In 2020, the Queen’s Move series revived every­one’s inter­est in chess. But even today, its pop­u­lar­i­ty con­tin­ues unabat­ed: the game has the high­est aver­age num­ber of month­ly search­es on Google — almost 500,000. But, as it turns out, chess is not just an intel­lec­tu­al chal­lenge. Accord­ing to neu­ro­science experts, the prac­tice of gam­ing has a num­ber of ben­e­fits for brain devel­op­ment and cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties.

Accord­ing to Ph.D. and neu­ro­sci­en­tist Faye Begeti, as with most things, the best time to start play­ing chess is in child­hood or ado­les­cence, large­ly because dur­ing this peri­od the flex­i­bil­i­ty of our minds, called neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, is more pro­nounced. “How­ev­er, it is impor­tant to note that learn­ing can occur at any age, and the ben­e­fits of devel­op­ing cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties, such as cre­at­ing and main­tain­ing neur­al con­nec­tions, are sig­nif­i­cant no mat­ter when we start.” While chess should­n’t be the only activ­i­ty to keep your brain healthy, the game can cer­tain­ly be a valu­able tool in your prac­tice. In this arti­cle, brain devel­op­ment experts reveal all the rea­sons why play­ing a reg­u­lar game of chess is so ben­e­fi­cial.

3 facts about the benefits of chess for the brain

Development of executive functions of the brain

In some ways, the brain is like a mus­cle: the more you exer­cise it, the more pow­er­ful it becomes. And chess may be one method of train­ing its key area: the frontal lobe, or, as Roger Miller, Ph.D., a lead­ing neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist at the Aviv Clin­ic, called it, “the CEO of the brain.” Play­ing chess requires a lot of strat­e­gy, plan­ning, and prob­lem solving—all of which involve exec­u­tive func­tion, which is the set of brain process­es involved in mak­ing deci­sions and work­ing toward a goal.

Indeed, stud­ies of chess train­ing pro­grams in both peo­ple over 60 and chil­dren aged 8 to 17 have shown that the game improves the per­for­mance of exec­u­tive func­tions such as work­ing mem­o­ry and deci­sion mak­ing.

“The more you use and refine them, such as con­stant­ly plan­ning your next chess move to out­do your oppo­nent, the more you strength­en the frontal lobe over time,” says Dr. Miller. This becomes very impor­tant, espe­cial­ly as we age, giv­en the fact that the frontal lobe, which we need to per­form many of the tasks we do every day, is sus­cep­ti­ble to atro­phy with age.

Let’s take dri­ving as an exam­ple: to dri­ve safe­ly, we need to con­stant­ly plan our route, avoid poten­tial obsta­cles, solve prob­lems, and react to the actions of oth­ers — all of which require exec­u­tive func­tions.

Development of “cognitive reserve”

“On a broad­er lev­el, the men­tal cal­cu­la­tion used in play­ing chess can help strength­en what sci­en­tists call ‘cog­ni­tive reserve,’ ” says Dr. Begeti, refer­ring to the fact that the brains of those involved in intel­lec­tu­al­ly chal­leng­ing work, ” exhibits increased lev­els of intel­li­gence, num­ber of neur­al con­nec­tions, and over­all thick­ness.”

The con­cept of cog­ni­tive reserve, first intro­duced in the late 1980s, is a term that refers to the brain’s abil­i­ty to com­pen­sate for nat­ur­al age-relat­ed vol­ume loss and oth­er patho­log­i­cal changes while main­tain­ing its func­tion.

“Research shows that after age 35, brain vol­ume los­es 0.2 per­cent annu­al­ly, and in peo­ple over 60, this increas­es to 0.5 per­cent or more,” says Dr. Begeti. These changes are inevitable over time, but peo­ple with greater cog­ni­tive reserve may be bet­ter able to adapt to them: their brains can essen­tial­ly bypass the dam­age and tap into a “reserve” of alter­na­tive neur­al net­works to main­tain their abil­i­ty to think.

Chess, like oth­er men­tal­ly stim­u­lat­ing leisure activ­i­ties, can help replen­ish this “reserve” over time so that it is avail­able when need­ed. “And the more often you chal­lenge your­self to become bet­ter at the game by learn­ing new open­ings, endgames and gen­er­al strat­e­gy, the more like­ly you are to cre­ate and strength­en neur­al con­nec­tions, there­by fur­ther increas­ing your cog­ni­tive reserve,” adds Dr. Run.

“But rest assured: even if you don’t have the goal of becom­ing a mas­ter or play­ing at a high lev­el, you will still reap the ben­e­fits of chess on the brain, pro­vid­ed you play cor­rect­ly. Engage your brain and chal­lenge it to engage in strate­gic think­ing and for­ward plan­ning,” she reminds.

Increased creativity

Learn­ing pat­terns and strate­giz­ing can cer­tain­ly help you out­smart your oppo­nent, as can mem­o­riz­ing a large set of pos­si­ble moves. But if you and your oppo­nent are equal­ly skilled at all of the above, the decid­ing fac­tor in who wins may be your cre­ativ­i­ty, an often over­looked skill of the best chess play­ers.

Some­times it takes cre­ativ­i­ty to think out­side the box and come up with moves that will sur­prise your oppo­nent or com­plete­ly con­fuse him. Accord­ing to Dr. Miller, as you work to iden­ti­fy these game-chang­ing moves and become bet­ter at rec­og­niz­ing them, you will also improve your abil­i­ty to think crit­i­cal­ly and cre­ative­ly.

“When you solve prob­lems in this way, you stim­u­late the part of the brain respon­si­ble for this func­tion, which is also part of the frontal lobe,” he notes. “You attract more blood flow to the brain, which deliv­ers more oxy­gen and allows it to devel­op.”

Indeed, research points to the poten­tial of chess to enhance cre­ativ­i­ty, espe­cial­ly in chil­dren. Two small stud­ies look­ing at the pos­i­tive effects of teach­ing chess to chil­dren over sev­er­al months, one in India and the oth­er in Turkey, found that chil­dren who took part in the train­ing showed a sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant increase in cre­ative think­ing skills. And there is no rea­son to believe that sim­i­lar ben­e­fits can­not be obtained by adults who also play chess.

What is the best way to play chess, online or offline?

Today, chess is more acces­si­ble than ever, with free sites such as Chess.com and lichess.org giv­ing play­ers the oppor­tu­ni­ty to play against thou­sands of oth­ers around the world, as well as offer­ing lessons, puz­zles and post-game analy­sis. And when it comes to the ques­tion of the ben­e­fits of chess for the brain, the dif­fer­ence between vir­tu­al and phys­i­cal play becomes very small, except for the loss of inter­per­son­al con­tact, accord­ing to Dr. Miller.

“From a neu­ro­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, both sce­nar­ios offer the same ben­e­fits,” says Faye Begeti. Addi­tion­al­ly, she notes that the func­tion­al­i­ty of chess apps and online plat­forms to pro­vide real-time and post-game feed­back is some­thing that is not avail­able in tra­di­tion­al ana­log play. And it can also be a pos­i­tive fac­tor for brain health, help­ing you improve your game by devel­op­ing strate­gic think­ing.

What other benefits do you get from playing chess?

Chess has been around in one form or anoth­er for over 1,500 years, which prob­a­bly would­n’t have hap­pened if many peo­ple did­n’t enjoy play­ing it. “We tend to do things that we find fun and reward­ing, and that stim­u­lates long-term inter­est,” says Dr. Begeti, “which is also impor­tant for con­sis­tent improve­ments in cog­ni­tive func­tion.” So the next time you pick up an online game of chess dur­ing your lunch break or sit down at the chess board with your friend on a Sun­day evening, know that such enjoy­able leisure time has many more pos­i­tive con­se­quences than it might seem at first glance.