Unlike so many folksy sayings, that last one is apparently true.
Researchers at the University of Texas have discovered that regular chess players are better at analyzing visual information than the rest of us. Specifically, they use more of their brain when processing other people's faces.
The scientists studied the brain activity of players drawn from the university's top-ranked chess team as they stared at pictures of both chess games and human faces. The results revealed the players' brains were processing the chessboard layouts in a similar fashion to the way they analyzed the faces, an effect that wasn't seen in the study's control group of chess novices.
So, as far as the brain is concerned, reading a chessboard -- analyzing a game layout for areas of tactical strength and weaknesses -- is probably a lot like reading a face.
We ain't brain scientists, but board-reading skills are widely recognized to be a necessity for a number of other abstract board games, especially Chinese classic Go. Younger learners, with their agile, still-forming brains, are reputed to have a significant head start on older novices. In other words, your mom was right: chess, and perhaps other similar games, could be good for growing brains.
What next for the Texas team? They hope to take their work beyond the chessboard and study player responses to other visual stimuli. Ultimately, they hope their research will lead to new teaching methods that might unlock similar potential in the rest of us.