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As the hit Netflix drama series The Queen’s Gambit continues to drive renewed interest in chess, new research has found that the ancient game reduces risk aversion in children.

Results also showed chess helped children boost their arithmetic and rational thinking skills.

The new study was conducted on 400 Australian students who undertook a 30-hour chess program.

The results appears to support the theory of US founding father Benjamin Franklin, who wrote that valuable qualities of the mind could be acquired and strengthened by playing chess.

Franklin said by considering consequences before taking action, and by not making chess moves too hastily, important life skills such as foresight and caution could be taught.

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Risky business

Researchers from Monash University and Deakin University put this notion to the test in primary school students. They found those that had regular chess lessons and repeatedly played the game over time were less risk averse than their peers.

Published in the Journal of Development Economics, the research team conducted a field experiment to examine the effects of intensive chess lessons with more than 400 Year 5 students who had no previous exposure to the game.

Students participated in a 30-hour chess program, endorsed by the World Chess Federation, across a three-week period. They were assessed on their cognitive and non-cognitive behavioural changes, including risk, time management and ability to focus, for nearly a year after the training had ended.

Results showed that playing chess from a young age could decrease risk aversion through exposure to win/loss situations and competition, as well as teaching children the potential benefits of strategic risk-taking.

In a survey conducted with students 10 months after the chess program, 99% said they wanted more chess lessons, 94.5% had played chess with a classmate in the previous week, and 87.5% said they played chess regularly with friends or family.

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Study leaders

The study was led by Professor Asad Islam (Director, Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability, Monash Business School), and supported by Dr Wang Sheng Lee (Fellow, Centre for Development Economics and Sustainability, Monash Business School) and Dr Aaron Nicholas (Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics, Deakin Business School).

Professor Islam said chess could help model, nurture and teach good risk-taking behaviour to children that will help them be better prepared to meet life’s challenges.

‘Risk and reward is a concept that is articulated well in the game of chess. Players often sacrifice pawns, knights and bishops if it helps checkmate the opponent’s king and win the game. Such sacrifices are inherently risky because if one’s calculations are faulty, the sacrifice could prove to be fatal, eventually leading to a quick loss,’ Professor Islam said.

‘Children need to know how to take calculated risks. If children are too risk averse it might prevent them from swimming at the beach, going to a public park or participating in contact sports for risk of injury.

‘Later in life, this could also extend to adolescent behaviours such as drugs, smoking, truancy, involvement in crime and in romantic relationships.

‘In many life situations, it is also the case that with great risk often comes great reward. However, the line between necessary calculated risk-taking and reckless behaviour is sometimes difficult to determine. Learning chess can help bridge that gap.’

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Chess on the curriculum?

The research indicates that schools across Australia should strongly consider integrating the teaching of chess in the classroom to help young people deal with risk and reward later in life.

The European Parliament has shown enthusiasm for using chess courses in schools as an educational tool. Two European countries – Armenia and Poland – have already made chess instruction compulsory in their primary-school curricula.

India is also making progress in introducing chess to the school curriculum. India currently has about 17 million children involved nationwide, especially in the states of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu where chess is part of the curriculum.

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Australian progress

In 2007, Evan Thornley, at that time Victorian Premier John Brumby’s parliamentary secretary for national reform and innovation, wanted the government to provide more chess programs across the public school system.

‘Chess may be of particular interest to policymakers who are interested in identifying programs that can provide early stimulation and help develop important “soft” life skills in children, such as an appreciation for the concept of risk, during their formative years,’ said Dr Lee .

‘Chess can also integrate vital logical and arithmetic skills in children’s minds. It can potentially motivate children to become willing problem solvers, able to spend hours quietly immersed in logical thinking.’

Dr Nicholas said, ‘Chess playing could also increase children’s ability to think rationally – one channel through which this may occur is that chess encourages one to think ahead of their opponent and to visualise possibilities.’

Read more at Monash Impact.