Psychological warfare and Einstellung effect (2)

by ChessBase
3/3/2014 – In part 1 of this paper we saw that chess players are sometimes misled by familiar patterns and motifs. The "Einstellung" effect can potentially be overcome by conscious effort, but also put to use, in modified ways, to outwit your opponent. Chess trainer Rick Lahaye gives practical examples, some involving which part of the board to stare at.

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Psychological warfare and Einstellung effect – part 2

By Heather Sheridan and Rick Lahaye

In part 1, we explained why chess players make mistakes in positions where a familiar solution is present. When we solve problems, our prior knowledge usually helps us by efficiently guiding us towards solutions that worked for us in the past. However, if a problem requires a new solution, then sometimes our prior knowledge can make it surprisingly difficult to discover the new solution. This is called the 'Einstellung effect'. In this article, we will share how you can use this knowledge to your own advantage as a chess player.

In the Sheridan & Reingold (2013) paper, we created the positions for the study ourselves. To show you a real world example, we will look at the game Villa Siu - Giselle Fransen. The players are two young, talented girls from the Netherlands.

Siu,Villa - Fransen,Giselle [C02], 06.12.2013
1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 c5 4.c3 Nc6 5.Nf3 Qb6 6.a3 c4 7.Nbd2 Na5 8.Be2 Bd7 9.Rb1 Qc7 10.0-0 Ne7 11.b4 cxb3 12.Bb2 Nc8 13.Qc1 Nb6 14.Bd1 Ba4 15.Be2 Be7 16.Re1 Rc8 17.Bd1 Nbc4 18.Nxc4 Nxc4

White to move makes a mistake, by playing 19.Nd2? After this move, an interesting 'Einstellung effect' position arises. Many pieces are located in the lower left quadrant. Black is probably too focused on winning the c3 pawn and plays 19..Nxb2!? Here the advice of Emanuel Lasker would suffice: 'If you see a good move, always look if there's a better one!' Black could have played 19..Bg5! Pinning the knight on d2. This move would have won material.

In the post mortem analysis, I (Rick) helped Giselle to analyze her game. She and two of her friends had problems finding the right answer. Their solutions were too focused on tactical combinations in the lower left quadrant. The move Giselle played was no blunder, which makes it surprisingly difficult to find the bishop move.

20.Qxb2 Qxc3 21.Qxc3 Rxc3 22.Bxb3 Bxb3 23.Rxb3 Rxb3 24.Nxb3 0-0 25.a4 Rc8 26.Rc1 Rxc1+ 27.Nxc1 Ba3 28.Nb3 Bb4 29.Kf1 Kf8 30.Ke2 Ke7 31.Kd3 Kd8 32.h3 b6 33.g4 Ba3 34.f4 Bb4 35.f5 exf5 36.gxf5 Ke7 37.Na1 f6 38.Nc2 Ba5 39.Ne3 ½-½

You might wonder how an amateur deals with an 'Einstellung effect' position. In the image below, we will share an example. As can be seen from these images, the expert directed some amount of attention towards the correct solution (knight to g2), whereas the novice focused almost exclusively on the familiar (but suboptimal) solution the upper left corner of the board.



Figure 1: A position solved by an amateur vs. expert. The blue circles indicate the location and duration of each eye fixation. The images were created using the Data Viewer software from SR Research.

It's also nice to compare the videos of both the amateur and expert:

Chess and Einstellung effect: novice example

Chess and Einstellung effect: expert example

Always be aware of your surroundings

To tell you a story related to the 'Einstellung effect'. Two years ago, I met the most creative player in my life. A girl named Pascalle, only ten years old, who could definitely think outside the box. During a training game, she put a huge smile on my face. What did she do? During a fierce chess battle with little time left on her clock, she did something amazing. After promoting her pawn to a queen, I complemented her for finding such a magnificent move. I couldn't have been more proud as a teacher! After Pascalle smiled and looked back at the board, she reacted baffled: "Huh? Wait a minute", she said. Pascalle suddenly realized that she had given me an extra queen by mistake, by picking up the wrong color of piece! I couldn't agree more with her wise decision of course.

She didn't understand what just happened, and she asked me if she could take back her move, and instead change the queen to her own color. I told her that I thought that was unfair. Reminding her of the rule: "When you make a move, you can't take back". Pascalle looked at me liked the cat from 'Puss in Boots' and again asked me if she could please take back her move. Being a bit reluctant, I complied. With much hesitation though.

There was one thing though, I never told her. In order to understand the entire story, I've got to explain what happened a few months before. During a game against one of her friends in the same training group, I made a huge mistake. I gave away my queen. I wanted to take back my move, but that wasn't going to happen according to the girls. They had that look in their eyes. She and her friends (including Pascalle) told me that I couldn't take back my move. That it wouldn't be fair and these were the rules! I caved in and they loudly celebrated the victory. To make matters worse, the other games against the young group of girls also went badly. I was disappointed and sad because of my loss of course, but I devised a cunning plan.

We're going back to the famous game a few months later. The part I didn’t yet share, was the fact that Pascalle had a chess set with two spare queens, one for each side. These queens are always on the same place next to the board. During our immortal game, I switched the queens next to the board without her knowing. For a young child it's already hard to have a good overview of what's happening on the entire board. Can you imagine what's happening outside your view. The rest of the story is history. The funny part about this psychological warfare trick is, I never heard from her again about 'taking back a move'. At the same time she learned another valuable lesson. Always pay attention during class! So, to give some general advice: "When you promote your pawn to a queen – wait – and always look if you have the right color queen in your hand."

The mechanism in this trick I used, was based on learning by experience (embodied cognition) and schemata. Even though chess players don't have to move a lot, their hand and arm movements are based on certain automatic movement behavior. Maybe just like with the 'Einstellung effect', it's hard to adapt your movements and schemata, when it worked so many times before.

Adapting your movements, is actually a conversation I had with Harold Bekkering, a cognitive researcher at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour. We imagined an experiment where chess players need to make many horizontal moves to solve positions. After a while solving puzzles where a horizontal move is needed, a novel position will be given where a vertical move is required. If the horizontal moves influence finding the right answer on the vertical move, it would show an interesting effect.

Influencing your opponents gaze

In chess, using your gaze for subtle psychological warfare is quite fun. I (Rick) often use it in my own games. For instance, when it's my opponents turn to move, I try to influence their gaze when initiative is on the line (e.g. attacking on opposite sides of the board). At the same time, I use this small trick with young children to teach them psychology in chess. Directing their gaze where to look with body posture, eyes and hands.

Although it's hard to make any conclusions, based on my experience as a chess player using this trick for many years, it is sometimes possible to influence your opponent’s gaze. This is especially the case when you have a large Elo advantage over your opponent, or when your opponents are young kids. And maybe, some people are more susceptible to gaze direction than others, in the same way that some people might be more susceptible to magic tricks, in which an expert magician hides a sleight-of-hand by re-directing the focus of the audience’s attention.

To explain: when it's their move, the goal is to focus your opponent’s attention to the area on the board where you want them to look. Most of the time this will be the other side of the board. You are trying to make them think: "Hmm, if a chess expert (or teacher) is looking to the other side of the board for the next move, I must be quite stupid looking at this side of the board. Let's have a look at the same side he does."

Actually, this is not exactly the same as the 'Einstellung effect', because it's not a familiar solution blocking you from finding the right answer. It's bsed on authority, influencing your decision making. An interesting phenomena though, and a fun domain for further research!

Anticipatory decision making – a formative approach

To share one more thing related to the 'Einstellung effect'. As a chess player and consultant to scientific researchers, I often read papers and books about decision making in chess. Many with valuable insights and techniques, but I wonder if it's complete and sometimes maybe even misleading. Why am I having these thoughts? I'm inspired by work from scientists like Jens Rasmussen & Kim Vicente in the field of Human Factors (e.g. Cognitive Work Analysis) and Timothy Noakes, Alan St. Clair-Gibson & Samuele Marcora in sports science (e.g. Central Governor Model).

As far as I know, there still isn't any model that can explain decision making by chess experts. How computers operate does not encapsulate the way human experts make decisions. It would be nice to have a detailed model that could provide a comprehensive explanation for why an expert makes certain choices during decision-making. To explain things like the Einstellung effect, why do humans use different strategies against different opponents, why do experts sometimes make relatively easy errors, and how can we explain their mental pacing strategy, as well as the influence of mental fatigue, risk, money, position in the tournament, personality and health on their decision making. The current models are great, but do they capture the full picture? Maybe we're too focused on descriptive (what chess players do) or normative (what chess players should do) models.

After being inspired by Human Factor and sports scientists, I wonder if there's more to decision making in chess then we currently actually know about? As a chess player, my opinion is that experts use more like a formative model (what chess players could do) in complex decision making.

Figure 2: An anticipatory decision making model. The four lines represent situational factors creating the playing field for making a decision in a complex position. These boundaries influence the best decision for that specific person based on both the position and the situational factors. Depending on both the position and the situation, you choose one of the possible options.

If I would translate the work in Human Factors and sports science to chess, it would look like something in figure 2 above. To explain the figure and what I'm talking about. Depending on the situation (e.g. situational factors include a relatively strong or weak opponent, playing for 1st or 20th place, no prize fund or a 100.000 Euro first prize, risk involved like the classical Bxh7 sacrifice, healthy or feeling sick, knowing your opponent is great in endgames but not in the opening, jet lag or not and many more variables), you create a certain playing field. The four lines represent the boundaries for making your decision, like risk, mental energy, opponent’s strength, etc. Depending on these boundaries, the option in a certain position will be different.

Within this model, experts use an anticipatory decision making style. Imagine a tournament where you're playing for first place. At the beginning of the round, you thought you needed to win for first prize. Half an hour into the last round, your main opponent’s on the other boards play a draw. You do not need to win anymore for first prize (a draw is now sufficient). You probably would anticipate to these results and this anticipation would influence the decisions you make in your own game (e.g. taking less risk).

Maybe the most famous 'Einstellung effect' position, is the classical Bxh7 sacrifice. A move that tops every chess player’s mind, when the possibility arises. What makes this move even more interesting, is that 'fun' and 'risk' also play an important role in deciding the move chess players want to play. A computer will tell you there's an optimal move. That is maybe correct, but it works differently with humans.

So, depending on many conscious and unconscious factors, experts do not only take technical objectivity into account, but also the risk of a move, the importance of the game, motivation, mental energy, money and more. Making it hard sometimes to explain why chess experts made a certain move. That's why 'it depends' is an honest answer when experts consider the question what they would play in a complex position. Changing slightly every moment, but with a few steady boundaries.
Does this mean we don't need the descriptive and normative models anymore. No! They co-exist and support each other. Imagine a clear-cut decision that only requires easy tactics. A simplistic model would suffice and can explain what players do to decide which move they play. But when it comes down to complex decision making, I argue that the current models cannot explain many phenomena in chess and decision making by human experts.


In conclusion, Einstellung effects can cause us to spend a lot of time examining a familiar solution. By narrowly focusing on a familiar solution, we can sometimes miss a less familiar, better solution. Chess players find it easier to avoid the Einstellung effect when the familiar solution is a blunder (rather than a suboptimal solution), possibly because a blunder provides clear feedback that the familiar solution is no longer appropriate.

At the same time, what can we learn from the Einstellung effect research to improve our game?

  • The advice of Emanual Lasker is always nice. Self-control yourself when you see a good move and look if there's a better move available.

  • Secondly, a trick you can use in your game is influencing your opponent's gaze, by using your body posture, eyes and hands. You could start by trying this tactic with young children or beginning players. This is always fun to experiment with. When you succeed, you can tell them a thing or two about psychology in a game.

  • Thirdly, how chess experts make decisions is possibly more complex than science currently tells us. When you ask experts wrong questions, it does not matter how great their answer is.

  • Last but not least, the trick where you play against a young child and change the spare queens during the game, is maybe a bit hard to copy, but you can always try. If it works, I can promise, you feel like a magician afterwards and will have a huge smile on your face!


The advice we shared in this article is linked, but was outside the scope of the Sheridan & Reingold (2013) paper. Heather Sheridan is bound to certain rules in her profession as a scientist and must be careful in explaining what the results mean for society. The research is currently based on a few variables, and in the real world there are much more factors influencing decision making. The difference between science and practice makes scientific research important for the fundamental processes going on in humans, but not without restrictions. The knowledge we shared in the second part of the article is an oversimplification. It's mainly based on the experience and opinion of Rick as a chess player (Elo 2380) and coach. At the same time, I'm influenced by my work on collaborating and advising scientist with their research.

If you have any questions or feedback concerning the article, please let us know. You can contact us at rick (at) and H.Sheridan (at)

About the authors

Heather Sheridan is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre for Vision and Cognition (CVC), at the University of Southampton. Her current work uses eye movements and computational modeling to study visual expertise in reading and chess. More broadly, she is also interested in understanding expert/novice differences in problem-solving and human memory. She collaborates with Prof. Erik Reichle at the University of Southampton, and with Prof. Eyal Reingold at the University of Toronto, who is one of the founders of the eye-tracking company SR Research.

Rick Lahaye (@Kennisstroom) is the founder of Kennisstroom, a Dutch based company focused on knowledge flow management. To stay connected with science, he uses his knowledge as a chess player (Elo 2380) and coach to consult with scientific researchers. At the same time, he investigates the strategies and beliefs Olympic Gold Medalists use(d) to win, and moreover, to deal with extreme fatigue near the end of a race (including pacing strategies, personality, beliefs, coping strategies, culture, etc.).


  • Sheridan, H., & Reingold, E. M. (2013). The mechanisms and boundary conditions of the Einstellung effect in chess: Evidence from eye movements. PloS One, 8(10), e75796. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.007579.

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