Does chess hold a particular appeal for children whose home lives are unsettled? While there haven't been specific studies on the matter, basic psychology and anecdotal evidence suggest so. Long among the world's most popular and exalted of games, chess is especially alluring for children who are most severely buffeted by forces they cannot control.
I've witnessed this firsthand over the past decade as an elementary school teacher in the South Bronx, where I've run an after-school chess club. The nature of this singularly cerebral game goes deep, tapping into a child's desire for control. Chance doesn't come into play in chess. Unlike most games, which involve dice, cards or a spinner, chess is all skill. Luck -- or being unlucky -- isn't a factor.
No matter the hand a child is dealt in life, she knows that over a chessboard, if the right moves are made, she will be rewarded with certain victory. Life's vagaries are ruled out. Yet chess doesn't shelter children, merely serving up an escapist fantasy realm or rewarding an "act first, think about it later" mindset. It does the opposite.
To become really good at chess requires many of the same skills and strategies that help children navigate their lives beyond a 64-square board. These include thinking ahead, creative problem-solving, and, perhaps most critically, that a child confront the consequences of her actions. I've watched children -- performing well below grade level in reading and math, their self-esteem drained -- become rejuvenated after getting hooked on chess. For at-risk youth, there are many dead ends that lead to stagnation or worse; chess offers an alternate route to a brighter future.
With the prevalence of increasingly cramped curricula in our schools driven by high-stakes testing, introducing kids to chess is more critical than ever. It should also be clear that our city's disadvantaged kids need a chess curriculum the most. When given the chance, kids from this demographic gravitate toward chess in great numbers, like flowers bending toward the sun. That should tell us all we need to know about how nourishing chess can be, especially for the less lucky among us.
Kenneth Chanko is a NYC public school teacher who also is a part-time chess instructor with Tri-State Chess, which promotes the game at a scholastic level./LS