Does playing chess make children smarter?

by Frederic Friedel
8/5/2016 – The meme is clear: teach your kids chess and they will get better grades in school. Everyone has experience that supports this thesis – certainly we do , from two decades ago! But a systematic study of 3,000 primary school children, who took part in a trial to see if playing chess improved their maths results, seems to come to a sobering conclusion: no improvement compared to children who didn't receive chess lessons. What do you think?

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The pupils, aged 9 and 10, involved received 30 hours of chess lessons over one academic year, following a standard chess class timetable with trained chess tutors. "Chess may develop and nourish innate intelligence but will not bestow ability," said Christopher McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. He called the latest research "a wake up call for pushy parents who can make their child's life a misery by a naive belief in educational miracles." But it is still beneficial: "Children should play chess and listen to Mozart for pleasure and as an antidote to the widespread addiction to digital technology and social media sites."

The study reported this week in the news media is the first that was carried out in England. Research in outher countries have shown an increase in academic attainment for students playing chess. And it is certainly our experience that chess playing children develop greater self-confidence and the ability to think logically and strategically. But most of all: they learn to concentrate.

This is especially telling during a development phase – seven to twelve years – when the attention span is normally around ten seconds. This we have tested by using longer and longer sentences, with subordinate clauses, and measuring how long it takes a child to lose the thread and turn away. At the same time it is deeply impressive to see a ten-year-old playing in a chess club, staring at a board for three hours, fully concentrated on a single task.

At ten my son Tommy (front right) played in a local chess club, and in regional and national championships.

Tommy was trained by ChessBase programmer Matthias Feist, who was the captain of their team. I would drop Tom at the club and after a few hours drive back to pick him up. Usually I would find the lad staring at the board, in deep concentration. He would glance up and shake his head – no, not yet, I am busy.

This is Tommy two decades ago receiving lessons from a visiting grandmaster you may or may not recognize. I told Jon Speelman he must not let Tommy win, and he said "Of course not!" After winning he gave the lad lessons.

And this is Tommy getting lessons from a visiting Indian GM in our garden. They often played during breakfast, and I believe the overall score was 29:1 in Anand's favour (Tommy flagged him once when he was distracted).

I apologize for the quality of the pictures in this report. They were produced on a strip of celluloid and a chemical process, before the invention of photography – well, digital photography.

This is Tommy taking on the entire Deep Blue team, Murray Campbell and Feng-hsiung Hsu, who were visiting us in Germany. Tommy did not win the match – after all Murray is an IM.

At around thirteen Tommy discovered a different game, one that was just as challenging to young mind that enjoys being strained. And also gave him far better chances to earn a living in adulthood. The new game was programming, and Tommy excelled at it. Today, just over 30, he is a high-class programmer. When asked how he manages to do some of the extraordinary things he is known for, like writing a full chess engine in 36 hours, he says: I learned to concentrate, as a child, playing chess.

Well this is one of perhaps half a dozen cases I have witnessed. The English study had 3,000 subjects, but it only looked at a few correlations: math, science and English results. There is anecdotal evidence that playing chess at an early age improves school results in general. If this is true I believe that it is the result of one main factor: children learn to concentrate. In whatever they do.

Tell us what you think, tell us if you have independent experience in this area.

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.


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