Psychology Chartered

Can Playing Chess Improve Cognition?

Posted by Paul

31st May 2018

By Nina Kaminska (Portsmouth College Work Experience Student)

A recent meta-analysis, carried out in 2016 by Sala and Gobet, has evaluated the effectiveness of chess instruction. The meta-analysis, including 24 studies and 40 effect sizes, shows that chess does seem to enhance primary and middle school student’s achievement in mathematics and overall cognitive ability- this is known as the “Chess effect”.

It has been suggested by different scientists that chess involves, and possibly boosts, cognitive abilities such as working memory, fluid intelligence, and concentration capacity. This is due to the fact that chess involves strategic and tactical thinking, spatial awareness and problem solving. When considering how chess directly influences our memory and cognitive functions, we have to look at how chess is encoded and taught in the first place.

The multi-store memory model suggests we have 3 different memory stores, composing of the sensory store, the short term store and the long term store. In this case, when chess is first taught to a child it should be broken down to smaller sessions because a child is incapable of learning every rule of a chess game at once without getting confused. Despite chess appearing extremely complex to learn, splitting the instructions down to 7 chunks of information at a time may increase the chance of memorising how various chess pieces move. This is due to the “magic number 7 theory” developed by Miller, which outlined that our short term memory store is only capable of holding 7 (plus or minus 2) chunks of information at a time, for up to a minute. If this information is not then rehearsed repeatedly, the short term memory will discard any information it is holding. However, upon regular rehearsal, the different elements or rules of chess will be moved to the long term store where information will be remembered forever. Therefore, chess helps to exercise the different memory stores as it helps to stimulate the rehearsal and retrieval functions of the memory.

Furthermore, psychologist Endel Tulving developed the different types of long term memory in 1967 including procedural, semantic, episodic and declarative memory. When practising chess, it appears that both procedural memory (how things are done) and semantic memory (the memory of relationships and how things fit together) are used. This is due to the fact that each chess piece has a different function and has to be associated with a particular movement or value. For instance, the King and the Queen are the most important pieces in the game, however both vary in movement- the Queen is free to move around the chess board in whatever direction the player wishes, whereas the King is very limited in terms of movement. Therefore a chess player has to give the different chess pieces very specific meaning, based on which chess piece is worth sacrificing and which isn’t. Through this level of thinking and decision making, someone playing chess obtains the potential to improve their ‘building blocks’ of complex cognitive skills.

The working memory model developed by Baddeley and Hitch in 1974 outlined that we have a central executive and two memory sub-systems. What this means is that the central executive is in charge of deciding which sub-system has to process incoming information. The two sub-systems include the visuo-spatial sketchpad (the inner eye), and the phonological loop (the inner ear). When playing chess, the visuo-spatial sketchpad is used as this acts as an ‘inner eye’ and is responsible for vision. This is very important as when playing chess professionally, both players competing against each other have to visualise their possibilities (where they could move to avoid loss, or in what ways they could attack their opponent) in advance of making any movements. This has a powerful impact on concentration and focus skills, as playing chess helps to retain information, and to compose it in different ways/variants before making a final move (all through exercising spatial memory)