Chess leads to more thoughtful children?

By Nan Nan Liu
Northwest Asian Weekly

 “Daddy, I won! I won!” exclaimed Jaden Gao.

Gao won his fifth game at a chess tournament at Broadview-Thomson Elementary School on Nov. 19. Since he started learning at the Orlov Chess Academy and playing in tournaments three months ago, Gao has won all but one game. In fact, Gao is so good that he plays with older kids, the 6-year-olds.

As Gao explained in detail about how he beat his opponent after losing — not one — but two queens to his father, the kindergartener gloated with pride. His father, Zeren Gao, gloated as well, but only on the inside. The soft spoken man, who takes his son to day-long tournaments, feels unparalleled pride when his son wins a game.

Worksheets and exercises that young students complete to hone their thinking at the academy (Photo provided by the Orlov Chess Academy

“I feel proud when he wins,” said Mr. Gao. “But I don’t want to emphasize that.”

Like Jaden Gao, many of the children enrolled in Orlov Chess Academy feel similar gratification when they play chess. Even if they don’t win a tournament or a game, they still gain a sense of confidence.

Benefits of chess for children

Children can participate in many activities in around Seattle. Why chess?

According to an article on, in 1996, Stuart Margulies, Ph.D., found that  “elementary school students in Los Angeles and New York who played chess scored approximately 10 percentage points higher on reading tests than their peers who didn’t play.”

Aaryan Deshpande holding his chess trophy (Photo provided by the Orlov Chess Academy)

The same article mentioned another study conducted by Robert Ferguson, executive director of the American Chess School in Bradford, Penn., of “junior high students enrolled in an activity — either working with computers, playing chess, taking a creative writing workshop, or playing Dungeons and Dragons — that was designed to develop critical and creative thinking skills. By the time each of the students had spent about 60 hours on their chosen activity, the chess players were well ahead of the others in several psychological tests, scoring almost 13 percentage points higher in critical thinking and 35 percentage points higher in creative thinking.”

Girls at Orlov Chess Academy play chess outdoors (Photo provided by the Orlov Chess Academy)

According to the article, “Experts attribute chess players’ higher scores to the rigorous workout chess gives the brain. … [Chess also] improves a child’s visual memory, attention span, and spatial-reasoning ability. And because it requires players to make a series of decisions, each move helps kids learn to plan ahead, evaluate alternatives, and use logic to make sound choices.”

“For young kids [ages 4.5 to 6 years], chess brings different kinds of benefits — faster development. It is a great tool for kids with attention problems and to prepare kids for better learning in math,” said Elena Donaldson, director of the Orlov Chess Academy.

“Chess teaches life skills and sportsmanship. Even if a student is not a strong player, playing chess brings a lot of emotions, fun, challenge, and social interaction. Every game is never the same. It is as much fun as computer games [or] even more. Learning to play chess on a high level (like up to a master level) brings some valuable skills that are similar in programming, math, and science fields.”

In addition to providing scholastic benefits, chess is a way for children to make friends and have fun.

“I think it will help [Jaden’s] thinking [and] his logic,” said Gao. “I think it will help him build confidence as well.”

“I always thought chess was a mind game,” said Jenny Cui, who enrolled both her daughter and son in the academy. “[Chess] helps them concentrate … over time, their attention span is broader. Also, the way they handle winning and losing becomes more mature.”

“It is really good for intelligence. Children get used to memorization at an early age; there is an increase [in] their thinking power,” said Harry Deshpande, whose son Aaryan Deshpande, just won the eighth place trophy at nationals on Nov. 20, “[Aaryan] was a hyper-active kid. This is genetic. He gets it from me. Though we still see traces of that even today, he has slowed down a lot because of chess.”

Having played chess his whole life and gone to both state- and national-level tournaments, Orlov Chess Academy graduate Bo Cao has himself experienced the benefits of chess.

“I think chess does a lot of things for children. It helps them sit down for 30 minutes to an hour. It helps with their patience. It teaches them problem-solving skills. It teaches them math skills. Each piece is worth certain points. When you make a trade, is it a good trade?”

“[Chess teaches you to] think deeply,” added Cao. “[It teaches you to] see three or four moves ahead and be able to see all the branches ahead.”

What the children think

Adults are not the only ones raving about chess. The children who are enrolled in the program notice improvement in both their skill and confidence. Plus, they have a lot of fun.

“I like it,” said Maggie Yu, Cui’s daughter, who is now in third grade. “It’s a fun game to play. I make friends. [Playing chess] makes me feel good.”

“[Chess also] helps me with sportsmanship,” added Yu. “[It] improves my skills for games. [When I grow up, I] probably [want to become] a horseback rider and a chess player.”

“[I like chess] more than cartoons,” said 5-year-old Gao. “[Chess makes me feel smarter] because I did a very good job of chess.”

“I just get more confident,” commented Suja Chalasasani, a fourth grader and one of Donaldson’s top players. “It helped me concentrate on a lot of things. It helps me pay attention. It makes me confident by [helping] me think more. It helps me concentrate more [on] math.”

When asked what he would do if he had to stop playing chess, Aaryan Deshpande responded, “I would be really mad.”

Why enroll?

Donaldson, who has been playing chess since she was 10, is a three-time U.S Women’s chess champion. In the past 15 years that she has been teaching chess to children, she has seen “dozens of Academy students [take] top places at the recent tournament at Broadview-Thomson.”

“I see all students improved a lot, and that is very important.”

“In the K-section, three students took the first three places (Jason, 1st; Pranesh and Jaden, 2nd and 3rd) and these students just started learning chess a few months ago,” said Donaldson. “Suja won all of her games in fourth grade. Aaryan Deshpande, in second grade, just took 8th place at nationals in grade 2.”

But her most memorable success story has to be her son.

“He had very poor attention at 4.5 years old, and it took him about nine month of intense chess training to catch up with other kids in chess and in academics. I taught my son to play chess from age 4.5 in pre-K, and he became the top player in the state since he moved to kindergarten. He reached 2nd place at the nationals in 2005.”

In addition to teaching basic chess skills, Donaldson and her team of teachers give students puzzles and practice problems to enhance their problem-solving, memorization, and analytical skills. However, Donaldson keeps a relaxed environment as students are never required to finish their homework. Her program isn’t about rigor; it’s more about individual achievement.

“We teach chess in a special way, we focus on students’ improvement, we work on each student to reach full potential, and we learn to enjoy the game through learning chess competition and understanding the beauty of chess art and strategy,” said Donaldson. “A special curriculum we developed over 15 years of teaching chess is a unique one. It has an active learning approach. Students benefit academically, and they improve very fast to advanced scholastic level.”

“Aaryan does not do more than 20 to 30 minutes of chess theory every day,” said Deshpande. “What Elena says is that all children grow at a different rate during different periods, and most of them settle down by the time they are in third or fourth grade.”

“There [is] homework that adds a little enhancement to the program. [The children] kind of practice what they learn,” said Cui. “You don’t have to turn in your homework. There is no pressure. It’s at your own pace.”

“How they teach the kids [is to] give them puzzles, [have them] memorize openings, [and] teach them tactics,” said Gao. “The improvement in [Jaden’s] skills is obvious.”

And the children seem to like Donaldson’s challenging yet fun teaching style.

“Yes I do [like to practice chess],” said Deshpante. “It gives me more work, and it’s fun.”

And how do they celebrate their victories? With food, of course!

“I’ll have cake, pastries, and chocolate,” said Deshpante.

“[My dad] makes me food,” said Gao. “He makes me eggs.” (end)

Nan Nan Liu can be reached at

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