Chess in the Schools

Writing at Slate, Ann Hulbert offers some thoughts on the use of chess as an educational tool in elementary schools:

In January of 1958, three months after Sputnik triggered an educational panic in America much like today’s angst about the global talent race, a 14-year-old boy from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn made headlines: Bobby Fischer became the youngest U.S. champion in a cerebral sport long associated with genius–and long dominated by the Russians. The game, of course, was chess, and 15 years later–during his antic showdown with Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972–Fischer became, of all things, America’s best-known sports celebrity. For the football nation, heretofore bored by the slow-moving board game and generally ambivalent about super-braininess, Fischer (“the greatest natural player in history”) had become an emblematic figure: proof that innate talent will triumph in America, even–or especially–without Soviet-style systematic, elite, professionalized training. It didn’t hurt that Fischer, with his fabulous suits and snits–even the way he snatched up an opponent’s pieces–had a rock star’s gift for upstart drama.

It’s a whole different ball–I guess I should say chess–game now than when Fischer was growing up, due in no small part to Bobby himself. His triumphs and the prize money he demanded helped transform what had been considered an obsession of “shadowy, unhappy, unreal-looking men” (as H.G. Wells put it) into an alluring form of mental recreation in the 1970s. Chess clubs surged, then faded again when Fischer failed to resurface after his disappearance. But by the late 1980s, chess had acquired cachet as a cutting-edge youthful extracurricular pursuit and began to infiltrate high-priced private schools and inner-city public schools. In the early 1990s, the successful film version of Searching for Bobby Fischer, Fred Waitzkin’s memoir about his chess-prodigy son, Josh, confirmed that the “sport of thinking” was on the cultural map for kids and parents. Just last month a record number of players–1,448–showed up for the 2007 National High School Chess Championship in Kansas City. The top group was especially strong. In the lead were two international masters, Alex Lenderman and Salvijus Bercys. They are members of the championship chess team at Edward R. Murrow High School, a couple of miles from Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn–and along with their teammates and coach, a math teacher named Eliot Weiss, they are also the stars of Michael Weinreb’s new book, The Kings of New York, an account of a mercurial year spent with the (mostly) boys and their boards.

Just for the record, my mother was also a student at Erasmus Hall High School in 1958.

Among chessplayers it is generally an article of faith that teaching a child to play chess improves his performance in school. It’s not an unreasonable claim, and there is some research to back it up. Certainly the brain is in some ways like a muscle; giving it frequent exercise makes it stronger. And if you teach a child the rudiments of logical thinking and long-term planning early it’s not hard to believe that he will develop better study habits later on.

Ironically, the enormous growth in scholastic chess over the last fifteen years or so has also been met by a steady decline in tournament play. One reason is the ready availability of internet chess. I can now get my chess fix 24/7 just by logging on to the Internet Chess Club. Makes it harder to get motivated to go to the time and expense of playing in a big weekend tournament. Add to that the general feeling that barring a major study effort on my part I’m never going to play the game much better than I currently do, and it’s hard to work up the old enthusiasm. I still love playing the game, however.

A perennial problem for chess is that it is singularly ill-suited for television. Actually watching two grandmasters play a game of regular tournament chess is out of the question, of course. Speed chess is visually appealing, but then there is a problem that it is impossible to follow the action without previously knowing a great deal about the game. ESPN has dabbled in televising chess, and actually made a decent showing of it. But the fact remains the game itself just doesn’t fit well on TV.

Many strong chess players are making the switch over to poker, where one can reasonably hope to make some real money. Poker, especially Texas Hold ‘Em, works very well on television. Since it is possible for people at home to know the hole cards of the players, there is considerable suspense. I’ve considered trying my hand at poker, but two things tend to stop me. The first is that I haven’t the faintest idea how one goes about playing competitively. And second, i’ve already spent so much time trying to figure out how to play chess that’s it’s hard for me to work up any enthusiasm for learning a new game.

At any rate, it’s worth having a look at the rest of the article.


  1. #1 Kevin
    May 2, 2007

    I should think about volunteering when my son goes to the public school. I once played in the HS Nationals!

  2. #2 MAlky
    May 3, 2007

    IInternet Chess Club is all very well for a quick fix, however it is very difficult to find games in the hour + category in the internet.

  3. #3 Tulloon
    May 3, 2007

    Chest in schools? Don’t we have enough sex and nudity on TV and in music? … Oh, chess, nevermind.

  4. #4 Godless Geek
    May 3, 2007

    I play poker competitively in an amateur league. That’s the easiest way to get started. You can meet a lot of great people, and, if you’re good enough, win some money. Most of the larger leagues have tie-in’s with the World Series of Poker to give a few seats in the Main Event to a few of their top finishers each year.

    Poker is an easy game to learn, but to get good at it requires more than knowing the odds. So much of my mental time in each game goes into observing other players betting patterns and figuring out the best time, from a strategic standpoint, to try to push them for more chips. People reading is possibly the most important skill in the game.

    The leagues I’ve played:
    Current –
    Previous –

  5. #5 Alan Wagner
    May 3, 2007

    Any suggestions on how to teach a kid to play chess? My 8 year-old wants to learn, but I don’t have the skill to teach her anything beyond the moves and how to set up a rudimentary defense.

  6. #6 Cody
    May 3, 2007

    I just spent the last two months or so volunteering for a local middle school’s chess club. At first it was pretty exciting watching these kids eagerly waiting for a chess set so they could beat their friends, but then I found out most of them were just coming to chess club so they could avoid some early morning standardized test tutoring.

    After they took the test, though, the kids who were genuinely interested still came, and I saw a marked improvement in their playing. It was almost worth waking up at 7:00 in the morning every day, knowing I’d be late to class every MWF.

  7. #7 Science Avenger
    May 4, 2007

    Alan, when I teach young players I start at the end and work my way back to the beginning. I start off having them chase my king with a queen and rooks. Once that becomes routine for them, I introduce other pieces and combinations. I figure if they don’t know where they are heading, the opening moves won’t make much sense to them. They also tend to enjoy this because they win every time, and children seem to stick to games more when they win in my experience.

    Jason, I and a buddy have both gone from chess to poker. Although neither of us were grandmasters (I’d estimate our top ratings at 2000 and 1800), we became consistently profitable at poker, mostly on the internet. I’ve also been world ranked at Axis and Allies.

    That said I’m not sure I see a lot of similarities between chess and poker. The dynamics of the games are completely different, the psychological factor is so much higher in poker, and of course there is the random element of the cards. I suspect clear thinking would be favored in both, but that’s where the similarities end.

  8. #8 Alan Wagner
    May 7, 2007

    Science Avenger,

    thanks! I’ll try that tonight:)

  9. #9 Dave S.
    May 7, 2007

    Some notes:

    I don’t think Fischer was the greatest “natural player”. He got to where he did by being a total megalomaniac for chess from a comparitively early age, constantly playing and studying. I don’t think it came all that natural to him; not like a Capablanca or Morphy for instance who were more natural talents.

    Trivia: Another student at Erasmus Hall High School at that time was a young Barbara Steisand, who apparently had a huge crush on Bobby. Those feelings weren’t reciprocated.

    One thing the Brits have done to make TV chess more interesting is to have each player do a play-by-play after the game of exactly what they were thinking during each move. These comments were overlain with expert commentary from an independent GM over the pre-recorded game. Interesting, but you can’t do it live, which is a big drawback.

    Trivia 2: Apparently there was a speed chess whiz from New York named Peter Wolf who switched to poker, and did quite well (for a while). Poker great Stu “The Kid” Unger once said that Wolf was the only person he feared in limit Hold’em.

    Alan Wagner: Here are 64 bits of advice from Paldolfini.

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