ISET Economist Blog

Chess Is to Play and Math Is for Life
Friday, 17 May, 2019

At times math teachers use a legend, “mathematics in the game of chess”, as an introduction to Exponential Functions. The original myth tells of a mathematician in India who invented the game of chess and was subsequently bestowed a vast reward for its creation. The king of India was so impressed by the game that he offered the mathematician to “name your reward!” The inventor responded, “My wish is simple. Just give me one grain of rice upon each square of the chessboard, such that one grain is placed on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and so on, doubling the number of grains on each subsequent square.” The king was surprised by such a humble request and swiftly agreed. After a week, his treasurer returned and informed him that the reward would add up to an astronomical sum!

While math teachers would conclude the story here and expand on exponential functions, the math-chess relation is not solely limited to legends. “Playing chess makes kids smarter”, “chess increases mathematical abilities”, “chess improves academic performance”, and numerous similar claims may appear off the top of one’s head. One may also think that chess intrinsically improves intellectual abilities and is firmly linked to attention, memory, logical thinking, and problem-solving. Therefore, it does not require a genius to note that errors in chess are not without academic, especially mathematical, consequences.


Armenia made chess obligatory in schools

Since 2011, chess has been a compulsory subject in every public school in Armenia. Children from the age of six learn chess as a separate subject, from grades two to four. School officials in Armenia said the move aims to enhance independent strategic thinking among future generations in school, work, and society. “Chess develops various skills – leadership capacities, decision-making, strategic planning, logical thinking, and responsibility,” Ashotyan, the former Minister of Education, stated. “We are building these traits in our youngsters. The future of the world depends on such creative leaders who have the capacity to make the right decisions, as well as the character to take responsibility for wrong decisions.”

In this digital age, kids divide their attention across many activities, often at the same time. They consequently may struggle to focus on a single activity, especially when it comes to mathematical problems. The questions children might ask themselves when solving math problems are most probably: “What is my goal here?”, “what information do I have to solve the problem?”, “What is the relationship between the information available and my goal?”, “what do I (and don’t I) need to complete this problem?”, and perhaps “how do I use this information to achieve my goal?” If children ask these questions when problem-solving, they are certainly able to focus, are attentive, and have analytical skills. Though it is important to wonder, what skills do kids learn from playing chess? Concentration, focus, patience, strategic thinking, logical reasoning all spring to mind. To play chess well certainly requires intense concentration. Only a focused, patient and persistent player will maintain steady results in chess – characteristics that are equally valuable for math and for overall performance in school. Many studies have demonstrated that children attending chess lessons show significant improvements in mathematical abilities (Hong & Bart, 2007; Scholtzet et al., 2008; Scholz et al., 2008; Barrett & Fish, 2011; Kazemi, Yektayar, & Abad, 2012; Trinchero, 2012a). However, other contradictory evidence also exists; according to research from the Institute of Education, which examined the effects of chess on the academic skills of nearly 4,000 British children, chess had no effect on children’s achievements, not only in mathematics, but also in literacy, and sciences too.


In order to research the topic in greater detail and discern the relation between math and chess, I visited a school in Yerevan to perform the following activities:

• Interview math and chess teachers;

• Interview 3rd (9-year-old kids) and 4th graders (10-year-old kids);

• Conduct IQ tests with 3rd and 4th graders;

• Analyze math and chess grades of students in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades (the years where chess is a required subject).


Table 1 represents kids’ (boys and girls separately) average performance in math and chess. I observed the math and chess performance (grades are on a scale of 1 to 10) of two classes, from the stage (2nd – 4th grade) where chess is taken as a compulsory subject, and gauged the results in both subjects for 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades.

The findings showed that:

• Girls, in each grade, have a higher average performance in math and lower average performance in chess (except 4th grade) than boys.

• Both boys and girls have a better average performance in chess than in math, in every grade.

Girls: the average yearly change in chess is more significant, in every grade than in math. For instance, in the 2nd grade, the average yearly change in chess performance is 0.46, while in math it is 0.01. The latter shows that improvement in chess performance may have a tiny positive effect on math performance. The same pattern is also true for the 3rd and 4th grades.

Boys: in the 2nd grade, the average yearly change in chess overweighs math, being 0.14 and 0.01, respectively. In the 3rd grade, a year after first studying chess, boys’ grades worsened in both subjects, the average yearly change being -0.01 and -0.02, respectively for math and chess. Yet, in the 4th grade, a different pattern can be observed; math performance deteriorated, while chess performance improved, with the average yearly change being -0.1 and 0.57, respectively.

IQ Score
Mean  7.10
Median 8.0
Count 26
2nd grade
Average Score Math Chess
Mean 8.36 8.77
Median 8.55 8.75
Average Yearly Change 0.01 0.46
3rd grade
Average Score Math Chess
Mean 8.06 8.55
Median 8.21 8.67
Average Yearly Change 0.06 0.37
4th grade
Average Score Math Chess
Mean 7.76 8.35
Median 8.10 8.50
Average Yearly Change 0.08 0.77
IQ Score
Mean  6.98
Median 7.33
Count 28
2nd grade
Average Score Math Chess
Mean 8.01 8.89
Median 8.27 9.00
Average Yearly Change 0.01 0.14
3rd grade
Average Score Math Chess
Mean 7.79 8.70
Median 8.29 9/00
Average Yearly Change -0/01 -0.02
4th grade
Average Score Math Chess
Mean 7.27 7.99
Median 7.65 8.42
Average Yearly Change -0.10 0.57

Table 2, below, displays the IQ results from two classes of 3rd graders and three classes of 4th graders. The results reveal that both girls and boys have higher IQ scores in the 3rd grade and, additionally, boys have better results in both grades.

3rd grade
  Girls Boys
Mean 9.09 9.23
Median 9.33 9.33
Count 30 26
4th grade
  Girls Boys
Mean 7.84 7.89
Median 8.00 8.00
Count 34 37

One must ask, what conclusion can be drawn from such (Table 1 & Table 2) results? Evidently, every year math and chess performance worsened, as did IQ scores. Nonetheless, looking at what it reveals about the math-chess relation: in girls, one can perceive a slight positive link between math and chess; though for boys, one may discern no form of connection. Finally, according to the IQ results, the 4th grade shows deteriorated IQ scores for both girls and boys. Does this suggest that chess has no effect at all on mathematic ability or that it has a negative effect? Expecting chess to enhance intelligence or overall academic achievement is just wishful thinking, however, this does not mean it cannot still add value to a child’s education. Therefore, while many of the potential benefits of chess practice in children are still unknown, we can identify that chess is a powerful tool in building children’s mathematic problem-solving competency.

WHAT THE TEACHERS SAY: According to chess teachers, chess pushes kids to think fast, strengthens logical thinking, and, on the whole, affects math achievements, as individuals start thinking and analyzing more quickly. They emphasize, however, there are notable exceptions: there are kids who have strong mathematical abilities but are weak at chess, and vice versa and they cannot offer an explanation for such phenomena.

Math teachers consider the genetic code, skills given by nature, to play a substantial role, not only in math and chess but in the success of any other subject. They also stress that kids who have good families, i.e. educated parents, who spend time with kids at home, are also very likely to have better performance in all subjects, math, and chess included. The math teachers also agree that chess improves logical thinking, which should result in improved performance. Nevertheless, they believe it works both ways, as much as chess can improve math, math can also play a positive role in chess. The teachers did however point out the possible negative effects of chess: at times, children become disappointed receiving bad grades in chess, which may affect their overall performance. The bottom line is, they claim, kids with good genes and from educated families will shine bright in every subject. Finally, math teachers also have difficulties ascertaining why some have succeeded in chess and failure in math, and vice versa.

WHAT THE STUDENTS SAY: Interestingly, kids do not find chess as important as mathematics. “Chess is just a game and math is for life”, they replied. In particular, children who have many achievements in math and failures in chess do not understand the importance of chess, and they think that chess is superfluous in life. “My father does not know how to play chess, but he has good mathematical skills and has built a successful career”, one child stated. Another group agrees that chess significantly increases their logical and mathematical skills. “It was not a coincidence that our kings liked to play chess”, one answered, “Chess teaches players how to approach life. It teaches that there is more than one answer to a problem, you can take a step back and look at the picture through many points.” While one group suggests that math and chess are interrelated; the logic grasped in math is helpful when playing chess, and vice versa.

The views and analysis in this article belong solely to the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the international School of Economics at TSU (ISET) or ISET Policty Institute.