Scuba Diving and Chess: Undergraduate Research


Table of Contents

The Chessable Research Awards for the Summer 2023 cycle had four winners, undergraduate student Michael Martins and graduate students Jordan von Hippel, Jérôme Genzling, and Jane Zhang.

In this guest blog post, Michael Martins draws on his own diving experience to ask how diving affects one’s ability to play chess, a question that his university’s scientific diving team tested in the icy waters of Alaska.

Grandmaster Sipke Ernst, Dutch underwater chess champion
Photo by Oscar Bos

The Effect of Scuba Diving on Cognitive Function as measured by Chess Ability

By Michael W. Martins, University of Alaska Fairbanks


Ever since the 2020 release of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, the popularity of chess has surged. Suddenly friends and family, who had never spoken a lick of chess to me, were wondering if I had seen the new show, sending me chess memes, and asking if I would teach them chess. This recent resurgence of chess has been bolstered by events such as PogChamps 3, the 2021 FIDE World Chess Championship, and even the Mogul Chessboxing Championship. Multidisciplinary events such as chess boxing bring the sport to new audiences.

One such multidisciplinary event is the hybrid sport of diving chess. Played at the bottom of a swimming pool, diving chess omits the need for a clock by having players dive underwater on their turn to examine the board, consider their options, and play a move before resurfacing to take a breath. Although less popular than chess boxing, this variant has always struck me for its novelty and ability to seamlessly integrate physical and mental components. I wondered about the strategies and nuances that lend themselves to this game. With time control and breath control seemingly becoming synonymous, ideas for best play started to form. Perhaps it’s better to play a quick move so your opponent doesn’t have time to fully catch their breath! Perhaps it’s better to avoid using your entire breath on a move because you might get winded, making your next move harder! I wondered how does diving affect your ability to play chess? To answer this, I turned to the experts.

Literature Review

To familiarize myself with the topic of cognition in underwater environments, I read peer-reviewed research pertaining to scuba diving and its effects on mental health, physical health, and cognitive function. I also wanted to distinguish between the short- and long-term effects, as well as effects specific to being in cold waters, since I’m in Alaska.

First, I read a 2016 publication from the Asian Journal of Sports Medicine titled The Effect of 20 Minutes Scuba Diving on Cognitive Function of Professional Scuba Divers. In this study, researchers tested divers with simple arithmetic tasks, and measured cortisol levels, which is a stress indicator. These tasks were implemented both before and after diving, and the results were compared. Running this experiment numerous times, researchers noticed a consistent decrease in the ability to accurately add, as well as an increase in cortisol levels, thus leading to the conclusion that diving is a stress stimulant. This conclusion helped explain the temporary decrease in cognitive performance following a dive.

Next, I read a 2014 article from the Scandinavian Journal of Sports Medicine entitled Long term effects of recreational SCUBA diving on higher cognitive function. This article compared recreational divers, non-divers, and professional boxers on a variety of tests focused on areas such as reaction time, hand-eye coordination, and various simple mental tasks. Since this study focused on long-term effects, the group of recreational divers all had hundreds of dives logged over many years and did not undergo any diving in the window before testing. Results from the tests indicated that divers tended to have issues with short term memory. However, these same divers also had better reaction times when compared to their non-diving counterparts. Other studies, such as the 2019 article published in Frontiers in Psychology titled Cognitive Deficits and White Matter Alterations in Highly Trained Scuba Divers, corroborated evidence of negative effects to cognitive function, specifically in areas pertaining to cognitive response. Furthermore, it attributed these changes to harmful bubbles that progressively formed within brain matter.

The last area of research I wanted to familiarize myself with was temperature-related impacts on cognitive function. This is where The Effect of Cold Exposure on Cognitive Performance in Healthy Adults, a 2021 review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, came in handy. This analysis compared 18 previous studies on the effects of cold environments, both wet and dry, on the brain’s ability to function. It noted that 15 of the 18 research papers found evidence of negative effects to cognitive performance when exposed to cold temperatures. The most affected domains were attention and processing speed, executive function, and memory.

Experimental Design

Now that I had reviewed some relevant studies, I created my own experiment, one that was specific to chess. I wanted a direct comparison of chess players’ performances on land to their performances underwater. I recruited help from my university’s scientific diving class. A cohort of twenty strong, these students make up the newest members of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Scientific Diving Program. The culmination of their semester-long class is a week-long trip 600 miles south to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) owned Kasitsna Bay Laboratory situated on the southern coast of Alaska. Here, they finish the last requirements of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences’ (AAUS) Scientific Diver Certification, and then help with current research being conducted at the laboratory. These scientific divers were tasked with solving chess puzzles and broken into two groups based on chess ability. The first group consisted of novices and beginners, whereas the second group self-identified as intermediate or above. The procedure for the two groups was nearly identical, with the only difference being the difficulty and theme of chess puzzles.

Participants were informed they would undergo two rounds of testing: one dry and one wet. The first (dry) round took place in a classroom environment and had participants solve a series of 50 puzzles with a fifteen-minute time limit. Puzzles were from and were printed on paper. Novices had “simple” themed puzzles in a rating range from 100 to 600. Meanwhile, the intermediate group had “mate in 1” puzzles rated from 400 to 2400.

Participants were presented with pages of puzzles, and a single answer sheet on which to write their answers using simplified chess notation. Participants received a five-minute warning prior to the end of the time limit. When time elapsed, they would drop their pencils thus concluding the first test.

Then participants would don their drysuits and diving gear and meet me on the beach for the second (wet) round. After a safety briefing, they were equipped with a new set of 50 comparable puzzles, which they would solve while submerged at a depth of 20 feet in the near freezing waters of Alaska. This underwater environment varied vastly from the classroom setting they were in just minutes prior. Now hooked up to a breathing system, these problem solvers had to navigate their chess puzzle responsibilities with that of scuba diving such as monitoring air levels, keeping masks clear of water, and managing belongings so that they don’t float away. With this second (wet) round of testing complete, results were ready for analysis.

Results & Discussion

Participants’ puzzle solutions were analyzed for accuracy and number of chess puzzles solved correctly. When switching from dry puzzles to wet puzzles, average puzzle accuracy dropped by around 3% while average number of chess puzzles solved correctly increased by over 17%. In general, participants performed better while scuba diving than while on land.

That is, accuracy was not significantly altered, while the correct number of responses increased by a significant amount. This finding is made more interesting when considering the additional tasks participants dealt with while underwater. For example, participants had to handle waterproof paper which is sticky and tricky to manipulate. They also had to perform routine diving tasks such as monitoring air levels and clearing flooded masks. For these reasons, one might expect the average number of puzzles successfully solved to be lower because of the physical and logistical factors related to being underwater, even apart from other effects mentioned in the literature review of being underwater on cognition. Yet, in this experiment, chess performance increased while immersed in a wet environment.

One possible explanation of this performance spike is that the participants in the wet round were more experienced at chess puzzle solving since they had just solved puzzles in the dry round. Perhaps future researchers may consider reversing the order of dry and wet solving to see if this is a significant factor.

The outcome of this experiment was surprising when compared to the outcomes of similar studies and invites further investigation to the effects of diving on cognitive function. Much like in research, as we ponder chess in its various incarnations, we are reminded that beneath the surface of every move lies a vast ocean of possibilities waiting to be explored.

Interested in research?

The Chessable Research Awards are for undergraduate and graduate students conducting university-level chess research. Chess-themed topics may be submitted for consideration and ongoing or new chess research is eligible. Each student must have a faculty research sponsor. For more information, please visit this link.

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