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Mentality of Chess

Chess is considered the “drosophila” of cognitive psychology and artificial

intelligence studies because it represents the domain in which expert performance has
been intensively studied and measured.

In 1894, Alfred Binet demonstrated that good chess players have superior memory
and recognition. In the 1960s, Adriaan de Groot concurred with Alfred Binet that
visual memory and visual perception are important attributors and that problem-
solving ability is of paramount importance.

In the 1940s, Doctor Edward Lasker wrote on an organized study that was made of a
dozen leading chess masters by a group of psychologists. It was found that a chess
master’s memory was only exceptional where positions on the chessboard
was concerned.

Chess masters did not seem to think faster than any other groups of people whom the
psychologists selected at random and subjected to the same tests. They did see that
chess masters showed a well-developed reasoning faculty, similar in type to
mathematicians. Chess players appeared to be better able to think in the abstract
rather than concrete terms.

While half of the chess masters showed abnormally rich inventiveness, bordering on
the fantastic, the other half showed complete lack of it. The majority of the chess
masters tested were of the “doer” rather than the “thinker” type. The psychologists
explained this by the fact that, although chess demands concentration in a purely
intellectual field, it also involves a continuous struggle against an opposing

The psychologists concluded that for anyone to become a strong chess player they
would have to have the following:

1. A high degree of intelligence, though not necessarily culture.

2. The ability to think objectively.
3. The capacity for abstract thought. Correct generalizations, based on experience, produce
the so-called “positional instinct” of a chess master.
4. The ability to distribute attention over a number of different factors such as are always
involved in a “combination.” This avoids the overlooking of moves, which is the biggest
weakness of most chess amateurs and beginners.
5. A disciplined will capable of forcing the speed and concentration of the thinking process
far above the normal powers of a player.
6. Good nerves and self-control. A player who cannot discipline his emotions will become
demoralized and play far below his actual strength. A chess master must be able to stand
up under time pressure. He if makes a blunder, he must take it calmly in his stride.
7. Self-confidence. A chess master must have trust in his positional judgment since detailed
analysis of all pertinent variations is rarely possible.
8. Technical perfection. This requires a vast amount of practice from an early age. It
requires years of study to assimilate what the chess masters of the past have discovered,
and to keep up with the ever increasing mass of contemporary analysis of opening play.
9. Physical make-up. The state of health of a master always affects his score in a
tournament. He must have the stamina to keep a clear head throughout the many hours of
a playing session.
10. Playing opponents of superior strength. One must practice against stronger players. This
places a regrettable handicap on players who have little or no opportunity of spending
enough time where stronger players are to be found.

The odds are stacked against you in becoming a chess master if you started playing
chess at a late date, Less than one percent of one percent of chess players even come
close to breaking into master territory (Elo or USCF rating of 2200). But it is not
impossible. It takes an incredible amount of dedication and hard work. Chess players
sacrifice a great deal to become a chess master. One master’s recommendation to
becoming a chess master are as follows:

1. Study chess tactics every day.

2. Develop a really good chess library.
3. Identify your weaknesses and improve them.
4. Pick one opening and learn it better than anyone.
5. Study complete master-level chess games, preferably annotated.
6. Pick a chess hero and study his games.
7. Take lessons from the best player in your area.

Some believe that people who become strong chess players have exceptional
intelligence and/or memory. This belief is popular with highly rated chess players,
but potentially discouraging to the general population. There is little solid evidence to
support this viewpoint, according to Dr. J. Corey Butler, a psychologist
at Southwest Minnesota State University. Most researchers have found minimal
correlations between measures of IQ and official chess ratings. General intelligence
and memory by themselves do not appear to distinguish great chess players from
ordinary ones.

A trait that chess masters have is that they can calculate long series of chess
moves. However, on the average, chess masters calculated no deeper that weaker
players, and often examined fewer variations. Nevertheless, they almost always
selected superior moves. Chess masters have the ability to do long calculations in
their head, especially in the end game, but they usually don’t do this much more than
ordinary players.

The view of many psychologists is that the greatest difference in chess skill between
masters and amateurs is in the realm of pattern recognition with chess pieces. Chess
masters only need to take a brief look at a chess position to asses it accurately. They
can instantly see positional themes like pawn chains, weak squares, open lines, and
tactical possibilities, then evaluate what best move should be played. That’s why
chess masters excel in blitz chess.

Grandmasters can play under rapid time controls such a a minute or two for an entire
game, with only minimal deterioration in the quality of their play. A master usually
performs about100 rating points less than their normal tournament playing strength in
blitz games. This seems to be good evidence that rapid pattern recognition is the key
to success in chess.

Attention in chess is very important in chess because chess players must be able to
detect various kinds of possibilities and threats. One careless move could destroy
hours of good work. Chess masters seem to hold their attention in chess longer than
chess amateurs. Attentional superiority of chess masters may be an element in
explaining some though errors because masters do not make errors in discriminating
important chess information as amateurs and beginner do. Chess masters seldom
make errors by leaving pieces hanging (en prise), whereas this kind of errors are very
common among amateurs.

Chess masters are superior to amateurs in recognizing chess positions as well as

random positions. Recent research has also shown that recognition is
selective. When chess masters are presented with a position they have seen before
and are asked to say which they have seen before, they can much more easily
recognize the new positions where there were transformations in important areas for
game situation than in the positions where transformation is in less important
areas. The means that pattern recognition of the chess pieces is based on
‘meaningfully’ selective encoding. Recognition then activates hypothetical solutions
in the minds of chess players. Chess master differ from amateurs with respect to the
ability ti recognize better candidate moves.

In experiments, it was shown that chess masters recall chess positions much better
than chess amateurs. It was additionally demonstrated that skill differences
practically disappear where positions are randomized (Chess and Simon, 1973). This
means that a chess master’s superiority is based on familiar piece configurations, a
technique called chunking.
In 1967, Dr. Reuben Fine claimed that any chess master (rated 2200 or above by
FIDE or USCF) should be able to play one game of blindfold chess. To the average
person, playing a game of chess without sight of the board represents an extremely
difficult, if not impossible challenge for the memory. Blindfold chess players need
knowledge and experience, imagination, and memory. Masters who were tested in
blindfold games were generally able to remember all the moves played in a sequence
of blindfold games. Masters differed on whether they used visual or abstract imagery
to represent the chess board. The majority of masters said that they used only on
abstract representation, combined with subvocalizations of previous moves, to
mentally examine the board.

Chess players need to be able to perceive threats in order to determine their next
moves. One experiment was to determine if the king was being attacked or not. The
average latencies were as follows: beginners: 1550 ms; amateurs: 1250 ms; masters:
900 ms; grandmasters 650 ms. This showed that grandmasters are much quicker than
other players in certain lower-level perceptual processes. Skill at recognizing a threat
was inversely proportional to reaction time.
Grandmaster Alexander Kotov wrote a book called Think Like a Grandmaster. In it
he stated that all candidate moves should be identified at once and listed in one’s
head. He then insisted that each branch of what may be a complex tree should be
examined once and only once. Anything else shows lack of confidence to a waste of
precious time on the clock.

However, this technique may not work for everyone. Kotov was already a strong
master when he adopted this approach. Not all grandmasters have
adopted Kotov’s candidate move approach. And not all positions are suitable for this
approach. This may only work for very tactical positions only. Other strong
players emphasize positional play and judgment as being the most important aspect
of chess.

The final controversy in chess is whether men are innately better at chess than
women. Women represent less than 5% of all tournament chess players. They
represent only 1% of all grandmasters (for many years, there were no women
grandmasters). I will just say that men are more interested in chess than women. As
far as strength, the Polgar sisters show that you can have women in the top 10 list or
top 100 list of all grandmasters. In an interesting experiment, women playing an
unknown player with the same rating played as expected when they thought they were
playing against another woman. However, their performance dropped drastically
when they thought they were playing against a man. Despite the women knowing
they had the same Elo rating as their opponent, they showed a lower chess-specific
self-esteem when they thought they were playing a man.

The final experiment was that women scored higher on individual testes evaluating
chess abilities than they do in tournaments. This is not the case for men. Both scores
match for men, but not for women