Chess And ‘Fun’ Defined

The idea of chess being ‘fun’ is one which has been discussed a lot by The Chess Improver contributors so I thought I’d try to lend greater clarity to the matter. Many people believe that chess should be ‘fun’, especially with regard to children playing.

First of all let’s try to define exactly what ‘fun’ is, at least in contemporary culture. There seems to be clear agreement that ‘fun’ is achieved by some amusing and possibly boisterous activity that is not at all serious. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary seems fairly clear on this as are all the others.

So is chess ‘fun’? Er, well no. Actually it’s not ‘fun’ at all, at least not the way I do it. Neither has it met the definition of ‘fun’ at any time in my life. I’ve played seriously, never boisterously and did not find the experience amusing. It was more like a fight to the death in which nobody actually got hurt. And it has felt like that in every single game that I’ve played.

What words would I use to describe the chess experience? ‘Challenging’ would certainly be one and ‘fascinating’ is another, it can also be ‘exhausting’ if you play a couple of long-play games in a day. You can also learn a lot about yourself and the way that your mind works. There is ongoing problem solving in which you try to answer one of your opponent’s queries and then set him a better one in return. This is appealing to certain types of mind, but not to all.

Where does the idea come from that chess should be ‘fun’? I suspect it’s a fudge that attempts to reconcile the idea that children should have ‘fun’ with wanting them to have the proven educational benefits of chess. But I don’t think you can really have both at the same time. Chess lessons can have lighter moments and activities can be created that get kids’ attention, but they should not be ‘boisterous’, ‘amusing’ and ‘not at all serious’. At least not if they’re going to learn anything.

Accordingly I think we should abandon the idea that chess can be ‘fun’, or at the very least not lead with this argument. It’s important for kids to have time for fun activities but the ‘fun’ is of a much higher quality when you take the chess board away.

The approach I use with my own son (now 11) is to have set periods of free time when he can have all the ‘fun’ he wants (within reason!) and those with structured extra-curricula learning. The latter involves some support for his English (he does Kumon English), board games (Ticket to Ride is our current favorite) and chess, with incentives (favorite food at home, Wagamama visits and pocket money) for him to work on his game. He doesn’t see chess as ‘fun’ because it isn’t, it clearly involves some work if you want to do it well. But he is making steady progress with the needed thinking skills and loves the sense of achievement from being good at something and having some trophies on the mantelpiece.

When setting this kind of agenda I think it’s also important to have a cultural undertone that personal development is a worthwhile goal in life. So homes in which parents try to develop themselves are more likely to foster this attitude in their children, setting the right example is far more important than giving the right advice.

Nigel Davies

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About NigelD

Nigel Davies is an International Chess Grandmaster living in St. Helens in the UK. The winner of 15 international tournaments he is also a former British U21 and British Open Quickplay Champion and has represented both England and Wales on several occasions. These days Nigel teaches chess through his chess training web site, Tiger Chess, which has articles, recommendations, a monthly clinic, videos and courses. His students include his 15 year old son Sam who is making rapid progress with his game. Besides teaching chess, Nigel is a registered tai chi and qigong instructor and runs several weekly classes.