Why I Teach Chess

by David MacEnulty

Why I Teach Chess


Ah, chess. It’s a been called a game, a sport, a science and an art. It’s an enjoyable pastime, an intense competition, a field for the application of mathematical precision, scientific experimentation and verification, and a marvelous opportunity for creative expression. It has the great mystique associated with remarkable brain power and strategic planning. When a politician, coach or player outwits the opposition, we often hear that he or she is “playing chess.”

While it may not be precisely clear what makes a good chess player, it is very clear that in the sphere of intellectual achievement, chess holds a hallowed place in every culture where chess is played, which includes a great many cultures indeed.

Early in my chess coaching career I taught in the Bronx, in an area of distressing poverty, rampant crime and the highest concentration of STDs in the United States. No one expected the children from this challenging neighborhood to excel in the most complex game in the Western world.  When they won city, state and national championships, the media went wild, writing about us in newspapers and education journals, putting us on national television and even making a film about us.

The children from those years, now in their thirties, are generally far more successful than their non-chess playing peers. The social and academic skills they developed on the chess team have truly set them apart.  

Which brings me to the main point I want to make: the many advantages a good chess program can give to our children, and why I have spent so much of my life encouraging children to gain skill at this great game.

We may not know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future. Today’s children will be tomorrow’s leaders.  Or tomorrow’s followers.  How we—the adults in the room—help them today will, in large part, determine where they will be tomorrow.

We have no idea today what the great jobs of tomorrow will be. A whole host of jobs today did not even exist ten–or even five–years ago, while many jobs that were common have been eliminated through advances in technology. 

A big theme in education today is “Twenty First Century Skills.” These are generally agreed to be collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, and cross-cultural understanding. 

While I really like this paradigm, and there are very obvious chess connections here, I would like to offer something a little different–perhaps it’s just an elaboration, but I like it a little more, both for the added detail and because the relationships to chess are even more obvious.

Whatever directions future innovations and economic realities may take, whatever jobs may be created or eliminated, we can be certain that the following skills, abilities and attitudes will be important. 

1. The ability to spot patterns, and to recognize the importance of patterns. Patterns are present in every field, whether it’s carpentry, music, law, art, truck driving, horseback riding, programming, bioengineering, windmill maintenance, ceramics–everything comes down to understanding the patterns of the field. Those who are more adept with the patterns of their chosen field perform better than those less concerned with the patterns. Those who perform better reap the greater rewards. 

Success at chess, quite clearly, is almost entirely dependent on a facility with patterns. Grandmasters are ready to trot out any of tens of thousands of patterns whenever they may be useful. Relative beginners know very few patterns, making them easy prey for more experienced players.  Anyone wishing to excel at chess—or anything else—must learn more patterns.

2.  Creativity.  High on the list of what today’s CEOs look for in the job applicant is the creative mind.  What creativity is has been widely discussed, and there are many ways of being creative, whether it is with word choice, mathematical approaches, dance moves, photography, painting, marketing, product development or a myriad of other fields or endeavors.  Steve Jobs said creativity was simply seeing connections.  But however one defines creativity, or whatever field one enters, this is clearly one of the most sought after arrows in the job applicant’s quiver.  

Going back to patterns, if Steve Jobs is correct, chess players who see the connections between patterns and are able to make the creative leaps from one to another are the most successful in the game.  Chess rewards creativity and punishes those who are rote players who never plant new seeds and whose harvest is always the same.   

3. The ability to adjust quickly and accurately to changing circumstances. Change has been the order of the day in recent years, and this is likely to accelerate in the near future. Those who can adapt—or better yet, those who can chart the new courses—will do well. Those who cannot adapt and adjust will not do as well, and may even be left by the wayside.

In any given chess game, a major turn of fortune can occur on any move. Successful players learn the importance of being able to adapt on the chessboard.  They develop the creativity to forge new solutions and the courage to take risks to push their agenda in this battle of beautiful ideas.  As we have often seen, when grandmasters jump terrains and enter the world of finance, for example, this approach can be transferred to other domains as well.  Indeed, many of my former students from the Bronx attribute their current successes, whether in finance, engineering, law, or managing a restaurant, to their early training in chess.  

4. The ability to handle pressure. As society becomes ever more complex and interconnected, the pressures of the workplace are likely to increase, and in many places, they are already near the breaking point.

I frequently hear from adults who have been through the pressures of scholastic tournament chess. While they see that their colleagues are often under tremendous stress, their attitude is that you don’t know what stress is until you’ve been in a major tournament with everything on the line and three minutes to make your next ten moves. That’s pressure!  After that, you can handle anything.

5. The ability to analyze complex situations and problems.  Analysis means breaking complex things down to their simplest components, understanding how the parts are connected, and figuring out how to manipulate individual elements to bring about different—and more favorable—outcomes. 

It’s hard to find anything more complex than a good game of chess. On every move you must break complicated positions down to their component parts to see how the pieces fit together, how the different parts can be arranged and rearranged to reach a favorable position. It is not an exaggeration to say this is a constant throughout the game. Every move changes the position on the board, often calling for a complete re-evaluation of the situation.  Relaxing for even one move is simply not an option if you are to achieve a good result.  Chess players understand as a matter of course.

6. The ability to work with others on a team. Teamwork is an essential component of many jobs today, and this is likely to continue well into the future. Knowing how to bring out the best in others while also making appropriate contributions yourself is the mark of a true team player.

Since a chess game is largely a one on one experience, it may at first seem a stretch to apply this to chess. However, as a coach of scholastic chess teams at all socioeconomic levels, I have seen the amazing progress the children make when studying, analyzing, and practicing together in the team setting. One of my major themes for the team is that we all support one another. What is good for anyone is good for everyone, and what is bad for anyone is bad for everyone. We celebrate each other’s successes and support each other when things go wrong.  I also stress that our “team” is not just the children in the group; our team includes the parents who provide support in getting them fed, insuring that they are rested and ready for the games, their private teachers that prepare them with opening theory, tactics, endgame knowledge and much more, the coaching analysts we bring to the major tournaments, and the school administration and faculty who cheer them on and celebrate their commitment to this extraordinarily complex undertaking. 

The children on these teams also make lifelong friendships, often even with children from competing teams. The mutual support, the sharing of ideas, the camaraderie they develop, and the respect and affection they feel for one another make the chess team an ideal laboratory for developing the teamwork skills that will be essential in later life. 

7. The ability to persevere when presented with daunting obstacles. This, and the next point, are linked.  Life in general, and the workplace in particular, are filled with difficult situations and problems. Those who have the discipline, courage, and optimism to face adversity and relentlessly continue toward success will do well in any future scenario.

When playing a skilled opponent, every move is a serious challenge.  I can’t think of a better training ground for facing difficulties head on that the battleground of tournament chess.  

8. The ability to control emotions in the face of rapidly changing circumstances. While in the midst of important decision-making situations, those who can avoid both elation and depression will have the clearer head as they navigate the wild waters before them. 

This is really a continuation of point seven above. In teaching chess, on a daily basis I must confront situations where a child exhibits a defeatist attitude when something goes wrong. My standard line when things fall apart is that failure is not a definition of who you are, it just shows what you need to work on.  Further, until the game is over, you always have a chance to turn things around.  We never give up.  

Another problem occurs when I see a child having an overly enthusiastic celebration when they win, or even just pull off a clever trick on the board.  When something good happens, chess players do not jump up and down and stick their tongue out at their opponent.  We quietly absorb the good news and realize that we must continue the game through to its completion.  

If we win, we win with grace; we do not deprive our opponents of their dignity.  If we lose, however painful the moment, we shake hands with the winner.  Then we go back and figure out what we should have done in order to be successful next time.

When your heart is racing and you are elated as you approach total victory or are feeling the shocking anguish of imminent defeat, the ability to maintain self-control and to continue to look for the strongest continuation is essential. Every chess player has learned the great truth of Yogi Berra’s observation that “it ain’t over until it’s over,” and to keep emotions in check until the final move. 

When we are ahead we don’t let up, and when we are behind we don’t give up.  

Chess players soon learn about the joy of victory and the agony of defeat. And in doing so, they learn that neither winning nor losing is the real story. The real story is the continuous pursuit of excellence. Victory is only a temporary validation, as there are more games to play. Defeat is only a temporary setback, showing what you still need to work on.

These lessons are really about developing emotional intelligence.  What I am really teaching is the process for achieving success. Chess is merely the vehicle.

9. The ability to maintain good impulse control. In a study from Australia, good impulse control was shown to be a critical factor in the lives of highly successful people, while poor impulse control was proven to be a major factor in the lives of the least successful people. 

Poor impulse control in chess leads to rapid defeat. Again, with proper guidance from a respected trainer, this deleterious behavior can be eliminated. I must admit that for some students this will be a long-term project, but with perseverance the problem will be solved and a major transformation will take place. The touch move rule is the great enforcer in this regard.  The touch move rule states that if a player touches a piece, the touched piece is the one that must be moved.  Touching a piece that does not solve the problem on the board—or worse yet, causes additional problems—can ruin an otherwise great game.  Chess players learn to think clearly prior to making an important decision (and every move is an important decision).  Poor impulse control is punished, thinking ahead is rewarded.  It may take a while, but anyone who stays with the game will have poor impulse control deleted from their behavior.

10. Integrity and the inner strength to take responsibility for error.  We all make mistakes.  Making mistakes is actually one of the best ways to learn.  However, there is no domain in the world that is not littered with the bodies of those who erred and then compounded the error by trying to cover it up. If you goof, the sooner you acknowledge it and take steps to fix the problem the better.

In chess, mistakes are often immediately punished and impossible to deny.  Chess teaches us early and often that we are responsible for the decisions we make.  Then there is that marvelous touch move rule that absolutely forces a player to take personal responsibility for every decision.    

This brings me to one of my most important themes in teaching chess: integrity.  

One of the many ways people cheat in chess is to touch a piece and then, realizing the horror that will ensue from moving that piece, they lie, denying that they touched it.  If there are no witnesses (and there usually aren’t, as those nearby are most likely engrossed in their own games) then the liar usually gets away with the lie.  This can have a devastating psychological impact on the person who has just been wronged.  The sense of injustice has wrecked many an equilibrium in the tournament hall.  

I tell my students that this can happen, and they will probably lose the argument with the tournament director, and the liar will most often get away with the lie.   I stress that the worst that can happen is their opponent will make a good move, and that is a challenge to us to find a better one.  You can only do that with a clear head, so don’t let the anger you feel get the better of you.  Life isn’t always fair, and neither is chess.  Deal with it, and with a clear head make the best decisions you can.

I also stress that, now that you know someone can lie and often get away with it, under no circumstances is anyone on our team to indulge in that. No trophy, no title, is worth your integrity.  We win with good moves, or we don’t win at all.

11.  The ability to formulate a strategic plan and carry it out with imagination, discipline, and integrity.  This puts many of the points above together; it should be clear that this is what chess is all about.  If you have a solid understanding of the relevant patterns, know how to analyze complex ideas, have the discipline to stick with an idea through the turbulence of the many obstacles that will inevitably be tossed in your path, and the confidence that you will ultimately prevail, your plan will be a good one.  That said, of course a worthy opponent is also trying to wreck your plan and carry out an opposing one.  Your job is, naturally, to do the same to your opponent.  In this process, the player with the more accurate ‘what if’ scenarios will be the more successful one in the fight in this microcosm of the larger world.  Chess players are not only looking for the best plan, but they must also look for flaws in their own thinking as well as the holes in their opponent’s position. This conflict, this battle of ideas, is a superb training ground for formulating strategic plans, for understanding what makes one plan more successful than another, and for going back to the drawing board when yours was the one needing improvement.  

As we have just seen, each of these skills, abilities and attitudes are developed and strengthened through an appropriate and disciplined approach to chess.

Please note, I did not say through chess. I said an appropriate and disciplined approach to chess. One can be a jerk in anything, and chess, I am sad to say, is no exception.

In an appropriate and disciplined approach to chess, the children are really learning the process for achieving success in any field.

Success and failure are both learned.  We all constantly meet people who think they are not good at math or art or something else (in my case, dancing), because of an unfortunate encounter with a person who belittled their first attempts.  My job as a teacher is to encourage, to lead children to success. 

My definition of success is simply doing better at something than you did before. If you know nothing about the alpha-numeric grid of the chessboard, and then you learn to name all the squares, that is a success. If all you know about a rook is that it looks like a tower and then, after several intermediate steps (each a small success in its own right), you learn to do the ladder checkmate with two rooks, that is a big success. With each success, however large or small, confidence in the ability to learn more increases. With that increase in confidence comes an increase in optimism that you can learn yet more, and the upward spiral continues. Here we have left the world of academic excellence, or IQ, and entered the arena of emotional intelligence, or as it has been dubbed, EQ.

One of the things that surprised me when I worked with the children in the Bronx was how quickly they went from experiencing a world of pain and seemingly insurmountable problems to feeling confident, optimistic, and in control. As they overcame one obstacle after another they became, in the words of their middle school principal, a different species from their non-chess peers. He said you could even spot them walking down the hall; they were more confident and disciplined in even that simple action.

In an appropriate and disciplined approach to chess, we are really teaching the process for achieving success in any field. In fact, I modeled my system for teaching chess after my earlier training as a musician: first learn something very simple (I actually begin my chess instruction with the definition of a straight line), then learn another idea that builds on the first thing (in my system that’s a right angle), and continue until a great many interconnected elements come together (squares, rows of squares, ranks, files and diagonals, naming squares, and so on). In chess one can keep going forever with ever newer and more complex concepts.

This is actually the same process for establishing truth in geometry that Euclid taught over two thousand years ago (not incidentally, he also begins by defining a straight line).

Once a person has a visceral understanding of this fundamental concept of incremental learning, there is no intellectual domain that cannot be conquered. There is no finer laboratory for this than chess.

Chess, as Goethe once said, is “the touchstone of the human intellect.” And as observed here, it is also the touchstone of our emotional intelligence, and that is, in essence, why I love teaching chess.  Many great life lessons can be taught through chess.  In order to play well in the scholastic chess tournaments, we must prepare the whole child.  Technical knowledge of the game is, of course, essential.  However, there is much more to it than that.  Proper psychological preparation is just as important.  Just as life isn’t fair, there are many things that are not fair in a tournament.  As alluded to above, an opponent may cheat and get away with it.  A tournament director may make an unfair ruling, a parent may try to interfere, an opponent may try various intimidating or distracting actions before or during the game.  We need to prepare our students for these contingencies, which will be great training for the peculiar behaviors they will encounter in their adult lives.  We also need to make sure they understand good nutrition and hydration, and the value of proper rest before dealing with the demanding stresses of competition.  In short, we need to help the whole child, mind, body and spirit.  In doing all that, we will be conveying the most important lesson of all, that we care.

While all the things I’ve discussed above will definitely prepare children for whatever the future holds regarding finding a home in the workplace, my real goal is to help children become thinking, caring, productive adults, wherever they find themselves later.

We can do our children an immense service by bringing this great and multifaceted game into their lives, preparing them well for whatever the future may hold.

by David MacEnulty

Ah, chess. It’s a been called a game, a sport, a science and an art. It’s an enjoyable pastime, an intense competition, a field for the application of mathematical precision and scientific experimentation and verification, and a marvelous opportunity for creative expression. It has the great mystique associated with remarkable brain power and strategic planning. When a politician, coach or player outwits the opposition we often hear that he or she is “playing chess.”

While it may not be precisely clear what makes a good chess player, it is very clear that in the sphere of intellectual achievement, chess holds a hallowed place in every culture where chess is played, which includes a great many cultures indeed.

Early in my chess coaching career I taught in the Bronx, in an area of distressing poverty, rampant crime and the highest concentration of STDs in the United States. No one expected the children from this challenging neighborhood to excel in the most complex game in the Western world.  When they won city, state and national championships, the media went wild, writing about us in newspapers and education journals, putting us on national television and even making a film about us.

The children from those years, now in their late twenties and early thirties, are generally far more successful than their non-chess playing peers. The social and academic skills they developed on the chess team have truly set them apart.  

Which brings me to the main point I want to make: the many advantages a good chess program can give to our children, and why I have spent so much of my life encouraging children to gain skill at this great game.

We may not know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future. Today’s children will be tomorrow’s leaders.  Or tomorrow’s followers.  How we—the adults in the room—help them today will, in large part, determine where they will be tomorrow.

We have no idea today what the great jobs of tomorrow will be. A whole host of jobs today did not even exist ten–or even five–years ago, while many jobs that were common have been eliminated through advances in technology. 

A big theme in education today is “Twenty First Century Skills.” These are generally agreed to be collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, and cross-cultural understanding. 

While I really like this paradigm, and there are very obvious chess connections here, I would like to offer something a little different–perhaps it’s just an elaboration, but I like it a little more, both for the added detail and because the relationship to chess is even more obvious.

Whatever directions future innovations and economic realities may take, whatever jobs may be created or eliminated, we can be certain that the following skills, abilities and attitudes will be important. 

1. The ability to spot patterns, and to recognize the importance of patterns. Patterns are present in every field, whether it’s carpentry, music, law, art, truck driving, horseback riding, programming, bioengineering, windmill maintenance, ceramics–everything comes down to understanding the patterns of the field. Those who are more adept with the patterns of their chosen field perform better than those less concerned with the patterns. Those who perform better reap the greater rewards. 

Success at chess is, quite clearly, almost entirely dependent on a facility with patterns. Grandmasters are ready to trot out any of tens of thousands of patterns whenever they may be useful. Relative beginners know very few patterns, making them easy prey for more experienced players.  Anyone wishing to excel at chess—or anything else—must learn more patterns.

2.  Creativity.  High on the list of what today’s CEOs look for in the job applicant is the creative mind.  What creativity is has been widely discussed, and there are many diverse ways of being creative, whether it is with word choice, mathematical approaches, dance moves, photography, painting, marketing, product development or a myriad of other fields or endeavors.  Steve Jobs said creativity was simply seeing connections.  But however one defines creativity, or whatever field one enters, this is clearly one of the most sought after arrows in the job applicants quiver.  

Going back to patterns, if Steve Jobs is correct, chess players who see the connections between patterns and are able to make the creative leaps from one to another are the most successful in the game.  Chess rewards creativity and punishes those who are rote players who never plant new seeds and whose harvest is always the same.   

3. The ability to adjust quickly and accurately to changing circumstances. Change has been the order of the day in recent years, and this is likely to accelerate in the near future. Those who can adapt—or better yet, those who can chart the new courses—will do well. Those who cannot adapt and adjust will not do as well, and may even be left by the wayside.

In any given chess game, a major turn of fortune can occur on any move. Successful players learn the importance of being able to adapt on the chessboard.  They develop the creativity to forge new solutions and the courage to take risks to push their agenda in this battle of beautiful ideas.  As we have often seen when grandmasters jump terrains and enter the world of finance, this approach can be transferred to other domains as well.  Indeed, many of my former students from the Bronx attribute their current successes, whether in finance, engineering, law, or managing a restaurant, to their early training in chess.  

4. The ability to handle pressure. As society becomes ever more complex and interconnected, the pressures of the workplace are likely to increase, and in many places, they are already near the breaking point.

I frequently hear from adults who have been through the pressures of scholastic tournament chess. They all say their colleagues are often under tremendous stress, but their attitude is that you don’t know what stress is until you’ve been in a major tournament with everything on the line and three minutes to make your next ten moves. That’s pressure!  After that, you can handle anything.

5. The ability to analyze complex situations and problems, to break things down to their simplest components, understand how the parts are connected, to figure out how to manipulate individual elements to bring about different—and more favorable—outcomes, and to rigorously maintain focus throughout this often arduous and demanding process.

It’s hard to find anything more complex than a good game of chess. On every move you must break complicated positions down to their component parts to see how the pieces fit together, how the different parts can be arranged and rearranged to reach a favorable position. It is not an exaggeration to say this is a constant throughout the game. Every move changes the position on the board, often calling for a complete re-evaluation of the situation.  Relaxing for even one move is simply not an option if you are to achieve a good result.  This is just what chess players do as a matter of course.

6. The ability to work with others on a team. Teamwork is an essential component of many jobs today, and this is likely to continue well into the future. Knowing how to bring out the best in others while also making appropriate contributions yourself is the mark of a true team player.

Since a chess game is largely a one on one experience, it may at first seem a stretch to apply this to chess. However, as a coach of scholastic chess teams at all socioeconomic levels, I have seen the amazing progress the children make when studying, analyzing, and practicing together in the team setting. One of my major themes for the team is that we all support one another. What is good for anyone is good for everyone, and what is bad for anyone is bad for everyone. We celebrate each other’s successes and support each other when things go wrong.  I also stress that our “team” is not just the children in the group; our team includes the parents who provide support in getting them fed, insuring that they are rested and ready for the games, their private teachers that prepare them with opening theory, tactics, endgame knowledge and much more, the coaching analysts we bring to the major tournaments, and the school administration and faculty that cheer them on and celebrate their commitment to this extraordinarily complex undertaking. 

The children on these teams also make lifelong friendships, often even with children from teams we compete against. The mutual support, the sharing of ideas, the camaraderie they develop, and the respect and affection they feel for one another make the chess team an ideal laboratory for developing the teamwork skills that will be essential in later life. 

7. The ability to persevere when presented with daunting obstacles. This, and the next point, are linked.  Life in general, and the workplace in particular, are filled with difficult situations and problems. Those who have the discipline, courage, and optimism to face adversity and relentlessly continue toward success will do well in any future scenario.

When playing a skilled opponent, every move is a serious challenge.  I can’t think of a better training ground for facing difficulties head on that the battleground of tournament chess.  

8. The ability to control emotions in the face of rapidly changing circumstances. While in the midst of important decision-making situations, those who can avoid both elation and depression will have the clearer head as they navigate the wild waters before them. 

This is really a continuation of point seven above. In teaching chess, on a daily basis I must confront situations where a child exhibits a defeatist attitude when something goes wrong. My standard line when things fall apart is that failure is not a definition of who you are, it just shows what you need to work on.  Further, until the game is over, you always have a chance to turn things around.  We never give up.  

Another problem occurs when I see a child having an overly enthusiastic celebration when they win, or even just pull off a clever trick on the board.  When something good happens, chess players do not jump up and down and stick their tongue out at their opponent.  We quietly absorb the good news and realize that we must continue the game through to its completion.  

If we win, we win with grace; we do not deprive our opponents of their dignity.  If we lose, however painful the moment, we shake hands with the winner.  Then we go back and figure out what we should have done to be successful next time.

When your heart is racing and you are elated as you approach total victory or are feeling the shocking anguish of imminent defeat, the ability to maintain self-control and to continue to look for the strongest continuation is essential. Every chess player has learned the great truth of Yogi Berra’s observation that “it ain’t over until it’s over,” and to keep the emotions in check until the final move. 

When we are ahead we don’t let up, and when we are behind we don’t give up.  

Chess players soon learn about the joy of victory and the agony of defeat. And in doing so, they learn that neither winning nor losing is the real story. The real story is the continuous pursuit of excellence. Victory is only a temporary validation, as there are more games to play. Defeat is only a temporary setback, showing what you still need to work on.

These lessons are really about developing emotional intelligence.  What I am really teaching is the process for achieving success. Chess is merely the vehicle.

9. The ability to maintain good impulse control. In a study from Australia, good impulse control was shown to be a critical factor in the lives of highly successful people, while poor impulse control was proven to be a major factor in the lives of the least successful people. 

Poor impulse control in chess leads to rapid defeat. Again, with proper guidance from a respected trainer, this deleterious behavior can be eliminated. I must admit that for some students this will be a long-term project, but with perseverance the problem will be solved and a major transformation will take place. The touch move rule is the great enforcer in this regard.  The touch move rule states that if a player touches a piece, the touched piece is the one that must be moved.  Touching a piece that does not solve the problem on the board—or worse yet, causes additional problems—can ruin an otherwise great game.  Chess players learn to think clearly prior to making an important decision (and every move is an important decision).  Poor impulse control is punished, thinking ahead is rewarded.  It may take a while, but anyone who stays with the game will have poor impulse control deleted from their behavior.

10. Integrity and the inner strength to take responsibility for error.  We all make mistakes.  Making mistakes is actually one of the best ways to learn.  However, there is no domain in the world that is not littered with the bodies of those who erred and then compounded the error by trying to cover it up. If you goof, the sooner you acknowledge it and take steps to fix the problem the better.

In chess, mistakes are often immediately punished and impossible to deny.  Chess teaches us early and often that we are responsible for the decisions we make.  Then there is that marvelous touch move rule that absolutely forces a player to take personal responsibility for every decision.    

This brings me to one of my most important themes in teaching chess: integrity.  

One of the many ways people cheat in chess is to touch a piece and then, realizing the horror that will ensue from moving that piece, they lie, denying that they touched it.  If there are no witnesses (and there usually aren’t, as those nearby are most likely engrossed in their own games) then the liar usually gets away with the lie.  This can have a devastating psychological impact on the person who has just been wronged.  The sense of injustice has wrecked many an equilibrium in the tournament hall.  

I tell my students that this can happen, and they will probably lose the argument with the tournament director, and the liar will most often get away with the lie.   I stress that the worst that can happen is their opponent will make a good move, and that is a challenge to us to find a better one.  You can only do that with a clear head, so don’t let the anger you feel get the better of you.  Life isn’t always fair, and neither is chess.  Deal with it, and with a clear head make the best decisions you can.

I also stress that, now that you know someone can lie and often get away with it, under no circumstances is anyone on our team to indulge in that. No trophy, no title, is worth your integrity.  We win with good moves, or we don’t win at all.

11.  The ability to formulate a strategic plan and carry it out with imagination, discipline, and integrity.  This puts many of the points above together; it should be clear that this is what chess is all about.  If you have a solid understanding of the relevant patterns, know how to analyze complex ideas, have the discipline to stick with an idea through the turbulence of the many obstacles that will inevitably be tossed in your path, and the confidence that you will ultimately prevail, your plan will be a good one.  That said, of course a worthy opponent is also trying to wreck your plan and carry out an opposing one.  Your job is, naturally, to do the same to your opponent.  In this process, the player with the more accurate ‘what if’ scenarios will be the more successful one in the fight in this microcosm of the larger world.  Chess players are not only looking for the best plan, but they must also look for flaws in their own thinking as well as the holes in their opponent’s position. This conflict, this battle of ideas, is a superb training ground for formulating strategic plans, for understanding what make one plan more successful than another, and for going back to the drawing board when yours was the one needing improvement.  

As we have just seen, each of these skills, abilities and attitudes are developed and strengthened through an appropriate and disciplined approach to chess.

Please note, I did not say through chess. I said an appropriate and disciplined approach to chess. One can be a jerk in anything, and chess, I am sad to say, is no exception.

In an appropriate and disciplined approach to chess, the children are really learning the process for achieving success in any field.

Success and failure are both learned.  We all constantly meet people who think they are not good at math or art or something else (in my case, dancing), because of an unfortunate encounter with a person who belittled their first attempts.  My job as a teacher is to encourage, to lead children to success. 

My definition of success is simply doing better at something than before. If you know nothing about the alpha-numeric grid of the chessboard, and then you learn to name all the squares, that is a success. If all you know about a rook is that it looks like a tower and then, after several intermediate steps (each a small success in its own right), you learn to do the ladder checkmate with two rooks, that is a big success. With each success, however large or small, confidence in the ability to learn more increases. With that increase in confidence comes an increase in optimism that you can learn yet more, and the upward spiral continues. Here we have left the world of academic excellence, or IQ, and entered the arena of emotional intelligence, or as it has been dubbed, EQ.

One of the things that surprised me when I worked with the children in the Bronx was how quickly they went from experiencing a world of pain and seemingly insurmountable problems to feeling confident, optimistic, and in control. As they overcame one obstacle after another they became, in the words of their middle school principal, a different species from their non-chess peers. He said you could even spot them walking down the hall; they were more confident and disciplined in even that simple action.

In an appropriate and disciplined approach to chess, we are really teaching the process for achieving success in any field. In fact, I modeled my system for teaching chess after my earlier training as a musician: first learn something very simple (I actually begin my chess instruction with the definition of a straight line), then learn another idea that builds on the first thing (in my system that’s a right angle), and continue until a great many interconnected elements come together (squares, rows of squares, ranks, files and diagonals, naming squares, and so on). In chess one can keep going forever with ever newer and more complex concepts.

This is actually the same process for establishing truth in geometry that Euclid taught over two thousand years ago (not incidentally, he also begins by defining a straight line).

Once a person has a visceral understanding of this fundamental concept of incremental learning, there is no intellectual domain that cannot be conquered. There is no finer laboratory for this than chess.

Chess, as Goethe once said, is the touchstone of the human intellect. And as observed here, it is also the touchstone of our emotional intelligence.

We can do our children an immense service by bringing this great and multifaceted game into their lives, preparing them well for whatever the future may hold.

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