Scientific American: The Expert Mind

8/14/2006 – Once again (after a report on Deep Blue) chess has made it to the cover of the periodical Scientific American. An article written by Phil Ross, a 2053 USCF player, describes the research that has gone into explaining such extraordinary cognitive feats of the human mind as grandmasterly play. Not a lot of new material for the expert, but a good summary for a general audience. Read the online version.

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The latest issue of Scientific American, August 2006, which (grumble, grumble) has not yet been delivered to European subscribers, contains a cover story on chess expertise. It is called "The Expert Mind" and was written by Philip E. Ross, who is rated 2053 USCF and is also the father of Laura Ross, one of the top female US players, who is two hundred points higher than her father.

The article is written with a general audience in mind, and summarizes quite aptly the research that has been done in an attempt to explain such feats of the human mind as grandmasterly play. Ross starts off by describing the scene at a simultaneous exhibition (given by Capablanca in 1909) and asking the question that has plagued amateurs and experts over the centuries: how do they do it? How is it possible for them to demonstrate such immense superiority in skill over the novice?

Ross makes an important point at the outset: Chess is an ideal experimental field for studying extraordinary levels of cognitive skills, because unlike for instance professional stock pickers, who are no more successful than amateurs, connoisseurs who cannot distinguish wines better than yokels, or highly credentialed psychiatric therapists who help patients no more than colleagues with less advanced degrees, in chess the degree of expertise can be precisely measured. It can be broken into components, subjected to laboratory experiments and readily observed in its natural environment, the tournament hall. For this reason chess, which the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called "the touchstone of the intellect," has served as the greatest single test bed for theories of thinking – is it the "Drosophila of cognitive science".

The Scientific American article deals with themes that are well-know to experts in the field. Ross discusses the chunking theory, proposed in a famous 1956 paper by psychologist George Miller, who showed that using their working memory – the scratch pad of the mind – people can handle only five to nine items at a time. By packing hierarchies of information into chunks, chess masters could get around this limitation, because they were accessing five to nine chunks of information, rather than the same number of individual pieces (as the rank amateur does). Grandmasters think in "templates", such as "the isolated queen's-pawn position from the Nimzo-Indian Defense," which can be modified with the addition of "minus the dark-squared bishops."

Enormous effort is required to build such structures in the mind. According to a psychological law it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field. Child prodigies like Gauss, Mozart or Fischer all achieve their peak in excellence after about this period of time and dedication. In chess this has been modified by the advent of computer-based training, which has led to a proliferation of chess prodigies in recent years.

The article quotes John Nunn's experiment, in which the British mathematician and grandmaster used a computer to help him compare the errors committed in the games of two international tournaments, one held in 1911, the other in 1993. Nunn discovered that the modern players were far more accurate. Examining the games of an individual player who finished in the middle of the 1911 event he concludes that this player's rating today would be no better than 2100. The very best old-time masters were considerably stronger but still well below the level of today's leaders.

There follows a discussion of the László Polgár experiment. The Hungarian educator homeschooled his three daughters in chess, assigning as much as six hours of work a day. The result was one international master and two grandmasters – the strongest chess-playing siblings in history. László Polgár proved two things: that grandmasters can be reared and that women can be grandmasters.

One conclusion of the article we do not quite agree with is that "the preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born." We know too many great chess prodigies who popped out of nowhere, becoming vastly superior to anyone in their surroundings without receiving any special training. A typical example, and certainly not the only one, is Nigel Short. His older brother was the one receiving instructions from their father, any the infant Nigel (so to speak) was told to stop bothering them and wait until he was old enough to play himself. But in the shortest span of time he was stronger than either of them, and then went on to beat everyone in the neighbourhood, the local chess club, the town, and ultimately the country.

On the other hand we know of Alan Turing, the congenial mathematician, visionary, code breaker, one of the greatest analytical minds in history. Turing loved chess passionately, he played it regularly, he worked on his skills in the game and even took a grandmaster trainer. The result was a mediocre level of play, nowhere close to master strength. Apparently there are innate and inborn factors without which extraordinary chess skill is extraordinarily difficult to achieve; and which, if they are present, blossom automatically, given that the owners are expediently exposed to the game.

On the final hand (for all those who have three) we do need to explain how the Hungarian sisters could all become such strong players, and what László Polgár has proven with his preannounced experiment. It is unreasonable to suppose that all three sisters were born with the very special chess talent that is normally the prerequisite for true excellence in the game. A lot of thinking needs to be done before final conclusions can be drawn in this

We leave you to read the full article either in the printed magazine, which you will want to buy for archive purposes, or in the online version, for which we have given a link below. The printed version has a number of informative sidebars that are not given in the online version.

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