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In 1859, People Thought Chess Was Rotting Their Kids’ Minds, and They Should Go Play Sports Instead

Good to know some things never change.


Nothing is safe from parents’ inclination to insist that anything new and different is bad for kids and inferior from the way they grew up. According to an 1859 issue of Scientific American, that darn Chess contraption hinders learning, and kids should go play sports instead.

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Here’s the full quote (thanks to Medium) in all of its “video games will rot your brain” glory:

…a pernicious excitement to learn and play chess has spread all over the country, and numerous clubs for practicing this game have been formed in cities and villages. Why should we regret this? it may be asked. We answer, chess is a mere amusement of a very inferior character, which robs the mind of valuable time that might be devoted to nobler acquirements, while at the same time it affords no benefit whatever to the body.

If you grew up in the `90s, this should sound extremely familiar. In fact, it probably sounds familiar to all kids, and especially nerds, across the entire history of time. Caveman parents probably told their kids to stop fooling with those dumb wall paintings and go outside and spear some Wooly Mammoths or something else important.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Scientific American was convinced that proficiency at chess had nothing to do with the player’s intelligence. They said,

Chess has acquired a high reputation as being a means to discipline the mind, because it requires a strong memory and peculiar powers of combination. It is also generally believed that skill in playing it affords evidence of a superior intellect. These opinions, we believe, are exceedingly erroneous. Napoleon the Great, who had a great passion for playing chess, was often beaten by a rough grocer in St. Helena. Neither Shakespeare, Milton, Newton, nor any of the great ones of the earth, acquired proficiency in chess-playing. Those who become the most renowned players seem to have been endowed with a peculiar intuitive faculty for making the right moves, while at the same time they seem to have possessed very ordinary faculties for other purposes. A game of chess does not add a single new fact to the mind; it does not excite a single beautiful thought; nor does it serve a single purpose for polishing and improving the nobler faculties.

Persons engaged in sedentary occupations should never practice this cheerless game; they require out-door exercises for recreation — not the sort of mental gladiatorship. Those who are engaged in mental pursuits should avoid a chess-board as they would an adder’s nest, because chess misdirects and exhausts their intellectual energies. Rather let them dance, sing, play ball, perform gymnastics, roam in the woods or by the seashore, than play chess.

In summary, “Go play some sports, nerds.”

The weird part is, as Medium points out, that not all of these claims are entirely baseless. Sure, the alarmism about chess is as misplaced as today’s concerns about video games, but it’s true that being good at chess won’t necessarily improve your performance in other intellectual activities. There’s frequently correlation between smart people and strong chess play, but the causation isn’t really there.

Still, learning to think logically and strategically doesn’t hurt anyone, either. Don’t worry, 1859: we’ve got the data now, and chess didn’t ruin anyone’s brain. Old people just hate change, which is the one thing that never changes.

(Check out the rest of the Medium article for an interesting read about people hating new things.)

(via Kotaku, image via Dustin Gaffke)

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Dan Van Winkle
Dan Van Winkle (he) is an editor and manager who has been working in digital media since 2013, first at now-defunct <em>Geekosystem</em> (RIP), and then at <em>The Mary Sue</em> starting in 2014, specializing in gaming, science, and technology. Outside of his professional experience, he has been active in video game modding and development as a hobby for many years. He lives in North Carolina with Lisa Brown (his wife) and Liz Lemon (their dog), both of whom are the best, and you will regret challenging him at <em>Smash Bros.</em>

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