The Case for Chess as a Tool to Develop our Children's Minds
Is chess an art? A science? Some claim it’s both. Yet let’s be honest, it’s really just a game. Fun, challenging,
creative: but still a game, not much different from tennis, cricket, football, or golf.
But there is one striking difference to these other popular games. While learning to play almost any game can
help build self-esteem and confidence, chess is one of the few that fully exercises our minds.
Many of us could probably use this exercise, although it may be a bit late for some. (At least for those of us old
enough to read an article like this voluntarily!) It’s not, however, too late for our children.
Chess is one of the most powerful educational tools available to strengthen a child’s mind. It’s fairly
easy to learn how to play. Most six or seven year olds can follow the basic rules. Some kids as young as four
or five can play. Like learning a language or music an early start can help a child become more
proficient. Whatever a child’s age, however, chess can enhance concentration, patience, and perseverance,
as well as develop creativity, intuition, memory, and most importantly, the ability to analyse and deduce from a
set of general principles, learning to make tough decisions and solve problems flexibly.
This is undeniably a grand claim. The remainder of this paper outlines some of the arguments and educational
studies to justify and support this.
Concentration, Patience, and Perseverance:
To play chess well requires intense concentration. Some of the world’s top players can undeniably look
distracted, sometimes jumping up between moves to walk around. A closer look, however, reveals that most of
these players are actually in deep concentration, relying on strong visual recall to plan and calculate
even when they are away from their game. For young, inexperienced players, chess teaches the rewards of
concentration as well as provides immediate penalties for lapses. Few teaching tools provide such quick
feedback. One slip in concentration can lead to a simple blunder, perhaps even ending the game. Only a
focused, patient and persistent young chess player will maintain steady results – characteristics that are
equally valuable for performing well at school, especially in school exams.
Analysis, Logic, and Problem Solving:
Playing chess well involves a combination of aptitudes. A 1973-74 study in Zaire by Dr Albert Frank (1974)
found that good teenage chess players (16-18 years old) had strong spatial, numerical, administrative-directional,
and paperwork abilities. Dr Robert Ferguson (1995, p. 2) notes that “This finding tends to show that ability in
chess is not due to the presence in an individual of only one or two abilities but that a large number of aptitudes
all work together in chess.” Even more significantly Frank’s study found that learning chess, even as
teenagers, strengthened both numerical and verbal aptitudes. This occurred for the majority of students (not
just the strong players) who took a chess course for two hours each week for one school year. Other studies
have added that playing chess can strengthen a child’s memory (Artise).
A 1990-92 study in New Brunswick, Canada, further shows the value of chess for developing problem solving
skills among young children (Gaudreau 1992). By integrating chess into the traditional mathematics curriculum
teachers were able to raise significantly the average problem solving scores of their students. These students
also scored far higher on problem solving tests than ones who just took the standard mathematics course.
Primary school chess has now exploded in New Brunswick. In 1989, 120 students played in the provincial
school chess championship. Three years later over 19,000 played (Ferguson 1995, p. 11).
Chess has also been shown to foster critical and creative thinking. Dr Ferguson’s four-year study (1979-83)
analysed the impact of chess on students’ thinking skills in the Bradford Area School District in the United
States (grades 7-9). These students were already identified as gifted, with intelligence quotient (IQ) scores
above 130. Using two tests (Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal and the Torrance Tests of Creative
Thinking) Ferguson (1995, pp. 4-6) found that after spending 60 - 64 hours playing and studying chess
over 32 weeks students showed significant progress in critical thinking. He further found that chess
enhances “creativity in gifted adolescents.” He concluded that “it appears that chess is superior to many
currently used programs for developing creative thinking and, therefore, could logically be included in
a differentiated program for mentally gifted students”.
Playing chess, however, is not only valuable for developing the skills of gifted children. Average and even
below average learners can also benefit. Chess teacher Michael Wojcio (1990) notes that “even if a slow
learner does not grasp all of [the strategies and tactics in chess], he / she can still benefit by learning
language, concepts, and fine motor movement.” During a program run by Dr Ferguson from September
1987 to May 1988 all members of a standard sixth grade class in rural Pennsylvania were required to
take chess lessons and play games. This class had 9 boys and 5 girls. At the start of this study students took
IQ tests, producing a mean IQ of 104.6. Students then studied chess two or three times per week while
playing most days. They were also encouraged to participate in tournaments. After this intensive
chess instruction a group of seven boys managed to finish second in the 1998 Pennsylvania State
Scholastic Championship. Significantly, at the conclusion of the study tests showed a significant
increase in both memory and verbal reasoning skills, especially among the more competitive chess
players (Ferguson 1995, pp. 8-9).
Chess has even been shown to raise students’ overall IQ scores. Using the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for
Children a Venezuelan study of over 4,000 second grade students found a significant increase in most
students’ IQ scores after only 4.5 months of systematically studying chess. This occurred across all socio-
economic groups and for both males and females. The Venezuelan government was so impressed that all
Venezuelan schools introduced chess lessons starting in 1988-89 (summarised in Ferguson 1995, p. 8).
Solving Problems and Synthesising Information in a Globalising World
The internet, email, and computers are rapidly changing the skills essential to succeed at school and work.
As globalisation accelerates, information is pouring in faster and faster. Information that took months to track
down a few years ago can now spin off the internet in just minutes. With such easy access and tremendous
volumes, the ability to choose effectively among a wide variety of options is ever more vital.
In this world students must increasingly be able to respond quickly, flexibly and critically. They must be able to
wade through and synthesise vast amounts of information, not just memorise chunks of it. They must learn to
recognize what is relevant and what is irrelevant. They also need to acquire the skills to be able to learn
new technologies quickly as well as solve a continual stream of problems with these new technologies.
This is where chess as a tool to develop our children’s minds appears to be especially powerful. By its very
nature chess presents an ever-changing set of problems. Except for the very beginning of the game — where
it’s possible to memorise the strongest lines — each move creates a new position. For each of these a player
tries to find the ‘best’ move by calculating ahead, evaluating these future possibilities using a set of
theoretical principles. Importantly, more than one ‘best’ move may exist, just as in the real world more than
one best option may exist. Players must learn to decide, even when the answer is ambiguous or difficult.
These thinking skills are becoming ever more valuable for primary and secondary school students constantly
confronted with new everyday problems. If these students go to university it will be especially imperative to
understand how to apply broad principles to assess new situations critically, rather than rely on absorbing a large
number of ‘answers’. Far too commonly my own university students do not have these skills. As a result they
become swamped by information, vainly searching for the right answer to memorise rather than the various best
The case, then, is exceptionally strong for using chess to develop our children’s minds and help them cope
with the growing complexities and demands of a globalising world. More and more schools around the world are
recognising the value of chess, with instruction now becoming part of standard curriculums. It’s of course
just a game. Yet it has fascinated and challenged some of the greatest minds of the last century, sparking
enough books about how to play to fill an entire library.
Chess is an especially effective teaching tool. It can equally challenge the minds of girls and boys, gifted and
average, athletic and non-athletic, rich and poor. It can teach children the importance of planning and the
consequences of decisions. It can further teach how to concentrate, how to win and lose gracefully, how to think
logically and efficiently, and how to make tough and abstract decisions (Seymour and Norwood 1993). At
more advanced levels it can teach flexible planning since playing well requires a coherent plan, yet not one
that is rigidly followed regardless of the opponent’s response. Chess can also build confidence and self-
esteem without overinflating egos, as some losses are inevitable, even for world champions.
Chess can potentially help teach underachieving gifted children how to study, perhaps even leaving them
with a passion for learning. Chess tournaments can, moreover, provide a natural setting for a gifted child to
interact with other children of all ages, as many tournaments are not divided by age but by ability (unlike
most school activities and many other sports). It’s common to see a six-year-old playing a twelve-year-old, or a
ten - year - old playing a seventeen - year - old. Young players can also perform remarkably well in adult
chess tournaments. In 1999 - 2000 in Australia, for example, a thirteen - year - old won the New South Wales
championship, a fourteen - year - old won the South Australian championship, a fifteen - year - old
won the Queensland championship, and a thirteen - year - old tied for second in the Australian championship.
Studying chess systematically has also been shown to raise students’ IQ scores, academic exam scores (Dullea
1982; Palm 1990; Ferguson 2000, p. 3), as well as strengthen mathematical, language, and reading skills
(Margulies 1991; Liptrap 1998; Ferguson 2000, pp. 3 - 4). Tournament chess games, which involve clocks to
limit the total time each player can use, are also a fun way to provide practice at making fast and accurate
decisions under pressure, a skill that can help students cope with the similar pressures of school exams.
This is also a fun way to practise how to put the mind into high gear, where intense concentration increases
alertness, efficiency of thought processes, and ultimately mental performance.
Perhaps most importantly chess is a fun way to teach children how to think and solve an eve - changing and
diverse array of difficult problems. With millions of possibilities in every game, players must continually face new
positions and new problems. They cannot solve these using a simple formula or relying on memorised
answers. Instead, they must analyse and calculate, relying on general principles and patterns along with a
dose of creativity and originality – a skill that increasingly mirrors what students must confront in their
In June 1999 the International Olympic Committee officially recognized chess as a sport. This is welcome
news for the world’s six million registered chess players as well as countless more unregistered players.
such recognition hopefully even more of our children will turn to chess, striving for sporting dreams that
will leave them smarter, and ultimately able to cope better in the real world of perpetual problems.
About the Author:
Peter Dauvergne is a Canadian chess master (FIDE rating 2250) and Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of
Economics and Business at the University of Sydney, Australia. He is the editor of the journal Global
Environmental Politics (MIT Press) and the author of numerous books
and articles on environmental management in the Asia-Pacific. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* These and other chess and education research studies are available from the United States Chess
Artise, John. “Chess and Education.”
Dullea, Gerard J., 1982. “Chess Makes Kids Smarter,” Chess Life, November. Frank, Albert, 1974. Chess and
Aptitudes, Doctoral Dissertation. Translation, Stanley Epstein. Ferguson, Robert, 1995. “Chess in Education:
Research Summary.” A Review of Key Chess Research Studies. For the Borough of Manhattan Community
College Chess in Education ‘A Wise Move’ Conference. Ferguson, Robert, 2000. “The Use and Impact of
CHESS,” in Section B, USA Junior Chess Olympics Curriculum, copy emailed by the author. Gaudreau, Louise,
1992. “Étude Comparative sur les Apprentissages en Mathématiques 5e Année.” Liptrap, James, 1998. “Chess
and Standard Test Scores,” Chess Life, March. Margulies, Stuart, 1991. “The Effect of Chess on Reading
District Nine Chess Program Second Year Report.” The American Chess Foundation, New York.
Palm, Christine, 1990. “Chess Improves Academic Performance,” derived from “New York City Schools Chess
Program.” Seymour, Jane, and David Norwood, 1993. “A Game for Life,” New Scientist 139 (September, no.
1889), pp. 23-26. Wojcio, Michael David, 1990. “The Importance of Chess in the Classroom,” Atlantic Chess