Using chess to help deal with addictions

by Luis Alberto Tardío
1/26/2021 – In the Spanish region of Extremadura, there are a number of centres dedicated to the care, treatment and overcoming of addictions: addictions to substances (alcohol, drugs, pills) and others (gambling). The centres that treat these problems in a comprehensive manner are known as Therapeutic Communities. Many were set up in rural areas, where they functioned as real communities. One of the activities used to help the recovering addicts is chess. | Photo: Juan Antonio Montero

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The Therapeutic Community (TC) is a classic concept in addiction intervention that emerged in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. It is an approach based on peer support and many and varied activities, which in themselves function as a therapeutic intervention.

Today the concept has evolved and many of these communities are located in urban areas. The Club Magic Extremadura Deportivo-Social currently collaborates in two of them: “La Garrovilla” (Mérida) and “Arca de Noé” (Badajoz) — the latter continues to use a traditional approach. In both centres, our club uses its methodology of Cognitive Training through Chess, in this case called “Cognitive Rehabilitation in black and white”, which is supported by the highest official body in Extremadura in the fight against addictions, the Technical Secretariat of Drug Addictions of the Junta de Extremadura.

Usuarios en el Garrovilla  | Foto: Juan Antonio Montero

Leontxo García giving a talk at Garrovilla | Photo: Juan Antonio Montero

We started working in the Therapeutic Communities in 2010, and since then we have not stopped, even in the fateful year of the pandemic. We suspended face-to-face attendance in March 2020, but we adapted quickly, designing a strategy that has allowed us to work remotely by editing videos and preparing series of exercises so that they could continue with the work, which consists of recovering the cognitive functions (attention, memory, etc.) deteriorated by drug use, with the help of chess.

Clases en el Arca Noe  | Foto: Juan Antonio Montero

A chess session at Arca de Noé  | Photo: Juan Antonio Montero

A decade later, over three hundred people have participated in this program. They have had stays of varying lengths in the centres, with an average duration of 6 months. We provide two one-and-a-half hour sessions per week, which makes for a real intervention-rehabilitation program that meets the most rigorous guidelines. I think this is a great merit for a program based on chess.

Most of the exercises meet the validated parameters for rehabilitation programs. The sessions we teach in the therapeutic communities focus on improving focal attention, divided attention, perceptual discrimination, organization of information, execution of cause-effect actions, logical reasoning, spatial reasoning, working memory, short-term memory, auditory-visual attention and/or memorization skills, etc. Our main working resource is an exhibition board — we do not use individual chessboards. Participants in the sessions can only use their brains, although sometimes they are invited to solve exercises on paper.

Una de las clases | Foto: Juan Antonio Montero

Working on recovering cognitive skills | Photo: Juan Antonio Montero

In each session, one or two specific cognitive skills are selected. Sometimes several of them may coincide in a single exercise, as in the case of executive functions in an exercise where they have to solve how many moves are necessary to return a number of pieces to their original squares. 

Cognitive skills are put into practice in each part of the session. For example, we could spend one part of the session doing a working memory exercise with a position in which there are four pawns on the board. They are given 1 or 2 minutes to memorize the position and must reproduce the position one by one on the board. Their initial success is used to motivate them and increase the difficulty, adding pieces, one by one, to the initial position, until a chess position with a larger number of pieces is presented.

In the second part, we could focus on another skill and perform an attention exercise, placing different pieces in the centre of the board and asking direct questions about piece counting and discrimination: how many pawns there are, how many knights and bishops on light squares, how many white knights and bishops on dark squares, how many black rooks on light squares, and so on.

The program never stops — it is active all year round, and it is not a standard course. It is a complementary therapy to the ones developed in the centre and, as I already pointed out, the objective is to recover cognitive capacities (attention, memory, executive functions, logical reasoning, perception) deteriorated after many years of exposure to addictive behaviours.

Leontxo García de visita | Foto: Juan Antonio Montero

Carmen Quesada, Juan Antonio Montero and Leontxo García | Photo: Juan Antonio Montero

There is no beginning, no “first session”, as there is no “final session”. We do not go through levels 1 to 10, as if we were following a syllabus. It is not like that. There is a progression and a scale of difficulty that helps us to plan the work for each week, depending on the degree of cognitive deterioration and how long the participants have been working in the program, among other factors. It is always possible to start “from scratch” (the simplest exercises in each cognitive area) recurrently throughout the program.

Momento del taller | Foto: Juan Antonio Montero

Helping deal with addictions | Photo: Juan Antonio Montero

In that sense, our work is circular. We start by getting to know the interests of the participants: what they know about chess beforehand and whether they are familiar with these modern methodologies — the pure and traditional game is not usually explored, although some participants know a bit about the game from the start. After several weeks, others get into the rhythm of solving the exercises, with some achieving real feats such as memorizing the position of more than 20 pieces in a single session. After a while they move on to other activities or leave the program, and we start again with new participants.

At the end of the day, we remain there while many participants enter and leave the centres. Some decide to stay and work as volunteers in the centres, and become an essential support for the newcomers, bearing in mind that many only think of chess as an intellectual challenge that is unassailable for them — which is not the case. That is why the work on motivation and self-esteem is also part of this rehabilitation “in black and white”.

Four hours a week are dedicated to reversing the effects of prolonged years of addictive behaviour, so that the participants can resume a game which, despite not having all the pieces in place, can still be won.


Luis Alberto Tardío is the Head of Communications at the Magic Extremadura chess club. He also teaches and leads the communication team for the social and therapeutic chess projects put forth by the club. Luis Alberto is an anthropologist and an educator.
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graand graand 1/28/2021 04:27
And now they just switched their addiction to chess.
adbennet adbennet 1/26/2021 04:25
I notice the program has participants use the demo board to solve the exercises. This must slow down the rate of solving quite a lot, e.g. the individual time spent solving equals total time divided by number of participants. Is this because there is too much cognitive load if they spent more time solving? It would be simple enough to provide sets and boards for each, has this been tried and found to be too much? I suppose there could be other reasons for doing it that way. I remember my first experiences as a youngster playing in day-long chess tournaments, and when I got home there would be an electrical storm in my brain from the extended concentration. Over six months to a year my brain adapted to the load and the storms stoped, but even today, after so many decades of playing chess, a tournament will disrupt my sleep for *at least* one night.
Mr Toad Mr Toad 1/26/2021 02:32
@ PhishMaster - yes, a new, clean environment is a great idea. Unfortunately it is not always possible. My parents went down the pub every night. They drank and smoked themselves to death. Even in a new environment I guess they would still be together, egging each other on. I think that WWII destroyed their mental equilibrium. My father's job meant that he came home exhausted and unable to tackle a program such as the one in the article. I never appreciated what they went though in the war until recently. My father was stationed in Egypt and slept with a gun under his pillow etc. We are all trapped by experiences (as Blondie sings in "Shayla"). Just do what you can with whatcha got.

@HolaAmigo - some addictions are purely beneficial. I am addicted to reading books and making a noise with my guitar. OK, the latter is not beneficial for people who are nearby while I am busy tormenting it!
PhishMaster PhishMaster 1/26/2021 02:11
I am 59, and have never really drank alcohol (less than 10 my entire life), done drugs, or smoked but I grew up in a dual-alcoholic home, and my parents smoked so I have first-hand experience with the problem of addiction. My wife was an alcoholic when I met her, so she drank, drank A LOT of coffee (I also do not drink coffee, not that there is anything wrong with it), and smoked.

She hid the smoking from me when we first met, and it is gross, so I did press her to stop smoking, but not the other things. When she met me, and moved to my state with me, she left that lifestyle other words, all the drinkers and smokers in her life were no longer in her life. Just being away from that, she stopped smoking, might have a few drinks a year (when she has visitors from the old life), and even does not drink coffee anymore.

This makes me believe that the single biggest factor in recovery is getting people into a new, clean, environment.
Mawin Mawin 1/26/2021 11:05
The Swedish GM Erik Lundin (1904-1988, thought that chess could remedy alcoholism, and many alcoholics recuperated by getting another focus in life. It seems that he was successful, but there was no economy in it.
HolaAmigo HolaAmigo 1/26/2021 10:47
And then, how do you treat addiction to chess? Playing bullet online easily becomes and addiction. How do you treat that?