Joanna Zbroniec - Chess Therapist

Chess Therapist Joanna Zbroniec

  • master's degree in psychology
    thesis: Success motivation and the need for closure vs achievement level for professional chess players
  • chess trainer
    certified by the Polish Chess Association

Chess Therapy Overview

  • chess is the bridge between the therapist and the world of the kid
  • action on the board serves as an ice-breaker and stimulates the conversation
  • initially the therapist plays passively and observes the child
  • only much later the therapist raises the stress level by more active play
  • this kind of interaction at the chessboard serves as a diagnostic tool
  • the core of the method: new behaviors learned in chess transfer to the kid's real life
  • chess therapy ignores correct chess from the competitive point of view

Chess therapy simulation

Black makes no moves except when in check or threatened with mate in one move.

Chess in School International Conference, Poland, Warsaw, May 2017

Print the lecture from a pdf file or read it below. (po polsku)


I have a master's degree in psychology and I am a chess trainer. As a child I used to play chess at a club. For four years now I have tried to use the potential of the game of chess to support the development of children and adolescents. Today I would like to touch upon a number of topics which illustrate what I do and how I understand Chess Therapy.

Chess teaches determination and perseverance demonstrating that systematic work pays off. Chess stimulates the intellect and is great fun for millions of people around the world. However, for me chess is primarily a bridge leading me into the inner world of the children I work with. As a psychologist I see that my main task is to develop the natural potential of each kid under my care. But first I need to get to know the kid. Setting up a chessboard I start out on equal terms with the kid. The chessboard is the bridge between me on the one side and the kid on the other. The greatest challenge is to get to the know the kid's inner world, imagination, fears and also his potential. Only such intimacy with the kid gives me the right to try to educate him and teach him new behaviors. That is the essence of chess therapy.

Sitting down at the chessboard I am mostly curious. When the kid knows the rules I start to play but I do not impose my style. When the kid wants to play with White my task is easier as the kid naturally assumes the initiative. When he wants to play with Black I start with 1.d3 or 1.e3 and wait to see what the kid will play. I try to play on my half of the board as passively as possible. I open my position just enough to be able to create various possibilities on the board, for example to be able to give check at some point. I have noticed that an attack on the king is taken by kids quite literally as an attack on themselves. It causes stress and the urgent need to get out of this uncomfortable situation. Aiming for a check I try for the kid to be able to choose from the three possible defenses: capture of the checking piece, escape and interposition. The kid's choice gives me the chance to start a conversation asking about the reasons for his choice. This choice is never based on chess know-how because I have never done chess therapy with an educated chess player. In my experience this choice reflects the preferred strategy of dealing with stress in real life. For example, a boy who chose escape rather than interposition explained: "I always run away, nobody will catch me, it always works". This boy has no support in real life and always acts alone, he is unable to ask for help. When this boy was putting the pieces back to the box he mistakenly put the queen in the hollow designed for the king. In effect, he couldn't find a place where to fit the king. Not able to find a solution he did not ask me for help but grew irritated. I asked if this was a situation that he cannot deal with and he admitted so. I asked if he knew a person who might help him and he replied that he did not know. I gave him a hint that since the chess set is mine then I may be the person who might be able to fit the pieces. He admitted that it made sense but still didn't know what to do. I gave him another hint that he should ask me, which he finally did and I explained to him how to fit the pieces inside the box. This simple example shows that I try to use chess in the broadest possible context to teach the kids what is useful for them. Very often I work on the defensive strategies against check and I try to relate them to real behaviors of the kid. Usually children find it hard to interpose, which I interpret that they are not used to asking for help.

I have been doing chess therapy for four years now. Among the many children I worked with there is Karol with Asperger syndrome. Initially my work with him was very tedious focusing on controlling emotions and dealing with the loss of pawns, pieces and losing games. Four years ago it was a success when he kept from disrupting the pieces and throwing the chessboard. I never tried to train him to play correct chess. I tried to play correctly and defensively, sometimes raising his stress level and helping him to deal with it. Karol played schematically for a long time: he looked for a way to give mate with just his queen and rook. He ignored moves with other pieces. Currently my meetings with him are a real pleasure. He plays freely transferring action from one side of the board to the other. He tries to use his light pieces to give check or mate. I refrain from teaching him strategy because I don't want to impose anything on him. I am fascinated by his style and imagination at the chessboard. This translates to his everyday routines. Currently during our chess games we talk about the challenges from the last week of his life and debate how to solve them. I often hear him say "I must apply the tactics of the knight: to jump over it and move on". From his mom I know that he often refers to chess in everyday situations and asks himself how to "play it". This gives me enormous satisfaction.

I also worked with a boy with a lot of fears, even phobias. Also here I applied chess therapy. First of all I noticed that his declared stress level had significant influence on his playing strength. He also had a limited set of behaviors to deal with threats, mostly defensive, and he liked to play with his rook pawns in the opening. I designed a special training plan for him: I kept attacking and withdrawing repeatedly in the course of one game, which allowed me to provoke many occasions to talk about his stress and how to deal with it. I also found that the very act of playing reduced his anxiety level, which is in accordance with the psychological theory claiming that a highly engaging intellectual activity is a way to deal with attacks of fear. The boy worked out effective ways to deal with stress on the chessboard and in the course of time he gradually started applying them in real life. Now his panic attacks have disappeared.

At some point I started thinking how to share my knowledge. The problem is that -- in contrast to chess trainers -- I don't care about the result of a chess game. Even in the course of my regular chess training sessions I stop children from completing their games when I see that they are going nowhere. I focus on a meaningful opening of the game rather than letting them play until checkmate. Of course, after such first lessons I transfer them to the care of an excellent chess trainer who teaches them tactics and strategy. My concern is to teach children to think and make conscious choices. In both chess therapy and normal chess training I notice that the biggest problem for kids is to make a plan. They make moves all over the board without any purpose. Just like running around in the corridor during school breaks, sometimes bumping into someone, sometimes falling over and sometimes finding something. They need a lot of time before they learn to act according to a plan. This inspired me to eliminate the aspect of competition. I thought of a new way to play: after the opening Black stops moving or plays passively like moving the rook from a8 to b8 and then back to a8. I often played this way with Karol. White was supposed to make a plan how to give checkmate and carry it out. It turns out to be a big challenge for kids, which forces them to totally show themselves on the chessboard. As a psychologist this gives me a chance to get to know their inner world. Additionally, this exercise teaches them to plan and go after their own goals, which I value the most as a chess trainer. Curiously, this exercise also raises the level of playing normal chess games. For a long time I wondered how I could popularize it. The biggest challenge was to make a clone of myself. Chess players are rarely psychologists or therapists, usually focused on correct playing while psychologists are rarely interested in chess.

Fortunately, at some point I met Michał Wójcik, my schoolmate from the same chess club, who grew fascinated with my chess therapy project. Being a computer programmer he offered to write a chess playing program that imitates my style of doing chess classes. The kid plays with White and Black is programmed to play maximally passively. In fact, Black makes no moves except when in check or threatened with mate in one move. With this tool it becomes possible for teachers, psychologists and therapists to adopt chess therapy in their work. It is hard for me to teach regular chess trainers to understand the psychology of a child but I believe that looking at a kid playing against a passive opponent they will be able to get an insight into the kid's natural predispositions and adapt their training program accordingly.

For me chess is a way to establish rapport with a kid and help him in everyday challenges. My biggest success is the smile on a kid's face when he can apply chess tricks in everyday life, gain new friends, cope with a stressful situation in an optimal way and to come to terms with the fact that a loss is not always a failure and that an advantage can disappear as a result of loss of concentration. With the help of chess therapy I work with kids and adults with various emotional disturbances, including ADHD, Asperger's and autism. I know that chess is not the recipe for everyone but it can give many people the chance for a positive change in a pleasant way.

Examples of how kids play against this program

Click on one of these images to open a chess game viewer.

The video shows all three examples.

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This website is maintained by chess programmer and webmaster Michał Ryszard Wójcik | Polish version