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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
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Providence, RI 02912
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Back to The Game of Chess...

What do you do when you play chess? French psychologist Binet studied the minds of chessplayers while playing the game - and later blindfolded. Although in the 1890s - and before MRIs - he deduced that chess players do not see the board while playing. Rather they have some jumbled abstract notions of colors, the square geometry form of parts of the board, and certain paths. Each player seemed to have his or her own "proprietary" scheme of anticipating future moves. For example, Paul Morphy was able to decide on a fairly good property of the game he was improving with each move of the game. (1)

So while there are many paths - some geometrical, others more "lawlike" - the essential patterns are chunking and tasking. Chunking is the ability to grab ahold of the most pertinent information available. It can also be accumulating pattern-recognized games that are similar to that before him or her. Tasking is then the ability to reach the move that optimizes the most important properties for game success. Keep this in mind for later studies of computer chess.

But a lot of the game is irrational, from our perspective:


Chess has been likened to music in that it has rhythm. Calculation and judgment alone do not account for chess because the two players play intimately close to each other! The two players tend to try to synchronize with what the other is thinking. Undoubtedly, whether a player moves his piece quickly or slowly has a great bearing on the opponent's analysis of that move. The rhythm set by the players establishes the form of the challenge presented. (2)


Psychology tells us that chess thinking lulls us into a hypnosis - and like the period of a stereotypical hypnotist's device, this is very much due to the rhythm. The players operate in a trance that is regulated only by this pulsating rhythm of the game. In fact, when the player Tal was put under hypnosis, he performed just as well as usual! Thus, solving chess moves requires some abstraction from time and space. (3)


And what do we make of the other parts of the game: scribbling with the "lucky" pen or the practice of not staring into the opponent's eyes. These are not required parts of the game, but important. Writing allows the player to reorganize his thoughts. And perhaps the prohibition against staring is to not accidentally give anything away.

Play to Win or Play for What???

I previously stated that professionals are spurned by a "fear of losing." But what do we get in terms of therapeutic value - and is it the same as the masters?

Ben Franklin, although earlier in this wiki a hero, was burdened by very poor chess ability. So why, we ask, would a man so accomplished in many respects want to cope with a game he frequently lost? Chess can be as much a game about optimism as pessimism. Chess, he argued, is a training program that establishes concentration and self-control. In a sense, you never lose at chess if you do not believe in its importance at the start. Therefore, humanity is put at no disadvantage when in a bad chess situation. Chess can cater to pessimism or optimism (the optimism that we are sources of our own wisdom).

The "Blunder in Pursuit of Brilliancy"

The Psychology of Chess defines three types of blunders: 1) loss of concentration, 2) the desire to follow forced variations, and 3) errors of perception. Number two is the most incredible - what happens when a person loses despite being as clever as can be? Conversely, how we we value it when the uninitiated person comes across a brilliant sequence of moves. (4)

Chess operates in society by being a record of truth. If you win, it is set in stone that you defeated your opponent in some mental capacity. We look to chess to distinguish intelligence where it may or may not exist (even if we can't see it!). "Intelligence" may then be collected and studied, while those blunderers are left behind.

Why Chess Lives On

Chess strives for perfection, and it is my belief that we play it for the following main reasons: 1) a good move appears feasible and harmonious, and 2) we can demonstrate this intelligence in the form of both live and recorded play. Psychology has produced very good players by harping on these two points, although the chessplayers have varying motivations (albeit many of pessimism!).

  1. Shenk, David. The immortal game. Loc. 1850.
  2. WR Hartston and PC Mason. The psychology of chess. p.93.
  3. WR Hartston and PC Mason. The psychology of chess. p.101.
  4. WR Hartston and PC Mason. The psychology of chess. p.88.