Does chess make us smarter?


Many articles have been written on this topic. But just how trustworthy are they? Chess afficionados want us to believe that playing the royal game will raise our IQ, ward off Alzheimers and maximise reproductive success. On the other hand, the Great Unwashed want to rubbish the game we love. This article is based on rock-solid scientific research: a double-blind placebo-controlled study carried out by the University of Rooty Hill, Pennsylvania, an omega-bound and regression controlled study of 2,097 students by the university of Toledo (1999), and a scholarly article published in the Periodico de la Universitad de la Quinta Edad de Montevido (2015). That and the Advanced Cognition study of the Department of Human Eugenics at Little Rock University, Arkansas, edited by emeritus professor Avril Foole.

Joking aside, what can we glean by applying common sense and introspection?

Many of the patterns and skills we acquire as chess players are specialised and do not transfer to other domains. Specific chess skills, such as visualisation and calculation, may have little value outside of chess itself. However, looking at a higher level, the positive habits of expert chess players are useful if applied in normal living. They can help us to live life intelligently in the broadest sense of the word, ie to live wisely.

Firstly, chess teaches us to take responsibility for our decisions. If we make a thoughtless move then we have to live with the consequences. In chess our mistakes are usually punished. This teaches us patience and to curb our impulses. Quick gratification is usually a mirage. We can be tempted by moves that look good on the surface, such as showy sacrifices, or one-move threats. These can most often be refuted by the opponent if they play with care.

It is safe to say that impatience is the greatest enemy of good play. Even Fischer would think for ten or twenty seconds before making a seemingly obvious move. Being able to restrain ourselves to behave in a considered way pays dividends in many areas of life. Marry in haste, repent at leisure.

Chess teaches us to be objective. We cannot play well if we read into the position how we would like it to be. The temptation to over-value our own advantages and underplay the opponent's can cost us dearly. Wishful thinking will lure us into losing positions.

One of the most important differences between the amateur and the master player is that the latter adopts what is called a falsificationist approach. The master is ever willing to look at moves that challenge or contradict their ideas about the position. Novices try to convince themselves that their approach is right, whereas the stronger players do the opposite, seeking ways to debunk their own ideas. They use what might be termed a scientific approach.

Yet this falsificationist approach is inherently difficult. It is hard because it means suspending judgement and avoiding easy conclusions. It means not holding onto our hard-won tactical insights and pet theories, but regarding them as hypotheses to be tested. Needless to say, striving to be objective, ie realistic, is useful in making decisions in other areas of our lives.

One of the key skills of expert players is prophylaxis. This is the ability to see the game from our opponent's point of view, ie to create tactics and strategies on their behalf, as well as generating counter-action to frustrate these. This goes counter to the narcissism typical of casual players. In the wood-pusher game, both sides play optimistically, believing they have winning chances, each happily pursuing their own plan, according to the dictum that attacking is fun, whereas defending is not. This continues until one player blunders or succumbs to an attack that they failed to foresee, at which point their ideas collapse like a sand castle. By contrast, in the master game, both players regard the position as unclear, with chances for each side. They proceed carefully, applying prophylaxis in a murky limbo of competing scenarios.

A concern with prophylaxis means having respect for our opponent. We should assume that their every move is made for a good reason, unless we can demonstrate that it is a mistake. Taking the opponent's thinking into account in chess can generate the habit of trying to see things from other peoples' perspectives, which is a valuable life skill. It also makes us more likeable, as it means developing empathy for others.

Since all decisive games are won as a result of opponent mistakes, errors play a fundamental role in chess. To play well we need to develop a robust error-detection system. We need to be eternally conscious that we are human, ie prone to err. This highlights the importance of humility. Forcades commented on Raffael Nadal's success in tennis, "Humility is the recognition of your limitations, and it is from this understanding, and this understanding alone, that the drive comes to work hard at overcoming them."

After hanging a piece in a tournament game, Carlsen sagely observed that it was refreshing to see he could still make such a mistake. Chess shows all of us how fallible we can be, even when we have thought things through carefully. No other activity has taught me more about my own fallibility than has chess. This has led me to question the reliability of my thinking in other areas of life. Making errors can cost us dearly in any important life situation.

The other half of the error equation is that we need to continually scrutinize our opponent's moves. If they stumble we should pounce. This skill is also useful in life generally, as we need to be aware that other people will occasionally misinform us, forget rendezvousí, over-charge us, fail to stop at the lights etc.

More than any other game, chess (and the game of go), require us to learn the skill of planning, ie the creation of tactics and strategies. Without this our game will drift like a leaf in a gutter, and probably go down the drain. We need to look beyond the immediate situation towards long-term goals. Whereas in chess, the distinction between tactics and strategy is fairly clear, in normal living the balance between short-term and long-term goals can easily be muddled. Chess reminds us of the difference. As in life, tactics, ie short-term but urgent problems, take precedence over long-term ones. However, both in chess and in life, we need to be reminded that urgent matters are not always the most important.

Chess teaches logical reasoning. Although we live in a crazy world, logic has its uses.

The serious study of chess includes learning tactical motifs, the moves of various openings and endgame patterns. This requires considerable memory exercise. A related skill that clearly distinguishes the master from the amateur is pattern recognition. Every master has played thousands of games of chess, and analysed many of these. The patterns from these games are templates in their long-term memory. They enable the master to see the essential features of a position, including the sort of lines that lead to a win. Perceiving and remembering patterns is obviously important in many life situations, including in every kind of learning.

A yin-yang aspect of chess is that we need to be both flexible and tenacious. No matter how clever our plan, it is always possible that our opponent has an idea that will invalidate it. To play well we need to adapt to changing situations, as rarely does a game go entirely our way. A chess game is like a car with two drivers, who steer in opposite directions.

Our tenacity is often tested in long games with multiple phases. The player who refuses to give up and looks for hidden resources in unfavourable positions is often rewarded. Flexibility combined with tenacity are the two key ingredients needed to solve thorny problems in life.

We also learn risk management. To win a game we often have to take calculated risks, such as engaging in a speculative attack. In many cases we do not know whether a sacrificial attack is sound or not. Likewise, we may not know whether we should be focusing on attack or defence, as this depends on the evaluation of whose attack is more dangerous. Once the game has progressed, we need to decide whether we are playing for a win or a draw, based on our assessment of the position. In life there are many situations where we have to evaluate the trade-off between risks and gains.

Chess encourages us to be active and creative. We cannot expect to win a game by adopting a wait-and-see approach. If we are playing for a win then we need to make things happen. We must take the initiative, which requires creativity. In effect, we need to create something out of nothing, ie out of an equal position. To achieve this we need to go beyond applying rules, heuristics, opening principles and memorised sequences. We must invent strategies and tactics over the board. What is more, passivity is punished in chess, as it is in life. Simply put, life is what you make it.

Playing chess requires us to be decisive. A chess game forces us to make many tricky decisions in unclear situations, often under time pressure. As such, it is a good antidote to vacillation and procrastination, vices that many of us strive to eliminate.

Finally, chess teaches us that we cannot win all the time. In fact, if we play with people of a similar skill level then we will win only half the decisive games. Chess engages our emotions as well as our intellect. To become a strong player we have to develop the emotional resilience to cope with the inevitability of many defeats, as well as to recover from setbacks during the course of a game. Coping with adversity is clearly an important life skill, one that all of us are called upon to exercise.

In conclusion, to play chess well we need to develop various mental skills, ones which are useful outside of chess. The 64-dollar question is, does learning them in chess transfer to other areas of life?

Fischer no doubt developed each of the above skills to an extraordinary degree. Yet he was a classic example of a clever-stupid. Kasparov and Judit Polgar are cited as examples of chess champions who are also extremely intelligent. Yet did they become elite players because of their intelligence, or the other way around?

So does chess make us smarter? I suspect that no-one really knows. However, mental exercise canít do our brains too much harm.

I once asked a top chess player why women do not perform as well in chess as men. His answer was disarming: "It's because they are smarter than we are. They have realised that chess is not worth that much effort."


Tad Boniecki
October 2016

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