Chess-in-the-Schools: Helping kids grow, one move at a time

The ancient Greeks referred to chess, a game which encompasses imagination, aggression and intellect, as "a gymnasium for the mind". Benjamin Franklin agreed, writing in 1779 that "the game of chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired and strengthened by it."

In keeping with this attitude, an innovative, not-for-profit, New York City-based program, Chess-in-the-Schools: Helping Kids Grow One Move at a Time (formerly known as the American Chess Foundation), has used the centuries-old game to change the lives of thousands of at-risk students. Chess-in-the-Schools' (CIS) goals are to motivate schoolchildren to develop high-order thinking skills and self-confidence, and to instill a desire for academic achievement.

Besides having fun, kids who participate in chess programs develop logic, reasoning and problem solving abilities, critical thinking, patience and determination. Memory, concentration and visualization skills are enhanced as well. Perhaps most importantly, young chess players develop an improved sense of self-esteem as they learn they can succeed in intellectual pursuits.

In 1986, CIS sent experienced chess instructors, equipment and books into public schools in Harlem, Bedford Stuyvesant and the South Bronx. To the surprise and delight of parents and educators, the children learned quickly and became ardent chess fans. Teachers reported improvements in the students' behavior, attitude, attendance and scholastic performance. Reading and math scores went up, and previously reluctant students actually began to look forward to coming to school. Thirteen years later, according to director of development Miriam Capua, Chess-in-the-Schools, with affiliates in cities throughout the U.S., is currently serving 32,000 students in 160 public schools and 19 libraries throughout the city.

Specially trained chess instructors teach classes, including special ed, within elementary and junior high schools with a predominantly disadvantaged student body. Workshops for teachers help them integrate the program into their regular school curriculum. Extraordinarily cost-effective compared to other sports or scholastic programs, the average expenditure per child for an entire school year is generally less than $100.

Besides providing instruction and equipment to schools, CIS consults with groups interested in establishing chess programs in partnership with local school districts. The organization has also developed after-school and summer chess programs in libraries, camps and community-based organizations, and sponsors local chess tournaments as well as providing support for teams to compete in regional and national tournaments.

Last July, the South Bronx's Middle School 118 All-Star Knights, winners of the National Junior H.S. Scholastic Chess Championship in Phoenix, traveled to Moscow for the World Youth Games, where they competed with youngsters from around the world. A month before, the team's 14-year-old co-captain, Kwadwo Acheampong, speaking at a CIS award ceremony where he accepted the Scholastic and Chess Excellence Player of the Year Award, explained, "Chess has always been very important to me. It has allowed me to leave the streets of New York City, to explore the nation, and this summer, the world."

In the Spring 1998 edition of 64 Squares, the organization's newsletter, Chess-in-the-Schools' executive director, Allen Kaufman, wrote, "The goal of the CIS chess teacher is not simply to build a winning team and bring home the trophies. Our chess instructors are fully aware that their job is to foster winners, that is, students with the self-confidence, self-discipline and sense of direction that is necessary for success in any endeavor."

Kaufman adds that the instructors act as coaches and mentors in the full sense of the world, detecting family or personal problems which might interfere with a student's overall performance and working to help the student overcome the problem. "Our instructors and program staff constantly look for opportunities to meet the needs of the whole child, whether it is creating employment opportunities for CIS high school alumni as assistant chess instructors at clubs, or . . . taking the students to a Yankees game to relax and socialize before a big tournament," he writes, justly proud of the organization which strives to help youngsters reach their full potential socially, emotionally and academically.


Two research studies by noted educational psychologist Stuart Margulies, Ph.D., demonstrated that besides having increased self-confidence, self-esteem and problem-solving skills, students in the chess program showed significantly greater gains in reading on a nationally standardized test than did the control group. These gains were particularly impressive for children who started with relatively low or average scores. Trying to explain the results, Dr. Margulies interviewed chess masters and teacher coaches, who pointed out that chess playing develops general intelligence, self-control, analytic skills and an increased ability to concentrate. Teachers felt that their chess-playing students develop enhanced ego strength as a result of their chess-playing competence, and suggested that students who feel good about themselves naturally learn to read better. Another theory suggests that the cognitive processes used in chess - processing information, comprehending and analyzing - are similar to those used in reading, and that perhaps training in one skill leads naturally to improvement in the other.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that Chess-in-the-Schools is improving the lives of the many city youngsters who participate in their innovative and enriching programs. For more information, CIS may be contacted at (212) 757-0613.

Checkmate! Record numbers of American children are becoming serious chess players, due to programs like Chess-in-the-Schools and Project Chess, a federally funded program in California aimed at reducing drug use and crime by promoting healthier activities. The proliferation of chess-playing software for home computers (such as "Battle Chess", in which the knights wear armor and the rooks are scary monsters), has added to the game's popularity. Kids and teens under age 20 now constitute the largest membership category in the U.S. Chess Federation, the leading organization for chess enthusiasts.

While Chess-in-the-Schools provides programs in schools which primarily serve disadvantaged children, many other schools, libraries and community centers are using their own funds to start chess programs. Some schools, like Polgar Chess Authority in Rego Park, Queens, run by World Champion Susan Polgar, are running summer day camps with chess courses, clubs and tournaments. Other children play chess on the Internet, or at Chess for Kids Games, run by New York Chess and Backgammon, and held in Bryant Park on Saturdays. A recent New York Times article, "Laura's Adventures in Street Chess", chronicled the adventures of 10-year-old chess champion Laura Ross of Forest Hills, Queens, who visited three popular outdoor chess sites - Bryant Park, Washington Square Park, and the Brighton Beach Boardwalk in Brooklyn - in search of a well-matched opponent. (She ended up playing with Asa Hoffman, a 55-year-old chess master who was portrayed by the actor Austin Pendleton in the 1993 movie "Searching for Bobby Fisher". Laura, ranked third among all players age 10 and under, lost the game, and did not particularly enjoy it, because, she said, "He killed me.")

Laura's passion for chess is somewhat unusual, since the vast majority of chess players are boys. The U.S. Chess Foundation says that only eight percent of its 28,000 members aged 14 and under are female, as are only two percent of its 44,000 adult members. Last year, Marlene Hochman, mother of two and a volunteer chess coach at P.S. 29 in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, decided to do something about the fact that few girls seemed to be interested in the game. A doll collector, and author of "The Doll Hospital Directory", Hochman created what may be the world's first Barbie chess set, gluing Barbie doll heads onto the pawns and queens and Ken heads onto the King. One week after the set was unveiled, nine first-grade girls showed up for the school's weekly chess club meeting, along with the other two girls who had previously belonged. Amanda Carroll, the club's only girl to return for a second year, loved the set, saying, "Chess is competitive and challenging, but this makes it more fun." Although Gail Sherwin, president of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, expressed concern that the Barbie pieces played into gender stereotypes, the U.S. Chess Federation's executive assistant, Barbara DeMarro, disagreed, noting: "Any way people encourage children to play chess is wonderful."