American educators, in love with new fads and theories, fill our schools with ill-conceived panaceas—from the "new math" to whole language to Internet surfing—meant to reverse three decades of academic decline. But one new school fashion that really works is a game that goes back 13 centuries—chess. Educators who scorn back-to-basics programs that stress homework and study look kindly upon chess—it's only a game, after all. The result: in some schools, weekly chess classes and competitive chess teams have prompted students—many of them low-income kids—to learn as never before.
What does chess offer to schoolchildren? Says Garry Kasparov, reigning world champion: "Chess is great for memory, for self-discipline, and for determination. Children also learn responsibility, which is missing from the schools. In chess, you are on your own and there is nobody to blame." In addition, Kasparov notes, having a cohort of chess-playing kids "improves the educational environment."
Harlem's Mott Intermediate School proves Kasparov's point. Though three-quarters of the student body are poor enough to qualify for the federal free-lunch program, the nearly all Hispanic and black school uses the ancient game as a critical part of the curriculum. The school ranks first in Harlem in reading scores and has won two national chess championships.
Observes Maurice Ashley, the highest-ranking black chess player in the world and director of several school chess programs: "Chess begs for individual style and creativity, not the regurgitation of information. Purpose in thought and logical reasoning come to work together." And Ashley thinks chess can make a difference for many disadvantaged kids: "My best players are those who don't do well in school. Once they become involved, they tend to flower at chess and learn more and become more motivated." Moreover, says Ashley, "Involvement in the game brings out a passion for the study of the game, and the passion for study translates itself into your everyday life."
Recent research supports Ashley's observations. A 1996 study by education psychologist Stuart Margulies discovered that chess improved reading and reasoning skills. A 1997 Columbia Teachers College study found, too, that chess influences students far beyond the squares on the board. Students learned more and read more in their efforts to master the game. And teachers can use chess analogies to explain problems in other subjects.
Chess succeeds in getting disadvantaged kids to learn by simple, time-tested means: it challenges children, raises expectations, and isn't afraid of a little competition. Though American society—and most of its education establishment—preaches self-esteem only to create ever more victims, chess does something much better: it encourages children to control their destiny and work hard to make every choice count.