USA's Top Daily Chess News Blog, Informative, Fun, and Positive

hosted by Chess Queen™ & 12th Women's World Chess Champion Alexandra Kosteniuk


Thursday, June 9, 2011

How does a chess grandmaster's mind work?

Chess blog for latest chess news and chess trivia (c) Alexandra Kosteniuk, 2011

Hello everyone,

An interesting excerpt about chess talks about how excelling might just as well be about passion and deep interest that fuels one to spends hours and hours at a particular hobby or activity. Nice read with lots of stuff about how a grandmaster's mind works.

Chess Grand Masters Have Average Cognitive Skills
"Chess grandmasters have average cognitive skills and average memories for matters outside of chess, and only show their extraordinary skills within the discipline of chess. This suggests that expertise in chess (and most other areas) has less to do with analytical skills - the ability to project and weigh the relative merits of hundreds of options - and more to do with long-term immersion and pattern recognition - having experienced and "stored" thousands of game situations and thus having the ability to pluck an optimal answer from among those stored memories. It also suggests that expertise may be less a result of analytical prowess and more a result of passion, love or obsession for a given subject area - enough passion to have spent the hours necessary to accumulate a robust set of experiences and memories in that area,'' writes Joshua Foer.

The classic example of how memories shape the perception of experts comes from what would seem to be the least intuitive of fields: chess. Practically since the origins of the modern game in the fifteenth century, chess has been regarded as the ultimate test of cognitive ability. In the 1920s, a group of Russian scientists set out to quantify the intellectual advantages of eight of the world's best chess players by giving them a battery of basic cognitive and perceptual tests. To their surprise, the researchers found that the grand masters didn't perform significantly better than average on any of their tests. The greatest chess players in the world didn't seem to possess a single major cognitive advantage.

But if chess masters aren't, as a whole, smarter than lesser chess players, then what are they? In the 1940s, a Dutch psychologist and chess aficionado named Adriaan de Groot asked what seemed like a simple question: What separates merely good chess players from those who are world-class? Did the best-class players see more moves ahead ? Did they ponder more possible moves? Did they have better tools for analyzing those moves? Did they simply have a better intuitive grasp of the dynamics of the game?

One of the reasons chess is such a satisfying game to play and to study is that your average chess buff can be utterly befuddled by a master's move. Often the best move seems entirely counterintuitive. Realizing this, De Groot pored through old games between chess masters and selected a handful of board positions where there was definitely one correct, but not obvious, move to be made. He then presented the boards to a group of international chess masters and top club players. He asked them to think aloud while they brooded over the proper move.
What De Groot uncovered was an even bigger surprise than what his Russian predecessors had found. For the most part, the chess experts didn't look more moves ahead, at least not at first. They didn't even consider more possible moves. ... They tended to see the right moves, and they tended to see them almost right away.

It was as if the chess experts weren't thinking so much as reacting. When De Groot listened to their verbal reports, he noticed that they described their thoughts in different language than less experienced chess players. They talked about configurations of pieces like 'pawn structures' and immediately noticed things that were out of sorts, like exposed rooks. They weren't seeing the board as thirty-two pieces. They were seeing it as chunks of pieces, and systems of tension.
Grand masters literally see a different board. Studies of their eye movements have found that they look at the edges of squares more than inexperienced players, suggesting that they're absorbing information from multiple squares at once. Their eyes also dart across greater distances, and linger for less time at any one place. They focus on fewer different spots on the board, and those spots are more likely to be relevant to figuring out the right move.

But the most striking finding of all from these early studies of chess experts was their astounding memories. The experts could memorize entire boards after just a brief glance. And they could reconstruct long-ago games from memory. In fact, later studies confirmed that the ability to memorize board positions is one of the best overall indicators of how good a chess player somebody is. And these chess positions are not simply encoded in transient short-term memory. 

Chess experts can remember positions from games for hours, weeks, even years afterward. Indeed, at a certain point in every chess master's development, keeping mental track of the pieces on the board becomes such a trivial skill that they can take on several opponents at once, entirely in their heads.

As impressive as the chess masters' memories were for chess games, their memories for everything else were notably unimpressive. When the chess experts were shown random arrangements of chess pieces - ones that couldn't possibly have been arrived at through an actual game - their memory for the board was only slightly better than chess novices'. They could rarely remember the positions of more than seven pieces (which is the average for most people). These were the same chess pieces, and the same chessboards. So why were they suddenly limited by the magical number seven?

The chess experiments reveal a telling fact about memory, and about expertise in general: We don't remember isolated facts; we remember things in context. A board of randomly arranged chess pieces has no context - there are no similar boards to compare it to, no past games that it resembles, no ways to meaningfully chunk it. Even to the world's best chess player it is, in essence, noise.

In the same way that a few pages ago we used our knowledge of historic dates to chunk the twelve-digit number, chess masters use the vast library of chess patterns that they've cached away in long-term memory to chunk the board. At the root of the chess master's skill is that he or she simply has a richer vocabulary of chunks to recognize. Which is why it is so rare for anyone to achieve world-class status in chess - or any other field - without years of experience. Even Bobby Fischer, perhaps the greatest chess prodigy of all time, had been playing chess intensely for nine years before he was recognized as a grand master at age fifteen.

Contrary to all the old wisdom that chess is an intellectual activity based on analysis, many of the chess master's important decisions about which moves to make happen in the immediate act of perceiving the board. Like [experts in other areas such as the veteran] SWAT officer who immediately notices the bomb [when others don't], the chess master looks at the board and simply sees the most promising move. The process usually happens within five seconds, and you can actually see it transpiring in the brain. Using magneto-encephalography, a technique that measures the weak magnetic fields given off by a thinking brain, researchers have found that higher-rated chess players are more likely to engage the frontal and parietal cortices of the brain when they look at the board, which suggests that they are recalling information from long-term memory. Lower-ranked players are more likely to engage the medial temporal lobes, which suggests that they are encoding new information. The experts are interpreting the present board in term of their massive knowledge of past ones. The lower-ranked players are seeing the board as something new."

Author: Joshua Foer
Title: Moonwalking with Einstein
Publisher: Penguin
Date: Copyright 2011 by Joshua Foer
Pages: 63-66

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything
by Joshua Foer by Penguin Press HC, The
If you wish to read further: Buy Now

Should you use the above link to purchase a book, delanceyplace proceeds from your purchase will benefit a children's literacy project. Delanceyplace is a not-for-profit organization.

From Alexandra Kosteniuk's
Also see her personal blog at



Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home