The Value of Chess
Introduction. Recent studies have confirmed what educators have known for nearly 40 years: that chess improves academic performance, concentration, logical thinking, judgment, creativity, problem solving, emotional intelligence, and social skills. Much of the research can be found online, and we’ve tried to collect some of the best of it here. We also include, at the end of this section, some links to video clips that show, better than words on paper, what chess can do for kids.
The Ashley summary. Perhaps the best summary of the research spanning the years 1973 to 1999 appears in Maurice Ashley’s excellent Chess for Success: Using an Old Game to Build New Strengths in Children and Teens (Broadway Books/Random House, 2005) (pp. 58-64).
Ashley, raised on the rough and tumble streets of Brooklyn, discovered chess as a teenager and rose to become the first (and thus far the only) African American Grandmaster. His personal story is a testament to the role that chess can play in transforming one’s life for the better and reaching the pinnacles of success. Ashley also became a scholar of the game and an extraordinary writer, able to bring to life even the history of what some might view as dry academic research:
“The first study of note to focus on chess and aptitude in young people was conducted during the 1973-74 school year by Dr. Albert Frank at the Lisanga School in Kisangani, Zaire. Taking a group of ninety-two students between the ages of sixteen and eighteen from a fourth-year humanities class, Dr. Frank randomly split the group in half (experimental and control) and gave them a battery of aptitude tests. The experimental group was then taught chess for two hours each week with optional play after school and during vacations.
The results were surprising. After only one year of chess study, the students participating in the chess course showed a marked improvement on their numerical and verbal aptitudes. This held true not only for the better chess players, but for the chess group as a whole. The increase in verbal ability proved most puzzling to the authors of the study, as they were unable to provide an adequate explanation as to why chess should influence the development of verbal skills.
Another experiment was conducted during the 1974-76 school years by Johan Christiaen at the Assenede Municipal School in Gent, Belgium. Forty fifth-grade students were split randomly into two groups and tested, the most important being Piaget’s tests for cognitive development. The experimental group received forty-two one-hour chess lessons using the textbook Jeugdschaak (Chess for Youths).
When the kids were retested at the end of sixth grade, those who had taken chess were significantly ahead in intellectual maturation of their non-chess-playing counterparts. The transition from Piaget’s concrete level (stage three) to his formal level (stage four), where children begin deducing and hypothesizing by using more complex logic and judgment, was far accelerated in the chess-playing kids. The study’s dramatic findings compelled many scientists to call for other studies to confirm and broaden the results. The hunt was on.
The first important follow-up study was conducted over a four-year period by Dr. Robert Ferguson using mentally gifted seventh- through ninth-grade students from the Bradford Area School District in Bradford, Pennsylvania. The project, carried out from 1979 to 1983, was federally funded during the first three years and locally supported in the final year. A pretest was conducted on the students to determine their levels in two key areas: critical thinking and creativity. The students were asked to choose their own interests; fifteen chose chess, while the rest chose various other activities, including computers. Each group met once a week for thirty-two weeks; in total, each group spent sixty to sixty-four hours on their preferred activity.
As in the previous studies, the chess group significantly outperformed the non-chess groups on the post-tests, not just once, but for four years in a row. While the increase in critical thinking had been expected, it was the striking difference in three areas of creativity – fluency, flexibility, and, in particular, originality – that was the most remarkable. While exciting, the limited student sampling (fifteen) and the already high performance level of the children left even the experimenter seeking broader confirmation.
It wasn’t long in coming. In 1984, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) reported the results of a project conducted in Venezuela by the Ministry for the Development of Intelligence that included 4,226 second-grade students. The experiment showed an increase of intelligence quotient (IQ) in both male and female students as well as across all socioeconomic levels. Upon seeing the results, celebrated behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner wrote, “There is no doubt that this project in its total form will be considered as one of the greatest social experiments of this century.”
The study had a far-reaching effect. FIDE reported a huge increase in worldwide scholastic chess, with as many as thirty countries implementing chess in the curriculum of thousands of schools. A Canadian study in 1992 confirmed the Venezuelas findings when a group of first-grade chess students significantly outperformed their peers in math, both in problem solving and comprehension. In addition, young students taking part in a two-year chess study in Moldavia showed marked improvement in memory, organizational skills, fantasy, and imagination, according to country’s Education Ministry.
These approaches caught the eye of educators in the United States, who were looking for a solution to one of the most recalcitrant problems of the time: how to properly teach and motivate inner-city kids in school. In 1986, the American Chess Foundation (ACF, later renamed Chess in Schools), under the leadership of the late philanthropist Faneuil Adams Jr., began sending chess instructors into various public schools throughout New York City. The success of the program in the first five years, especially after one of the schools won a National Chess Championship, prompted the ACF to commission a study under the authorship of Dr. Stuart Margulies. Considering the emphasis placed on reading scores, the ACF decided to revisit the Zaire results by studying what effect playing chess might have on literacy in its student population.
Fifth-three elementary students in the chess program from Roberto Clemente Elementary School in the Bronk, New York, were tested and their results compared to a control group of 1,118 nonparticipants. The outcome was a watershed moment in chess education: The chess students showed such considerable gains that even the author of the study was surprised.
This surprise, however, was not shared by Felton M. Johnson, superintendent of Community School District Nine in New York City. “I am particularly pleased by Dr. Stuart Margulies’ study,” he said. “I am not surprised by the significant improvement in reading scores achieved by our students. Inherent in any demonstrated learning is a mental discipline that channels knowledge and concepts in such a way that they ensure meaningful learning. A good chess player must demonstrate a variety of higher order thinking skills that are transferable directly to virtually any academic discipline.”
The study sent a strong ripple through those paying attention in the field of education. As stories of inner-city youth winning major scholastic chess championships started making the daily newspapers, watchful principals began lining up to get their kids involved in chess programs. Scholastic chess teams sprung up overnight; winning rograms found themselves being invited to City Hall to receive mayoral citations. The New York City Schools Chess Program exploded to tens of thousands of kids within the next several years, and chess began to blossom in schools all across the country.
In 1999, Dr. Margulies and colleague Dr. Kathleen Speeth, supported by Chess in Schools, created an original study to test the effect of chess instruction on emotional intelligence, the importance of which has long been championed by multiple intelligence theorist Howard Gardner as critical to success in the classroom. The factors assessed were self-confidence, empathic respect for others, mood management, frustration tolerance, and sustained efforts to achieve personal goals. The remarks of an experimental group of sixty fifth-grade students, evenly split between boys and girls, and a control group of the same composition were evaluated by three independent scorers. The results were off the scale. In every single category, the chess-playing students, with 91.4 percent of their responses being scored as emotionally intelligent, outstripped the non-chess-playing ones, who scored 64.4 percent overall. Intriguingly, the greatest differentiator was on the topic of respect for others: The chess students showed a whopping 42 percent difference in their scores.
These results have been borne out in schools. Educators at Roberto Clemente report that chess has improved not only academic scores but social performance as well. “The effects have been remarkable,” says one teacher. “Not only have the reading and match skills of these children soared, their ability to socialize has increased substantially, too. Our studies have shown that incidents of suspension and outside altercations have decreased by at least 60 percent since these children became interested in chess.”
“I like the aspect of socialization,” says Jerome Fishman, a guidance counselor at J.H.S. 231 in Queens, New York. “You get into friendly, competitive activity where no one gets hurt. It’s strategic, and you use logic to plan an attack…. Aside from being good for the cognitive development of these youngsters, chess develops their social skills, too. It makes them feel [as if] they belong. Whenever we get a child transferred from another school who may have maladaptive behavior, our principal [Dr. Wilton Anderson] suggests chess as a way of helping him find his niche.”
Other less stringent studies and thousands of individual stories have borne out the conclusions of these studies. Connie Wingate, principal of P.S. 123 in New York, may have said it best: “This is wonderful! This is marvelous! This is stupendous! It’s the finest thing that ever happened to this school…. It has been an absolute plus for the students who were directly involved as well as for the rest of the school…. More than anything else, chess makes a difference… what it has done for these children is simply beyond anything that I can describe.” With such an enormous body of empirical and anecdotal support, it’s easy to see why many educators around the country have embraced chess as a primary enrichment activity for their students.”
Other summaries and compilations of research conducted through 2003. We’ve mentioned that much chess research is available online. Three additional surveys of the research are "Benefits of Chess for Academic Performance and Creative Thinking” (Aleksandr Kitsis) http://vivacityinc.com/chess/Articles/BenefitsOfChess.pdf (undated, covers research through 2002), "The Case for Chess as a Tool to Develop our Children's Minds" (Peter Dauvergne), http://www.auschess.org.au/articles/chessmind.htm (2000), and “The Benefits of Chess in Education: A Collection of Studies and Papers on Chess and Education” (Patrick S. McDonald) http://www.gardinerchess.com/publications/BenefitsOfChessInEdScreen2%5B1%5D.pdf (undated, covers research through 2003).
More recent research: the Portland and Philadelphia studies. Two recent unpublished studies confirm and supplement the earlier research. A 2006 study of Portland’s excellent “Chess for Success” program focused on 61 Title 1 schools and found that chess improved students’ math and reading scores. “Chess for Success Evaluation – Final Report,” Submitted to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Program, U.S. Department of Justice from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, Kim Yap, Project Director (2006). We’ve prepared a summary of the Portland study, and the full text of the report is available from ICA.
The most recent study we know of, conducted in 2009, focused on kids in some of the poorest and most dangerous areas of Philadelphia and found that chess programs offered during the critical unsupervised hours after school not only improved participants’ test scores in reading and math, but had significant positive effects on their school attendance and behavior. “An Evaluation of the Chess Challenge Program of ASAP/After School Activities Partnership” by Dr. Joseph DuCette, Temple University (2009) (see esp. pp. 1, 2, 8-9, 12-13). Our summary of the Philadelphia study is also available here, and the full text is available from us upon request.