A lot of people need a real reason to play chess. It isn't enough to simply enjoy the satisfaction of the game; the late nights staring at your laptop blasting Chief Keef mix tapes and crushing noobs, the long drives to tournaments where you sit under fluorescent lights in total quiet, the afternoons at chess clubs with half a dozen people critiquing (usually criticizing) your position, and the general smug self satisfaction of being in the top ten percent at a shitty board game. I don’t count myself among these people who need real productive reasons to play the game, I play it just to play it, but still. They exist. And it’s a reasonable question. Does chess improve your memory? Will it make you a smarter person?
There are actually a lot of mental benefits to chess, but more importantly, there are psychological benefits. See, when you really think about it psychological benefits are better than mental benefits anyway. Would you rather be smarter or more content being a retard? If you give it a fair amount of thought its pretty obvious that having the mental fortitude to accept yourself for being dumber than the average Nickelback fan is actually better than reaching Stephen Hawking levels of brains and hating yourself. Let me get ahold of myself before I digress.
The point is that what chess does is more valuable than simply improving your memory or learning to calculate more intensively. Sure, chess probably does both. I have always had shit memory and trouble concentrating and after four years of playing chess I’m definitely more capable of thinking in abstract terms and remembering complex spacial relationships. But the real value of chess is the psychological value, which includes mental stamina, mental fortitude, pragmatism, risk management, time management, and coping with loss. Chess teaches all these important life skills and all you have to do is move little plastic chess pieces around a board for a few years. It’s great.
A lot of these concepts sort of overlap. I kind of felt like a hack even listing them because time management, risk management etc, they all sound like sort of the same thing. But they really aren’t.
One of the first things a serious chess player realizes is that the game takes a long time to learn. Learning how the pieces move takes maybe a half hour or so. Then you start trying to get the pieces to work together. A few months later you’re feeling pretty confident that you know how to work them together, but every time you play people who actually seriously play the game you find you’re dropping all of your pieces. You can't even concentrate on your own strategy because all over the board your opponent is creating more threats and all your material is hanging or tripping into tactics.
It’s tough. It takes years of deliberate practice to get to even a decent level of competence. And even after years of practice, after several difficult tournaments, after working through tactics books, studying openings, learning the meticulous moves necessary to complete two bishop checkmates or knight and bishop checkmates, you’l play a Fide Master who only has time to play you one blitz game because he’s “trying to focus on more serious games”. That's chess.
And the individual games are just as emotionally taxing. You’ll play hard games against good opponents, have a winning position, you’ll start to feel confident, ready to collect the scalp from the great player who’s suffering under your crushing middle game play…and then you’ll blow it. You’ll hang your queen in the most retarded way possible, your friends will laugh, the old codger in the corner will point out you actually had a mate in one ten moves back, and you’ll slither off to commit sudoku out of shame.
It’s seriously tough. If you are even half decent at chess you put in hard work. You probably spent a lot of long nights playing and working at the game. You studied master games. You did computer drills. You put in all that work and you play a game with a zero-sum outcome. You suffer the emotional toll of losing to someone who was better than you.
It’s good for you. It’s good for your soul.
People like to know if chess will make them smarter. They like to think about how problem solving and breaking down puzzles will turn them into physicists or whatever. In reality, your intelligence is mostly genetic and more importantly, it isn’t very importance to your success in life or happiness. However, the qualities that chess does cultivate are integral to your success and happiness. Skills like risk management and time management, both of which are core to good chess play, are skills that are driving factors in human success.
Chess makes you tougher. It makes you more resilient. You learn to handle losses, you learn to handle change, and you learn how to enjoy internal rewards. You work very hard and are rewarded for the efforts with slow, incremental progress.
So yeah, chess improves your mental stamina. But it really makes you a better human being.