Playing chess reduces risk aversion in children

Journalist Emily Campbell explores the findings of a new study into the impact of playing chess on children’s levels of risk aversion.

Chess is a complex game which has stood the test of time and has experienced a resurgence thanks to the popularity and success of Netflix television series The Queen’s Gambit.

The game is considered highly beneficial to brain development and academic achievement, and is thought to improve memory and concentration, enhance problem solving abilities and promote creativity.

Although previous research indicates chess can improve these cognitive skills, a recent study by Australian researchers has led to a significant new finding that playing chess can reduce risk aversion in children.

Our rigorous study design means there is now scientific evidence chess can teach children about healthy risk-taking.

Intensive chess program field study

A team of economic and business researchers from Monash University and Deakin University, including Professor Asadul Islam, Dr Aaron Nicholas and Dr Wang-Sheng Lee, conducted a randomised field experiment examining the effects of an intensive chess program on a group of year five students who had no previous exposure to chess.

The research, which was recently published in the Journal of Development Economics, concluded learning chess rules, basic strategies and repeatedly playing chess over time had a significant positive effect on reducing levels of risk aversion in children.

A group of students from Bangladesh undertook a 30 hour chess training program over three weeks, taught by qualified chess coaches and following a curriculum approved by the World Chess Federation.

For a year after the chess instruction program concluded, the researchers assessed participants on a range of cognitive and non-cognitive behavioural changes, such as time management, mathematic ability, concentration and risk taking.

Dr Lee said although the researchers looked at a range of benefits and outcomes on children who participated in the program, the strongest findings related to risk aversion.

“We were not sure exactly what would arise, but the majority of students involved in the program demonstrated lowered risk aversion, which was an interesting finding,” Dr Lee said.

“Although there has been speculation, and some previous research into the potential benefits of chess, our rigorous study design means there is now scientific evidence chess can teach children about healthy risk-taking.”

Importance of calculated risks

Learning to take calculated risks and make informed decisions is an essential life skill that children must develop in order to thrive and live successful, fulfilling lives.

Part of this involves developing caution and foresight, performing cost-benefit analyses when considering options and exposure to win/lose situations through competition.

Professor Islam said the findings showed chess could help model and nurture positive risk-taking behaviour which would prepare them for life’s challenges.

“Risk and reward is a concept that is articulated well in the game of chess,” Professor Islam said.

“Players often sacrifice pawns, knights and bishops if it helps checkmate the opponent’s king and win the game.

“Such sacrifices are inherently risky because if one’s calculations are faulty, the sacrifice could prove to be critical, eventually leading to a quick loss.

“Children need to know how to take calculated risks.

“If children are too risk averse it might prevent them from swimming at the beach, going to a public park or participating in contact sports for risk of injury.

“In many life situations, it is also the case that with great risk often comes great reward.

“However, the line between necessary calculated risk-taking and reckless behaviour is sometimes difficult to determine.

“Learning chess can help bridge that gap,” he said.

Essential life skills

Dr Lee agreed risk aversion is an important life skill for young people to develop in their formative years.

“We are not necessarily saying it is always good to be more risk averse or less risk averse,” Dr Lee said.

“The point I take from this research is it is good to think about what a calculated risk is and when it is a good time to take a calculated risk.

“Some risks are definitely not worth taking but in some other life situations, you might want to take the risk because the benefits outweigh the costs, so this is what chess helped the students realise.

“When playing chess, the students started thinking deeply about whether in a particular position it is worth pursuing a certain strategy, asking themselves will it work or will I end up losing, considering different scenarios.”

Dr Lee said learning to take calculated risks would set children up with essential life skills that would equip them for future jobs and be transferable to other areas of life.

“It is hard to know what jobs will be available in the future for today’s children and many jobs existing today will no longer exist by the time this cohort have grown up and graduated from school and university,” he said.

“To prepare for this uncertainty, the education system really should seek to teach children how to think critically and how to develop non-cognitive skills like taking calculated risks, which will be valuable in adulthood.”

Chess in the curriculum

The children involved in the study seemed to thoroughly enjoy the chess program.

In a survey conducted with students 10 months after the chess program, 99% said they wanted more chess lessons, 94.5% had played chess with a classmate in the previous week, and 87.5% said they played chess regularly with friends or family.

“As introducing chess as a subject in school will not be very costly, the educational intervention we examine in this paper most certainly has the potential to be scaled up if smaller proof-of-concept studies such as this paper show positive results,” the researchers wrote in their discussion.

Dr Lee said Australia should consider following the lead of countries including Poland, Armenia and India, who have integrated chess instruction into their primary school curricula.

“Compulsory chess instruction is something worth thinking about, although as we know the school curriculum is already so crowded and I’m sure there are many other ideas worthy of inclusion.

“How much time should be spent in the curriculum playing chess is obviously debatable, because the objective is not to make the school a school for chess champions, but perhaps having some regular lessons and spurring an interest in the game could be positive.

“Starting a chess club for students who are interested so they can play at lunch or after school as an extracurricular activity is an alternative option to taking up lesson time.

“Students do not need to be chess champions competing at an elite level in order to benefit from the game, but chess coaching will take them up a notch and playing frequently enough, understanding strategy and tactics has benefits,” Dr Lee said.


Readers with an interest in chess can access the full study by Professor Islam, Dr Lee and Dr Nicholas at

Royalty-free chess instruction materials approved by the World Chess Federation’s Chess in Schools Commission can be accessed at