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.

Topics: Intelligence

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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chengorov chengorov 10/13/2018 12:15
I cannot believe that not even one child did not have improved results. The teachers should have worked on getting the children to cross transfer skills. If the pupils had been taught to apply the skills learn't from the chessboard to the other disciplines i guess they would have had better results.
Woodpusher16 Woodpusher16 8/12/2016 05:54
Voltaire 1694-1778 The well known french writer, philosopher and chess player said" CHESS, the game that gives most honor to human intelligence" For children to act on their ideas and wants and seing them through to realization can be very motivating. Also practice their memory skills to tranfer their energy and emotions into productive results. that is what a CHESS GAME does!

Now that CHESS is recognize as a"Sport", because it requires mental, physical energy endurance and also because it gets children to be involved and work together. IT promotes therefore social benefits, discipline and control. It improves" mathematics" insidiusly because the child has to calculate: moves, exchanges, variances, positions plan etc. The mere 30 hours of chess lessons is definitely insufficient for them to absorb all the benefits of chess.
This Survey is inconclusive as far has looking for maths improving and also others school subjects and lets forget whether the child gets smartet. A Survey must be complete cover all elements, subjects, evidences etc ,otherwise it gives Erronous results.
John Stockton John Stockton 8/12/2016 11:22
A really good chess player is mostly determned by the makeup of his brain--the number of nural connections to certain parts of the brain. Similar to those special people, who can remember what the weather was on a particular day 15 yearsa ago. Child prodicys?--chess, music and math--there is a reason for that--all has to do with the makeup of the brain, certain parts of it.

Learning chess can make you "wiser" in the sense that you understand that your actions now can have consequences later on, and for life experiences this can be useful. And there is also the aspect of increased concentration, which can also be useful in life experiences and events, or job related issues.

But to become "smarter" after your brain has more or less developed in its own way--by learning chess--I doubt it
jones99 jones99 8/8/2016 06:17
If a kid has reached the level of proficiency at solving mates in 3, isn't that demonstrating strong problem solving skills? Certainly it takes concentration, calculation, precision. Depending on the mate, the solution may require subtlety, attention to minute details and or unusual twists. What cognitive skills must the child have developed in order to navigate all those obstacles to a correct solution.

The thing is, most children will take a lot more than 30 hours to reach this level of proficiency. A lot will drop out before they ever reach this level. Of those that drop, for most of them, I suspect that what they got out of chess is proportionate to how much effort they put into it. But for the ones who can solve mates in 2, and mates in 3, and so on, obviously they have developed some cognitive skills. And playing well involves a lot more then solving problems.

Some people have said, what about famous chessplayers like Bobby Fischer or Paul Morphy. Well, there are plenty of people in all fields who are very smart, but still have psychological issues. Perhaps through the social pressures of being a world chess champion (or being denied the chance to become champion) in the mostly non-chess culture of the United States, chess contributed to their personal problems. Whatever you make of their personal problems, they still developed cognitive skills that led them to unique and amazing solutions. Their personal issues didn't stop their professional work from being brilliant.

Now most people wouldn't use the word "brilliant" unless they were demonstrating skills way beyond what most of us have achieved
Karbuncle Karbuncle 8/7/2016 07:18
Taking an active interest in studying chess can make one smarter at any age, not just as a child. The visual aspect of problem-solving puzzles from chess actually improves your ability to solve visual puzzles in other tests as well. Last time I took an IQ test based on visual puzzles, my results were off-the-scale genius, but I knew I was merely using the same techniques as used in chess visualization.
Rational Rational 8/6/2016 10:28
I do feel chess helps with the mathematics in graphs and coordinate systems.
If everyone does chess though it would become just another pointless subject.
I think bridge would be better as teamwork is involved and there is more variety of results due to the random element but still a lot of skill.

Surely good maths teachers can make maths exciting anyway without needing chess. It does seem to help concentration though and the development of sportsmanship, shaking hands etcetera.
fons fons 8/6/2016 01:08
Teach kids (more) music and their overall results might improve as well. Let kids play more sports and their overall results might improve as well.

Or take the example of Finland:

"Finland’s school system is top-ranked among developed nations
Finnish children do not begin school until the age of seven, when they are developmentally ready to learn, and schooling is compulsory for just nine years. School days are shorter and classes are fewer. Homework is minimal. There are no mandated standardized tests. There are no rankings, comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions." - source
promoKC promoKC 8/6/2016 12:33
Playing chess makes smart children even smarter while not affecting the rest. So the results should be valid.
flyboy217 flyboy217 8/6/2016 06:52
The question is, would Tommy have become just as obsessed with (say) basketball as he became with chess? In other words, maybe it was Tommy's budding (but innate) ability to focus that made him improve at chess, and not vice versa?

It's hard to know (even if your intuition strongly convinces you one way or the other), which is the point of studies like this.
Isledoc Isledoc 8/6/2016 04:03
kids who like math tend to gravitate to chess so some credit chess falsely with their math skills.An unhealthy obsession with cheess could be credited with producing unbalanced individuals such as Bobby Fischer.Chess is a wonderful game with a terrific historic legacy for all to enjoy.Who wants to watch a rerun of the Wimbledon final?Not many.But chess players can go over the great games and enjoy.Those interested in chess should stop trying to justify themselves and prove its value.Other sports do not do this because even lesser players make such unseemly amounts of money that makes an interest justifiable.Second rank chess players unfortunately struggle to even make a living.
Fourier Fourier 8/6/2016 03:48
I think that chess and math are a lot less correlated than people, especially parents, tend to assume. For every John Nunn out there, there are plenty of people who excel at one but suck at the other. Both however suffer from the same image problem - that they are reserved for nerdy intellectual types. Hopefully that can change!
genem genem 8/5/2016 11:31
Maybe next these researchers can test whether training youngsters in Accounting will make them better at History.
wethalon wethalon 8/5/2016 10:04
In my experience learning and teaching math for 30 years, the best way to improve your math is to do math.
amosburn amosburn 8/5/2016 09:38
I would like to who who taught the classes. Simply knowing the movrs is not likely to change anything much. Chess is one of the mechanisms that allow a mature mind to come close to one that is growing
bouncyaguila bouncyaguila 8/5/2016 06:32
This study sounds reasonable. One problem with the link between chess and concentration is selection bias: it is not chess that helps improve concentration/results, it is that kids/adults that are able to concentrate enjoy chess more and are more likely to stick with chess (and their higher ability to concentrate leads to better results).

The setup of the study sounds correct to avoid this bias: randomly take kids and teach them chess and then test whether their performance has improved. 30 hours is a significant amount of time - enough to learn how pieces move and basic openings and endgames, perhaps more.

But of course even if chess does not "improve" a child, it doesn't take away from enjoying chess (as long as the child likes it).
ARK_ANGEL ARK_ANGEL 8/5/2016 02:18
I do really feel this experiment has it's own flows. I feel it is not properly conducted. I am not a professional chess player nor I am a professional researcher. But I learned chess when I was a child. Even though I don't practice chess nowadays I am grateful to my parents for teaching me that. Even people believe it or not one of the main advantage is it trains your brain to focus. - CONCENTRATION And by studying chess endgames and chess tactics definitely improves your logical thinking. (Like solving puzzles or mysteries) - IMAGINATION. And studying lot of openings and remembering famous games and board positions definitely improve your memory. It enhance your MEMORY function. Where it says professional players can remember most of the games they played. It is because they have involuntary trained their brain for memorizing. These are the basic important attributes I was endowed by playing chess. And the the psychology. So don't publish these nonesonce with out solid proof. Ask Polgar sisters.
himalayanbear himalayanbear 8/5/2016 12:30
these researchers live in their islands... go kids play chess!
Steven Gerrard Steven Gerrard 8/5/2016 11:17
Parents are always looking for ways to give their kids the edge in education. Getting into the best schools etc. Don't there is much evidence chess improves, or makes worse, academic performance. It mostly demands on the kids attitude and ability for the different subjects. What parents try to do to improve this is largely a waste of time.
SunriseK SunriseK 8/5/2016 10:23
Too little and too late!

Is this a serious research?
They gave just 30 hours of chess lessons (around 1 hour per week), over just an academic year to children aged 9 and 10 yet... and they pretend to draw reliable conclusions based on this???
To be steady, they should have started to train them since they were 6 years old and continued the training at least for 3 academic years, giving them at least 60 hours per year of chess lessons and practice (also allowing them to have some tournament from time to time). Otherwise it seems to me ridiculous! Were maybe the reaserchers biased in advance with the idea to "demonstrate" what they finally concluded?
lajosarpad lajosarpad 8/5/2016 09:45
I do not know whether chess improves intelligence. Intuitively I believe intelligence is independent from chess, but learning to concentrate, as Tommy said certainly helps. Also, the preparation before a game is a training to do systematic researching while having fun. Learning to lose is one of the most important lessons. Those, who can accept defeat and take it manly will not get despaired if something more serious than a game of chess goes wrong. So, by playing chess, I believe one will not become more intelligent, but will become smarter and wiser.

As about the study, I am not convinced by it. It comes from the assumption that the chosen children have the same abilities as the control group. Since ability measuring is a very difficult task in itself, the study probably contains a lot of inaccuracies. Also, the benefits of playing chess might not be felt in school. So:

- we do not know whether the chess playing kids were as good as the others at the start, unless we believe that their results in school are good as comparator
- we do not know whether playing chess improved children's abilities. All we can say is that we did not observe such an improvement
- we do not know whether the 3000 children in the group were special from this point of view

The study, as a result, did not convince me. Note, that when one becomes more wiser, he or she will not necessary understand math, but will do better choices in life.