Executive Stress

Here’s a position from a London League game I played back in 1978.

I was White and had to play one more move before the time control. I don’t remember how much time I had but I suspect it was enough to avoid making a blunder. What I do remember, though, is that I had a heavy cold and didn’t feel fully switched on during the game. This was the main reason why, instead of playing something sensible to consolidate my slight advantage, I grabbed the e-pawn, overlooking that after the trade of bishops my opponent had the deadly fork Qh1+.

Feeling unwell is something that will inevitably affect your executive function skills. Perhaps you will find it harder to make a decision and run short of time. Perhaps you will play impulsively and make an oversight. Perhaps your decision making skills will be impaired.

But what exactly do we mean by ‘executive function’?

Wikipedia, as usual, is your friend.

“Executive functions (also known as cognitive control and supervisory attentional system) are a set of cognitive processes – including attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, as well as reasoning, problem solving, and planning – that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.”

Well, chess is very much about reasoning, problem solving and planning, as I’m sure you’ll agree. To play chess well we need attentional control, otherwise we’ll get distracted by external or internal stimuli. We also need inhibitory control, otherwise we’ll play our moves impulsively, without thinking about the consequences, and make lots of oversights as a result. Working memory is not just short-term memory but involves manipulating the information stored in your short-term memory: without that skill we’re not going to be able to consider alternatives and look ahead, and if we try to do so we’ll quickly become very confused. Finally, we also require cognitive flexibility: the ability to switch between thinking about different ideas, and to think about two different ideas at the same time.

Wikipedia again:

“Executive functions gradually develop and change across the lifespan of an individual and can be improved at any time over the course of a person’s life. Similarly, these cognitive processes can be adversely affected by a variety of events which affect an individual.”

So we’d expect children’s executive functions to improve as they get older, but on occasion an individual may be affected by a particular event, such as, in my example above, having a heavy cold, which, in a game of chess, might increase the likelihood of making mistakes. It was reputedly Tartakower who first said that he’d never beaten a healthy opponent.

“… executive functioning in preadolescents is limited because they do not reliably apply these executive functions across multiple contexts as a result of ongoing development of inhibitory control.”

Quite. You can teach young children all the chess you want but, unless their executive function skills are in place they will find it very difficult to put it into practice. Which is why young children will often get stuck, find themselves not making progress, get frustrated and give up. The younger they start chess the more likely this will happen. The children get frustrated, their chess teachers get frustrated with them, their parents get frustrated both with the children and with their chess teachers.

“Many executive functions may begin in childhood and preadolescence, such as inhibitory control. Yet, it is during adolescence when the different brain systems become better integrated. At this time, (young people) implement executive functions, such as inhibitory control, more efficiently and effectively and improve throughout this time period. Just as inhibitory control emerges in childhood and improves over time, planning and goal-directed behavior also demonstrate an extended time course with ongoing growth over adolescence. Likewise, functions such as attentional control, with a potential spurt at age 15, along with working memory, continue developing at this stage.”

Precisely. Which is why it’s so much easier to teach older children than younger children, and one of many reasons why most young children fail to make progress at chess.

It’s difficult to teach executive functions to young children, but I guess playing games of skill would be one way to develop these attributes. I would also guess that simpler games would be much more effective and probably enjoyable than an exceptionally complex and difficult game such as chess.

Some children will have these skills in place at a very early age, and I’ve been lucky enough to have known and worked with quite a few. Current Richmond Junior Chess Club member Nishchal Thatte, for example, shared first place in the U160 section of the most recent Richmond Rapidplay at the age of 7, and was up with the leaders most of the way in the European Under 8 Championships which finished the other day. But most of the children I’m asked to teach are far too immature to make much progress because they have the typical executive function defects which you’d expect from their age.

Thinking back again to the position at the top of this article:

“Psychologists Don Norman and Tim Shallice have outlined five types of situations in which routine activation of behavior would not be sufficient for optimal performance:

1. Those that involve planning or decision making
2. Those that involve error correction or troubleshooting
3. Situations where responses are not well-rehearsed or contain novel sequences of actions
4. Dangerous or technically difficult situations
5. Situations that require the overcoming of a strong habitual response or resisting temptation.”

In that position I had to make a decision. I had to correct the error in my decision making, but failed to do so. The backward diagonal attack on my rook after Qh1+ might be considered part of a novel sequence of actions. I was in a dangerous situation but failed to realise it. I had to resist the temptation of capturing the pawn but failed to do so.

Who was my opponent in that game? None other than the aforementioned Tim Shallice, who has been a strong chess player for more than half a century and is still active today.

“The work of influential researchers such as Michael Posner, Joaquin Fuster, Tim Shallice, and their colleagues in the 1980s (and later Trevor Robbins, Bob Knight, Don Stuss, and others) laid much of the groundwork for recent research into executive functions.”

Tim Shallice is not only a strong chess player but an influential researcher into executive functions. If you were paying attention recently you might recall another name from the same sentence. The winner of the game I demonstrated last week, Trevor Robbins, was a very strong chess player in his teens and early twenties but chose to concentrate on his academic work in the field of executive function.

Given the importance of executive function in playing chess it’s perhaps not surprising that two of the leading experts in the field should also be strong chess players.

We need to stress the importance of executive function in the development of young chess players, but at the moment we’re not really doing so.

Richard James

This entry was posted in Articles, Children's Chess, Richard James on by .

About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.