(Roughly) Daily

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”*…

In the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, based on a novel by Walter Tevis, a burly custodian in an orphanage basement, hunched over a chess board, intrigues a nine-year-old girl named Beth Harmon, who sees him playing, under a dim light, against himself. This Mr. Shaibel can tell Beth’s a bit desperate to understand what he’s doing, and begrudgingly agrees to teach her to play. At night, high on the tranquilizers the staff administers to orphans—this is the early 1960s—she practices tactics in bed, staring up at a chess board that she hallucinates on the ceiling. Beth advances rapidly in skill, until Mr. Shaibel, who plays in a club, can no longer reserve how impressed he is at her abilities. He invites a fellow chess player, who heads the local high school chess group, to meet Beth, and recruit her. She ends up playing the boys in the club simultaneously, including last year’s champion. A crowd of students forms as she bests each one.

As I watched Beth dreamily focus on her imaginary chess board, simulating alternative possibilities, I thought about how that must be shaping her brain, particularly the part dedicated to planning and decision-making, the frontal cortex. Compared to other regions, it’s uniquely malleable, or plastic. Stanford behavioral endocrinologist Robert Sapolsky calls it “the brain’s hotspot for plasticity.” Our brains are changing, forming new neural connections and severing others all the time, of course. But at a young age the brain’s plasticity is much more pronounced. This is something that Tom Vanderbilt discussed in his Nautilus feature, “Learning Chess at 40,” in which he reports what it was like taking up the game with his four-year-old daughter. Neil Charness, a psychologist who has studied cognition through chess for years, told Vanderbilt, “If you’re talking about two novices, your daughter would probably pick things up about twice as fast as you could.” In that way it’s like learning a language—children can assimilate the game’s complex rules and action much more intuitively and quickly than an adult.

This means that chess offers a unique opportunity. It could perhaps be the ultimate window through which we might see how our mental powers shift during our lives. This is because the moves of professional chess players in games, going back over a century, are recorded, and so researchers can objectively analyze the quality of players’ moves over their career, inferring cognitive rise and decline. And that’s exactly what a recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, did…

How a game that dates from the 6th century can teach us about ourselves and how we change as we age: “Scientists Analyzed 24,000 Chess Matches to Understand Cognition.”

The study- is here: “Life cycle patterns of cognitive performance over the long run.”

* George Bernard Shaw

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As we consider our next move, we might recall that it was on this date in 1877 that the first meeting of the Manhattan Chess Club was held; the entrance fee was $1 per person and dues were $4 per year. MCC was, until it closed in 2002, the second-oldest chess club in the U.S. (The oldest, The Mechanics Library Chess Club in San Francisco, first met in 1854– and is still in operation.)

Bobby Fischer, left, played a speed match against Andrew Soltis in 1971 at the Manhattan Chess Club

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