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Much like Neil in October for baseball, it is January, and my thoughts turn to chess. The recently ended Corus Chess Tournament in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands is an annual meeting of many of the highest-rated chess professionals anywhere in the world. The participants are a who’s who of elite chess, and many of the games played not only demonstrate the state of opening theory, but overturn established practice. Since many within the chess community use computer game databases and/or play online, these games are increasingly followed move by move in real time over the internet, with some sites, such as chessgames.com also providing real time discussion. Partly because I learn so much from it, and also due to the fact that two of the participants were under 18 (!), I’ve been thinking recently of how chess educates.
It seems to me that there are at least three ways in which chess educates. The first is direct. I have little knowledge of brain chemistry or neural connections, but the received wisdom is that playing chess, especially at a young age, helps to develop spatial & temporal reasoning, short-term calculation, and strategic planning. Chess is also supposed to develop “flow,” which I understand as the interested and temporally detached pursuit/creation of a valued result (I haven’t done any reading on this topic, but I think there is a body of literature around it). Interestingly, it is my understanding that these cognitive benefits depend only on the game being played, rather than how well it is played.
The second way in which chess educates is indirect, and might only occur if one is motivated to try to play well (without reference to whether one is winning or losing). To do so, one must calculate from a given position at least several moves further and determine the relative improvement one line might afford versus another. Yet having done so, one is hard pressed to recall that dizzying maze of candidate moves and their respective continuations at the critical moment. In other words, to play well requires mnemonic devices. Any chess coach worth her salt develops some systematic method of calculation and recall with their student. While the simple act of playing chess may marginally improve memory and recall directly, it seems to me that to play chess well requires the application of mnemonics learned independently of moving the pieces.
The third way in which chess educates is relationally. I’m not sure exactly how different my use of “relational” is from “indirect”, but I have in mind the other uses to which chess skills might be put (as distinct from the uses other skills might have within the game). For example, chess affords an abrupt lesson in ethical competition that applies in many other contexts. The cognitive abilities developed from play have innumerable applications beyond the sixty-four squares. I don’t doubt that much has been learned about how to program computers to mimic human thought from trying to create programs that might (and now do) beat even the best human players. Chess can also be a useful metaphor, as Garry Kasparov has recently demonstrated.
I’m curious to know if anyone thinks the division of how chess educates into direct, indirect, and relational ways needs work and/or is convincing. Are they at all helpful in defining education? Or does the trifurcation (?) of an already intractable concept just muddy the water?
(If you’d like to know how chess miseducates, look no further than Bobby Fischer - although in fairness to chess, his unique situation has at least as much to do with how celebrity miseducates.)
Eric Strome 21:50, 29 January 2007 (EST)