Tactical Advantage

May 01, 2002 4 min read
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Students take to the boards in a Dallas chess program designed to improve their critical-thinking skills and academic performance.

Competing to see who can solve the problem first, seven pairs of students eagerly raise their hands. “Coach,” they cry, “we’ve got it!” Prompted to reveal the solution, several shout in unison: “Q on E1 to E5.” Then they smile broadly as the teacher concurs.

These 5th graders gathered at the Daniel “Chappie” James Learning Center, a public elementary school in the heart of Dallas, aren’t deciphering a complex algebraic equation. Instead, they’re identifying the chess maneuver for checkmating an opponent in one move. But their instructor, University of Texas at Dallas education student Jim Stallings, hopes the strategizing will have an academic payoff.

The class is learning the game as part of a new pilot program devised by chess aficionados at UTD. Launched in January at two elementary schools, it targets at-risk students, particularly those who don’t have other enrichment programs in their lives. If the 5th and 6th graders involved show improved behavior or academic performance, the district may work with the university to form chess clubs at other area schools.

“Chess is spreading like a prairie fire,” remarks Tim Redman, founder and director of the UTD chess program, which offers courses on using the game in education and oversees the university’s chess club and champion team. That’s because there’s a growing body of research indicating that students who play chess do better in school, he says. “We think further studies need to be done— and we need to have more peer review work—but initially the results are very positive,” he enthuses. “The students seem to acquire greater self-esteem, critical-thinking skills, and do better on math and reading tests.”

In one study, educational psychologist Stuart Margulies found that a group of inner-city elementary school students who participated in chess programs for a year had better reading skills than their non-chess-playing counterparts. Some scholars have suggested that learning the patterns in chess—which are much like those of language—helps students absorb linguistic relationships.

UTD is just the latest institution attempting to help kids improve academic skills through chess. The Seattle Chess Foundation, for example, is in the second year of a multi-year study on how the game is used in elementary schools throughout the world, with the ultimate goal of producing a curriculum based on its research. In April, Chess-in-the-Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit, celebrated its 15th anniversary of teaching chess to inner-city kindergarten through 8th graders.

UTD’s effort is notable for its rigor. Classes run an intensive nine hours per week, both during enrichment periods and after school. Two UTD instructors lead sessions in the history and language of chess, then teach the kids the basics: how to set up the board, move pieces, use a chess clock. As the semester continues, the instructors discuss strategies, managing emotions during a game, and tournament rules and etiquette. The kids get a chance to battle on the boards at the end of most classes and during the after-school sessions.

By the end of March, the students have learned a lot of the lingo. The names of the game pieces—pawn, knight, bishop, rook, and so on-are the easy terms, but much of the rest is German or French. “If I had to figure out a move ‘in- between’ [an unexpected maneuver],” Stallings asks one class, “would it be a zwischenzug or a zugzwang?” Most kids answer correctly with the first choice.

The students work toward certificates of accomplishment and prepare to compete in chess tournaments, including a citywide contest that boasts a grand prize for the top 6th grader: a four-year full-tuition-and-fees scholarship to UTD.

Although college scholarships for chess may change the lives of a lucky few, UTD educators maintain that all students can benefit from simply playing the game. “You’re building on Gardner’s ‘multiple intelligences,’ ” Stallings explains, referring to Howard Gardner’s theory that seven intelligences—including linguistic, spatial, logical/mathematic, bodily/ kinesthetic, and interpersonal—are needed to function productively in society. “The more modalities you appeal to, the better off you are.”

Still, that’s not something the coaches and teachers tell students. Instead, they emphasize the amusement factor—to great success. Fifth grader Aluante Feeney says he plays the game with his friends on the school bus, while classmate Kevin Davidson likes to challenge his 14-year-old brother to games at home. (“Sometimes I beat him, and sometimes I don’t,” he says.) “Most teachers can’t count on their students doing math problems at home,” Stallings observes. “But I can count on my students playing chess.” Redman adds: “I like to call this stealth teaching. They don’t know they’re improving [academically]. They’re just having a ball.”

Courtney Johnson, a 6th grade teacher at Daniel “Chappie” James who works with Stallings during and after school, says he’s noticed changes in his students already: “Academically, I can see it is increasing their higher-order thinking skills, and that’s what we’re trying to get.” He says his students seem better “able to evaluate a problem and make critical judgments on it.” And 5th grader Tiarra Session attests to chess’s confidence-boosting powers. “It looked like a hard game, but I got my certificate on my first try. So I felt really smart,” she says.

—Kristine Hughes


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