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Practical Homeschooling® :

Shouldn't Your Children's Curriculum Include Chess?

By Richard Driggers
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #19, 1997.

Richard Driggers shows how to accelerate learning skills by playing this classic game.
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Richard Driggers

Chess improves thinking skills. For years research has clearly shown that playing chess improves academic performance. In many cases, the child develops an intellectual confidence that leads to better grades and higher self-esteem. Overwhelming evidence of improved learning skills can be obtained by asking the U.S. Chess Federation, which offers over 40 articles and research findings available at no charge.

Chess is wholesome and has a number of practical advantages over many other activities. After you get the set, it's free; and it can be played anywhere, year-round, for a lifetime. There is no risk of injuries. It only takes two to play (one if you have a hand-held or conventional computer). It is usually a quiet game. Siblings of different ages can make games interesting by taking away pieces from the stronger player (similar to using a handicap in golf). You can use clocks to shorten the length of the game (Blitz chess). There is a great team variation called "Bughouse" in which it's two against two, side by side. Captured pieces are passed to one's partner who, on his next move, can place that piece anywhere on his board. All four players are timed. Your team wins if there is a checkmate on either board or if either of your opponents run out of time before you or your partner (5 minutes for each player). This team variation is extremely popular all over the country. At tournaments, the winners stay "up" and a new team replaces the losing team. It is great fun!

Starting a Chess Club

Our chess club was a surprise hit with the children and the parents in our support group. We started with a dozen, and within three months 83 young people had joined.

Despite our inexperience, getting our chess club started was easy. First, we put an article in our newsletter about research proving over and over that chess improves abilities in reasoning, comprehension, concentration, reading, persistence, planning, logic, problem solving, patience, decision-making, objectivity, math, self-control, commitment, and thinking development. We also encouraged attendance at the next support group meeting to hear a talk entitled "How Chess Can Make Your Kids Smarter," given by a local chess teacher whom we met at a tournament.

At the meeting, we had a 5-inch stack of research papers and articles we ordered from the U.S.C.F. about the benefits of chess. Our speaker said giving your child a love for chess is giving them a gift they can enjoy for a lifetime. He also talked about the nationwide "Chess in Schools" program that promotes chess clubs and classes in schools. It is actually part of the curriculum in some states. (In Russia, chess has been part of the school programs for decades.) When the program ended, we had four young people at the front playing "Bughouse" with clocks. One demonstration of this fast-moving, exciting, team variation of chess quickly erased the widely held notion that chess is a boring, slow-moving game for nerds.

We meet in a city-owned recreation center that we reserve twice a month from 7:00-8:45 p.m. With our dues, we purchased a menu-driven chess club computer program featuring a "ladder games" competition using an internal rating system. (Available from Tom Small at (609) 393-0652). At each meeting, we post club ratings for our three skill groups: "Red" for the less experienced, "Green" for the middle group, and "Blue" for the stronger players. We regularly spread the word that we provide a supportive teaching environment and that "rookies" are welcome.

The name of our club is "Warriors for the King." Players shake hands before and after each game. The winner turns in a game card and the results are entered into our club software later. At each meeting, one of the dads gives a 10-minute presentation on some part of chess, using a wall-hung "demo board." Dads enjoy watching games, matching players for games, and answering mid-game rule questions, while moms circle chairs and fellowship.

Initially, we wondered how the "competitive environment" would work out. It just hasn't been an issue. We don't allow boasting or putting others down. The kids want to win, but if they lose, they seem to take it in stride. Chess is pure skill, so the players quickly learn to take full responsibility for the outcome of their games. What a great lesson to learn early in life - taking responsibility for your actions (as opposed to being a victim of something or someone).

One of the highlights of our chess club has been our annual simultaneous exhibition. We host a Chess Master who plays 20 of our best players at the same time. The Master walks around inside a rectangle of tables. When he steps in front of your board, you make your move. He moves, then sidesteps to the next board. We invited the media and they did a big story with photographs.

What About Playing in Tournaments?

In tournaments, we play as a team, under the name of our support group, and it has been one of the highlights of our club. Last year, we competed in our first Texas Junior Chess Championship against 449 players from 33 schools for individual and team trophies. It was great fun and really gave our youth a sense of camaraderie. There were encouraging words to losers and "high fives" to winners. At one point, three girls were anxiously watching a close game between their girlfriend and a boy three years older. All three girls spotted a brilliant mating move and were trying to control their mounting excitement as they whispered back and forth. Minutes later she made the mating move, said "Checkmate!" and jumped to her feet to receive the hugs and praises of her companions.

We were thrilled to win a team trophy for Second Place, Elementary Section and three individual trophies!

As a student plays in more "rated tournaments," he is assigned a rating that reflects the strength of his play. Like a handicap in golf, it is an easy way to track one's progress. Tournaments are computer-structured to identify an individual winner; that is, after the first round, losers play losers, winners play winners, and in later rounds, one plays another with the same record. Better players move toward the "top table." When the shout, "Pairing are up!" is heard, each player rushes to the wall to find out who he will play, his rating, what board, and what color.

Chess tournaments are a great family activity. Unlike baseball, there are no scheduled practices with chess. You don't have to go to all the tournaments; you can pick and choose. A Saturday tournament will last from about 9:00 until 5:00. Parents bring coffee and folding chairs and have a great visit when they are not watching games in progress. We usually picnic at a nearby park for lunch, and sometimes go for an ice cream cone after the tournament.

Tournaments are meant to be enjoyed. Give your players that perspective early. If they feel they are not strong enough yet, encourage them to play anyway. Some children will never feel like they are ready. Remind them that in chess you have to lose a lot of games before you start winning. Tournaments have a way of awakening the desire to get better. They will learn a lesson that will serve them well the rest of their life: how to bounce back after a setback and keep trying. Our motto is, "You either win or you have a learning experience."

A Fun Way to Improve Academic Performance

Not only has chess become a family activity we all enjoy (we take chess sets to doctor's appointments, vacations, and picnics), but we have also made chess part of our curriculum. At breakfast, I hand out a couple of chess puzzles for them to solve. The ensuing race to see who solves it first quickens the children to a mental alertness that kicks off attention and concentration for that day's learning.

We had one daughter (11) who was struggling with math. She began to play chess. Two years later, she is our math whiz. The turnaround has been remarkable. After learning chess, children seem to gain a new confidence in tackling complicated or difficult problems.

Can Chess Really Build Character?

It was Benjamin Franklin who said:

"The game of chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions."

Chess can demonstrate to your children that diligent work (practice, learning from mistakes, and purposeful study) yields the fruit of success. A local university professor made the observation that in contrast to the Asian students, too many American students lack the ability to think through lengthy problems. In Asia, they emphasize and value hard work and persistence. In America, we tend to emphasize talent. Chess has clearly taught our children that one achieves success when preparation meets opportunity - a great lesson for life.

One characteristic of the present culture is the instant gratification syndrome. The speeding treadmill of life has a way of making us want everything quickly . . . now! Your child will learn patience playing chess. Impulsive, premature attack can be lethal for the attacker who fails to patiently pursue sound development of his pieces. Many games are won by developing and waiting for your opponent to make a mistake. Chess has a way of maturing the mind's ability to slow down, think clearly, and resist emotional urges in decision making.

How Your Children Can Become Better Chess Players

Here's some ways that Johnny can become a stronger player: understand the fundamental strategies, play (preferably stronger players), work lots of chess puzzles, study books or practice with chess software. The basic strategies and sound principles of play can be learned quickly because they are like proverbs, e.g., "Don't bring your Queen out early"; "Castle early"; "Develop knights before bishops"; "When ahead in points, equal exchanges will accelerate your victory"; "Rooks belong on open files"; "Always be looking for a double attack"; "Activate the king in endgame"; and so on.

We tell our club players that the Bible explains a number of non-optional life principles by which to live. If one violates these principles, there will likely be negative consequences . . . and it's the same with chess principles.

Getting Your Children Started

We have photographs of me playing four of our children at once. They loved those games and would always ask after winning: "Did you play your hardest, Daddy?" We played off and on for a while and then we had a specially planned week to begin tournament play. We viewed the video Searching for Bobby Fischer (a wholesome movie and a true story of how a family worked through some skewed values and finally achieved a healthy, fun perspective about chess), gave them a surprise gift (chess clocks), had a lot of fun playing Blitz chess, and we went to their first tournament that Saturday. They loved it!

Join the U.S.Chess Federation. Order a tournament chess set and a chess clock. Tournaments will usually run about $8 per player.

A good set will last forever. We have replaced the felt on many of our pieces. Put your initials on the bottom of the pieces (and have your children count all the pieces every time they leave a place). Chess clocks really add a lot to playing; children seem to like having something to pop after they complete a move. Moreover, for high drama, there is nothing like a pawn race at the end of a well-played game, when there are only seconds remaining on both clocks!

Lessons for Life

Chess has the excitement of sport, the logic of science, and the beauty of art. Emanuel Lasker (World Champion for 27 straight years) said, "On the chessboard, lies and hypocrisy do not survive long." It has also been said that there are very few things that happen on a chessboard that do not happen to a person in life. A chess club has enabled our children to have wholesome fun with their family and friends. In the process, they are developing thinking skills and character which will serve them throughout their lives.

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