Chess Doesn’t Make Kids Smarter

Perhaps you saw the recent headlines here in the UK. It’s now official that chess doesn’t make kids smarter. Before I look at this more closely I’d like to take you back in time to 1993.

At a concert in leafy suburban Richmond, the then Mayor of Richmond, Anne Summers, met a successful local businessman, Stanley Grundy. Stanley had just read an article claiming that chess made kids smarter, based on this paper. He offered to provide financial support for a project to encourage chess in schools in Richmond, and so the Richmond Chess Initiative was born. If you have any experience in reading and assessing scientific papers you’ll be able to pick lots of holes in the validity of the research, but for now we’ll let that be. In Richmond, unlike in other parts of the world, there’s comparatively little scope for making kids smarter. It’s an affluent area of London with many bright kids with parents who are prepared to support them academically and ambitious for them to be successful. The RCI was successful for several years. More schools started after-school chess clubs, players from Richmond schools excelled nationally in both individual and team events, we ran an annual inter-schools championship which attracted several hundred players, and even ran two international events. Looking at the overall standard of play in the school clubs, though, it didn’t seem to me that chess was making kids smarter. Stanley wanted to run a study in Richmond, but the resources were not available. He was unwilling to listen to my objections that there’s a very big different between putting chess on the curriculum and running after-school clubs for kids who, for the most part, already know how the pieces move. Eventually the RCI started to wither away: schools became less interested, numbers of participants in our tournaments declined and Stanley’s money was running out. But we’re still there, running Richmond Junior Club and putting chess teachers into after-school clubs in the area.

Since then there has been much more research on the subject, with most studies showing positive results for chess improving kids’ mathematical abilities. You’ll find a very useful summary here.

Moving forward, the chess education charity Chess in Schools and Communities decided to commission their own study, the results of which have just been published. To their surprise, but not entirely to my surprise, the results were negative. This was how the press reported it.

Well, there’s a lot to say. First of all, it’s evident that the Daily Telegraph journalist hadn’t actually read the report. The survey had nothing at all to do with ‘pushy parents sending their children to chess classes’ but involved kids in deprived areas learning chess on the curriculum. I was in fact responsible for the original CSC curriculum, although it was never the curriculum I would have chosen to write, but I’m not sure to what extent if any this was used in the study.

So why wasn’t I surprised that the results showed no correlation between chess instruction and academic performance? Firstly, many of the studies showing positive results were not based on kids learning how the pieces move fairly quickly and then playing semi-competitive games, but involved kids using subsets of the board, pieces and rules to develop thinking and problem solving skills. While there is much that is excellent about CSC, there has always, it seems to me, been a conflict between two very different aims which would involve approaching chess in very different ways: chess as a non-competitive learning tool and chess as a competitive activity, and they’ve been trying to do both at the same time instead of just concentrating on one aim. The second reason for my lack of surprise was that the testing took place a year after the completion of the study, rather than immediately afterwards. It seems reasonable to me to assume that, because most of the kids enjoy their chess lessons, this will make them happier and more confident in the short term, but that this effect would gradually wear off.

Perhaps now we can take a different approach to chess and stop making dubious claims about chess making kids smarter. I’d go along with the two education experts quoted by the Daily Telegraph. Christopher McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, with whom I agree about both Mozart and chess: “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. Parental encouragement of their offspring should stretch beyond concerns about test marks to a love of what it means to be civilised and that includes Mozart and chess and lots of other things.” Or Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, the charity which carried out the report: “Teach chess for its own sake – for its intrinsic value and the enjoyment pupils gain from it.”

Next time I’ll consider how chess organisations might take a different approach to promoting chess. If you’ve been following my articles over the past couple of years you’ll have heard a lot of it before, but now seems a good time to repeat it.

But before then, your homework for the week is to go away and read the complete report, which you’ll find (although I’m puzzled as to why the first two conclusions, at least at the time of writing, appear to be identical) here.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.