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Benefits of Chess: Executive Functions Part I

“Stop. Think. Act. In a society that lacks impulse control, most people do the reverse.”

– Maurice Ashley

Every chess player can relate to playing a move in a game only to instantly realize its flaw once it’s too late. As a chess coach I spend a significant amount of time helping my students learn how to think in order to reduce such occurrences. Especially for children at the beginner level, it is often a problem of simply wanting instant gratification (or simply impatience), and so they are more likely to make a quick move. Below I will show four examples of how problems relating to impulse control can have great affect on the outcome of games.

Players of all levels struggle with this, sometimes in different ways. This problem often manifests itself when players spend too little time considering different options in a position and miss a critical moment or, conversely, use too much time when it isn’t warranted. Being too eager to finish off a winning position and letting your guard down has led countless players to make uncharacteristic mistakes. Not having a disciplined thought process leads to poor decisions.

When coaching, I help my students to understand how to guide themselves to a solution in an efficient way. This is a critical skill to succeed in chess and in life. Skills such as decision-making, planning, sequencing behavior, and inhibiting natural responses, among others, are all a part of executive functioning (EF) that humans begin to develop during early childhood. Chess is a natural tool to teach EF as many of the components developed while learning chess are also EF skills. My method as a coach involves making a conscious effort to increase executive functioning among my students so that the benefits of chess can carry over not just to school, but in everyday life.

The number one problem that young players face is their lack of impulse control when it comes to making decisions over the board. As soon as it is their turn to move, they lash out with the first move that comes to their mind. Playing on intuition or just making the first move you see will not be enough to win. Take the following very simple example of an impulsive move gone wrong:

To any chess player with a bit of experience the above example may seem preposterous, yet maybe not so surprisingly I was actually able to find THREE examples in the Chessbase Mega Database that saw this exact move order occur on the board. While two resulted in quick wins for White, the below game resulted in a draw after a swashbuckling game between two young ladies in the 2000 Berlin U10 Girls Championship:

For someone who has just learned the game of chess, it can take some time for them to resist the urge to immediately move the king out of danger. Though it is the natural first reaction, moving the king often leads to more trouble as we have just seen. It is like fleeing the scene when you are involved in a traffic accident. While avoidance may be the first instinct, someone with good executive functions would know that avoidance ultimately causes more problems than it solves.

As mentioned earlier, not recognizing a critical moment or playing for the incorrect goal can lead to disaster as in the following interesting example:

Luckily there are strategies that students can learn that will help them with their decision making. For example, I always remind my students that they should start every move by carefully considering the reason behind their opponent's last move. Being consistent with this step avoids the problem of immediately diving into thought of your own moves/plans while forgetting that your opponent has their own plans that need to be taken into consideration. Often their opponent's plans are obvious to spot, but nevertheless they can be missed if the time is not taken to look at it.

You also tend to see problems with impulse control when players reach better or winning positions, but then fail to win because they think the hard part is over and they stop putting in their maximum effort. The following amusing situation occurred in one of my serious tournament games. The following position is a classic tortoise and the hare situation:

My opponent in the above example made the mistake of racing to victory, but not putting in his full effort in a position where he had an advantage, and as a result he moved too quickly to complete what he thought was the decisive combination. Letting your guard down has led countless players to make uncharacteristic mistakes. Examples such as this show how important it is to remain patient and thorough when analyzing a position, and how reacting impulsively can lead to costly errors.

While impulse control is perhaps one of the most important skills that chess can teach you, there are many other areas that chess can help as well, including emotional control, flexible thinking, working memory, self-monitoring, planning and prioritizing, task initiation, and organization. These will be the topic of future blog posts. In the meantime you can read more about my approach here. Learning chess has a lot to offer players of all ages, and it is no wonder that schools across the country are adding chess to their programs and more and more adults are taking up the game.

While not everyone will become the next Grandmaster Maurice Ashley or World Champion Magnus Carlsen, by studying the game of chess you can learn a lot about a complex and exciting game, all while learning better executive functioning that will last a lifetime.

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