The interest of psychologists in chessplayers is twofold. First as a medium through which to study the thought processes, chess has a sufficient complexity and a sufficiently rigorous structure for it to be of use in discovering the precise mental processes through which a master reaches his decision about what move to play. Secondly, the chessmaster himself is an interesting subject for study to investigate what personality attributes (or defects) and what intellectual abilities are necessary to make a strong chess-player.
The first systematic attempt to test chessplayers was by Binet in 1894, when he applied his recent innovation, the intelligence test, to a number of the best players of the day. His conclusion that spatial ability is higher in chess-players than in those of comparable intelligence levels. This result he found to apply particularly to players of blindfold chess.
A more detailed investigation was undertaken at the Moscow" 1925 tournament, when eight of the competitors agreed to undergo several tests of intelligence and personality structure. The results are to be found in Djakov, Petrowski and Rudik, Psychologie des Schachspiels, Berlin/Leipzig 1927. Briefly, their conclusions were that chess-masters possessed a high degree of physical endurance together with a tolerance for frustration; their on tests of memory was no different from that of other groups of comparable intelligence levels.
Subsequent developments led to a deterioration in relations between chess and psychology when the Freudian school of psychoanalysis applied its methods to an interpretation of chess. The best known paper in this field was Reuben Fine's 'Psych-analytic observations on chess and chessmasters', in Psychoanalysis 1956. This was subsequently reprinted as The Psychology of the Chessplayer. This book attempted to generalize the conclusions of Ernest Jones’ 'The Problem of PauI Morphy' which drew heavily on an identification of the chess pieces with the components of the Oedipal drama. The objectives of the game are associated with subconscious fantasies based on the player want to kill his parents and we are all also accused of repressed homosexuality and paranoia. I remember purchasing Fine’s book when it first came out hoping to find some insights on how to play better chess. It was disappointing in that respect but laughable in Fine’s explanations as to why we play chess. While I’m on the subject of Fine, he basically quite chess because he no longer occupied a high place in the pecking order after World War 2. I’ve read his whining about why he should have been included in 1948 World Chess Championship tournament played to determine a new World Champion following the death of Alekhine. It was pathetic. Fine founded the Creative Living Center in New York City where he counseled people on marriage. Fine himself was married and divorced many times, so I’m skeptical that any advice he had to offer would have been of much value.
Fortunately these theories were never generally accepted either in psychoanalytic or chessplaying circles.
From the chessplayer’s point of view perhaps the most interesting work on the thought process of GM’s was done by Prof. Aadrian de Groot, a strong chessplayer from the University of Amsterdam. His work was based on experimental sessions conducted between 1938 and 1943 with subjects of various strengths ranging from amateurs to World Champions.
The principle test involved presenting the subject with an unfamiliar position taken from an actual game and asking him to provide a verbal report of his thought process. One interesting result was the measurement of a player’s ability to remember a position presented to him for a brief time (10-15 seconds). De Groot found this ability correlated very highly with playing strength. GM’s got nearly a 100% score while club players would only remember the position of half or less of the pieces. However, if the pieces were randomly placed with no resemblance to an actual game, the results bore no correlation to playing strength. This supports the theory that chess ability is allied to pattern recognition.
When reading this work I noticed GM’s tended to examine fewer moves and usually did not analyze as deeply as lower rated players. No doubt this is because they were able to zero in on what’s important and what isn’t by intuition or pattern recognition. I also noticed that in many cases in the analysis of many players that in the first couple of moves they looked at they did look at one of the moves the GM’s considered. The GM’s may have quickly dismissed the move, but they did consider it. This gave me the idea that maybe I was better than I thought, so when I looked at a position in my own games, the first three moves or so that popped into my head were the ones that got attention. OK, so maybe they weren’t moves a GM would play, but I figured they were likely moves he would at least consider however briefly. After all, I’ll play a GM’s rejected move over my own any time! The question is, “Did it work?” The answer is, “Yes.” Coupled along with some other training I did, I played in a large tournament in Chicago sometime back in the late 60’s or early 70’s and as a mid-1600 rated player, scored four straight wins against 1800-2000 rated players before losing in the last round to a 2400 rated master.
Here are links to some interesting articles, including the complete version of de Groot’s book.
deGroot’s Thought and Choice in Chess is available from Google books.
Time essay: Why They Play – The Psychology of Chess
A brief survey of psychological studies of chess
Psychology Today article: Chess: Not All About Logic?