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The truth about chess?

I have seen a lot on Twitter recently about the Chess In Schools initiative to encourage one million children to sign up to learn chess online and play tournaments. Indeed, appearances by the force behind the CIS, Malcolm Paine, on TV and radio have helped fuel this impressive campaign. What could be better than this wonderful idea?

I have a massive amount of respect for Malcolm. Indeed, I was honoured to be the first CIS coach in Leeds and visited the two pioneering schools to make initial contact with Malcolm. He is a great guy and you can only admire his success in the business with both CIS, his magazines and shop, and as a writer. So why do I feel the need to write about this and comment – I should support it wholeheartedly.

However, it is not the campaign itself I have a problem with. With 48 kids on the waiting list for my junior club I am well aware that kids want to play chess. What I do have a problem with is the claim made as to how chess benefits children. Here is a typical Tweet I came across from an American gentleman, which was retweeted by CIS.

“Playing Chess with my son. It increases problem-solving skills and it improves the memory of your child. Great game to occupy your child’s mind during….”

The gentleman was pictured making the opening move against the lad – 1.h4 (If you don’t know chess that’s the probably the worst opening move you could make). Full marks to the gentleman encouraging his son to take up the game. But what of the claims to its benefits?

Malcolm himself writes in the Telegraph:

“Chess boosts kids’ cognitive skills and self-esteem”

The benefits to children of playing chess have been well documented in academic research and in an abundance of anecdotes from teachers and parents that we at CSC call ‘chesstimonials’. The game teaches essential skills such as problem solving, logical thinking and concentration. It can boost non-cognitive, or softer skills, such as the ability to delay gratification and to follow through on a plan. Knowing they can play a game their parents do not, and which is a mystery to many of their peers, boosts children’s self-esteem.’


As an educationalist myself (I have a Masters’ in Education) and having worked in education for over 30 years, including 13 years running a school, I am massively keen on evidence - based research. If you claim something about a subject or a teaching method I want to see the evidence for your claims. You can be pretty sure 9 times out of 10 there isn’t any, and for the one time which appears to offer evidence, the research is inevitably flawed. In fact, well designed research is hard to come by in education, which is strange, as we would all agree it’s quite important. I wouldn’t want my doctor prescribing a treatment that hadn’t undergone stringent trials, yet in education we seem happy to let loose on some trendy theory, with no evidence it works other than ‘ it was tried by a teacher in Finland and look at how well Finland does in education.

Look at the claims made on one website: https://www.healthfitnessrevolution.com/top-10-health-benefits-chess/

“… Promotes brain growth”, “raises your IQ”, “exercises both sides of the brain”, “helps prevent Alzheimer’s”, “sparks your creativity”,” increases problem solving skills”,” improves reading skills…” etc.

The basis for many of these extravagant claims are often ‘studies’. When anyone claims to be quoting research it is really important to fully understand how that research is conducted. Let me give an example… Let’s say I decided to set up a study to see if chess improves reading skills in 8 year olds. Sample size is very important as the larger the sample the more reliable the results (assuming the test is set up fairly). So I decide to test one hundred children in two schools. Four classes of 25 children. I would need to test the reading ages of the children before the trial, and then divide them into two sample sets – 50 children will learn how to play chess, and 50 will not. I randomly assign children into each group and test all their reading ages. 50 of the children are taught chess over a 6 month period, and the other 50 are not. At the end of the 6 months, the reading ages of the children are again tested and an assessment made of which group made the most progress. Seems straight forward? I then publish my results.

So what could be flawed with this approach? In practicality – everything.

Firstly, what do we know about the 8 year olds in the two schools? What do we know about the quality of reading instruction given to the children during the 6 month trial period – do they all have identical instruction? Are the children assigned to each group all likely to make equal progress if all other factors were equal? What about the quality of chess instruction given to both groups? And what about the placebo effect? The placebo effect is possibly one of the biggest killers to the reliability of any research. Children in the chess groups will perceive there is something special going on. Having been selected for chess they may feel more worthy, more motivated and work harder generally. That may sound a great benefit from chess, but it isn’t the chess that is improving their reading skills, it is the motivation that might have been achieved from selecting them for any trial, say in basketball. Now what about me. I am conducting the research and may have certain expectations about what I am going to find (or want to find). To avoid any bias the trials need to be conducted by someone with no vested interest in the outcome. One of the biggest studies I came across promoting the benefits of chess was conducted by the Kasparov Foundation. So bias has to be avoided. I could carry on listing the problems with this type of trial but here is the main one:- Supposing my results showed the children who learnt chess had progressed better with their reading. If I publish this study, and it makes the press, then all sorts of claims can be made on Twitter by those who have a pro chess agenda. But is it repeatable? For it to have any meaning whatsoever it would need to be demonstrated to be true on multiple occasions. Very few studies I see are repeated.

Then let me touch on two further problems. These are cause and effect, and transfer.

If you take a group of kids at a chess club and test their IQ against the IQ’s of other children you might find their IQ’s are higher. So is their IQ higher because they play chess, or are they drawn to play chess because their IQ is higher anyway. In other words, kids who play chess tend to be more intelligent, have better reading ages and better problem- solving skills anyway.

The second problem of transfer is by far the most problematic. There is an assumption that if you learn chess you develop problem solving skills which you can transfer into other situations, such as taking exams. That the mathematical calculations you do will give you better math skills and that the critical thinking you do will better enable you to critically analyse situations in the world. But the evidence against this type of far transfer is much greater than the evidence in support of it. In other words, learning is contextualised. Skills I learn in one situation will generally remain particular to that situation, and won’t transfer to others. There are, of course, certain skills which do transfer, with a bit of encouragement, such as reading. You learn to read and can apply it to different situations, such as reading a maths problem. But this only happens because you also learn to apply it in the context of those situations. So, for example, as a chemistry teacher I had to teach students to read questions in the depth necessary to answer them. I didn’t just assume their reading skills alone would take care of that. This is generally called ‘near’ transfer because it is a fundamental skill which needs to be transferred. But chess is not. The complex problem solving required can be applied over the chess board – but why should it necessarily be used in another situation, such as defusing a bomb? You would surely need another set of highly developed (and quicker) problem - solving skills for that.

Now what of the research that is out there generally? It is largely disappointing if you are looking for truth in all of these claims. If you learn chess when you are older there is no doubt that it creates new neural pathways in the brain, which could undoubtedly help if you are trying to stave off the inevitable ravages of an aging brain. But this is not a benefit just peculiar to chess. Learning a new language, doing crosswords or puzzles or even taking up a complex physical activity such as dance can have the same outcome. It can’t be said that chess is better or worse, it just helps.

”But it helps kids cope under pressure,” is your final gambit isn’t it? Then why do so many kids who play chess get so stressed at exam times? I would suggest this is because generally they have high expectations of themselves and they put themselves under pressure to succeed. There is no evidence that they can cope with the pressure any better or worse than other kids. I am actually not that interested in 'chesstimonials'. Anecdotes prove nothing. Incidentally, there have been more studies done in the music world but nobody has been able to show that learning music has any real benefit in other fields of study, other than appreciating music.

So what are the benefits? – you might think I have talked myself out of running so many chess events for kids – well, pretty much the same as achieving at anything, be it sport, music or ten pin bowling. Achievement is about being the best you can be. That doesn’t mean British Champion, or even school champion, it means working hard at something so you can achieve the maximum personal benefit out of it. Now that is transferable. I don’t run a chess club to get a million kids playing chess. I run it so that kids who enjoy the challenge of playing chess can do that to their highest personal level. If they win stuff along the way, as many do, this really boosts confidence and self-esteem. Even just belonging to a club makes them feel special and gives them a sense of family in the wider world. So I agree with Malcolm’s last sentence! It makes memories for life and enables some children, who might never achieve at anything else, excel at something. My daughter played tennis but she never had the necessary physical ability, mental aptitude, (nor I the money to afford the extra coaching needed), to make it at any level. But, after many years learning how to lose gracefully, she represented her county at chess and won a national title (and a bit of money!) and how many kids get to say that? She beat a European champion one time – she never boasted about her achievements but it wasn’t hard to see the quiet pride. But the happiest I ever saw her was when she was part of the Yorkshire County team that took the U16 national title. It wasn’t about transferable skills – it was about achieving something in her chosen sport and feeling part of a team or community. She went on to get a Master’s Degree in Physical Geography – she probably would have done that without the chess! So while my personal story here is anecdotal, my reasons for teaching hundreds of kids over the years to play chess is based not on some flimsy academic research, but a conclusion reached about the tangible achievements of chess playing youngsters, sports’ playing youngsters, music playing youngsters and so on.

Finally, chess is also a great social activity. If youngsters join a chess club or play in tournaments, they meet new people and make new friends. They probably can’t chat about chess to their friends at school, but in a club they can share their passion. Personally, I find this one of the most pleasing aspects of the game. There is the serious slog of playing a game for my club, but what I really enjoy is having a beer afterwards, either with my opponent or with my club mates. If I travel to a tournament somewhere there will be people from all round the country who I know and can chat to.

So if you want your kids to learn chess for anything other than enjoyment, love of the game, developing a sense of achievement and developing social skills, you need to rethink!

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