Relationship Between Chess, Memory and Self-Esteem by Dr. Robert Ferguson

Chess Persistence of Memory Salvador Dali


Several have surmised that chess not only demands the attribute of memory but also develops it.

John Artise in Chess and Education writes, Visual stimuli tend to improve memory more than any other stimuli, chess is definitely an excellent memory exerciser the effects of which are transferable to other subjects where memory is necessary.

According to a two-year study conducted in Kishinev under the management of N.F. Talisina, grades for young students taking part in the chess experiment have gone up in all subjects.

Teachers noted improvement in memory, better organizational skills, and for many increased fantasy and imagination (Education Ministry of the Moldavian Republic, 1985).

Development of memory was also claimed in the Venezuela chess program (FIDE Report, 1984, p. 74), which is reviewed in the thinking section; however, no evidence of statistical significance was provided.

My third study during the 1987-88 school year dealt with both memory and reasoning skills. It is reviewed in the Relationship between Chess and Thinking section.


While researching the effects of chess, I found an intriguing dissertation written by Harry Milburn Turner in 1971. Entitled An Experiment to Alter Achievement Motivation in Low-Achieving Male Adolescents by Teaching the Game of Chess, Turner’s research attempts to use chess as a tool to motivate low academic ninth grade boys.

From a rural Georgia junior high school, 66 subjects were identified from a ninth grade class of 403 as underachieving males with no history of failure or acceleration.

The subjects were not assessed as retarded or emotionally disturbed. The boys academic average for the previous semester was 72 percent or below, and their reading achievement was below the sixth grade level. Sixty of these low achievers were randomly assigned to participate in a teaching experiment. Ninety-two percent of the subjects were African-Americans in a school population which was 70% black.

The problem was identified as a need to increase success experiences of these boys in order to increase attitudinal changes toward intellectual tasks. It was hypothesized that a positive relationship would exist between the acquisition of a success experience (chess playing skill plus social reinforcement and achievement motivation operationally defined as self-reported changes in attitudes toward achievement in an academic setting.)

The treatment was six weeks of small group instruction in playing chess, using mastery teaching techniques, and monetary reinforcement. The dependent variables were positive changes in self-reported attitudes conducive to achievement in school.

These were measured by two self-report instruments known to be positively correlated to achievement in school: the Brookover Self-Concept of Ability Scales (SCA, 1962) and the Childhood Attitude Inventory for Problem Solving (CAPS by Covington and Crutchfield, 1968).

Analysis was accomplished by using analysis of variance and analysis of covariance with a Solomon 4-group experimental design (Campbell & Stanley, 1965).

The hypothesis was not fully supported by the data; however, the results were significant at the .01 level on the SCA measure. The treatment was considered effective in maintaining interest, imparting a skill, and generating a feeling of success. Students expressed positive attitudes toward the game, demonstrated proficiency, and 94% of the participants continued to play chess beyond the experiment.

The conclusion by Dr. Turner was that six weeks was insufficient to affect significant attitudinal changes toward academic achievement by the method employed.

Other positive chess influences were noted in the Bergen County special education students, who began participating in a chess program in 1983 under the supervision of Carol Ruderman. In the 1986-87 school year, 125 students in nine schools participated.

Some of the chess classes were held during regular school hours while others were scheduled after school. Most of the students were in grades 4 through 7. According to Carol Ruderman, the program coordinator, nearly all of the pupils (many of whom had adjustment problems and difficulty concentrating) showed a marked improvement in self-concept, concentration, and behavior.

No attempt was made to quantitatively measure the effect of the chess program, which consisted of thirteen lessons plus playing time (Ruderman, Can Chess Improve Thinking, Social and Organizational Skill in Learning Disabled Students? 1987).

A study treating students with similar difficulties, The Effect of Learning to Play Chess on Cognitive, Perceptual, and Emotional Development in Children, was done in Brooklyn, New York by Dr. Steven Fried and Dr. Norman Ginsburg (1989).

The subjects were 30 fourth and fifth grade students who were considered to be mildly delayed in their academic skills.

The subjects were randomly assigned in equal numbers to one of three treatment conditions, namely, a chess instruction group, a counseling group, or a no-contact group. There were 10 subjects in each group.

After the 18 week period, all 30 subjects were administered three tests: the picture completion subtest of the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children Revised, a traditionally recognized, valid and reliable indicator of visual awareness to detail; the block design subtest of the same test,  a test which measures spatial-relations skills; and a test called the Survey of School Attitudes measuring school attitude.

Subjects had 36 meetings during lunch periods over eighteen weeks.

This study and Turner’s research had the shortest duration of the studies reviewed. In addition, the chess lessons were based on Pawn and Queen & In Between, which is a rather slow-moving program that requires a dozen lessons before a student has been exposed to how all the pieces move.

In the pretest, the standard one way analysis of variance test revealed no significant differences between the chess, counseling, and no-contact control groups on any of the dependent variables: picture completion, block design, and Survey of School Attitudes.

Although the primary hypothesis that the chess group would score significantly better than the counseling and the no-contact control group on each of the three tasks was not supported, a trend in the predicted direction was obtained on the picture completion task.

A significant difference was found in the chess group on the Survey of School Attitudes (p<.05).

Another program similar to Rudermans, Utilizing Chess to Promote Self-Esteem in Perceptually Impaired Students, (Levy, 1987) is a part of the curriculum that has been used since 1981 in Bill Levy’s self-contained class of perceptually-impaired sixth, seventh, and eighth grade pupils in Hopatcong Middle School, Hopatcong, New Jersey.

The three components of this program are: 1) students are taught chess, 2) chess-related packets are distributed to students during the year, and 3) ten additional chess activities are used throughout the year.

The purpose of Levy’s program is to develop learning disabled students self-esteem and confidence.

Students were given repeated opportunities in their self-contained classroom to demonstrate that they could achieve success in critical thinking activities. They also joined the school chess club.

In the 1986-87 school year, Levy decided to make a more formal assessment of the value of his program by using pre and posttests to measure gains. He used the Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale and The Way I Feel About Myself.

The instruments were administered in September 1986 and again in June 1987. In addition, another teacher assessed students self-concept at the beginning and the end of the year using E.L. McDaniels Inferred Self-Concept Scale.

The raw scores on both tests showed improvement in individual and class self-esteem. Thirteen of the fourteen students involved showed improvement. Progress was also shown after one year in critical thinking, socialization, and academic achievement.

Strong evidence exists among the studies by Turner, Ruderman, Fried, Ginsburg, and Levy for supporting chess programs to develop self-esteem, but the emphasis in my studies deals more with Levy’s finding that chess improves thinking skills.

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