The Brainy Benefits of Chess

Beware the Pushy Parent

For some, the thought of children playing chess conjures up images of the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer, which chronicles the exhausting training and competition schedule of 7-year-old chess prodigy Joshua Waitzkin, a former Dalton student. Experts warn that for the average kid, such intense pressure can cause more harm than good. For one thing, tournament play can be extremely taxing to the body: A Temple University study found that chess players can expend as much energy during a tournament as a boxer.

What's more, chess's effect on the brain will be undermined if kids feel forced to play, says Dr. Nelson. "It has to be fun. A parent who wants to make a child into the next Bobby Fischer is as bad as one who pressures a child to be a star football player or neurosurgeon. Children have to want to play to derive the benefits."

The key to making chess fun, say the instructors, is how you teach the game. Dalton's Jovanovic spices his lessons with all kinds of cultural and literary references as well as dramatic battles between chess pieces. At P.S. 194, Church's students take breaks from learning game strategy to design their own chess pieces with crayons and paper. They get up from their seats to perform dances that help them remember moves: In the Rook Dance, for example, kids move up, down, and side to side.

Students of Keith Halonen, a chess teacher in Santa Rosa, CA, learn about the history of the game. He'll ask the kids if they've seen the Disney movie Aladdin, for instance. "Then I tell them the real Aladdin was an adviser in the 15th-century Persian court. He was such a good chess player that he could conduct four games of chess simultaneously while blindfolded and at the same time carry on conversations with his friends!"

And Yakov Hirsch, a Chess-in-the-Schools instructor who teaches in New York City's Chinatown, enlivens his instruction with banter designed to make the kids giggle. "The king is naked!" he exclaims, showing an unprotected monarch. "The pawns were the king's clothing, and the white queen took them away," he explains as the class dissolves in general second-grade hilarity. The lesson is about when to let a piece to be captured -- a "sacrifice" -- instead of losing it because of bad moves.

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