Psychology and Chess

I’ve become keenly interested in poker playing lately and one area within the game of poker that fascinates me is the “tell.” The “tell,” is a physical reaction, such as a sudden frown or facial twitch, that tells other players that the person frowning or twitching may not have a good hand of cards. The face of even a seasoned veteran can betray its owner in the slightest of ways. Of course, really good poker players learn how to mask their “tells” or facial expressions. However, they often give their opponents subtle physical hints that silently betray them. A good poker player wears a poker face, one that tells their opponents little about the hand of cards they hold. What does a poker face and the betraying “tell” have to do with chess? It teaches us a bit about or opponent’s state of mind during a game. This is why I teach even my youngest students a bit about the psychology of chess!

One factor that plays heavily in the games of beginners is greed. Greed can be defined, in chess, as the grabbing of pawns and pieces for no other reason than to reduce the opposition’s material. I teach my students that we (I say we because I practice what I preach) only capture opposition material if it improves our position, creates problems for our opponent’s position, stops a potential checkmate or leads to a checkmate. It can be an upward battle because of most chess engine’s willingness to grab material when given the chance. Since many players rely on their chess software to help them in their training, material grabbing becomes a bad habit for those players. Material grabbing is a mechanical way to play chess. To win chess games, you have to think outside of the box (non-mechanically).

I start my introduction to the psychology of chess with a discussion about Queen Sacrifices. In a typical Queen sacrifice, the player sacrificing his Queen often does so to checkmate his or her opponent a few moves later. The question I pose to my students is why does the Queen get captured more often than not? I have them carefully consider the question. The answer is greediness of course. However, it isn’t as simple as that. While greed plays a crucial role, we have to explore the roots of this greediness to understand why the Queen is captured more often than not. Beginners are taught that the Queen is the most powerful piece in the game. On an empty board, a Queen controls 27 different squares when positioned on a central square (d4, d5, e4 and e5). Beginners have a bad habit of developing their Queen early on because they’re intoxicated by her power. Therefore, when the beginner sees chance to eliminate their opponent’s Queen, they take it, reasoning that they’ve just removed a very dangerous piece from the game. However, experienced players will examine the potential capture, looking for an underlying trap. While this examination of the Queen sacrifice has little to do with the “tell,” it helps to get a glimpse into the thinking or psychology of the person on the other side of a chess game. My students learn to look for ulterior motives from their opponents. Now to the concept of the “tell.”

You can pick up a great deal of information regarding your opponent through their physical actions during a game. When I move a pawn or piece on the board, I do so in a smooth, forceful yet non-aggressive manner. Some players timidly move their pawns and pieces. This can indicate that they’re unsure of their actions. A player can also forcefully push a pawn or piece on the board, confidently. This can indicate that they have a solid plan. I teach my students to move their pawns and pieces in such a way that gives no indication of their state of mind in a given position, smoothly and calmly. Do not provide any physically visual clues to your opponent. You don’t want to appear to be over or under confident during the game, rather somewhere in between.

While you should only be concerned with the position at hand and thus only be looking at the board, you’ll want to watch your opponent carefully when the make a move and when you make a move. Many junior (and adult) players tend to nervously tap their legs up and down under the table when a position becomes difficult. Make a mental note of this. Facial expressions come into play during a chess game and knowing how to read them can be a great help. I train my youngest students to maintain an emotionless “poker face” early on. Many chess player’s faces will suddenly relax when they find what they think is a great move. When your opponent suddenly goes from frowning to a relaxed smile, they may be making a winning move. Examine the position in even greater detail. When you make a move and your opponent suddenly looks as if the life has been drained from his or her face, you may have just made a crushing move. Of course, you should only look at your opponent’s facial reaction when moves are made, the rest of the time being spent looking at the position on the board.

More experienced players will be able to hide their facial expressions better than the beginner but there are still “tells” to be found if you know where to look! We all have these “tells,” whether it’s an out of control knee jerk under the table or a nervous twitch. You simply have to be able to find them. Signs of trouble for your opponent include painfully grasping their forehead with their hand, a subtle sigh after making a bad move or a subconscious facial twitch. Then there’s body language. Often, an opponent’s shoulders will suddenly sag after making a bad move or they’ll rise up proudly when making a winning move. These are all “tells.” They are entire books written about this subject but I have a small amount of page space in which to introduce this concept so I’m keeping examples to a minimum.

The overall idea here is to use these “tells” to read your opponent’s state of mind regarding the position at hand. While the real truth will always be found on the chessboard, motives and intentions can often be given away through the opposition’s facial expressions and physical actions. One way to avoid giving your opponent too much information is to develop the “poker face.” This is really an invisible mask you wear when you play chess. The “poker face” is one that remains expressionless but can also be manipulated when needed. What do I mean by manipulated? Let’s say you make a potentially bad move due to the touch rule, for example. Rather than expose a facial expression that relays the idea that your move is bad, put a smile on your face and then look directly at your opponent. Even an experienced player will carefully consider the move until he or she deduces that it’s a blunder. The less experienced player might think you’ve done something noteworthy and react to that move as if it were the move of the century. It’s basic psychology. Of course, one should avoid bad moves all together. However, we (the mere wood pushers) make mistakes in the form of bad moves. It is certainly worth trying to use a bit of backwoods psychology to bluff our way out of trouble.

In closing, the idea I want you to take to heart is that we can acquire additional information from our opponent’s reactions and can avoid giving out too much information about our own game by keeping a “poker face” on during our games. Poker players do quite well studying facial expressions or “tells” so it might be useful in our own games to learn from them. Try it out!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).