Playing chess can improve cognitive skills like memory, planning, and problem-solving. It may also help reduce symptoms of certain brain conditions.

The game of chess is loved all over the world. From Amsterdam to Zhengzhou, people gather in living rooms, pubs, plazas, and libraries to match wits over the cherished checkered board.

Why is it that people are willing to devote such time to the game? It’s undoubtedly the fact that chess involves an intense intellectual challenge that’s very good for the health of your mind.

Keep reading to learn what we know about the benefits of playing chess.

Skilled chess players learn to anticipate an opponent’s next moves. To predict what another person will do next, a player must develop the ability to adopt another person’s perspective and infer what action they are likely to take.

Behavioral scientists call this this ability to see from another viewpoint the “theory of mind.” It’s an ability that is essential to exercising empathy and building healthy social relationships. A 2019 study found that chess develops this perspective-taking ability in children who practice the game.

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It might not be surprising to learn that expert chess players have strong memory skills. After all, the game involves memorizing numerous combinations of moves and their potential outcomes.

It’s also interesting to note that experienced chess players show higher performance related to a particular kind of recollection: auditory memory. This is the ability to remember what you’ve learned through hearing.

In one experiment, researchers compared the recall ability of expert chess players to that of people with no chess-playing experience. They found that the chess players were significantly better at recalling lists of words they’d heard than people who had never played chess.

Skilled chess players also have a better than average ability to remember and quickly recognize visual patterns, which researchers think comes from memorizing complex chess positions.

Flow is a deeply rewarding sense of total involvement, in which you’re operating at a peak performance level in a challenging task. Athletes, artists, and performers often describe entering a kind of time warp, where they are so wholly focused on the task at hand that their awareness of anything beyond the performance seems to disappear.

Researchers who study brain activity noted that theta waves are heightened in electroencephalograms (EEGs) taken when people are in a state of flow. Studies have shown the same high levels of theta waves in brain scans of experienced chess players during increasingly difficult chess matches.

Researchers at a school in India tested the creative thinking skills of two groups of students. One group was trained in chess playing, and the other was not.

The tests asked students to come up with alternate uses for common items and to interpret patterns and meaning in abstract forms. Students who played chess scored higher on tests. Researchers concluded that chess increased the students’ ability to exercise divergent and creative thinking.

Chess games are known for long periods of silent contemplation, during which players consider each move. Players spend time anticipating their opponents’ responses and attempting to predict every eventuality.

That habit of mind — careful contemplation and planning — is one of the cognitive health benefits of playing chess.

Behavioral scientists gave two groups of people the Tower of London test — a cognitive functioning test involving pegs and beads — and measured their planning skills. The group that regularly played chess demonstrated significantly better planning skills than the group that did not play chess. Also, people in the chess group spent a lot more time making decisions during the test.

Some counselors and therapists play chess with clients as a means of increasing self-awareness and building more effective therapeutic relationships.

Considered a creative therapy strategy, chess allows you to see your reactions to stress and to challenges as they arise in the course of a match. Your therapist is present to help you evaluate your responses and learn more about why you respond to problems the way you do.

In a 2019 research review, scientists found that the complex mental flexibility chess demands could help protect older people from dementia.

Researchers found evidence that the game, which challenges memory, calculation, visual-spatial skills, and critical thinking abilities, may help reduce cognitive decline and postpone the effects of dementia as you age.

In a 2016 study involving 100 school-age children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, researchers included regular chess playing in a multi-faceted treatment approach.

Students who participated in this treatment method experienced a 41 percent decrease in both inattentiveness and over-activity following the course of treatment.

There haven’t been any large-scale studies to support the use of chess apps to help reduce panic attack symptoms. In one 2017 case study, an individual who experienced panic attacks was able to use a chess app on a phone to increase the sense of calm and keep a panic attack from progressing.

The key to success was in finding just the right level of challenge to occupy his attention and distract from unpleasant feelings. For this user, difficulty levels 2 to 4 provided just the right amount of engagement.

Studies show that chess enhances the development of these abilities in children:

  • problem-solving skills
  • social and relationship-building skills
  • thinking skills

Want to inspire a student to try chess?

The films Magnus, Brooklyn Castle, and The Queen of Katwe all feature young people rising to greatness in the world of competitive chess.

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As with any hobby or activity, there may be a few drawbacks to playing chess. Here are some things to know if you’re thinking about chess as a pastime.

Playing chess can be stressful

Competitive chess players feel a great deal of anxiety about their performance during matches. Some have even described the game as mental torture. Stress over competitive rankings or performance may even interfere with healthy sleep.

Researchers have analyzed the heart rate variability in chess players who were engaged in solving difficult chess problems. Heart rate variability is an indicator of increased sympathetic nervous system activity and stress.

In experienced, skilled players, heart rate variability didn’t change even when the problems became more difficult — but less experienced players had a drop in heart rate variability. Researchers think this change is related to increased stress from the cognitive challenge of the chess problems.

Playing chess may not boost test performance very much

If you’re one of the many parents and educators who train students in chess in the hopes that the game will improve performance on standardized tests that feature math and problem-solving, you may be disappointed in the gains.

Multiple studies have shown that while chess playing does improve cognitive, memory, and math skills, it doesn’t necessarily translate into higher test scores. Research has produced mixed results on the effects of playing chess on test scores.

Becoming a chess expert requires a significant time investment

You have to practice, deliberately, and often alone, in order to reap the benefits of playing chess.

Players who excel at the game, and who experience the mental gains that the game can stimulate, invest hours of study over the course of years. Although there are prodigies, most people take many years to master the game.

Chess has many cognitive benefits, including the ability to improve your:

  • intelligence
  • empathy
  • memory
  • planning and problem-solving skills
  • creative abilities

Chess can also help with the symptoms or severity of several health conditions, including dementia, ADHD, and panic attacks. In addition, playing this challenging game can help you find a sense of flow or improve the effectiveness of your therapy sessions.

If you’re considering chess as a hobby, you should know that it can be time-consuming and stressful, especially if you plan to master the game or compete in tournaments. Whether these drawbacks outweigh the potential cognitive health benefits is something you’ll have to determine for yourself. It’s your move.