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Chess: The Right Move for your After-School Program

by Leslie B. Lipschultz, Vice president, Food for Thought Software, Inc.,

Ph. 800/205-4706 or 847/433-6515 ● www.schoolchess.com

With the mandates of No Child Left Behind, educators and community providers are especially interested in offering after-school enrichment activities that will support academic achievement. A formidable challenge facing providers is to be able to make available high quality activities that also engage kids. Such programs can serve as powerful educational tools in the more relaxed after-school setting, with the potential to achieve what one provider calls “stealth teaching”. Fire a kid’s imagination with an activity that is fun while also promoting learning and you’ll have scored a significant programming victory.

Chess: An After-School Success Story

One of the biggest after-school success stories – though at first blush an unlikely candidate to get kids’ juices flowing – is chess. Stimulating critical thinking and other valuable skills, while also proving highly engaging to students, chess offers great potential as an educational reform vehicle.

Recent estimates put the scholastic chess-playing population in the U.S. at more than a million. The numbers are growing rapidly, and this success has fueled a community demand for chess as an after school activity. An extensive nationwide network of scholastic chess competitions at the local, state and national levels has even created the infrastructure to make chess more a sport than an activity. National tournaments have attracted as many as 5,200 students, with thousands of parents, coaches, teachers and others adding to the mix of individuals supporting chess.

Chess learning linked to improved academic performance

Studies linking chess to enhanced critical thinking skills, concentration, discipline, social skills, self-esteem – even standardized test scores – demonstrate that learning the game is a significant plus, and its introduction as an inexpensive, after-school program a logical choice. Chess has marked benefits for students across all socioeconomic groups and is one of the few sports activities that allow girls to compete with boys on an equal footing and without reservation. And for at-risk kids, the results can be especially dramatic.

The spillover into academic life and beyond of learning to play chess is beginning to be well documented. Observed one chess teacher who taught hundreds of kids in Virginia to play chess: "It's like turning on switches in their heads. You feel as though you can watch the brain working through a window. The game demands both inductive and deductive reasoning. You see the kid looking at a problem, breaking it down, then putting the whole thing back together. The process involves recall, analysis, judgment, and abstract reasoning.”

Spend even a few minutes watching kids play chess and you’ll observe them concentrating so deeply on their next move that some of the benefits of the game become immediately obvious. Kids quickly learn that there are frequently negative consequences for not thinking carefully and planning ahead – a valuable insight that will help them as decision-makers in their academic lives and beyond. It is noteworthy that during tournaments you can hear the proverbial pin drop in a room filled with hundreds of kids.

Historically, chess has been introduced by individual schools – with thousands offering programs across the nation. The dramatic success of local programs has now caught the attention of district administrators, who are now propagating chess district-wide. The Miami-Dade School District, for example, has begun to introduce chess into many of its schools, and eventually hopes to have a structured program in every school in the district. And recently, Paul Vallas, Chief Executive Officer of Philadelphia’s public schools, announced his intention to establish chess clubs and teams in all 264 of the district’s schools.

How to create a strong chess program

Implementing a high quality scholastic chess program that can elevate thinking to the level of a Varsity Sport takes some planning and the right approach. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a professional chess coach to run a successful program, but it is helpful to have someone who can keep the kids on track and excited about their learning. You also need a relatively standardized curriculum that will move students through a learning progression that stimulates their understanding of the game and their ability to think and plan ahead. In addition, a motivation system that tracks and rewards student progress in learning as well as playing chess will help build their commitment and excitement. Finally, a way to organize and administer the program so that your limited time with students can be spent most effectively and efficiently to keep students engaged and excited, is very helpful.

There are good products on the market to help manage, motivate and educate young chess enthusiasts in an after-school setting. The United States Chess Federation (http://www.uschess.org/) is a good resource for would-be teachers or parents interested in starting or enhancing a scholastic chess program, and USCF membership brings added value to your program. While USCF-sponsored tournaments provide a built-in infrastructure, chess play can also be done more informally with intra-club games, school-to-school events, and on-line play using a variety of Web portals.

Thinkers as our role models

With the majority of our cultural icons being athletes and entertainers, there is yet another significant advantage to introducing chess in your after-school program: While traditional sports programs will continue to inspire the dreams of both boys and girls who imagine themselves the next Michael Jordan or Serena Williams, chess can help create a new, and more realistic, paradigm – one that stresses that the key to success in life – just as in chess – is thinking rather than physical prowess! And what better lesson can we teach our kids as they make their way in the world!


Grossman, Jean Baldwin. “Making After-School Count.” Education Week 23 Oct., 2002

Josaphat, Fabienne. “Chess making inroads as useful learning tool.” Miami Herald 10 Apr. 2003

Ippolito, Dean J. “Benefits of Chess for Children.” www.deanofchess.com/benefits.htm

Liptrap, James M. “Chess and Standardized Test Scores.” Chess Life Mar. 1998

United States Chess Federation. “Chess Research Bibliography.” www.uschess.org/scholastic/sc-research.html

Snyder, Susan. “A new strategy for school improvement.” Philadelphia Inquirer 11 Dec. 2003

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