Home | Health+Wellbeing | Making the right moves: how playing chess can make students less risk averse and better prepared for life
Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in Netflix series The Queen's Gambit. Photo: Supplied

Making the right moves: how playing chess can make students less risk averse and better prepared for life

While the worldwide smash Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit is about a whole lot more than chess, viewers like myself were drawn into the amount of strategic risk-taking, foresight, planning and dedication required for the protagonist to overcome the formidable Russian world champion Vasily Borgov.

Now, a joint study between Monash University and Deakin University has concluded that children who learn chess at an early age and play it regularly are less risk averse than their peers and more likely to possess stronger rational thinking and arithmetic skills. 

Researchers from both universities conducted a field experiment for the study, involving 400 Year 5 students who had no previous experience with chess. The students were put through a 30-hour chess program over a three-week period and were then assessed on a range of areas for close to a year after the training concluded.

The researchers assessed any changes in cognition, as well as non-cognitive qualities such as risk, time management and their ability to focus. The study, which was published in the Journal of Development Economics, found that taking up chess exposes children to “win/loss situations and competition, as well as teaching children the potential benefits of strategic risk-taking”. Such experiences contribute to making a child less risk-averse. 

The study was led by Professor Asad Islam, director of the Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability at Monash Business School. Islam stated that chess could better prepare children to “meet life’s challenges” by teaching them calculated, or strategic, risk-taking behaviour, rather than being reckless or completely risk averse.

“Risk and reward is a concept that is articulated well in the game of chess. Players often sacrifice pawns, knights and bishops if it helps checkmate the opponent’s king and win the game. Such sacrifices are inherently risky because if one’s calculations are faulty, the sacrifice could prove to be fatal, eventually leading to a quick loss,” Islam said.

“Children need to know how to take calculated risks. If children are too risk averse it might prevent them from swimming at the beach, going to a public park or participating in contact sports for risk of injury.

“Later in life, this could also extend to adolescent behaviours such as drugs, smoking, truancy, involvement in crime and in romantic relationships.

“In many life situations, it is also the case that with great risk often comes great reward. However, the line between necessary calculated risk-taking and reckless behaviour is sometimes difficult to determine. Learning chess can help bridge that gap.”

Indeed, writing more than two centuries ago, the Founding Father of the US, Benjamin Franklin, said: “Valuable qualities of the mind, useful throughout human life, could be acquired and strengthened by playing chess.”

The benefits of learning and playing chess from an early age have already been acknowledged in Armenia and Poland, where mandated chess instruction is part of their primary-school curricula. The European Parliament, too, is keen to introduce chess courses in schools as an “educational tool”. 

Chess is already part of the curriculum in the Indian states of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, with the country currently boasting roughly 17 million student chess players nationwide. The idea of introducing chess into the curriculum has also been floated in Australia when Victorian Premier John Bumby’s parliamentary secretary for national reform and innovation called for more chess programs across public schools in 2007. 

“Chess may be of particular interest to policymakers who are interested in identifying programs that can provide early stimulation and help develop important ‘soft’ life skills in children, such as an appreciation for the concept of risk, during their formative years,” study co-author said Dr Wang Sheng Lee, also from Monash Business School's Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability.

“Chess can also integrate vital logical and arithmetic skills in children’s minds. It can potentially motivate children to become willing problem solvers, able to spend hours quietly immersed in logical thinking.”

Fellow co-author Dr Aaron Nicholas from Deakin Business School added: “Chess playing could also increase children’s ability to think rationally – one channel through which this may occur is that chess encourages one to think ahead of their opponent and to visualise possibilities.”

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