Ah, chess. The game of kings… and Aspies.
Now, before I begin, I expect a few readers will come up with the following reasons for their autistic child to not learn chess.
- Oh, he’ll just throw the board across the room if he loses.
- Oh, she won’t have the patience for it.
- Oh, he’s not got the brains to become really good at it.
- Oh, she’ll find it boring.
My responses are as follows:
- Chess is not an impulsive game. That’s probably why I’ve taught dozens of autistic children and never seen this happen.
- Patience is grown. Chess grows it.
- Read the points below, and you’ll see he won’t have to be good to learn the really important lessons.
- If she does, then fair enough- it’s not for everyone. But let her experience it before making the decision for her.
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:
- Leading sixteen chess tournaments in six different schools (both mainstream and special);
- Captaining the first team of my local club for a while (and almost getting us promoted);
- Winning a tournament with a £500 top prize and coming second in a bunch of others;
- Playing as far away as Gibraltar and Southern Germany;
- And (the important one) teaching a load of thinking skills to hundreds of children and watching them mature as a result;
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.
Ten reasons your autistic child could benefit from learning chess
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.
1: Chess makes you understand actions and consequences
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?”
2: Chess teaches you to take responsibility
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.
3: Chess makes you confident, and boosts your self-esteem.
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).
4: Chess teaches you to earn your rewards.
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.
5: Chess teaches you patience.
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.
6: Chess forces you to see the other person’s perspective
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).
7: Chess teaches you how to cope with failure.
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.
(Oh, and whenever a child loses a game against me, I always immediately ask them what lesson they’ll take from it. If they learn something constructive from the loss, the loss is always worth it. And they know that.)
8: Chess relieves anxiety
Sometimes, when the stakes are high and you know that one bad move will cost you the game, chess can be nervewracking. Very nervewracking.
But you know what? That’s not real anxiety. That’s just tension.
Like far too many autistic people, I’ve suffered from anxiety, and I personally know the difference.
Anxiety feels like a total loss of control. Anxiety involves fears that don’t even need to connect to reality. Anxiety means losing your map, and not even knowing which way’s north.
Chess has a map right in front of your eyes. All you need to do is read it. And if you need to read it ten times, you can read it ten times.
You can even check whether your fears are rational by seeing if they make sense on the board. With chess, you know whether you’re worrying for good reasons.
Most importantly, I’ve found that one essential part of overcoming anxiety is feeling like things are under your control. It’s very reassuring to know that you do actually get a say in things.
In chess, with or without the tension, the game is yours to control.
Even if you lose, the game was lost by you. It was not lost by circumstances beyond your control. And even that’s important.
9: Chess helps you make friends.
And not just by joining your local club (although I would recommend this, from personal experience). I saw kids in both mainstream and special schools start talking to each other at breaktimes, who never spoke before they bumped into each other in the tournaments.
Having a common interest is a good way to start any friendship- and common ground with chess is as good a starting point as any for those in your school.
This was a really short point, so Let me expand it with this giant tournament bracket I designed for a primary school chess tournament. There were a lot of opportunities here for new friends to meet.
10: Chess can uncover your inner genius.
A few chairs away from Matches and Powder Keg, there sat a fourteen-year-old autistic boy who struggled with everything.
I had spent months feeling sorry for this lad- academically he struggled in every subject, socially he struggled in the way many autistic youngsters do, and he didn’t have many hobbies or interests either.
When he showed an interest in chess, I treated him the same as anyone else: I taught him how the pieces move and the concept of checkmate (plus the three unwritten rules), and then offered him a place in the tournament.
Not many weeks in, I saw him facing another student- in a tournament game, so I couldn’t intervene- and he had just a king and a rook against his opponent’s sole king.
It is possible to get checkmate with those pieces, but it’s not intuitive. You have to be taught how to do it.
Uncle Douglas had to teach me. I had to teach hundreds of primary school kids. Including the very bright ones, who were off to grammar school a few months later. And unless you’ve been taught how to do it, the game will inevitably end as a draw.
That day I watched in absolute amazement, as this boy actually looked at the board and calculated how to do it.
He got checkmate, and a big hug from me. After teaching chess to hundreds of youngsters, the first person ever to work out the king-and-rook checkmate was an autistic teenager with learning difficulties.
I watched him play the week after, and he had started setting traps for his opponents. Predicting their moves and the decisions they would make.
I had seen chess transform young people, but never that quickly.
In a parallel universe, he never chose to learn chess, and never got that enormous self-esteem boost. In that universe, we never found out his genius side.
I guess my conclusion here’s actually obvious. If you think your child (autistic or not) needs:
- To understand actions and consequences
- To take responsibility for their actions
- More confidence
- The joy of earning something brilliant
- Patience, and a nice big concentration span
- To consider other people’s perspectives
- To learn how to lose positively
- To be less anxious
- More friends
- To uncover a possible hidden skill,
then get them a chessboard.
Even if they never get good at the game, they may surprise you with how fast they pick up those life skills.
Chris Bonnello / Captain Quirk
PS- when they lose, never, ever tell them “don’t worry, it’s only a game.” It’s worse than swearing!-
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia novel where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is soon to be released through Unbound Publishing. A character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, it balances intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window).
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