You don’t have to dip your toes into the world of chess for long before you start hearing about all the benefits that come with it.
Not only is it an enjoyable game, you learn, but it also has the power to make you more intelligent, increase your concentration levels and even stave off dementia.
But is there any validity to these claims?
Or are the links between chess intelligence there simply because chess masters tend to be highly intelligent?
And that’s, in part, what makes them great chess players?
In this guide you’ll take a look at some of the bolder claims made by chess evangelists and put them under scientific scrutiny.
After reading, you’ll know once and for all whether chess can change your brain for the better, or whether it’s just a fun way to pass the time.
Does Chess Increase IQ?
One of the biggest claims is that playing chess can increase your intelligence quotient (IQ).
IQ is a measure of how intelligent you are relative to others in the population.
Two intelligence researchers, Herrnstein & Murray, have said that IQ is:
The best single predictor of virtually all criteria considered necessary for success in the Western part of the developed world
That’s a pretty bold claim.
It’s easy to imagine then, that if something as simple as playing chess could improve your IQ, then it would be something that everyone should partake in.
After all, if we’re to believe Herrnstein & Murray, then it’s the single best predictor of success in our world.
But does chess actually make you smarter?
Firstly, we need to establish that chess and intelligence have some kind of relationship.
One study in Belgium suggests there is a link.
33 tournament level players were given IQ tests and found to have average IQs of 121, putting them in the top 8% of the population.
Interestingly, on the verbal part of the test, the participants scored only slightly above average, but on the mathematical part, the average score put them in the top 2% of the wider population.
This seems to suggest that intelligence (and particularly skills like spatial awareness) are indeed related to high level of chess play.
But were these players more intelligent because they played chess?
Or did they become tournament level players because they had high IQs?
A study involving 4,000 British schoolchildren suggests it’s the latter.
In this study, the students were given 30 hours of chess training in the hope that the skills learned there would result in greater scholastic achievement; a process psychologists call transfer.
Unfortunately, there was no evidence that the training had any effect on mathematics, literacy or science.
Other studies confirm these findings.
This suggests that highly intelligent people are more likely to become masters (partly), because of their superior intelligence and that it’s unlikely that playing chess can actually make you smarter.
Ok, so that’s a bit of a downer if you were expecting chess to turn you into a genius, but what about some other claims, such as chess helping to prevent dementia?
Does Chess Prevent Dementia?
Dementia is a terrifying condition, so if there was something that could be done to lessen the likelihood of it, chances are you’d want to know about it.
Chess is often purported to help reduce the risk of dementia (a quick Google search will confirm this for you), but is it true?
Or is it merely wishful thinking in the face of a juggernaut?
The unfortunate truth is that there seems to be no clear evidence that playing chess (or any games similar to it) can help stave off dementia.
The reason why you see so many claims to the contrary is because too few people don’t understand the difference between correlation and causation.
Here’s a video that explains the difference:
In this observational study, almost 4,000 people were selected and followed up on over 20 years to see if there was anything that stood out in terms of rates of dementia.
About a third of them played board games and it was found that this group had a 15% lower chance of acquiring dementia compared with those who didn’t play board games.
Reading this, journalists then print that playing board games like chess can lower your risk for dementia.
The truth, however, is not so simple.
What they’re confusing is correlation and causation. The people who played board games chose to play those games of their own volition.
It could be that chess lowers your risk for dementia, but it could be that something else was responsible; that something that caused people to play board games in the first place is the actual factor we’re looking for.
We just don’t know. Further research is required.
So, if you’re playing chess purely as a way to decrease the chance of getting dementia, then you’re probably wasting your time.
But what about other mental abilities like memory?
Could chess influence how well your memory works?
Does Chess Improve Your Memory?
Having a better memory is something we’d all like to achieve and chess is thought by many to improve it.
And it makes some sense when you think about it.
After all, being good at chess requires a good memory.
If memory works like a muscle then it would also make sense that playing lots of chess would improve it.
But does it work like that in reality?
Let’s have a look.
One study from Iran suggests that chess players do have better memories than non-players.
The authors of the paper state:
It seems that increased auditory memory function is related to strengthening cognitive performances due to playing chess for a long time.
However, this wasn’t an experiment, it was an observational study.
That is, they didn’t grab a group of people and split them into two groups; they just compared people who chose to play chess, with people who didn’t play chess.
Just like with IQ, it could very well be that people who like to play chess like it because they have better memories.
We have to dig a bit deeper to find the truth.
It’s hard to find good studies of chess players, but one article on the Conversation looked at the body of evidence for whether working memory can be improved.
Instead of looking at a single study, they evaluated a body of literature on chess players.
The results were crystal clear. Working memory training did not show any effects on children’s fluid intelligence, academic achievement or other cognitive abilities.
This suggests that playing chess won’t improve your memory, but if you’re someone with a good memory already, then you’re probably more likely to play chess.
So far the evidence isn’t looking great, but we’ve mostly been looking at hard, rational things like intelligence and memory.
What about something a bit different, like, say, creativity?
Can Chess Increase Creativity?
With all the negativity thus far you might think that there are no benefits to chess other than the enjoyment one gets from playing.
But one study from India suggests that there may be more to it than meets the eye.
In this study, a group of children were split into two groups; one given a year of chess training, the other not.
At the end the researchers wanted to see if gains in creativity were seen.
And there were!
The researchers said:
It is evident that systematic chess intervention increases creativity in children. The child thinks beyond the usual solutions – using divergent thinking, thinking abstractly, weighing options, evaluating outcomes and making decisions.
So maybe it’s not all doom and gloom after all?
Perhaps transfer is possible in certain areas closely related to the key skills of chess.
So what about chess and improving concentration?
Can Chess Improve your Concentration?
Another benefit frequently touted is that it can improve your concentration.
Again, this makes sense because chess requires high levels of concentration, particularly at the level of tournament play.
But what does the literature suggest?
Unfortunately, the news isn’t great here either.
William Bart from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, conducted a review of the research on the effects of chess training.
In it, he says:
…that educational benefits of chess instruction are likely “low-level gains” such as improvements in attention and concentration and interest in learning, rather than “high-level gains” such as improvements in intelligence, scholastic achievement and creativity.
There’s nothing to suggest that these low-level gains are permanent either. It’s entirely possible that these increases in attention and concentration while chess training is conducted.
After all chess is quite mentally strenuous.
Could it help with easing the symptoms of mental illness?
Does Chess Help with Schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is a terrible condition that has negative outcomes for most patients, but can chess help these people at all?
One team of researchers thought it might be possible for chess to help restore executive function (they’re the things that help you get things done) in schizophrenics.
They split a group of sufferers into two and gave one group 10 hours of chess practice, the other group got treatment as normal.
They were given several cognitive exercises, such as the Tower of London.
They found that:
Playing chess for a mere ten hours can restore (at least partially), executive function of patients with schizophrenia.
This is interesting stuff that suggests that chess does have some power to it, at least for schizophrenics.
In this guide we’ve looked at a lot of the common claims made about the benefits of chess.
While it might be nice to think that a game you enjoy conveys additional benefits, it seems that the truth is a little more complicated.
While there are probably benefits to the game beyond enjoyment, it doesn’t seem that you’ll improve your IQ, maths skills or memory by playing chess.
It’s more likely that people who are good in these areas to begin with are more likely to play chess though.
If you enjoy chess, keep playing, but if you’re playing the game as a way to improve your mind, then you’re probably better off spending your time on other activities.
Do you agree with the findings of this article?
Has chess benefited you some how?
Let us know in the comments!