Mental Gains from the Classic Games

Meditation creates a “virtuous cycle” where the ability to calm your mind increases self-awareness and self-awareness makes it easier to calm the mind. But meditation isn’t the only way to access this positive feedback loop. In fact, in ancient societies it was known for centuries that certain activities have a similar effect and can act as an aid to those seeking self refinement.

One of those aids is the game of Go, which has long been held to offer those who play it meaningful parallels to understand important Buddhist principles like impermanence and interdependence. For modern people, who tend to be more interested in meditation for the pragmatic rather than the spiritual, the benefits of Go are similar to the benefits of that other strategy game more familiar to westerners—chess.

Both games have held similar places in their respective societies. Chess is known as the game of kings, an art as much as a skill and a far stretch from those lesser games of chance that intoxicate their practitioners with the possibility of unearned gain or various forms of trickery.

Chess and Go depend entirely on the players’ skill, though the opponent’s actions and reactions create fortune in some measure.

Benjamin Franklin’s famous essay, “The Moral of Chess,” captures some of the most well-acknowledged benefits of playing the game, though modern research has made its own attempts to catalogue chess’s cognitive benefits.

Franklin, before venturing into a list of warnings for those who lack civility in the game, celebrated what it offered. It gave those that played the ability of foresight, circumspection, caution, and resilience, he wrote. Foresight is that essential ability to look forward and anticipate the reactions to each action. Circumspection is the ability to mind the interactions and potentials of many different factors, while caution emphasizes taking no undue risk and being careful with each move. And finally resilience, which is in some ways the greatest benefit of chess because it is a game where losing a piece can sometimes claim your hope and lead to a reckless, hopeless gameplay that guarantees defeat.

Franklin goes on at some length about how chess teaches one not to become discouraged, about how “one so frequently, after long contemplation, discovers the means of extricating one’s self from a supposed insurmountable difficulty.”

This is one of the great lessons of chess and offers an immediate and visceral opportunity to learn what modern psychology labels “emotional self regulation.” This idea is better known by many other names such as fortitude, forbearance, patiences, and self-mastery.

This is perhaps the greatest benefit that chess players gain and it comes in close parallel with those benefits gained by meditation. In meditation, one strives to still the mind, and in doing so comes face-to-inner face with a clatter of discordant thought that stirs a hundred whims and feelings. The effort of meditation makes one see themselves more clearly, and in doing so, gain some separation from the various mental barnacles that attach themselves to each one of us as we traverse this world and its endless bombardments.

In chess, this experience is played out in black and white, in the rise and fall of expectation of triumph. The challenge each chess player faces it their ability to maintain focus amid the expectation of certain victory or presumed defeat. If you can learn to see your reaction as the game unfolds, you can better attenuate the arrogance or despair that can impair your play by clouding your concentration with expectation.

So it is with life. The better we can see our expectations and emotions, the more likely we can escape their gravity. It is all too easy to chain ourselves with the thinnest thread of resignation when the board of life yet offers a hundred possible moves all in the direction of a better position.

Researchers will suggest chess has countless other benefits, from the potential to stave off dementia, to increased concentration and stronger cognitive processing (brain work like learning something new or figuring out a math problem).

But for most of us, the real benefit of games like chess and go, or meditation, is that they grant us larger access to our own minds, and the ability to control the potential that resides there.