5 February 2023

Checkmate!

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Does playing chess make you smarter?

There are many questions regarding chess: Why do people play it? What is so interesting about this game? What are the benefits we can get from playing chess? Chess may seem like a simple board game, but for those who have dedicated themselves to the hobby, it is far from simple. Chess players are often stereotyped as smart, logical people and perhaps not without reason, for chess is a game that truly challenges the mind, stimulating the players’ thinking skills and helping students develop the ability to think critically and strategize. And yet for many chess legends, there is apparently no correlation between their chess skills and education. As Robert Fischer, who famously dropped out of high school but still held the World Chess Championship title from 1972 to 1975, once said “I don’t remember one thing I learned in school.” In a day and age where knowledge and thinking have become vital for paving one’s future, many people believe that it is a good, perhaps even necessary, idea to introduce young children to the art of chess as early as possible in order to help develop their critical thinking skills.

Noor Azina Ismail and Halimah Awang studied the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) for 1999 and 2003 and found that Malaysian student achievements in mathematics and thinking skills was very low compared to other countries. With Malaysia’s 5-year Economic Plan emphasizing science and technology for economic growth and innovation, if our nation’s maths and science scores continue to remain at a lower average than other countries, achieving the plan’s goals will be made all the more difficult. As such, it is critical that Malaysia’s education systems look for new and effective methods to improve their students’ engagement in class and scores in mathematics and science subjects in schools. Many educators proposed playing chess as a way of improving math abilities, despite the fact that most people don’t normally associate maths and science with chess. But there is a much deeper connection than what most people think.

For many, chess is not merely a game but a lifestyle, one of the most intellectually stimulating activities to have ever been created. It is a metaphor for life, love, and sports, a game that has become popular with all ages, education levels and backgrounds, with a history dating back to Classical Era India. It is for this reason that movies or series revolving around chess have become fairly popular. Indeed, “The Queen’s Gambit” was watched by 62 million households worldwide in its first 28 days and was No. 1 in Nielsen’s list of top streaming titles from October 26 to November 1 in the US. Chess, as described by Dr. Ng Siew Cheok, the coach for Universiti Malaya’s (UM) chess team, is a game where “you need to have all round training” which in this case is technical, psychological and (for professional players) physical training. Mastering these three skills are necessary for becoming a true chess champion for the game requires proper strategy, focusing, patience and the endurance to last hours and even days on end.

chess pieces on chess board

Given the mental skills required to become a true professional chess player, it is no surprise that many believe that playing chess can make you smarter. There is, in fact, some that research strongly supports this idea as well as chess’s potential as a tool to develop student’s critical thinking skills, bringing many benefits to them. One such research was a study conducted by Michael Rosholm, Mai Bjørnskov Mikkelsen and Kamilla Gumede which found that playing chess can grant benefits to the student indirectly, helping them develop skills such as strategic thinking, problem solving, decision making, visual memory and predictive ability which will serve them immensely during school and in their future careers.

Dr. Nor Aishah Abdullah of UM’s Faculty of Science conducted a study to determine how much students’ mathematical, scientific and critical thinking abilities improved after playing chess. The experiment was set up in two different elementary schools with participants at each school being divided into two groups, both comprising of students at the age of 10. The first group was comprised of students with the ability to play the game while the second group consisted of students who had no prior knowledge of the rules or strategies of such a game. Both groups were subjected to tests involving mathematics, science and critical thinking, with the chess player group also having chess instruction as part of their regular classroom lessons. After 10 weeks, the data collected from each group is analysed and compared. “The results of our experiment showed that chess players achieved significantly higher scores in their mathematics and science tests compared to the non-players”, Dr. Aishah explains, “these results help support our theory that students’ math, science and critical thinking abilities will improve naturally when playing chess and further support the America’s Foundation for Chess (AF4C) own data which shows chess players achieving higher scores in mathematics and reading tests.” “However”, she continues, “there is still room for stronger evidence and future research must take into consideration the factors (e.g. larger sample size and longer time duration for the experiment) that will help demonstrate better results in the participants’ test scores.”

In addition to improving mathematics, science and critical thinking skills, chess also has the potential to improve student happiness and reduce their boredom at school, which in turn will have a positive effect on their ability to learn. To help support this theory, Rosholm, Mikkelsen and Gumede’s study measured students’ emotions by asking them to rate their happiness and boredom in school and then correlated these findings with that of their test scores. The study found that regular chess lessons had increased student happiness and alleviated their boredom in class likely by providing the students with an alternative means of classroom learning that simultaneously entertains them. The experiment found that happier students tended to perform better in mathematics than unhappy students and that unhappy students were more greatly impacted by chess instructions than happier ones. Likewise, students who were never bored at school tended to be better at maths and learned faster than the most bored students.

Though the results of these studies strongly support chess’s potential as a tool to improve critical thinking, these same findings may not necessarily be complete or reliable given that most of the studies had only compared the effects of chess with groups doing no alternative activities. It is known that the excitement and fun derived from novel activities such as chess can result in a placebo effect – where any apparent positive effect on test scores may not necessarily correlate to any improvements in critical thinking or strategic skills. Perhaps crucially, when compared to other activities such as checkers or sports, playing chess failed to demonstrate any significant effect on children’s cognitive or critical thinking skills. Assuming that a particular skill can have a positive effect on cognitive or academic abilities is, unfortunately, a common generalisation that occurs with many other areas and hobbies besides chess.

In short, while chess may seem like a convenient ‘end-all-be-all’ tool for improving a child’s ability to think critically, perform better at school and unlock their future potential, it is far from being the only activity that may possess significant impacts on children’s cognitive skills. But even with this wishful thinking out of the way, it is clear that chess does have some effect on children’s mathematical abilities. Additionally, chess can help develop certain other skills such as improved focus, sportsmanship and social skills, all of which are equally important for future careers as cognitive or critical thinking skills. Dr. Ng says that “Chess is a game that requires visualization, memory and decision making in order to play. These skills may be useful to be applied for some mathematics. In general I do not think these skills will make a person much better in mathematics. However, chess being a sport where discipline (required for dedication to training) and determination (focus during the game even though there are numerous challenges) are critical for doing well, these attitudes will help make a person better at maths.” Perhaps the best way to integrate chess into children’s education is to simply create mathematical games or exercises utilizing chess materials and elements, thereby serving as a fun and creative means of helping children to learn.

Dr. Aishah says, “Chess may not be everyone’s cup of tea and it may not be the ultimate teaching tool as certain people want it to be but by introducing the game in a manner that is attractive to a young audience, we can help make their learning experience more fun and thus improve their mathematical abilities, and by extension, their critical thinking skills.”

Check! This next move is yours, are you prepared?