Making chess clubs work at primary level

Written by: Richard James | Published:
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Chess club can be a successful addition to a primary school’s extra-curricular activities, but it must be approached in the proper way, and beginning with ‘mini-chess’ activities is recommended. Richard James offers some dos and don'ts...

I have been teaching chess to young children since 1972 and started helping primary schools run chess clubs in 1993.

For the past three decades there have been many claims that chess improves children’s academic performance in many ways: numeracy, literacy, problem-solving, creativity, critical thinking and much else.

It was this that encouraged many primary schools to promote chess through after-school clubs, and likewise encouraged parents to sign their children up for chess.

After a few years it became clear to me that, while most children gained a lot of enjoyment out of playing chess with their friends, the standard of play was, in most cases, so low that it was hard to see that it was really benefiting them academically.

There were a few exceptions: in one or two schools the headteacher was very keen on chess, taught everyone to play, ran regular competitions, and gave their pupils the opportunity to play every day if they wanted to do so.

There were also children whose parents were keen on chess: these children did well because they were playing regularly at home and perhaps also going to external chess clubs.

However, those children who were only playing once a week in term-time seemed to be gaining little more than short-term fun. It is hardly surprising if you think about it.

The problem is this. Learning how the pieces move is within the compass of most children aged between 5 and 7. They love learning about the different pieces and their different moves. They love moving them round the board and especially love making captures.

But chess, while simple to learn, is very hard to play well, requiring a combination of domain-specific knowledge and high-level cognitive skills. So young children only playing once a week and without proactive parental support will make little or no progress. It is hard to imagine that they will gain any cognitive benefit, either.

Indeed, despite what you might have read, there is very little hard evidence that the game of chess has a unique and long-term effect on improving children’s academic performance.

In general, mastering simple games is likely to be more beneficial for children of primary school age than attempting to play a complex game badly.

However, if you take a proactive approach, there are very many reasons why I would encourage primary schools to promote chess.

Not everyone realises that chess is not the only game you can play with a chess set, any more than bridge (or poker, if you prefer) is the only game you can play with a pack of cards. I prefer to see a chess set as a magic toolbox containing hundreds of games, thousands of puzzles, and an infinity of stories.

In my book, Chess for Schools, I recommend a “mini-chess” approach in primary schools. Mini-chess refers to games, puzzles and other activities using subsets of chess: subsets of the pieces, the rules or even the board. There are so many ways in which these can be used in every aspect of school life.

They can be used in the classroom: there are games which you can link up to your maths curriculum, for example. It is a great way to get children really enthused about both maths and strategy games.

You can also use mini-chess to help children make friends and develop their social skills – if you have sets available for children to play outside lessons.

Not all children enjoy the hurly-burly of the playground. There are those who will prefer quieter activities to louder activities, cerebral games to physical games, indoors to outdoors. I should know, I was one of those children myself.

You can also use mini-chess to foster friendly competition and cooperation. Take, for example, a very simple game. Each player starts with eight pawns: the first player to get a pawn to the end of the board wins. Five minutes to learn and five minutes to play.

You can stage team competitions between classes, between houses, between year groups, pupils versus teachers, pupils versus parents or whatever you like.

It is great fun for spectators as well as players and is a very simple way to make chess a part of school life. It needn’t even cost you anything. If you do not have chess sets you can print out chequered boards and use different coloured counters instead of pawns.

Once children have mastered a range of mini-chess games they can move onto playing “big chess”. Then you can challenge other schools in your area to take part in a competition.

Most schools are good at providing physical competitions for pupils (football, netball, etc), but not so good at doing the same thing for cerebral competitions.

There will be children in every school, and again I was one, who enjoy competitions but either don’t care for, or, for various reasons, are unable to access physical sports. Chess, approached through mini-chess, could be ideal for them.

Chess can also be invaluable in helping neurodivergent children. For many on the autism spectrum, chess can be a special interest that lasts a lifetime. Chess can help children who have problems with maintaining their attention and controlling their impulses. As mentioned above, chess can be great for children who are unable to access physical sports.

There are so many ways in which schools can use chess creatively. As with any pure skill activity, take it seriously, get it right or don’t do it at all.

Find out all you can about chess first so that you can decide on the best approach to take for your school. If you would like to take things further, organisations such as Chess in Schools and Communities and Chess Plus run brilliant training courses. 

  • Richard James has been teaching and organising chess for children since 1972. Between 1975 and 2006, Richard ran the highly successful Richmond Junior Chess Club. His book – Chess for Schools: From simple strategy games to clubs and competitions – was published in August by Crown House Publishing and costs £16,99. Visit

Headteacher Update Spring Term Edition 2023

This article first appeared in Headteacher Update's Spring Term Edition 2023. This edition was sent free of charge to every primary school in the country. A digital version of this edition is available via

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