Chess Is Bad For You

“Chess is good for you”, we are told. “Chess makes kids smarter.” “Chess helps kids think analytically or how to think one step ahead, which is a good life skill”, according to a (not terribly literate) Google Alert which reached my inbox a couple of minutes ago.

It’s always struck me that saying “Chess is good for you” makes as much sense as saying “Eating is good for you”. Whether or not it’s good for you depends on where, when, how and how much. Perhaps we should deconstruct this sentence.

First of all, proponents of all extra-curricular activities – sports, arts, music, philosophy, meditation and much else, claim that their preferred activity is ‘good for you’. Even proponents of computer games claim that they are ‘good for you’. Many authorities on early childhood believe that unstructured play is ‘better for you’ than structured play and that outdoor play is ‘better for you’ than indoor play. Once you’ve learnt your literacy, numeracy and science at school, once you’ve eaten and slept, you have a limited amount of time and thousands of exciting and interesting things you could do, most of which are also ‘good for you’. Schools, by their nature, can only promote a few of these. Serious chess will, inevitably, only be a minority interest. I would put it to you that a lot more children would benefit from singing in a choir, playing in an orchestra or taking part in a sports team than would benefit from playing serious chess.

Next, pay a visit to a typical primary school chess club. If you’re a serious chess player yourself you’ll be amazed at the standard of play. Not how high it is, but how low it is. The fundamental problem is that playing good chess is much too hard for most young children. They will make little or no progress just playing chess once a week at school. Those who are getting some help at home do progress up to a point, but after 18 months or so find it hard to get any further (a later post will explain the reasons for this). Those who are not getting help at home, which will, in my experience be about half of them, will not get anywhere. Looking at the quality of the games, it’s hard to see that many of the children are getting very much academic benefit from chess.

The club may have a strict teacher who insists on silence so that the children can concentrate: but for most children, ‘fun’ is having a good time chatting to your friends and playing chess in silence is more like doing a hard maths exam. Some children will enjoy it but many will not. Some teachers will be less strict and the children will be chatting, not always about chess, in which case they probably won’t be concentrating. Maybe you can’t have it both ways: either it’s a fun game or a game which will make you smarter, but, for most kids, it’s unlikely to be both.

Think also about the sort of parents who will be attracted by the ‘chess makes you smarter’ message. The parents who are very keen for their children to achieve academic success will sign their children up for chess on the promise of a few extra IQ points, but pull them out as their exams approach because they need more time for study and revision. You also get, at least in my part of the world, the parents who sign their children up for two or three ‘improving’ activities every evening with another half dozen at weekends. They have to rush away from their school chess club in order to get to their gym club or Mandarin lessons on time. If you suggest they should join a Junior Chess Club, play in a tournament or solve some puzzles at home they explain that they want their children to lead a balanced life so don’t want them to spend more than an hour a week on any one activity. You know what happens to kids like that? By the time they’re 13 they’re walking around like zombies saying “I’m no good at anything”. They’ve tried scores of different activities but everything they try there are other kids who are better than them – because they spend more time on them. Jack of all trades, master of none. Remember Laura and Martin, the two outstanding 15-year-old musicians mentioned in my previous post? Do they, practising four to six hours a day, lead a balanced life? Has this single-mindedness turned them into freaks or geeks? Not at all, from the way they spoke to the children and signed autographs for them afterwards they came across as exceptionally pleasant, friendly, and, dare I say it, ‘normal’.

So, please, let’s stop saying ‘Chess is Good For You’ and ‘Chess Makes You Smarter’ and instead put across a different message. That chess, if you study it properly and take it seriously, will be for some children a life-transforming experience, giving them an interest which they will, if they choose, be able to pursue for the rest of their lives. And that, I suggest, is far more valuable than a few extra IQ points.

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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.