Justifying Games: Why Chess Doesn’t Have to Make You Smarter

Chess Pieces

Recently I’ve taken an interest in chess. I downloaded a chess app, watched some basic YouTube tutorials on openings and checkmating, and read up on some of the greats like Bobby Fischer, Gary Kasparov, and Magnus Carlsen. When I told a friend that I had been playing chess, he said, “The game of intellectuals… Why are you playing it?”

He’s real funny.

But there is something interesting about that sentiment. Chess is seen as an intellectual pursuit. The chess world’s grandmasters are often referred to as geniuses and savants. Chess clubs are often encouraged as extracurriculars in schools because of this idea that chess will make children smarter.

Compared to most other games, chess is viewed very differently in Western culture. Playing chess is actively encouraged at all ages because of the supposed benefits it has on the human brain. The collective assumption is that playing chess is for smart people and playing chess will make you smarter. Most games are simple ways to pass time, so the perception goes, but chess is special.

And yes, the most elite chess players do have abilities the likes of which many of us can only be awed by. According to this Oxford study, it’s estimated that chess experts have anywhere between “10,000 and 300,000  chess configurations, chunks and templates” memorized at a given time. That amount of information on a single topic is just boggling to think about. But is memorization the same thing as intelligence? Does a chess grandmaster knowing that amount of information about chess mean that she is smarter than the average person? Or maybe does being that good at chess contribute to increased aptitude in other areas?

The answer, it turns out, is probably no. According to that same Oxford study on practice, experience, and intelligence and their effects on children’s skill at chess, they found that “intelligence was not a significant factor in chess skill, and that, if anything, it tended to correlate negatively with chess skill.” They found that ultimately “practice had the most influence on chess skill” and that trying to link intelligence with chess skill showed “the dangers of focusing on a single factor in complex real-world situations.” The skill in chess doesn’t involve having some superior mental berth; it comes down to experience and practice.

So there it is: being smart doesn’t necessarily make you good at chess and playing chess won’t necessarily make you smarter. It turns out that, like most games or sports, the best way to be good at chess is through practice and experience. Our perception of chess as a game just for intellectuals is simply wrong.

Then what good is chess to us?

Without this veneer of intellectualism, we can now look at chess for what it is: a game with rules and systems that can still impart useful and important meaning to us. There’s so much we can talk about with chess. We could talk about what it means that the king is simultaneously the most valuable and the weakest piece; or that the only piece that’s specifically designated as female is the most powerful piece on the board; or that by surviving long enough a pawn can be promoted from cannon fodder to queen; or that each piece is designated as an archetype in a feudal hierarchy along with its own unique value based on its move set; or the course the game itself took from its origins in India to Western civilization and the changes made to it along the way; and so on and so on

In fact, Benjamin Franklin himself wrote about what we can learn from playing chess. He didn’t say it would make your IQ go up. Instead, he praised its values as an aid for learning valuable life lessons. Franklin said that by playing chess a person could learn foresight, caution, and the ability to never let a bad situation stop you from persevering. In chess, Franklin saw the possibility for learning substantial moral and character lessons.

Like all art, games have something to impart to their audience. Art always has has something to say. We don’t need to justify our enjoyment of a game by trying to quantify some benefits that our society arbitrarily deems “useful”. Art can question us and teach us in ways that aren’t easily quantifiable. We don’t have to say that this game makes us smarter in order to make it worthwhile. Art is worthwhile in and of itself. We can let art be art.


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