Chess Therapy: Launching Research

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Launching Research on a Novel Approach against Addiction

Sabine Vollstädt-Klein

People suffering from a substance use disorder often have cognitive impairment in several domains (e.g. a poor working memory and short attention span). Cognitive training has therefore become a part of the range of addiction therapies. We invited Sabine Vollstädt-Klein, the German addiction scientist, to talk about chess-based therapy for substance use disorders at the 2016 London Chess Conference.  She was sceptical at first but after reviewing the evidence on anti-addiction cognitive training and taking into account the positive responses to her lecture and workshop presentation at the conference, she decided it was worth exploring further.

Recently, we caught up again with Sabine at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim. She had some very good news. She has secured funding from the German Research Fund (DFG) to pursue two research projects. This type of funding is highly competitive and allocated on purely scientific merits. She will apply chess-based therapy as an add-on intervention to treatment protocols with patients suffering from alcohol abuse disorder. Patients in the control group will get treatment as usual. Similarly, chess-based therapy will be applied in a larger project on nicotine addiction in which the Central Institute is partnering with several German universities. Sabine expressed her gratitude for the suggestion that chess could be used for therapeutic purposes. 

Sabine became acquainted with chess and chess-based therapies from other participants at the London Chess Conference. She has just returned from Spain where she observed it in action. Chess-based therapy has been developed by the psychologist Juan Antonio Montero and is applied in two dozen institutions in the western province of Extremadura. It is deployed not only with addiction patients, but also with prison inmates, people with Down Syndrome and other conditions. The therapy is not intended to develop chess playing strength but is oriented to improve cognitive functioning. 

“They have very good results but no control group and therefore no robust research to show if and how chess-based therapy works”, she told us. She explains that chess-based therapy has a probable advantage compared with other cognitive therapies against addiction: other therapies tend to be repetitive and boring. Chess offers a more structured and gamified approach.

Professor Vollstädt-Klein is now looking for a PhD student to work on both research projects with her in Mannheim, a vibrant town in southwest Germany. It is crucial that the candidate has the appropriate academic background and scientific training. Only a rudimentary chess knowledge is necessary to deliver the cognitive trainings, Also, because of the need to interact with the patients. the candidate should speak some basic German but fluency is not expected.

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