Chess Is the Gymnasium of the Mind

On Sunday night, March 26, 60 Minutes presented an inspiring story about schoolchildren in rural Mississippi who have gained national recognition for their chess prowess. A new teacher, Dr. Jeff Bulington, arrived at their small, remote school to teach them the game. In just a year and a half, his students have turned their school into a chess powerhouse at tournaments—and are discovering an enthusiasm for traditional academics.

Dr. Bulington had previously taught chess and mentored school champions in one of the nation’s poorest urban areas, in Memphis. His new goal is to show how playing chess can galvanize students in an impoverished rural area like Franklin County. The 60 Minutes story is a powerful account of using chess to fire up intellectual ambition in all children and spur them on to academic achievement.

Indeed, multi-year studies of elementary-school children in Texas, Los Angeles, New York, Pennsylvania and Canada have found that learning chess in school raises children’s scores in both math and reading. A study in Louisiana schools concluded that chess instruction could be something of a fast-acting accelerant for learning, as just 20 days of chess instruction in elementary school improved children’s test scores. The most important finding in these studies was that the academic benefits of chess were not limited to “gifted” kids. In fact, most of them found that chess instruction provided the greatest benefit to children with average or lower pre-study test scores.

This impressive “chess effect” may in part be attributable to the deep association of chess with braininess. As children master this rigorous game, they get a boost in intellectual self-esteem, one that is especially beneficial for kids who are less confident about school. Their newfound skills in chess help them see they also have the smarts for schoolwork, as the students in the 60 Minutes story attest.

Learning to play chess has benefits for children beyond building their confidence. First, they learn to observe carefully and concentrate on the board. Their skills at visual analysis grow as they try shifting the pieces in their mind rather than touching them. They start to memorize certain sequences and apply them in new situations. And the game demands both concrete and abstract thinking: children have to assess the consequences of each move, consider their many options, anticipate their opponent’s responses and plan several steps ahead.

Although chess is often compared to a sport in its intensity and competitiveness, the game is unique in that it can be played on an equal footing by opponents of all ages, backgrounds and genders. Chess offers a way for children to build friendships and can even help build a community: in the 60 Minutes story, the success of the school chess team inspires the town to create a downtown chess center for everyone.

Students at The Children’s School take the game very seriously, as you know if you’ve attended one of our Chess Nights. They are coached in strategy and tactics by our inspiring teacher Alex Eydelman, president of the National Educational Chess Association and a national master, and are tough competitors in local tournaments.

Why has this ancient “Game of Thrones” captivated players for 1,500 years? Perhaps because every match, won or lost, is a valuable learning experience. As the world’s top-ranked chess player, 26-year-old grandmaster Magnus Carlsen explained: “I spend hours playing chess because I find it so much fun. I get more upset at losing at other things than chess. I always get upset when I lose at Monopoly.”

You may not be able to beat your child at chess anymore, but there’s no finer game to have in your family repertoire!