So you want to become better at chess? You’ve tried many things to improve your game, but simply, it hasn’t worked.

Well, why don’t you try becoming a bilingual?


Yes, try to learn XiangQi, the Chinese chess. It may make you a stronger player of its cousin, the Western chess. How may that happen?! The same way as speaking another language benefits your brain. Let’s say you talk with your Mom in one language and with your Dad in another. The neuroscience has evidence that this switching back-and-forth between languages has a profound effect on your brain and makes you actually smarter.

It looks “it forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscle.1

Chess art: Puzzle of Chess, by Flor Verdu

The Puzzle of Chess, art by Flor Verdu

For example, bilinguals are more adept than monolinguals at solving certain kind of mental puzzles.2 A number of studies suggests the bilingual experience improves the brain’s executive function — a command system that we use to perform various activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, solving problems, staying focused, paying attention to and remembering details, switching attention willfully from one thing to another, managing space and time etc.

But the key difference between bilinguals and monolinguals may be more basic: a heightened ability to monitor the environment (aha, here we are, it’s about attention, again – remember superior visual thinkingobservation and examination skills covered here recently?).

“Switching languages requires keeping track of changes around us in the same way that we visually monitor our surroundings when driving” [a car, playing soccer or chess.] “Bilinguals not only performed better, but they also did so with less activity in parts of the brain involved in monitoring, indicating that they were more efficient at it.1

Chinese chess board and pieces

Smaller packing density and more open lines give greater mobility, dynamics and tactical possibilities in Chinese chess

But how can we be sure becoming bilingual and playing both the Chinese and Western chess will work and make you a better chess player?

Look at the Chinese and their success after a relatively late entrance to the international chess arena. Wang Hao, currently ranked #1 in China, was a 15-year-old boy without a title when he won one of the toughest tournaments back in 2005, the Dubai Open, displaying a dazzling performance of 2731 Elo. Wang Hao and many other Chinese players, they all got started by playing XiangQi. Xie Jun, with two reigns as Women’s World Chess Champion, was an U10 XiangQi Champion of Beijing before moving to Western chess.

So how XiangQi may have boosted their Western chess strengths? The explanation may go something like this: both chess dialects represent complex systems where spatial relationships and interactions between pieces determine the system’s behavior. As XiangQi is played on 9×10 board, its packing density is smaller, thus having a greater “maneuverability ratio.” As a result, it’s more dynamic and tactical in nature3 which, in turn, makes it more difficult to play4. This is where lies the advantage of XiangQi players switching to the Western chess – when one gets used to playing a game with a higher maneuverability ratio, they are much better off when playing a game with a lower maneuverability ratio (imagine you’ve reached a certain level in a sport, then you turn to playing it at a slower speed – no doubt, everything will feel much easier!).

* * *

While switching to the Western chess definitely brings great results, it is not quite clear how it would work in reverse direction (remember, you have to be fluent in both “languages” for your brain to take advantage of bilingualism).

Any volunteers?


1. Why Bilinguals Are Smarter (The New York Times article)

2. “The development of two types of inhibitory control in monolingual and bilingual children” study (Michelle Martin-Rhee and Ellen Bialystok); see also The Bilingual Advantage, the NYT interview with Ellen Bialystok, a cognitive neuroscientist.

3. In Chinese chess you can amazingly deliver even a quadruple check!?!

4. Better Chess the Chinese Way (Dr René Gralla’s interview with Prof. David H. Li on

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