The Societal Impact of Chess, Part 1: Introduction

The Societal Impact of Chess, Part 1: Introduction

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I began these blog posts with a series on FIDE, not because I am particularly FIDE-obsessed and spend every spare moment of my life fulminating against the current world chess organization (I recently made a 4-hour documentary series on the sociocultural impact of chess where FIDE wasn’t mentioned once—hardly a deliberate effort on my part, but in itself rather revealing), but simply because it is a topic that most chess insiders, after having read Chessays: Travels Through the World of Chess, were most keen to talk with me about (you may recall that I began the FIDE series by referencing a leading question that Ben Johnson lobbed at me to begin our conversation on his Perpetual Chess Podcast). 

In addition to being particularly topical, given Magnus Carlsen’s decision not to participate in the upcoming world chess championship and the generally increased sensitivity to the perils of political propaganda in light of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine (one can only hope), the whole FIDE issue struck me as particularly worth addressing, precisely because most chess players (with a few notable exceptions, such as Peter Heine Nielsen), seem determined to avoid addressing it head on, notwithstanding its obvious importance to chess’ present and future reputation.  

And it seems to me that one constructive role that a self-proclaimed “chess tourist” like myself can play, is to objectively highlight important issues that the majority of people seem very interested in but, for various reasons, are reluctant to talk publicly about. Another thing I feel that I can helpfully bring to the chess table, as it were, is to rigorously examine a multi-layered collection of erroneous beliefs and assumptions that have built up over the years.


Foremost among these, in my view, is the notion of “far transfer”: that the benefits of chess go well beyond the simple enjoyment of the game itself, with a vast range of non chess-related positive implications proposed for both individual players and society as a whole. 

Of course, everyone is inclined to automatically endorse any claim offering additional support for her favorite pursuit; and one correspondingly sees this sort of thing everywhere, from stamp collectors citing the valuable historical appreciation that the philatelic experience naturally generates to rock climbers describing the increased environmental awareness resulting from their outdoor lifestyle.

But nothing compares with the unceasing stream of far transfer fanfare from chess advocates, particularly (but not exclusively) from those who militantly maintain that chess should be a mandatory part of the educational curriculum. This is, I think, unhelpful for several reasons:

chesspawn   Bombarding people with a litany of unsubstantiated and unscientific claims goes a considerable distance towards destroying any arguments about how the activity you’re representing promotes “critical thinking skills” (of which more later).

chesspawn chesspawn  Chess doesn’t need any sort of justification, implicit or otherwise, to increase its attractiveness or general awareness. Everyone knows what chess is, and rapidly increasing numbers of people are now directly sampling its charms. Promoting the merits of chess via some alleged “far transfer benefit” implies that, left up to its own devices, chess is not sufficiently attractive to gain our attention, which is manifestly false even during times when there is no “chess boom”.  People play chess because it is fun. Exactly as they should. It is just like what the immortal Richard Feynman once said about the attractions of his vocation: 

Physics is like sex; sure it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it."

chesspawnchesspawnchesspawn  It turns out that chess actually does have several hugely important broader societal applications, which was the principal conclusion of my documentary series Through the Mirror of Chess: A Cultural Exploration (and why I ended up needing four 1-hour episodes to adequately cover it). But this remarkable and highly unique capability to generate positive social impact is inevitably obscured by the parade of delusional nonsense that chess’ many “far transfer” advocates are tirelessly advancing.

The Gift of Chess, Russell Makofsky

These are, I appreciate, strong words (even for me), and thus call for some sort of rigorous analysis to back them up. Lucky for me, I’ve already written these down (see Chapters 6 and 7 of my recent book, Chessays: Travels Through the World of Chess), and so in what follows I will present various (lightly modified) excerpts from this book so that you can sample these arguments for yourself:

What follows is an excerpt from Chapter 6, Far Transfer

There is hardly one knowledge domain, we are breathlessly told, that chess doesn't significantly impact. Learning chess naturally improves one's calculational skills, with direct and immediate implications for significantly increased mathematical understanding, but that is just the tip of a very large iceberg: it fosters creativity, builds leadership skills, encourages responsibility, increases socialization, and much, much more. But most of all chess provides the ideal way to develop essential critical thinking skills so vital for thriving in the modern world.

Let's leave aside the vexing point that nobody seems able, ironically enough, to give a comprehensive definition of what "critical thinking" actually means (although the one thing it surely cannot mean is the willingness to become convinced of something simply because your interlocutors are loudly insisting that it is the case), or even that it is patently absurd to believe that critical thinking, broadly defined, is in any way uniquely appropriate to our current age—let's instead first take a moment to calmly examine what might be motivating these people to make such flagrantly overhyped declarations to begin with.

Because flagrantly overhyped they surely are. Look, I like chess, and I happen to believe that it would be a good thing if all children were exposed to it. I also think it would be a good thing if all children were significantly exposed to the awe-inspiring power of art or the ennobling beauty of music or the hugely thrilling capacity of science to reveal the underlying laws of nature—none of which, it’s safe to say, generally occurs anywhere.

A critical look at virtually any standard educational system will reveal flaws big enough to comfortably navigate a fleet of aircraft carriers through; and it’s hard enough just determining which systems, on the whole, are slightly less terrible than others and why, let alone how, conclusively, to make progress. 

But not for our robust chess-in-schools advocates. For them, there is no ambiguity whatsoever: more chess, everywhere, all the time, is the answer to any educational concern that might conceivably arise. Is it a coincidence, you think, that such remarkable chess-endorsing uniformity is associated with those whose interests, and often livelihood, is inextricably linked to teaching children chess?

Well, you might say, that’s a bit harsh. After all, wouldn’t you expect that a badminton association would endorse badminton or a scuba-diving academy would promote scuba diving?  

Absolutely, but not because badminton or scuba diving are trumpeted as being particularly well-positioned to ensure the pedagogical development of all the world’s citizens and thus play a salient role in the salvation of the planet, but simply because badminton and scuba-diving are fun things to be doing (as is playing chess, of course).   

But the educational advantages of chess, its supporters unceasingly declare, are something quite different entirely. When it comes to chess, it’s not about simply providing kids with yet another opportunity to enjoy themselves (heaven forbid), but rather an opportunity for educators to implement the universal one-stop far transfer shopping center that it uniquely represents; and, as such, it should clearly be made mandatory for all school children everywhere, an integral part of all national school curricula throughout the world. 

This “argument,” to use a generous term, is strikingly bereft of any objective evidence to support it, thereby providing us with yet another amusing example of chess-related irony through its inherent self-contradictory nature. I don’t, as it happens, believe that chess is actively detrimental to critical thinking (broadly defined), but its many tireless chess-in-schools advocates certainly make it easier to mount a convincing case in support of such a claim than to develop one in the opposite direction. 



I am a documentary filmmaker and author. I created a recently released 4-part documentary, THROUGH THE MIRROR OF CHESS: A CULTURAL EXPLORATION, about the remarkable impact of chess on culture, art, science and sport. I also wrote a book, CHESSAYS: TRAVELS THROUGH THE WORLD OF CHESS, about all sorts of chess-related issues that I encountered during my time spent as a tourist in the chess world.