The Genius of the Kibitzer, Part II

In Part I, we wondered why a person observing a game (The Kibitzer) often sees things the players miss, which is really just an example of the general case: Why are we, in most serious games, unable to apply our full chess strength to all the moves?

It seems to me that this is the heart of the half of chess improvement that doesn’t involve chess, as such. To be a decent player of serious chess, it is vital to spend the time “moving the pieces around” as Nigel has emphasized, to gain a storehouse of typical positions and patterns that can help you find a good move quickly and efficiently. It is important and useful to have a decent knowledge of some opening sequences and basic endings. Given all of that, we know how some players are simply better at putting this skill and knowledge into practice. Certainly no one is “perfect” and no one wins them all, but just as in other forms of competition, from poker to football to politics and war, some people perform better at chess “in the arena” than others.

The fundamental question is: What are the differences?

I will not address those things all of us already know: Decent sleep and food, and moderate regular exercise will all help to maintain attention and alertness during the stresses of a serious game of chess.

But wait! Why is chess “stressful” at all?

We often take for granted that it should be so, but by now almost everyone knows that “stress” is a generic term for something we do to ourselves. There are “stressors,” say a bear appearing suddenly out of the bushes (it’s happened to me) but the “stress” is caused by our own physiological reactions. Parts of the brain we share in common with reptiles explode with activity, various hormones and other chemicals are rushed into the blood and we prepare for “fight or flight.” When I was a beginning tournament player and spotted the possibility of a “winning” combination my heart often beat as fast as if I has just run 100 metres; you can imagine that if the game wasn’t over quickly my play fell off steeply later in the session. Eventually I learned to control this overreaction, but it was not simple or easy.

I am a very competitive person who wants badly to win at every competition I do, and I don’t think this served so well at chess, during the game itself, early in my career. Strong competitive spirit can mentally prepare us to do our best before a game, but constantly ruminating about winning during a game, rather than concentrating on making good moves, only hurts our ability to apply our skill.

That’s an attitude adjustment, but what else can be done to better our results?

An excellent television program, “How Smart Can We Get?” has some key information at Segment 5, about 41:00 in (but the whole program is of great interest). A neuroscientist who had her own sporting experience of “choking” explores the mechanisms that prevent top performance. During mental tests, the activity of the amygdala and other emotional centers of the brain can produce actual, physical interference with the neurons of the pre-frontal cortex that we need in order to (among other things) play good chess. What top performers do is a sort of “cutting off” of the connection between the emotional centers and the rational mind.

A method that has worked to assist in this (as applied to academic tests) is writing down emotions and thoughts for 10 minutes before testing begins. Students who did so got an average of a half-grade higher (B+ vs. B-) as against a control group who just sat doing nothing for the 10 minutes before the test. Examination of the student writings shows that as the writings progress there is an evident change of attitude and more positive feeling about the test. The scientist compares it to “off loading” unnecessary programs from your computer, freeing resources and allowing for clearer thinking and memory–and presumably, better chess!

Another way to do this is through mental training via meditation or a martial art. There are many studies going back decades about the various physical and mental benefits of meditation, but for our purposes I would point to the ability through practice of achieving certain mental “states.” Many hours of experimentation and practice gradually make it easier and quicker to focus and integrate the various parts of the brain. When not integrated, they simply interfere with each other.

There is an expression in the martial arts that in various forms simply says: “Mind like water.” This is a state of no expectations, no hopes, no fears. Like a pond on a still day, there is no apparent motion, but the mind of the artist sees, hears and feels the opponent and his intentions and reacts without conscious thought, without anger, doing the right thing at the right time, as he has done a thousand times in training. This is not a way to “play chess” but a way to a higher level than writing of “off loading unnecessary programs” from the mind. Seeking it will increase your chess, and life’s, performance and results.

I don’t attempt here to analyze or compare various forms of meditation and martial arts that might serve the purpose. A classic old book that I recommend for the basics of meditation is The Relaxation Response. Regarding the martial arts, Nigel’s Tai Chi might be a good thing to try, as opposed to the forms that break boards and such. But everyone who tries will find their own right way.

So this post has not been about “chess” much, has it? Yet I believe strongly, from my own experience, that the “Genius of the Kibitzer” is based on two important points:

POINT THE FIRST: The Kibitzer is not trying to win a game, just looking at a chess position and finding a good move. The Kibitzer is not invested, emotionally, physically and spiritually, in the game.

If you play good chess the winning will take care of itself.

POINT THE SECOND: The Kibitzer’s brain is not resonating with conflicting waves interfering with his clear thinking about the position. The Kibitzer’s neurons are often firing more freely and efficiently than the players’ because his mind is more like water.

If you free your mind you can play chess freely.

(Coming next time: I offer myself up as a test subject for these scientific theories!)