Chess offers Students a Level Playing Field

By Dan Redmond, Library Secretary, Wakefield High School, Arlington, VA

In my previous elementary school library post, I brought in a dozen chessboards for a rowdy group 4th grade players. Over a year of playing, these energetic students transformed into thoughtful and deliberate chess players when their kingdom was set before them. While each chess piece moves to specific rules, players control how their own game progresses.  Once students understood the basics, they sensed the freedom of choice that the game allows.  Successes are yours, and mistakes are also yours.

Two years ago, I moved to a high school in a less affluent area of the county.  Many of our students did not have enrichment programs in their elementary schools, and some had difficulty making good choices in the unstructured time of their school day, especially after school. My current librarians, Donna Felsenheld and Gina Glassman, encouraged me to bring in my chess boards to my new library. Maybe, we thought, this game could also give older students positive redirection in unstructured time?

I set up one board and taught a few students. None of these students had played before. A few other students watched and wanted to learn – “If HE can do it, I surely can!” 

These students knew I trusted in them, and knew they were “smart enough” to play a game they felt was above their capability.  We added a few additional boards the next week.  A few more boards after that.  I encouraged students to play during their lunch periods and after school.  Players began coming regularly with their friends tagging along.  The original cohort of players have taught other students how to play.  We now have 15 boards set out in the library in open play during lunches and after school each day, with about 200 individual players each week.

Because chance or outside influence is not involved in playing chess, it may be the only time of a student’s day in which they are in complete control of their own decisions and activity. When I share this fact about chess to students, they begin to recognize the value of this time and the opportunity they have been presented.  There is very little “messing around” time when sitting in front of the board, as they see other students eagerly awaiting their own turns.

Chess is a game in which the story is rewritten anew each time it is played.  The game players become the storytellers.  While the library contains many fixed written stories to reflect upon, an active chess group within the space gives voice to new storytellers on a daily basis. Viewed this way, students become the active producer of their own stories rather than the consumer of another’s work.

A love for chess can be taught in a variety of ways for different students. These students approach the board with different back stories that can be blended as they meet in front of a common board.  Logical thinking developed through chess can help in other subjects. While we [teachers] may appreciate the educational benefits of chess, students need only understand the following message – “We respect you as individuals and trust your ability to meet the challenges of this game.”

Chess imitates life. The chess game has three key points: A beginning, mid- and end game. The game can be won or lost in the first moves.   One can recover from a mid-game blunder if he can bring all his personal reserves together to refocus in a different direction.  We can teach the power of personal decisions to students as we talk through choices on the chess board.  The beginning, mid- and end game narrative can help students understand the importance of life-changing decisions, or simply give direction to a looming homework assignment.

A girl who learns chess will carry this game with her for a lifetime. She can sit in front of any chess board anywhere in the world knowing that the rules are the same for everyone.   She can play another person without shared language, physical ability, age or skin color. There is a bond between chess players that is stronger than race or social status.  By playing this game, she can gain social access to any socio-economic group in college and beyond. All opponents on the chess board are equal. To me, chess offers the only truly level playing field.

For more information about our chess program, please visit

Dan Redmond began his professional career as an architect, but kept getting pulled back into the book world. Now he manages a 30,000 volume high school library, which is fortunate, because he always has something good to read.

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