Cognitive benefits of chess

Chess is possibly one of the oldest, best known and most popular board games in existence. It is one of the so-called rational board games, that is, those in which chance has no influence on the development of the game, and the result only depends on the capacity and ability of the players to decide how to move the pieces on the board. Therefore, chess is a cognitively demanding activity.

It is a game that requires concentration, working memory and fluid intelligence (adapting and facing new situations in an agile way, without previous knowledge or learning being a determining factor). After all, it is impossible to memorize the thousands of distributions that can occur in chess, and it is estimated that, for a mid-game move, there are about 30 possibilities for a single move. This implies that the ability to foresee moves, develop strategies and critical thinking are also important skills when playing.

Because of this demand that chess presents, two types of statements are often made that are somewhat antagonistic:

On the one hand, it is claimed that chess develops memory, concentration, critical thinking and problem solving; it improves the educational performance of children and adolescents (especially in mathematics), and that, in short, playing chess makes us smarter.
On the other hand, chess has the reputation of being a complex game, in which only those with many innate abilities are able to play at a high level, and therefore it is a game only suitable for a group of particularly intelligent people.

Skill transfer
Let’s start with the first statement. We have said that chess is a game that requires a certain mental effort and cognitive skills. The implicit assumption made in this case, as in so many others, is that the skills developed to play chess are transferred to other fields (mathematics, reading ability) or that they improve more general abilities (memory, reasoning).

However, since the beginning of the 20th century it has been known that this assumption is not necessarily true. Thorndike’s theory of identical elements states that there will be a transfer of skills or abilities between different fields to the extent that there is an overlap between the skills involved. What the evidence seems to indicate is that, with exceptions, transfer between close fields in common, while between distant fields is very rare, although it can occur.

Cognitive benefits of chess
How is the transfer of chess skills applied to other fields then?

The truth is that, despite what it may seem, there are few studies on how the cognitive skills of chess are transferred to other fields, and the conclusions of those that exist in many cases are not definitive. Moreover, most of the studies have focused on children and adolescents, since it is precisely in this vital stage when cognitive development is higher.

This is because rigorous studies of this type are very difficult to carry out rigorously, since they would be too complex and expensive. Research in this field is always complicated. However, a number of conclusions can be drawn, although they are probably not what one would expect.

It has been found that chess can moderately improve the mathematical and reading comprehension skills of both primary and lower secondary school students. In the case of mathematics, there are common elements of quantitative relations and problem solving. However, it cannot be stated categorically that the cause of this is playing chess, but there may be other explanations.

However, chess does provide another series of clear benefits, which, although they are not so spectacular, are extremely important. Even more, if we take into account that these benefits are independent of age.

What learning chess provides, is to improve our attention and concentration capacity. While learning or playing, it is necessary to be aware of the game, concentrating on the task, trying to predict the future moves both our own and the opponent’s. It also forces us to learn to work under pressure, and to evaluate complex strategies. It also forces you to learn to work under pressure, and to evaluate complex strategies. There may not be a clear and direct transfer to other areas, but in today’s chaotic world, working on these skills is not negligible.

Another important conclusion from the research is about motivation: as long as the lessons are not compulsory, students’ attention and interest in school is improved. Possibly, this is the explanation why there is some improvement in their academic performance.

It is possible that in the case of adults the incidence of motivation is lower, but learning to play chess provides another vital advantage to both groups: as we learn, failing, repeating and evaluating the strategies used, we can see our own improvement. Not only that, but we can learn how we learn to improve, a very important skill that is often not easy to observe.

Finally, there are studies that indicate that chess, like other mental sports, is beneficial in the long term for our brain, since exercising it in this way could help to prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Is chess only for geniuses?
A common conclusion of the studies is that learning chess is a much more important factor than the innate abilities at the time of playing. In some studies, children of 10 and 11 years old who were a course receiving a weekly chess class could defeat without problems adults who knew how to play, but without formal training.

It is true that an intelligent person will have it easier to excel in a purely intellectual activity such as chess, but the truth is that, with a minimum of training, few sports are more equal than chess.

The conclusions of several studies seem to indicate that with a minimum of 25-30 hours of instruction, there is more clearly a transfer of skills to other fields.

Learning to play chess will probably not make us geniuses, but, really, this is irrelevant.

Just as we go to the gym or play sports to exercise our bodies, follow a diet and certain habits to take care of our health, we must also exercise our minds. In this aspect, chess is a demanding game, which forces us to concentrate and work on various cognitive skills, and on top of that, it is fun! What more could you ask for?

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