New Yorkers see incredible things every day and never look twice—a presidential motorcade, a naked cowboy, a $900 stroller. One thing that does get the attention of jaded residents: a boy leaving a hotel lugging a trophy more than half his size.
When my eight-year-old son stepped out of the New Yorker Hotel clutching that humongous prize for winning his division of the city chess championships last January, theatergoers, hipsters and food-cart vendors rushed over to find out what he’d done. Then came the ultimate compliment: An off-duty cabbie pulled up and offered to extend his shift and take us to our celebratory dinner at Shake Shack, thank you very much.
It’s a scene that plays out across the city at chess tournaments nearly every weekend of the year. Chess is booming in New York again, but unlike in the 1970s, when families were inspired to take up the game by the example of Bobby Fischer, Brooklyn’s own world champ, this time the rush to get kids behind the board is driven by the desire to raise grades and test scores. (As with other extracurriculars, New York families rarely pursue chess merely for its own sake or to enjoy a game privately at home.)
“A lot of parents know their children are not going to be grandmasters,” says Jerry Nash, scholastic director of the U.S. Chess Federation. What these adults hope is that chess will be PE for the mind, strengthening the skills their kids use in the classroom.
Indeed, that’s the guiding principle behind New York’s biggest chess program, Chess-in-the-Schools (CIS), which offers free in-class chess instruction at 76 elementary and middle schools, reaching 20,000 kids. CIS has produced several national championship teams and inspired imitators in other local schools. It’s a scale of chess instruction matched nowhere else in the United States.
Whether her students win or lose, Marley Kaplan, president and CEO of CIS, believes the program improves their focus, sportsmanship, decision making and sense of responsibility for their actions. She adds, “When you sit at a chess board, it’s not chaotic, even if the rest of your world is. You can control that world.”
“There’s a whole universe contained on this board,” says New Yorker David Shenk, author of The Immortal Game: A History of Chess and an upcoming book on talent and intelligence. “Chess may not help your sentence structure or your ability to divide complex numbers, but it can get you excited about using your brain—which is the best thing for young kids. Some people graduate from high school and college and never get excited about the world of ideas. To take a kid at a young age and get him really excited about thinking can be a trampoline to a whole different life.”
It’s hard to predict where a chess game will go even two or three moves in the future, Shenk says, and for kids, trying to imagine those possibilities is well worth the effort. “It reminds you to think about the consequences of your actions,” he says. “That’s an incredibly useful thing that comes from chess.”