The game of chess has been dominated by Russians for nearly 70 years. With the
exception of Bobby Fischer who won the world championship in 1972 and relinquished
it in 1975 the past 11 world champions have been of Russian decent. Why are Russians
the dominant figures in world chess?
Chess has been part of the curriculum for most Russian schools for over 40 years.
Adolescents were encouraged to play chess at a very early age to increase their
problem solving and reasoning skills. The gifted students were chosen and studied
under the supervision of former world champion Mikhail Botvinnik.
Adrian de Groot, a psychologist in the 1960's became very interested in the use
of chess as an educational tool. He began studying the thinking behavior of chess
players in Russia. In particular he observed that there was a significant difference
approach between those who highly skilled and experienced in chess to those who
were new to the game. Initially de Groot assumed that the Grandmaster's superiority
lay in their ability to organize well and to memorize concrete lines of play. What
de Groot found was quite different: Grandmasters did not rely on superior memory
skills. Grandmasters were not any better at recalling randomly placed pieces than
novice chess players were. The Grandmaster however was able to take actual chess
positions and in an astonishing 5 seconds recognize a complex chess configuration
and decide on a successful move. How were the GM's able to give accurate, well thought
out evaluations in so little time? It seemed that GM's (but not novices) were able
to recognize familiar configurations, and associating them with appropriate moves
Recent research in the late seventies and early eighties in the US has confirmed
these findings. Researchers concluded that meaningful knowledge is stored in memory
in the form of networks and patterns, and these patterns provide the roots essential
for recall. Thus the expert and GM players were able to remember and recognize chunks
of information. In chess these chunks are visual representations in which particular
configurations are recognized. These relate to and often cue prior successful responses
or pattern responses. What is an involved long sequence of decision making of information
for novices, is processed by experts in "one go". It seems that other
experts such as dancers, athletes and musicians operate mentally in much the same
way. Responses are efficient and fast as understanding and experience are recognized
and recalled in the essential structure of the activity. It seems that chess players
develop complex but efficient structures for memory storage and management.
One of the essential goals of education is to teach children to think critically:
students must learn to make reasoned judgments. Chess is an excellent tool to demonstrate
the theme of critical thinking. During a game a player must formulate a plan of
attack or defense.
The formulation of a plan entails that the player must not only reflect on how
similar problems are solved (searching a database of previous knowledge) but also
the player must perform a systematic checking of possible combinations of moves
and then arrive at an evaluation of each line. The process is a mental exercise
where pieces are envisioned to be moving from square to square and the player reflects
on the characteristics of the position to finally produce a reasoned outcome (move).
This is precisely the definition of critical thinking. Watson-Glaser appraised the
value of chess as a learning tool and showed overwhelmingly "that chess improved
critical thinking skills more than the other methods of enrichment." Included
in the study were future problem solving, problem solving with computers, independent
study, creative writing and fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons.
An important element of critical thinking in chess is the evaluation process
where the strength of one's position is assessed . Beginners who play chess (and
early computer programs) place significant emphasis on material -- reasoning that
"the player with more material will win by sheer numbers". If only chess
was that simple. Material plays a central role in winning a chess game but many
more ideas are needed for a useful evaluation of a position. More advanced players
find a balance: included in their evaluation processes are the ideas of central
control, pawn structure, material, space, maneuverability, king safety, initiative
and development of pieces. The brain has internalized these values allowing the
player to make a reasoned judgment of which particular themes are critical in evaluating
his or her own position.
Mathematicians have estimated that there are approximately 10^50 possible unique
games of chess playable. Thus chess will never become just a repetition of previously
played moves. So how can a player possibly make a decision as to which plan to choose
with so many possible choices? Even with complicated evaluative techniques, choosing
the best plan can be very difficult. The chess player must often must rely on intuition.
The best chess players are often those who have an acute feel or intuition for which
move is correct. This can be a useful tool in education. Intuition is generally
undervalued in educational terms but can be a very useful tool in both problem solving
and real life applications when the steps to solve a problem are not easily apparent.
Are there links between mathematics and chess? Chess players are often considered
mathematically oriented and there are obvious similarities as chess is a game of
problem solving, evaluation, critical thinking, intuition and planning -- much like
the study of mathematics. Studies have shown that students playing chess have increased
problem solving skills over their peers. Researcher suggests that while students
playing chess learn concepts through physical and visual stimuli and correlate these
concepts to cognitive patterns, mathematics in the classroom usually involves only
pure symbolic manipulation. Thus there seems to be some evidence to suggest that
chess acts as a sort of link in connecting form (symbolic) with understanding (physical
In the early 80's Faneuil Adams became president of the American Chess Foundation
(ACF). Adams was convinced that chess was an excellent learning tool for the adolescent,
especially the disadvantaged. The ACF embarked on the Chess in Schools Program which
focused on New York's Harlem School district. Initially the program was focused
on improving math skills for adolescents through improved critical thinking and
problem solving skills. This was achieved as "test scores improved by 17.3%
for students regularly engaged in chess classes, compared with only 4.56% for children
participating in other forms of enriched activities."
Also noted was that many students social habits improved when playing chess.
The game allows for students of dissimilar backgrounds to integrate with others.
Many disadvantaged or special education students are becoming actively involved
in chess programs as the value of chess as a social tool is further explored. Advocates
of chess are hoping that some of New York's gang related problems will be solved
as children and students play chess in their spare time instead of becoming involved
with gang related activities. Thus chess steers youth away from trouble by keeping
them off the streets as well as being a useful learning tool.
Jerome Fishman, Guidance Counselor, Queens, NY says: "I like the aspect
of socialization. You get into a friendly, competitive activity where no one gets
hurt. Instead of two bodies slamming into each other like football, you have the
meeting of two minds. Aside from developing cognitive skills, chess develops their
social skills. It makes them feel they belong. Whenever we get a child transferred
from another school who may have maladaptive behavior, we suggest chess as a way
of helping him find his niche. The kids become better friends when after the game
they analyze possible combinations ... we have kids literally lining up in front
of the school at 6:45am to get a little chess in before class."
Principal Jo Bruno , Brooklyn, NY : "In chess tournaments the child gets
the opportunity of seeing more variety and diversity. There are kids who have more
money than they have, but chess is a common denominator. They are all equal on the
chessboard. I believe it is connected academically and to the intellectual development
of children. I see the kids able to attend to something for more than an hour and
a half. I am stunned. Some of them could not attend to things for more than 20 minutes."
Bruno brings up the important point that chess can focus kids into concentrating
on a task for long periods of time. Why is this? The author believes that many adolescents
find chess fun and exciting. This corresponds to the youths playing (learning) for
long periods of time without distraction.
Dr. Stuart Margulies, a researcher for IBM, stated that he "conclusively
proved that students who learned chess enjoyed a significant increase in their reading
ability". Dr. Margulies does not explain why he believes there is a correlation
between chess and increased reading skills but it is the author's opinion that chess
develops cognitive and attention skills. Furthermore, chess forces adolescents to
visualize concepts and piece movement. This may allow for better visualization (interpretive)
skills when reading.
Where is chess education headed? In the United States a major scholastic effort
is underway to incorporate chess into the elementary school setting by the USCF,
the US Chess Trust, the AFC and thousands of teachers and volunteers. The USCF scholastic
magazine School Mates has over 20,000 copies in circulation each month. Rosalyn
Katz of New Jersey spearheaded a movement for scholastic chess volunteers to change
the legislation for teaching chess in schools in the state of New York. Katz managed
to pass to bills in senate: Bill #S452 and #A1122. The bills read :
"An act concerning instruction in chess and supplementing Chapter 35 of
Title 18A of the New Jersey Statutes. Be it enacted by the Senate and General Assembly
of the State of New Jersey:
The Province of Quebec has followed suit and also has programs in place where
schools teach chess at the elementary level. Instructors are often professional
chess players hired by the school board to teach part-time during the week. British
Columbia has no official legislation regarding chess as an active learning tool
but the author believes that it is only a matter of time until a comprehensive uniform
stance is taken by the province on chess in the classroom. At present chess is taught
at few schools in Vancouver, mostly under volunteer supervision. Lynn Stringer currently
volunteers many hours starting chess programs in many Vancouver Island schools.
As pressure grows from parents interested in better educational programs the author
expects chess programs will be introduced province-wide in the near future . This
will result in a greater demand for qualified people with the necessary skills to
Yasser Seirawan, US Grandmaster, said that, "Chess must no longer remain
a civilized luxury of the leisure class in either appearance or fact; rather, chess
must assume its fundamental role as a mental integrator and motivational activator.
The hard scrabble nature of chess is equal to the task; are we equal to its full