Benefits of chess in the school population

by Percy Guzman
1/3/2023 – When we see a child playing chess, it is easy for us to associate such activity with the development of important cognitive skills. Chess is perceived as a way to improve logical reasoning and the ability to solve complex problems. However, what level of scientific verification have we obtained so far on this issue? Peruvian psychologist Percy Guzman carried out an experimental study to elucidate these questions. | Photo: Nadja Wittmann

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Looking at four variables

When we see a child playing chess, it is easy for us to associate such activity with the development of important cognitive skills for their academic life and their adaptation in general. After all, chess is widely known as a “scientific game”: a challenge for intelligence, a way to improve logical reasoning and a way to improve the ability to solve complex problems. A cursory analysis of the cognitive tasks that come into play in a game of chess seems to support this conception, since it is undeniable that the psychological processes of attention, concentration, focal and group analysis, calculation, strategic and spatial vision, imagination and decision-making, among others, form a substantial part of the chess experience. However, what level of scientific verification have we obtained so far on this issue?

In reality, it has only been since the final decades of the last century that studies with an experimental design have been gradually developed to clarify the panorama. Before that, books and magazines abounded with what were essentially anecdotal reports and purely theoretical analyses, with the occasional exception. Most of these investigations have been developed in Europe, particularly in Italy, followed by the United States, while very few have taken place in Latin America. Now, the path has been cleared, although we still cannot have much precision about what type of cognitive or socio-emotional variables can be significantly stimulated by the practice of chess in children and young people. Some of the questions that need to be dealt with are: from what age and with what kind of approach recreational chess or targeted training will have to be done; with what frequency and what should be the duration of sessions; and for how many months or academic periods.

Experimental investigations

Out of all the meta-analysis studies rigorously designed (experimental or quasi-experimental) only about 40% have managed to demonstrate a significant influence of chess on psychological variables (for example, Nicotera & Stuit, 2014; Sala & Gobet, 2016; Trinchero, 2012). And the effects found were more noticeable for maths skills, followed by cognitive skills and reading skills (g= 0.382, 0.330 and 0.248, respectively). Likewise, such analyses suggested that the chances of achieving good results increase if contact with the game starts from 1st or 2nd grade of primary school, if there is a pressure-free environment, if there exists motivation for the children’s practice on their own, and if a minimum of 25-30 hours of training and chess exercise are carried out.

In this line, we set out to write a psychology PhD thesis (Guzman, 2022) which is the first study in Peru that would contribute to exploring the possibilities created by chess as a pedagogical instrument and as a tool for the development of cognitive and socio-emotional skills with primary school children. It is not necessary to delve into the limitations of academic performance that our elementary and secondary school students have, reflected in the international evaluations carried out regularly, and that make it urgent to find means, strategies and resources that allow our young people to be up to the task of the growing challenges that modernity and globalization have presented to us for decades. Chess is a potential resource that, without major costs and in a playful and entertaining environment, can contribute to this goal, in addition to enjoying a good public image as a pastime that stimulates logical reasoning and critical thinking.

Methodology

The study was carried out with a sample of 108 students (60 male and 48 female) in the fourth grade of primary school from a state educational institution in Metropolitan Lima (socioeconomic level C and D), aged between 9 and 10. In order to demonstrate the influence of chess on the proposed psychological variables (intellectual capacity, numerical comprehension, reading comprehension and self-esteem) it was essential for the research to be experimental (a quasi-experimental design, since there is no random allocation of subjects), with pre- and post-test evaluations, and with two contrast groups: the traditional control group and the active control group.

The inclusion of an active control group serves to clarify the influence of non-specific and placebo factors associated with the presence of a chess instructor who performs a weekly activity with the experimental group — the instruction in Marinera, a national dance in Peru, was chosen for this purpose. This double contrast in design had been recommended in assessments of previous studies, but had been hardly ever put into practice. So, in order to demonstrate a positive influence of chess practice in schoolchildren, it was necessary that, starting from a situation of equality between the three groups (pretest), statistically significant differences were found in the post-test in favour of the experimental group in comparison with the two control groups.

The program was carried out effectively for 5 months, with a total of 20 sessions of approximately 90 minutes each. The experimental group sessions were held weekly in the same classroom and had a specialized teacher in charge, who made use of the appropriate material: a wall-board with magnetized pieces, 15 chess sets with a wooden board and compact plastic pieces (size 4), blackboard, markers and stationery if applicable. The sessions were aimed at enabling students to play a chess game in full (opening, middle game and endgame), applying the basic rules and strategies of the game. It was assumed that they started from “level zero” — i.e. they had no prior knowledge. Each session had well-defined goals, adequate resources and complied with the methodology planned in advance. Simultaneously and with the same time allocation, the active control group also had their Marinera lessons with a specialized teacher in the patio adjacent to their classroom.

Four psychological tests were applied to evaluate the selected variables, both in the pre-test and the post-test stages:

  • Progressive Matrices Test, Special Scale
  • Numeric Comprehension for the Primary Level
  • Reading Comprehension for the Primary Level
  • Coopersmith Self-Esteem Inventory for Schoolchildren

All these tests had previously proven to be reliable and valid in this environment.

Results

Equal results were achieved, using the appropriate statistical methods, in the pre-test evaluations between the three groups. In the post-test evaluation, equal results were achieved in three of the four variables examined; the exception was the Self-Esteem Inventory, and only in the male subsample, where a favourable influence of playing chess was verified, since the experimental group significantly outperformed the control group (p = .011; effect size 0.84, large) and the active control group (p = .050; effect size 0.74, medium).

We believe that this finding helps to partially explain the perceived predominance of men over women in chess practice and mastery, a superiority that is surprising since it includes purely psychological skills in which there should not be such an imbalance of skills. As it is well-known, in chess contests there is usually a female group and another male or open group (it can include women who agree to compete against men). Naturally, there are specific exceptions, but what has been stated is true in all countries. In the latest FIDE ratings list (January 2023), there is not a single woman among the 100 best players in the world.

Various hypotheses have been postulated to explain this phenomenon, which is of great interest to differential psychology, given the differences in aggressiveness, initiative, spatial and temporal skills, numerical ability, perseverance, emotionality and patience that exist. It is of interest to figure out whether these differences have more to do with genetics or with the environment. Until now, no consensus has been reached on this question, but it seems clear that chess attracts more men, and they feel more comfortable within the game’s environment. If this is the case, it could be conjectured that self-esteem, as a regulatory variable, may be an additional element within the constellation of factors that, by reinforcing the feeling of achievement, competence, and recognition, contributes to the masculine predominance — that is, men attach more importance to chess, are prouder of their good results and feel more motivated to continue improving (Maass, D'Ettole & Cadinu, 2008). It will be left for future investigations to reinforce, qualify or discard this conjecture.

Going back to the original goals of the study, it was not possible to verify a favourable influence of chess on the variables of intellectual capacity, numerical comprehension or reading comprehension. We believe that there are at least three factors that could have affected the results: (1) the sensitivity of the psychological instruments used, which due to their own characteristics and method of application, perhaps were not the most suitable for detecting positive changes; (2) the limitation in the number of chess practice sessions (twenty) and in the time allocated for the study (five months), which barely met the lower limits recommended by previous research — since it is difficult in studies of this nature to be able to count on the optimum conditions desirable for a program of at least a medium scope; and (3), the presence of different teachers in charge of the four classrooms that constituted the sample, since their differential intervention in subjects related to mathematics and reading could well influence the variables studied, being this a difficult factor to evaluate and control. On this last point, perhaps the only way to overcome this potential limitation would be to have a much larger sample, from various primary grades and from different schools, which, due to its breadth, allows diluting the influence of the personal characteristics of the teachers in charge.

Conclusion and recommendations

It is encouraged to carry out additional experimental studies that implement entry and exit evaluations in their design, and at least two control groups (passive and active), and that they continue uninterruptedly for a minimum of 8 months and complete a total of 25 to 30 practice sessions, of around 90 minutes each. Likewise, and in parallel to the investigations with large samples, more in-depth studies could be developed with small but selected samples — for example of chess players of different categories (novices, amateurs and masters) — and using individual psychological tests of greater sensitivity and specificity, which explore areas and psychological processes in a more profound way: for example, with comparative analyses of working and long-term memory, visual and spatial imagination, figurative calculation, selective and global attention, abstract reasoning, temperament, and social life. Or focus on other executive functions: planning, self-regulation, mental flexibility, inhibition, and time management.

Finally, we believe that the investigation of the influence of chess practice on psychological and cognitive variables is still far from conclusive; assumptions of a positive effect have not always been verified in rigorous studies with robust and demanding designs, but there are promising signs in the form of favourable results that warrant further investigation. Chess continues to be a potential tool which — at a lower cost and in a playful and healthy, entertaining environment — can bring benefits to its practitioners, especially children and youth.

References

  1. Guzman, J. (2022). Influence of chess on intellectual capacity, numerical and reading comprehension, and self-esteem in fourth grade students. [PhD thesis, Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Faculty of Psychology, Postgraduate Unit]. Institutional repository Cybertesis UNMSM. http://cybertesis.unmsm.edu.pe/handle/20.500.12672/18931
  2. Maass, A., D'Ettole, C. & Cadinu, M. (2008). Checkmate? The role of gender stereotypes in the ultimate intellectual sport. European Journal of Social Psychology. 38, 231-245 (2008). Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.440/pdf
  3. Nicotera, A. & Stuit, D. (2014). Literature Review of Chess Studies. Basis policy research. Retrieved from http://saintlouischessclub.org/sites/default/files/CCSCSL%20Literature%20Review%20of%20Chess%20Studies%20-%20November%202014.pdf
  4. Sala, G. & Gobet, F. (2016). Do the benefits of chess instruction transfer to academic and cognitive skills? A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review 18, 46-57. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1747938X16300112
  5. Trinchero, R. (2012). Chess as a cognitive training ground. Six years of trials in primary schools. Gli scacchi, un gioco per crescere. Six years of experimentation in the primary school. Franco Angeli.

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Psychologist at the Hipólito Unanue National Hospital in Lima, university professor and inveterate chess fan.
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