The Cognitive Effects of Chess on the Children

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“This is a pawn. They are like hoplites and move forward-”. “Hopkins, as in, DeAndre Hopkins?” Instead of garnering a better understanding of the rules from my Rome Total War analogy, the next five minutes were spent discussing the extensive talents of NFL wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. When I eventually finished explaining the rules of chess, I was instantly bombarded with questions. “How does this piece move?” “Is this a rook or a knight or a bishop?” I clutched my forehead. Why was teaching these kids so difficult?

As an avid mathlete, I have always valued strategy, so I was naturally appealed to chess. I am fascinated by chess because its interdisciplinary nature involves many fields of my interest, including math, strategy, and patterns. Chess has had many profound impacts, allowing the world to gain a new understanding of strategy. Many people have cited the cognitive benefits, but for me, it has always been about the fun. From attending my first local tournament and losing all my matches to getting first at Supernationals, my passion for chess has only grown over the years.

In Summer of my freshman year, an administrator from my old middle school (University School) asked if I would be interested in teaching a chess program at her school. Determined to spread my infectious enthusiasm for chess, I gladly agreed. I was eager to show the kids, most of whom were privileged, the wonderful activity they had been missing.

Board games have been played for many years in various circumstances as an amusement for all individuals. There are plenty of board games out there and chess is one of the most popular board games in various nations. Although the origins of chess are unknown, it has been a very popular board game since the ages. However, in my opinion, chess is more than just a board game. It is a competitive strategic game that benefits one in many aspects. In fact, the International Olympic Committee considers chess a sport. They explain that chess requires physical exertion as mental exertion manifests itself physically. Moreover, chess is extremely competitive as competing players feel a drive to win.

When most people ask me what hobbies I have, I usually respond with Tennis, Ping-Pong, Netflix, Video Games, and Chess. As soon as the word chess slipped out from my mouth, people would give me a baffled look. I explained to them that chess is not just some lame board game, but in fact a delightful competitive activity that I enjoy. Many rolled their eyes exasperatedly and shook their head when I told them about chess.

As a beginner, my chess matches were less than fifteen minutes in length. However, as I advanced and studied more, each match would be a minimum of two hours. During that time, I could not break my concentration. It took lots of conditioning and fortitude to sit in a chair for such a long time and stay focused the whole time. Most of my chess matches were twice the length of my soccer, basketball, and tennis matches. The level of mental exercise required in chess exceeds that of traditional sports tremendously.

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A grandmaster is a chess player of the highest class. Achieving the title of grandmaster takes intense dedication and motivation. According to a study, grandmasters often train up to sixteen hours a day. The reason no one can “beat the game” is because chess is infinite. After three moves each, there are more than 9 million unique positions. After four moves each, there are more than 288 billion positions possible. There are more games of chess possible than the number of galaxies (100 million) and the number of quarks in our universe (1080). In 1988, the first computer program was invented. At first, this engine lost to humans every time. However with one year of hindsight, the top scientists created a new chess engine that obliterated the best chess player in the world. Today, Google’s Alpha Zero (a self-taught artificial intelligence computer program) can calculate every possible game (10120). The number of games possible shows the complexity and taxing aspects of chess. According to multiple sources, Soccer is the most popular sport in the world by far. In 2007 a FIFA report estimated that worldwide, 265 million people play soccer. However, a World Chess Federation report estimated that worldwide, 605 million people play chess. This is number is more than twice the number of people that play soccer.

Those who don’t play chess often wonder — what is chess? It is a two player strategy game played on a checkered board. The board has sixty-four squares total which are arranged in an eight by eight gridly fashion. Each player has sixteen pieces to start with: eight pawns, two bishops, two knights, two rooks, one queen, one king. There are a total of six different types of pieces, and each piece moves in its unique manner. The pieces range from the pawn being the least powerful to the queen being the most powerful. The objective of the game is to checkmate the opponent. Checkmate occurs when the opponent’s king is being threatened and he cannot escape anywhere or remove the threat. By checkmating the opponent, the match is over. However, checkmating the opponent is not a simple process. It requires a strategic plan and deep visions. In some instances, when it becomes impossible to checkmate, the game results in a draw. If one is not resourceful and does not think carefully before each move, a loss could be instant.

Chess has many cognitive effects that are especially beneficial to teenagers. Even playing a simple chess match can improve brain function, memory, strategic thinking and attention span. According to studies, chess helps with brain function as it causes the player to use their left brain hemisphere for recognition of objects and their right brain hemisphere for recognition of patterns. Furthermore, chess has a direct correlation with improved memory because of the acquisition of tactics involved in the game. Some scientists believe that studying chess can help prevent or slow down Alzheimer’s disease. Not only that, but perception, processing, calculations, and other executive function can significantly improve by playing chess. Chess also helps with problem solving. One’s creativity will develop and grow as they advance in their level of play.

The first five minutes of my instructional career were a complete and utter failure. I quickly ascertained that middle school students hated PowerPoints, especially ones about chess. Quickly shifting gears, I grabbed a board and confidently began to explain the rules of chess when one question about DeAndre Hopkins instantly derailed the mission. The next twenty minutes were a mix of confused faces, repeated questions, and a multitude of illegal chess moves. When my students walked out of the room at the end of the hour, I wondered if I had taught them a single thing. It was something I pondered about that night.

During the month that followed, I was equally ineffective. Since the students who attended varied each week, I never seemed to get beyond the rules. Before I could even start teaching strategy, Josh incorrectly told everyone that the knight moved only sideways, Emily littered the floor with bishops, and George kept tapping the clock to make it beep incessantly. Each week, my students failed to grasp the difference between check and checkmate. Each week, I ran around trying to prevent the kids from destroying the game that meant so much to me.

My long-awaited turning point finally arrived when I asked the right question. Sean, a student who used chess club to avoid tutoring, would frequently disrupt the other games, seconds after he entered the room. Out of frustration, I asked him why he was at chess club, and he emphatically told me, “I want to beat my friends.” The light bulb in my head flickered, and it finally turned on.

It was then when I realized that every kid was at chess club for different reasons. Sean brought his friends the following week just so he could beat them. Elliot hated math more than chess. George only played chess because of his obsession with the clock, and Mary joined the chess club just so she would not be alone. My purpose was not to transform these students into middle school Bobby Fischers. I was just there to make sure these kids were enjoying the game.

Ultimately, when I took a step back and encouraged enjoyment instead of strategy, the middle school students learned how to play chess. Some even competed in tournaments. I would like to think that the kids appreciated me and the game I love, but maybe they were just there to have fun and take a break from their challenging lives. Regardless, I returned each week when my recruited friends did not. This was my chance to give back to my community and make a difference in these kids’ lives. Along the way, I found my “kid” side, one I had previously lost in the hectic world that accompanies becoming a “grown-up” in high school. I entered the classroom as a teacher, but I ended up being a student.

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