Chess as an Educational Tool

Last summer, in the classroom next to the one in which I taught writing skills, boys and girls learned to play chess. Some were younger than ten. From time to time, I’d look in to see them quietly studying chessboards. Amazing, I thought. These are the same kids who can talk through action movies. I began to think about chess and what skills it requires or might develop.

Research suggests that learning chess has a positive effect on academic achievement. One study cited by the Johns Hopkins University School of Education 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.” Other skills that chess develops are focusing, visualizing, thinking ahead, weighing options, analyzing concretely, thinking abstractly, planning, and juggling multiple considerations simultaneously. The United States Chess Federation’s website provides a bibliography of chess research available from the USCF office.

America’s Foundation for Chess (AF4C) offers a classroom curriculum called First Move for 2nd and 3rd grade that focuses on enhancing the core curriculum as it improves critical thinking and test taking skills. The website provides some sample curriculum pages. For a number of pedagogical reasons, First Move is for 2nd and 3rd graders only, including a desire to foster in girls an early and strong interest in science and math. First Move, unlike school chess clubs that are voluntary and self-selective, is inclusive and supports existing academic, social, and emotional goals. Schools (or districts) pay an annual subscription fee on a per classroom basis for First Move. The remaining costs are provided by AF4C fund raising efforts.

Other options are available for teachers who want to introduce chess in their classrooms. The United States Chess Federation (USCF) website provides the official rules, a glossary and a FAQ, and chess history designed especially for new players. The USCF links to ChessMagnetSchool.com where students can learn the rules of chess and play against a computer. Playing against a computer may be an efficient way to learn chess but doesn’t provide the socializing benefits of chess, or any other board game for that matter.

Many consider chess to be an especially brainy game. One UK study indicated that intelligence plays a role in acquiring chess skill by providing initial success and hence increased motivation to practice, but that in the end no one factor determines chess competency. In other words, chess can be learned and good chess players are simply good at playing chess.

If providing early success can create successful chess players, then perhaps beginning with simplified versions of chess is a way to do so. There are a number of chss variants that use smaller boards: 3×3, 3×4, 4×4, 4×5, 5×5, 5×6, and 6×6. Wikipedia provides and overview of these chess variants. Another website that explains some types of small board chess is chessvariants.org . One configuration of 3×3 chess has been solved, and students can test their skills against a computer by checkmating an opponent in one to fifteen moves.

Small boards can be bought, but they can also be easily made. Complete chess sets can be made with Legos. Small magnetic sets sell for about $5. The Boys Life website has complete instructions for building chessmen with wing nuts, anchor caps, bolts, washers and a few other pieces of specialty hardware for less than $10.

Small board games and games that limit time for moves like blitz chess, lightning chess, sudden death, speed chess, bullet chess, and rapid chess would also be a good way for students to clear mental cobwebs and get ready for the next academic exercise. There’s more than one way to get the blood flowing.

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