Mental Exercise

As we get older, our muscles tend to ache more and function less. The same holds true for our brains. As we age, we all have what are referred to as “senior moments” where we forget something, be it where we parked our car or what we were just talking about. Like the rest of our body, our brain ages. Mental activities that seemed easy in our youth become more challenging with age. Often, we limit our mental activities to give our brains a rest (watching television, the opiate of the masses). However, this can do more harm than good because we become mentally sluggish. To avoid mental sluggishness, we must employ mental exercise. Board and card games are a great way to work our brains out and stay sharp!

One thing I’ve noticed in older friends is a lack of pattern recognition. I had a friend over and he was looking at a puzzle whose solution was based on recognizing a specific pattern. He was struggling and, in disgust, handed the puzzle to me. I found the pattern quickly and solved the puzzle. He was astounded and proclaimed me brilliant. I explained to him that it had nothing to do with brilliance (I’m two steps ahead of being the town dunce) and everything to do with spotting patterns. Being able to spot patterns helps to keep the mind sharp! This is why certain games can be beneficial in maintaining a healthy active mind.

One thing you can do is to play simple card games, such as solitaire, which employs pattern recognition. Like a physical exercise routine, you have to slowly develop your mental exercises, going from simple exercises to harder exercises. Physically speaking, if you’re going to get into weight lifting, you’re not going to start by lifting the heaviest weights in the gym. You’re going to slowly work up to it by starting with lighter weights. The same holds true for mental exercise. Play a few hands of solitaire each day. Doing it in the morning with your tea or coffee will get your brain working better than the caffeine in either beverage. Next you’ll want to try simple crossword puzzles. I say simple because taking on The New York Times daily puzzle will leave you with a headache if you’re not a crossword puzzle person. Of course, these activities are really a build up for the main event, playing chess. If ever there was a game that will keep you mentally fit, it’s chess!

Now, chess isn’t going to make you smarter. You’re stuck with the brain you were born with, but like muscles, you can build your brain up. Chess will help you get your brain into the best shape it can be in given age, etc. So why chess?

Chess combines a number of intellectual challenges ranging from pattern recognition to planning and thinking ahead. In short, it’s a one stop shopping experience for anyone wanting to workout their brain. When I first started playing, you had to find other human beings to play since there were no chess computers (or home computers for that matter). Now, you can get an app or software program that provides you with a playing partner around the clock. The advantage to a mechanical opponent is that you can throw fit when you lose and be completely non-sportsman-like when you win. You can also swear to your hearts delight when the app or program crushes you, something you can’t do with human opponents. Of course, I’m just kidding (Well, I do yell at my computer when I lose). The point is that you’ll always have someone to play (although there is no substitute for a human opponent). Let’s look at what chess can help you with, starting with pattern recognition.

Having great pattern recognition abilities is like being able to see a fourth dimension. We’ve all read about additional dimensions and can grasp the concept, but what if we could truly see in four dimensions? No you won’t be able to see Einstein’s Fourth Dimension, but you’ll more clearly in our Three Dimensional world. Nature is full of interesting patterns, many of which unlock it’s mysteries. Most humans have trouble seeing anything but very obvious patterns. Chess is a game in which pattern recognition is key. Recognizing patterns on the chessboard helps to develop mental focus and mental focus allows us to concentrate with greater ease (less stress on the brain). Recognizing patterns helps us to solve problems as opposed to becoming stressed because we can’t figure something out when the clues are right in front of us.

Planning is another problem for many people. We all know someone who can’t make the simplest of plans even if their life depended on it. The problem with “bad planners” is that they don’t consider all the variables in a given situation. Chess will help you think in terms of variables which will make your planning more full proof. Those who plan well in life do well in life.

Thinking ahead is something most human beings have trouble with. I know so many people (mostly non chess players) who plan something, consider 99% of the variables and then run into that one variable they didn’t think of. Their plan comes to a crashing halt and doesn’t go forward because the planner hasn’t thought ahead. When I say “thought ahead,” I’m talking about the backup plan that deals with the one variable you didn’t think of. Learning the game of chess and playing it regularly will help you learn how to create plans and backup plans because in chess you have to think ahead. Chess is a pleasant way to develop this type of thinking and will serve you well when facing one of life’s many major or minor daily roadblocks.

Patience may be the greatest lesson to be learned on the chessboard. Let’s face it, we live in a fast paced world in which technology sets the speed at which we do things. There was a time when it took thirty minutes to get online and hours to download a small file. Now people complain if they don’t see their Google homepage in under five seconds and have a fit if they can’t download a file in the blink of an eye. They then carry that thinking to situations like trying to drive from one place to another. This leads to them stressing out which is bad for the body and mind. Chess will help you develop patience which will reduce your stress level. Stress really does kill people. Therefore, chess can save lives (I know, kind of a shameless statement).

So, if you’re an older person or even a stressed out younger person whose brain sometimes shuts down, try taking up chess. However, don’t expect to master the game quickly. It takes time and patience. You might not ever master it but will reap the benefits I mentioned. I was never patient in my youth and had trouble learning things. My brain would freeze up at key moments and my planning skills were dreadful. Now, my brain works better than when I was 20 (except for forgetting where I parked my car at least four times a week – but I can recall the most obscure facts regarding science, chess and Mandarin – at twenty I was my village’s chief idiot). Play some chess or cards. Do something to stretch those mental muscles. Here’s game to ponder until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).