The Chess is possibly one of the oldest, best known and most popular board games out there. It is a so-called rational board game, that is, those in which chance does not influence 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 around the board. . Therefore, chess is a demanding activity from the cognitive point of view.
It is a game that requires concentration, working memory and fluid intelligence (adapt and face new situations in an agile way, without prior 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 anticipate plays, develop strategies and critical thinking are also important skills when playing.
Due to this requirement that chess presents, two types of statements are usually made that are somewhat antagonistic:
- On the one hand, it is claimed that chess develops memory, concentration, critical thinking and problem solving; improves the educational performance of children and adolescents (especially in mathematics), and that, ultimately, playing chess makes us smarter.
- On the other hand, chess is famous for being a complex game, in which only those with many innate abilities are capable of playing at a high level, and therefore it is a game only suitable for a group of especially intelligent people.
So what is the truth in all this?
Let's start with the first statement. We have said that chess is a game that requires a certain mental effort and certain cognitive abilities. The implicit assumption that is made in this case, as in so many others, is that the skills that are developed to be able to play chess are transferred to other fields (math, reading ability) or that improve more general capacities (memory, reasoning).
However, since the beginning of the 20th century it has been known that this assumption does not have to be completely true. Thorndike's identical elements theory says 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 tests seem to indicate is that, with exceptions, the transfer between near fields in common, while between distant fields is very rare, although it can occur.
Cognitive benefits of chess
How does the transfer of chess skills apply 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 are in many cases not definitive. In addition, most of the studies have focused on children and adolescents, since it is precisely at this vital stage when cognitive development is greatest.
This is because rigorous studies of this type are extremely difficult to do 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 mathematical skills and reading comprehension of both primary and secondary school students. In the case of mathematics, there are common elements of quantitative relationships and problem solving. However, it cannot be firmly stated that the cause of this is playing chess, but rather that there may be other explanations.
However, chess does provide another set of clear benefits, which, although not as spectacular, are extremely important. Even more so 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, focused on the task, trying to predict the future moves of both your own and your opponent's. It also requires learning working under pressure, and to evaluate complex strategies. There may not be a clear and direct transfer to other fields, but in today's chaotic world, working on these skills is not insignificant.
Another important conclusion of the research carried out is about motivation: as long as the classes are not compulsory, in the case of the students, their attention in school and their interest are improved. This is possibly 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 the strategies used are learned, failed, repeated and evaluated, we can see ourselves our own improvement. Not only that, but we can learn how we learn to improve, a very important skill and that on many occasions is not easy to observe.
Finally, there are studies that indicate that chess, like other mental sports, it is beneficial in the long term for our brain, since exercising it in this way could help prevent diseases such as Alzheimer's.
Is chess only for geniuses?
A common conclusion of studies is that learning chess is a much more important factor than innate abilities when playing. In one study, 10- and 11-year-olds who received a weekly chess lesson for a year could easily beat adults who knew how to play the game but had no formal training.
It is true that an intelligent person will have an easier time standing out in a purely intellectual activity such as chess, but the truth is that, with a minimum of training, few sports are more egalitarian than chess.
Findings from 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 probably won't make us geniuses, but this is really irrelevant.
In the same way that we go to the gym or do sports to exercise our bodies, we follow a diet and some of us follow 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 several cognitive skills, and on top of that, it is fun! What more could you want?