How Online Chess Lessons Teach Children Social Skills

Ellis Clifton draws a grid with yellow chalk, counting each row and pointing out the square on this 8-by-8 makeshift chess board where the white king — or, to her, the “King Chomper” — sits at the beginning of a chess game.

“King Chomper can only move to the squares around him,” Ellis, 5, said while sitting in Stuyvesant Square, a small park on the East Side of Manhattan in New York City.

Her parents, Meiyee Mak, 38, and Eli Clifton, 39, first signed Ellis up for chess lessons on Zoom in the fall of 2020 when she was 3 years old. The couple had tried various other things to keep their child engaged while navigating the constantly changing schedules of day care and preschools amid the pandemic. Ellis didn’t take well to Chinese lessons, for example. She would place her stuffed animals in front of the computer screen before walking away, in hopes that her plush companions would learn Mandarin for her.

During the summer of 2020, her parents learned about online chess lessons through the parents of a boy in their apartment building. They had known him to be rambunctious, but once saw that he was enthralled by a chess lesson over Zoom for a full hour. It seemed like a great way to keep Ellis entertained, as well as an opportunity for Ms. Mak and Mr. Clifton to free up time for a chore or to sleep in on a Sunday.

Ellis is one of many children who have learned how to play chess through Zoom during the pandemic. According to Chess at Three, the company through which Ellis learns chess, parents all over the country have sought out private chess tutoring for their toddlers. The lessons encourage learning while giving parents time to cook meals or take breaks.

Parents have been “trying to find something for their kids to do during the pandemic,” said Jon Sieber, a co-founder of Chess at Three. He said many parents had signed their children up for private lessons when his company, which contracts roughly 150 tutors, first transitioned to online classes.

“Having an hour or an hour and a half hour where their kids were incredibly engaged and didn’t need them allowed the parents to put them in front of a screen, a screen that they were confident wasn’t just like a brain drain, but actually an educational experience,” Mr. Sieber said. “We were able to kind of act as high-quality, educational babysitters.”

He said the company experienced a significant uptick in online lessons during the pandemic. It gained new clients, and old clients increased the number of lessons they took per week.

Mrs. Mak and Mr. Clifton, who don’t play chess themselves, were surprised that Ellis had not only understood the rather complex rules of the game (which she now teaches her parents), but also learned important social skills like taking turns and losing with grace. Lessons can be expensive depending on the vendor — ranging from $20 to $100 per hour, according to Mr. Sieber and online marketplaces — but they said they felt the need to keep her in the program because of the surprising social elements of their daughter’s chess learning journey.

“After we teach how the pieces move, we get into a lot of soft skills,” Mr. Sieber said. “There’s a whole slew of emotional things happening in a single chess lesson.”

Unless there’s a draw, there is one winner and one loser, he said. In group settings, like tournaments, children will also need to learn how to take turns. Their strategies in playing the game may also change depending on what their opponents are doing, encouraging young chess players to actively observe their counterparts.

When Ellis had lost her first game, Mr. Clifton remembered she had stomped into her room, angrily slamming the door. But since then, she has learned, through storytelling and plenty of games, to take losses as she does wins.

“King Chomper really wants to win a game of chess,” Ellis said. “But he can’t win all the games that he says he wants to win.”

It is fairly uncommon for a 3-year-old to start learning chess. Some online forums and blogs suggest that it’s best to start children with chess somewhere between the ages of 6 and 8. But Chess at Three and other tutoring groups have found it helpful to start teaching children as young as 3.

This also requires a narrative-driven curriculum in which each figure is assigned a back story and every strategy may be given a story arc. To keep children engaged, especially through a screen, tutors often need to perform these stories actively.

Steve Bauder, a former Chess at Three tutor, runs his own private chess tutoring business. Mr. Bauder, who is also a trained actor, said he regularly uses skills he learned during a clown workshop to impart rules and strategies to his chess students. After his income as an actor dried up at the onset of the pandemic, he started offering chess lessons to friends and family and built a small roster of a clientele.

Mr. Bauder remembers his first encounter on Zoom with one client, a 3-year-old Russian boy who spoke little English, being particularly challenging. Mr. Bauder was nervous, especially because when children first meet him, the setup is usually very awkward. The child logs on and sees an adult man wildly gesticulating and making jokes, trying to break the ice. But as Mr. Bauder continues to play up his silliness, children slowly warm to him.

“I was just letting him know that this isn’t a normal school lesson; this is a fun chess lesson,” Mr. Bauder said of his 3-year-old client. “And the difference is, I’m not testing him. He’s not getting graded.” During their first lesson, he pinched his nose and spoke in a nasal voice to show this new chess player that the setting was different. “The child then was excited to joke with me and put his fingers over his nose,” he said.

These days, Mr. Bauder dramatizes his wins and losses and the two play Atomic Chess, a type of online chess game in which pieces explode when they are taken, as a way to reward the student. Now, the boy ends every game with the words “good game, bye-bye.”

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