Why Teach Chess?

It’s a question I’m asked often by people who know me from my other career, music. I suspect they ask this question because they know me from one world, a world in which chaos and living on the edge are king while logic and reason are foggy notions. People tend to think that musicians have one interest and one interest only, music. They don’t consider the idea that, like every other human on the planet, musicians have multiple interests. I’m fortunate in that the two things that interest me the most are both careers and,more importantly, those careers pay the bills. A professor once said to me “Find something you passionately love to do, find someone to pay you for doing it and you’ll always love your job and your life.” However, there’s much more to it than simply making money via something you love to do. It’s the end result of what I do that’s my real reason for teaching chess to children.

When I first starting teaching chess in the schools, I was attracted to the pay, the hours (I could sleep in until ten in the morning if it were not for the sad reality that I’m a workaholic) and the fact that I’d be getting paid to do something I love. I wish I could tell you that it was my life long mission to teach chess to children but I’d be lying. The job literally fell into my lap when a friend called me with a teaching opportunity. The same thing happened with my musical career which was accidental at best. With music, I was in the right place at the right time. With chess, it was a similar story.

It wasn’t until after I started teaching that I realized how important my new career was. It wasn’t important regarding the training of a new generation of chess players, even though that was part of it. What was crucial was the idea that I was helping my students develop logic and reasoning skills. Why is this so important?

I’m 56 years old (or young, as I like to think) and I’ve had my chance to make my mark on the world through my music. I had my day in the sun and, while I still write new songs and push the boundaries of music (mostly through a lack of talent), I know in my heart that it’s up to a younger generation to really turn music on it’s head and take it into uncharted waters. This idea holds true for everything from science to the arts. It’s the children that I teach who will take up the torch and move civilization forward. By teaching chess, I’m able to give my students the tools they’ll need to change the world. What are these tools? Simply put, the thought process. To change the world, you need to think differently than others and this requires a well honed thought process.

Chess is a fantastic tool for developing and honing your thought process. Too often as adults, we’re encapsulated by a myriad of problems, all demanding our attention at once. It can be work related or personal. In either case, we sometimes freeze like a deer suddenly faced with the glare of a car’s headlights. We get stuck and can’t find a way out, a solution to a seemingly endless parade of problems. We try to take on everything at once rather than one problem at a time. While children rarely have this dilemma, as they grow older, they will face the same situation. Too many problems hitting them all at once. Chess teaches us how to tackle problems in a logical manner. We learn how to look at a series of problems and determine which one needs to be solved first. We learn to deal with things with order and reason. Chess also teaches us patience, something that’s in short supply these days among the human species. Patience is key to problem solving. To prepare children to face life’s problems I teach them logic and reasoning skills. Employing logic and reason helps them to avoid that dreadful feeling of helplessness you get when it seems you can’t find a way out of the plethora of problems we often face in our day to day lives. These skills cut straight through the situation like a hot knife cuts through butter.

Chess also helps children develop the basic skills needed to do well in school. These skills include problem solving and discipline. Chess is a great introduction to big picture problem solving. A little picture problem, for example, is doing a simple arithmetic problem such as adding numbers together. A big picture problem is having homework in multiple subjects, such as math, science and writing, and determining which subject to work on first and managing your time to finish them all on schedule. Chess helps develop big picture thinking. Chess is also a good way to develop the type of thinking required for advanced mathematics such as algebra. Just remember, chess will not make you smarter. You’re stuck with the brain you were born with but chess will help it function at maximum efficiency.

One of the things I’ve done in my teaching program is to incorporate my student’s classroom curriculum into their chess class. We look at ideas their regular teachers present to them and create analogies on the chess board. This allows students to think about a particularly difficult problem they’re tasked with solving in terms of chess. When they can visually see the problem via the chessboard they often have an easier time solving it.

I look at my chess classes as a way to not only teach my students a game they can play and enjoy for the rest of their lives but as preparation for the many problems they’re apt to face in life. If they have a method of problem solving that is based on logic and reason they’ll be ahead of everyone else. Chess really does help develop young minds and helping them to do so is my contribution to the future of civilization. Remember, that little kid sitting at a table in a restaurant across from you, making a rude face in your general direction, may become the surgeon that saves your live one day. You better hope he studied chess. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).