Is It the Chess?

It was great to see a chess player, Sharon Daniel, win Child Genius 2014 on Sunday evening. Sharon actually mentioned that one of the reasons she liked chess so much was because the tactics and strategy helped her mind.

My impression whilst watching was that she was better under pressure than the other competitors and I thought she’d win after watching the early rounds. But can chess turn your child into a genius?

I’m fairly sure that it helps, though everything depends on degree. Doing an hour of chess a week at school may have some effect but this is in no way comparable to studying the game deeply for 10 or so hours per week and then testing your abilities in competition. I believe that the latter is where the real gold lies.

Actually I’ve had an opportunity to test this, and on my own son. Prior to teaching him chess he was languishing at the bottom of his year in every subject at school. His mental arithmetic and memory were very strong, but a dire weakness in English comprehension undermined his ability to grasp anything.

Four years on and he’s moving up strongly, getting glowing reports at school and becoming very interested in both academic and chess success. How did the ‘miracle’ occur?

Even members of staff at his school now put it down to the chess. Basically he has done something like 60,000 chess ‘problems’, from basic captures and material saving moves to forced checkmates. With English comprehension being taken out of the equation it gave him an opportunity to build his confidence by getting things right, and then competing on even terms with other kids. More recently he has been dipping his toes in adult tournaments and within a year or so should be well established there.

Knowing that we take it rather seriously I’ve had plenty of well meaning comments of the ‘as long as he’s enjoying it’ variety. Actually I can say that he would have enjoyed some XBox games much more, especially Grand Theft Auto and the like. But I’ve seen my job as helping him develop rather than providing entertainment, and it looks like it’s working.

Can other parents do the same? Well for chess it helps a lot if you know something about the game yourself and can at least supervise any training activities. But I’m fairly sure there are other fields that will work very well, for example playing a musical instrument, reading or developing mathematical skill. Many people have some sort of skill that can help their kids develop, but do they have the time and patience? In most cases it looks like they don’t.

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.