What do Ben Affleck, Will Smith, Christina Ricci, Kobe Bryant, Keanu Reeves, Madonna and Beethoven have in common? They all play or played chess. So do an estimated 700 million people around the world today, in nearly every country.

Why is chess so popular, and is it right for your child?

Chess Improves Concentration and Behavior

Many parents and teachers are drawn to chess because it helps their children develop spatial skills and the ability to calculate. By playing chess, kids learn to pay attention and focus on long-term goals. These skills transfer to the classroom environment, and studies suggest that academic test scores improve faster among children who play the game.

"The articles about the benefits of chess in education are absolutely true," says David Pinder, principal at McKinley Technology High School in the District. "Our students have a lot of fun playing chess. But more importantly, they learn to make good choices. Recognizing the bad choices they've made during a game of chess helps them to make better decisions next time they play."

Chess teaches and rewards good sportsmanship. Every game begins and ends with a handshake, and players show respect for their opponents and other chess players by remaining silent while a game is in progress. There is no place for trash-talking, and after reaching a certain skill level, players will often discuss their games afterward to identify where better moves might have been available-thus helping weaker players improve.

Lotte Lent, whose daughter attends Oyster Bilingual Elementary School, describes chaperoning a tournament and seeing "60 or more 4th-graders sitting in one room at one time, quietly shaking hands with each other, concentrating hard and playing chess with the skills they had learned."

Chess Promotes Friendship and Understanding

Thousands of young people throughout the Washington metropolitan area are learning to play chess-and it's probably not because they think it will improve their behavior. More likely, they enjoy the intellectual challenge and the camaraderie.

Chess offers no advantages based on size, gender or demographic background. Children with a variety of developmental challenges have successfully learned to play chess. Children with diverse life experiences meet as equals over the chessboard. In fact, chess provides an ideal way for boys and girls to compete with one another. "A woman can beat any man," says Alexandra Kosteniuk, Russian grandmaster and former Women's World Chess champion. "That's why I like chess."

Because every country in the world has chess players, and every city in our country has at least one chess club, learning to play chess automatically provides friends everywhere. Thanks to the Internet, children from different cultures can play chess, even if they do not speak the same language. In 2012, for example, students in the District played formal matches with their peers in China, Norway, Montenegro and the Czech Republic. Chess is "a gateway to understanding among nations," says Montenegrin ambassador Srdjan Darmanovic, a chess player himself, who was on hand for the Internet matches.

Is My Child Ready to Learn Chess?

The best time for children to learn chess is when it is simultaneously an intellectual challenge and a fun pastime. Children need to have some capacity to grasp abstract concepts, such as the different values of chess pieces, depending on their placement as well as on how they move. This understanding usually occurs about the time that a child develops the ability to perform arithmetic operations.

Most children expect an element of chance in the games they play. Recognizing that positive or negative consequences are a direct result of their choices-which is one of the benefits as well as challenges of chess-requires a maturity that is rarely found in young children. With maturity, anyone can learn to play chess, if taught properly.

Ask yourself the following questions: Can my child sit still while reading or listening to a story? Does she get upset whenever she doesn't get her way? Is she ready to accept responsibility for making independent decisions? If a child is too young to do these things, it is too early to start playing chess.

No competitive advantage results from starting to play chess at a very early age. On the contrary, primary school children who start playing before they are developmentally ready may become discouraged, lose interest and never reap the benefits. But when a child is ready, chess can open doors-to academic achievement, to friendships that cross cultural and socioeconomic boundaries and to an intellectual pursuit that retains its interest for a lifetime.

Resources

For up-to-date information on scholastic chess in the metropolitan area:

Some Local Chess Programs for Children:

Some local chess camps and programs: