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Chess Impacts Students

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The following post is from Chet Sygiel who has been a resident of Jackson, Kentucky for the past 32 years, Chess teacher and Mathematics tutor for the past 13 years, and academic counselor for the past 9 for the Jackson Independent public school district.

For the past 13 years, Chess has been part of the curriculum at the Jackson Independent Schools, a pre-K-12 public school district of approximately 400 students wholly contained under one roof in the small Appalachian town of Jackson in the eastern Kentucky mountains.

My chess classes are anything but quiet. Every student at Jackson City learns how to play the game. First graders ask a lot of questions and argue about the rules, "She can't do that, can she?" Middle school students treat the classes more as social events, playing with or against their friends, in single matches or with a partner against another team of two players in a version of chess called bughouse. Formal chess classes end with eighth grade graduation, but high school students can continue to play in the eastern "Kentucky King of the Mountains" high school chess league.

Chess is not usually considered a social game. Most people can picture two players sitting across a table from each other for hours with barely a word passing between them. At Jackson City, however, chess is often also a class in human relations. Some students want to win so badly they will bend the rules a bit until they eventually learn to temper their desire for victory with a healthy appreciation for doing things the right way.

Students who play well can be paired in bughouse chess with students who rarely win. Each will have to appreciate and use whatever talent his or her partner brings to the chess board for the team to be successful. Better players can be handicapped in classroom tournaments by having to remove some of their pieces from the board before the game begins. "That's not fair!" Well, sometimes life isn't fair either.

Are the students with the highest GPA's always the best chess players in the class? Far from it. There may be a small correlation, but it's not unheard of to find some of the U.S. Chess Federation highest-rated chess players in our school at the very bottom of the class GPA list. Not near the bottom, but at the very end of the list. They have an intelligence that is just not being measured by our usual testing procedures.

The idea behind adding chess to our curriculum 13 years ago was not to develop a state championship team of four outstanding players, but to offer something to all of our students that would expand their critical thinking abilities at an age when their brains are most receptive to such an effort. As an aside, though, both our high school and middle school teams have finished as high as 6th in the state in their respective age divisions, often competing against schools 12 to 25 times our size.

The academic rationale for including chess in a school's curriculum includes benefits that can positively affect students' work in other classes as well as nurture life skills in general. Chess requires planning, concentration, logical reasoning, sequential thinking, and memory. There is nothing quite as amazing as watching a student who can usually barely sit still for five minutes at a time compete in a regional or state chess tournament with such intense focus on the board for a solid hour and a half that you can almost imagine smoke about to come out of his ears.

Yet the game also develops in players abilities useful in their daily lives: proficiency in decision-making after assessing the current reality on the board, realizing the consequences of their choices immediately, whether positive or negative, knowing an opponent's or partner's strengths and personality that may alter a player's tactics in a match. Over time, students also come to have an objective view of their own talents and deficiencies. Everything about the game is sitting there right in front of them. Nothing hidden. No excuses.

Chess is a very creative and, dare I say, artistic game. It is no less so for someone trying to teach it in a public school setting. It is such a joy to play, however, that I can count on one hand the students over the past 13 years who have told me they didn't enjoy playing, and I'd still have some fingers left over. Most of my students, especially the youngest ones, have no idea how chess is affecting their cognitive sense. They just like to play because it's fun.

If you'd like more information than I've provided here about the process of setting up a chess curriculum, what happens in a typical class, and what I've learned from my students about teaching chess, please feel free to email me.

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