Cognitive Fluency: Easy Does Not Equal True

In recent years neuroscience  has given us some fascinating new insights that can be applied to chess; it has also confirmed a lot of classic conventional wisdom. The very useful and solid data that “effortful study” or “deliberate practice” is the best method of improving in a discipline, whether chess, music or athletics, would hardly have been a shock to weightlifters of the 1950s, Emmanuel Lasker or even the Greek Olympics coaches circa 396 B.C. All would have known that lifting weights, meeting opponents or playing pieces slightly more difficult than your comfort level is the way to steadily improve. As soon as something becomes easy, bump up the challenge one notch.

Even so, there are many aspects of practice well worth exploration, but that is another post. Some scientific findings are more counter intuitive and less familiar, like the details of “cognitive fluency“:

Cognitive fluency is simply a measure of how easy it is to think about something, and it turns out that people prefer things that are easy to think about to those that are hard. On the face of it, it’s a rather intuitive idea. But psychologists are only beginning to uncover the surprising extent to which fluency guides our thinking, and in situations where we have no idea it is at work.


Our sensitivity to – and affinity for – fluency is an adaptive shortcut. According to psychologists, it helps us apportion limited mental resources in a world where lots of things clamor for our attention and we have to quickly figure out which are worth thinking about.

During a game of chess we rely on this familiarity many times, in the opening with the moves we know and then with the “typical” middle game pawn structures and piece placements from those openings, and on into the ending with “rules” about active rooks, the opposition, etc. Of course, many of these short cuts are quite useful, saving us clock time and mental energy for when it’s needed more–the “critical moment(s) of the game” so beloved of Soviet annotators.

However, it seems that this cognitive fluency can easily be taken too far. We mostly want to play the openings that we know in serious games, and indeed many of us in our heart of hearts would probably prefer a “small” advantage in a familiar position to a slightly “larger” one in a “messy” position (whether there actually exist “smaller” or “larger” advantages is also a topic for the future).

But this comfort must be broken occasionally for us to grow and improve. As Nigel wrote in a previous post, “Growth implies change and change is scary, so there can even be a tendency for people to cover up their insecurities with a certain chess machismo.” Or, in turn, a desire for safe, solid positions all the time.

Breaking out of this mindset requires a conscious effort, and I have found some techniques that can help. While changing openings in the middle of the club championship or big-money Swiss might be a little too much growth, for casual or online games play openings you don’t know–indeed the more offbeat the better. If you’re an “e4 player” play 1. d4, or better yet 1. g3 or a3 or e3. With unfamiliar positions from the start you will get more creative and unconventional in the middle game. Doing it repeatedly will carry over to serious games.

You can also be more creative with computer annotations. Just letting a program annotate your games can produce a certain laziness and very little improvement, but by going over the game on a board and trying your hardest to find the mistakes and then having a computer check you can get the benefits of “deliberate practice.” It’s nice that the program will point out tactical errors, but much more important for our purpose is that it will find moves you never even considered because they were out of your comfort zone of positional understanding or material balance. Mikhail Tal was a great and beloved player because he found more of these moves than almost anyone else of his time; now the youngest Grandmasters have trained with and used computers all their livers and find these moves and plans more easily, but all of us can change our mindsets and boldly become Strangers in a Strange Land, breaking out of ruts and, whether winning or losing, becoming larger and more creative as players.

Greats of the past didn’t need computers to find the strange, unexpected yet powerful move. Here is a favorite game of mine, where Alekhine defeats another immensely strong player, Euwe, after  the very “uncomfortable” 9. g4!