Does Chess Make Kids Smarter, or Do Smart Kids Play Chess?

Does Chess Make Kids Smarter, or Do Smart Kids Play Chess?
AP Photo/Jim Salter
Does Chess Make Kids Smarter, or Do Smart Kids Play Chess?
AP Photo/Jim Salter
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Dr. David Poston is the leader of the Compact Fission Reactor Design Team at Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is spearheading NASA’s Kilopower project to use advanced nuclear fission power systems for future colonies on the Moon and Mars, and to propel crewed deep space missions to the outer solar system.

He also loves chess, or more specifically, the timeless board game's apparent benefits.*

Poston learned how to play chess from his kids and was amazed at how much it apparently enriched their minds and other young minds as well. He has since been involved with the Aspen Chess Club in Los Alamos, New Mexico and the New Mexico Scholastic Chess Organization, and firmly believes that the game provides all sorts of academic and social benefits beyond the board.

He recognizes, however, that scientifically demonstrating these benefits its difficult, as research is hampered by a "chicken-and-egg dilemma"— does chess make kids smart or do smart kids simply play chess? A great many observational studies show that students who regularly play chess perform better in all sorts of academic measures, but this could be because the game attracts more academically-inclined children, or that they come from a more privileged background, or have parents who are more involved with their lives.

So Poston designed a study that would eliminate these possible confounders. Teaming up with Kathryn K. Vandenkieboom, the learning systems, assessment and curriculum director for the Los Alamos Public Schools, he tracked the academic performance (as measured by standardized test scores) of kids who participated in the chess club at Aspen Elementary School versus kids who did not. Critically, the study examined seven years worth of data, covered 854 students (from kindergarten to 6th grade), and compared kids from diverse academic backgrounds with varying levels of chess experience. It also explored whether there is a "dose effect" of chess. In other words, does playing more chess lead to better academic outcomes?

First off, Poston found that students who participated in chess club received a 7% yearly boost to their math scores compared to age-matched students who did not. Students who participated in U.S. Chess Federation (USCF) tournaments enjoyed a 28% boost to math scores and a 10% boost to reading scores.

Delving into the data more deeply, Poston also found that playing more tournaments or achieving a higher USCF rating was associated with higher test scores compared to non-chess playing peers. Basically, the more chess a student played, the better they performed academically. Moreover, Poston found that these academic boosts were enjoyed by students no matter where they scored on tests relative to their peers – poor-performing students received the same academic benefit from playing chess as high-performing students.

Poston summarized the results.

"The benefits of chess are strongly tied to “learning” the game," he wrote, "the more you learn, the more you benefit. Kids who come only to chess club receive a small (5%-10%) benefit in math, whereas kids who play in rated tournaments gain substantially in math (30%-50%) and significantly in reading (10%-20%). The benefits also continue to grow as kids play more tournaments and/or increase their USCF chess rating."

"The data indeed confirm that chess players are generally of higher academic standing (chess kids are smart), but more importantly it statistically shows that learning chess increases a student’s academic performance (chess makes them smarter)," Poston said.

Source: David I. Poston and Kathryn K. Vandenkieboom. "The Effect of Chess on Standardized Test Score Gains." SAGE Open. 31 Aug. 2019. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244019870787

*Section amended 9/3

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