World Chess Championship, Game 7: Does chess make you smart?

Posted: November 18, 2018 in chess
Tags: , , , , , ,

When I was starting out in chess, when Victoria was on the throne and Britannia ruled the waves, the U.S. Chess Federation had a simple philosophy: Chess is for old white males.

This wasn’t the USCF’s mission statement, but it might as well have been, because in 1967, when I played in my first tournament, everybody behind a board was old, white, and male. The tournament was a knock-out type. My friend Jeff and I lost to old white males in our first round and were knocked out. I had to call my Dad to come pick us up, and he’d only dropped us off 20 minutes before. He had just settled in for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. None of the old white males seemed unhappy to see us leave.

Somewhere in the late 1970s, the USCF’s leaders must’ve realized that if you don’t develop chess players when they’re young, who will play chess in the future? And how will you keep your jobs? Suddenly there were tournaments for children, and that meant tournaments for all children, regardless of gender, race, creed, or national origin.

One of the early financial backers of this work was Yoko Ono. Ono loves chess and even created a chess set in 1966, called Play It By Trust. Other distinguished 20th-century artists who played chess: The American Man Ray, who could take it or leave it, and the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp, whose career in art was derailed by the game. “I am still a victim of chess,” he wrote to a friend in the 1930s. He was speaking for millions of people over the past 1,500 years.

In the 1990s, while living in Seattle, I coached an elementary school chess club for Chess Mates. (Here in Portland, Oregon, I volunteer with Chess for Success.) We distributed buttons to our students that said CHESS MAKES YOU SMART. Everybody likes a good button. You feel like you’re on a cool team. But does chess actually increase your intelligence? I suppose there’s research to back this claim, but as a lifelong player and teacher and a person who vividly remembers his childhood, here’s what I believe are the reasons kids should play chess:

Chess teaches you to sit still, shut up, and think. This gets you ready to do your homework, do more reading, and do what you need to do to hold a job.

Chess gives you a way to interact with adults you’re not related to. You’ll meet them on a playing field where all that counts is how good you are. You’ll learn how to look an adult in the eye and carry on a conversation. (To any child reading this: Are you regularly beating adults? Don’t get cocky, kid.)

Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana were already grandmasters by the time they got to 14, and that’s something you do with immense natural talent and private coaches, not with 20 kids from eight different grades in an after-school program. But they didn’t look particularly smart today. After yesterday’s draw, which was as multifaceted and arresting as the Orion Nebula, today’s draw was more of a moth-eaten red dwarf. Maybe Mag Wheels and Fabio left everything on the road in the last game. In chess, moving first gives you a solid advantage, but I’ve never seen so many games where that advantage was null and void almost as soon as it happened.

To end on a more upbeat note, here’s the cover of a European magazine, New in Chess, from last May. The Women’s World Championship has an even more byzantine structure than I knew, as the current tournament is the second women’s world go-around of the year. No matter. I’m showing you this cover because I love it:


And I’ll bet that Yoko loves it, too.

  1. Philip Dickey says:

    I love this one, Steve!

  2. Wm Seabrook says:

    On that cover, is the black pawn on C5 left over from a previous game?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s