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metaphors and methods

More than a game: Eight transition lessons chess teaches

Mark Kennedy

Knights, pawns, kings, and queens can facilitate eight positive transitions for young people — and for the educators who work with them.

One of the most significant periods of transition in my life was my enlistment in the U.S. Navy. In this "previous life" (1971—75), I was stationed aboard a ship for some time. Often there was much to do, but at other times — especially after work hours — I had time on my hands. I remember playing a lot of chess as a way to pass the off-hours pleasantly. My love for chess that developed during that time sparked my interest in how chess can facilitate successful transitions for others — especially young people.

During times of transition or uncertain direction, such as my tenure in the Navy, people need an anchor, something to look forward to, an area of strength to focus on. As an alternative school teacher who works with teenagers on probation, I have seen chess provide this anchor and incentive for many young people. Although this is not a story of lives transformed by chess, it describes the many small, daily miracles — the little "Aha!" moments — I have witnessed as a result of the game. I would like to share some of these small victories, in the hopes that other educators and youth workers may also add chess to their collection of effective strategies for reaching resistant or disconnected youth.

I have seen the game of chess facilitate gains in three different categories:

When chess is included in the classroom or other youth setting, these three transitions are evident in at least eight powerful ways:

  1. Chess removes barriers between students.
    Make the classroom a neutral, safe place by allowing students to set aside differences such as gang affiliation, race, and gender, and just interact as two kids having fun. I have seen friendships blossom between people from competing affiliations as they strike up a friendly rivalry across the chessboard. This natural and fun method of encouraging interaction goes a long way toward counteracting the stereotypes and discrimination that many students like mine bring with them to the classroom (e.g., "All people from that gang/race/gender/part of town are bad/dishonest! dumb/dirty/lazy/treacherous").

  2. Chess gives students at least one reason to come to school.
    Often, a change in attitude toward school begins with success in just one curricular area (Glasser, 1972; Kennedy, 1996). When students are excited about even one school-based activity, school grounds are no longer seen as foreign territory. Chess can be that one activity, and then serve as a natural point of entry into more traditional disciplines. One might capitalize on students’ interest in chess through writing and social studies assignments. For example, when Iraq and the U.S. seemed headed for another confrontation recently, I asked my students to write their answers to the question "How are diplomacy and war like a chess game?" It is also easy to find themes that link chess with literature and science. But math is perhaps the most obvious connection. Chess can richly advance all the major fields of math (Steen, 1990): dimension, quantity, shape, analytic geometry (with the chess board’s ranks, files, and coordinates), and uncertainty. The "basics" can also make more sense when chess is used as an illustration. For example, I have successfully used pawns to teach the concept of fractions (e.g., 1 of 8) and the skill of reducing fractions (e.g., 4/8 = 1/2 )

  3. Chess builds rapport between adults and students.
    At the conclusion of each chess match with a student, I always shake hands and tell my student opponent that he or she played a good game, win or lose. The sportsmanship benefits — so conspicuously absent in this generation — are obvious. However, this adult-child interaction also creates an environment where teacher is learner and student is teacher as they meet as equals at the chessboard (Purkey & Novak, 1978, 1984)

  4. Chess honors nontraditional cognitive styles.
    As an academic pursuit, chess rewards nontraditional learners as well as traditional ones. In particular, chess is three-dimensional (or manipulative) instead of one- or two-dimensional. Chess is also interactive, and thus supportive of those types of learners variously described as "interpersonal" (Gardner, 1983), "cooperative" (Gibbs, 1987), "group" (Dunn, 1996), "emotionally intelligent" (Goleman, 1995), or "culturally field-dependent" (Witkin & Goodenough, 1986). The game is also an authentic pursuit — that is, it has a real outcome and is therefore performed for authentic purpose — which is an important prerequisite for deep, meaningful learning (Kennedy, 1996; Caine & Caine, 1991; Wiggins, 1993).

  5. Chess builds life skills and critical thinking.
    Clearly, one crucial lesson all young people must learn is to think before they act. Chess teaches this skill in an authentic way: every move in chess has consequences, and successful players must learn to anticipate these consequences many moves in advance. An opponent’s expected response is what guides the player’s decision to make or avoid a certain move. In addition to this basic lesson learned through play, chess can be used as a framework or prompt for teaching other life skills in the whole-class curriculum (see table). For example, as a weekly essay topic, I once asked students to describe a time when they felt like a pawn.

  6. Chess builds metacognition as students learn to examine their own thinking.
    As students play chess, they naturally engage in the process of metacognition, asking themselves questions such as "Now, what led me to move there?" "Why did my opponent make that moveT’ "How did she put me in checkmate? And how can I avoid it next time?" This constant reflection on causes and motives, as well as anticipation of future actions, builds an important skill that students wilt use in all aspects of their lives.

  7. Chess integrates different types of thinking.
    Chess requires players to reflexively combine both creativity and intuition (right-brain/hemisphere) and linear-logical thinking (left-brain/hemisphere). Because hemispheric dominance can change over time (Dunn, 1996), and growth and interaction of the brain hemispheres develops with use (Sylwester, 1995), well-rounded intelligence can be encouraged by activities that require various kinds of thinking. Chess, a game tat rewards both analytic logic and intuitive leaps, can be such an activity that helps to develop and integrate both.

  8. Chess challenges and expands our understanding of intelligence.
    When a student can beat a teacher or an administrator at chess, but perhaps cannot read or do fractions, teachers are forced to re-examine the questions "What does it mean to be smart?" and "How do we educate different kinds of ‘intelligence’?" Even without reviewing the different fields of learning theory, we are now too aware of students’ differences to settle for one teacher-directed way to reach them all. In chess, a learning experience that is co-created by the student, these differences in learning needs are respected as each game progresses in its own form and time.
    Widening our understanding of intelligence is especially important as we attempt to break barriers that have hindered female, minority, and underachieving students from doing well in mat, science, and other curricular areas (Clewell, Anderson, & Thorpe, 1992; Cuevas, 1995; Hale-Benson, 1986; Kuykendall, 1992; Office of Technology Assessment, 1989). Chess can help us challenge the outdated assumptions that knowledge is fixed and unchanging, and that knowing is merely rehearsing (National Research Council, 1989).


More than a game
Chess is an interactive, authentic, three-dimensional activity that naturally encourages and supports marginalized students in successful transitions toward expanding their vision of the world beyond their home turf and toward academic proficiency and confidence. In addition, chess can help educators gain a wider understanding of what it means to be, and who is perceived to be, intelligent. These powerful benefits of introducing chess into schools and other youth settings make it clear that chess in the classroom can be much more than just a game.

Widening our understanding of intelligence is expecially important as we attempt to break barriers that have hindered female, minority and under-achieving students form doing well in math, science, and other curricular areas.


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This feature: Kennedy, Mark(1998) More Than a Game, Eight Transition Lesssons Chess Teaches. Reaching Today's Youth Vol.2 No. 4, pp. 17-19