CHESS is like having psychic powers, because I look deep into the game and figure out what my opponent is going to do before he does it,” said Wesley Yu, a pint-sized scholastic chess champion from Seattle.
“Chess is the best!” he added, and his parents concurred. His mother, Yuwei Feng, said the game had helped Wesley, an energetic 7-year-old, to focus and learn to face difficulty without giving up.
Parents often disagree with their children over how many hours they can spend playing video games or whether to use their allowance to enhance their Pokémon card collection. But a when a child takes up chess as a hobby, many parents are excited.
“Scholastic chess is experiencing a real resurgence,” said Jerry Nash, scholastic director of the U.S. Chess Federation in Crossville, Tenn. The national organization counts 45,000 children 18 and under in its membership rolls and played host to 5,300 children at the Super Nationals tournament last year. “And that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Mr. Nash said, “when it comes to kids playing chess.”
Like many activities for children, chess brings an associated cost, but it can be significantly lower than that of other popular pastimes. Families need not buy expensive protective gear or uniforms or join private clubs, and unless their children are serious players, they do not have to travel out of town. A good-quality chess set can be had for $20 and can last a lifetime. Fees to enter local scholastic tournaments usually run just $15 to $20, and membership in an after-school chess team is usually reasonably priced. Compared with hobbies like ice skating, ballet, squash, golf or the piano, chess can be practically free.
And chess offers a wealth of benefits, from the social to the intellectual. Chess can be a bridge between people, said Susan Polgar, a former women’s world champion who lives in New York and promotes chess-playing for girls, among other activities for school-age youngsters. “Children can play their parents, their grandparents,” she said. “Whether they are 5 or 95, fat, thin, sick, well — any race or religion can sit down to a game of chess.”
Chess combines strategy, math and logic in a game with infinite possibilities. “It’s perceived as a smart person’s game, so parents like their kids to play chess,” said Rourke O’Brien, president of America’s Foundation for Chess, a nonprofit organization in Kirkland, Wash., that trains teachers in how to bring chess into the classroom.
Several studies have shown the educational benefits of chess. “We also have plenty of anecdotal evidence from parents and teachers that chess has helped their students develop higher-level thinking skills and perform better in school,” Mr. O’Brien said.
The reasons for improved schoolwork may include some psychological ones. When children start to play chess at school, Mr. O’Brien said, the game’s “intellectual brand” translates to their self-image and how others think of them. For example, “a child who wasn’t that engaged in school,” he said, “can re-enter the scholastic scene thinking: ‘Hey, I can win at chess. I’m smart.’ “
The game can also offer larger lessons. “Chess is like life itself,” Ms. Polgar, the former champion, said. Students can learn to think ahead, weigh their options and find a best choice. “And they learn it all in a playful way,” she added.
Of course, parents can spend more so that their children can go beyond the chess basics. Private coaches, who may charge $30 to $200 an hour, can bolster a student’s game. High-end digital chess clocks can cost $100. And fancy chess sets, or a collection of them, can cost a king’s ransom.
Some families pay travel and hotel costs to play in local, regional, national and — for elite players — international tournaments. A local Saturday tournament season can cost families $250 a month, including entry fees and travel expenses. Larger regional tournaments like the New York State Scholastic Chess Championships charge higher entrance fees — $40 to $65, depending on when players sign up — and may require overnight accommodations. A trip to one of the two annual national scholastic tournaments requires a four-night stay: it could cost $1,500 for a parent and child, including air fare, hotel and meals. Some families use these tournaments as jumping-off points for sightseeing in the area.
International tournaments are also available for young players. Chess for Peace, an organization based in Lindsborg, Kan., offers a $1,600 trip for chess players of any level, ages 10 to 18, to travel from New York to Moscow to play their counterparts.