In 2011, Armenia instituted mandatory chess instruction in schools, starting at age 6.
Armenia is proud of its prowess at chess, and rightly so; it ranks third in the world in chess grandmasters per capita, second only to Iceland and Andorra.
Grandmasters are Armenia’s top celebrities. Championships are played on giant boards in cities. Chess victories are cause for great public celebrations. Though geographically small, in chess Armenia punches far above its weight. (It regularly beats the Americans, the Russians and the Chinese.) Its national team won the gold at two international Chess Olympiads — 2006 and 2008.
Armen Ashtoyan, Education Minister of Armenia, has long believed that chess helps children build skills in strategic planning, logical thinking, and leadership capacity. Many nations already offer chess as a subject in school. The Chess Academy of Armenia, located near Yerevan, is entirely government-funded and gives lessons to children as young as four.
So what are the actual benefits of playing the game?
Children who play chess score better in creative thinking, comparative analysis and overall reflexes, according to reports by Ruben Aghuzumstyan, one of Armenia’s leading psychological researchers. He calls it “an optimized game which develops a lot of areas of the brain.” Canadian master Peter Dauvergne posited that chess could be a tremendous teaching tool. He wrote that chess shows how “to win and lose gracefully, to think logically and efficiently, and to make tough and abstract decisions.”
In 10 Amazing Benefits from Playing Chess with Your Children, an article by Dr. Orlena Kerek, a pediatrician and writer of the blog “Snotty Noses”, cites that chess improves concentration, memory, foresight, strategic thinking, attention span, reading skills and creativity. (It’s also inexpensive.)
Some chess skeptics say that the sort of kid who enjoys chess is probably already academically successful.
Let’s see how chess fares in the schools of other countries. One chess enthusiast, Malcolm Pein, is so convinced of the broad benefits that chess has to offer (including that it helps teach us to take responsibility for our actions), that he founded Chess in Schools and Communities in 2010. His charity helps teach chess in hundreds of schools around the United Kingdom. He has personally taught the game in the schools of some of the poorest areas in all of England, such as Tower Hamlets in London.
Pein’s aim is to teach thirty hours of chess in the six years of primary schooling (which amounts to less than one half of one percent of classroom time). He argues further that it is important to teach chess to everyone rather than just those who attend out of curiosity: “If you run a chess club in a mixed-gender school, 30 boys and two girls will turn up. But when you teach chess in the classroom, it just becomes a fun subject.”
Now let’s look at how chess at school is faring in the United States. On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the Dalton School has one of the first and best chess programs in the U.S. It was started by Svetozar Jovanovic about “two decades ago”. Gifted with an infectious enthusiasm, he enchants classes with his own love of the game: “Chess is an art, a struggle, a science, a war!”
Dalton’s students begin chess in kindergarten. If they’re still interested in second grade, they join the after-school Chess Academy, whose team regularly wins local and national championships.
Meanwhile, three miles uptown, another classroom of equally attentive kindergartners at Harlem’s P.S. #194 are also learning chess. The boards are vinyl, but these students are just as proud of their own chess team, the Renaissance Warriors.
Nikki Church is the instructor from the New York-based nonprofit organization “Chess-in-the-Schools”, which is assembling a growing body of research that shows chess improving students’ test scores in reading and math.
But America’s experiments with chess in school aren’t limited to New York. Stuart Margulies, a New York educational psychologist, found back in 1996 that chess-playing students in Los Angeles scored about ten percentage points higher on reading tests than their peers who didn’t play. James Liptrap, a high-school teacher from Spring, Texas, found that chess-playing students scored higher on scholastic assessments.
That helps explain why scholastic memberships in the U.S. Chess Federation have increased more than tenfold since 1990.
“Chess Can Improve Children’s Lives” by John Thornhill. October 7, 2015.
“Should Every Child Be Made to Play Chess?” by Vanessa Barford, BBC News. April 25, 2011.
“Snotty Noses” Blog by pediatrician Orlena Kerek.
“The Brainy Benefits of Chess” by Beth Weinhouse. https://www.parents.com/
“Chess Mandatory in Armenian Schools” by Anne Hobson. The Daily Caller. March 26, 2013.