Checkmate! How playing chess develops critical thinking

Mr. Jay Stallings, JHCA Chess Coach
“Chess teaches foresight, by having to plan ahead; vigilance, by having to keep watch over the whole chess board; caution, by having to restrain ourselves from making hasty moves; and finally, we learn from chess the greatest maxim in life - that even when everything seems to be going badly for us we should not lose heart, but always hoping for a change for the better, steadfastly continue searching for the solutions to our problems.” — Benjamin Franklin

“Should I sacrifice my rook?”
“Whose pawn will promote to a queen first?”
“Considering the imbalances, what is my best strategy?”

These are typical questions a chess player asks before each and every move played during a single game of chess. The answers require a combination of logic, calculation, strategic thinking, and resourcefulness.
In a classical education, we value the development of critical thinking techniques. Ideally, we teach students by sharing with them methods of the best writers, artists, musicians, thinkers, scientists, and mathematicians. While subjectivity can exist in choosing who we follow, this is less true when teaching chess – the greatest players have proven that their method of applying what they have learned is best. So, we study the moves of the grandmasters.

However, just as you do not teach Calculus during your first math lesson in kindergarten, a classical chess education requires a strong foundation in the fundamentals of the game.

Consider chess as a language. Students of the game learn the movements, the rules of play, and the basic patterns (not unlike a sentence – subject-verb-object). As their chess education continues, the complexity of patterns increases and the student, through the application of logic, calculation, and resourceful ingenuity begins to create his or her own combinations of moves.

During our Lower School (K-6) Chess classes and meetings, students are challenged to find solutions to both specific and open-ended questions. Very often, the answer is specific (i.e., a queen moves to the square in the top right corner of the board {h8} for a checkmate), but we also pose questions that give the students an opportunity to solve a puzzle with any logical or creative manner that gets the job done. Student answers (right and wrong) receive recognition for their logic and/or creativity. This instills confidence in their ability to offer solutions.

Self-driven learning is another trait of a classical education. Games are most fun when you are succeeding. Nelson Mandela said “I do not lose. I either win or I learn.” We constantly remind the students that if you do not win your chess game, then your opponent has given you a gift – knowledge! You will not lose that same way a second time.

Being a part of a team promotes the development of yet another tenet of a classical education – the creation of a learning environment that encourages excellence and a growth mindset. The stronger chess players on the team play their best against the less experienced players, then take the time to show them where the game took a turn.

In late January, students from Wednesday’s after-school Chess Club will be playing online against a team from Los Angeles. This also demonstrates how a classical education can be enhanced by modern technology.

For the “endgame” of this article, we encourage the reader to follow practical endgame advice – seize the opportunities to promote! Promote your pawns to queens, but also promote your learning to the next level. 
How Can My Child Improve in Chess?

The learning curve is relatively quick in chess, as some determined young players begin challenging their parents in just a few short weeks, but practice is critical.
  • Play at home or with friends
  • Play online or on an app
  • Play at JHCA’s weekly Chess Club on Wednesdays from 3:30 - 4:30 p.m. MST in the Lower School Chess/Music Room (Parents of K-2 students need to stay with them.)
Casual Online Events (Free)
Mr. Stallings (aka Coach Jay) has an academy that holds Blitz Arenas (speed chess tournaments) every Tuesday from 5:30 to 6 p.m. and 6:10 to 6:45 p.m. MST. He has invited JHCA students to attend these events for free! Please email for simple instructions on how to participate.
In-Person Tournaments (Coming Soon)
Unfortunately, Wyoming is not a hotbed for over-the-board (OTB) tournaments. Most are in Cheyenne, but we are looking to change that. Hopefully, JHCA will hold its first official tournament in April or May!

About Coach Jay

Mr. Jay Stallings was born in Florida, grew up in Texas, and lives in California, where he and his wife Michel raised two sons, Ryan and Jackson. He graduated with a B.S. in business from the University of Texas, Austin, and began his coaching career in 1994 at the age of twenty-seven. Since then he has coached over 40,000 students as a private coach and in intercity programs, hospitals, and summer camps. He has taught chess and chess pedagogy around the world. Mr. Stallings describes his teaching philosophy: “I want students to be able to play chess confidently and use the skills they learn in all aspects of life. Most of all, I hope that students love the game and use it to build relationships and community wherever they go.”

Mountain Range


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