fascinating game; it can provide a lifetime hobby; it has international appeal; it requires a minimum of resources; and, it demands that participants exercise their best powers of planning, memory, decision-making, judgment, creativity, and concentration. For these reasons alone, all schools should be providing opportunities for the learning and practicing of chess.”

The second article I uncovered was a 1986 paper, “Chess and Education,” by Memphis State University educational researchers Dianne Horgan and David Morgan. Their writings examine chess as a game that helps reveal how expertise develops in the human mind:

“We are interested in the more general question of how expertise develops. The classic expertise literature includes studies of chess. In fact, chess has been called the ‘fruitfly’ of cognitive psychology because of its centrality to our understanding of cognition. Chess has been important in the study of thinking because it pushes human information processing to the limits of their cognitive abilities.” p. 3

These researchers also examine chess playing ability as part of the nature/nurture debate. They were particularly interested in finding whether exceptional chess ability is inherited or learned.

Rather surprisingly, their research revealed that exceptional ability can indeed be learned: “…we found at Auburndale, as well as at other schools, a particular chess coach consistently produces strong players, year after year — even though the specific children move on. In most cases, the parents [of these children] know little or nothing about chess.” p. 5

I chatted on the phone last week with the Foundation and found out that the American Chess Foundation is not a membership organization. However, if you are interested in supporting their exciting work, I imagine they would appreciate monetary contributions.

From what I gather, the mission of the American Chess Foundation is to serve as an information clearinghouse for the promotion of chess. While the Foundation cannot offer financial support to every school that approaches them for help, they said that they would be eager to help provide information to people interested in organizing their own chess-in-the-schools projects.

[The information about the Berkeley, CA, chess in the schools program and the American Chess Foundation's "chess-in-the-schools" project was gleaned from an article by Michael Bassett in the 08/12/93 issue of Education Daily, "Chess Programs Build Self-Esteen, Reading Skills of At-Risk Kids]

Phil Shapiro
Internet: pshapiro@his.com

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