Scientific American has an article in which the
author reviews research into the expertise of chess players.
He ponders the questions of what makes an expert player an
expert, how is the problem-solving strategy of an expert different from
that of a novice, and is there a way to train people to be experts?
What makes this interesting is not so much the questions regarding
chess, in particular; rather, what is interesting is the question of
how generalizable the findings are. The people who study this
question are really interested in the the latter. They
consider chess to be the Drosophila of cognitive
Studies of the mental processes of chess
grandmasters have revealed clues to how people become experts in other
fields as well
By Philip E. Ross
July 24, 2006
A man walks along the inside of a circle of chess tables, glancing at
each for two or three seconds before making his move. On the outer rim,
dozens of amateurs sit pondering their replies until he completes the
circuit. The year is 1909, the man is José Raúl
Capablanca of Cuba, and the result is a whitewash: 28 wins in as many
games. The exhibition was part of a tour in which Capablanca won 168
games in a row.
How did he play so well, so quickly? And how far ahead could he
calculate under such constraints? “I see only one move ahead,”
Capablanca is said to have answered, “but it is always the correct one.”
I have the impression that one of the fundamental qualities of
expertise is the ability to recognize abstract patterns in complex data
sets. The study of chess players shows that grandmasters do
not have better memories that other people. Specifically,
they do not necessarily have photographic memories.
What they do better than the average player, is to see patterns that
correspond, in an abstract way, to patterns that are familiar.
The familiarity comes from study of classic games, as well as
from games that they personally have played before. Once the
pertinent pattern is recognized, it is used to narrow down the list of
possible moves that are worth considering.
Such a template, as they call it, would have a number
of slots into which the master could plug such variables as a pawn or a
bishop. A template might exist, say, for the concept of “the isolated
queen’s-pawn position from the Nimzo-Indian Defense,” and a master
might change a slot by reclassifying it as the same position “minus the
dark-squared bishops.” To resort again to the poetic analogy, it would
be a bit like memorizing a riff on “Mary had a little lamb” by
substituting rhyming equivalents at certain slots, such as “Larry” for
“Mary,” “pool” for “school” and so on. Anyone who knows the original
template should be able to fix the altered one in memory in a trice.
Unfortunately, the research on the making of experts has not found any
real shortcuts. Computer-based training helps, but only
because it enables one to see more examples in a shorter period of
time. It still takes years of effortful study. In
order to put forth the effort, it appears necessary that the trainee
have an inherent interest in the field. Otherwise, the
material is just too boring to sink in.
Even the novice engages in effortful study at first,
which is why beginners so often improve rapidly in playing golf, say,
or in driving a car. But having reached an acceptable performance–for
instance, keeping up with one’s golf buddies or passing a driver’s
exam–most people relax. Their performance then becomes automatic and
therefore impervious to further improvement. In contrast,
experts-in-training keep the lid of their mind’s box open all the time,
so that they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and
thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields.
As it happens, that is exactly what happened to me, and what brought an
end to my interest in chess. I had gotten a chess program, I
think it was Chessmaster 3000 or something like that. When I
got to Chessmaster 5000, the new edition had a “rate my play” feature.
When I got to the point where my rating was a bit above that
of the average tournament player, I lost interest in developing my
skill any more. At that point, I realized that in order to
develop a higher level of skill, I would have to devote more time to
study and practice. It seemed that continuing to study for
the same amount of time each week would not do much.
In that way, it seemed very much like physical training.
Doing the same amount of exercise each day does not lead to
an ever-increasing fitness level; it merely maintains the same level of
I have some thoughts about how this applies to medical practice, which
I will post … sometime later. Tomorrow or the day after
that, probably. It has to do with the famous quote, that all
chess mavens know, by Capablanca:
“I see only one move ahead,” Capablanca is said to
have answered, “but it is always the correct one.”