Now, before I begin, I expect a few readers will come up with the following reasons for their autistic child to not learn chess.
My responses are as follows:
So, let’s begin.
You know that cliché people like to say about games they like? Something along the lines of “football isn’t just a game”?
Well, I can say this for a fact. Chess really isn’t just a game.
Allow me to back that up. After my experiences of:
My conclusion is this.
Chess is a thought process.
Chess is the discipline of taking responsibility for both the good and bad choices that you make.
Chess is the life skill of thinking your actions through, until you are confident that you are definitely making the right decisions.
Chess is a confidence booster to those who are not naturally good at other things.
Also, chess is an opportunity to outsmart someone triple your age, without even having to talk to them.
So, this article promised you ten reasons. Let’s go.
I did wonder for a moment whether to even put “autistic” in that heading. As with the Growing Up Autistic article, this may be written for youngsters on the spectrum, but plenty of the advice applies to more than one subset of kids.
I always tell youngsters that chess has two unwritten rules. They may not be literal rules, but you’d have to be pretty daft not to follow them.
Rule number one: always have a reason behind every move you make.
Rule number two: always, always think ‘if I go here, what’s going to happen next?’
You’d be amazed how well these rules apply to real life.
And to kids with autism, these lessons may be extra useful.
I remember one particular 11-year-old in one particular school who used to hit people in the playground. Not because he was a bad lad, but because he knew no other way of dealing with frustration.
Then he learned chess. He very quickly won the ‘most improved player’ award too.
Mysteriously, he stopped hitting people after that.
Why? Because he’d been taught the thought process of “if I do this, what happens next? If I take this action, what will the consequences be?”
I love Monopoly.
I love Cluedo (Clue for American readers).
I love card games, including Magic: The Gathering.
But they all have one big flaw in common.
They all rely on probability.
In each one of these games, you can blame bad luck. In chess, you can’t.
One of my favourite things about chess is that you are responsible for everything. You reap the benefits of every good decision you make, and there’s nobody else to blame for the bad decisions you make.
Yes, chess players say things like “you were lucky to get a draw then,” but luck does not truly exist in chess (unless you count your opponent’s bad decisions as ‘luck’, even though it’s certainly not luck from their perspective). Chess is based entirely on deliberate choices, and that teaches you a lot about how to make the good ones.
And how does this link to autism, as opposed to children in general? Well, like most of these points, it’s true of both autistic and non-autistic.
That said, in my experience in education, it is very easy to take kids with special needs and inadvertently spoon-feed them into adulthood. Sometimes when youngsters came into our special school on their first day, it became clear within minutes that everything at primary school had been done for them… to the extent that some 11-year-olds would even wait for a member of our staff to get their equipment out of their pencil case for them.
I’d like to be clear that TAs are absolute lifesavers in the classroom, and (despite what the government says to justify their cuts) they change the lives of youngsters with learning difficulties. But it’s sad when a school doesn’t get the support/independence ratio right.
Meanwhile, chess is an area where you make your decisions completely alone, and you take responsibility for your own actions. That knowledge alone wakes up your
brain. It makes you approach tasks with a sense of real independence, and encourages you to get your equipment out of your bloody pencil case yourself.
I first discovered my village’s chess club while I was unemployed, following a teaching course that beheaded my self-esteem, and (despite the wonderful efforts of several placement schools including Ash Lea) completely removed my sense of self-worth. There’s a long story behind that, but let’s just say I was let down by a lot of professionals I trusted.
And back then I didn’t even know about my Asperger’s. I just thought I was bad at things and it was my own stupid fault.
Then I joined chess club, and met several people who had been playing chess for longer than I’d been alive. Half of them I stood no chance of beating, but half of them I did. (That alone was quite a self-esteem boost.)
The club has an annual championship, and in my first year there I came fourth. The next year I won a separate trophy for best league performance. This year, I finally won the club championship for the first time.
Of course, I was unemployed throughout a lot of this. And socially inadequate. And single. And getting therapy for
anxiety. And finding out I was autistic, which it took me a while to make peace with.
But who cares? Winning chess games did a lot to remind me that I wasn’t completely useless. It even taught me that my autism was a superpower in disguise.
And if you do nothing but lose games? Then you learn from them. Another great thing about chess is that even when you lose, you’re still a better player at the end of the game (as long as you have the wisdom to learn from your mistakes).
As an eight-year-old, my biggest chess rival was my Uncle Douglas (who, irrelevantly but awesomely, was the trombonist from the old Lurpak adverts. I’m serious, one of his trombone students went on the make the advert.)
We played against each other every time we met. And he always, always, always beat me. He had no mercy whatsoever.
There are some adults who allow their children to win occasionally, to encourage them. My uncle had a much harsher (but more effective) way of encouraging me to learn.
Personally, although I never thought so at the time, I am so glad my uncle was ruthless and uncompromising over the chessboard. He forced me to learn. When he taught me to improve my skills, I absolutely listened.
And when, at the age of twelve, I finally beat him, I knew for a fact that I had earned it. Beating him that day felt amazing.
As a teacher, I had exactly the same policy. I wanted the kids to be good enough to beat me, but I never let them. They had to earn it.
And, because I made them learn, some of them really did beat me. Legitimately, I mean.
One of them even beat me on the very last day of Year Six. His final hours of primary school, and he finally beat Mr Bonnello.
Knowing for an absolute fact that it was a genuine victory, and knowing for a fact that he deserved the success.
Like I said at the beginning, chess is not an impulsive game.
In fact, when playing chess you have two options:
1. Slow down and think your options through.
Many of the biggest successes I’ve had with chess clubs have been with the impulsive kids. They did not take long to spot the correlation between impulsivity and losing. Or between double-checking their moves and winning.
They learned, very quickly, that taking a full minute to think about their move yielded better results than taking five seconds.
Unsurprisingly, they started applying that philosophy away from the chessboard too.
Now this one really does apply to autistic kids.
The third unwritten rule of chess is this:
Rule number three: why on Earth did they do that?
When it’s not your turn to move, there’s two ways you can spend your time. Predicting the opponent’s intentions, or just waiting for it to be your turn. Guess which thought process leads to winning?
Chess teaches you to think about the other person’s motives, their aims and their agendas. Having learned that lesson across the chessboard, it’s now the first thing I think about when talking to another person. It’s helped me a lot with learning how to be diplomatic, and how to avoid being deceived by dishonest people.
If your child struggles with other people’s perspectives, or forgets to even consider them, this could be one major reason to teach them chess (or any game that involves decision-making).
The following story was one of the genuine highlights of my time in the teaching profession.
When I first proposed a chess club in a special school, a couple of people did pull worried faces and give me the “throwing the board against the wall if he loses” warning. Thankfully, by that time I had already taught autistic kids and kids with behaviour problems in my mainstream chess clubs, so I was reasonably sure it wouldn’t happen here either.
What did happen totally blew my mind.
We had two students that did not work well together. I’ll call them “Matches” and “Powder Keg”.
Matches was the kind of lad you love and you root for, even though he makes irresponsible decisions. Like winding people up because it’s funny.
Powder Keg had autism and learning difficulties, and exploded very easily. Matches was bright enough to spot this.
When the time came for them to play each other, both with a genuine shot at winning the tournament, people were nervous. These lads had been violent to each other before.
But I watched as these two troubled teenagers sat facing each other, their noses two feet apart, with literally nothing between them but a chessboard… and they were role models.
Yes, role models. I honestly can’t think of a better term for it.
The game was an absolute cracker. But in the end Powder Keg lost, and his chances of winning the tournament died. Matches, of all people, had taken away his chance of success.
But Powder Keg, despite his autism, understood that it was nothing personal. So I watched, frozen to the spot, as he offered Matches a handshake, and said “good game” with an honest smile.