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What chess has given us.


Chess is often cited as a means of promoting cognitive and affective growth in students. We review some of that literature, but we primarily focus on our personal growth journeys through chess, showing what it gave us intellectually and socially, and how it has encouraged us to share this type of growth with others, building a community of learner/scholars. We conclude that teachers who start and participate in school chess clubs and encourage their students to participate in all of the activities of the chess world, including adult chess clubs, will promote their intellectual and social growth for a lifetime as well.


Benjamin Franklin was one of the first proponents of the advantages of chess and chess play in this country, but even he is supposed to have lamented, "Chess hath not given me what I hath given it." (Hagedorn, 1958). But in the first American book published on chess, in 1802, Franklin noted the following:
 The Game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very
 valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life,
 are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits,
 ready on all occasions. For Life is a kind of Chess, in which we
 have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend
 with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events,
 that are, in some degree, the effects of prudence or the want of it.
 (Franklin, 1802).

Franklin felt that chess developed three important qualities of mind: Foresight, Circumspection, and Caution, as well as, "And, lastly, we learn by chess the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favorable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources." (Franklin, 1802). We propose that chess does give much to its devotees, as the habits listed by Franklin suggest. Using our stories as models, we discuss the growth potential of chess.

Chess and the Community of Learning

Learning is best facilitated by building a community of learners (Katz and Chard, 2000; Kern, 2002; Pringle, 2002), in which learning proceeds from guided discovery (Brown & Campione, 1994). Wenger (1998) has noted that since the beginning of history, human beings have formed communities that accumulate collective learning into social practices-communities of practice. One finds such communities in the old guild system of the Middle Ages and in modern examples such as the German educational system, with its emphasis on apprenticing at an early age. In organizational settings such as health care, physicians, nurses, and other health professionals participate in such communities through activities such as "Journal Club"--regularly scheduled discussions of recent scientific literature amongst the practitioners who must implement them into their own practice. Knowledge in such communities is not an object, as it is often seen by learners; it is a living part of their practice. Knowing is an act of participation. Communities of practice represent the natural social structure for the ownership of knowledge, have been around for a long time, and are everywhere.

The formation of healthy communities has been noted as one of the most important aspects of adolescent development (Blyth and Leffert, 1995). The typical community of learners in chess consists of chess clubs and chess tournaments. In the United States, there exist various types of chess clubs, some in the after-school setting, and some designed for adults. However, almost all adult chess clubs will accept younger members as well, giving young chess players a multitude of potential places in which to grow. Adult chess players typically enjoy the mentoring they can give young people. The majority of adults who play chess tournaments also enjoy watching the quantum leaps young players can make not just in playing ability but also in developing affectively as good sports, and in the concurrent intellectual growth chess provides.

Teachers may be skeptical at the almost breathless reports of the benefits of chess they hear about (Ferguson, 1995), how it improves problem-solving skills (Horgan, 1989), how a school adopted chess into the curriculum and test scores suddenly skyrocketed (Smith and Cage, 2000), but such studies provide quantitative proof that chess improves student learning. In this article, we show the growth chess gave us in the intellectual and social world. Chess is not just a game played by geeks, nerds, and street chess hustlers; it is an intellectual activity that provides a world of growth to all from youngsters to adults.

Our Stories Then

Alexey Root: Considering how important a part of my life chess is, ifs fortunate I remember exactly when I joined the chess community. I kept a diary as a nine year old. About my first visit to chess club I wrote: "There are two people around my age I think.... When Angel was playing Gary, (the coach like person,) I told her the right move and Angel won because of that. (The Coach) Gary complimented me and asked questions. I am going to play in a chess tournament."

This diary entry from February of '75 captured much of what was important to me: same-age companions, feeling competent, and planning for activities. Nine-year-old Angel Niedfeld and her ten-year-old brother Rodney became my friends. Gary Marks rewarded my good chess moves, with praise and sometimes money. (A later diary entry noted that he gave me 50 cents when I won a trophy.) Gary drove Lincoln Chess Club members to chess events all over Nebraska. Each week there was another chess club meeting or tournament to anticipate. I began saving space in my diary to include hand-drawn wall charts and chess diagrams. Eight months after my first chess tournament, I had my first chess lesson with University of Nebraska-Lincoln's first board, National Master Loren Schmidt. My dad had seen an article about UNL winning the Pan American Intercollegiate Team Championship in the local newspaper. My dad, a UNL professor himself, thought Loren would be a good teacher for me. Loren praised my correct chess choices, wrote down rules for guiding my play, taught me standard endgame drills and classical openings, and helped me reflect on where I made mistakes in my games. After my family moved to the Northwest nine months later, Loren continued my lessons through correspondence.

Because of my positive experiences in Lincoln, I was hooked on chess. In the 80's, I consistently made the most active list for women chess players. Each time I moved, from Nebraska to Washington State to Wisconsin to Oregon and to California, I found chess friends. I won the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Championship. I wanted to teach others, in the same encouraging style of Gary and Loren. In my teens and twenties, I taught chess lessons. I felt that teaching full-time was my calling. I earned a teaching credential from University of Washington. My first full-time teaching position was at Bakersfield High School from 1987-1989. A Social Studies and English teacher, I ran the chess club after school.

Steven Dowd: I learned chess at the relatively late age of 13. I immediately took to the game, and this was 2 years before the 1972 Fischer-Spassky match. Fischer's 60 Memorable Games was my first "bible," albeit one I understood poorly at the time. I started attending the University of Illinois Chess Club when I could drive, at age 16. My first high school, in Frankfurt, Germany started an active chess club in which I reached rung 5 of the chess club ladder. I admired the chess club advisor, Mr. Louis Segesvary (later Dr. Segesvary), who was also my health teacher. Mr. Segesvary had a master's in biology and had started work on a Ph.D. at a German university. He introduced me to literature, especially Hesse, Kafka, and Mann, and poets such as Rainer Maria Rilke. But when my father was transferred back to the US, the high school had no club. So, despite being in high school, I attended the chess club at the University of Illinois.

In the University Chess Club, I met a number of interesting people, including professors and students. Roger Covey, who graduated with his BA and MBA in 3 1/2 years, taught me weird chess openings and gambits, a love I share to this day. Roger later started a software company and became a multi-millionaire (the last time I looked, he was worth something like $250 million), and now spends his time on one of his other loves, Orientalia, studying at the University of Chicago and making trips to China. He claimed he wanted to retire by age 40, and he did! Bob Ash was a university professor of math with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Berkeley, who said he came to the U of I as an electrical engineering professor, but on the first day of work they handed him a soldering iron, and he said "What's that?" Quickly he was transferred to teaching math, and that story first showed me the dichotomy that often exists between theory and practice. He knew only the theory of engineering and had never practiced it. I later traveled to many tournaments with Bob. When I made chess master last year, he was one of the first people I emailed! Currently he is a professor emeritus studying classical math problems.

There were many others--Pierre Weisz, a French professor; Mark Zvilius, who went on to become a master's world champion in underwater polo. Even though I am an introvert by nature, contact with these people enriched my life. However, one stands out, my best adolescent friend, FM (FIDE Master, an international title) David Sprenkle. We traveled to tournaments together all over the Midwest, getting up at 3 in the morning, for example, to drive to Muncie, Indiana (a 5 hour drive) to then play 15 hours or so of chess.

David and I lived in the friendship that comes with healthy competition. I knew I would never be as good as him, but always made the effort to try. We studied chess together, a habit I carried over into my school studies. Before meeting David, I had not studied but breezed through classes without applying myself. This healthy peer pressure made both of us better players and better students. David, the son of a university professor, also found himself drawn to teaching as a career, and currently teaches English at Florida Atlantic University. He is one of the highest-rated players in Florida. Through studying chess, I learned logic and problem-solving, as well as exceptions to the rule. I learned French, Spanish, and Russian, and kept up on my German through chess. I learned the discipline of memorizing openings, but also that I needed to understand the resulting middlegame positions This belief influenced my later teaching belief that students must have some basic instruction before moving on to understanding.

I had to "quit" chess at age 20 because of life situations. By then I was a promising player probably destined to make master within the next 5 years or so, but life called. I needed to find a profession quickly, so I went to community college first (working 40 hours per week at the same time), then to university for my B.S. and M.A., always working at least one, if not two, jobs to support my family. During that time I began playing postal chess, nationally and internationally, exposing me to a whole new world of chess thinkers who thought in games as taking months and years instead of minutes and hours. Properly played, postal chess allows both competition and conversation during the game. I had lived in West Germany, but through postal chess I met many of the then East Germans who lived a life wholly different than mine had been just a few hundred miles away.

My first full-time teaching job came in 1982 at a community college. I also started publishing in professional journals at that time, not because I had to, but because I wanted to share my expertise with others. Like all beginning college teachers, no person or course trained me how to teach. I think chess had. I understood logic, and order, and presenting material in blocks.

Our Stories Now

From our early stories, it is clear that both of us have benefited from both peer and non-peer mentors to draw upon in facilitating our learning and growth through chess. Each chess mentor made many contributions to our development. Indeed, one reason for writing this article is to thank each of them for what they gave us. Both of us are now teaching at the collegiate level, and are privileged to be able to give something back to the game and the people who play it.

Alexey Root: A heart-warming part of my job as Associate Director of the UTD Chess Program is recruiting new students. Just like high school athletes who apply for college, chess players have their special skills counted by UTD. I recruit chess players for scholarship consideration by email, and additionally have the privilege of handing out scholarship awards at scholastic chess tournaments. Diana Durham, a chess teacher in the Los Angeles area, emailed, "Wow, and you get to hand out tuitions to kids! That must be fun, to watch their happiness! You are practically handing them a bright future!" I also teach a chess course on-line for teachers and chess coaches, giving them ideas for incorporating chess into their curricula.

Steven Dowd: I never intended to leave the community college, but was offered the opportunity to start a B.S. program in my profession at UAB in 1992. This has been a source of both great joy to me, as I started an innovative program in which students get good jobs and that was years ahead of its time, with many copies now started in other universities. I have 134 peer-reviewed articles and 12 books to my name (and am hitting the 500 point on non peer-reviewed articles).

In 1999, I was able to return to chess beyond the occasional game and studying, which I had pursued throughout my hiatus from tournament and club play. I made chess master in 2001, and had in 2000 also signed on as faculty advisor to the chess club, giving lessons, directing tournaments, etc. I loved doing this, as I think all teachers and professors should engage in extracurricular activities with students to encourage their growth beyond the classroom.

What Can Teachers Do?

Teachers can help to build a community of learners by starting or participating in an after-school chess club. A teacher starting an after school club may be disappointed by the fact that the club will probably consist of mostly boys, but it is precisely young men who can benefit most from an non-violent, intellectual alternative to other types of communities (Kennedy, 1998). Teachers can help by encouraging young people to play in adult chess tournaments and by going to adult chess clubs as well. For those teachers who want to learn not only how to start a chess club, but also find ways to use chess within their curriculum (Chess can be used as analogue to teach the Pythagorean Theorem, to teach physical concepts, and even included in reading assignments through its popularity in the Harry Potter books--for an example, visit There is a Chess in Education certificate offered by distance learning at the University of Texas at Dallas-- The United States Chess Federation also offers hundreds of pages of free resources to teachers at its web site--

The community of learners in chess is vast. Chess is not just competition, it is an intellectual growth strategy that has been implicated as a means of preventing Alzheimer's disease (Friedland, et. al. ,2001). An old Indian proverb states that chess "is a sea in which a gnat may bathe and an elephant drink." We feel richer for having swam in its waters all these years, and encourage other teachers and students to jump in and join us.


Blyth, D. & Leffert, N. (1995). Communities as contexts for adolescent development: An empirical analysis. Journal of Adolescent Research 10, 64-87.

Brown, A. L., & Campione, J. C. (1994). Guided discovery in a community of learners. In K. McGilly (ed.) Classroom lessons: Integrating cognitive theory and classroom practice (pp. 229-270). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/Bradford Books.

Ferguson, R. (1995). Chess in Education Research Summary. Available from the USCF,

Franklin, B. (1802). Chess Made Easy. New and comprehensive Rules for Playing the Game of Chess. Philadelphia, printed and sold by James Humphreys.

Friedland, R.P., Fritsch, T., Smyth, K.A., et al. (2001). Patients with Alzheimer's disease have reduced activities in midlife compared with healthy control-group members. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98, 3440-3445. Available:

Hagedorn, R.K. (1958). Benjamin Franklin and Chess in Early America. A Review of the Literature. Philadelphia. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Horgan, D.D. (1989). Where experts come from. Eric document number ED305144. Katz, L.G. & Chard, S.C. (2000). Engaging Children's Minds: The Project Approach. 2nd Edition. Ablex

Kennedy, M. (1998). More than a game: Eight transition lessons chess teaches. Reaching Today's Youth: The Community Circle of Caring Journal 2,4: 17-19.

Kern, G. Developing our community. Journal of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 3, 1:1-3. Available:

Pringle, R. M. (2002). Developing a community of learners: Potentials and possibilities in web mediated discourse. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 2(2). Available:

Smith, J. P., & Cage, B. N.(2000). The effects of chess instruction on the mathematics achievement of southern, rural, black secondary students. Research in the Schools, 7, 19-26

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Steven B. Dowd, University of Alabama at Birmingham
Alexey Root, University of Texas at Dallas

Steven B. Dowd is an Associate Professor of Health-Related Sciences specializing in optimization of the learning environment. He is the author of over 100 peer-reviewed articles and 12 books, including Teaching in the Health-Related Professions. Alexey Root is a Women's International Master and former U.S. Chess Champion with a Ph.D. from UCLA. In addition to her teaching duties, she serves as recruiter for the champion University of Texas at Dallas chess team, and offers distance-learning courses in chess instruction through UTD.
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Author:Root, Alexey
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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