Alfred Binet and Chess

Alfred Edouard Louis Binet (1857-1911) was a French psychologist (he actually had a Law degree and taught himself psychology) who invented the first practical intelligence test, the Binet-Simon scale (1905).  He also wrote the first work on the psychology of chess, though he was not a strong chess player.  He published roughly 200 books and articles on psychology.  He is considered the father of intelligence and the founder of French experimental psychology.

In 1892, at the suggestion of Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893), Binet investigated the mental processes of mathematical prodigies and human calculators, focusing on exceptional mental calculators, such as Pericles Diamandi (born in 1868) and Jacques Inaudi (1867-1950), an Italian calculating prodigy who spent his childhood as a shepherd.  Inaudi could calculate at age 6, but could not read or write until age 20.  He was able to mentally calculate numbers as high as 21 figures, add any 5 numbers with 6 figures, or square any 4-figure number.  Binet interpreted Inaudi’s ability as an exceptional memory for numbers.  Binet also attempted to explain the abilities of other exceptional calculators like Gauss, Ampere, Mondeuz, and Mangiamele.  Binet then extended his observation on the exceptionality of the talented through the study of individuals presenting extraordinary memory in other areas, such as the performance of chess players while playing blindfolded several chess games.

For Binet, mathematical prodigies formed a natural class, and their ability was independent of hereditary or environment.  Usually, the familiarity with figures was at the expense of general intelligence.  Furthermore, their aptitude was developed by exercise and was decreased by non-usage.  Human calculation was largely a matter of auditory and visual mnemonics. 

In 1893, Binet made a study of the connection between mathematics and chess.  After conducting interviews with a large number of leading chess players, he found that over 90% of them were good mental calculators and had good memories. On the other hand, he found that some mathematicians played chess, but few were strong players.  Binet noted that the abilities of human calculators started around age 4, whereas the ability to play strong chess started around age 11.

One of Binet’s conclusions concerning human calculators and chess masters was the importance of training and experience.  Despite his suggestion that an excellent chess player is innate (he wrote that “One becomes a good player but one is born an excellent player”), he observed that training the memory daily encouraged the maintenance and/or the development of recall performance.

In 1894, Binet had done a series of experiments to see how well chess players played when blindfolded.  He was interested in the cognitive faculties of chess masters and thought that master chess depended upon the phenomenological qualities of visual memory (photographic memory).  He found that only chess masters were able to play chess successfully without seeing the board and intermediate players found it impossible to play a game of blindfold chess.  Binet argued that an amateur chess player could never play blindfold chess, no matter how good his memory was.  Binet concluded that the memory proposed by the master varied in different mnemonic forms (techniques used to retain information into a form the brain can understand better).

Binet theorized that chess masters had an “inner mirror (miroir interieur),” which would reflect back to them, move by move, each successive configuration of the chess board.  This notion was supported by all the memory literature and science that depicted memory as being visually based.  The ancient Greeks developed the art of mnemonics, memory tricks that relied on visualization to remember large amounts of detail.Typically, a mnemonist would “deposit” difficult-to-remember information into imagined compartments, seats, or rooms.  Binet wanted to know if blindfold chess players were doing the same thing.

He found that only some of the master chess players could play from memory and a few could play multiple games simultaneously without looking at the boards. To remember the positions of the pieces on the boards, some players envisioned exact replicas of specific chess sets, while others envisioned an abstract schema of the game. Binet concluded that extraordinary feats of memory such as blind chess playing could take a variety of mnemonic forms. He recounted his experiments in a book entitled Psychologie des grands calculateurs et joueurs en echec (Psychology of the Great Calculators and Chess Players), published in Paris in 1894.

At first, Binet considered the fact that many chess masters are able to play simultaneously at least 8 to 10  games blindfolded as an achievement in the realm of visual memory (which he called geometrical).  For example, in 1783, Philidor could play 3 games blindfolded simultaneously.  In 1851, Kieseritzky could play 4 games blindfolded.  In 1859, Louis Paulsen could play 15 games blindfolded.  In 1876, Zukertort could play 16 games blindfolded.

Binet’s initial interest in blindfold chess was sparked by hearing about these mental feats and observing them.  Such blindfold demonstrations electrified the public.  Binet’s major interest during the early 1890s was in exceptional memories, and this had to apply to chess masters who played as many as 8-10 blindfold chess games simultaneously.  In 1891, he watched Alphonse Goetz, a Paris master, as he played 8 blindfold games at the Cade de la Regence, and got interested in how chess masters play blindfold chess.  In 1893, he observed Rosenthal play 8 games of blindfold chess at the Grand Cercle des Echecs in Paris.

Binet also researched the works of Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893), a French critic and historian who himself wrote about intelligence.  In his book, On Intelligence (1871), Taine had mistakenly concluded that the blindfold chess player uses a purely visual memory and can maintain a full pictorial image of the chess board and pieces as the position changes from move to move.  Taine wrote, “Evidently the figure of the whole chess-board, with the different pieces in order, presents itself to the players at each move, as in an internal mirror, for without this they would be unable to foresee the probable consequences of their adversary’s and their own moves.”  Binet wanted to analyze blindfold chess in a more systematic and reliable way than Taine had done.

Binet was inspired by Francis Galton (1822-1911), the British anthropologist who was the first to apply statistical methods to the study of human differences and inheritance of intelligence.  Binet wanted to explore the healthy working mind, rather than the pathology of mental illness.  The blindfold chess study was his one of his first works as an assistant director of the Laboratory of Physiological Psychology at the Sorbonne (he later became its director).

Binet was impressed by the memories of chess players and their ability to play blindfold chess.  Binet wrote, “The blindfold game contains everything: power of concentration, scholarship, visual memory, not to mention strategic talent, patience, courage, and many other faculties.  If one could see what goes on in a chess player’s head, one would find ever changing panorama of states of consciousness.  By comparison with these our most attentive descriptions are but grossly simplified schemata.”

In order to collect the opinions of as many experts as possible, Binet first of all conducted a survey which was taken by chess players of all skill levels, from novice to master.  Binet preferred the use of questionnaires and interviews over that of laboratory instruments and measurement apparatus.  He drew up a list of 14 detailed questions concerning the ways and means by which the blindfolded player calls the positions during a game back to mind, concerning the character of the representation, the role of auditory and kinesthetic experiences, etc. 

In his questionnaire, first published in the chess magazine la Strategie in 1892, Binet asked the blindfold players how they call up their memory of the positions, the nature of their representations, and the role of senses beside the visual.  Through the assistance of chess organizations in France, England, Germany, and Spain, answers were received from many prominent chess players.  Parisian masters such as Samuel Rosenthal (1837-1902), Alphonse Goetz (1865-1934), Jules Arnous de Riviere (1830-1905), Dawid Janowski (1868-1927), Stanislaus Sittenfeld (1865-1902), and Jean Taubenhaus (1850-1919) made themselves available for direct study in the psychological laboratory at the Sorbonne. 

Binet witnessed several actual displays involving 8-10 simultaneous blindfold games.  He once observed that Goetz, after a performance, was able to recall all 336 moves that he made over 10 blindfold games played simultaneously.  Binet had noticed a hesitation of several seconds after being told the opponents’s move, and decided this could only be attributed to a time-consuming reconstructive memory process during which the board positions become clear.

In Binet’s laboratory at the Sorbonne, he questioned intensively chess players what they “saw” when they played chess blindfolded.  To his surprise, his theory on the “inner mirror” was wrong.  Chess memories did not resemble a collection of photographic snapshots.  They were much more abstract that than, more geometric, and more meaningful.  The intricate chess positions were not stored in a chess master’s brain as distinct photolike snapshots, but as a more abstract set of integrated patterns.  Binet concluded, “It is the multitude of suggestions and ideas emanating from a game which makes it interesting and established it in memory.”

Some of the blindfold players that answered Binet’s questionnaire included J.H.Blackburne, Siegbert Tarrasch, Emil Schallopp, Carrertas, Cunnock, Moore, Elwel, and David Forsyth (1854-1909), a Scotsman who immigrated to New Zealand.

In the course of his investigations it became increasingly clear to Binet that his original plan had been too narrow.  Binet came to the conclusion that the ability to play blindfold chess rested on three fundamental conditions: knowledge and experience in the field of chess (from practice, winning and losing), imagination (the ability to visualize the position), and memory (erudition, imagination, and memoire).  Binet’s erroneous hypothesis was that concrete visual memory was the basic factor in chess mastership.  This, despite the fact that chess master Goetz told Binet that playing blindfold chess had nothing to do with visual memory.

It is only because the position is meaningful and not random to the master that he is able to keep the position in his mind.  Each position has a character of its own.  The same holds for the course of an entire game.  To a chess master, a game is not a sequence of disconnected moves, but a series of interrelated, characteristic maneuvers and themes.  And a master acquires that skill through chess knowledge and experience.

For Binet, memory included visual memory, touch memory, and verbal memory.  He found that verbal memory was important for blindfold chess.  Verbal memory (the moves are said out loud) allowed one to reason about the game, and to anticipate moves, to reconstruct imagined positions by reminding oneself of the moves played.  Memory also helped to indentify the color of the squares by using mnemonics.

Binet thought that playing blindfold chess would require strong powers of concrete memory and of visualization. However, he found this was not the case. It was not that the expert blindfold player could visualize a chessboard better than the amateur. It was the opposite that was true. The good blindfold player was not dependent on the visual aspect of the game. It was the amateur who tried to picture the whole board. The strong blindfold player was using a more efficient way of storing the position in his mind.

Binet pointed out that many blindfold players were often vague about their imagery.  They typically did not have any real “picture” of the current position, but only an abstract type of representation.  Some players had to often reconstruct, step-by-step, the position.

Binet concluded that great blindfold players employ primarily an abstract visual memory rather than a concrete one.  But sometimes uncertainty about the exact current position compels the master to mentally replay previous moves, which Binet considered a form of verbal memory.

Binet identified the crucial component of a chess master’s recollection of a move sequence or a particular position: the association of a precise meaning with these moves or that position.  He compared chess playing with literacy, and remarked that a novice player’s difficulty in reproducing details of a game is like trying to remember a line of print composed on incomprehensible symbols.  If the meaning of the print Is understood, a reader can reconstruct all the letters of a sentence after a single glance.  To an experienced chess player, a game of chess is as meaningful as a literary work, and that replaying a famous game is like reciting a poem.

The reports sent back to Binet differ about the way in which the blindfolded chess player pictures the chess board and actual situation.  Binet concluded from his material that the blind player does not have a complete picture of the position before him, but rather a rough Gestalt which he searches, step by step.  The master continuously reconstructs the details of the position.

On the basis that almost all of the correspondents laid emphasis on the lack of visual details of color and form, both of the pieces and the board, Binet came to the conclusion that one must speak here of an abstract visual memory that the master contrasted with the better known concrete visual memory.  Binet distinguished two forms of memory activity in blindfold play: the retention of positions and the recollection of the course of a game.

Binet also learned that the great chess players often have no exact visualization of chess positions.  When recalling past games, masters often omitted details, especially isolated moves that did not fit the idea flow.  This was curious to Binet, since one tends to remember, not forget, misfits.  He realized that they were reconstructing the details of past games from remembered ideas and plans, and recollecting their general conduct.

Binet never actually arrived at the point where he recognized the process of reproduction as a reconstruction ‘by parts’ of the chess position starting out from a dynamic total schema.  Nor did he recognize the importance of the distinction between knowing ‘which position it is’ and imagining a position, even though it was expressed rather clearly by several correspondences such as Siegbert Tarrasch.

Binet’s lack of chess knowledge showed in one of his statements about chess masters.  “It is said that the great masters never risk a move without extensive deliberation, examining as many as four or five hundred possible combinations.”  This remark prejudiced many people against his findings.  However, most of his other general conclusions would be accepted as basically correct today.

Binet wanted to rule out any fraud or cheating in blindfold play.  He gathered a list of many possible ways to cheat in blindfold chess.  Some players had small chessboards drawn on their cuffs.  Others had been known to play against friends that planned their “blindfold” games in advance.  Some blindfold players had a friend stationed nearby whom, as the player announced his moves, discreetly stopped him from making an error.  Sometimes the referee helped the blindfold player by changing the tone of his voice, or otherwise indicating that the blindfold player should rethink the move he had just called out if it was a blunder.  Binet advised that a careful observer should exercise suspicion when viewing any blindfold exhibition.

The strongest player that responded to Binet’s questionnaire was Dr. Siegbert Tarrasch.  In explaining his thought process, Tarrasch wrote, “Some part of every chess game is played blindfold.  For example, any combination of five or more moves is carried out in one’s head – the only difference being that one is sitting in front of the chess board.  The sight of the chessman frequently upsets one’s calculations.”  When Binet asked if a chess master could mentally see the entire chess board at the same time, Tarrasch responded, “Of course.  But it is difficult.”

Besides blindfold chess, Binet’s book contains other interesting reflections about chess.  Binet insisted on the analogy between chess and mathematics.  He noted that many well-known historical figures played chess, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill.  Binet noted that women tended to to excel at chess because the game required physical vigor and a taste for combat.  Binet observed that chess players tended to be rather vain.  Binet also noted that chess used to be dominated by Latin players, but were now bypassed by Jews.  He wrote that almost all the strong Jewish players were professional, “which shows clearly the seriousness of the race.”

In 1895, Binet founded the experimental journal, L’Annee psychologique, in which he published articles on memory, problem solving, emotion, and attention.

By 1905, after his study with chess players, Binet opened a laboratory for the study of children and pedagogy (he made a study of his own daughters). 

In 1905, Binet was appointed to a ministerial commission to study retarded school children.  Binet  teamed up with psychologist Dr. Theodore Simon and created the “New methods for Diagnosing Idiocy, Imbecility and Moron,” which became known as the Binet – Simon Scale, or, an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test.  Binet used the concept of mental age to create a test that accurately predicted academic achievement.  While not widely accepted in France, a New Jersey school teacher brought the test to the United States for use with learning disabled children.  Once in the States, Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman (1877-1956) tweaked and refined Binet’s work to establish the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale.

Binet gave birth to a century of chess investigation that would help understand the human mind.  In 1946, Dutch master and psychologist Adriaan de Groot (1914-2006) published his Thought and Choice in Chess (his PhD dissertation).  In his work, following up on Binet’s work, investigated the skills, speed, style, and articulation of skill levels of the chess player.  De Groot observed that great chess players did not actually calculate significantly more or faster than lesser players, nor have better memories.  Instead, they recognized more chess patters more quickly, so as to make more relevant calculations and, therefore, better decisions.



Binet, Mnemonic Virtuosity: A Study of Chess Players, 1893

Binet, Psychologie des grands calculateurs et joueurs en echec, 1894

Binet, The Mind and the Brain, 1907

De Groot, Thought and Choice in Chess, 1946

Fancher, “Alfred Binet, General Psychologist,” Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology, 1998

Hearst and Knott, Blindfold Chess: History, Psychology, Techniques, Champions, World Records, 2009

Pollack, The Experimental Psychology of Alfred Binet: Selected Papers, 1969

Taine, On Intelligence, 1871