Fast forward three years to the present day, and the popularity of the game hasn't waned; in fact, interest in chess is still surging. A recent analysis by online game platform World of Card Games found that chess is the board game with the highest average number of monthly Google searches, at nearly 500,000. But as it turns out, the intellectual challenge and alluring satisfaction of outwitting your opponent doesn't just make for a fun pastime. According to brain experts, playing (and actively improving at) chess has an array of benefits on the brain and cognitive functioning, no matter whether you're just picking up the game or you've played it all your life.
“The benefits of cognitive engagement, such as the creation and maintenance of neural connections, are significant regardless of when we start.” —Faye Begeti, PhD, neuroscientist
As with most games, you might naturally be better at chess if you started at a young age, largely because “the flexibility and adaptability of our brains, termed neuroplasticity, is more pronounced when we're young,” says neuroscientist Faye Begeti, PhD, author of The Phone Fix. “However, it's important to note that learning can occur at any age, and the benefits of cognitive engagement, such as the creation and maintenance of neural connections, are significant regardless of when we start.”
While chess shouldn't be the only thing you do to support the health of your brain (for starters, you can also eat a brain-boosting diet, move your body often, and engage in other cognitively stimulating activities), the ancient game can certainly be a valuable component of your modern well-being toolkit. Below, brain experts break down all the reasons why you—and your brain—stand to benefit the next time you challenge a friend (or foe) to chess.
3 benefits of playing chess on the brain
1. It strengthens your executive function
In some ways, the brain is like a muscle; the more you use it, the less you lose it. And chess may be one way of exercising a key part of it: your frontal lobe, or what Roger Miller, PhD, lead neuropsychologist at Aviv Clinics, calls the "CEO of the brain." Playing chess involves a good deal of strategizing, planning, and problem-solving—all of which tap executive function, or a set of brain processes involved in making decisions and working toward a goal.
Indeed, studies on chess-training programs in both older adults (60 years of age and older) and kids (ages eight to 17) have found that the game improves performance on key executive functions like working memory and decision-making.
The more you make use of and improve these executive functions (for instance, by continuously plotting your next chess move to one-up your opponent), the more you'll strengthen the frontal lobe over time, says Dr. Miller. And that's critical as you age, given the fact that the frontal lobe is both highly susceptible to atrophy with time and especially necessary for so many tasks we do on a day-to-day basis, he adds.
As an example, take driving: To drive safely, you need to constantly plan your route, dodge potential obstacles, problem-solve, and react to other people's decisions—and any single one of these tasks requires executive function, says Dr. Miller, emphasizing the long-lasting impact of supporting this part of the brain.
2. It helps develop your "cognitive reserve"
At an even broader level, the mental calculus involved in playing chess could help fortify what scientists call "cognitive reserve," says Dr. Begeti, referring to the fact that the brains of those who participate in intellectually challenging jobs or activities "show an increased number of connections and greater overall thickness."
"The brains of those who participate in intellectually challenging activities show an increased number of connections and greater overall thickness." —Dr. Begeti
First conceptualized in the late 1980s, cognitive reserve is a term for the brain’s ability to compensate for the natural age-related loss in volume (as well as other pathological changes) and still retain its function.
“Studies show that there is a 0.2 percent brain-volume loss yearly after the age of 35, and this accelerates to greater than 0.5 percent in those over the age of 60,” says Dr. Begeti. These changes are inevitable with time, but those with greater cognitive reserve are the ones who can better adapt to them: Their brains can essentially work around the damage and tap into a "reserve" of alternate neural networks to hold onto their thinking power.
Chess, like other mentally stimulating leisure activities, may help add to that "reserve" over time, so it's accessible when you need it. And the more you challenge yourself and strive to get better at the game—by learning new openings, endgames, and general strategy—the more likely you are to build and strengthen neural connections, thus boosting your cognitive reserve even further, adds Dr. Begeti.
But, rest assured: Even if you're not necessarily looking to become a master or even playing at a high level, you're still going to reap the benefits of chess on the brain, so long as the way you're playing is engaging your brain and requiring you to think strategically and plan ahead, she says.
3. It increases your creativity
Recognizing patterns and strategizing can certainly help you outwit a chess opponent, as can memorizing a large set of possible moves. But if you and your opponent are equally adept at all of the above, the deciding factor of who wins may be your respective creativity, an often-overlooked skill of some of the best chess players.
After all, it takes creativity to think outside the box and come up with a move that surprises your opponent or totally stumps them when it comes to their next play. And as you work to figure out these game-changing moves—and get better at spotting them—you'll also enhance your ability to think critically and creatively, says Dr. Miller.
"When you're problem-solving in this way, you're stimulating the part of the brain responsible for that function, which is again a portion of the frontal lobe," says Dr. Miller. "You're drawing more blood flow to it, which delivers more oxygen and allows it to thrive."
Indeed, research has also pointed to the potential creativity-boosting power of chess, albeit in children. Two small studies exploring the benefits of chess training in children over several months, one in India and one in Turkey, found that those participants who engaged in the training demonstrated statistically significant increases in creative-thinking skills. And there's no reason to think similar benefits couldn't be had by adults who take chess lessons, too.
Playing online is just as effective as playing over the board
Nowadays, chess is more accessible than ever, with free sites like chess.com and lichess.org affording players the option to play against thousands of other people all over the world, in addition to offering lessons, puzzles to solve, and post-game analysis. And when it comes to the benefits of chess on the brain, there’s little difference between virtual and physical play, aside from the loss of the interpersonal dynamic, says Dr. Miller.
Dr. Begeti suggests thinking about online and in-person chess the same way you might think of running on a treadmill versus going for a run outside. “Neurologically speaking, both scenarios offer similar benefits,” she says. “But if one option is more accessible and encourages you to engage more often, then that's a huge advantage.”
Additionally, Dr. Begeti notes that the capability of chess apps and online platforms to provide real-time and post-game feedback—something unavailable during traditional analogue play—can be a positive feature for brain health, too, helping you improve your game and think even more strategically with time.
If you enjoy chess, you'll reap even more benefits
Chess has existed in some form or another for over 1,500 years, which likely wouldn’t be the case if plenty of people didn't enjoy playing it. And according to Dr. Begeti, it’s this fun factor and the personal enjoyment that many draw from chess that distinguish it from other games and activities requiring strategic thinking and planning.
“We tend to do things that we find fun and rewarding, and this encourages long-term commitment,” says Dr. Begeti, “which is also essential for reaping ongoing cognitive benefits.” So the next time you fire up a game of online chess during your lunch hour or break out the chess board with a friend, know that the benefits on the table could extend far beyond that oh-so-satisfying checkmate.
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