How Chess Can Help Stave Off Alzheimer's

Still, much to my wife's dismay, I got hooked. It is an intoxicating game that, though often grueling, never grows tiresome. The exquisite interplay of the simple and the complex is hypnotic: the pieces and moves are elementary enough for any five-year-old to quickly soak up, but the board combinations are so vast that all the possible chess games could never be played—or even known—by a single person. Other parlor games sufficiently amuse, entertain, challenge, distract; chess seizes. It does not merely engage the mind; it takes hold of the mind in a way that suggests a primal, hardwired connection.

Even more powerfully, though, I became transported by chess's rich history. It seemed to have been present in every place and time, and to have been utilized in every sort of activity. Kings cajoled and threatened with it; philosophers told stories with it; poets analogized with it; moralists preached with it. Its origins are wrapped up in some of the earliest discussions of fate versus free will. It sparked and settled feuds, facilitated and sabotaged romances, and fertilized literature from Dante to Nabokov. A thirteenth-century book using chess as a guide to social morality may have been the second-most popular text in the Middle Ages, after the Bible. In the twentieth century, chess enabled computer scientists to create intelligent machines. Chess has also, in modern times, been used to study memory, language, math, and logic, and has recently emerged as a powerful learning tool in elementary and secondary schools.

The more I learned about chess's peculiarly strong cultural relevance in century after century, the more it seemed that chess's endurance was no historical accident. As with the Bible and Shakespeare, there was something particular about the game that made it continually accessible to generation after generation. It served a genuine function--perhaps not vital, but often far more than merely useful. I often found myself wondering how particular events or lives would have unfolded in chess's absence--a condition, I learned, that many chess haters had ardently sought. Perhaps the most vivid measure of chess's potency, in fact, is the determination of its orthodox enemies to stamp it out--as long ago as a ruling in 655 by Caliph Ali Ben Abu-Talib (the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law), and as recently as decrees by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1981, the Taliban in 1996, and the Iraqi clergy in post-Saddam Iraq. In between, chess was tamped down:

in 780 by Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi ibn al-Mansur

in 1005 by Egypt's al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah

in 1061 by Cardinal Damiani of Ostia

in 1093 by the Eastern Orthodox Church

in 1128 by St. Bernard

in 1195 by Rabbi Maimonides

in 1197 by the Abbot of Persigny

in 1208 by the Bishop of Paris

in 1240 by religious leaders of Worcester, England

in 1254 by King Louis IX of France (St. Louis)

in 1291 by the Archbishop of Canterbury

in 1310 by the Council of Trier (Germany)

in 1322 by Rabbi Kalonymos Ben Kalonymos

in 1375 by France's Charles V

in 1380 by Oxford University's founder William of Wickham

in 1549 by the Protohierarch Sylvester of Russia

and in 1649 by Tsar Alexei

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