Speed Chess Changed My Brain

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

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.

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.

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.

JUNE 24, 2013 | The Atlantic | Speed Chess Changed My Brain