Education Opinion

The Case for Chess

By Justin Minkel — March 12, 2014 4 min read
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Every year, I teach my 2nd graders to play chess. I model my approach on New York City’s Chess in the Schools program, which my 4th graders at P.S. 192 experienced from a chess master (who happens to be a great teacher, too) back in 2001.

I begin by showing my class the scene from the first Harry Potter movie where Harry and Hermione each take the place of a giant chess piece on the enormous board, with Ron riding a massive stone horse as a knight. After witnessing the crab-like pawns slashing other pieces to shrapnel with their curved blades, and the imposing queen drawing her sword to pulverize Ron’s horse, the kids are bobbing up and down with adrenaline and excitement.

Chess is way too complicated to throw at seven-year olds all at once. After showing them each piece and its place on the board, and finding out which kids already have some sense of the game, we take away all but the pawns. The students do Total Physical Response to learn how pawns move--they start off in a hurry and take two steps, then pantomime exhaustion and just take one step at a time after that.

We also do arm motions for the mantra, “Pawns move forward but capture diagonally.” The kids then play a game called “Cross to the Other Side,” where the first player to get a pawn all the way across the board is the winner.

The next day, we only play with the rooks, bishops, and queen. Again, the 2nd graders act out diagonal and straight paths by walking across the room, then they play a game called “Laser” where they try to capture their opponent’s pieces.

On the third day, the kids play “Corners” with the knights, which move in the most complicated path. The winner is the first to get both knights into the corner squares on the opposite side of the board. I cut out L-shaped pieces of construction paper the students can lay down to be sure they’re doing the 1-1-2 or 1-2-1 motion correctly, and they get up and gallop the possible paths a knight can take.

We move on from there to playing “Capture” with all pieces but the king, then add the king and play games to five points with each “Check” counting as a point, before finally introducing the idea of “Checkmate.” Once the students have learned the basics, chess becomes a center they play during some weeks of guided reading, as well as a perfect activity for indoor recess when it’s too cold or wet to go out.

The full unit lasts three or four weeks, culminating in a week-long class tournament. The last week of school, each child gets a chess set (often available at dollar stores) to take home. Suddenly the students have a new activity to do each night, replacing a portion of the troubling quantity of hours they spend playing video games and watching TV.

Second only to coffee, time is teachers’ most precious resource. Why, then, spend all these precious class hours teaching kids to play a board game?

1. Learning chess increases academic achievement.

A 2000 study found that “students who received chess instruction scored significantly higher on all measures of academic achievement, including math, spatial analysis, and non-verbal reasoning ability.” I wrote in my last post about the value of visualization in helping kids learn. America’s Foundation for Chess included visualization when they explained the link between chess and academic success: “Chess teaches higher level thinking skills such as the ability to visualize, analyze, and think critically.”

The Russian Grandmaster Garry Kasparov said, “Chess helps you to concentrate, improve your logic. It teaches you to play by the rules and take responsibility for your actions, how to problem solve in an uncertain environment.”

Chess has even been shown to have an effect on emotional intelligence. In a study with 5th graders, the kids who learned chess were able to handle real-life situations in a more positive way than those who didn’t learn the game.

The research on chess boosting reading proficiency is compelling, too. The links are complicated, but the mental work involved in chess translates to the complex act of making meaning from print.

2. Kids need better ways to spend their time at home.

Too much time with TV and video games isn’t great, but neither are worksheets in “summer reading packets” that can often feel tedious. Part of why I started a home library initiative with my class (detailed in The Home Library Effect) is that it provides a new option for how my students spend their time at home during summers, weekends, holidays, and evenings. Reading at home is enjoyable, it often brings together the student’s whole family, and it nurtures their minds.

Chess has these same benefits. Many of the kids taught the game to their parents and siblings. Once or twice a week, a 2nd grader would swagger in and inform me, “I played my older brother in chess last night and I won!” Chess boosts their confidence, it makes them smarter, and--no small thing--it’s a lot of fun.

The longer I teach, the more attention I pay to how my students spend their hours outside my classroom. I pay more attention, too, to how they spend their years in the world once they leave my class.

Encouraging our students to build their own libraries and read at home is one way to impact those hours and years. Teaching them to play chess is another.

*Note: Photo taken by me in my classroom.

The opinions expressed in Teaching for Triumph: Reflections of a 21st-Century ELL Teacher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.