Does Chess Improve Critical Thinking? Let’s Find Out

Does chess improve critical thinking, memory, and concentration? Is it a good game for the brain, and does it increase IQ? Why is it a sport, and can chess burn calories? It’s easy to find questions right away when the game has existed almost as long as humans, but it’s never been as popular as today.

Ever since The Queen’s Gambit tv-series release, the popularity of chess skyrocketed. The game is finally having its moment. New players are picking up chess boards or downloading chess apps for the first time, and people who have not played in years are giving it another go. It’s wild now, and I like it. Before we get into today’s topic, let’s take a short history lesson.

The history of chess in less than 200 words

Chess originated from the Indian war game called Chatarung, which dates to 600 A.D. In 1000 A.D., the Persian traders spread chess all over Europe. Today’s Queen figure was called a ‘ferz’ in Persian and had the role of a male counselor to the king. However, Europeans had different ideas and transformed the ‘ferz’ into a queen as we know it today. At that time, the queen was the weakest piece on the chess board, and the bishop was short-range, resulting in much slower games than today. Can you imagine checkmates in those days?

Someone competent, although unknown, came at the end of the 15th century and transformed the queen into the strongest piece on the board. Meanwhile, the bishop became a long-range piece. These changes switched the game’s dynamic from the core. The competition intensified, and mistakes were no longer tolerable. The game became much faster, and it no longer took 37 hours to checkmate your opponent. By the 16th century, these rules became a worldwide standard. Fun stuff, huh? I bet you now know a thing or two you didn’t before.

Chess today

The most significant development in chess came in the past decade with newer technologies and the development of chess AI, such as Google’s AlphaZero, released in 2017. AlphaZero and its predecessor, Stockfish, cannot be beaten by humans. There’s no chance that you can beat these machines if they don’t let you.

AlphaZero was taught the game rules and then left on its own to play. It learned the game afresh, free from any norms and constraints. It played game after game versus itself many, many times. In the beginning, most games were left unfinished. The engine needed to figure out what to do or how to checkmate. Finally, after playing millions of games, a couple of games were somehow finished, and the engine started to figure it all out. According to Deepmind, AlphaZero’s maker company, it played 44 million games in the first nine hours.

Here’s a quote on it from Garry Kasparov, a former World Chess Champion:

“I can’t disguise my satisfaction that it plays with a very dynamic style, much like my own!”

Why is this important? Because this helps us figure out tactics and strategies we have never seen before. It allows us to gather gazillions of lines of data that we can use to improve our critical thinking and make better moves. It’s modern chess at its finest and makes it even more exciting.

Does chess improve critical thinking?

Let’s get back to the original question. Of course, it does.


To be a good (not great, just good) chess player, you must be able to read your opponent’s moves. If you can predict what move your opponent will make next, you can quickly turn the situation on the board to your advantage. But, to be able to see into the future, even 3, 4, or 9 moves ahead, you must have the ability to see from your opponent’s perspective. Stand in your opponent’s shoes, and try to see the best move. And then figure out how you will trap your opponent when he makes that move. If he doesn’t make that move for any reason, you must anticipate a secondary counter-attack or even a tertiary. It’s crazy how deep a game of chess can go.

Right next to reading your opponent is the ability to memorize the board, pieces, and numerous combinations of moves. Even the ability to religiously follow your strategy without swaying is sometimes tricky. The truth is, much of it comes down to experience and many years in the game. Chess players can quickly remember and recognize visual patterns, which becomes somewhat automated the better you become. You consciously or subconsciously remember specific patterns after playing against them more than a couple of times. I don’t even have to mention this will improve your memory skills.

When you can read your opponent and memorize all the available combinations on the board, it’s time to plan ahead and make your winning moves. That habit of careful contemplation and planning, especially during long chess games, is one of the cognitive health benefits of playing chess. It will also improve your reaction time.

A photograph showing an African-American man thinking and moving chess pieces on the board.
Credits: Cottonbro Studio

Although chess is a great game to have fun and develop your mind and other skills, be careful of the downsides. Playing chess can be stressful, especially for younger people. Healthline states, “Competitive chess players feel a great deal of anxiety about their performance during matches. Some have even described the game as mental torture.” This is why some professionals report losing much weight over a competition, even when they’re only ‘mildly scared.’ During long tournaments, that weight loss can be astronomical, the same as boxers or formula drivers.

Can you see how much thinking goes into a game of chess? No wonder it improves critical thinking and helps you with concentration and memory. Chess is great for problem-solving skills and intelligence and can positively impact your mental health. It’s a sport for a reason and will help you improve in other areas. It’s a game of a few millenniums – enjoy it – go play a few and stimulate your mind.

Chess fun facts

  • The number of possibilities for a Knight’s tour is over 122 million
  • The word checkmate comes from the Persian ‘shah mat,’ which means ‘the king is dead’
  • In theory, the longest game possible is 5,949 moves
  • The longest chess game ever ended in 269 moves, and the game was a draw
  • There are over 9 million different potential plays after both players make three moves
  • A game of sudoku improves critical thinking in a similar way to chess

You can read more amazing facts about the game of chess here. Also, check our guide on the best nootropic supplements to improve critical thinking further.


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