Chess is inarguably experiencing a renaissance. A confluence of the pandemic, the move to online chess and roaring success of The Queen’s Gambit has kickstarted a chess boom that shows no signs of abating anytime soon. And as chess aficionados have been telling us all for years, chess is so much more than a game. There are tangible academic, social and wellbeing outcomes associated with chess. This week on School Stream, we look at the benefits for students and share tips from the pros about starting a chess club at your school.

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Why is chess so popular now?

In an age of online everything, chess has not only endured but has thrived and adapted to appeal to an ever-increasing number of new players. Why now? While chess may well have been the perfect pandemic hobby (no yeast required!) and The Queen’s Gambit certainly bolstered the appeal of chess, people seem to have stayed enthusiastic about the 1500 year old sport, flocking to chess clubs to play in person as well as online. In fact, data from chess platforms indicates many hundreds of millions of games are being played each month – that’s several thousand games every minute! Some people are attracted to the idea of giving their brain a good workout, while others love the competitive aspect or the fact that no two games will ever be the same. Whatever motivates players to stay at the board, it’s clear there are plenty of benefits.

Does chess help students academically? (Spoiler: yes!)

If the research is anything to go by, the answer to this question is a resounding ‘yes’. Chess also extends beyond the classroom to help in other areas of life too. 

“Chess helps you to concentrate, improve your logic. It teaches you to play by the rules and take responsibility for your actions, and how to problem solve in an uncertain environment.” 

(Former) World Champion Garry Kasparov 

Here are some evidence-backed findings:

Chess helps with calculated risk taking

A 2021 study by researchers from Monash and Deakin Universities found children who were taught the game of chess, and played regularly, were more likely to be less risk averse than their peers:

Students participated in a 30-hour chess program, endorsed by the World Chess Federation, across a three-week period. They were assessed on their cognitive and non-cognitive behavioural changes, including risk, time management and ability to focus, for nearly a year after the training had ended:

“In many life situations, it is also the case that with great risk often comes great reward. However, the line between necessary calculated risk-taking and reckless behaviour is sometimes difficult to determine. Learning chess can help bridge that gap.”

Young chess players appear to back up the formal findings of the study:

“You’ve gotta learn when to take the risk, how to take the risk, and what benefit can I get from taking that risk, and what are the losses?”

Math skills and Problem solving

Chess is a problem-solving exercise and science experiment rolled into one, and many studies have found that even short-term practice of chess can enhance children’s mathematical abilities. In a typical game of chess, students are simultaneously looking for patterns, connecting ideas, dealing with quadrants and spatial awareness, testing hypotheses, analysing results and weighing up multiple options. 

“Playing chess is just problem-solving exercise, after problem-solving exercise, so students are always looking for patterns, connecting ideas, they are analysing the board, they are trying to think ahead of what they are doing and what their opponent is doing.” ABC North Coast

Critical thinking 

In the attention economy, critical thinking is another important skill for success in life and education. Chess supports the development of this important mental muscle as chess favours the ‘if-this, then-that thinker. 

Concentration and Memory

One of the core educational qualities attributed to playing chess is improved concentration. Don’t take our word for it though, legendary chess champion Bobby Fisher lists concentration (alongside memory and imagination) as a necessary element to becoming a great chess player. When it comes to memory, Other studies have found that chess encourages memory because players need to remember complex rules when making a move, and use memory recall to avoid previous mistakes or remembering the playing style of the opponent.

Chess makes you a better law student (and lawyer!)

If any of your students are aspiring to a role in the legal profession, chess could be a great starting point. Professor of Law, Mark Kende recently argued in The Conversation that playing chess is great training to be a successful law student and lawyer. However, being able to commit to an intellectually rigorous discipline, the capacity to strategise effectively, being able to identify and solve problems and apply principles are helpful skills all students can benefit from, no matter what profession they want to pursue.

Chess Clubs at School

Chess clubs are a great way for children and teens to improve their chess abilities while enjoying the competitive fun of playing games. It’s also a great setting to reinforce some essential life skills too. 

School chess clubs emphasise fair play, learning to win (and lose) with grace, good sportsmanship, doing your best, promoting a ‘never say die’ attitude, meeting new friends, building confidence, and reinforcing positive feelings towards school. The St Louis Chess Club found that 65% of students look forward to school more on the days they get to play chess. 

Setting up a chess club

One of the stumbling blocks when it comes to starting a chess club at school is the belief that you need a chess guru to lead the way, but a teacher or volunteer (with all the usual checks, of course) can easily run the show. Thankfully, the start-up costs for a chess club are mercifully low. Start small, with six-ten boards to accommodate 10-20 players. All you need now is a room, and if you are planning to incorporate instruction alongside the games, a demonstration board. Last but not least, make sure you have a place to write the inevitable waiting list for students keen to get in on chess club action!

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