Chess: Ancient Game, Modern Learning Tool

Chess Philosophy

by Tim Hanke and Beatriz Marinello

In The Morals of Chess, Benjamin Franklin wrote:

The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of Chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effect of prudence, or the want of it.

Chess has fascinated educators for generations as a pure intellectual activity that is not culture-bound. As a cross-cultural activity that appeals to people of all ages and both sexes, chess has the potential to be used in after-school programs, social clubs, senior centers?wherever people come together for education or recreation.

These days, chess is even being integrated into some school curricula: in the New Jersey public schools, in the Canadian Province of Quebec, and in a growing number of university campuses such as the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Both of these universities offer academic scholarships to chessplayers, and UTD offers a graduate certificate program called “Chess in Education.”

Chess is versatile

Chess is interesting from many perspectives. It engages powers of reasoning, including calculation and visual-spatial reasoning, which is why chess has been such a popular object of study for scientists in the field of computer-based artificial intelligence. Chess also has been shown in studies to be an effective practical tool for teaching children to concentrate on a task?an important skill that often needs development. Studies in K?12 classrooms have shown a correlation between chess instruction and an increase in reading and other cognitive skills.

We must not forget that chess is also a game: a fun, competitive activity. Several non-scientific anecdotal reports in the media indicate that teaching chess to children, especially children in predominantly minority school districts, can increase the children?s self-confidence and self-esteem, leading to a general increase in the children?s overall school performance. Bob Cotter, an elementary school teacher in Indianapolis, took his team of inner-city kids to a national chess tournament. He reported that “After we won, the kids met the President, they traveled to Japan, and received all sorts of recognition.”1

A vignette

In an after-school chess program taught at the middle school level by one of the authors, one of the coolest and most rational chessplayers was a slim, self-contained girl about eleven years old, named Bernadette.
As in most chess classes and practically all chess tournaments, a large majority of the players were male. The chessplaying style of many of the boys was best described as rash optimism: they would play aggressive moves without thinking for long about the possible consequences, and hope for the best. The boys tended to “trash-talk” during their games, ridiculing the opponent and boasting about their own prospects.
But Bernadette thought before she moved. Watching her play, it was evident that she tried to work out a plan for her game. During her games she sat quietly, hardly ever speaking, except occasionally to express chagrin if something went wrong on the board. At the end of this article, we will return to Bernadette.


Chess teaches useful life skills

One or two studies suggest that chess skills are not transferable to tasks outside of chess, but these studies are narrowly defined. It is clear that we have few opportunities to play “king takes bishop” in our daily lives, and admittedly chess skill in itself does not automatically translate into financial rewards (except in chess tournaments!). Rather, as Benjamin Franklin wrote, chess is valuable because of the qualities of mind it promotes.

Here is a partial list of benefits that chess offers to educators and students:

Chess helps kids improve their concentration.

As a competitive activity, chess is very goal-oriented and rooted in the here-and-now. As such, it forces the player to pay attention and focus the mind. Children who learn to play chess have been observed to carry over improved habits of concentration to other activities. Beckie Levatino, mother of Elian, said, “Elian was having some problems in his Montessori school. I went to observe . . . and saw that he rushed through his activities, trying always to be the first one to finish. . . . We feel chess has helped him immeasurably, especially in learning how to slow down and concentrate on one thing.”2

Chess helps kids improve their academic performance.

For reasons not perfectly understood, children who are taught chess have been observed to raise their test scores in reading and math. Perhaps this is partly due to enhanced concentration ability. Also, chess has a strong element of visual-spatial reasoning, which relates to mathematics performance. “For young students, an independent study in Pennsylvania showed that those involved in chess classes improved their standardized test results by 17.3%, compared with only 4.56% for students participating in other activities.”3


Chess teaches kids to appreciate cause-and-effect and to develop a variety of reasoning skills.

Chess offers immediate feedback on the quality of decision making, in a relatively innocuous setting. Kingdoms may topple on the chessboard, but the players risk only a temporary blow to the ego! Math teacher and chess-club sponsor Jan Brandt, a Richmond, Virginia, mother of four, describes chess as, “probably the best game there is for developing logical, precise thinking.” Pete Shaw, a computer science teacher, has taught hundreds of kids in Pulaski, Virginia, to play chess. “It?s like turning on switches in their heads. You feel as though you can watch the brain working through a window. The game demands both inductive and deductive reasoning. You see the kid looking at a problem, breaking it down, and putting it back together. The process involves recall, analysis, judgment and abstract reasoning.”4

Chess helps kids become more self-confident.

Kids who learn to play chess gain confidence as they feel themselves gaining more control over the game environment. Confidence, as educators know, is the most transferable skill of all! According to Jeffrey Chesin, who teaches inner-city kids in Philadelphia, children do not have to be particularly bright to enjoy chess. “The majority of the kids I work with would be considered ?average.? Some are below average. But they get interested, and they work at it. Determination is definitely a factor.” Bob Cotter, the Indianapolis teacher, believes playing chess has helped his kids not only academically but socially: “For one thing, they see it doesn?t matter where you come from; if you set a goal and never lose sight of it, you can attain it.”5

Chess offers an intellectual model for developing expertise in any activity.

Advanced research suggests that chess expertise is acquired in two ways: (1) building up a database of knowledge; and (2) developing analytic skills. In Chessplayers? Thinking Revisited, Fernand Gobet argues for further research in this important realm, writing, “Even though each domain of expertise may have idiosyncratic properties, research on chess may help identify some of the potential conditions under which search, pattern recognition, or some combination of both, may be the best way to cope with the complexities of the environment.”

A vignette revisited

What about Bernadette, the 11-year-old girl who played chess with a coolness beyond her years? For the last session of the eight-week chess class, we organized students into two-person teams for a dramatic chess game played with giant pieces on a chessboard inlaid on the auditorium floor. Each two-person team took turns making their side?s moves, sharing the decision-making. Bernadette and her partner (another girl) could easily have become frustrated when their careful planning was thwarted by other teammates? decisions. Their side, “White,” lost many pieces and a victory by “Black” looked inevitable. However, the girls remained careful and attentive players, and did not despair. When their final turn came, they found an unlikely checkmate to steal the victory from their opponents.

Article reprinted from Connect (Vol.17 No.2, November/December, 2003)

1,2,4, and 5. The quotations were provided by Ann Graham in :”Chess Makes Kid Smart.”
3. Marcel Milat (2001). “The Role of Chess in Modern Education.” May be found on the Web CLICK HERE

Franklin, Benjamin. “The Morals of Chess.” On the Web CLICK HERE.

Copyright 2003 by Synergy Learning International, Inc. All rights reserved.

Tim Hanke – Tim was Vice President of Finance of the U.S. Chess Federation, author of many articles about chess, and has taught chess to children in after-school programs.
List all articles by Tim Hanke

Beatriz Marinello – Beatriz was the first woman President of the U.S. Chess Federation, a chess master, and a leading chess teacher of children.
List all articles by Beatriz Marinello

Chess: Ancient Game, Modern Learning Tool

Leave a Reply