Chess sweeps American school children in record numbers

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Jeffrey Otterby, an Illinois middle school teacher, is facing an epidemic of student distraction. When seventh graders are supposed to be learning social studies, they’re glued to school-issued Chromebooks. He’s used to standing in the back of the room watching their monitors, where he can watch the online game they’re all playing:

“I think I’m happier because they’re playing chess instead of some shooting game. Actually, I love it,” said Otterby, a chess enthusiast. “I just want them to do it at a better time.”

The St. Charles County middle school group of Otterby students is not alone. Across the country, students from second to first grade have encountered a new obsession, and it is, in fact A centuries-old game. Interviews with teachers and students in eight states paint a picture of students caught pressing games anywhere and whenever they can: at lunch, at recess, and illegally during lessons, a phenomenon that is at once baffling, frustrating, and exhilarating for teachers.

The data is from, whose usage is the highest it has ever been, and anecdotal evidence nationwide indicates a growing and growing youth user base. This month’s National High School Chess Championship in D.C. had to add excess rooms to accommodate 1,750 participants – sparking fears of a possible Lack of participating medals.

Chess has a long history of cheating, bluffing, and Cold War shenanigans

This year a California school librarian set aside a section of her library for chess-playing students to indulge in their lunchtime habit. A teacher from Illinois bought 24 chess sets to meet the growing demand from students. And in Hawaii, a passion for chess spoils the morning routine.

“Before school, they’re supposed to line up and go upstairs in an orderly manner,” said Kevin Nita, a teacher at St. Patrick’s Private School in Honolulu. “But now there’s a mess, because they can’t see the stairs – because they all watch on their Chromebooks.”

“You have to actually take their phone and put it somewhere else, because if they see it on their desk, they just tend to play chess.”

—Justin Wewers, high school geography teacher in Minnesota

It is unclear what drives the sudden love of chess among tweens and teens. Students and chess spectators point to the influence of chess stars and social media personalities such as Levi Rosman, who owns his own YouTube channel Gotham Chess She has more than 3.5 million subscribers; Hikaru Nakamura, an American expert with 1.9 million YouTube subscribers; and the Booties sistersan elite group of Canadian-American gamers who boast a combined following of nearly 2 million on YouTube and Twitch.

Max Magidden, a 15-year-old attending Burlingame High School in California, said chess content began appearing on his and his friends’ TikTok feeds early this year. Almost immediately, everyone in the Bay Area’s San Mateo Union High School seemed to be playing the game—including Magidin, who nowadays plays between two and four hours of chess a day. He plays with friends in the library at lunch, sneaks a few rounds of chess puzzles into class and plays after school for one to two hours in the window of free time he previously devoted to video games.

“When a lot of people are talking about it and doing it, you also want to be involved in this activity,” Magidin said. “And learning from YouTube and other social media has been so entertaining.”

David Mahler, president of the American Chess Center, said that chess has always been a fashionable sport. He noted a huge jump in interest in the early 1990s after the release of the movie “Find Bobby Fischer,” which tells the story of a 7-year-old chess prodigy and is based on the life of the great master Joshua Waitzkin.

More recently, chess saw a surge in popularity among adults at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and again when many people confined to their homes streamed The Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix series, said Eric Alibest, CEO and co-founder. for the chess company. .com. After the virus arrived, he said,’s average daily user count of 1.5 million rose to between 5 and 7 million.

The epidemic sparked interest in chess. The Queen’s Gambit made her explode.

In late December, the number of daily users exploded again – reaching a record high of 10 million. The bump continued: As of April, had an average of 12 million daily users, Alibest said. does not track the ages of users, Alibest said, but as best he and the staff can tell, the latest wave of fans is dominated by middle and high school students.

“We keep our finger on the pulse with stories coming out across the wider social networks,” said Alibest. “There’s a lot of content being created by kids in middle and high school that shows how much chess is being played in their schools.”

Post links to viral Reddit posts that K-12 teachers lament the outburst of chess enthusiasm and primary school students Share tales of management campaigns limiting access to (The Washington Post found no examples of the latter.) Alibest also noted that his son, at age 15, was turned to chess — not because of his dad’s job, but by watching GothamChess on YouTube.

Some teachers have mixed feelings about the secret players in their classes.

Justine Wiwers, a high school geography teacher in the Anoka-Hennepin area of ​​Minnesota, said she’s seen an overwhelming number of student fascinations over the years, from video games to “uno” to spinners. In comparison, the chess craze regards it as a healthy activity for young minds.

Still, she wishes her students would stop clicking on on Chromebooks and iPhones in the middle of a lesson, which nearly a third of the 150 ninth graders at Blaine High School try to do each day, she estimates. She’s trying to get in — “If they finish their work and try to make a chess move real fast, I get it” — but she has to draw the line somewhere.

As punishment, she begins snatching the kids’ devices: “You have to physically take their phones and put them somewhere else, because if they see them on their desks, they just tend to play chess.”

James Brown, a teacher at South Colony School in New York, sees nothing but positives.

Brown, who teaches computer science and programming at Sand Creek Middle School, has set aside Fridays as a free period for kids to pursue activities of their choice. Since January, many students have chosen chess, prompting Brown to buy three more chess sets to augment the ten he already owns.

He is pleased to hear the crows click and the queens move across the boards. Chess is believed to help students develop critical thinking skills, strategic muscles, and the ability to take calculated risks – a conviction I have confirmed decades of research Show that chess enhances children’s mathematical and cognitive abilities.

“It’s all the things we want to instill in the student,” Brown said. “If they’re doing it themselves, and in a format that’s fun for them, it relates properly to what I’m trying to do. I don’t see it as a distraction, I see it as a benefit.”

Another advantage of playing chess is that it transcends social categories, said Maureen Sito, a librarian at Burlingame High School in California. In early 2023, she said, students began flocking to her library before school, during lunch, and in between classes to play chess at an array of tables.

“It brings different groups of kids together that you don’t normally see,” Seto said. “They come up and say, ‘Hey, do you want to play chess?'” “And I normally would never see these two kids interact.”

Noticing fights over seats, Seto expanded the number of tables and chessboards to 10. It also added a warning sign, “Chess area lunchtime only.” The student crowd of players, she said, is generally respectful, though she must occasionally remind them not to use foul language in the heat of competition.

In some places, the chess craze inspires the founding of official chess clubs and tournaments.

At Shiloh Junior High School in Illinois, social studies teacher Noah Allen recently received permission from the Shiloh CUSD 1 Board to form a junior chess team, which will start next school year. Meanwhile, he is drowning in the students’ interest. Twenty children—a third of the student body’s 65—regularly attend initial club meetings just for practice.

“Honestly, it’s kind of weird,” Allen said.

At Nebraska, 13-year-old Spencer Neuerlinger was leading. Noerrlinger has been a fan of chess for half his life: he discovered a love for the game at the age of six, playing as his father.

Sitting in study hall one foggy day this winter, Neuerlinger looked up and was amazed to see all his middle school classmates in Syracuse sitting quietly. Normally, the teacher has to remind them to hold their seats, he said.

And it got even weirder – everyone around Noerrlinger was on, playing the favorite game of seventh graders. Struck by an idea, Neuerlinger crossed the room to his best friend, Lucas.

“You know, maybe we should start a chess club,” Neuerlinger recalled saying.

A few days later, Neuerlinger pitched the idea to director Tim Farley, who was immediately converted. Syracuse Dunbar Avoca Schools superintendent David Krause agreed, too, since his kids had succumbed to the magic of chess (his fifth-grade son Landry brought a chessboard to Easter festivities this year and asked family members to take turns playing it).

Every school morning since January, Neuerlinger said, the Syracuse Chess Club, known by members as SCC, has gathered in the gymnasium stands between 7:45 and 8:15 a.m., where students fit in two, possibly three games before class. scholastic. The club has already hosted one tournament, which attracted 32 participants, and is in the process of hosting a second tournament with 38 participants.

Neuerlinger was knocked out in the first tournament, beaten by his biggest rival, Brock. But he said he was optimistic about his chances this time around.