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On the value of chess for students

The following is taken from Bruce Pandolfini's "The Q&A Way" at www.chesscafe.com. Pandolfini is a well-known teacher and author of numerous excellent, highly readable chess books.

Question: As a public school teacher who tries to teach chess, I am constantly trying to explain the value of chess to other teachers, administrators, parents, and people in general. It's not always such an easy task. I figure you, with your many years of experience, have had to justify the value of the game many times. What kinds of reasons do you give for playing chess when trying to sell it? In other words, what do you tell people that chess players do when playing chess? (What talents do they need to play the game, etc.) I respect your opinion on this question maybe more than anyone else's. (Michael Rosetter, USA)

Answer: In some ways I feel the game sells itself. Just watch kids playing chess and you'll be left with little doubt. But I wouldn't echo the former position of the U.S. Chess Federation, which used to advertise "chess makes kids smart." I found that educators were almost always repelled by these words, purposely rejecting chess once they heard such ideas espoused. Rather than saying that chess makes kids smart, I'd argue that playing chess gives kids practice at doing things that some smart people do. Few educators would object to this, it happens to be true, and it gives critics a convenient out, so they can claim that some dumb people play chess, too. But I'm not a cognitive scientist, so instead of stating what chess does for a person, I'd probably prefer to describe the apparent skills chessplayers enlist when playing the game, as I see it from my unscientific, anecdotal teacher's point of view.

So what is it that chessplayers do when playing chess? For one, it seems to me that chessplayers commonly draw analogies between things. They're constantly comparing and contrasting. At least through some unconscious process, if not indeed mindfully, they're looking at positions, investigating how situations are alike and how they differ. Moreover, chessplayers typically adapt the solution of one problem to solve another, and another, and another.

Chessplayers also tend to chunk concepts together, in Gestalt fashion, so that one thing stands for many. This explains how they can look at a small portion of the board and by inference reliably assume where most of the other units are, as well as where some aren't. Accordingly, chessplayers often try to classify what they see. For example, they'll wonder from which opening a particular position was generated. When they encounter a tactic or stratagem, they'll try to name it. This can be helpful, because when something appears in a category it usually takes on a whole bunch of characteristics, so that suddenly many other things can be assumed by implication.

Chessplayers also naturally arrange facts in series, making sure everything follows logically. They learn fairly early on that many problems are solved by changing the sequence -- that is, by reversing the move order, or by playing the second idea first. Furthermore, chessplayers are receptive to the notion that reorganizing the elements is a vital aspect of creativity, where some of the most interesting ideas seem to come out of nowhere, yet we sense they've really been in front of us all along. (Scrabble players typically experience these creative afflatuses when they rearrange the tiles on their racks.)

Then there's the way chessplayers refocus their lenses. They are cognizant that sometimes it helps to change perspective, to look at circumstances from the other player's vantage point or simply from a different angle. So, when trying to figure out how to defend, chessplayers often pretend it's the opponent's move. Occasionally chessplayers actually get up and change their line of sight, even to the extent of standing behind the other player, though here it might be sagacious to consider the size of the opponent before shifting anywhere.

This brings us to perhaps the most important thing chessplayers do, and this is visualizing moves and positions in their heads. Chessplayers not only try to envision the future, they try to control it to their own ends. Even here chessplayers rely on different approaches. Sometimes they must make sophisticated generalizations about the way things might go. This is an aspect of strategy. But most typically doing headwork implies calculating variations: you know, figuring out where to go if he or she goes there. You can't avoid this tactical give-and-take if you want to play chess. And still other solutions are achieved without seeing very much at all, where suddenly a player gets an insight that seems to come from the ethereal plane. This brings us back to creativity and intuition, to which most players are hardly attentivel, yet its value is undeniable to the spirit of play.

Chessplayers are also inclined to be target-oriented. Once they imagine their aim, they naturally look homeward, toward the starting point of the quest, similar to the way many of us try to solve mazes. That is, some chessplayers look backward, from the goal to the middle. Then they look forward, again toward the middle, hoping to bring the two lines of thought together, or close enough to link. The difference is that in chess the maze is more conceptual than actual.

Whoever you talk to, whether parent, teacher, or administrator, I'd tell them that chessplayers are fond of step-by-step procedures, and they appreciate a good algorithm. Moreover, they are prone to break complex ideas down into simpler ones. At the same time, they typically build elaborate structures of ideas, such as comprehensive opening systems and intricate middlegame strategies. Furthermore, though chessplayers love precise variations and clear reasons, they are not unfamiliar with the principles of generalizing. Still, they know that the most beautiful generalization can be destroyed by a single hostile fact, as in the case of an unexpected move that defies a theory or proves to be a valuable exception to it.

Then there's beauty, and chessplayers always seem to seek it. They value solutions that rely on aesthetic principles, such as simplicity, economy, proportion, and so on. They are usually repulsed by an idea that goes against the grain. But they also grasp that true beauty may contain a dash of the ugly, in that the real world naturally contains imperfections, irregularities, and unexpected chaos. It may be their feeling for aesthetics, however, that leads them to resign once the point has been made. But at the same time, their resourcefulness and practicality keeps them involved until the last chance to salvage a position has finally disappeared, for they know no one ever won by resigning.

On the human level, chessplayers appreciate psychology. They understand the importance of the will, and how the stronger tends to wear down the weaker. Chessplayers are idealistic. They naturally strive for truth, but they can be awfully realistic when the situation calls for it. They are aware that sometimes errors have to be admitted and plans changed. They will do whatever works in the situation at hand. They can be superbly optimistic, and they have great passions. They love beautiful combinations, resourceful defenses, grand strategies, precision, ingenious tactics, finesses, nuances, sudden turns and twists, and many more things, perfect and imperfect. They also want to feel part of a community. They recognize the value of participating in an intellectual environment, with its own universal language, that bridges many cultural differences. They learn to believe in themselves, and chess offers them a chance to stand on their own two feet. The game tells them that they must accept the consequences of their actions. Ultimately, it gives them focus and purpose, and once they succeed at chess they feel they can do anything.

I could say much more. Others could say it much better. But I'm also sure you don't really need anyone's advice to help you promote the game. As I said upfront, the game sells itself. And if some of us won't buy it, maybe chess isn't quite right for them. Some people love saying "no," and some will vote for the other guy no matter what. Funny thing is, in chess there's room for them too.

This article originally appeared at www.ChessCafe.com . It is copyrighted 2000-2006 by Bruce Pandolfini and CyberCafes, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted wtih Permission.