Academic Connections: Boost Learning and Develop Context for Chess Games through Chess-based Unit Studies

How to create chess unit studies to help make academic connections

In a previous post, we discussed how integrating other subjects into chess lessons can be beneficial. The idea is that the more you integrate other subjects into your chess classes, the more likely what they learn will be applicable to academic performance and increase motivation to succeed in subjects outside of chess. This is particularly the case if students have some choice in what they learn (learn more here and here).

In this post, we share an integrated lesson from the MATCH Chess Curriculum on chess history. We have researched and planned a history unit that includes many famous players for our curriculum, but the concept is simple and can be replicated.

Start with a famous chess player or other bit of chess history and then choose other topics to investigate from there. You can base your study on specific learning standards already in place in local school districts, follow the students interests as a group, or let students investigate on their own and share what they find with the group. You can ask them to create some sort of project to share in class and/or with parents and/or school personnel. These products might include posters, presentations, videos or written summaries.

Below is an example using Vera Menchik.

Vera Menchik was born in Bystra nad Jizerou, Bohemia in 1906.  When she was nine her father taught her to play and she improved quickly until she became the first Women’s World Champion. She defended successfully each of the six challenges that occurred in her lifetime.  Though she was never a highly ranked player, she was the first woman to play amongst the elite male masters. In 1929, when she entered the Carlsbad tournament, Albert Becker ridiculed her by stating that any who lost to her should be granted entry into the ”Vera Menchik Club”. This was supposed to be an insult.  He was the first member of that club. In 1944, she was killed when her home was destroyed by a V-1 attack.

In your instruction, you can use the Becker v Menchik match as a lead-in to other subjects. Possible Academic Connections to Explore:

  • Geography: Locate Bohemia on a map.  What country is it a part of?
  • Math: Vera Menchik’s total scores for her Women’s World Championship matches were (incredibly) 78 wins, 4 draws and 1 loss.  What percentage of her games were wins? draws? losses?
  • Literature: The Becker v Mechik game is an example of poetic justice. Poetic justice is a literary device in which ultimately virtue is rewarded and vice punished. In modern literature it is often accompanied by an ironic twist of fate related to the character’s own action. What other stories contain this device?
  • Science: What is penicillin and who discovered it? How was it discovered? What year was this? Why was this an important discovery?
  • History:  Vera Menchik died during World War II. What were the details of that war and how might it have affected Menchik’s upbringing?
  • Art: Marchel Duchamp was a well-known artist whose life overlapped with Vera Menchik’s. What kind of artist was he? Look up some samples of that kind of art.  Here are three of his most famous chess paintings: The Chess Game (1910), The Chess Players (1911), and Joueurs d’echecs (Portrait of Chess Players) (1911).  Look them up and draw or paint a chess themed painting of your own with a similar style.

    After years of being an active artist, he switched gears and focused on chess.  In addition to playing chess, he also became a chess journalist. He felt that chess players are artists.  Do you agree? Look up and play through one of his games.
  • Current Events/Issues: This is a great opportunity to talk about a number of current issues such as the “Glass Ceiling”, the general concept of stereotypes and how this impacts people, especially girls in chess (or STEM fields).

    You could also talk about modern female chess players such as Judit and Susan Polgar. Judit was the top female chess player for many years, she broke the grandmaster age record and typically chose not to play in female-only tournaments.  Her sister Susan played in female-only tournaments and currently hosts girls-only tournaments as a way to encourage girls to play. Judit felt that playing in female-only tournaments ultimately hurt female players because they ended up playing less skilled players more often which gave them less experience and incentive to push themselves. This is a great topic for a debate which has played out in the media very recently.  See this link to a discussion about the debate started in the international media about a statement made by GM Nigel Short about why there are so few women at the top in chess.  

    Another interesting, related topic is ‘What makes a good education?” Judit and her sisters all ended up being top players. They were homeschooled by their father who believed genius was made, not born. There are lots of opportunities to explore in this broad area: the nature-nurture debate about intelligence, stereotype threat, growth mindset, and how female players should train.

This Academic Connections approach can be taken with any chess player, providing context to the game and expanding students’ understanding of a variety of topics. It also helps students develop an appreciation for the historical events, geography, cultural norms, government structures, living conditions, art, literature, and music of a player’s lifetime. Reviewing games becomes even more interesting when the player(s) involved have been brought to life beforehand.

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