The game of chess has intrigued the human mind since its invention 1400 years ago in India, Persia, or China. The 8 x 8 board that was used for other games was then adopted to become the domain on which armies were positioned for the first time to provide this battlefield of beauty, art, and sport (McCrary Chess History 11) . Both young and old play in the park, in coffee houses, in tournament halls, and recently in the United States, in the classroom.
Scholastic chess' increasing success is due in part to the recognition of its cognitive benefits. Shiv Gaglani found that students experience “a significant increase in pattern recognition, divergent thinking, and logical reasoning” (qtd. in McCrary Chess News 43), and Dr. Stuart Margulies observed improvement in reading scores (qtd. in Welcome). These results are reinforced when children engage in chess for the simple enjoyment of competition and socialization with their peers (and the satisfaction of winning games against people several times their own age!) Because chess provides these cognitive benefits along with a variety of social ones, I think that it is important to establish chess as part of the early elementary school curriculum.
There are numerous chess programs in the United States. Some are after-school clubs; others are integrated into the curriculum. Many people are familiar with chess clubs but are not familiar with the teaching and use of chess in the classroom. Because I will argue for the promotion of this latter approach, I would like to highlight three such programs: Chess-in-the-Schools (New York City), the Burnsville School District Chess Program (Minnesota), and the Seattle Chess Program (Washington State).
Chess-in-the-Schools is a 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit organization that started in 1986 by teaching chess to classes in Manhattan, Harlem, and the Bronx. They now reach 36,000 students in all five New York boroughs (Welcome). The average student starts in the second grade, although occasionally kindergarteners or first graders participate. Chess-in-the-Schools’ mission is to develop critical thinking skills, build self-esteem, teach discipline, foster positive social skills, motivate academic achievement, and empower children to succeed through the use of chess (Welcome). The teachers instruct with a combination of lecture, hands-on activity, and free play. They provide each student with a chess set to bring home at the end of the semester (Baron). (This last part reminds me of my own experience teaching chess. The other chess teacher and I provided six sets to the last semester’s group of children. We asked them to teach a friend or family member how to play over the summer.)
Master Eduard Zelkind started teaching chess to students of a mixture of ages in the Burnsville School district in 1987. Later he decided to work strictly with fourth graders because:
In the program's first year, Zelkind taught second- through sixth-graders, but found the fourth-grade classes picked up the game best. Some younger children weren't mature enough, he said, and many older ones thought they were too cool. (Oseid)
The America's Foundation for Chess supports both the Seattle Chess program and the United States Chess Championship which will be held in Seattle from 2000 to 2010. 1,200 students from kindergarten to eighth grade have benefited by learning chess as it is integrated into their curriculum (America's Foundation).
I will share more about this program. However, I first want to note a common thread among these three. In each case, the school districts, foundations, and chess teachers have partnered to provide funding and direction. This is no doubt one of the critical factors in the ongoing success. It is necessary for these groups to work together to bring this specialized skill into the classroom.
As a parent, I have personal interest in understanding these dynamics. My daughter’s own elementary school is one of the Minneapolis schools which had an aggregate below average score on standardized reading tests. The state shared detailed demographic information to understand which particular groups of students had the most difficulty (Ellis). When I was researching this topic and read this news, I saw a connection between the need for improvement and the results of a study by Dr. Stuart Margulies. He noted that students who had initial low or average scores on national reading tests but received chess training had markedly increased scores and even outperformed the average student in the country when retested years later. His reasons for the relationship is that “both chess and reading involve processes of decoding, thinking, comprehending, and analyzing—all higher order skills, ” which are both decision-making activities (qtd. in Welcome).
Although I do not see chess as a panacea for raising reading scores, I think it is one way -- and an inexpensive and fun way at that -- to help individuals succeed. Of course, not every child is going to enjoy chess enough that they will receive the benefits of it. However, because there are already many scholastic chess players and because research has demonstrated the positive relationship between studying chess and an increase in cognitive benefits, it is worthwhile to further investigate how to develop chess as part of the curriculum.
In order to get a better understanding of what factors have led to the success of chess programs, I sent a survey (Appendix A) to a number of interested individuals. I would like to thank all of those who responded by completing the survey and presenting other valuable information:
Jack Mangan, a chess coach at the Field School in Minnesota
Russell Erickson, a chess coach in the Edina and Bloomington school districts in Minnesota
Heather Ramsey, scholastic director at the America's Foundation for Chess
Ella Baron, field supervisor at Chess-in-the-Schools
They had many interesting observations. Mangan has taught children as young as kindergarten, but said that between third and fourth grades, children slow down and process the game more deeply. He has coached many successful teams that have gone on to play in state and national events. He notes that his teams are close-knit multi-cultural and multi-racial groups.
Erickson has seen great chess talent in children as young as kindergarten and first grade. The children who had the most success at chess played from three to six consecutive years. However, parents who were part of the chess executive board that he established noticed difficulty with retaining girls compared to boys.
Ramsey said that chess was being introduced to students from kindergarten to eighth grade as part of the curriculum in Seattle area schools. She found that the period from kindergarten through third grade is the ideal time. She noted that girls can be reached before the decline in interest in math and science begins. Similar to Zelkind’s observation, “Chess is still cool.” If she had to make a choice for two grades, she would make it second and third grades, a point in time where game play is an important part of learning (Ramsey Interview). She proposed a curriculum which teaches the basics of chess to that age group and that ties chess to other subject areas as economics, geography, and geometry (Ramsey 64 Square Solution).
Besides what Baron shared earlier regarding the Chess-in-the-Schools program, she also said that they are working on deepening the program, so that instead of teaching just one day per week per school, they will be teaching twice per week. Offering more thorough instruction is an important step in generating enthusiasm. Baron noted that second to fourth graders had the most energy for chess, but after that many students’ interest lagged, especially girls.
I value the observations made by the chess coaches and those involved with establishing chess as part of the curriculum. These help to illustrate the variation in time when children first learn chess, when they begin to develop an appreciation, and when that interest dampens. I also find their contributions important in understanding the strategies necessary to make chess available to the widest number of students. When I was in elementary school, a chess club was not available. In high school, the club consisted of a small number of individuals, probably between one and two dozen students. That is certainly small in comparison to the total number of children who could benefit from studying chess.
In order to reach a great number, the second or third grade is the optimum time to introduce chess; this makes the best of the trade-off between intellectual maturity and social acceptance. I also think that constructing relationships between chess and other subject areas is extremely important, as it helps to facilitate the teacher’s role of balancing all the subject areas in a school day. Without this, attempting to add chess as an additional, stand-alone requirement could be stressful. Ramsey’s goal is not to create a nation of budding grandmasters, but it is to blend the logic and structure of the game to complement other areas of study.
However, there are always children who may have their interest piqued earlier, and it would be a shame not to encourage that. For this, it is also necessary to have a network of coaching available. This will help those who have demonstrated early chess ability, as well as provide an outlet for those who took it as part of the curriculum and have the determination and love of the game to continue studying it.
I think that the value of elementary education is not only to develop proficiency in basic skills such as math and reading, but also to help children understand who they are as individuals. One of the ways that children learn this is through play. Play is an important part of life in that it resonates in a different way than other pursuits. I think because children have a natural inclination towards play, making chess available to all young people is valuable. It may even encourage a trend for some young women to stay involved in math and science. That may sound like a tall order, as I admit that the social dynamics involved at that age are complicated. But I think as more young women stay engaged in chess, they will do likewise in math and science. They may realize that they do not have to make a stark choice between social pressures and intellectual pursuits.
As boys and girls compete, it should become clear that there is nothing intellectually different between them. Anyone can learn, and many will excel at this complex game. It involves understanding how to balance the use of strategy and tactics, offense and defense. Each child is the commander of his or her army. To make the best decisions, they need to draw on many things— memory, intuition, ability to calculate possible sets of outcomes, patience, and inner strength. Chess is hard! But so is life! Why not help prepare children this way?
Studying chess will also help develop individual leadership within each child. Baron shared with me a 1999 study conducted by Margulies and Dr. Kathleen Speeth. Fifth graders, half of whom were involved in the Chess-in-the Schools program, were asked questions that evaluated how they would handle real life situations. Three scorers independently evaluated the children’s self-confidence, empathy towards others, and other related traits. “The overall success rate in handling real life situations with emotional intelligence was 91.4% for the children who participated in the Chess-in-the-Schools program,” while the others had a rate of only 64.4% (Study on Chess).
Chess teaches students that they are in control of their choices. Whereas one student may react more quickly to a familiar situation, their opponent may have an easier time understanding what to do in novel ones. Intuitively, this will affect whether they try to play towards a situation in which they have already acquired a high facility or to steer the game towards the unknown. I think that emphasizing play through chess is crucial to every child, as they get to look at these choices in a non-threatening way that they can learn to apply in similar real situations.
Education needs to be something that not only makes one competent to function in society, but also encourages us to explore the world as deeply as we dream and to be a leader. I think Erickson would second my thoughts about leadership. He told me these success stories:
That is easy. Just go over to the high school that we feed into. Former chess club members are very often the leaders, 2 starters on the basketball team, a number of starters on the football team, the goalie on the hockey team, the drum major in the marching band, the president of the student body, an officer in the Honor Society, multiple honor students, the soloists in the school musical, many members of the band and choir -- I did say that one of our own has obtained a Master's rating.
In practical terms, how can we bring this game that has so many wonderful attributes and dimensions into our children’s schools? The power of the volunteer should never be underestimated. I have volunteered over the last two years teaching chess to fourth and fifth grade students. I noticed that the simple instruction to make the students notate their moves helped them slow down and make better choices in their games. As a volunteer working with a friend, however, we were able to bring chess to just a couple of dozen students.
That is why I think that it is necessary to use the models like the ones presented here that involve the partnership among parents, teachers, organizations, and school districts. Parents have to express a need to bring this to fruition, and offer their time if they have the skill to help teach chess as a chess coach, for example. Teachers have to see how chess can be sensibly incorporated into the curriculum. Organizations can provide value in the form of financial resources and expertise. The America's Foundation for Chess has a great plan that they will be placing into action over the next two years. They will be developing individual teachers in the process of “teaching the teachers.” This is highly valuable, as the number of individual masters such as Eduard Zelkind who can teach an entire school district of fourth graders is rare.
I hope the information and stories I provided informs those who are new to this subject, encourages those who are already active in the field of teaching chess, and inspires others who have the means to participate in this. I plan on using what I learned from writing this and from my own experiences to encourage dialogue and action in this area. I have great passion to learn, teach, and simply play chess. I found that it has connected me with people I would not otherwise have met—at work, in the community, and in social settings. We all realize that it is not an idle pursuit. One’s understanding deepens over time, the game becomes more fascinating, and the desire to master it grows. Of course, only a few of us are destined to reach the heights of Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Tal, or Bobby Fischer. Regardless, chess has a beauty that is just waiting to be revealed, just as much now as when it was invented so long ago.
I want to thank you in advance for helping me by answering these survey questions. As a promoter of chess, I want to learn more about how to make existing programs more successful and also to have an ideal framework in mind for the creation of new programs.
Graduate Student in the Master’s of Liberal Studies program, University of Minnesota
Active member of the United States Chess Federation
Volunteer chess teacher at the Downtown Open School, Minneapolis, MN
Advisory board member for the H.B. Foundation (hbfoundation.org)
Baron, Ella. Interview with Joe Crews-Erjavec. 21 July 2003.
Ellis, Jane. “Recent Test Scores.” E-mail to Joe Crews-Erjavec. 8 July 2003.
Erickson, Russell. Interview with Joe Crews-Erjavec. 15 July 2003.
The H. B. Foundation. 2003. 9 July, 2003. (http://hbfoundation.org)
Knight School, The Official Web Site for Ed Zelkind. 10 July 2003. (http://mnchess.com/knightschool.htm)
Mangan, Jack. Interview with Joe Crews-Erjavec. 16 July 2003.
McCrary, John. “Chess History, episode 1.” Chess Life 58.1 (2003): 11 ----- Chess News. Chess Life 58.8 (2003): 43
Oseid, Tammy J. “Pioneer Press | 1/24/2003 | Chess the Right Moves for Kids. Pioneer Press. 2003. Knight Ridder Inc. 9 July 2003. (http://www.twincities.com/mld/twincities/living/education/5017852.htm)
Ramsey, Heather. Interview with Joe Crews-Erjavec. 16 July 2003. The 64 Square Solution: Using Chess to Teach Math and Critical Thinking. America's Foundation for Chess 2003.
Study on Chess & Emotional Intelligence.” Chess-in-the-Schools. Fax. 22 July 2003