Chess super food for the mind

With all the debates about what should be taught in schools, I’m going to add another subject into the discussion: chess.

Some may argue against this. After all it’s just a game, they might say. I would respond it’s not just a game, it’s THE game. Sure, most people aren’t going to become chess masters, but chess teaches more than just the rules of this ancient activity. The principles learned from chess are applicable in real life, far away from the black and white board.

And since it is a game, it can make learning these lessons fun and interesting for young people. It’s also great for people of any age; it can help keep older adults mentally sharp and ward off dementia. If chess is learned as a child, then it is more likely that people will continue playing and enjoying the benefits of the game throughout their lives.

So what are these skills? For starters, cognitive abilities such as logic, problem solving and critical thinking. Chess stimulates brain activity and helps with memory and pattern recognition. Children who play chess are better at math, which might be expected, but it turns out they also score higher on tests for English and reading. Chess is like a super food for the mind.

Next, there are personal character traits, such as patience, persistence and hard work. Chess teaches the value of overcoming challenges, time management and learning how to learn. Children who may have problems sitting still in a regular classroom have been found pondering chess problems for hours.  

Young chess players tend to be more mature overall, with greater self-confidence. Perhaps it’s arguable that the kids who are more advanced to begin with already gravitate toward chess. But it’s also true that chess is certainly not going to make currently immature students go backwards. It has nothing but benefits to offer.

Surprisingly, chess can help social skills. It creates common ground between students and teachers as well as among students of diverse backgrounds who might not have anything else to talk about together. It gives a socially acceptable mode of competition and teaches students how to both win and lose gracefully. It also gives players immediate feedback and the opportunity to accept the consequences of their actions.

I learned chess as a kid (probably so my big brother would have someone close by to easily defeat), but I didn’t start playing on a regular basis until several years ago. It’s interesting that I got into it because I felt that I was so hopeless in dealing with people that maybe I’d have a better chance of success at something a little more left-brained.  

I was amazed to find that this game had the unexpected result of improving my people skills. Often I’d be stuck on a chess practice problem, thinking I had tried all possible moves, but when I hit the solution button, I’d see an option I hadn’t noticed before. It taught me that there is almost always another way of looking at things.

So maybe I’ve made a few chess converts out there. You may be in favor of chess groups as an extracurricular activity but wonder why I advocate for it as a required subject  My answer is that if left alone, stereotypes take over, and the kids will self-select in or out of the club — which is what it becomes — only for boys or rich kids or math nerds.  

Chess can benefit all young people but only if everyone is given the opportunity to learn unimpeded. Students should not have to break through social barriers or be accepted into some clique before they are “allowed” to play by their peers. Making chess a skill that all students are introduced to helps to combat the self-fulfilling prophecy that only some people can play it — because those are the only people playing it.

Chess is part of many schools around the world, particularly Europe. In 2011, Armenia made chess mandatory for second through fourth grades. It should be noted that Armenia has the most chess grand masters per capita. Further east, China is a formidable producer of chess masters, including four female world champions in 20 years. Just something to mull over as we watch China as a growing economic force.

Chess does not require expensive equipment, and there are many computer programs that can train students in the absence of personal coaches. There should be no barriers to chess in our school curriculum.

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Rorye Hatcher is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at ​317-477-3211 or