The Invisible Gorilla vs Chess

The Invisible Gorilla vs Chess

Jun 26, 2012, 10:23 AM |

As a chess enthusiast, I have a natural bias in favor of the positive qualities of this great game of intellectual curiosity Surprised.

I would like to really want to believe that chess is a wonderful instrument that paves the way for  youth like me to achieve academic success, but to do so without thought (and after all, isn’t chess all about thought?) is a failure on my part to acknowledge the 800-pound “Invisible Gorilla” sitting next to me in the same room! Cool

And, what is that 800-pound behemoth? 

It is the question, “does chess make you smarter?” Interested? Read on......


I’m always fascinated by information as it pertains to our complex organ, (do you know which?).... the kidneys, thats right the kidneys lol Laughing, just kidding, its obviously the brain, information enters from the spinal cord and comes up the middle of the brain. It branches out like a tree and goes to the surface of the brain.  

When I came across a book published by two fellow chess enthusiasts in 2011 titled “The Invisible Gorilla” I paid particular attention to a chapter in this book, entitled Get Smart Quick! 

In this chapter, the authors, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons (both their surnames end in a 's', coincidence or spooky? lol my jokes are awful, forgive meInnocent), discuss what they call the illusion of potential, in other words, this common belief that many of us have that there are ways to enhance the potential of the mind…the old we only use 10% of our brain capacity argument.  Naturally, there are many folks who believe chess is one of those instruments that can enhance the remaining 90% of our brain.

An often heard belief about chess, and one that I’ve heard many times from school officials, parents, online and others, is this belief that chess IS that very instrument…that chess does make us smarter. 


It’s important to note that the very statement “chess makes us smarter” is a definitive one, which in the scientific world means it is a causal one.

So in layman terms :One spends considerable time learning & playing chess, therefore, it CAUSES one to be smarter. 

Chabris and Simons spend some considerable time (about 3/4 of the chapter, required many oreos and strawberry yazoo bottles lol Cool) in this chapter about the scientific difference between causation and correlation, or whether something directly causes an effect, or appears to be a factor that MAY influence an outcome. 

Does chess make us smarter, or does it provide skill sets that may be A factor in improving our cognitive abilities?  Based on their research, they don’t sit on the fence on this topic: 

“…Practicing games like chess will enhance your ability to do chess-related tasks, but the transfer is relatively limited.  Advocates for adding chess to school curricula argue that ‘chess makes you smarter,’ but there is no solid evidence for this claim from large, properly controlled experiments…There are some correlational studies showing that children who play chess do better academically than children who do not, but they do not demonstrate that learning chess causes you to improve in other areas (Perhaps smarter kids are more likely to be interested in chess).  For example, see K. van Delfi, ‘Chess as a Subject in Elementary School,’ unpublished report, University of Amsterdam, 1992. No experimental studies on this question have been published in quality journals; the best of these may be ‘Chess and Cognitive Development,’ an unpublished 1976 doctoral dissertation by Johan Christiaen of Rijksuniversiteit Gent, Belgium.  Christiaen randomly assigned twenty fifth-graders to chess instruction and twenty to a control group and found that the chess group did better on some tests of cognitive development.” [1]

Like many debates in scientific circles (which can be quite scary), there are others who are adamant that chess DOES teach us certain skill sets such as:


2)critical thinking

3)problem solving,

and this is true, well at least I think so (no-one cares what I think right? lol Cry). 

The question really becomes do these skill sets, if properly developed, transfer to non-chess activities? 

Does the systemic teaching of the critical thinking process result in enhanced academic performance? 

These are the 800-pound questions looming in our face. 

Thanks for reading,


[1] SiouxEmpireChess, under 'Chabris and Simons'.

Thanks Bob Murray Boland (editor of joomla) for reviewing my work and finally Zoe Huntington (senior psychology student, University of Nottingham) for providing the oreos, but mainly for helping me evaluate 'The Invisible Gorrila'.