The Mental Machinery of the Chess Master

As a Psych major in college, I learned about some cool experiments. Fatal shocks. Coldhearted preachers. The staggering forces of peer pressure. I saw slobbering dogs, wailing babies, and semi-literate pigeons.

But one of my favorite experiments requires nothing more than a chess set. It begins to answer the question: What, exactly, is going on in the minds of great chess players?

The feats of chess grandmasters – who can play and win several games simultaneously, strolling casually from board to board, juggling all the information with ease – often strike us as signals of higher brainpower. We imagine the mind as a computer with a fixed amount of RAM. Those geniuses, it seems, owe their success to the superior hardware inside their skulls. There’s nothing mortals like you or I could do to catch up with them.

But as always, reality is more subtle. The brain’s capacities are not fixed from birth. A little effort, sustained for a long time, makes a big difference.

In a 1973 experiment, psychologists asked strong chess players to memorize two kinds of board scenarios. First, they saw a board showing an actual game situation, in which two players had already made dozens of moves, all following the rulebook. The players could memorize such a configuration in mere seconds. Easy.

Then, they saw a board that was completely scrambled, the pieces arranged in nonsense combinations that could never arise in actual gameplay. When it came time to memorize this board, the strong players struggled, performing as poorly as novices. Not so easy.

Why the difference? In a word: experience. A strong player has spent years exploring the intricacies of chess. She studies her prior matches the way a football coach studies game tape. So although she has never encountered either configuration before, the game scenario immediately makes sense to her. It contains dozens of familiar patterns. The scrambled board, by comparison, is gibberish, and therefore much harder to memorize. It’s the difference between encountering a 12-letter word (like “encountering”) and a nonsense 12-letter sequence (like “hrelkjbjahwe”). The word is easier to retain, because it builds on a sturdy structure of preexisting knowledge.

In the end, the chess master doesn’t have a photographic memory. What she has is years of experience in thinking about chess. As the authors of the study explain, “What was once accomplished by slow, conscious deductive reasoning is now arrived at by fast, unconscious perceptual processing.” We’re so dazzled by her speed that we overlook her greater gift, from which her speed is partly derived: depth.

The lesson holds for any intellectual endeavor, whether it’s chess, mathematics, or analyzing the screenplays of Hollywood blockbusters. Great skill arises from great focus.

Thanks for reading! You might also check out History’s Greatest Chess Matches and Learning is a Flourescent Light.

Featured comment: “It’s a recognition of patterns which makes a master. Throw together a picture of a wild garden and a jumble of weeds, and a master can tell you immediately which is which, and likely can re-construct the history of the wild garden.” -Steve

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23 thoughts on “The Mental Machinery of the Chess Master

  1. Definitely a new way to look at how masters of something look at their specialty…also explains why I so often leave my friends scratching their heads when I blaze through math problems by recognizing and applying algebraic processes subconsciously.

    • Yeah, I like that comparison a lot. Learning math begins with conscious struggle, until the process becomes automatic.

      For a 4th grader, long division is a difficult problem in its own right.

      For an 8th grader, long division is now a nearly-automatic sub-routine. But finding the equation for a line (given, say, slope and a point it passes through) requires conscious effort.

      For a 12th-grader, finding that equation is now a single automatic step in a longer problem. But finding an implicit derivative takes conscious effort. And so on.

      • For an undergraduate, long division takes significant effort to look up or rederive the procedure each time it’s used, finding the equation of a line is assumed in the material and implicit derivatives are available in a second using wolframalpha.com

        • OR a student can take some time away from video games to practice long division, line-finding, or implicit differentiation. It’s not that hard. Besides, if a student never takes the time to keep up on how something is done, I can guarantee that student that he (or she) will be hopelessly lost on how the next concept to build on it works. (This from an second-year undergraduate, by the way.) :)

  2. I think the hard part about being a teacher (or a parent) is to impart to students that this struggle to attain a working depth of knowledge – moving from “hrelkjbjahwe” to “encountering” – is worth the effort. I enjoy your blog very much. Thank you!

    • Definitely! And if you’re comparing yourself to experts who already have that depth, it can be discouraging to find yourself at the beginning–even though, by definition, everyone begins there.

  3. Nice! I should remember that, while certain math problems look like board 1 to me, they probably look like board 2 to my students, who have not seen and worked through dozens of examples like I have. Maybe I’ll mention this analogy to my students in the future.

    • Yeah, I hadn’t thought about it in quite that light. Reminds me of simplifying trig expressions, or computing antiderivatives–bewildering at first, but with a little experience, lots of patterns emerge.

  4. Hmm…is this applicable to a team concept also ? For instance, would armies be confused by unexpected formations or soccer teams be confused by random switches happening in the opposing team ?

    • That’s an interesting question. I know nothing about military history (and next to nothing about soccer), but in the NFL, teams spend a lot of energy becoming familiar with their opponents’ formations. And some defenses find success by presenting a shifting or unpredictable formation. So I guess the answer is yes!

    • I think that the evidence here is to watch a JV soccer team or basketball team. They’ll spend hours in practice working on certain formations or plays. Put them on a field against a team not willing to play defense the way that they’re ‘supposed’ to. That’s when we see the price paid for not being an expert at pattern recognition.

  5. It’s a recognition of patterns which makes a master. Throw together a picture of a wild garden and a jumble of weeds, and a master can tell you immediately which is which, and likely can re-construct the history of the wild garden, Throw together a group of modern paintings, and a master can disregard the random, but explain how the other works came to be.

  6. In his book Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer talks about this. He was a reporter for the U.S. Memory Championship who then went on to become a participant and a winner. Experience and effort are what it takes to become a chess champion or a world memory champion. In her book Quiet, Susan Cain suggests that intuition is actually past experience. If we have seen similar situations in the past, our subconscious makes connections and we have a ‘feeling’ of what to do. We call it intuition but it is really a judgement based on past experience.
    Thanks for writing your blog. I really enjoy it.

    • Cool citations–been meaning to read Moonwalking with Einstein. I’ll pick it up next time I see it in a used bookstore.

      I like the idea that intuition is the residue of past experience. Seems to ring true in lots of cases.

      And thanks for reading!

  7. Pingback: Education Reimagined – Expert Thinking

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