04.15.138:15 AM ET

How Chess Saves Lives

From the slums of Uganda to chess phenom, Phiona Mutesi is a testament to what great things can happen when talent is given the opportunity to thrive. Garry Kasparov on the power of education.

I was honored to participate in this month’s Women in the World Summit in New York City. I was on a panel with Phiona Mutesi, a teenage chess champion from Uganda, her coach Robert Katende, and Marisa van der Merwe, who co-founded the Moves for Life chess-in-schools program in South Africa. The life experiences of these two remarkable women could not be more different, but they both speak to the importance and power of education, especially in the developing world.

Phiona came from the slums of Katwe in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, growing up in deprivation and fear that few members of our New York audience could imagine. Her discovery of Katende’s local chess club became a miracle for Phiona, showing her that she could achieve intellectually. More important than that her chess talent has allowed her to travel the world, she now plans to be a doctor! This is the first and most powerful gift chess can provide, a self-confidence that transforms a child’s view of his or her potential. Very few kids can truly expect to turn success at football or other physical sports into an education or career. This is also true for chess, but the knowledge that you can compete, succeed, and enjoy yourself on an intellectual level applies to everything you undertake in life.

Van der Merwe’s chess-in-schools programs in South Africa are flourishing both in wealthy suburban academies and poor township schoolhouses. In 2012 she won the prestigious South African Woman of the Year Award in Education. My wife, Dasha, and I visited a number of schools in the Moves for Life program and were very impressed. It is a model that should be replicated everywhere, and the Kasparov Chess Foundation Africa was founded in Johannesburg with that goal in mind. Apart from inspiring the kids, learning chess provides proven benefits in concentration, logic, memory, creativity, and mental discipline. Studies from around the world have shown academic improvement in every area where chess is introduced into the curriculum, not just in math and science. Even school attendance increases, since the kids enjoy it so much, they don’t want to miss chess class!

Another lesson Phiona and Marisa teach us is that talent exists everywhere, the question is how to give it the opportunity to express itself and to thrive. This opportunity that education creates is what is lacking in so much of the developed world, a shortfall that has wide-ranging and damaging effects. Education is the most effective way to address poverty and violence, even to tackle complex issues of terrorist groups and vicious warlords. Programs that spend billions on distributing medicine and food to impoverished areas are of course wonderful. The charitable work done to by the Gates and Clinton foundations, for example, to combat disease and hunger in Africa have saved countless lives. While life may be the most precious gift, it is not enough to play sorcerer only in the morning, to create the sky and not the earth.

When you look around the world’s trouble spots, you see that when kids don’t have access to education, many of those who are being saved by Western aid are destined for lives of misery and violence. Do not misunderstand me. This is of course not an argument against providing life-saving drugs or a denunciation of the brilliant and caring people and programs that provide them. But do not turn away as soon as the babies are born and fed. Do not turn away at all. Look at the young boys enslaved by drug gangs and armies of every stripe, at the unemployed young men who find purpose and profit in victimizing their neighbors, at the girls and women who are inevitably the greatest victims of violence. The only medicine that can cure these plagues is safe and equal access to a classroom.

The best proof of the truth of this may come from the other side, from the brutal groups that burn down schools and shoot schoolgirls. It’s rare to hear about coordinated attacks on aid that brings medicine and food. These things pose little threat to the Taliban, or to the regional warlords, or to the corrupt politicians who steal funds that could go to help their people. Religious fanatics, mercenaries, and armies all need healthy recruits, after all. What these thugs cannot abide is the flourishing of education—with the noteworthy exception of militant religious teaching that closes minds instead of opening them. They despise the possibility of an educated population, knowing it would mean the end of their kind in a generation. So the Taliban did not just close the schools where 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai lived in Swat, Pakistan, they destroyed them. They did not just tell Malala not to go to school, they shot her.

Education in the developing world means far more than keeping at-risk children off the streets. It is the only way to build an economy that can compete in the 21st century, as globalization demands. Healthy bodies are not enough as entire populations move from the countryside into cities and as even agriculture becomes a high-tech enterprise. Reading and writing cannot be luxuries at a time when access to the Internet is more prevalent than access to decent plumbing.

Even in the most cynical view, education aid is a good investment for the West. It costs far less to protect and educate children than to send in soldiers and cruise missiles to kill them after they have been abandoned and then recruited by thugs into violence and terror. An educated population is far less vulnerable to propaganda and far more capable of producing the entrepreneurs and leaders who can create economic opportunity. There are programs that pay opium and cocaine farmers the difference to grow less pernicious crops. It’s cheaper and far less violent than fighting a militarized drug war on the borders and in the streets of our cities. Why not invest the same way in kids? How many schools and supplies could be built for the cost of producing and operating one drone? How many teachers, vocational trainers, and guards could be hired for the cost of one special-ops deployment?

The New York–based Human Rights Foundation, of which I am chairman, works to aid and unite brave individuals working for individual liberty and justice around the world. Our fifth annual Oslo Freedom Forum will open May 13 and will bring together hundreds of dissidents, activists, philanthropists, journalists, and policymakers. The goal is for every participant to learn and to share and to return home with new strength and new ideas. Fighting for freedom is a moral battle, to be sure, and it requires great resolve and the ability to engage on every front.

For every success story like Phiona’s we have to remember the countless others who will not make it out of the slums. Few are lucky enough to find a teacher and strong enough to push through the bullies and innumerable other obstacles. If the rich individuals and nations of the West want to assist in a way that will help every generation, not just this one, they must work to make the incredible strength of Phiona and Malala less necessary. It is wonderful that such heroes exist, but a child should not have to be a hero to get an education.