Chess Therapy

Chess Therapy


Chess therapy is a type a psychotherapy that uses the game of chess to establish a trust relationship between therapist and patient in order to get insight and ameliorate certain behavioral tendencies displayed by socially challenged children and adults.

The strategies used in a chess game can indicate, for example, the level of risk someone is willing to take, their impulsiveness, how the patient will react under pressure or how he will deal with defeat.

Goals of Chess Therapy

The goal of chess therapy is to help the patients clear their mind in order to rearrange their thoughts in a more positive and constructive manner. It can also help the patients feel in control of their feelings and adjust to unpredicted situations.

When Is Chess Therapy Used

The game of chess is thought to have been purposely used for the first time in psychotherapy by Rhazes, the Persian chief physician of the Bagdad hospital, in the 9th century. His technique involved using chess game configurations as metaphors that could help patients better understand and interpret real life situations.[1]

In modern therapy, chess has been used to help children develop self confidence by becoming good at a difficult game. A study conducted by William Levy in the 1980s found that playing chess boosted self-esteem in students.

“The skills chess offers to those who play it are gold mines. It teaches the faithful players how to approach life. It teaches people that are having dilemmas that there is more than one answer to a problem”, said Sultan Yusutzai, a student who participated in one of the chess education programs in the United States of America[2].

How chess therapy works

Chess therapy was also successfully used to teach self control and planning ahead to children suffering from attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)[3]. The game helps children with such disabilities learn skills like attentiveness, planning and thinking ahead and self control.

Chess therapy has been also used for educational purposes. Educator Rob Roy from Connecticut has taught courses for emotionally and educationally disadvantaged children. He used chess to help them practice self control.

“Children with special problems can also learn chess (…) It was like turning on switches in their head. You see the child looking at a problem, breaking it down, and then putting the whole thing back together. This process involves recall, analysis, judgment and abstract reasoning”, says Roy of his first hand experience.

Chess therapy can also help prevent drug and alcohol abuse. Nathan Leibowitz,  the Executive Director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in New York, developed the “ChessChild” program. In his opinion, “a child who can control impulse decision making and delay gratification and who can resist peer pressure can say no to drugs”.

This form of therapy was also successfully employed to help people suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome[4] or even correct hostile impulses in aggressive youths[5]

Norman Reider observed improvements in an isolated, schizoid sixteen year old after he started playing chess. The game helped him channel his hostile impulses by providing him with a non physical option for displaying dominance and strength.

The therapy has shown good results for autistic children as well. It increased their ability to concentrate, focus and channel their energy in a positive direction[6].

Chess therapy has also been used in prisons. Female inmates at a correctional facility in New York play chess on a weekly basis. The program was meant to provide the women with self confidence. The prison substance abuse counselor, Gene Hanna, says the ability to solve problems they thought impossible to solve helps the inmates see similarities with their real lives. They begin to find solutions for situations they previously regarded as hopeless.

Similar projects were implemented in prisons across South Africa. The goal was to improve the critical thinking and decision making skills of inmates and guards. One of the teachers at the Pollsmoor Correctional Facility in Cape Town was a former SA Chess Champion, International Master Kenny Solomon. The popularity of the game grew so fast that the African wardens initiated a prison league.

According to the American Psychological Association chess games have been used in hundreds of psychotherapeutic approaches based on the need of the patient and his knowledge of the game. In cognitive behavioral psychotherapy for instance, the therapist observes the way the patient perceives the game in order to identify the source of the negative emotions and dysfunctional behaviors. Other approaches, like the humanistic one, seek to form a bond of understanding between the patient and the therapist in order to explore his maximum capacity[7].









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