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Why You Can Learn Anything (and how chess can help you)

Oct 5, 2014
Coach 1270

You should have heard of Josh Waitzkin. He was the kid that inspired the Searching for Bobby Fischer movie. If you’re still struggling, think former American chess prodigy turned Tai Chi world champion and now, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu expert. That’s a whole lot of expertise in very different arenas. How did Waitzkin manage to be so good at such different things?




The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not to live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.                

                       - Josh Waitzkin


“This is a deep question that was at the core of my inspiration for writing [his book] The Art of Learning,” Waitzkin said a few years ago in an interview. “In short, all of the skills were transferable. And this had nothing to do with these particular disciplines – they couldn’t really be more different – the translation process can be applied to any¬thing. At the core of my relationship to learning is breaking down the barriers in our minds that divide our disparate pursuits. These walls are false constructs. If we cultivate a thematic eye, then growth in one area of life will immediately inform our other pursuits.” Waitzkin is also clear on the importance of both analytical and intuitive thinking in the learning process: “A huge part of my process involves breaking down the walls between the conscious and unconscious minds, so technical growth sparks creative leaps, and per-haps more importantly, creative leaps can inform the direction of technical growth.”


Chess itself was integral in helping Waitzkin learn the lessons and skills he now applies in his new pursuits. Chess actually helped him to learn to learn, and it can do the same for your children. In his 1995 study titled Chess in Education: A Research Summary, Dr Robert Ferguson established that chess is instrumental in the enhancement of a child’s critical thinking and good judgment skills. Ferguson’s subjects, who were seventh to ninth graders, yielded a 17% improvement in test results. Furthermore, chess playing children score higher on both creative and critical thinking tests. But why? Well, consider the following facts about chess:

• Chess accommodates all modality strengths, thus children learn through all three learning channels: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic, and both hemispheres of the brain are stimulated at once.

• Chess provides a massive quantity of problem-solving puzzles, and thus many opportunities for learning.

• Chess offers immediate punishments and rewards for problem solving.

• Chess creates a pattern or thinking system that, when used faithfully, breeds success. Chess-playing students learn to look for different alternatives, which results in fluency and originality.

• Competition fosters interest, promotes mental alertness, challenges all students, and elicits the highest levels of achievement, which is what all learning should do.

• A learning environment organized around games has a positive effect on students’ attitudes toward learning. Simply put, children love games, and chess motivates them to become willing problem solvers and spend hours quietly immersed in logical thinking. This affective dimension acts as a facilitator of cognitive achievement, and therefore, it might be said that instructional gaming is one of the best motivational tools in the good teacher’s repertoire.

And so you (and me, and any other good parent) should ask: with so much to learn in life, can your kids afford not to be playing chess? They’ve got nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

What do you think? Do share your thoughts!


Josh Waitzkin picture: @ johnnyscars CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

featured image credits: @TZA  CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr

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