As chess champion Garry Kasparov finished up his visit to the chess club at Harlem Success Academy I this morning, he posed a question for the three dozen students taking a break from their matches: How does chess help you in school?
At first, the students struggled to answer Kasparov’s question with the kind of specifics he wanted. One boy said it helped, but couldn’t explain how exactly. Another said it helped him strategize, but came up short when pressed for more. Two girls said that chess helped them with complicated math problems and one boy said it helped him concentrate.
Finally, a young girl’s answer seemed to satisfy the grandmaster.
“Chess helps me with writing because when you’re writing an essay you have to reread your work just like you have to reread your notations,” said Hawa Diallo, a fourth grader at the school, referring to the scoresheets kept during games.
“Brilliant,” Kasparov said.
It’s a question that Kasparov said is at the core of one of his life’s goals since he retired in 2005 after spending nearly 19 years as the game’s top-ranked player. Through his foundation, Kasparov has set out to grow chess by exposing it to younger generations and he said that one way to do that is to prove that developing chess curriculum in schools has long-term educational impacts for children.
“It boosts their confidence and this is very important, especially in the deprived neighborhoods,” Kasparov said. “They have to realize that they can succeed in the field of intellect, they can beat other kids from private schools by doing intellectual things.”
Kasparov said the game is growing, but “what is important is that you have more centralized efforts to make sure that these benefits will be maximized.”
In New York City, high-performing schools such as Bronx Science, Edward R. Murrow, Stuyvesant and Hunter regularly are known for their strong chess programs. But many chess clubs and classes are offered in lower-performing schools through support from outside community partners. The largest of these is the nonprofit Chess-In-The-Schools, which teaches chess to 13,000 students in 51 Title I schools as part of their academic school day.
Perhaps the city’s most famous underdog chess team is I.S. 318, a low-income school that Paul Tough wrote about in his best-selling book about character education and was the subject of an award-winning documentary.
At the Success Academy schools, the city’s largest charter school network, chess is not an everyday class but it is central part of its programming. Students are required to learn chess from one of the network’s 10 chess teachers who are nationally ranked by the U.S. Chess Federation. Fritz Gaspard, the staff’s top-ranked player, is considered an expert with a rating over 2100.
Several of the schools also have chess teams that compete in national tournament and against one another in “cross school tournaments.”
But Sean O’Hanlon, the chess program’s director, said he tried not to put too much emphasis on the competitive aspect.
“What you really try to do, even more than win, is get them thinking,” he said.