Volume 14 (1986-87) No. 6. Editorial (with Retrospective
Chesslandia: A Parable
An editorial written by David Moursund and
published in The Computing Teacher, Volume
14, No. 6.
Moursund, D.G. (March 1987). Chesslandia: A
Parable. Learning and Leading with Technology. Eugene,
Reprinted with permission from Learning and Leading
with Technology (c) 12001-2002, ISTE (the International
Society for Technology in Education. 800.336.5191 (U.S.
& Canada) or 541.302.3777, email@example.com, http://www.iste.org/.
Reprint permission does not constitute an endorsement by
ISTE of the product, training, or course.
Chesslandia: A Parable
Chesslandia was aptly named. In Chesslandia, almost
everybody played chess. A child's earliest toys were chess
pieces, chess boards, and figurines of famous chess masters.
Children's bedtime tales focused on historical chess games
and on great chess-playing folk heroes . Many of the
children's television adventure programs were woven around a
theme of chess strategy. Most adults watched chess matches
on evening and weekend television.
Language was rich in chess vocabulary and metaphors. "I
felt powerless--like a pawn facing a queen." "I sent her
flowers as an opening gambit." "His methodical,
breadth-first approach to problem solving does not suit him
to be a player in our company." "I lacked mobility--I had
The reason was simple. Citizens of Chesslandia had to
cope with the deadly CHESS MONSTER!. The CHESS MONSTER,
usually just called the CM, was large, strong, and fast. It
had a voracious appetite for citizens of Chesslandia,
although it could survive on a mixed diet of vegetation and
The CM was a wild animal in every respect but one. It
was born with an ability to play chess and an innate desire
to play the game. A CM's highest form of pleasure was to
defeat a citizen of Chesslandia at a game of chess, and then
to eat the defeated victim. Sometimes a CM would spare a
defeated victim if the game was well played, perhaps
savoring a future match.
In Chesslandia, young children were always accompanied by
adults when they went outside. One could never tell when a
CM might appear. The adult carried several portable chess
boards. (While CMs usually traveled alone, sometimes a
group traveled together. Citizens who were adept at playing
several simultaneous chess games had a better chance of
Formal education for adulthood survival in Chesslandia
began in the first grade. Indeed, in kindergarten children
learned to draw pictures of chess boards and chess pieces.
Many children learned how each piece moves even before
entering kindergarten. Nursery rhyme songs and children's
games helped this memorization process.
In the first grade, students were expected to master the
rudiments of chess. They learned to set up the board, name
the pieces, make each of the legal moves, and tell when a
game had ended. Students learned chess notation so they
could record their moves and begin to read chess books.
Reading was taught from the "Dick and Jane Chess Series."
Even first graders played important roles in the school
play, presented at the end of each year. The play was about
a famous chess master and contained the immortal lines: "To
castle or not to castle--that is the question."
In the second grade, students began studying chess
openings. The goal was to memorize the details of the 1,000
most important openings before finishing high school. A
spiral curriculum had been developed over the years.
Certain key chess ideas were introduced at each grade level,
and then reviewed and studied in more depth each subsequent
As might be expected, some children had more natural
chess talent than others. By the end of the third grade,
some students were a full two years behind grade level.
Such chess illiteracy caught the eyes of the nation, so soon
there were massive, federally-funded remediation programs.
There were also gifted and talented programs for students
who were particularly adept at learning chess. One
especially noteworthy program taught fourth grade gifted and
talented students to play blindfold chess. (Although CMs
were not nocturnal creatures, they were sometimes still out
hunting at dusk. Besides, a solar eclipse could lead to
darkness during the day.)
Some students just could not learn to play a decent game
of chess, remaining chess illiterate no matter how many
years they went to school. This necessitated lifelong
supervision in institutions or shelter homes. For years
there was a major controversy as to whether these students
should attend special schools or be integrated into the
regular school system. Surprisingly, when this integration
was mandated by law, many of these students did quite well
in subjects not requiring a deep mastery of chess. However,
such subjects were considered to have little academic
The secondary school curriculum allowed for
specialization. Students could focus on the world history
of chess, or they could study the chess history of their own
country. One high school built a course around the chess
history of its community, with students digging into
historical records and interviewing people in a retirement
Students in mathematics courses studied breadth-first
versus depth-first algorithms, board evaluation functions,
and the underlying mathematical theory of chess. A book
titled "A Mathematical Analysis of some Roles of Center
Control in Mobility." was often used as a text in the
advanced placement course for students intending to go on to
Some schools offered a psychology course with a theme on
how to psych out an opponent. This course was
controversial, because there was little evidence one could
psych out a CM. However, proponents of the course claimed
it was also applicable to business and other areas.
Students of dance and drama learned to represent chess
pieces, their movement, the flow of a game, the interplay of
pieces, and the beauty of a well-played match. But such
studies were deemed to carry little weight toward getting
into the better colleges.
All of this was, course, long long ago. All contact with
Chesslandia has been lost for many years.
That is, of course, another story. We know its
beginning. The Chesslandia government and industry
supported a massive educational research and development
program. Of course, the main body of research funds was
devoted to facilitating progress in the theory and pedagogy
of chess. Eventually, however, quite independently of
education, the electronic digital computer was invented.
Quite early on it became evident that a computer could be
programmed to play chess. But, it was argued, this would be
of little practical value. Computers could never play as
well as adult citizens. And besides, computers were very
large, expensive, and hard to learn to use. Thus,
educational research funds for computer-chess were severely
However, over a period of years computers got faster,
cheaper, smaller, and easier to use. Better and better
chess programs were developed. Eventually, portable
chess-playing computers were developed, and these machines
could play better than most adult citizens. Laboratory
experiments were conducted, using CMs from zoos, to see what
happened when these machines were pitted against CMs. It
soon became evident that portable chess-machines could
easily defeat most CMs.
While educators were slow to understand the deeper
implications of chess-playing computers, many soon decided
that the machines could be used in schools. "Students can
practice against the chess-machine. The machine can be set
to play at an appropriate level, it can keep detailed
records of each game, and it has infinite patience."
Parents called for "chess-machine literacy" to be included
in the curriculum. Several state legislatures passed
requirements that all students in their schools must pass a
chess-machine literacy test.
At the same time, a few educational philosophers began
to question the merits of the current curricula, even those
which included a chess-computer literacy course. Why should
the curriculum spend so much time teaching students to play
chess? Why not just equip each student with a
chess-machine, and revise the curriculum so it focuses on
There was a call for educational reform, especially from
people who had a substantial knowledge of how to use
computers to play chess and to help solve other types of
problems. Opposition from most educators and parents was
strong. "A chess-machine cannot and will never think like
an adult citizen. Moreover, there are a few CMs that can
defeat the best chess-machine. Besides, one can never tell
when the batteries in the chess-machine might wear out." A
third grade teacher noted that "I teach students the end
game. What will I do if I don't teach students to deal with
the end game?" Other leading citizens and educators noted
that chess was much more than a game. It was a language, a
culture, a value system, a way of deciding who will get into
the better colleges or get the better jobs.
Many parents and educators were confused. They wanted
the best possible education for their children. Many felt
that the discipline of learning to play chess was essential
to successful adulthood. "I would never want to become
dependent on a machine. I remember having to memorize three
different chess openings each week. And I remember the
worksheets that we had to do each night, practicing these
openings over and over. I feel that this type of homework
The education riots began soon thereafter.
Retrospective Comments 3/31/02
In 1997, a computer beat the reigning world chess
champion in a six-game match. It seems likely that by the
end of the current decade a microcomputer will be able to
beat thehuman world chess champion.
I think Chesslandia: A Parable is my all time favorite
editorial. It seems as relevant now as it was wne I wrote
in. During the next two decades, it is quite likely that
computer systems will be built that are at least 1,000 times
as fast as current machines. People will have routine access
to microcomputers that are a thousand time the speed of
current microcomputers. People will have routine access to
networks that are a thousand times as fast as today's
What will our schools be like????
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