Often known as a game for the intellectually gifted, chess is one of the best sports to exercise the brain. While Chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer made it popular in the 1950s and 1960s, the game is still widely played around the world today among participants of all ages, from the young to the elderly. The game of chess might not help you build your biceps or tone your abs, but your lifelong mental health can certainly benefit from it. And while we are all social distancing at home to help “flatten the curve” from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a great hobby to pick up and perfect!
Number 1 Fitness trainer in America, Samir Becic recommends chess as the best brain exercise to play while social distancing. “Chess is the best game to play with your family, especially your kids while at home due to the COVID pandemic. Besides improving your cognitive skills, it allows you to better cope with the current situation because it improves your problem-solving skills and occupies the mind in a positive way.”
For more fun things to do when at home, check out our list of 10 ways to “travel” without leaving your couch too.
- Promotes brain growth: Games like chess that challenge the brain actually stimulate the growth of dendrites, the bodies that send out signals from the brain’s neuron cells. With more dendrites, neural communication within the brain improves and becomes faster. Think of your brain as a computer processor. The tree-like branches of dendrites fire signals that communicate to other neurons, which makes that computer processor operate at a fast, optimal state. Interaction with people in challenging activities also fuels dendrite growth, and chess is a perfect example.
- It exercises both sides of the brain: A German study indicated that when chess players were asked to identify chess positions and geometric shapes, both the left and right hemispheres of the brain became highly active. Their reaction times to the simple shapes were the same, but the experts were using both sides of their brains to more quickly respond to the chess position questions.
- Raises your IQ: Do smart people play chess, or does chess make people smart? At least one scientific study has shown that playing the game can actually raise a person’s IQ. A study of 4,000 Venezuelan students produced significant rises in the IQ scores of both boys and girls after four months of chess instruction. So grab a chess board and improve your IQ!
- Helps prevent Alzheimer’s: As we age, it becomes increasingly important to give the brain a workout, just as you would every other major muscle group, in order to keep it healthy and fit. A recent study featured in The New England Journal of Medicine found that people over 75 who engage in brain-games like chess are less likely to develop dementia than their non-board-game-playing peers. The saying “use it or lose it” certainly applies here, as a sedentary brain can decrease brainpower. All the more reason to play chess before you turn 75.
- Sparks your creativity: Playing chess helps unleash your originality since it activates the right side of the brain, the side responsible for creativity. One four-year study had students from grades 7 to 9 play chess, use computers, or do other activities once a week for 32 weeks to see which activity fostered the most growth in creative thinking. The chess group scored higher in all measures of creativity, with originality being their biggest area of gain.
- Increases problem-solving skills: A chess match requires fast thinking and problem-solving on the fly because your opponent is constantly changing the parameters. A 1992 study conducted on 450 fifth-grade students in New Brunswick indicated that those who learned to play chess scored significantly higher on standardized tests compared to those who did not play chess.
- Teaches planning and foresight: One of the last parts of the brain to develop during adolescence is the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for judgment, planning and self-control. Because playing chess requires strategic and critical thinking, it helps promote prefrontal cortex development and helps teenagers make better decisions in all areas of life, perhaps keeping them from making an irresponsible, risky choice.
- Improves reading skills: In an oft-cited 1991 study, Dr. Stuart Margulies studied the reading performance of 53 elementary school students who participated in a chess program and evaluated them compared to non-chess-playing students in the district and around the country. He found definitive results that playing chess caused increased performance in reading. In a district where the average students tested below the national average, kids from the district who played the game tested above it.
- Optimizes memory improvement: Chess players know that playing chess improves your memory, mainly because of the complex rules you have to remember, as well as the memory recall needed when trying to avoid previous mistakes or remembering a certain opponent’s playing style. Good chess players have exceptional memory performance and recall. A study of Pennsylvania sixth-graders found that students who had never before played chess improved their memories and verbal skills after playing.
- Improves recovery from stroke or disability: Chess develops fine motor skills in individuals who have a disability or have suffered a stroke or other physically debilitating accidents. This form of rehabilitation requires the motion of chess pieces in different directions (forward, backward, diagonally forward motion, diagonally backward motion), which can help develop and fine-tune a patient’s motor skills, while the mental effort required to play the game can improve cognitive and communication skills. Playing can also stimulate deep concentration and calm, helping to center and relax patients who are experiencing different degrees of anxiety.