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5 Reasons why Chess is Better than Video Games

1. Real life has no reset button.[1]

Every video game comes with the ability to restart the game, and to most players, that is to their detriment. Make a mistake early on? Hit reset. See your chances diminish of achieving your goal? Give up, and try again painlessly. This mentality is quite antithetical to the virtue of fortitude.

Chess, on the other hand, is played against a real, live opponent, whose own desire to win the game is in the mix.[2] The fellow sitting across the board is not going to let one restart a game when one makes a mistake. Whether one sticks to it and wins in adversity, or even fights nobly still ending in defeat, one still learns, and grows, in the process. I’ve noticed in chess that the lessons learned in defeat are often more instructive than those taken from victory; many times I have counseled a losing player about the way to remedy his mistakes in future games, with appreciable results.

2. Chess teaches boys self-mastery.

Boys have their own unique challenges, some of the more-important ones follow the combination of high energy and our modern society’s bombardments of indulgence and sensuality. Key to boys fighting the good fight in this arena is their having self control – a quality which chess demands.

The attraction of chess to boys is powerful enough to make its rigors and demands seem sweet. It amazes me, at times, to see a pile of otherwise rowdy boys quietly hunkered over a classmate’s chess match. I also recall the boy who simply would not read books, being found by his parents reading *gasp* a chess book, in bed. Whether it is the war-like aspects, or the intense concentration involved (not to mention it’s clear competitive thrust), chess helps boys make great strides in their ability to control their thoughts and emotions.

Video games, on the other hand, only appear to teach self-mastery. The hours spent with glazed eyes semi-focused on a screen may be marathon-like, but a key element is missing from time spent mastering video-games: the task achieved is not really worthwhile. Ending a chess game in a three-move combination for checkmate is laudable, and memorable. On the other hand, and as noted by my good friend and basketball-playing poet, Coach Hatch, no one ever reminisces about video-game exploits; indeed, finally getting to the next level on an electronic game is, at best, an imitation of an achievement.

3. Chess sharpens the imagination, whereas video games dull it.

“Imagination is the faculty of representing to oneself sensible objects independently of an actual impression of those objects on our senses.”[3] This is to say, the imagination is the power of the mind which allows us to make present sights, sounds, etc., without an object actually being present to see or hear. If someone says “yellow wooden pencil,” one pictures the yellow and wooden thing in the mind – this is by means of the imagination. Now, St. Thomas Aquinas argues that the imagination plays an important role in the human activity of knowing.[4] This is quite evident to teachers of young boys – those whose imaginations are weak will often have a difficult time in the process of learning.[5]

Chess, of course, hones this faculty, in requiring players to “see” what is not yet there.[6] Granted, the novice may need to be talked through the processes of anticipation and planning, but this is merely the first step to developing in-game prudence on his own. Finally, with his imagination strengthened, the boy’s ability to reason is strengthened as well.

As for video games, the producing of images is not an activity of the soul – it is the work of pixels and computer chips. All of the imaging work is done for you, which leaves less of the higher powers of the person involved.

4. Chess paves the road for virtue.

A bold claim, to be sure (but then, I typed it in bold, did I not?). In the teaching of virtue to the young, one needs to keep in mind that the young lack many experiences, some quite pertinent to the acting out of virtue; without war, for example, they cannot be brave in battle. Yet we do not despair at being able to teach virtue to the young. This is so, in part, because we can teach that virtue which is key to the others, namely, prudence.[7] Chess is a fruitful medium for the learning of prudence, insofar as a well-played game involves foresight, judging of value, and marrying short-term means to long-term goals. Further, the connection between past experiences and future actions is made quite clear to boys in chess; there is no greater impetus to learning the need to a particular defense, for example, than to have lost a game without it. Learning prudence from a lecture is one thing; learning it from a literary lesson is another. But in my opinion, there is no better medium for teaching boys prudence than the arena of competition, and chess may be better in this regard than any sport.

As for video games – rarely have I seen someone learn a lesson in virtue from time spent in the arcade.

5. Chess teaches the value of sacrifice.

The notion of sacrifice, the giving up of something good for a greater good, is all too often a mere theory to young boys, with no easy correlation to their lives. Boys often live in the moment, and so the intentional loss of a present good for the sake of an as-yet unseen one is a hard sell. Chess, however, provides countless instances for boys to learn the beauty and worth of giving in order to gain. A center pawn is given up to gain position, a more-valued rook is traded for a lesser knight, all for the sake of entrapping the king. With its clear-cut winner and loser, all following from the myriad decisions made in the course of a game, the value of sacrifice can be quite easily seen. Certainly, more than ever do we as a society need men of sacrifice; it may be in chess that the boy first encounters the heroic sacrifice of a man.

[1] Dr. Meg Meeker’s book on boys, Boys Will be Boys, explains this point well.[2] Obviously, I am not referring to video-game chess, played against a computer. Yes, one can reset a game against a machine, with the same pitfalls as restarting any other electronic game.

[3] (Old) Catholic Encyclopedia, accessed online on 12/6/2010 at:

[4] See Summa Theologiae I Q.84 A.7.

[5] Keep in mind: the imagination is not just the power to conjure up pictures of the fantastical and nonsensical; rather, the imagination provides the mind with examples to examine, and aids the intellect in the consideration of individuals from which the mind moves on to the universal. This is to say, then, that boys who are not creative in the fantastical sense are not necessarily any less intelligent.

[6] Aristotle speaks of an analogous use of imagination in hunting, as the hunter needs to see beyond where the prey actually is, and imagine where the prey will be.

[7] Prudence’s importance is seen in this classic definition of virtue, (following Aristotle): Virtue is the habit of choosing the mean, prudently, in human actions, for the sake of happiness.

About the Author

Tom Steenson

Fifth Grade Homeroom, History of Western Thought
Tom Steenson teaches fifth grade and the History of Western Thought.  He arrived at The Heights in 2001, having earned a B.A. in 1996 at Thomas Aquinas College, where he developed a love of ancient Mathematics, Philosophy, and Theology.  He moved to the D.C. area to study philosophy at The Catholic University of America, where he obtained an M.A.,...
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