Buckling Down to Work

After spending a couple of weeks alone in my study looking at chess books, with only the cat checking on my progress, I can tell you a certain existential angst occasionally creeps in along with the cat. Also a touch of lower back pain, until I rummaged around the basement and found a card table an inch and a half higher than the one I had been using. Fortunately, I enjoy what I am doing, and the back pain is less now, thank you. Still, I can imagine a skeptic asking me: “What’s the use?” In response I can do no better than quote Peter Jones, author of Learn Ancient Greek, another book on my shelf: “The answer, I suppose, depends on whether you think pleasure is useful. Being a joie de vivre man myself, I can think of few things more useful than pleasure.”

Studying chess for several hours a day is far better than most of the alternatives. If breaking rocks in the hot sun while chained to a gang of sweaty criminals is near the low end of the occupational scale, reading chess books alone at home while leisurely sipping green tea with honey must be close to the high end. It certainly beats working in an office for someone else. For over three decades, as part of God’s plan to remind me continually of man’s fallen state, He gave me bosses and coworkers. My bosses tended to be crafty, disingenuous fellows with no discernible moral compass, who could have given Judas a hint or two. I will never forget the coworker in the next office who habitually left his door open and yakked loudly on the phone all day, forcing me to listen to his side of every conversation. I learned to tune him out, but during lunchtime one day, when I was sitting at my desk eating yogurt and scraping the bottom of the plastic container with my spoon, he suddenly screamed through the wall, “Stop! It’s finished! You’re done! Give it up! THERE’S NO MORE YOGURT!” Moments later he appeared wild-eyed in my office doorway, crouched with fists clenched and face flushed, ready for a physical confrontation. All I could think was, “We’re about to have a fistfight over an empty cup of yogurt, as if we were two prisoners in the gulag. This isn’t why I came to work this morning.”

GM Savielly Tartakower (Wikipedia Commons)

I am following a method in my solitary chess studies. Over several posts I will explain that method, but probably I should talk first about the concept of pattern recognition and how it relates to chess skill. I will start with a story. One day, perhaps in the 1920s or 1930s, Grandmaster Savielly Tartakower was strolling through Paris with a friend. They walked past two men who were seated and playing chess. Tartakower glanced at the chessboard as they passed and commented to his companion, “They are good players.” It had taken him only a moment to grasp and evaluate the chess position. How was this possible? The short answer is that he recognized the patterns on the board, and the patterns conveyed immediate meaning to him. I use the word “recognize” with conscious intent. He did not have to analyze the chess position; he simply recognized the patterns it contained. He had a vast storehouse of chess positions in his brain, each of which meant something to him, just as other people have a storehouse of verbal phrases. Rather than having to think about the chess position he saw, he understood it directly as a result of his extensive previous experience.

Researchers have long been interested in chess as a key to understanding mental processes, especially in the field of artificial intelligence. (Ironically, it turns out that computers do not play chess much the way people do. People rely heavily on their experience—their ability to recognize patterns similar to those in positions they have seen before—while computers rely heavily on brute-force analysis of millions and millions of moves, using their ability to calculate rapidly. Over time, as a result of increasingly sophisticated programming aided by the advice of human grandmasters, computers have also “learned” to recognize and evaluate patterns.)

Adriaan de Groot, courtesy of www.chessbase.com

One classic experiment by Adriaan de Groot (1946) tested people’s ability to recall chess positions. Chessplayers of various skill levels were briefly shown chess positions, then asked to recreate them from memory. For our discussion, this experiment produced two results of particular interest:

1) The ability to recall and recreate meaningful chess positions (i.e., arrangements of the pieces that could reasonably have arisen in the course of a chess game) was directly correlated to chess skill. The more skillful the chessplayer, the more accurately he could recreate the chess positions he had been shown. This result was probably not very surprising to the researchers or to anyone else. Chess masters were able to recreate meaningful chess positions almost perfectly.

2) The ability to recall and recreate meaningless chess positions (i.e., random arrangements of pieces unlike positions from actual games) did not vary significantly according to chess skill. In other words, the masters were no better than duffers at remembering random groupings of chess pieces. This result could be seen as surprising, because many people had traditionally credited outstanding chessplayers with having outstanding memories. Of course, some chessplayers do have outstanding memories; but this particular experiment suggested that a chessplayer’s memory is outstanding only for information that is meaningful in chess terms.

Let us pause to consider why more skillful chessplayers were better at remembering and recreating meaningful chess positions, and why chess masters were almost perfect at this task. Since de Groot’s 1946 experiment, a great deal more research has been done on chess expertise. Merim Bilalic and Peter McLeod of Oxford University and Fernand Gobet of Brunel University, in their interesting and thought-provoking study “Does chess need intelligence? A study with young chess players” (2007), cite much of the relevant research. They note:

… Most of the current theories of expertise (Chunking Theory – Chase & Simon, 1973a; 1973b; Template Theory – Gobet & Simon, 1996a; Apperception-Restructuring Theory – Saariluoma, 1995; Long Term-Working Memory – Ericsson & Kintsch, 1995) assume that chess skill depends more on knowledge (e.g., stored patterns of chess configurations, chunks and templates) than on analytical abilities such as search or calculation of variations (but see Holding, 1985; 1992). It has been estimated that chess experts have between 10,000 and 100,000 chunks stored in their memories (Simon & Gilmartin, 1973), a number that recent computer simulations place as high as 300,000 (Gobet & Simon, 2000). These constellations are connected with common moves and plans which are responsible for successful chess playing. In order to acquire such a large number of chess position patterns, prolonged training is a necessity for every chess expert.

Research further indicates that chess skill is strongly correlated with the “number of chess position patterns” stored in the player’s memory. Now we have some theoretical underpinnings for Grandmaster Tartakower’s ability to absorb and evaluate a chess position, at a glance, as he strolled by.

What practical lessons can would-be chess improvers learn from the research discussed above? I suggest there are at least two. First, you don’t have to have a remarkable memory to be a good chessplayer (though other research suggests that it helps)—so if you sometimes misplace the car keys, don’t despair. Second, and this is more to the point because you can actually do something about it: to be a better chessplayer, you must improve your pattern recognition. You must increase your mental storehouse of chess patterns that you can recognize without needing to analyze. (Analysis is a separate skill, which you can also improve by systematic practice. I will discuss that topic another time.) How you can improve your pattern recognition will be addressed in my next post.