Speed Chess Changed My Brain

Mastering the three-minute game saw improved skills in unexpected places, from poker to planking.
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Mukumbura/Flickr

The poker table was down to three players. I had a queen and a 10. It wasn't the strongest hand, but I'd been analyzing my opponents' playing patterns and knew I needed to send an aggressive signal. As soon as I saw the leader start to move, I went all in and pushed my pile of chips to the center of the table. Both folded. "You didn't even give me a chance to finish my bet," he exclaimed.

By the end of the three-day MBA Poker championship held earlier this year at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, I left with $1,000 in winnings. Yet what was even more satisfying was how I placed: I came in fifth out of 135 players Friday and third out of 35 players that Sunday.

A slew of studies link chess with higher grades and better reading comprehension.

Those rankings aren't phenomenal, but they matter to me because of how much I improved. In the same tournament two years earlier, I had placed in the bottom half of players. Here's the mysterious part: I had barely even played poker over the last year, let alone worked at elevating my game.

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What I had played was chess. Specially, I knocked out some 2,000 games of speed (or "blitz") chess in the two months leading up to the tournament. In fact, I played so much that I'm currently in the top half-percent of more than 1.3 million of blitz players at an online chess competition site. I've always thought of chess as my game, and I was ranked as a national master at age 16. I'd simply come to accept that I would always be an average poker player.

Chess has generated a lot of buzz lately as a learning tool to help children and young adults improve their decision-making ability, concentration, personal responsibility, and sportsmanship. As a supporter of a New York City charity that promotes chess in schools, I've been delighted to see the popularity of the game surge across the nation, especially as a slew of studies link chess with higher grades and better reading comprehension. Chess nights are being held at urban recreation centers. There's even a chess camp for girls to help them become interested in the game. And globally, the ages of the latest crops of chess grand masters are getting younger and younger.

During a game of speed chess on a plane, a flight attendant told me she had never seen anyone so focused before and didn't want to interrupt my game to offer me a drink.

I wondered if chess was the key to my improvement in poker. At first, I played blitz chess for fun. I had just finished a grueling consulting project and had a bit of rare free time, so I indulged in a few 3-minute games here and there. Unlike traditional tournament chess, which can take a couple hours per game, it was convenient to squeeze in a blitz match in between answering morning emails. Plus, the growth of online chess sites means there's a global community of skilled players available any time of the day or night. The problem, though, was that I got so absorbed in the game that I would play for hours. I was surprised at my level of concentration, and I experienced that incredible "flow" when you're so involved in a task that you lose all sense of time.

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Mark Samuelian is a public-policy advocate, small-business owner, and former national chess master. He is based in Miami Beach, Florida.

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