Checkmating Alzheimer’s with mind sports

by ChessBase
5/5/2014 – Every year 17.5 billion hours of unpaid care are provided to people suffering from Alzheimer's. The total cost is currently $200 billion per year, and could rise to $1.2 trillion by 2050. Medical science is still wrestling with cause and cure, but, as Michael Ciamarra explains, one treatment seems to work: chess. He gives us thoughtful instructions on how to administer this therapy.

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By Michael Ciamarra

Kevrick, a 70-year old former Marine who had once been a guard at an American Embassy, was experiencing symptoms of memory loss and confusion associated with the early onset of Alzheimer’s. He also had vision problems and needed to learn a whole range of new skills in a low-vision/blind rehabilitation program.

“I never learned to play chess and really had no interest,” he said. “If learning a new activity like chess can postpone mental decline and possibly improve the health of my brain – why not!” Kevrick not only learned to play chess but also became an enthusiastic ambassador for the game sharing his new found passion with other seniors. Most importantly, the former Marine genuinely believes it has made a difference in his life by keeping his brain active and vibrant. With modest exercise, a healthier diet and keeping his brain strong by mental workouts through chess, Kevrick has slowed down considerably the onset of Alzheimer’s. “All it took was someone who had patience to teach me the game and believe that I could do it,” Kevrick said.

Studies have shown that older adults with hobbies that actively engage their brains are two-times less likely to contract Alzheimer’s. A recent study also concluded how brain training exercises for older adults can have benefits lasting for decades.

Comparison of a normal aged brain and one of a person with Alzheimer's [Wiki]

While Alzheimer’s is progressive and fatal, robbing one of their memories and has no known cure, there are plenty of strategies to prevent and defend against Alzheimer’s. You can do something about this health challenge and create a memorable, unique recreational experience for an elderly adult.

Playing mind sports can slow and even reverse declines in brain functions that are associated with aging, according to a variety of scientific studies. I have written about my observations on coaching older adults, their improved cognitive performance through ‘mind sports’ and the breakthroughs of science in studying critical mental function for healthy brain aging.

Brain training results can last for years. Classic games are valuable brain exercises.

You may be a caregiver, a family member, a friend, or someone who is just a chess player, checker player, Bridge enthusiast or any other of the mind sports and wish to share your enthusiasm of your favorite game with an older adult. You don’t have to be an expert or even an experienced teacher. Know the basic rules, have a standard, regulation playing set or two (or standard deck of cards) and a passion for the game you wish to share with an older adult or older relative. Connecting with the person you wish to teach is that easy.

Quick tips on teaching

Here are a few tips for teaching mind sports to older adults:

1. Variety. At the beginning of your first lesson show the person a couple of different chess sets (or different checkers sets – whatever the mind sport game happens to be). A variety of sizes, shapes and colors will always grab their interest. Ask the individual what set works best for them. They will appreciate the consideration and will tell you exactly which one works for them.

2. Keep language and concepts concise. Resist using a particular mind sport’s technical 'language’. Explain the rules in the simplest way so the essentials of the game are readily grasped. For example, your first lesson teaching chess you don’t attempt to teach all the movements of the chessmen (8 pieces and 8 pawns). Show how the pawns move only and play a short game with just pawns on the board. The next few lessons demonstrate how the other pieces move and introduce them one by one. Don’t overload your lessons with too much information.

3. History and colorful characters of the game. Chess and the other mind sport games have interesting histories and unique personalities. Share some of this background with your ‘student.’ In addition to being a valuable recreation therapy, mind sports, such as chess, have an amazing history that has captivated and enchanted people for centuries.

"Chess-Players" by Honoré Daumier, 1867 [source: Wikipaintings]

4. Schedule in advance. Older adults need time to schedule around doctor appointments, social, family and church events. They also need to arrange transportation if they are coming to visit you or meeting you at a library or senior center. Try to be consistent in dates and times scheduling your lessons.

5. Make it comfortable. Make sure there are no physical barriers or uncomfortable tables, chairs, or bad lighting at the site where you wish to teach your ‘student.’

6. Handouts are helpful. Leave them with a simple, easy-to-follow handout with some details so they can read after the lesson. Your handout can be photocopied from a book or downloaded from an online curriculum. Ideally, your handout should cover the material you just went over.

Provide additional resources: Do you have an extra chess or Bridge book you can leave? Do you know of a senior group that plays bridge, checkers, backgammon or any of the other mind sports? After they learn the basic rules, ask your ‘student’ would they be interested in playing practice games online or play other age-compatible players?

Personally, I prefer when older adult can socialize with their playing partners and friends before and after the game. In a study of older people, researchers found a relationship “between more frequent social activity and better cognitive function,” according to the National Institute on Aging.

7. Cheerful repetition and follow up. Smiles, compassion, and inexhaustible patience go a long way. Don’t ask, “Do You Remember?” Asking this will cause frustration. Play practice, fun games. Review the rules often. Celebrate successes with them when they have learned those basics. A win, a loss, or a draw – results don’t matter. Remember, the play of these games is to strengthen cognitive performance and to make for a memorable recreational experience.

Your author Michael Ciamarra supervising a chess game

Kevrick demonstrated the checkmate he just played and very proudly showed
how he accomplished this to his chess teacher.

Learning chess or any of the mind sports is an excellent way to slow the progression of Alzheimer's. Just as physical activity strengthens the heart, muscles and bones, so intellectual activity – mind sports – helps guard the brain against decline. Healthier brain cells are better able to control or slow Alzheimer's.

Share your joy of mind sports – whatever one you are interested in. Teaching a mind sport to an older adult is a most gratifying reward all unto itself.

Source: All Alabama

Michael Ciamarra is a World Chess Federation (FIDE) certified Chess Instructor and a US Chess Federation certified Advanced Chess Coach. He is a member of the American Checker Federation. He coaches mind sports (chess, checkers, etc) to older veterans, and blind and low-vision veterans at the Birmingham and Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center. He speaks to senior groups about the value of Mind Sports as a way to improve cognitive performance and teaches chess and Mind Sports to older adults. He can reached through alabamachess at


We received two quick feedback messages we would like to share with you:

  1. Al Jablan from Sault Ste. Marie wrote: "I would like to add another idea. I was absolutely astounded to learn that ping pong also improved cognitive function and delays the onset of dementia. So my recipe now for a long and meaningful life is pingpong + chess + exercise + mediterranean diet. I expected that chess would benefit the brain and pingpong the muscles and coordination and heart and lung, but I never would have guessed that it also benefits the brain.
    So I have a project to teach all seniors to play pingpong and chess. Another amazing thing is that chess and pingpong are the only two sports or activities that may be enjoyed together by a 95 and a five-year-old! The only difference is that it takes five minutes for a five year old to catch on but more like five hours for a nonagenarian. Or fifty?"

  2. Philippe Dornbusch of Paris (France) writes: I translated this amazing article – here's the link." What a marvellous service for our French readers, Philippe!

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