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
everyday schoolwork.

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


* 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
U.S. Chess Mates