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Chess has enjoyed a rich legacy that dates back to the fifth century. In the 20th century, much of the world was captivated by Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, perhaps the two best chess players of all time. When the 1972 TV broadcast of hours-long World Chess Championship matches between Fischer and Boris Spassky was interrupted by coverage of the Democratic National Committee meeting, irate viewers called to protest the programming. After Kasparov battled IBM’s Deep Blue in the 1990s, membership in the U.S. Chess Federation blossomed to 85,000 in 2000 from 53,000.

A survey from polling organization YouGov found that 70 percent of the adult population has played chess at some point in their lives. In addition, the competitive nature of chess appeals to younger players and has led to a vibrant scholastic chess community. Thousands of students regularly show up to local, state and national chess tournaments each year in the United States. And due to the cognitive benefits and educational outcomes of chess, the game has become a common sight in schools, even making its way into standard curriculum.

Chess can attribute some of this popularity to being such an intense, complex test of intellect.

  • Mathematician James Grime estimates that the number of reasonable chess games possible is so large that it’s roughly half the number of atoms in the observable universe.
  • There are an estimated 40 million chess players in the United States. Less than 100 are grandmasters, the highest title awarded by the World Chess Federation.
  • The Oxford Companion to Chess notes that in 1949, B.H. Wood estimated the number of books, magazines and chess columns to be about 20,000. “Since then there has been a steady increase year by year of the number of new chess publications. No one knows how many have been printed,” the book states.

Advantages for Students

  1. Accessibility: Students can enjoy chess without the barriers of other competitive games and sports. Chess offers students and schools a level playing ground with little needed to get started.
  2. Cost: A standard tournament chess set costs less than $10. A chess clock, which is only required for tournament play, costs less than $30. Students can play or complete lessons on a computer or device at no additional cost.
  3. Space: Chess does not require a court or playing field of any kind. A chessboard is not even required; students can play against each other online.
  4. Students with disabilities: Several types of disabilities and impairments do not undermine a student’s ability to play chess. There is no need to physically move a piece, which makes chess accessible to those who struggle with fine motor skills. Braille chessboards are available for those who are visually impaired. Chess can also help students with certain disorders; for instance, a study found chess beneficial for the concentration and focus of students with ADHD.
  5. Ability level: Chess is a simple game to learn. It can be enjoyed without the years of study it requires to become a strong player. All students must do is learn the rules of chess and basic strategies. Some students assume that they must be “smart” to play, but this is not true. Although expert chess players possess significantly high intelligence, the journal Intelligence found that practice is a better predictor of chess skills than intelligence. “There is no other activity that costs so little to organise and that cuts across so many barriers,” international master and chess journalist Malcolm Pein said in The Guardian. “Age, sex, race, religion … they mean nothing in chess. Anyone can enjoy it.”
  6. Cognitive and Educational Benefits: Several studies have analyzed the cognitive and educational benefits that chess offers to students. Parents magazine reviewed results from New York City and Los Angeles schools where students who played chess scored higher on reading and math tests than those who didn’t play the game. A doctoral dissertation found that junior high students who chose to play chess scored higher on psychological tests, including critical and creative thinking, than those who chose activities such as working with computers, a creative writing workshop or playing Dungeons and Dragons. Other experts and anecdotal evidence in Parents magazine pointed to how chess can benefit students behaviorally and for visual memory, attention span and spatial-reasoning ability.

Educational and psychological studies reveal numerous benefits for children who play and study chess. These include benefits to intelligence quotient (IQ); problem-solving skills; reading, memory, language and mathematical abilities; critical, creative and original thinking; decision-making skills; logic; concentration; and the ability to challenge and reach gifted students and students regardless of their natural abilities or socioeconomic backgrounds. In The Spanish Journal of Psychology, students participating in chess rather than soccer or basketball displayed more improvement in cognitive, coping and problem-solving abilities. Even the “socioaffective development of children and adolescents” improved.

Benefits of Chess

Chess and Global Academics: The Push for Chess in Schools

Chess is becoming a part of global curricula. Countries like India, Turkey and Norway implemented chess in schools before Armenia did, but the former Soviet Republic made headlines in 2011 for being the first country to make chess compulsory in schools. The Guardian reports that from the age of 6, all students study chess as a separate subject for two hours each week.

In Spain, the benefits of chess have compelled an unlikely country to approve its implementation in schools. “Introducing chess as a compulsory subject in school is one of the precious few issues that all Spanish political parties seem to agree on,” El País writes. The decision came after the Catalan government endorsed a study finding that chess significantly improves students’ intellect on several levels, as well as improves math and reading scores.

Global initiatives have been successful. When Spain passed legislation, many Catalan schools had already implemented chess with “very satisfactory results,” according to Carme Sayós, spokeswoman for the Catalan Group in Congress. A British charity, Chess in Schools and Communities, is behind attempts to teach chess one hour a week to all primary schoolchildren. The Telegraph reports that the program has implemented chess in 343 primary schools across 56 boroughs, and a recent study polled chess coaches and teachers in 221 of the schools.

Organizations in the United States such as New York City-based Chess-in-the-Schools are dedicated to helping students succeed through chess. Since 1986, Chess-in-the-Schools has helped more than 500,000 students in low-income New York City public schools through chess programs. The U.S. Chess Trust outlines how the program helped students with reading and math.

The Next Move

Schools without a chess program can easily start one. The financial cost is relatively low. The requirements are simply a few chess sets and someone willing to oversee the program.

Teaching children chess does not require a strong background in the game. Free online instructional materials are available, and much can be learned through reviewing games played by students (free software and apps can help analyze the games). Often, a teacher or volunteer heads a chess program. That person can explore opportunities with nearby schools to organize friendly matches. Local tournaments are also a great way for students to enjoy the game.

Educators interested in learning more about how to engage students and enhance their performance in school can explore an online graduate programs in education from Southeastern University. Master’s degree programs and a Doctor of Education degree are available fully online, allowing educators to advance their career while maintaining their current work and personal schedule.