Whilst recent studies have not confirmed the value of a bit of chess in raising kids’ IQs, I would maintain that they’re not looking for what’s important. Rather than try to study short term intellectual attainments, that may or may not be achievable by different means, it is important to look at chess as a whole and the deep history and culture of the game. It is not a puzzle or set of puzzles for the mind, it’s a multi-dimensional art form which can provide a unique sphere for ongoing personal development.
Music and traditional martial arts will have a similar effect; practitioners who become deeply involved with them will develop attitudes, beliefs and abilities that can lead to a complete transformation and benefits that will be with them for their entire lives. Yet to test the benefits of these arts after, for example, throwing a few punches or singing fara jaka a couple of times, clearly isn’t going to be a fair test.
What does chess have to offer besides the unproven hope of improved maths scores? Based on my 45+ years observation of the game and its players, as both a player and teacher, here are a few of the more important benefits that come with a deeper and more long term involvement:
1. Learning to take responsibility; if you lose at chess it’s because of mistakes.
2. Learning from mistakes, if you can uncover why you made a particular type of mistake you can learn to avoid it in future.
3. Learning to assess the risk of a particular operation and balance it against potential reward.
4. Learning the value of research, for example from books, software and the internet.
5. Learning the value of history and the idea that the players of today build on the efforts of past masters.
6. Learning to respect better players as people who can offer insights and help you in your own journey.
7. Learning to equate practice with improved results.
8. Learning to stay calm under pressure.
9. Learning to manage thinking time.
10. Learning to combine big picture movements (strategy) with short term tactical operations.
11. Learning to win without it going to your head.
12. Learning to lose without thinking you are diminished in any way and seeing it instead as an opportunity to improve.
You won’t find these benefits in simpler puzzles and games, they simply don’t have the depth or background and culture that chess does. And this is why kids should learn chess instead, starting out with simple stuff after which those who are interested can build layers of complexity. As the Indian proverb goes, chess is a sea in which the elephant may bathe and the gnat may drink, and I don’t think we have to be too bothered about the goal of their bathing or drinking. They’ll decide for themselves what they want out of chess once they’ve had the opportunity to learn.
So it’s great that there are many volunteers, parents, coaches and organisations (for example Chess in Schools and Communities) who try to get them started in the game, and long may they continue to do so. And hopefully there will be a focus on the fascination of the game rather than becoming too obsessed with ‘success’ and the horrors that can bring.