Writing an article about why chess should be in our schools feels a bit silly. It is like writing an article arguing that water is wet or the sky is big.
Unfortunately, we live in a dry-water, little-sky sort of world. The school districts across the country continue to pour millions of dollars into K-12 football, despite research findings on the brain damage caused by concussions. On the other hand, the advocates for chess have to beg school administrators to use the library after hours and volunteer their time for free to start and maintain a chess club. And this is despite the research findings on the myriad benefits of chess for the brain.
Why professional educators across the country choose to facilitate brain damage over brain development is mysterious to me. Still, perhaps the day will come when it's a football coach writing an online article encouraging readers to give football a chance while I'm busy preparing the chess team for the pep rally.
In a rational world, chess would not only be an extracurricular club with competitions between schools but a part of the curriculum.
1. Chess is the Great Equalizer
With an estimated 600 million active players, chess is the most popular sport in the world to participate in. This number multiplies when you broaden the question to how many people know how to set up the board and correctly move the pieces.
It is a global game and an international language. I have played it across the street at my neighbor's house and around the world at a chess school in Qingdao, China, against a man who did not speak English.
If you can wave your hand and point to your chessboard, you can find a game anywhere in the world.
Chess is not only international but intergenerational. It brings a four-year-old girl to the same table as a 70-year-old man, giving no clue as to who is the more ferocious player.
Chess is not concerned with your gender, race, nationality, economic class, or sexual orientation. Instead, it tests your preparation, focus, calculation, and nerve.
This exposure to other people leads to respect for those people.
2. Chess, A Lifelong Companion
Unlike most any other sport, the chess player is not just allowed a few fleeting summers during their youth before being banished to the lowly realm of mere fandom for the rest of their lives.
Some begin playing chess when they are three and may play their final game on the day they die.
When life brings about change, chess can be a familiar constant. You may discover it before you can successfully recite the alphabet and keep it through high school, college, marriage, raising your children, retirement, and the old folks home. It can be tethered to memories of lost friends and relatives or the catalyst for new friendships.
3. A Practice Field for Life
Chess teaches that consequences, good or bad, follow your decisions.
Chess requires that you see things from the other person's perspective.
Chess rewards those who can better create plans and calculate possibilities that may arise in the future.
Chess favors the player who has command over, and is not commanded by, their emotions. Patience and focus are required every bit as much as opening preparation and tactics practice.
Chess teaches the young player, and reminds the old player, that the crucial elements of emotional intelligence are also fundamental to playing the game. These lessons are better learned over the board, where the consequence is a lost piece or game. If the player learns their lessons in life instead, the price tag will likely be much higher.
4. Chess Nurtures a Healthy Brain
Studies have shown that chess can promote the healthy development of young brains. The requirements of regularly playing chess have the happy side-effect of growing dendrites in the prefrontal cortex, where decisions and plans are made.
At first glance, two people sitting in front of each other and staring at some small pieces on the board doesn’t seem like much of an exciting experience. But don’t be fooled. What’s happening in our brain during that staring includes some of the most exquisite brain activities we are capable of.
Chess exercises both short-term and long-term memory and improves the transferability of skills. Chess also triggers creativity and problem-solving and has been shown to stimulate neuroplasticity and develop analytical skills and pattern recognition. In old age, it slows cognitive decline, and research suggests that it may even delay Alzheimer's Disease.
Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow explains the benefits and shortcomings of these two gears available to our brain. Thinking fast is automatic and useful in familiar situations, though it is vulnerable to miscalculation and error when dealing with the unfamiliar. Thinking slow leads to fewer mistakes but requires more effort and energy as we painstakingly work through a problem.
Imagine two chess boards. At board 1, two grandmasters begin their nearly perfect battle. At board 2, two beginners are blundering their way through a game in which the advantage shifts a dozen times with opportunities missed and mistakes made.
The story might change deep into the middlegame, but during the first dozen moves in the opening phase, the beginners' brains are doing far more work than those grandmaster's brains. The beginners must "slow think" their way through every move while the grandmasters can blitz out the opening moves they have memorized. When there is a fork in the road, they choose a direction, knowing where both lead.
The beginning chess player is learning to read, sputtering as he tries to sound out words, while the grandmaster is so literate in chess that he can play through most situations as fluidly as you can read a book. They can solve a checkmate-in-three puzzle as immediately as you can read a three-letter word.
The more training and experience a chess player gains, the more they transfer those once slow-thinking-required tasks over to the purview of fast thinking. This is a measure of their progress in the game.
Fortunately, chess will always reward success with a deeper challenge. It is not uncommon for a grandmaster game to last 6 hours.
Whether you are a club player or the World Champion, chess will exercise your brain in both gears — as long as you face the opponents, you should.
5. Critical Thinking
Pew Research has shown that only one-quarter of Americans can reliably tell the difference between fact and opinion.
This reveals the power of bias to overwhelm our thinking and our desperate need as a nation for improved critical thinking. How far from recognizing flawed logic in complex situations is a society that can no longer distinguish fact from opinion — a task elementary school kids perform on worksheets using crayons?
Chess is a pure test of critical thinking. Your opinions and beliefs about a position on the chessboard do not influence the truth. In chess, as it should be in life, the objective is to move those beliefs and opinions toward the truth. If you commit to attempting the reverse while facing a competent opponent, you will believe your way to a loss.
Chess teaches young and old players how to solve problems. It requires abstract thinking. It demands control over one's emotions and quickly punishes the overly emotional with a blunder.
The patient player beats the impatient—the player who can concentrate defeats the unfocused. Practice leads to pattern recognition. Logical thinking is a prerequisite for a sound strategy over the chessboard.
Chess is a perfect exercise in critical thinking.
Chess Belongs In Schools
From brain health to brain use, the case for the widespread addition of chess in our public schools is clear.
The game teaches kids patience, focus, thoughtfulness, and self-control and introduces them to people from all walks and stages of life. It offers itself as a lifelong interest, either as an occasional pastime or professional pursuit.
It teaches kids how to win and lose and, as Kipling put it, how to "treat those two imposters just the same." Losses come to even the greatest player in the world, and the winner whose ego flies too high will soon be grounded by the stronger opponent that win has rewarded them with in the next round of the tournament.
Encourage your local school district to redirect some of their funding for brain damage proliferation toward the development of chess education.