Mentality of Chess


Chess is considered the “drosophila” of cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence studies because it represents the domain in which expert performance has been intensively studied and measured.


In 1894, Alfred Binet demonstrated that good chess players have superior memory and recognition.  In the 1960s, Adriaan de Groot concurred with Alfred Binet that visual memory and visual perception are important attributors and that problem-solving ability is of paramount importance.


In the 1940s, Doctor Edward Lasker wrote on an organized study that was made of a dozen leading chess masters by a group of psychologists.  It was found that a chess master’s memory was only exceptional where positions on the chessboard was concerned. 


Chess masters did not seem to think faster than any other groups of people whom the psychologists selected at random and subjected to the same tests.  They did see that chess masters showed a well-developed reasoning faculty, similar in type to mathematicians.  Chess players appeared to be better able to think in the abstract rather than concrete terms.


While half of the chess masters showed abnormally rich inventiveness, bordering on the fantastic, the other half showed complete lack of it.  The majority of the chess masters tested were of the “doer” rather than the “thinker” type.  The psychologists explained this by the fact that, although chess demands concentration in a purely intellectual field, it also involves a continuous struggle against an opposing personality.


The psychologists concluded that for anyone to become a strong chess player they would have to have the following:


  1. A high degree of intelligence, though not necessarily culture. 
  2. The ability to think objectively.
  3. The capacity for abstract thought.  Correct generalizations, based on experience, produce the so-called “positional instinct” of a chess master.
  4. The ability to distribute attention over a number of different factors such as are always involved in a “combination.”  This avoids the overlooking of moves, which is the biggest weakness of most chess amateurs and beginners.
  5. A disciplined will capable of forcing the speed and concentration of the thinking process far above the normal powers of a player.
  6. Good nerves and self-control.  A player who cannot discipline his emotions will become demoralized and play far below his actual strength.  A chess master must be able to stand up under time pressure.  He if makes a blunder, he must take it calmly in his stride.
  7. Self-confidence.  A chess master must have trust in his positional judgment since detailed analysis of all pertinent variations is rarely possible.
  8. Technical perfection.  This requires a vast amount of practice from an early age.  It requires years of study to assimilate what the chess masters of the past have discovered, and to keep up with the ever increasing mass of contemporary analysis of opening play.
  9. Physical make-up.  The state of health of a master always affects his score in a tournament.  He must have the stamina to keep a clear head throughout the many hours of a playing session.
  10. Playing opponents of superior strength.  One must practice against stronger players.  This places a regrettable handicap on players who have little or no opportunity of spending enough time where stronger players are to be found.


The odds are stacked against you in becoming a chess master if you started playing chess at a late date,  Less than one percent of one percent of chess players even come close to breaking into master territory (Elo or USCF rating of 2200).   But it is not impossible.  It takes an incredible amount of dedication and hard work.  Chess players sacrifice a great deal to become a chess master.  One master’s recommendation to becoming a chess master are as follows:


  1. Study chess tactics every day.
  2. Develop a really good chess library.
  3. Identify your weaknesses and improve them.
  4. Pick one opening and learn it better than anyone.
  5. Study complete master-level chess games, preferably annotated.
  6. Pick a chess hero and study his games.
  7. Take lessons from the best player in your area.


Some believe that people who become strong chess players have exceptional intelligence and/or memory.  This belief is popular with highly rated chess players, but potentially discouraging to the general population.  There is little solid evidence to support this viewpoint, according to Dr. J. Corey Butler, a psychologist at Southwest Minnesota State University.  Most researchers have found minimal correlations between measures of IQ and official chess ratings.  General intelligence and memory by themselves do not appear to distinguish great chess players from ordinary ones.


A trait that chess masters have is that they can calculate long series of chess moves.  However, on the average, chess masters calculated no deeper that weaker players, and often examined fewer variations.   Nevertheless, they almost always selected superior moves.  Chess masters have the ability to do long calculations in their head, especially in the end game, but they usually don’t do this much more than ordinary players. 


The view of many psychologists is that the greatest difference in chess skill between masters and amateurs is in the realm of pattern recognition with chess pieces.  Chess masters only need to take a brief look at a chess position to asses it accurately.  They can instantly see positional themes like pawn chains, weak squares, open lines, and tactical possibilities, then evaluate what best move should be played.  That’s why chess masters excel in blitz chess.


Grandmasters can play under rapid time controls such a a minute or two for an entire game, with only minimal deterioration in the quality of their play.  A master usually performs about100 rating points less than their normal tournament playing strength in blitz games.  This seems to be good evidence that rapid pattern recognition is the key to success in chess.


Attention in chess is very important in chess because chess players must be able to detect various kinds of possibilities and threats.  One careless move could destroy hours of good work.  Chess masters seem to hold their attention in chess longer than chess amateurs.  Attentional superiority of chess masters may be an element in explaining some though errors because masters do not make errors in discriminating important chess information as amateurs and beginner do.  Chess masters seldom make errors by leaving pieces hanging (en prise), whereas this kind of errors are very common among amateurs.


Chess masters are superior to amateurs in recognizing chess positions as well as random positions.  Recent research has also shown that recognition is selective.  When chess masters are presented with a position they have seen before and are asked to say which they have seen before, they can much more easily recognize the new positions where there were transformations in important areas for game situation than in the positions where transformation is in less important areas.  The means that pattern recognition of the chess pieces is based on ‘meaningfully’ selective encoding.  Recognition then activates hypothetical solutions in the minds of chess players.  Chess master differ from amateurs with respect to the ability ti recognize better candidate moves.


In experiments, it was shown that chess masters recall chess positions much better than chess amateurs.  It was additionally demonstrated that skill differences practically disappear where positions are randomized (Chess and Simon, 1973).  This means that a chess master’s superiority is based on familiar piece configurations, a technique called chunking.


In 1967, Dr. Reuben Fine claimed that any chess master (rated 2200 or above by FIDE or USCF) should be able to play one game of blindfold chess.  To the average person, playing a game of chess without sight of the board represents an extremely difficult, if not impossible challenge for the memory.  Blindfold chess players need knowledge and experience, imagination, and memory.  Masters who were tested in blindfold games were generally able to remember all the moves played in a sequence of blindfold games.  Masters differed on whether they used visual or abstract imagery to represent the chess board.  The majority of masters said that they used only on abstract representation, combined with subvocalizations of previous moves, to mentally examine the board.


Chess players need to be able to perceive threats in order to determine their next moves.  One experiment was to determine if the king was being attacked or not.  The average latencies were as follows: beginners: 1550 ms; amateurs: 1250 ms; masters: 900 ms; grandmasters 650 ms.  This showed that grandmasters are much quicker than other players in certain lower-level perceptual processes.  Skill at recognizing a threat was inversely proportional to reaction time.

Grandmaster Alexander Kotov wrote a book called Think Like a Grandmaster.  In it he stated that all candidate moves should be identified at once and listed in one’s head.  He then insisted that each branch of what may be a complex tree should be examined once and only once.  Anything else shows lack of confidence to a waste of precious time on the clock.


However, this technique may not work for everyone.  Kotov was already a strong master when he adopted this approach.  Not all grandmasters have adopted Kotov’s candidate move approach.  And not all positions are suitable for this approach.  This may only work for very tactical positions only.   Other strong players emphasize  positional play and judgment as being the most important aspect of chess.


The final controversy in chess is whether men are innately better at chess than women.  Women represent less than 5% of all tournament chess players.  They represent only 1% of all grandmasters (for many years, there were no women grandmasters).  I will just say that men are more interested in chess than women.  As far as strength, the Polgar sisters show that you can have women in the top 10 list or top 100 list of all grandmasters.  In an interesting experiment, women playing an unknown player with the same rating played as expected when they thought they were playing against another woman.  However, their performance dropped drastically when they thought they were playing against a man.  Despite the women knowing they had the same Elo rating as their opponent, they showed a lower chess-specific self-esteem when they thought they were playing a man.


The final experiment was that women scored higher on individual testes evaluating chess abilities than they do in tournaments.  This is not the case for men.  Both scores match for men, but not for women