In October we learned that the U.S. is ranked 24th on integrity through Transparency.org. Virtually no attention was paid to this even though corruption explains over 75 percent of the poverty in nations. In September we learned that we are now in fifth place and that Sweden has passed us up on global competitiveness, marking three years in a row that the U.S. has declined. We increasingly need to fix some of the U.S. problems in infrastructure, health and primary education as well as macroeconomics that are worrying the world about our future as a super power that is relentlessly increasing its debt.
A two-pronged, socioeconomic attack is needed to do the turnaround job right. Culture is the software of the mind that sets the stage for national greatness. The great advantage of mental programming through games is that it can be substantially less expensive than the hardware and dollars needed for good schools and roads. The United States started out with an evaluation or evidence-based culture, bolstered by some of the great scientists and inventors in history, notably Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, as our Founding Fathers. An evaluation culture is counter to dogma-based cultures that creep into almost all organizations over time and tend to cause stereotypic thinking that stagnate thinking and hinder innovation.
As shown in the movie “Moneyball,” an evaluation or evidence-based culture embraces an action-oriented perspective that actively seeks solutions to problems, testing tentative ones, all while weighing the pros and cons of actions. The result is an endless evolutionary cycle of supposition-action-evidence-revision that characterizes both solid science and good management. We thereby became the world science and economic leader based on our evaluation culture wherein we assessed that we no longer needed King George. The activist evaluation culture encouraged innovative approaches at every level, helping us sustain our independence, and eventually resulting in our world leadership. We need to regain this.
Our initial evaluation culture was reflected in the game that our first seven presidents played most. Benjamin Franklin is argued to be the “essential” Founding Father. He and our first seven Presidents, our highest rated president, Lincoln, and the three presidents awarded a Nobel Prize in office (Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Barack Obama) have all been chess players. They were all culture crafters in very beneficial ways. All of these players started out as board game strategists, and later became astute boardroom or international strategists. They recognized that world problems cannot be solved by simple-minded, dogmatic, silver-bullet solutions. They learned that the most fundamental problems are systemic, interconnected and intertwined with social and economic factors and issues.
Solutions involve coordinating the limited resources, insights and talents of diverse peoples. Chess players are evaluators who, akin to economists, coordinate the limited resources of pawns and pieces having diverse powers. Benjamin Franklin in his book “Morals of Chess,” argued that chess should ultimately be a learning, sportsmanlike and cultural enhancing game between two mature people. This time-honored gentleman’s game and culture contrasts with the gambling, video games-obsessed, and coarsened or fragmented culture that our nation has been inexorably moving toward. Our gambling culture has resulted in a counter-productive, winner-take-all politics that has helped double inequality in the U.S. in the last three decades.
If there had been a Nobel Peace Prize in the Middle Ages, it would have been won by King Alphonso X the Wise of Spain. In 1283 he commissioned a famous watercolor painting of a Christian monk playing chess with a Muslim chieftain. King Alphonso believed that chess was a natural way to build friendships through quiet intellectual concentration. King Alphonso’s legacy was an evaluation culture of harmony between Christian, Moslems and Jews lasting for generations. He helped the game of royalty transition to the game of the common folk.
Today world champions are emerging from the Third World because even poor people can now afford chess sets. They do not wear out easily, or go out of style, after over 1,400 years of play. The most beautiful chess sets are made out of wood and require no batteries to play. Grandparents can transmit culture to their grandkids throughout the world regardless of economics or politics. Intergeneration culture transmission has declined lately, and this game could help reverse it.
An evaluation culture is reflected by the number of titled chess players per capita in nations. It significantly predicts the Nobel Prizes, global competitiveness, education, democracy, gender empowerment, integrity, wealth and health of nations. Numerous educators and researchers report that chess has improved not only academic scores but social performance as well. Its effects on peace in schools were demonstrated by studies showing that incidents of suspension and outside altercations have been decreased by at least 60 percent at schools where children became interested in chess. Both President Obama and first lady Michelle have stated that chess helped them acquire beneficial values as children that have helped them confront problems later in life.
Not surprisingly, the average historical ratings of U.S. presidents can be predicted by whether they had a significant connection to chess. We have found that playing chess also correlates significantly with presidential-rated “intellectual brilliance,” which is consistently one of the six major predictors of presidential historical ratings. Abraham Lincoln was probably our most avid chess player, and was also admired as a strategist by his generals. Maurice Ashley, our first African-American chess international grand master, includes in his book, “Chess for Success,” a list of 415 chess players, who collectively are a veritable Who’s Who of world history. His list crosses many dozens of occupations and countries.
America must return to its roots of an evaluation culture, or continue a slow decline. The gambling/casino/corruption culture, that we have increasingly embraced, facilitated the financial meltdown and severe recession of the last two years. Benjamin Franklin believed chess to be a cultural transmitter, ultimately teaching skills of foresight, circumspection, caution, and perseverance. Over 200 years later the accumulated research strongly supports him.
Chess is less expensive and environmentally damaging than video games. It is also way more beneficial, both socially and intellectually. We must make strong moves to regain our evaluation culture and global competiveness. Our research shows that an evaluation culture predicts international peace and prosperity. We are fortunate to have an inexpensive and environmentally safe way to help do this. Maurice Ashley presents a partial list of the documented benefits of chess: developing logical thinking, sharpening problem-solving skills, improving concentration and focus, enhancing imagination and creativity, developing the capacity to foresee the consequences of one’s actions, promoting independence and a sense of responsibility, honing memory, heightening self-esteem, and reinforcing the concept of deferred gratification.
We can conclude with a quote from the famous African-American actor and Academy Award nominee, Will Smith: “The secret to success, happiness, achieving your desires, all of the things that we as humans do and aspire to be, comes down to one concept: the ability to accurately assess your position. Everything you do in life is a move and there will be a response. This is a concept that has been bubbling in my mind and it comes alive for me on the chessboard.”
Paul Wilhelm is the Sam M. Walton Free Enterprise and faculty adviser for the Kentucky State University Thorobred Knights International Strategy Games Club. He is an associate professor of management. Jana Wilhelm is adjunct professor of accounting at Sullivan and Bluegrass Community and Technical College. She has taught accounting, computer science and management and has competed in Idea State University.