Gabe Borland

Mrs. Pearce

Service Learning

14 March 2008

Chess Mentoring:  The Development of the Mind

A few years after I learned how the pieces moved on the chess board I began wondering if chess had yet another usefulness besides being a really fun and addicting game.  In my early high school years I finally had the chance to find out for myself by teaching elementary children the game.  At this point my teaching was mainly driven by a single question: Can the teaching of chess to young children be a tool for their mental development?  By self-observation and asking their parents I discovered that physical and/or mental changes in the children were taking place.  In fact, research shows that, due to the many advantages that the game of chess offers to young children and teenagers alike, it should be widely known and accepted throughout the nation so that chess could be added to the normal school curriculum.

            On the very first day of mentoring chess I got down to the Asa Adams elementary school early to set up the boards and to review the lesson that I would teach.  When the time came, fourteen kids showed up.  This was a big turnout.  When the lessons finally began I noticed that the distance between skill levels between players was wide-spread, ranging from decent players to complete beginners.  At first I taught everybody at the same time to see if I could find something instructive to teach all skill levels.  When this failed I taught the beginners separately.  At the end of the day I noticed something that had happened prior to the lesson.  I remembered that the room was noisy during the first few minutes but once people started to concentrate everything started to quiet down. 

Over the next weeks of my teaching at Asa I kept seeing changes in the kids during the lessons.  Their attention span increased and they were able to retain a good deal of what I said.  Also the kids who were usually more talkative settled down to the board more easily.  With this progression in character they were learning new concepts, like being willing to sacrifice a piece to gain positional advantage.

My research since then has made me realize that the ability of chess to make children concentrate has been widely studied.  Chess has been analyzed for one hundred years and helps children with mental development, patience, and concentration (Pecci 23).  Furthermore, chess has been proven to help kids with ADHD and ADD.  “ADHD children often think only of the current moment.  Chess can teach your child how to think ahead, as each move builds on the prior move, and also helps the child learn to finish tasks that are started” (Irby).  Researchers think chess helps these kids by posing a problem that cannot be solved without concentration and logical thinking (Irby).  Also, my interview for this project with International Master Larry Evans, who has taught many children, also emphasized that parents often wanted him to teach their kids chess to address their ADD (Evans).  Chess was good for the kids’ minds and helped with their intellectual endeavors.  In fact, Larry Evans’ own son improved academically after studying chess with his father (Evans).  Others have confirmed this.  Chess has helped kids with their communications skills, achieve higher grades, stimulates visualizing and “makes a person realize responsibility for [their] own actions and acceptance of the consequences” (“Why Chess?”).  

Clues like this help me now realize that chess was already starting to influence the kids I taught at Asa, both the experienced and the non-experienced.  But even though these discoveries were great, the Asa group was still too big for me to attend to one child at a time with only an hour to teach.  It was this that made me volunteer for mentoring on the private one-on-one scale.  This was how I met four-year-old Seamus.

            When I got to be Seamus’s mentor I was very excited in two ways.  First I wanted to teach a young person one-on-one and second I wanted to see that child grow with the training that I was about to give him.  On the very first lesson Seamus’s mother Sara thanked me and the future the interview with her proved to be very insightful.  She had already known that chess was great for analytical purposes and was willing to pursue her knowledge with her son (Yasner).  As lessons progressed she indeed noticed that Seamus was retaining a lot of information, and her explanation for this was divided into three points.  Her first point was that obviously Seamus is a very bright little individual, and second was that since Seamus was comfortable with me as a teacher he had a sense of security.  Thirdly she told me that I was doing a great job with sharing the information slowly enough so that he could retain it and also with repeating information in lessons (Yasner).  This approach was important since even Larry Evans said in his interview that sometimes kids are too young for a lot of chess and you have to be very encouraging (Evans).  Through my teaching, Sara has seen Seamus make dramatic changes in character.  In Seamus’s kindergarten he wasn’t very good at fitting in with a group but the chess lessons have actually raised his self esteem (Yasner). 

            Many things that Sara has seen have been verified with other tests across the nation.  Schools in New York and Los Angeles have done tests regarding children’s reading scores (“Chess Improves Children’s Reading Scores”).  They managed this “experiment” by having one control group with no chess training and having another group have the chess training.  The results were significant.  Students in the chess program statistically showed better scores on a nationally standardized achievement test than that of the control group (“Chess Improves Children’s Reading Scores”).  Further research explains that actually,

the cognitive processes used in chess and reading are very similar. Both chess and reading involve processes of decoding, thinking, comprehending and analyzing – all higher order skills.  Chess and reading are decision making activities and some transfer of training from one to the other may be expected (“Chess Improves Children’s Reading Scores”).

            Clearly from this I could now say that I was helping to provide the younger generation with tools that they will need in school and later in life.  Once I got the hours done for this project, I still researched chess and its effects on the development of a child’s mind.  My research took me to the library where I found two books that had a few things to say on the subject.  The first book that I looked at was titled Chess: A Psychiatrist Matches Wits with Fritz.  In the first few chapters of this book Ernest F.  Pecci, M.D. addresses the psychology of chess.  The foreword to his book says that the main thing that drives the wits and strategy of an exciting game of chess is “the leap offered by creativity through intuition” (Pecci Kasparov foreword 9).  According to Pecci, chess “especially lends itself to innovative approaches because it mimics life in the diversity and possibilities due to the different characteristics and move capability of each piece.  It can be argued that the way that a chess player approaches the chessboard is indicative of the way he approaches life” (Pecci 12).  This demonstrates the development of the mind outside the chess board.  

            This development of the mind applies not only to small children but to teenagers as well.  Pecci’s work in a Northern California facility for youth offenders showed that when aggressive youths focus their minds on a puzzle as complex as chess, the tactics and strategy of the game help their judgment, concentration and systematic thinking (Pecci 23-26).  In turn, this helped them not have to constantly react to verbal or physical attack because through calculation they could anticipate situations and avoid physical aggression (Pecci 23-26).  One of the things that Pecci discovered in troubled teens was that if he worked with them one-on-one in chess and prompted them to engage in self-thinking, then they had a stronger motivation to take themselves seriously.  “Needless to say, there was a dramatic carryover from playing chess to improvement in concentration and learning in the classroom setting” (Pecci 25).

            The other book that I looked at was titled Every Move Must Have a Purpose by Bruce Pandolfini.  Now, an exciting fact about Pandolfini is that he was widely known as the coach for American chess champion and International Master Joshua Waitzkin.  Pandolfini agreed with Pecci in his own study of the teen mind.  He realized in his chapter “Play the Board Not the Player” that when an agitated teen talks aggressively, he then can be soothed by concentrating on a single puzzle, putting his energy and emotions into the game rather than using his fists on the street (Pandolfini 6-8).

            Through all of the research and feedback that I’ve gathered I have noticed the motif that chess improves so much in a human’s mind that it really should not be ignored and people should use it in a school’s curriculum.  One person who has greatly advocated for such inclusion in the curriculum is chess world champion and Grand Master Gary Kasparov, who has a foundation dedicated to teaching chess to kids.  His foundation’s opinion on including chess in the curriculum is clear:

 Founded by World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, our mission is to bring the many educational benefits of chess to children throughout the United States by providing a complete chess curriculum and enrichment programs . . . The Foundation promotes the study of chess as a cognitive learning tool in curricular classes and after-school programs for elementary, middle and high schools, both in the public and private school sectors (“Our Mission”).

Once a person has become adept enough in chess, the knowledge that that person has gained will become “a partner in courage and imagination” for the rest of that person’s life (Pandolfini 104).


Works Cited

“Chess Improves Children's Reading Scores.” www.chessintheschools.com. 2001. Chess-in-the-Schools. 12 Mar 2008 <http://www.chessintheschools.org/research.html>.

Evans, Larry. Telephone interview. 8 Mar 2008.

Irby, Lynn. "ADHD research." www.ichessu.com. 2007. International Chess University. 12 Mar 2008 <http://www.ichessu.com/Research.aspx?subPage=ADHDResearch>.

“Our Mission.” www.kasparovchessfoundation.org. 2008. Kasparov Chess Foundation. 13 Mar 2008 <http://kasparovchessfoundation.org/Mission/index.html>.

Pandolfini, Bruce. Every Move Must Have a Purpose. New York: Hyperion, 2003.

Pecci, M.D., Ernest F. Chess: A Psychiatrist Matches Wits with Fritz. Walnut Creek, California: Pavior Publishing, 2001.

“Why Chess?” www.ichessu.com. 2007. International Chess University. 12 Mar 2008 <http://www.ichessu.com/Main.aspx?subPage=WhyChess>.

Yasner, Sara. Telephone interview. 8 Mar 2008.