The Brainy Benefits of Chess

When to Begin

Not all experts agree on the optimal age for children to start learning to play chess. Some simply say the earlier the better. "I believe the younger the child, the greater the impact," says the American Chess School's Dr. Ferguson, who has taught the game to kindergartners. "These kids have brains like sponges."

While some children will be ready to learn the game by age 4, the consensus among chess teachers seems to be that second grade -- meaning age 7 or 8 -- is the ideal time to start. "I've had mixed results when teaching kindergartners and first-graders, but by second grade, they're all ready," says Tom Brownscombe, scholastic director of the U.S. Chess Federation.

As for gender, most agree that many more boys than girls become interested in the game and continue playing. "I don't think there's any reason for it other than society seems to think chess is a boys' thing," Brownscombe says. "Obviously, females are perfectly capable of competing with males in chess."

Though Jovanovic admits there aren't many girls in Dalton School's chess academy, he says that girls who do play are extremely good. "I have one sixth-grade girl, Katharine Pelletier, who's the highest-rated middle school player in the United States," he says proudly. "She's not intimidated by anybody."

As chess's popularity rises among children, experts who've been involved with chess for years say that more girls are playing -- and winning. "My older daughter, who's now 21, started playing when she was in elementary school, but she quit after a year and a half because there just weren't any other girls doing it," says Susan Breeding, director of instruction for the Dallas Area Chess-in-the-Schools program. "For my younger daughter, who's 10, it's a whole other ball game now."

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