Cognitive Benefits of Chess

by Alexey Root
3/10/2017 – Dr. Chandramallika Basak is one of the leading researchers in the area of working memory and cognitive control, training strategies, cognitive and brain plasticity, aging, and biomarkers of complex skill learning (e.g., video games). She has now begun research on children and chess. Alexey Root attended Dr. Basak’s lecture “Cognitive Benefits of Learning to Play Chess and Other Strategy Games” and reports here.

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Dr. Chandramallika Basak credits her chess-playing son with her new research interest in children and chess. As she said in her “Cognitive Benefits” talk on March 3, 2017 at The University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas), “My previous research has focused on interventions for older adults. After all, I knew that someday I would get old. So I wanted to know what I could do to preserve my cognitive abilities for as long as possible. Once I became a mom, however, I gained new interests based on my son’s activities. I noticed that my son learned much about chess from just a week at UT Dallas’ summer chess camp. That intrigued me regarding how the rate at which children learn chess can relate to cognitive functions in children.”

Cover of the brochure for the Summer 2017 Chess Camp

Chess camp director Jim Stallings, who also serves as the director of the UT Dallas Chess Program, remembers that Milan Basak attended chess camp in 2014 and 2015. Dr. Basak contacted Mr. Stallings in the spring of 2016 about conducting a pilot study in the summer of 2016. Twelve chess beginners participated in Dr. Basak’s study during the 2016 summer camp. She will be recruiting more beginning chess players at the 2017 summer camp. Mr. Stallings noted, “UT Dallas has multiple chess instructors each year that allow for instruction at many levels of expertise. Thus, experienced campers are not in the same classes as beginners. And each year there are many new campers that permits the study to be ongoing.” 

In her lecture, Dr. Basak cited the meta-analysis by Giovanni Sala and Fernand Gobet. As ChessBase readers know, that meta-analysis found that chess may not help the cognitive abilities of children any more than other educational interventions, such as music, checkers, or Go. Moreover, if chess is effective, it is not clear how much chess instruction is needed for positive results. Anecdotally, Dr. Basak said that her son improved more in 15 hours at chess camp (three hours per day for one Monday through Friday week) than he had during his school chess instruction, which was one hour per week during the school year. Her 2016 pilot study likewise found positive cognitive effects for beginning chess campers after just one chess-intensive, 15-hour week. Specifically, she said, “Children recruited from the chess camp improved in focusing attention to the target and in multi-tasking skills.” She cautioned, however, that those results are preliminary and her larger sample in the summer of 2017, as well as adding a control group of children not enrolled in chess camp, may yield different results.

Chandramallika Basak and Jim Stallings

Dr. Basak explained the theoretical foundations for her work. In her previous research with older adults and in her new research with children, she looks at cognitive abilities that change over time. She cited her previously published papers, which stated that “fluid cognition declines rapidly with age, particularly after 60 years, and includes abilities such as episodic memory, reasoning, and multi-tasking. . . . A plausible reason for impairments in these cognitive abilities with age is the disruption of the fronto-parietal brain networks that underlie working memory and cognitive control. . . . One proposed principle of cognitive optimization is the enhancement of cognitive control in working memory.” Children’s brains are still developing. Their performance on tasks involving working memory and cognitive control are not as good as the performances of twenty-somethings. Likewise, older adults do not perform as well on these tasks as twenty-somethings. As Dr. Basak noted, “If you are listening to my lecture and you are over 25, it’s all downhill from here.”

However, interventions may both stem the slide for older adults and optimize the cognitive performances of children. Video-game training on “turn-based, real-time strategy” video games (which are analogous to chess in complexity) has been an effective intervention for older adults in Basak’s prior research. Chess may prove to be an effective intervention for children. As Basak stated, “Stay tuned for fall, when we will be publishing the results from the collaboration with UT Dallas’ summer chess camp.”

In the meantime, for those interested in chess research, Mr. Stallings provided links to publications completed in cooperation with the UT Dallas Chess Program:

  1. On Holistic Processing with Faces and Chess (The link includes Amy Boggan’s presentation starting at slide 37.)
  2. Chess Expertise and the Fusiform Face Area: Why It Matters
  3. The neural organization of perception in chess experts
  4. Chess Experts Help Researchers Understand How We See the World

Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.


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