How Chess Helps At-Risk Kids
The Chess Nutz Knights Network plays chess with incarcerated teenagers in Virginia and uses chess to change lives. Photo by Chess Nutz Knights Network.

How Chess Helps At-Risk Kids


How useful is learning and playing chess for kids, particularly at-risk children? A lot, according to professors of education and nursing, probation officers, counselors, prosecuting lawyers, school teachers and administrators, and judges—in addition to parents and chess players.

Kids are at risk in every community, and the rise in juvenile delinquency is staggering. In the United States alone, the juvenile courts handle almost 1.7 million delinquency cases each year. Punitive sentences are usually the outcome; however, they result in poor social outcomes, low rates of employment, and higher rates of school dropout.

Children in a Be Someone program study the board. Photo by Be Someone.

Many civic leaders are becoming more aware of the benefits of including chess instruction and play for at-risk kids and integrating chess in programs to achieve multiple goals. Some programs for at-risk kids are offered in their schools, and others sponsored by community chess clubs are held in alternative schools, community centers, juvenile detention centers, or where the need exists.

What can you expect chess to do for at-risk children?

  1. Chess instills focus and discipline
  2. Chess improves self-confidence and self-esteem. 
  3. Chess teaches planning and patience.
  4. Chess can build unity and improve social interaction.

Orrin Hudson (left) plays a game of chess with his former teacher and mentor, James Edge." Photo by Points of Life.

1. Chess instills focus and discipline.
Juvenile delinquents clearly need discipline. What’s the better option for instilling discipline, incarceration or chess? In St. Louis, Circuit Court Judge Jimmie Edwards answered the question himself by opening Innovative Concept Academy in 2009 for at-risk juveniles expelled from the city’s public schools or who were on parole. The only school in America overseen by a court system dedicated to educating and rehabilitating delinquent teens, it uses a chess-based curriculum to promote critical thinking in partnership with the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis (which sponsors the Saint Louis Arch Bishops in the PRO Chess League).

In the city of Leithbridge in the Canadian province of Alberta, a judge has agreed with professors and community leaders that learning to play chess should be an alternative sentence for youth being punished in the criminal justice system. And the Crown’s Prosecutor’s Office in the province agrees. The Chess for Life, a research project, is recording how learning to play chess affects the thinking and choices that at-risk kids make.

Improving the focus of at-risk kids is a goal of Orrin Hudson, the founder of Be Someone. This nonprofit uses chess to break a cycle of crime and violence that entraps many at-risk kids. He encourages at-risk children not to focus on chess pieces they have lost but instead on what’s left on the chessboard—and never to give up.

Orrin Hudson (center) at Georgia State Championships surrounded by students Aaron Porter (left) and Xavier Graham. Photo by Points of Light.

2. Chess improves self-confidence and self-esteem. 

In Oregon, chess is used to build the self-esteem of at-risk kids. Chess for Success, a nonprofit organization, provides chess clubs in high-poverty schools at no cost in 24 regions of the state. As students receive 50 hours of chess instruction, they not only learn the game but also gain self-confidence important in school and life. When Chess for Success was founded in 1992, it began with 200 students in the nine worst-performing schools in Portland Public District. After more than two decades, it now involves more than 3,000 students in over 75 schools.

Project Checkmate in India improves the self-esteem of underprivileged kids, particularly when they become FIDE-rated players. Photo by Devanshi Rathi Foundation.

Imagine the gains in self-esteem when an underprivileged child rises to the ranks of a FIDE-rated player. This experience can happen and does in India, where the Devanshi Rathi Foundation, based in New Delhi, conducts Project Checkmate to teach chess—and life skills—to underprivileged children. Devanshi Rathi, the foundation’s founder, says, “Chess develops the entire mind, body, and soul.”

Another program that works to build self-esteem is the Norfolk (Va.) Initiative for Chess Excellence (NICE), which enlists volunteers, chess players, police, and school system officials in an inclusive chess program that promotes self-worth of at-risk kids. Similarly, in Augusta, Ga., Dr. Thaddeus Shubert, a professional school counselor, says he uses chess to teach “respect for self, respect for others, [and] self-control” to at-risk children.

For how he uses chess to empower at-risk kids, Orrin Hudson was profiled in People magazine. Image by People.

3. Chess teaches planning and patience.
“Take time to think things through,” says Hudson, who lives in Atlanta, about chess and life. He himself was an at-risk kid who ran at age 14 with a gang and was in and out of foster homes. Using chess, his brother refocused his life by teaching him that each move has consequences. Taking chess to at-risk kids has connected Hudson with more than 55,000 children in 30 states nationwide and internationally, including trips to the Philippines, India and Canada. 

“Chess needs planning, you need memory and you need to be able to see the consequences of actions before you make them,” says Dr. Lance Grigg, a University of Lethbridge associate professor in education, who also emphasizes the connection of chess in teaching planning and patience. 

“As kids become better chess players, they aren’t just learning how to play a game; they’re learning to play the game of life,” says Dr. Jeffrey MacCormack, also an assistant professor in education at the University of Lethbridge.

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah and GM Garry Kasparov watch as GM Jeffrey Xiong and U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer play in the first Congressional Chess Match. Photo by Paul Morigi/AP.

4. Chess can build unity and improve social interaction.
The role of chess in improving social interaction was specifically highlighted in Washington, D.C., in 2014 during the first Congressional Chess Tournament that was held to promote the game’s benefits. Congressman Jason Smith of Missouri said that chess has been “a tremendous tool in building community” in his home state. In addition, he praised the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis for working “to improve social interaction … of at-risk kids.”

At the event was GM Garry Kasparov, who called the tournament “a milestone in American chess” because it was raising awareness of chess’s many benefits. Because chess can foster social interaction, Smith announced that the Congressional Chess Caucus wanted “to encourage schools and community centers nationwide to engage in chess programs that bring the educational values of chess to underserved schools, districts, rural and urban communities, and populations throughout the country.” 

At-risk kids gain life lessons when they learn and play chess.

Significant Benefits

The benefits of learning and playing chess are significant. In fact, a FIDE report in 1984 concludes that chess-thinking skills are transferable to other areas of study. Similarly, Dr. Peter Dauverge of the University of Sydney argues, “Chess is one of the most powerful educational tools available to strengthen a child’s mind.” Chess empowers children, particularly at-risk kids.

Learning and playing chess can be beneficial for all kids, not just at-risk ones. Benefits for all kids include many more examples—such as improving memory and concentration, developing skills for making decisions and weighing options, increasing creativity, and improving reading skills—than those just described. Very simply, learning and playing chess offer valuable benefits to at-risk kids.

When weather is good, Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence (NICE) plays outdoors. Photo by Lisa Suhay via Twitter.

Thanks for reading. (If you like this article, please click above to follow this blog.) What are your views on the benefits of teaching at-risk kids to play chess? Are you involved in helping someone learn the game?