Why Is Chess So Addictive?

An addiction to chess can be like an addiction to any other competitive game or video game. Competing against other players, obsessing over your ELO scores, win rates, and constantly trying to better your play from one game to the next can lead to an addiction. 

An addiction to chess is primarily the result of increased dopamine levels when you win, and a need to constantly chase this feeling when losing games. When you win a game of chess, and outsmart your opponent, your brain releases dopamine which can, over time, signal a desire to play again and again to try to feel this euphoria again.

A player is far more likely to get addicted to short form games, like bullet or blitz chess, as these games take place over a much shorter timeframe and give you dopamine releases faster when you win. Learning how to overcome an addiction is important to mental well-being.

Your addiction to chess could run even deeper than surface level playing. Someone may be so entrenched in their addiction to chess that they obsessively watch movies, read books, and engage in chess communities and events. Taken on its own, these behaviours don’t necessarily mean someone is addicted. The addiction is identified or problematic only when these behaviours negatively impact other areas of your life, such as relationships and financial stability caused by a need to fulfill this desire or craving.


How prevalent is chess addiction?

It is quite possible that chess addiction is very prevalent but no one realizes it because its impact on their life may be non-existent. Arguably, in these instances, it may not be apt to call it an addiction in any traditional sense. Rather we should be looking at individuals who struggle in their personal lives to maintain healthy relationships or damage their financial state by obsessively and compulsively purchasing chess products, films, books, paying for events, pushing away family for chess, etc. Someone addicted to chess may also have trouble sleeping, focusing on work, and have a myriad of other issues that cause their daily life to suffer. It is these individuals we should be focused on when discussing the prevalence of chess addiction.

People with addictive personalities in other areas are far more likely to suffer chess addiction. Chess offers quick and easy access to good feeling brain chemicals and with a sense of control.

Fortunately, controlling a chess addiction can be significantly easier than other addictions, with going cold turkey not having major adverse effects.

If you start purposefully looking for an opponent and playing chess online when you know you have more important things you could be or should be doing, you may find that you are unhealthily addicted to chess.

Given that we can estimate approximately 10% of the general population will have addictive personality disorders, we can estimate that approximately 1 in 10 chess players are likely to be susceptible to becoming addicted to the game. 

What happens if you play chess every day?

Playing chess every day is, in general, very healthy for your mind and will usually give you a sense of relaxation. But you should practive moderation and not play for hours and hours on end. This can cause a mental load on your brain and can cause permanent long-term damage that should be avoided. Usually, even at top chess schools and communities around the world, you will find that not every day is spent playing chess, with a most only having 2 or 3 meetups a week for practice.

A chess coach will encourage the student to only play chess as they feel the need, with grandmasters being the ones that would play the game more consistently. You may find that those with chess careers and especially grandmasters around the world, do not play chess in their free time, treating it more like part of a regular job, and have other hobbies they engage in outside of chess.

For your own improvement at the game, not playing chess can be as effective as playing. This downtime can allow your mind to process previously played games and improve for future games. 

Chess as Therapy for Addictive Behaviour

On the flip side of things, chess can be used as therapy for recovery from other more dangerous addictions. But could you be trading out one addiction for another?

To whatever extent possible, we must learn to take responsibility for our own actions and choices. However, if you feel you are someone suffering from a harmful chess addiction, you should definitely seek therapy from a mental health professional to assist you in getting a handle on your addiction.

Final Thoughts

Having a passion for chess or just enjoying the game in general does not rise to the level of addiction. Chess becomes an addiction when you suffer detrimental effects in personal or professional life caused by intrusive thoughts and behaviours surrounding the game of chess. Much like any other behaviour one could label as an addiction, it is important to exercise moderation, especially if you are in the ~10% of the general population who may have an addictive personality. 

Getting to the very top and becoming a champion in the chess community as a genius, whether as an addict or not, has produced some strange behaviour at times. We’ve seen this sort of behaviour in many chess champions throughout history.  

Look after your mind and body. Enjoy yourself, enjoy chess, and don’t let it control you. Having an enjoyable experience while playing chess is the most important part of the game. When it stops being fun and becomes a chase for a craving, this is when you should consider seeking help. 

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