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Getting Your Brain in Shape

Playing chess is like a gym workout for the mind—and you can learn to play better

by Keith Ammann on January 16, 2013


When I was a kid, I played chess with my friend Carlos. And only my friend Carlos.

I played white, always. He played black, always. We didn’t plan. We jabbed and feinted, like boxers. We played moves we hoped the other wouldn’t see the implications of. We were ignorant of tactics. We overlooked dangers. We played bad chess.

And when I tried playing against a computer chess program (this was back in the mid-1980s, before chess software began including training tools), I got creamed, again and again, and I could never figure out why. I got frustrated. I figured I was bad at chess and was probably never going to get any better. By high school, I’d stopped playing.

I doubt my experience was unique. The connection between skill at chess and intelligence is a cliché, perpetuated not just by the culture at large but often by chess players themselves (since it reflects well on them). So if you consider yourself an intelligent person, and you can’t seem to win a chess game, continuing to play and lose puts your self-image at risk. Most folks would rather give it up than endure the cognitive dissonance. I did.

About five years ago, after a two-decade hiatus, I began playing chess again . . . only this time, I had a master’s degree in education, and I’d learned a few things about learning. As it turns out, I’m not so bad at chess after all. But it helped that I discovered a few secrets along the way.

Here’s the first secret: Anyone can get good at chess if he or she is willing to learn. Seriously, anyone.

In his book The Art of Learning, the chess master Josh Waitzkin (whose childhood was the basis for the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer) distinguishes between “entity theorists,” who believe their abilities are inborn and unchanging, and “learning theorists,” who believe their abilities are the result of thoughtful effort. “When challenged by difficult material,” Waitzkin writes, “learning theorists are far more likely to rise to the level of the game, while entity theorists are more brittle and prone to quit.”

Most of us have forgotten what it was like to learn to walk. It comes so naturally to us now, we never consider how hapless and clumsy our first efforts were. We fell on our butts and on our faces, again and again. But we never said, “Forget this. I’m a terrible walker. I’ll just crawl wherever I need to go.” We kept at it, through countless hours of practice. And we still practice our walking, every day, even if we don’t think of it that way.

When we first learned to throw and catch, balls dropped through our hands without our ever making contact . . . and we kept at it. When we first learned to drive, our lurching stops and starts gave our passengers whiplash . . . and we kept at it. But how many of us, when we lost our first half-dozen chess games against our dads or our older siblings, said, “Maybe I’m just not smart enough for this”?

If you learned to play chess but stopped playing for that reason, it’s time to start again. This time, though, tell yourself, “The more I work at this, the better I’ll get.”

Here’s the second secret: If all you’ve learned are the rules of chess, you haven’t learned to play chess.

The basics of chess go well beyond the rules (and how many casual players know all the rules anyway—en passant, anyone?). They include opening principles (control the center, develop your pieces, castle to protect your king), basic tactics (forks, pins, distraction, discovery), the strengths and weaknesses of the pieces, how to make those pieces work together, and how to close the deal by promoting a pawn in the endgame. (Pandolfini’s Ultimate Guide to Chess by Bruce Pandolfini—Waitzkin’s childhood coach—is a superior introduction to all these concepts.) The basics also include the thought process behind selecting a move: Start by looking for checks, captures and tactical threats, both your own and your opponent’s. Even when you think you’ve found a good move, keep looking for a better one. And when you’ve made your decision, check one more time to make sure it’s not a blunder.

Trying to play a game of chess without this knowledge is like fighting a duel unarmed. No wonder many players get frustrated: They’re expecting themselves to singlehandedly reinvent centuries of theory! Do yourself a favor and don’t try to go it alone. A good book or a good teacher makes the fundamentals surprisingly easy to pick up.

Here’s the third secret: Even if you never learned to play, no matter how old you are, it’s not too late to start.

I’ve spoken to a number of people, including several friends, who say, “Oh, I never learned to play chess,” as if missing out on that piece of childhood somehow disqualified them from ever getting involved.

But I also look around town, and I see runners all over the place. Serious runners, clad head to toe in Lycra. Runners on their way to and from 5K and 10K races, with numbers pinned to their chests and backs. I think running a marathon may actually be a requirement for anyone pursuing a job in marketing these days. And I’ll bet that not one of those people began distance running when he or she was 8 years old.

Most amateur runners take up their sport in their 20s and 30s, motivated by a desire to improve their health and challenge themselves doing something that feels good. No doubt some decide early on that they’re not cut out for it, declaring after their first wheezing quarter-mile that they just don’t have the endurance for that kind of thing. But the ones who stick with it know it’s all about the hours you put into it, and they don’t worry whether others have been at it longer.

There’s no reason to think about chess any differently. Oh, sure, there’s some specialized knowledge involved—as there is in distance running, if you want to run at peak efficiency and don’t want to injure yourself. But the most important thing is to start, then keep going. Chess, just like running, can be part of a healthy, well-rounded lifestyle for adults. Think of it as a gym workout for your mind. You don’t have to become an expert or master to call yourself a chess player, just like you don’t have to qualify for the New York Marathon to call yourself a runner. You don’t even have to win. You just have to play.

So why should you? After-school chess programs have risen in popularity recently as research rolls in indicating the benefits of chess to young people’s academic performance, not just because it involves logical problem solving but because it exercises “soft skills” such as patience, attentiveness, self-discipline and conflict management. There’s even some evidence that chess and other mentally demanding activities can help prevent dementia in the senior years, though the studies so far haven’t been conclusive.

But here’s the final secret: The greatest benefits to be found lie not in the game of chess itself but in the changed thinking that allows anyone to become a chess player—the realization that ability is dependent on motivated practice, not inborn talent. By pursuing chess as a pastime, you’re declaring lifelong learning to be part of who you are, no matter what square you’re starting from. And that choice, more than anything, makes any achievement possible.