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The Expert Mind

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Several people have sent in this link to a long Scientific American article about chess and cognition. It's by science writer Phil Ross, father of Laura Ross, one of the top female players in the US. There's not much new material for this crowd, but it's a well put together compendium of the psychological and scientific research that has gone into how the mind – the chess mind in particular – does what it does. The usual suspects and quotes are enlisted – de Groot, Capablanca, Mozart, Goethe – to good effect. There are a few updates and the sidebar graphics are nice. One of the researchers interviewed attributes the cumbersome phrase "effortful study" to what makes the difference between excellence and mediocrity, as opposed to innate talent.

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player's progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study.

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.

This addresses one of our favorite topics: why we plateau where we plateau. That it's a matter of desire isn't exactly a revelation. There is also a time factor. Unless you are particularly dedicated you simply keep spending the same amount of time (or less) on the game. The law of diminishing returns sets in and you don't get any better. Most people stop improving when it become too much like work – unless they have a serious passion for it.

Of course the Polgars are invoked in addressing the prodigy discussion.

The Polgár experiment proved two things: that grandmasters can be reared and that women can be grandmasters. It is no coincidence that the incidence of chess prodigies multiplied after László Polgár published a book on chess education. The number of musical prodigies underwent a similar increase after Mozart's father did the equivalent two centuries earlier.

Thus, motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise. It is no accident that in music, chess and sports--all domains in which expertise is defined by competitive performance rather than academic credentialing--professionalism has been emerging at ever younger ages, under the ministrations of increasingly dedicated parents and even extended families.

I agree that work and dedication is more important than magic beans in just about any cognitive exercise. But just because we can't (as yet) quantify it that doesn't mean an innate talent for chess aptitude doesn't exist. It's just that like with about everything it's a combination (ha ha) and not a single element that produces tremendous skill. Our instruments and studies are still incredibly primitive compared to the brain. Much of this dovetails with material in the book I spent the last year working on with Garry Kasparov. He argues that the capacity for work is an intrinsic part of talent and can't really be separated.

I'm increasingly more interested in the improving brain scan technologies than psych experiments. The sidebar image showing chess players use the frontal and parietal cortices more the stronger they get is a good start. I remember when that Nature article came out in 2001. Malcolm Gladwell's pop-science writings in the New Yorker and the books The Tipping Point and Blink provide edible overviews but can be blithe and frustrating if you are looking for answers. Related read on "genius" at his site.


Personally, I find Gladwell to be good with words, but generally lame and tame with ideas. I know why people like him, but that leaves me generally unimpressed with people that like him (I respect Mig's measured criticism of Gladwell).

It's funny how people try hard to deny the nature part of talent and focus on the nurture part. I think that teaching in high schools with wide ranges of intellectual ability should be mandatory for people who deny the role of innate ability in creating real differences in intellectual achievement. They might be surprised by the limitations of certain people in grasping what seem like the most obvious ideas.


My main point, in case I'm misinterpreted, is that these articles' authors rarely qualify their nurture thesis by discussing the ranges of ability the authors used in arriving at their conclusions.



The article was a bit lame, but I think you are reading too much into it.

Where did the author deny nature as playing a role in talent?

I think that it's impossible to deny nature's role in talent, but, up until now, nurture hasn't been given its due.

Gladwell's book, BLINK, taken together with this SciAm article, provides a good overview of the current state of research into why chess players get better and how they think. Jonathan Rowson's book, CHESS FOR ZEBRAS, goes into more detail and covers these cognitive issues from a player's persective. All three of these sources are essential reading for the aspiring chess player.

Again, Mig, when is Garry's book coming out, and will there be some fresh material on this subject in the book?


I agree with Howard G. where he says that nuture probably does play a bigger role than this SciAm article implies. For instance, the article does not measure the different *rates* at which different people improve.

Overall, I do not feel there is much new in this article.

They should run experiments to find the type of study that most *efficiently* leads to the "chunking" they say is so important.

Thanks for the info Mig. A fair review with a couple of minor hick-ups that everyone gets wrong anyway. As for the brain scan studies, I doubt you will like the results. It usually ends up in the popular science press under the title - chess (and Go) no-brainers? or Chess does NOT need IQ... they find that players usually use the brain areas responsible for their memory, not analytical thinking. On the other hand, what can you really tell on the base of a brain activity? It really is just a beginning and opens much more questions, which I doubt can be answered with neuroimagining, than it answers. As for some comments about the nature side here, there are plenty of studies which did measure 'rate of improvement' and many other aspects of the nature argument not covered in the AmSci article. I would also like to see some explanations and definitions of the notoriously slippery terms such as talent and giftedness.

Thanks for the info Mig. A fair review with a couple of minor hick-ups that everyone gets wrong anyway. As for the brain scan studies, I doubt you will like the results. It usually ends up in the popular science press under the title - chess (and Go) no-brainers? or Chess does NOT need IQ... they find that players usually use the brain areas responsible for their memory, not analytical thinking. On the other hand, what can you really tell on the base of a brain activity? It really is just a beginning and opens much more questions, which I doubt can be answered with neuroimagining, than it answers. As for some comments about the nature side here, there are plenty of studies which did measure 'rate of improvement' and many other aspects of the nature argument not covered in the AmSci article. I would also like to see some explanations and definitions of the notoriously slippery terms such as talent and giftedness.

Sorry for the multiple posts. For some links on "talent" measurement see http://www.amidzic-labs.com/
or even the following article http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-20050614-000002.html


It's not so much a denial but a failure to systematically analyze the issue with statistics so that one can attribute the variance in chess ability due to this or that factor within a given group systematically. There was no attempt in the article to control for IQ amongst test subjects when reporting results, for example.


Refocusing slightly from the academic questions (nature vs. nurture, how to best nurture cognitive skill, etc.) to practical advice about how to improve one's competitive chess results, I believe a largely overlooked route to improvement for a large majority of amateur-level chess players consists in "training" one's own psychology so as to maximize the probability of exploiting the chess knowledge one already has.

This means making a conscious effort to understand when and why you make errors. And here's my key point: the causative factors for errors are found not only ON-THE-BOARD (i.e. positions you don't understand or typically have trouble dealing with), but also in purely personal considerations that have little or nothing to do with the situation on the board.

External distractions like noise, an opponent's annoying behavior, a sexually stimulating sight (GM Shabalov has fingered this last as a frequent problem for him, although he probably was speaking tongue-in-cheek), a big rating difference, prize money at stake, etc....as well as internal distractions -- issues from your personal life outside of chess that are pressing enough to affect your concentration during a particular event.

Elsewhere I have described these external and internal distractions as "emotional threats" that can "upset" a player's internal "position" -- and thereby affect his competitive chances as much as any concrete threat that arises on the chessboard itself.

I am in the early stages of developing a body of work designed to help amateur players learn how to filter out such distractions and potential distractions -- so that players may make the most of what they already know.

Those of you who do play chess competitively (I realize this may be only a minority of you who are reading this), please consider this: How many of your losses stem from now knowing what to do in a crucial position? Then on the other hand, how many times do you lose in a "slap your forehead with the heel of your hand" fashion -- as soon as the game ends, or even as soon as you made the losing move, it's obvious to you what you SHOULD have done. Yet for some reason, you failed to do it; you blundered.

I suspect that for most of us, it's at least 10-to-1 in favor of the latter. Certainly that is the case for me.

There is a third way to lose: your opponent may play so brilliantly that even though you play the best you possibly can, you still lose. I suspect this genre of loss is even rarer (much rarer) than the losses we amateurs suffer due to lack of chess knowledge.

Now I'm not saying that working to increase your chess knowledge (possibly with help from a strong coach) is worthless. The psychological conception of "training" I just outlined is not meant to supplant traditional chess study, but rather is an independent course of action that should work even better if pursued alongside of traditional training, rather than in place of it.

Indeed psychological self-training may be of value to professionals as well, although I'm not qualified to say.

Laj, what do you mean by 'There was no attempt in the article to control for IQ amongst test subjects when reporting results'? The article itself was an overview of different studies, all of them including appropriate statistics (otherwise wouldn't be published!) and some explicitly including the IQ variable as one of the main focuses, not merely controlling for it.

In analysis, the effort does not come from the calculation of the future variation so much as the correct visualization of the many different positions analyzed.

Even if the brain is only recalling a "chunk" of hypothetical future position & not truly revisualizing the whole board, that's a big memory feat.

So of course brain areas related to memory will be firing.

"The Polgár experiment proved two things: that grandmasters can be reared and that women can be grandmasters."

I call BS on this. All this "experiment" (nice to know a human being is an experiment, obvious this guy grew up in a communist country, huh?) proves is that if someone is raised and made to focus on one single thing their whole life, they will be good at that thing. The Polgars are NOT geniuses. Where are the physics papers from the Polgars? What have they done outside of chess? Anything?

I didnt think so.

As far as women being able to compete as equals in chess the fact that Judit has been in the top 10 is the exception, not the rule. A statistical outlier does not prove anything. Your referencing this statistical outlier is actually almost proof of the opposite.

Just incidentally, is the Bill Brock who left the comment above the same person who has written some very innovative papers in econometrics? This of course would be William A. Brock, University of Wisconsin. I was particularly interested in Brock and Sayers, "Is the Business Cycle Characterized by Deterministic Chaos", in Journal of Monetary Economics a few years ago.

If so, you may want to post your website. There may be other visitors to this board who would enjoy your research.

Larry, seems you got the sentence about the Polgars all wrong - they are saying exactly what you stated "if someone is raised and made to focus on one single thing their whole life, they will be good at that thing". Nobody mentioned 'genius' or anything similar (and yes, it WAS an experiment, ask Laso Polgar, and yes, it WAS in a communist country!).

As for the comment about women and chess which included 'outliers', think about it this way: if you have 70 000 men rated and only 5 000 women, what do you think, which population will more likely produce extreme values, i.e. extremly skilled chess players? Right, the more people in the distribution, the more likely they will produce extremly high values just by default. If you think it that way, you'll probably realise that women fare quite well in that respect. Indeed, Judit is an outlier, but if it can happen once, why wouldn't it happen again? (that is, all the bs about male's superior [take your pick] goes through the window)

Larry, what is your problem? The only mention of the word "genius" in Mig's initial post you vented at, came at the very bottom in a throwaway reference to Malcolm Gladwell's site that had zip to do with the Scientific American article that was the post's main topic. So what is it that you think you are attacking?

I will hazard a guess that you are upset not at the Scientific American article or anything Mig quoted from it, but at Mr. Polgar for (mis)using the word "genius" in the title of his own book.

That was debated on another thread here. The conclusion seemed to be that the chess success of the Polgar sisters did in fact prove their father's theories -- if one takes the theory to be that intense focus from early childhood on a single well-defined activity can achieve high-level competence, even "prodigy." Prodigy is of course a different concept than "genius", since it refers specifically to prodigious ability in a narrow area, rather than broad-ranging intellectual supremacy.

Why couldn't one be trained for broad-ranging intellectual power (if not guaranteed supremacy)? E.g., Judit Polgar's sister Susan is not only a GM but is a fluent speaker in seven lanuages (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Polgar). So it's clear she didn't spend all her energy on chess.

Ross' article was a moderately interesting recap of the literature in the field. But his "interpretation" was pathetically one sided.

As Mig points out, achievement in intellectual fields is the result of two factors: innate talent and hard work. This has been widely accepted in psychology for decades.

Ross takes the extremist, position without proof, that innate ability, if it exists, plays an insignificant role in achievement as a measure of talent. "The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born." This statement is flat out false.

Psychology widely supports the more complex concept outlined by Mig. The ability to work hard, long and productively to achieve expertise is an innate talent. As positive results are achieved, motivation to work even harder kicks in.

Tests show that most people may be trained early and hard at chess (or math or violin) and will never achieve anything beyond average skill. This refutes Ross' overly simplistic, and false, summation of "the preponderane of psychological evidence."
Scientific American has been going down hill for decades. Even so, I am surprised Ross' work was published without peer review by psychologists more familiar with the literature in the field than Ross.

Derek, Ross' article was a good summary of the literature on expertise where most, if not all, researchers do NOT believe in innate talent or any other similar construct which is rather difficult to define let alone uncover.
As for your claim that there are people who spent lots of time never improving much, of course there are such people, but that's why they differentiate between different kinds of spending time. I thought that was very well explained in the article.
Just like most other 'extremists', I have no problems problems with the notion that hard works constitutes talent but to claim that motivation is innate is simply way far fetched given current evidence.

The Scientific American article on expertise draws heavily on the research of Dutch psychologist Adriaan de Groot, who died on August 14, aged 91. The following is an edited transcript of the article on his work on Chess Base.

“In the 40s, 50s and 60s the Dutch psychologist and chess master Adrian de Groot conducted a number of ground-breaking experiments in the cognitive processes that occur in the brains of strong chess players. A recent Scientific American article bears testimony to this research. Adriaan de Groot’s paper, Thought and Choice in Chess, was published in 1965.

De Groot’s goal was to explain how chess experts could grasp a full board position, assess the situation, find constructive ideas of what to do next, and in fact find good moves, all within seconds of being confronted with the position.

In his experiments the participants were required to look at a chess position, while expressing their thought processes verbally. De Groot's most startling result was to show that in grandmasters most of the processes that went into
finding a good move occurred during the first few seconds of contemplation of the position. He defined four stages of the thought process:

The orientation phase – here the player grasped the position and formulated general ideas of what to do.

The exploration phase – the analysis of concrete variations.

The investigation phase – where the player actually decided on a probable best move.

The proof phase – here the subject spent time in confirming the validity of the choice reached in phase three.

De Groot drew attention to the role of memory and visual perception in these processes, and to how strong players, especially grandmasters, used experience with past positions to expedite the processes listed above.

Drawing on earlier studies, de Groot also exposed subjects very briefly, for 3-4 seconds, to positions taken from a game. He found that masters were able to recall the location of 93% of the pieces, while experts remembered 72% and the class players merely 51%.

In later (1973) studies conducted by Herbert A. Simon and W.G. Chase the experiments were conducted with real game positions and compared with random positions. The Americans discovered that in the real positions the performance of their subjects declined proportionally to their chess ratings, but that in the random position players of all levels did approximately the same. Simon and Chase came to the conclusion that higher-ranked players use a form of pattern-matching that allows them to rapidly encode macro features of the positions.

Normal club players easily recognize the fianchettoed bishop in a single glance, grasping the six pieces involved as a set or chunk, which rank amateurs will need to memorize each piece and its location separately. Grandmasters know tens of thousands of such chunks and can find relevant patterns in any meaningful game position. Further analysis, conducted by de Groot, suggested that they recognized the functional relationships between the pieces, rather than the actual positions and spatial relationships. For instance a chunk of pieces in which a bishop pinned a knight against the queen would be remembered as a pin rather than by the actual positions of the bishop, knight and queen on the board.”

This comment is in response to the interesting post from Jon Jacobs on the psychological causes of defeat. It has been implicitly recognized among players that emotional equilibrium is often a factor in tournament play. Players often seem to have good and bad tournaments, in which they appear to be playing above or below their normal strength. Further, in individual games, players can range between brilliancies and disastrous blunders. Aggressive tournament players know the value of “psyching out” opponents. Yet surprisingly, as noted in the earlier post, this has not been accorded much attention in the literature.

Some of this may be due to the natural bias on the part of editors. With limited space in books and magazines, games lost due to disastrous mistakes are less likely to be published, and readers are more apt to be interested in well-played games. There is also a perception that as players become stronger, they are less apt to make horrendous mistakes. Nevertheless, there are numerous, well-publicized instances of psychological collapses, even in grandmaster chess.

Again, there are some analogies with mathematics. In current research on time series, a widely-debated topic is the origin of extreme values or large outliers. For instance, the log-difference of daily stock prices or exchange rates shows a pattern of small changes interrupted by massive fluctuations, or extreme events. Well-known cases are the 1997 stock market collapse. In chess games, the intermittent extreme events would include both the occasional brilliancy and equally rare blunder.

Since economic time series originate in large, complex systems, the analogies cannot be carried too far. Extreme fluctuations in the economy have often been described as a form of “stochastic chaos” in which multiplicative interactions among large numbers of causal factors can give rise to irregular outliers.

But in chess, only two minds are involved, so a more appropriate analogy would be catastrophe theory -- behavior characterized by intermittent collapses, generated by a small number of equations. This type of behavior can be generated by a ratio of two stochastic processes. If the denominator oscillates in a narrow range, the system behaves normally. If the denominator experiences a sudden spike, the result is a collapse. This issue is well-known in engineering.

Something analogous appears to go on in the human mind. Suppose that the denominator of the ratio is a vector of factors that can interfere with the player’s normal mental functions. These can range from external causes to inner mental states (depression, anxiety, etc.) When one of these spikes, the result is to interrupt the normal thought process, short-circuiting intellectual activities, and producing a psychological collapse. Similarly, a slow increase in the denominator may not result in catastrophic mistakes so much as uncharacteristically poor play. It seems likely that a large number of losses occur precisely through this type of mechanism.

The following interesting news item was posted on the internet on 2/21/2007. It is probably equally applicable to chess. The basic argument is this: anxiety takes up a great deal of random access memory in the brain – this term is deliberately borrowed from computer science. Using up random access memory in turn decreases reasoning ability, impairing skills like solving problems in mathematics, or calculating variations in chess.

This is not of course the only source of failure in chess, and would not apply to Kramnik’s overlooking of a mate in one against Deep Fritz last year. Kramnik’s blunder was in essence a failure of pattern recognition. The mate was obvious to the computer, but would be easy for a human player to miss because it was derived from an unusual configuration of pieces, rarely seen over the board.

Instead, the tendency of anxiety to interfere with logical reasoning probably explains other types of failure in chess. Players who are otherwise skilled and frequently successful have been observed to disintegrate psychologically, and play well below their normal strength. Players who have stronger nerves, and an ability to calm themselves in the face of anxiety, often do better, achieving more consistent tournament records.

Reuters - Worrying about how you'll perform on a math test may actually contribute to a lower test score, U.S. researchers said on Saturday.

Math anxiety -- feelings of dread and fear and avoiding math -- can sap the brain's limited amount of working capacity, a resource needed to compute difficult math problems, said Mark Ashcraft, a psychologist at the University of Nevada Las Vegas who studies the problem.

"It turns out that math anxiety occupies a person's working memory," said Ashcraft, who spoke on a panel at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco. Ashcraft said while easy math tasks such as addition require only a small fraction of a person's working memory, harder computations require much more. Worrying about math takes up a large chunk of a person's working memory stores as well, spelling disaster for the anxious student who is taking a high-stakes test.

Stress about how one does on tests like college entrance exams can make even good math students choke. "All of a sudden they start looking for the short cuts," said University of Chicago researcher Sian Beilock. Although test preparation classes can help students overcome this anxiety, they are limited to students whose families can afford them.

Ultimately, she said, "It may not be wise to rely completely on scores to predict who will succeed." While the causes of math anxiety are unknown, Ashcraft said people who manage to overcome math anxiety have completely normal math proficiency.

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    This page contains a single entry by Mig published on August 2, 2006 7:04 AM.

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