Masters of our time: impatience and self-control in chess

4/8/2012 – Like everyone else in the chess world you probably know the terrors of the clock. But why do people spend too much time searching for a specific move? Are they striving for perfection or is it just indecision? Swedish scientist Patrik Gränsmark, who recently studied the effect of facing an attractive opponent, turns his attention to time trouble. Help him with his research and win $500.

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Masters of our time: impatience and self-control in chess

Most chess players have experienced time pressure when approaching the 40th move time control. It is not unusual to see good positions being spoiled in just seconds. We know very well that we should have played faster earlier in the game to avoid having to play under time pressure. Still, we didn’t.

Often, the reasons for spending too much time searching for a specific move are that we tend to be indecisive or that we strive for perfection in every move. Sometimes we can’t find a move that is as good as we would like. At other occasions, we have found two good moves but spend a lot of time trying to decide whether one is marginally better than the other. We can feel the stress building up in the stomach which makes the decision even harder. At the end, either move would be better than keep spending valuable time and we decide to just pick one of them.


Irene, seven, playing against her great grandfather Gustav, 100. The hardest battle
seems to be going on around the clock rather than the board.

But which one should we pick? Indecisiveness and perfectionism, when being constrained by time limits, are typical examples of self-control problems in chess. We want to do one thing in the long-run but another in the short-run. Some players experience the opposite problem; they tend to play too fast, they aren’t patient enough. They see a move that looks alright, raise their hand and make the move. They hit the clock, lean back, just to discover that there was another move looking even better. Some players are more impatient than others. An endgame specialist usually prefers longer games whereas a gambiteer would rather go for some middle-game complications.

Researcher Patrik Gränsmark (above) at the Swedish Institute for social Research at Stockholm University has studied these questions in detail. We conducted the following interview with him.

ChessBase: you have studied impatience and self-control in high-level chess games by analyzing data from ChessBase and data collected from a survey posted on this site a few months ago (Beauty Queens and Battling Knights)

Patrik Gränsmark: Yes, and the findings are really exiting! When analyzing gender differences among expert chess players, I found that male players play significantly shorter games than their female peers, about 1 to 2 moves shorter. Two female players play about 2 to 3 moves longer games than two male players with similar Elo rating. Women, in turn, perform worse at the 40th move time control compared to men. And these results are valid when controlling for a wide range of variables as age, nationality, opening, Elo difference and even when excluding arranged or semi-arranged draws (defined as draws in less than 20 moves).

Is this the case also for professional players?

Actually, there is no difference at the top ranks as to the performance at the 40th move time control but professional women still play longer games. And in the regression analysis I found that female players perform better than men in shorter games, given the expected performance.

What do you mean by shorter games? And what do you mean by expected performance?

I refer to games where the players didn’t reach the 40th move time control. In games that lasted longer than the 40th move time control men perform better than women on average. One of the best thing with chess data is that the difference in Elo between two players corresponds to an expected performance. For instance, a superiority of 200 Elo points corresponds to about a 3 to 1 over-dog situation (75% vs. 25%).

So you mean that women probably spend more reflection time in the beginning of the games and over-perform, so to speak, in the beginning. And male players under-perform in the beginning but perform better than women later in the games as they have more time left.

Exactly! But I should underline that since I have not access to the exact time distribution I can only speculate about the causes, but that seems to be the case.

And what about the survey results where our readers participated? Did you find anything interesting?

I did indeed. First of all, I would like to thank the participants. We raised 1,620 answers. And the results give further support to the interpretation. As it turns out, players who stated that they were patient in life in general perform worse at the 40th move time control and the same goes for those who indicated that they would perform better without time restrictions. And players who are impatient in chess perform worse in shorter games which indicates that they do not spend enough time in the beginning.

If I remember correctly you also had a question about smoking habits, didn’t you? Do smokers play differently?

To begin with they play significantly shorter games than their non-smoking peers also when controlling for factors like age and nationality. Smokers also perform relatively better at the 40th move time control which suggests that they end up in time trouble less often. There were not enough games by smoking players to be statistically certain but it is possible that smokers under-perform due to being too impatient.

Did you expect such differences?

Well, smoking is seen as a typical self-control problem, that is, you would like to stop in the long run but keep doing it in the short run. However, it is important to remember that these differences are averages, that is, it is not true for everybody.

So how can these results help economic research?

There are several important conclusions from the survey. First, it seems like men are more impulsive, too impatient, while women seem to be more indecisive or strive for perfectionism more than men and thereby have to play more under time pressure. It could also be that women are more affected by stress when being under pressure. If there are such differences between men and women in general, then there may be similar differences in savings and consumption behaviour; some people tend to over-consume, others don’t take enough risks and so on.

But how do you know that these differences exist in general life? Perhaps we behave in one way over the chess board but differently in other parts of life?

The fact that the answers to the questions about chess-related issues are positively correlated with the corresponding questions for life in general shows that the findings have external validity...

Could you explain that in another way?

Sorry, what I wanted to say is that these differences seem to exist, not only in chess, but in life in general. In the survey there were questions about chess-related risk taking, impatience and self-control but also about everyday behaviour. And the answers clearly indicate that a risky or impatient chess player is risky and impatient also in daily life. That is not surprising, of course, but still had to be shown.

So, were there any surprises for you as a researcher? I mean, did you get any pet results that you find particularly fascinating?

There was a question about under- and over-estimation of a chess position where the participants could rate their answer from 0 to 10. As it turned out, those players who indicated that they liked to take risks in life in general and that are impatient tended to be among those who over-estimate a chess position. That connection has never been proved before as far as I know. This suggests that people who like to take risks do it because they think they will win more than they actually will. It might be some kind of over-optimism. Imagine if this is true also for capital investors in the financial markets.

Perhaps the punch-line of this survey is that we need more women in the financial market?!

That thought has crossed my mind more than once.

And you are now inviting our readers to participate in a new one-minute survey where the participants can win a $500 value check at Amazon, right?

Yes, the information we obtain is really valuable to us so I couldn’t resist running yet another survey. By participating, you contribute to research on chess behavior and also participate in a lottery where you can win a USD 500 value check at Amazon.com. The research results will be shared at Chessbase.com within short. You are asked to type your name and email (to participate in the lottery), however, when the data has been collected, each player is assigned an ID number and the names are then dropped to maintain anonymity. No player is analyzed individually.

Thanks for sharing you research results with us!

To answer the survey and participate in the lottery with a
chance to win a US $500 value check at Amazon.com,
click on the yellow banner on the right
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Previous winner

The winner of the $500 in the previous survey lottery was Roy Greenberg, New Jersey, USA. Congratulations! Roy Greenberg is an American chess player, 57 years old. He was born in Brooklyn although today he resides in New Jersey. His current FIDE rating is 2226, his peak was 2280. Roy has been a US Chess Federational National Master since 1980, and a Life Master since 1989.

Links to working papers on chess (in PDF):


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