Chess as a Tool for Addiction Recovery

Popular media is full of tropes involving the concept of a tortured genius. The Netflix limited series The Queen’s Gambit was a viral phenomena, bringing the game of Chess to a massive audience during quarantine. The protagonist, Beth Harmon, is a young chess prodigy. She is also a barely functioning barbiturate addict and alcoholic who hallucinates chess moves as a way to practice her game. In the 2019 movie The Coldest Game Bill Pullman stars as grandmaster Joshua Mansky who drinks a bottle of vodka a day in order to be able to function in chess as well as spycraft.   But there’s another side of the story: an increasing number of chess advocates are exploring the use of chess as a way out of addiction. I stumbled upon chess during my personal recovery from alcoholism and am now one of those advocates myself.   Detoxing with Chess Influencers discovered how popular chess had become during an inpatient detox in 2022. The challenge during detox is largely one of simply distracting yourself and passing the time, and I found that watching popular chess streamers like GothamChess and Hikaru Nakamura was the perfect form of entertainment. In all honesty, it became almost a guilty pleasure in itself since the chess scene was more of a soap opera at the time, having been rocked by a cheating scandal like no other.   Further research some months later showed I was not alone. Indeed a growing number of voices in the recovery community are advocating for chess as a tool for addicts in recovery. Hugh Patterson, a recovering heroin addict who now teaches chess to addicts and at-risk youth, speaks about the value of chess during detox and early recovery in an interview with Treatment Magazine:   At a treatment center, you’re really raw the first couple of weeks, emotionally speaking. It’s as if somebody took your entire thought process and pulled out every third word. It’s a biochemical reaction to detoxing, but a lot of people that I get feedback from have said that [chess] keeps them from teetering off the brink, helping them focus their thoughts and constructively pass the time. In a detox unit, time seems to slow down. An hour can seem like a day, and 10 minutes can seem like an hour. It’s like a tether to reality.   As my body and mind began to heal something surprising happened. Chess was no longer just a means of diversion, it became an effective tool to rebuild my cognitive abilities and a shockingly effective barometer of my progress in recovery.   The Benefits of #queensac Therapy Playing chess online daily was an opportunity to exercise my brain, and online Blitz chess games provided this stimulation in brief 5-10 minute increments. Additionally I could measure my progress as my rating and win rate increased, giving me a sense of accomplishment and concrete motivation to continue. I still remember an early game when I unwittingly sacrificed my queen early on but went on to win, thus learning a reinforcing lesson in perseverance. Once again, I had stumbled into a beneficial use of chess in recovery, but I was not the first.   The Ajedrez Magic Chess Club has been running a chess therapy program for addicts in Spain since 2010. In their work with the local treatment community, they have formulated a curriculum that directly addresses the clinical needs of their students. Juan Antonio Montero describes the program in an article on ChessBase:   We provide two one-and-a-half hour sessions per week, which makes for a real intervention-rehabilitation program that meets the most rigorous guidelines. Most of the exercises meet the validated parameters for rehabilitation programs. The sessions we teach in the therapeutic communities focus on improving focal attention, divided attention, perceptual discrimination, organization of information, execution of cause-effect actions, logical reasoning, spatial reasoning, working memory, short-term memory, auditory-visual attention and/or memorization skills, etc.   Reading the list of cognitive skills above, I recognize my own mind’s improvements in many of them. While I’m willing to believe chess practice helped, I can’t prove it. But what I know for certain is that chess was a spectacular tool for identifying the improvements to my cognition, regardless of where they came from. Metrics like these are hugely beneficial for motivation and identifying progress.   Reignite Your Passion. Relaunch Your Life. A year of sobriety later I find myself working at this very drug treatment facility, combining my career background in Technology with my personal experience in recovery to help other addicts. When it came time to write some copy for the website I thought back to my journey and realized the importance of my newfound passion for chess. At The Differents we see it as part of our jobs to help our clients find their passion – through art, music, sports, creating in our Fab Lab and of course through chess.   The world is in the midst of an epidemic of drug overdoses. It is also in the midst of a chess renaissance, and I believe it arrived just in time.