Does being good at math help with chess? A case study

There is a huge misunderstanding regarding the effects of learning chess on student’s mathematical abilities. This is an issue perpetuated by avid chess learners that I can give a full answer off!

There are those who think that math and chess are correlated with one another, that being good at this subject can suddenly make you good at chess. I can kinda get the logic to this, but I need to tell you the truth.

As a chess player here is what I know

Knowledge gained from immersing oneself in chess studies is a completely different skill that does not translate into anything mathematical-related. Tangential cognitive abilities may perhaps be in play but are not enough in relatedness to convert into anything significant.

This is interesting to me since I am both bad at chess and math at some point in my life, I didn’t exactly get the talent in both pursuits. However, I immersed myself in chess and have become better. This is an excellent case study for this article.

Being good at math does not mean you are already good at chess

Learning chess-related skills may not boost mathematical excellence, but learning in general, yeah. There are certain facets within the learning experience that could transpose into similar pursuits.

What I mean by that is there is enough evidence to indicate effectiveness in learning, but not learning math in specific.

To really dig deep upon the entirety of all chess benefits, I highly suggest you check out my other article entitled “35 benefits of chess”. It is a complete satisfying guide to all the things Chess can offer! Click this link (will open in a new tab) and you shall be taken there.

But to give you a taste, here are some of the effects chess can do on the cognitive function:

  1. Problem Solving- The essence of chess! Finding creative solutions to problems, which we do all the time.
  2. Quick Thinking- making good moves in spite of time pressure is essential to chess and life in general.
  3. Mental Capacity- taps into the nature of the brain to remember more things.
  4. Spatial Skill- being able to navigate directions and calculate the area of space (not math-related).
  5. Creativity- to create something that is less practiced before.
  6. Planning and Insight- To formulate instructions on how things are done and why.

There are actually many things I can list here, so many in fact that it may take up all the length to discuss what’s necessary, chess and math! So I really recommend you check out that link I left above, I’m sure you find it interesting. And just a hint, improving on Math is not one of those 35 benefits!

Fun fact: I suck down to earth on math. After almost failing my first-year college study on Basic Algebra, I can still crush 90% of people who play chess.

Michael

Why people think that math and chess are correlated

Getting back to the case, a couple of arguments are being made to support this theory of “Chess improves Math”. Here they are:

a.) Both math and chess involves problem-solving

This is a big one, the idea that Chess involves so much problem solving that therefore it makes people great at math since it is also problem-solving. And yeah, that will be true, if it wasn’t for context! It’s not about the “problem solving” part, but what’s the actual application of such problem-solving.

Almost everything in life requires solving problems, and chess knowledge is explicit enough to not transpose in Math. Learning how to properly untangle from a pin does not help a child learn division, as they are both problem-solving in different contexts.

b.) Both math and chess has a similar process of learning

Another similarity of learning chess to math is the stages of growth, the idea that you can’t use advanced techniques before learning the basics.

And that is actually true, you can’t know how to solve algebraic equations without knowing subtraction or multiplication, similar to how you can checkmate without learning how the pieces move.

But that is something you can figure out with common sense! If you’re going to spend time learning chess just to realize that then it’s not worth it.

c.) Both math and chess caters to memorization

This idea of being able to memorize lines in chess so extensively that it could apply to remembering formulas. Which I don’t know, maybe? Because being someone in tune with a lot of theoretical chess did not help me memorize basic formulas.

In chess, the things you write on top of your head are the moves, which don’t involve words and letters. Now, this might be more of a personal thing but is still worth considering.

d.) Both math and chess involves a matter of probability

Another thing is this claim of necessity concerning probability when predicting the opponent’s moves. That you are basically calculating the possibility of future moves, and therefore this component should translate into actual mathematical probability.

The problem is that you are calculating probability in a way yes, but not in the way that is used in mathematical problems! You are basically putting your own shoes to that of the opponent’s and seeing the best move for his/her side, a different kind of calculation. It’s not the same!

It doesn’t matter whether math is correlated with chess

But let’s say that there is a clear correlation between learning chess and improving math, however still, is it the best way to learn the thing or is there a more efficient approach?

Here are the reasons why you shouldn’t use chess as a tool even if it helps:
● Time- this is a big one! If you spend the same time learning actual math as the time spent learning Chess, then you would probably be better off.
● Diminishing returns- a time will come where all benefits would take a hit in a way that doesn’t bring any more value, and it’s hard to tell when.
● Surface learning- any knowledge picked up from playing chess can only be useful in a very shallow way, complicated calculations require more time investing in doing math than chess.

Now, some people will claim that the influence is not direct, but rather is a consequence of the game for the brain. Well, I’m here, I’ve been playing chess for years and still suck at math!

My experience is a good variable since Chess and Math are pretty much my worst skillset! I’ve gotten good at chess by studying chess, and still bad at math even by learning alongside it. Let’s look at some case studies to delve even deeper.

Case studies about the relatedness of math and chess

Numerous experiments have been tested again and again to identify a correlation between chess and math. There was this famous review of a meta-analysis involving this very same topic that was published on Educational review (2016), which you can view here.

A correlation has been found between people that have been playing chess in terms of cognitive transfer, meaning a similar skill has been used in a completely different field. The authors (Giovanni Sala and Fernando Gobet) heavily criticized the study pointing no separate activity that can compare the data against.

This is a problem since the result is vulnerable to the influence of a psychological phenomenon known as a placebo basically, I feel better because I perceive to feel better, rather than actually feeling better.

New Study about the relatedness of math and chess

Due to this, the researcher actually conducted their own study taking 233 third and fourth graders, giving them chess lessons, and testing for mathematical significance. You can view the study here (2017). It’s the same study, except there are three variables this time: those who played chess, checkers, and none at all.

That was the first study, a second smaller one (52 students) participated in the same format only this time, go was in play over checkers. No significant change was recorded on student’s mathematical aptitude comparing all the tested groups, indicating minimal effects if there is any. This brings us to the root of this debate, bad distinction.

No correlation between math and chess

There is a moment in time where music has been claimed to increase intellectual competence among people of all ages.

A famous myth that you might have even heard is “listening to classical music can increase cognitive abilities” which is actually not true, you can google it. This is a claim of bad distinction, that a test group doing well in a particular subject means that the subject is automatically “the reason”.

Evidence is all that matters

Chess players may appear to exhibit more intellectual properties, but that’s what makes them attracted to the game in the first place, not having the game develop that trait. These people are usually introverts who like to study and analyze things, and of course, will appear to be “smarter”.

Now, there is actual evidence to support some mental benefits purported by the game, but mathematics is not one of them!

Final thoughts

Mathematics and Chess are two completely different areas of interest that warrant similar skills with different uses. If you want to be better at math, then do the math! not chess. Transitional knowledge is apparently little to non-existent n this one, so we gotta adjust our priorities. Happy to write this article, sleep well and play chess.

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