The Expert Mind

July 20, 2006 at 8:46 am | Posted in Chess | Leave a comment

In the most recent Scientific American, Philip E. Ross wrote an article, The Expert Mind, which investigates how experts acquire their skills as well as the innate vs. learnt debate. The first interesting point is the psychologist use chess in the study of this branch of cognitive science, because not only is chess a game of intelligence, it can and is measurable. I’ve included some quotes from the article, but for those of you studying chess (especially us DLM devotees), I believe that you will find that this article reinforces the fact that we need to study, study and study some more.

Regarding an expert’s “photographic memory” . . .

. . . the master only calls up a general knowledge of where the piece stands in relation to other elements. It is the same kind of implicit knowledge that the commuter has of the stops on a subway line.

How much analysis?

He [Adriaan de Groot] found that although experts — the class just below master — did analyze considerably more possibilities than the very weak players, there was little further increase in analysis as playing strength rose to the master and grand master levels. The better players did not examine more possibilities, only better ones — just how Capablanca had claimed.

De Groot [Thought and Choice in Chess] asked players to examine a chess position . . .

Beginners could not recall more than a very few details of the position, even after having examined it for 20 seconds, whereas grandmasters could usually get it perfectly, even if they had perused it for a few seconds. The difference tracks a particular form of memory, specific to the kind of chess positions that commonly occur in play. The specific memory must be the result of training, because grandmasters do no better than others in general tests of memory.

How much can we remember?

[George A.] Miller showed that people can contemplate only five to nine times at a time. By packing hierarchies of information into chunks, [Herbert A.] Simon argued, chess masters could get around this limitation, because by using this method, they could access five to nine chunks rather than the same number of smaller details.

Chess in Chunks

To a beginner, a position with 20 chessmen on the board may contain far more than 20 chunks of information, because the pieces can be placed in so many configurations. A grandmaster, however, may see part of the positions as “fianchettoed bishop in the castled kingside,” together with a “blockaded king’s-Indian-style pawn chain,” and thereby cram the entire position in to perhaps five or six chunks. By measuring the time it takes to commit a new chunk to memory and the number of hours a player must study chess before reaching grandmaster strength, Simon estimated that a typical grandmaster has access to 50,000 to 100,000 chunks of chess information. A grandmaster can retrieve any of these chunks from memory simply by looking a a chess position, in the same way most native English speakers can recited the poem “Mary had a little lamb” after hearing just the first few words.

Training Matters

Even the novice engages in effortful study at first . . . But having reached an acceptable performance . . . most people relax. Their performance becomes automatic and therefore impervious to further improvement. In contrast, experts-in-training keep the lid on their mind’s box open all the time, so they can inspect, criticize and augment its contents and thereby approach the standard set by leaders in their fields.

There is more to this article as I have just given you a small taste. So please go to your newstand and spend the US$5 on the August 2006 issue. You will enjoy.


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