Chess Booms in Popularity; Game Offers Many Brain Benefits
Sales of chess sets have jumped 87 percent in recent months, while sales of chess books have skyrocketed 603 percent, according to market analysts who credit the boom to a popular streaming series depicting the life of a young female chess master. While that’s good news for chess-set manufacturers and budding enthusiasts, it’s also a boost for brain health.
Numerous studies have found an array of cognitive benefits that stem from playing chess, including greater attention spans, enhanced memory, and better problem-solving skills. The game, which originated roughly 1,500 years ago, today is enjoyed by millions of players young and old.
Brain benefits that come from playing chess include:
- Better memory: Chess provides an excellent mental workout, as players use high levels of attention, focus and problem-solving skills. Tapping these resources ultimately improves memory, research has found. A mid-1980s study of school children who had never played chess before were found to have improved memories and verbal reasoning skills after playing the game. Similarly, a 2015 study of expert chess players found that their auditory memory function – i.e., being able to recall what one has heard – was significantly better compared with non-chess playing individuals. The study concluded that increased auditory memory function is related to strengthening cognitive performances due to playing chess for a long time.
- Better concentration: Some chess games can last for hours. To win, players must intensely concentrate on the board, so as not to let one’s opponent slip in a move unseen. Numerous studies around the world have found playing the game actually enhances concentration. One 1995 study, for example, involved two school classes: one that set aside time for its students to play chess and the other that used that time for additional study. The class with the chess students ended up scoring higher on average than the non-chess playing students. The conclusion: chess improves concentration and perception.
- Increased brain growth: Some studies have found that playing chess stimulates the growth of dendrites, or branched nerve cells that transmit signals and throughout the brain. The more dendrites a person has, the more signals and information he or she is able to process.
- Higher intelligence: Playing chess appears to improve a person’s IQ, according to several studies. One early-1990s study found that children who learn chess at a young age, and sustain that exposure for at just one year, achieved high scores in math and sciences. The study concluded that the most striking benefits are those associated with problem-solving and creativity skills. Other studies point to various factors in boosting IQ, including that chess provides a great quantity and quality of problems to solve; competition of the game fosters interest and promotes mental alertness that elicits the highest level of achievement; and chess motivates students to become willing problem solvers.
- Improved problem-solving skills: Chess requires players to engage in complex problem-solving exercises. Namely, players must plan and execute their strategy while at the same time responding to threats from their opponent. Chess players also must consider their decisions and weigh the consequences of their moves, elements crucial to problem solving. Recent studies have shown that chess players outperformed their non-chess counterparts on cognitive skills such as planning and reasoning. Other studies found positive correlations between chess skill and cognitive abilities such as processing speed, short-term and working memory, and comprehension knowledge.
- Exercise on both sides of the brain: To play well, studies show, a person must use both sides of the brain. The right hemisphere is associated with visual and artistic skills while the left side is associated with logic and scientific abilities. Chess players exercise the right hemisphere to visually recognize patterns on the board, while using the left side to logically think through their next move in response. According to a German study of chess players, both sides of their brain became highly active when asked to identify chess positions.
For pharmacists: Many pharmacies provide a section of consumer goods, including games and activities that likely contain chess sets. Pharmacists should feel free to suggest that their patients pick up a set on the way out, for fun, social engagement and brain health.