Optimal Brain Play

by Nicole Bruce

In a recent Psychology Today article, Susan R. Barry, Ph.D. explores the connection between chess and the brain, and says, “Our brain is highly adaptable and opportunistic. While certain areas may be wired from infancy for specific functions and skills, novel demands and extensive experience can recruit and perhaps rewire those regions to allow us to develop expertise in all sorts of new and dramatic ways.” 

The brain’s need for stimulation is one of the many reasons CJE SeniorLife Board Member Richard Kohn and his wife Joan created a Pilot Chess Program at CJE. Earlier this year, they donated chess equipment and free weekly instruction at two of CJE’s residences: Swartzberg House and Farwell House. “Chess is undergoing a tremendous renaissance in the United States. It’s being taught in many schools as a way of teaching critical thinking as well as sportsmanship and mental agility...Chess teaches you patience, concentration and problem solving, and those are skills that have great value in many aspects of life,” says Kohn.

Kohn has been a Board Member at CJE SeniorLife since 2009 and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Brain Research Foundation. Inspired by his personal interest in chess, it occurred to him that this could be invigorating for residents at CJE. “Chess affects the brain in very good ways. Doing something challenging in a new or different subject, such as trying mind games or learning a new language—that is, mental exercise that is different from what you normally do—is extremely beneficial,” he says.

Kohn recruited his own teacher, Shiva Maharaj, a coach for over 1,000 Chicago-area school students, for the residents in CJE’s program. Each facility received ten chess sets and residents can play at their leisure.

“I hope it stimulates them, exercises their mind, and occupies them. But first and foremost, I hope that they have fun,” says Kohn.

Some unexpectedly pleasant developments have occurred through the program. Varuzhan Akobian, an Armenian-American chess Grandmaster, visited CJE at the start of the program and offered to help Maharaj teach at CJE when in Chicago. Also, the competition at CJE is growing fierce. Farwell House has already challenged Swartzberg House to a tournament!

Maharaj is excited about a tournament he is organizing between the generations. Older adults would compete with his school-age students, with each group inspiring the other. “Shiva is very excited about this project. He feels that this could grow in a very nice way,” explains Kohn.

Demonstrating that there are no age limits when it comes to a complex game of chess, a 91-year old novice player just enrolled in the CJE Chess Program. It just goes to show that the human mind, young or old, can adapt to new challenges and CJE SeniorLife offers a myriad of ways to stimulate it.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of LIFE, CJE SeniorLife's quarterly magazine.