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Chess on the Brain

Emma Wegner, Assistant Museum Educator, The Cloisters

Posted: Friday, March 23, 2012

Children begin their games during a chess tournament organized by Chess-in-the-Schools, held in the Fuentidueña Chapel at The Cloisters on March 11, 2012. Photograph by Nancy Wu

«After the success of our chess tournament in December, Shaun Smith, the Director of School Programs at Chess-in-the-Schools (CIS), contacted us to say how much the players had enjoyed themselves and that it would be great to do it again before the Lewis Chessmen exhibition ends in April. On Sunday, March 11, we hosted a second tournament, this time from CIS programs at four New York City elementary schools: PS 503K, PS 160K, PS 98M, and PS 31K. Thirty children, grades one through five, arrived early to play out the ancient battle between Kings, Queens, Pawns, and Knights.»

Chess Tournament at The Cloisters

After each game, players went over their moves with CIS instructors in the Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert cloister. Photograph by Nancy Wu

CIS staff once again offered chess lessons and game time to visitors in the St.-Guilhem-le-Désert cloister while the tournament took place next door in the Fuentidueña Chapel. Even Dr. Nancy Wu, the head of the Education Office at The Cloisters sat down for her very first lesson with instructor Joel Yoffie. After some quick instruction in the moves of the various pieces, they began to play in earnest. Nancy was quickly confounded. "I can only think one move ahead. You are thinking three steps ahead. How do you do that?" she asked as she found her pieces boxed into a corner, her King left cowering and undefended behind his timorous army.

At the next table, a small boy who could not have been more than five years old was having a lesson with another CIS staff member. His proud parents stood by, snapping photographs and admiring the competitive spirit of their precocious progeny, who clearly relished the opportunity to play with an expert.

"Do you play chess at home?" I asked. The father said yes, he had taught the game to his son, who was now so good that he won every time.

I wondered how this very young person was able to perceive the path to victory on the chessboard, while only a few feet away a highly educated adult beginner couldn't see beyond the first few moves. Does chess require a "certain kind of brain"? Is it age related? I decided to investigate.

Chess Tournament at The Cloisters

Learning chess has been shown to improve children's reading scores as well as their emotional intelligence. Photograph by Nancy Wu

Quite a few scientific studies and articles have been published about the brains of chess players. One of the recent ones I came across, from January 2011, was published in the journal PloS One. For this study, a team of German scientists compared MRI scans of chess experts' brain activity to those of chess novices while both groups were engaged in two tasks: first, identifying simple geometric shapes; second, observing the positions of pieces on a chessboard. During the first task, there were no differences between the groups, which meant that the expert chess players did not demonstrate any exceptional visualization skills. During the second task, however, the scans of the chess experts showed activity in two areas of the brain—the area associated with object recognition and the area involving pattern recognition—while the scans of the novice players showed activity in only one area (object recognition). The chess experts also looked at the chess diagrams in a different way than the novices. Rather than looking directly at the pieces and trying to understand them individually, they looked at the center of the board and took in the large-scale placement of all the pieces. In other words, they could see the big picture, and their analysis was more efficient. The good news for beginners is that the experts' skill is not innate; it is acquired, honed, and developed through many chessboard victories and defeats.

The results come as no surprise to the staff or students working with CIS. Christine Jaramillo, a player from PS 98M, told me that she enjoyed playing chess because it made her think creatively. This puts her in a long tradition of creative, chess-playing thinkers. During the Middle Ages, skill and prowess in chess was considered an accomplishment appropriate to the nobility. In his classic 1913 tome A History of Chess, H. J. R. Murray observed that many medieval romances featured chess, and the heroes were often described as being highly proficient players. He also notes that there was no gender divide: "The noble's daughter learnt chess beside her brother, and grew up every whit as fond of the game as he, and proved in general as good a player as, or even better than, the knights in her acquaintance." Chess was not just a game to be mastered, but it was used as an allegory for all kinds of other important battles, including virtue and vice, life and death, and even love. Skill at the game of chess was considered good training for these other kinds of struggles.

These principles are still very much at the heart of CIS's mission. Learning chess has been demonstrated to improve children's reading scores as well as their emotional intelligence. In a 1999 study, fifth graders who participated in the Chess-in-the-Schools program were given an overall success rate of 91.4% in handling real-life situations with emotional intelligence, while non–chess-playing children had a rate of only 64.4%. Shaun Smith told me about one player in the CIS program who had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder; learning to play chess had also helped his concentration skills.

Chess Tournament at The Cloisters

Higher-ranking players used reproduction Lewis Chessmen sets. Photograph by Nancy Wu

As in the December tournament, the top competitors last Sunday were allowed to play with reproductions of the Lewis Chessmen from the British Museum. At the beginning of the tournament, Shaun reminded the players to slow down and think about each move rather than speed through the game. He told us that playing with the reproduction sets was a good way to make the more reckless and impatient players stop and concentrate, as the pieces were unfamiliar. Some of the top players turned the pieces sideways to make them more recognizable.

Chess Tournament at The Cloisters

Three young chess players from the PS 98 Knightmares chess club pose in front of the trophy table. Photograph by Nancy Wu

After the first round, Edward Joya from PS 160K and I looked at the Lewis Chessmen together. He had just won a game played on one of the reproduction sets. His competitor was one of the highest-ranking players at the tournament, but Edward was modest about his victory. "He got confused about the pieces," he explained.

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About the Author

Emma Wegner is the assistant Museum educator at The Cloisters museum and gardens.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis, on view at The Cloisters November 15, 2011–April 22, 2012.