Does playing chess make you smarter? Not really

The stereotype of the chess player is someone who is smart, logical and good at maths. This is why so many parents around the world are keen to get their children playing chess - in the hope that the game might help to boost their child's intelligence levels and help him succeed in a wide variety of subjects.

But apart from chess being a great game, its history rooted in the eastern India military, is there actually any evidence to show that playing chess can make you smarter?

Chess players exhibit, on average, superior cognitive ability compared with non-chess players.

And the skills needed to play chess have also been shown to correlate with several measures of intelligence - such as fluid reasoning, memory and processing speed.

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While the existence of a relationship between general cognitive ability and chess skill is clear, is this simply because intelligent people are more likely to engage in the game of chess, or does engaging in chess make people smarter?

BRAIN GAME

The notion that playing chess makes you smarter goes something like this: Chess requires concentration and intelligence, and as mathematics and literacy require the same general skills, then practising chess must also improve one's academic achievement.

With this idea in mind, the Institute of Education conducted a large investigation to test the effects of chess instruction on the academic skills of nearly 4,000 British children.

The recently released results were disappointing - it seemed chess played no effect on children's attainment levels in mathematics, literacy or science.

Promptly, the chess community questioned the reliability of the results, particularly given that other studies offer a more optimistic picture about the academic benefits of chess instruction.

ASSESSING THE EVIDENCE

The chess community is probably right in criticising the recent study, as it suffers from several methodological shortcomings that probably invalidate the results.

Before the results were published, we carried out a review of all the studies in the field. Our results showed some moderate effects of chess instruction on cognitive ability and academic achievement - especially mathematics.

Yet, we still need to be cautious in interpreting these results as a positive indication of the power of chess on cognitive or academic skills. This is because most of the reviewed studies compared the effect of chess with groups doing no alternative activities.

This is a problem because research has shown that the excitement and fun induced by novel activities can cause a positive temporal effect on test scores - a placebo effect.

Crucially, when compared with an alternative activity - such as checkers or sports - chess did not show any significant effect on children's skills. So, it could well just be that the observed positive effects of chess instruction are merely due to placebo effects.

CHESS NOTES 

What all this shows is that it is unlikely chess has a significant impact on overall cognitive ability. So while it might sound like a quick win - that a game of chess can improve a broad range of skills - unfortunately, this is not the case.

The failure of generalisation of a particular skill happens to occur in many other areas beyond chess - such as music training, which has been shown to have no effect on non-music cognitive or academic abilities. The same applies to video-game training, brain training and working memory training, among others.

The fact that skills learnt by training do not transfer across different domains seems to be universal in human cognition. In other words, you get better, at best, at what you train in - which may just sound like good, old-fashioned common sense.

Although expecting chess to enhance children's cognitive ability and overall academic achievement is just wishful thinking, this does not mean it cannot add value to a child's education.

Clearly, playing chess involves some level of arithmetical and geometrical skill, and designing mathematical games or exercises with chess material can still be a simple and fun way to help children to learn.

•Giovanni Sala is a PhD candidate in cognitive psychology at the University of Liverpool.

• Fernand Gobet is a professor of decision-making and expertise at the same university.

•This article first appeared in The Conversation at http://theconversation.com, a website which carries analysis by academics and researchers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2017, with the headline 'Does playing chess make you smarter? Not really'. Print Edition | Subscribe