Does chess make you smarter? Is chess good for your brain?
For hundreds of years, people have speculated about the benefits of playing chess – and it’s hardly surprising; few games are so commonly associated with focus and intelligence.
To help you decide if playing chess is the mental workout you need to keep sharp, we’ve posed and answered a few questions about chess benefits, including:
We’ve even delved into the science behind each claim – exploring studies and tests to decide if the supposed health benefits of chess are fact or fiction.
Let’s start with the biggest of the chess health questions – are chess and IQ linked?
In truth, it seems the jury is still out this one definitively, but there are indications that it does – and it’s also worth considering what kind of placebo-type effects chess might offer.
Studies generally find that there’s no statistically significant change in people’s IQ when large groups of chess-players and non-chess players people are compared. However, there are limitations to these studies – not least the fairly narrow scope that the concept of ‘IQ’ offers.
There are numerous types of thinking and potential measures of intelligence that the neuroscience still doesn’t fully understand – especially that of ‘conceptual intelligence’. Some of the benefits of learning chess include honing your foresight, developing strategic thinking, building problem-solving skills, and fostering a solid sense of intuition. Many traditional IQ tests struggle to fully account for these skills – but that doesn’t mean they’re not improving.
There’s also a lot to be said for the perception of people who play chess. Is being good at chess a sign of intelligence? Scientists might not be certain – but most other people are convinced that chess and IQ are linked. As a result, people often expect more from someone who plays chess – and when it comes to learning, this is crucial.
The best teachers and tutors in the world don’t expect a mediocre performance from their pupils and students – they expect them to push hard to learn. In a world that expects more from someone who plays chess, an improved ability to learn and a boosted IQ might be a beneficial side-effect.
We’ve already touched on how chess might inspire higher expectations from our children – and there are studies that show improved reading skills in children who play chess.
But it’s not just in education where chess could offer benefits for children and adolescents. For the teenage brain, there are likely to be some psychological and emotional advantages of chess too.
The developing brain is incredibly complex – and different parts of our grey matter mature at different rates. Ever wondered why teenagers often appear emotional and irrational? The reason’s pretty simple – the emotional part of the brain develops sooner than the prefrontal cortex; the rational part. So, quite simply; a teenager’s brain is temporarily wired to be emotional and irrational.
Strategy games like chess are shown to promote the development of the prefrontal cortex – encouraging better decision-making skills and reducing the tendency to rely primarily on emotional drives. If you’ve got a moody teenager in the house and you’re sick of the slamming doors – a chessboard might be the headache remedy you’ve been looking for.
So, there are benefits of chess for youth players – but why play chess in later life?
Sadly, more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia. By 2050, this figure is anticipated to rise to nearly 14 million. Chess isn’t a miracle cure for these types of degenerative brain conditions – but it could help to stave them off.
In 2019, a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggested that:
“Effortful mental activity produces and strengthens synaptic connections and stimulates neurogenesis process. Thus, it promotes plastic changes in the brain that slow down the symptoms of dementia.”
With this in mind, the authors of the study went to say, “Seniors should be encouraged to read, play board games like chess, and dance, for example.”
More and more evidence points to the idea that, in old age, we ought to have a “use it or lose it” attitude towards brain health. Since chess is a mental workout that requires virtually no physical fitness, it’s an ideal pastime for seniors looking to stay switched-on and alert.
We’ve touched on why learning chess can be useful for that rational part of the brain – but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that chess is good for the brain’s creative areas too.
For a long time, neuroscientists have considered creativity and originality to be two skills that can be honed and developed with practice. To put this theory into practice, scientists had a random selection of school children put into an experimental group to play chess – while a similar control group were given a range of other activities to take part in; including art, music, and sports.
These sessions played regularly over several months – and the chess-playing children went from having no or very low chess skill, to become reasonably adept players.
At the end of the study, both groups of children had their creativity tested using established psychological tests and measures. The authors of the study found that “systematic chess intervention increases creativity in children” and further noted that:
“The child thinks beyond the usual solutions—using divergent thinking, thinking abstractly, weighing options, evaluating outcomes, and making decisions.”
Whether you’re a child or an adult, the ability to think in creative ways is a vital skill when it comes to tackling life challenges. Can chess make you smarter and more equipped to handle what the world sends your way? The evidence certainly seems to suggest it can.
Mindfulness and meditation are two big buzz words in the field of psychology. Millions of people around the world successfully use these types of exercise to quiet their thoughts and find clarity in the often-hectic modern world.
The thing is, the perception of these practices as being things that are carried out cross-legged on a yoga mat isn’t necessarily accurate. In fact, anything that draws your mind away from surrounding life and focuses you on one particular task brings the same mind-cleansing benefits.
This is where chess can be enormously powerful.
Do chess players have a higher IQ? Does playing chess make you smarter? It’s hard to say – but there’s no doubting the fact that it’s absolutely essential to focus when you’re in the middle of a game. This does wonders for turning the volume down on that constant ‘inner-voice’ that can creep in during day-to-day life.
People often comment on how meditating or being mindful makes them feel better during and after the actual process – but accessing this quiet headspace actually has benefits that reach into even the most stressful situation. Calming your inner-voice is a practice – and the more you practice, the easier it becomes. As such, clearing your mind to play chess is excellent practice for when you need to shake all internal distractions aside and focus on the task at hand.
As any chess player will tell you, it’s never as simple as beginning a game with your own strategy in mind – you have to hone your chess intelligence; learn about your opponent, observe their game, and remember how you’ve overcome similar situations in the past.
Having a good memory is a useful tool for a chess player – and the game itself has been shown to help people develop memory skills.
There have been a number of studies into the impact of chess on memory and organisation skills in both adults and teenagers. The outcome across each of these studies is always similar – memory function of chess-playing study participants is significantly improved compared to control groups who do not play.
In particular, auditory-verbal memory is shown to be the most improved among chess players. This is the process and recollection of information that’s been presented to you verbally – so, if you’re hopeless at recalling people’s names, chess might be the thing you need to save you from an otherwise embarrassing situation.
Until now, we’ve looked at the benefits of chess in relation to brain function – but not so much in terms of the physical health of the brain.
Your brain is jaw-droppingly complex. Over 200 billion nerve cells communicate with one another using at least 200 trillion synapse connections – each less than a thousandth of a millimetre in diameter. In a Stanford University Medical Centre paper, researchers note that synapse numbers vary over time – with ‘pruning’ of underused nerve cells and synapses occurring as the brain ages.
In many ways, it’s useful to think of the brain as a muscle – one that needs to exercise to prevent it from becoming weak and prone to deterioration. Playing chess doesn’t just prevent your grey matter from deteriorating – the skills and interactions it requires actually build new connections; fortifying the physical well-being of your brain.
Does chess require a high IQ? Does chess increase IQ? Can chess make you smarter?
Realistically, the scientific answers to questions like these remain to be seen – so it’s perhaps better to ask a slightly different question:
How can chess help you in life?
Chess helps children to learn and achieve, it can help teenagers to cope, it can help to foster mental well-being in all ages, it’ll help you remember and recall information – and it can help fight off the symptoms of one of the most degenerative and debilitating diseases facing humankind.
Not bad considering you can pick up a set for less than $20.
The human brain is the most complex structure in the known universe, and as our understanding of it and the intelligence it brings us develops, so does the list of brain-boosting benefits that come from sitting down to a game of chess.