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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Chess and Psychology

     In an article titled How to Get Good at Chess Fast, published in 2013, Gautam Narula offered two simple rules. In fact the rules apply in other areas as well. Narula says, "If chess is anything, it is a game of second chances. Chess, like life, rewards perseverance. I've turned countless losses into draws and wins because my opponents got overconfident while I dug in. I've also turned wins into losses because I was too intimidated by my opponent's rating or reputation.”
     Chess psychology can be distilled to two rules: 1) Don't ever be afraid of your opponent and 2) Fight as hard as you can until the game is over. According to Narula, following these simple rules will add hundreds of points to your rating. Hundreds of points may be an exaggeration, but it’s still a good rule. There's a footnote to the second rule, saying if the situation is absolutely hopeless, it's good etiquette to resign rather than drag the game on needlessly. Narula also observed, "If my opponent were playing Magnus Carlsen in this position, would Carlsen be able to win?" If the answer is yes, keep playing. If it is no, then resign.
     Some highlights: What does it mean to be “good” at chess? He defines “good” as the 90th percentile which, on the USCF rating list is a rating of 1800. The author claims that you can become better than the vast majority of players with minimal but targeted effort. He claims that to improve quickly you need to play in tournaments often. Online is not enough! Use online games (15 minutes per side or slower) to explore openings or for practice.
He did two types of tactics training. The first was “Chess Vision” and “Knight Sight” exercises, as described in his article. He claimed they may sound stupid, but they worked. His primary method of tactics training was using the CD, Chess Tactics for Beginners. One observation that made a lot of sense was that online tactics sites don’t cut it because they aren’t structured so that you learn based off previous ideas.
Analysis is by far the most undervalued part of chess training. Use analysis to brush up on openings and endgames and practice strategic play. More good advice is the observation that you should NOT rely heavily on engines for analysis. Engine analysis should be done only after you analyze the game on your own.
Do not devote a large amount of time to openings. Just make sure you know the basic opening principles.
You should be picking up strategic play from analyzing your games and going over annotated games. Once again, it goes back to the often ignored advice of playing over master games and absorbing them to gain pattern recognition. Still, I think a good middlegame book on strategy is necessary in order to get a basic understanding of strategy.
He recommends Silman’s Complete Endgame Course. My own experience was to study K and P endings to get the basics then move on to R and P ending because they seemed to be the most common.
Annotated Games
Go over at least one annotated game a week. Personally, I think more is better.

     In an article appearing in the World of Psychology the author observed that the people who are drawn to the game often are intellectual types and that chess draws players who are inclined to be intelligent and then asks does chess affect personalities? His opinion was that chess does indeed influence personalities. For example, he said that as a result of thinking so much during chess, he now over-analyzes nearly everything. Spending so much time in his own mind helped him become more self-aware of tendencies in his thinking. His tendency when playing chess was to perform superficial analysis and he noticed this same tendency manifested itself in real life. Studying chess trained him to study hard for tests in school even when he didn’t have any interest in the subject and trying to figure out the best moves improved his creativity and decision-making. Thinking about it, most of us tend to ignore the areas of chess we don’t like. Early in his career USCF Senior Master Mark Buckley made it habit to study things he disliked or didn’t understand.

     In a Brief Survey of Psychological Studies of Chess , a term paper written by Mark Jeays, the author also has some interesting observations on chess and psychology. His paper is overview of psychological research into chess.
     In Binet’s well known research one interesting finding was that masters differed on whether they used visual or abstract imagery to represent the board. The majority said that they used only an abstract representation, combined with sub-vocalizations of previous moves, to mentally examine the board. A small majority, J.H. Blackburne for example, claimed to visualize an actual chessboard with pieces on it corresponding to the current position, "just as if before the eyes."
     The first psychological enquiry into the minds of chessplayers was made by the Dutch psychologist and chess master Adriaan de Groot.  de Groot gave his subjects a position set up on a board and their task was to determine the best move, and to attempt to verbalize all of their thoughts.
     Four distinct stages in the task of choosing the next move were noted. The first stage was the phase of orientation, in which the subject assessed the situation and determined a very general idea of what to do next. The second stage, the phase of exploration, was manifested by looking at some branches of the game tree. The third stage, or phase of investigation, resulted in the subject choosing a probable best move. Finally, in the fourth stage, the phase of proof, saw the subject convince himself that the results of the investigation were correct. One important difference between masters and average players was that the average players tended to assume their opponent's would play as expected.  Masters tended to falsify their hypothesis.  That is, they tended to look for ways their opponent could refute their intended move.
     de Groot exposed subjects to a position taken from a game for a brief period (usually 3 to 4 seconds). de Groot found that the top players (grandmasters and masters) were able to recall 93% of the pieces, while the experts remembered 72% and the class players merely 51%.  de Groot interpreted the results by regarding the stronger performances by the higher-ranked players as a product of their experience. This is borne out by a study done by Chase and Simon, in 1973. de Groot suggested that relationships between the pieces were remembered better than the actual position. A bishop pinning a knight to the queen would be remembered in terms of the pin relationship, rather than by recalling the bishop to be at g5, the knight at f6 and the queen at d8.  Buckley also mentions such things as the "aura"  and "lines of force" of the pieces.
     Chase and Simon conducted an interesting experiment called "pennies-guessing." Subjects are shown a chessboard with pennies representing each piece, taken from a real game position. Their task is to recreate the position by guessing which piece belongs on each square. In addition, the player is told the number of moves that have been made in the game, and whose turn it is to move. The results? Masters are virtually perfect in placing the correct pieces on the board, while class A players averaged over 90% correct. So, what does this experiment prove? That large libraries of likely piece configurations are known to skilled players (i.e. pattern recognition).
     One piece of experimental evidence that seems to conflict with the previous findings comes from studies of players of different ages. The average 20-year-old player rated 1569 considered nine episodes and 22 total moves, while the average 20-year-old rated 2000 considered 12 episodes and 49 total moves. However, 50-year-olds with a rating of 2000 averaged 9 episodes and 36 total moves, which are numbers much closer to the lower-ranked 20-year-old rather than the higher-ranked one. Clearly, age makes the search process more efficient, since the players are achieving the same results with different amounts of effort. Presumably, the experience of the older players allows them to choose better candidate moves and to search more efficiently. So why the decline in results by older players?  Most likely it's due to a couple of factors.  One, most older players tend not to be current on theory and practice and two, most find long hours at the board tiring.  I know these days I'm "chessed out" after playing an hour or so and simply don't want to play any more.
     One facet of chess skill is being able to make an accurate evaluation of a position. An interesting case comes in certain ambiguous positions in which it is unclear to which side the advantage lies. These are often very good indicators of chess skill, since players of different rankings tend to predict different outcomes for the game. Comparing these with the "true" result (for practical purposes, the evaluation that a grandmaster would give it) of the game gives a very good indication of a player's relative strength. It is interesting to note that players of differing abilities tend to judge middle-game positions as a win, draw or loss equally well. However, in judging end game positions, weaker players tend to make poorer judgments, presumably because their knowledge of positional play is weaker. That's food for thought.
     Saariluoma conducted an experiment with nine strong players where a rather standard smothered mate in five was possible. There was an exception in this particular position though…there was a mate in four possible. None of the strong players found it without clues that such a mate existed from the experimenter. This experiment showed that players use their existing knowledge whenever possible even at the expense of finding the most efficient solution...they apply pattern recognition skills.

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