Chess is a game of intense strategy, where players sacrifice, capture pieces, and hopefully gain a tactical advantage that results in the defeat of their opponent. Even the slightest mistake can cause crucial losses. While chess can be beneficial to learning and cognitive development, some teachers think that it’s taking time away from students’ learning. Like it or not, chess has taken the Franklin community by storm. But why now?
Chess has a long history, with early versions of the game dating back to 600 A.D. In the middle ages, Europeans changed the rules of the game to make it into what we know it as today. Chess didn’t move to America until Benjamin Franklin wrote about its social and intellectual benefits. In the 1800s and 1900s, chess began to pick up in America, and going into the 2000s, research on the benefits of chess for youth was emerging. Many schools established chess clubs, and youth chess tournaments were being held all over the county. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, online chess grew. Chess.com doubled their membership over the course of the pandemic, going from 50 million members in 2020, to 100 million members by the end of 2022. This surge was also powered by Youtube and Tiktok content creators like Gotham Chess, and the Botez Sisters, who spread chess to a younger audience via social media.
The number of students playing chess at Franklin is growing fast, side by side with many other schools around the world. The trend has grown since the pandemic, and students can’t seem to stay off of chess websites and apps. Julie Wright, a ninth grade math teacher at Franklin, says, “[Chess] now seems wider spread… A surprising number [of students] seem to have gotten into it recently, but I’ve had some students that have played for years.” Wright teaches around 100 ninth graders, and she estimates she’s seen at least 15 of her students playing chess, usually online. “I’ve noticed people playing online games for years… but chess started showing up much more right after winter break.” Wright adds, “It took me a little bit to realize that they weren’t playing [against] the computer… They were usually playing other people live… Sometimes people will want to break out the actual chess set, but mostly they were playing using Chess.com.”
Despite many students joining the chess movement, the Franklin chess club has taken an indefinite pause this year. “Unfortunately, the chess club has not met for some months. We were more active last year, but I haven’t had much capacity to support the club this year,” says Tyler Riggs, the former advisor of the Franklin Trojan Horse Chess Club. Despite this, the Franklin library hosted a chess tournament earlier in the year (in which the author of this article participated).
Chess is a game of intense thinking and critical decision making. Playing chess has been shown to increase cognitive abilities among children of all ages. One study conducted by Stuart Marguiles in the Bronx, New York, found that children who received chess instruction became better readers after just two years of chess instruction. “Teenagers won’t realize this as they learn the game, but they’ll grow up to better thinkers that analyze and react to all sorts of real-life issues in ways that produce greater chances of success,” says Mike Klein, the current Chief Chess Officer of Chesskid.com, a scholastic version of Chess.com. Klein says, “Speaking from my own experience, when I transitioned from middle school to high school, my classes jumped to 90 minutes long. But since I regularly played tournament chess games that lasted 4-5 hours, it was much easier for me to focus for that length of time.”
Despite the cognitive benefits, teachers are struggling to find a place for chess in their classrooms. Wright states, “Mostly as phone distractions go, the chess stuff hasn’t seemed like it’s a big problem… I kind of liked the idea, the reason why we’re in school is to think about interesting problems.” However, she adds, “I feel like if you’re doing your English homework in my math class, I don’t really want you doing that [either] because I want you learning the math. I don’t feel like it’s necessarily a waste of your time. It’s just that I wish you would do it at a different time.” Wright had asked about student chess players on Twitter, and teachers across the world are experiencing the same phenomena. As chess has become a big part of many students’ experience at school, teachers must adapt to the distracted environment.
Whether it is considered a distraction or an important part of learning, chess has thrived in an unlikely community. However unlikely, the truth is, chess has become a mainstream video game that students enjoy, and has proven to be a beneficial game. Teachers are finding that it’s hard to regulate, and this has them scratching their heads on how to incorporate the game into their classrooms.