Secrets of the Masters: 5 Ways Chess Affects Your Brain and Body

Netflix’s miniseries The Queen’s Gambit was a game-changer starring Anya Taylor-Joy as a brilliant, orphaned chess prodigy. The series sent board sales soaring and boosted online interest in chess platforms like Twitch. 

With curiosity in the sport revived, attention also turned to more cerebral secrets. Here are five surprising ways the board game can affect your brain and body.


Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen's Gambit
The Queen’s Gambit 2020 miniseries garnered 18 Emmy nominations

Chess mastery and memory

Many consider Garry Kasparov to be the greatest chess Grandmaster in history. In 1996 he was at the top of his game - so much so, Carnegie Mellon University researchers studied the legendary World Champion as he played multiple opponents in simultaneous matches. Kasparov, with an IQ of 190, had about 20 seconds to think through his moves compared to his opponents’ three minutes. “Given the strength of the opposition, Kasparov could not rely only on playing normal moves and waiting for opponents’ mistakes,” researchers Fernand Gobet and Herbert A. Simon said. “We conclude that memory and access to memory through the recognition of clues is the predominant basis for the skill of Kasparov, and almost certainly of the other grandmasters of the game.”

Robert Downey as Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes, Game of Shadows features a five-minute blitz game between Holmes and Moriarty

Chess may have unusual health benefits

Board games that challenge memory, visual-spatial skills, calculation, and critical thinking may help reduce cognitive decline and postpone the effects of dementia. Chess can also improve ADHD symptoms, according to a 2016 study involving 100 school-age children who experienced a 41 percent decrease in inattentiveness and over-activity. Electronic chess may also help ward off panic attacks. While there are no large-scale studies, a 2017 case study offered anecdotal evidence that an individual was able to stave off panic attacks by using a chess app to increase the sense of calm.


Bill Pullman in The Coldest Game
Bill Pullman stars in The Coldest Game (2019)

The mental game can take a physical toll

Russian grandmaster Mikhail Antipov burned 560 calories during a two-hour game in 2018, roughly what Roger Federer burns in an hour of tennis. Antipov is not alone. The 1984 World Chess Championship was suspended largely because of Anatoly Karpov’s emaciated condition; the defending champion lost 22 pounds after five months and 48 games. Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurology and biology at Stanford University, told ESPN that chess players can burn up to 6,000 calories a day in a tournament - three times what an average person eats every day - because stress can cause elevated blood pressure, muscle contractions, and breathing rates that triple during competition: "Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners."


Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona Mutesi, a chess master in Uganda, in Queen of Katwe
Madina Nalwanga portrays Phiona Mutesi, a chess master in Uganda, in Queen of Katwe

Neurosexism

Are male and female brains hard-wired differently, giving males an advantage at chess? British grandmaster Nigel Short certainly thinks so. Short outlined his theory in New in Chess magazine in 2015: “It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.” Not all neuroscientists back up his view, however, nor do many female chess players. Amanda Ross, leader of the Casual Chess club in London, pointed out that when Short played female grandmaster Judit Polgár he lost eight classical games to three in total, with five draws: "She must have brought her man brain,” Ross said. “At least this resolves the age-old debate as to whether there’s a direct link between chess-playing ability and intelligence. Clearly not."


Max Pomeranc was eight when he starred as Josh Waitzkin in Searching for Bobby Fischer
Max Pomeranc was eight when he starred as Josh Waitzkin in Searching for Bobby Fischer

The Secrets of Child Prodigies

Bobby Fischer, Judit Polgár Sergey Karjakin - the greatest names in chess were child prodigies. But do their brains work differently than other children? No one’s quite sure. Dr. David Henry Feldman, a psychologist and author of Nature’s Gambit, described prodigies as extreme specialists. While most have high IQs, they don’t typically demonstrate extraordinary performance across the board. Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz and her team found that prodigies shared a common trait - all of those studied scored off the charts in ‘working memory’, which is the ability to hold information while manipulating and processing other incoming information. Susan Polgár- who, along with her two sisters were chess prodigies in their native Hungary - believes the difference lies not in the brain but in her father’s maxim: genius is made, not born. “It’s primarily all about hard work.”

Secrets of the Masters: 5 Ways Chess Affects Your Brain and Body

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Netflix’s miniseries The Queen’s Gambit was a game-changer starring Anya Taylor-Joy as a brilliant, orphaned chess prodigy. The series sent board sales soaring and boosted online interest in chess platforms like Twitch. 

With curiosity in the sport revived, attention also turned to more cerebral secrets. Here are five surprising ways the board game can affect your brain and body.


Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen's Gambit
The Queen’s Gambit 2020 miniseries garnered 18 Emmy nominations

Chess mastery and memory

Many consider Garry Kasparov to be the greatest chess Grandmaster in history. In 1996 he was at the top of his game - so much so, Carnegie Mellon University researchers studied the legendary World Champion as he played multiple opponents in simultaneous matches. Kasparov, with an IQ of 190, had about 20 seconds to think through his moves compared to his opponents’ three minutes. “Given the strength of the opposition, Kasparov could not rely only on playing normal moves and waiting for opponents’ mistakes,” researchers Fernand Gobet and Herbert A. Simon said. “We conclude that memory and access to memory through the recognition of clues is the predominant basis for the skill of Kasparov, and almost certainly of the other grandmasters of the game.”

Robert Downey as Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes, Game of Shadows features a five-minute blitz game between Holmes and Moriarty

Chess may have unusual health benefits

Board games that challenge memory, visual-spatial skills, calculation, and critical thinking may help reduce cognitive decline and postpone the effects of dementia. Chess can also improve ADHD symptoms, according to a 2016 study involving 100 school-age children who experienced a 41 percent decrease in inattentiveness and over-activity. Electronic chess may also help ward off panic attacks. While there are no large-scale studies, a 2017 case study offered anecdotal evidence that an individual was able to stave off panic attacks by using a chess app to increase the sense of calm.


Bill Pullman in The Coldest Game
Bill Pullman stars in The Coldest Game (2019)

The mental game can take a physical toll

Russian grandmaster Mikhail Antipov burned 560 calories during a two-hour game in 2018, roughly what Roger Federer burns in an hour of tennis. Antipov is not alone. The 1984 World Chess Championship was suspended largely because of Anatoly Karpov’s emaciated condition; the defending champion lost 22 pounds after five months and 48 games. Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurology and biology at Stanford University, told ESPN that chess players can burn up to 6,000 calories a day in a tournament - three times what an average person eats every day - because stress can cause elevated blood pressure, muscle contractions, and breathing rates that triple during competition: "Grandmasters sustain elevated blood pressure for hours in the range found in competitive marathon runners."


Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona Mutesi, a chess master in Uganda, in Queen of Katwe
Madina Nalwanga portrays Phiona Mutesi, a chess master in Uganda, in Queen of Katwe

Neurosexism

Are male and female brains hard-wired differently, giving males an advantage at chess? British grandmaster Nigel Short certainly thinks so. Short outlined his theory in New in Chess magazine in 2015: “It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.” Not all neuroscientists back up his view, however, nor do many female chess players. Amanda Ross, leader of the Casual Chess club in London, pointed out that when Short played female grandmaster Judit Polgár he lost eight classical games to three in total, with five draws: "She must have brought her man brain,” Ross said. “At least this resolves the age-old debate as to whether there’s a direct link between chess-playing ability and intelligence. Clearly not."


Max Pomeranc was eight when he starred as Josh Waitzkin in Searching for Bobby Fischer
Max Pomeranc was eight when he starred as Josh Waitzkin in Searching for Bobby Fischer

The Secrets of Child Prodigies

Bobby Fischer, Judit Polgár Sergey Karjakin - the greatest names in chess were child prodigies. But do their brains work differently than other children? No one’s quite sure. Dr. David Henry Feldman, a psychologist and author of Nature’s Gambit, described prodigies as extreme specialists. While most have high IQs, they don’t typically demonstrate extraordinary performance across the board. Psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz and her team found that prodigies shared a common trait - all of those studied scored off the charts in ‘working memory’, which is the ability to hold information while manipulating and processing other incoming information. Susan Polgár- who, along with her two sisters were chess prodigies in their native Hungary - believes the difference lies not in the brain but in her father’s maxim: genius is made, not born. “It’s primarily all about hard work.”

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