Many scientists around the world are in agreement that playing chess can make you smarter – a fair argument for keeping a chessboard around for the kids to find, to be sure – but how does it work?
<strong>Ask the Russians</strong>
Russians have a reputation for being excellent at chess and they worked hard to get it. The game reportedly began in Eastern India in the 7th century, long before the Russians came to dominate the field, but it was the Russians who made it their no-kidding national pastime.
The Soviets of the time believed it was representative of their cultural mores of intellectualism, asceticism and patriotism (a lot of very intense isms), and state-sponsored chess schools and tournaments became the norm. Once it was decided that chess was going to be a "big deal" in Russia around 1917 it took them all of three decades to become global leaders in the event.
But, was it making them smarter?
<strong>Ask the Germans, Venezuelans, Americans, Australians …</strong>
All of these countries have conducted (or are currently conducting) in-depth studies to discover the cognitive benefits of playing chess. Of the research concluded, the answer is that it does indeed improve acuity, mathematical skills, analytical processing and critical thinking ability – particularly in children.
Naturally, the research raises two very significant challenges. The first supposes that it is simply that chess (and its proponents) attracts players who are already smart and are predisposed to getting smarter regardless of what they do in their spare time. The second asks whether the game has any effect at all based on the often correct assumption that correlation is not necessarily causation.
Rigorous testing to eliminate these variables, however, suggests that chess really can enhance learning and retention by exercising cognitive tools.
A prevailing theory is that chess demands that a person use multiple thinking processes to play effectively, which really gives the brain a workout. An adept chess player must make numerous calculations based on an ever-changing pattern of pieces while also contemplating what both sides will do - sometimes several moves ahead. Add to that the constantly shifting strategies among opponents and a need to adapt and improve to remain victorious, and you have a recipe for some pretty dynamic brain fuel.
But, how good can the Russians possibly be?
<strong>Ask the World Chess Federation (FIDE)</strong>
As of October 2013, there are 24 Russians in the top 100 best chess players in the world as ranked by the FIDE. If we were to include those who also hail from post-Soviet states – where we can assume a legacy of chess appreciation has been preserved – that number jumps to 45.
In the FIDE country ratings, Russia is ranked first with Ukraine following close behind. Further, when ranked by the average rating of a country’s top 10 players, then the <em>entire former Soviet Union</em> ranks within the top 85 countries (out of 149 participating).
So, yeah – you could say they’re pretty good, and given that many of these grandmasters are also proven geniuses you could also say they’re pretty smart. Now, if only we could tell <em>how much</em> chess had to do with it …
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