Today I want to talk about chess as a therapeutic intervention over telehealth.

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My first practicum supervisor told me that, to be a good therapist, I had to learn to play chess. He recommended chess as an intervention for clients of all ages, especially kids, and since then I have always kept a chess board in my office. It’s really popular with many of my clients, so when I moved to telehealth full-time, I wanted to see if I could bring this intervention with me. Chess takes focus, planning, patience, frustration tolerance, and executive functioning – all things that can be part of a child’s treatment plan!

Fortunately, Lichess lets you create a special link to play chess with a friend online. My husband and I used Lichess when we were living apart while I completed graduate school, so I was already familiar with it before I started doing telehealth. You can choose whether games will be timed (kids who have high anxiety might struggle with a time limit, but kids who have trouble remembering it’s their turn can benefit from the added structure), and there are several variations you can choose from if the client wants to mix it up.

Now, I am not a chess master by any means, but compared to most 8-year-olds, I am quite good. Different therapists will have different approaches to this, but when I play chess with a client, I might change my “difficulty level,” but I don’t let them win. Kids have told me they appreciate this because they know, when they win a game, they truly beat me.

That being said, Lichess has an option when you create a game with a friend to have custom setup (on the website, this option is called From Position). If a child wants, they can have me start the game with fewer pieces or give themselves extra pieces to make the game easier or more interesting. They can also choose to play Antichess, Racing Kings, Horde, or a few other variations.

Compared to playing chess in-person, I’d say Lichess has some definite pros:

  1. Kids can add extra pieces that you might not have on hand.
  2. You can choose whether or not turns are timed.
  3. When you select a piece, the game automatically shows you where you can move that piece – less time is spent teaching the child the game.
  4. You can “take back” moves, but only if the other person approves it, so the therapist can use this as part of their interventions if they choose.
  5. You can “take back” as many moves as you want because the computer remembers all the moves you’ve done.
  6. The game tracks whether or not someone is in check, so that frees up the therapist to focus more fully on the child.
  7. The child can’t flip the board out of anger if they lose. 🙂

Cons of chess online are:

  1. If you are taking a non-directive approach, you can’t let the child change how different pieces move or add their own rules. Computers don’t really understand child-centered play therapy.
  2. Kids have to ask every time they want to “take back” a move – you can’t set it to just let them do this if they want to. (Of course, this can be a great way to work on impulse control!)
  3. You can choose your next move before your opponent takes their turn, which has proven tricky with highly impulsive children who are trying to stay in the moment with me.

If you want to play chess with a more non-directive approach, PlayingCards.IO has a chess board that allows you to move the pieces any way you want and change the rules to the game. The drawback is that this variation doesn’t show instructions, so if you are teaching a child the “correct” rules, you will have to talk them through it.

So there are options for structured and non-directive chess in telehealth. Either option can help kids build executive functioning and frustration tolerance.

Published by Dr Marschall

Dr. Amy Marschall received her Psy.D. from the University of Hartford in September 2015. She completed her internship at the National Psychology Training Consortium with specializations in assessment and rural mental health. Currently, she specializes in trauma-informed and neurodiversity-affirming care, and she is certified in telemental health. Dr. Marschall runs a private practice, RMH Therapy, where she provides individual and family therapy as well as psychological assessments across the lifespan. Dr. Amy Marschall is an author and professional speaker.

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