– What is the difference between playing the game and aimlessly moving the pieces?

– What stays in the way of developing strong chess vision early?

– Why chess doesn’t get traction with majority of learners?

– Why a bit too many consider chess as too difficult to learn and often give up in the process?

Wassily Kandinsky (1866 - 1944), Chess Theory

Chess visualization skills

We see not with our eyes, but with our brains.

The ability to interpret, process and integrate incoming (sensory) information allows us to act in and on the world. Visual perceptual skills are the basic building blocks of all functional activity. No human activity is performed without  the use of these skills. In chess we call it chess visualization skills, or board vision. All else follows on from the visual input and its processing.

Perceiving objects and spatial and functional relationships between objects is fundamental to understanding visual environments. It’s experienced internally and is related to our ability to recognize and construct patterns. Pattern is nature’s means of communicating and translating information. We need to look “patterns that connect” in order to reveal the secrets and meaning of things. The loss of pattern is the loss of information.

Chess is a complex cognitive activity that rests on the recognition of chess objects, or pieces. The form of a chess piece is not directly related to its function, but the form and function are firmly coupled through chess rules (e.g. how pieces control the board and make movements). The functions are then linked to actions, that is movements associated with pieces (executing a move).

The flawed traditional method of teaching

Let’s now take a look at the traditional method of teaching which starts with “showing the moves first”.

What does executing a move represent in the S->R model of behavior? Just the end of a sequence including the last opponent’s move (the stimulus), understanding the context, visual processing with pattern recognition, decision-making.

Of course, the beginner is not supposed to get started with all of it. Nevertheless, what we do when we start teaching chess is that everything preceding the move execution is actually out of the picture, it’s amputated. What is left is just aimless woodpushing which sets in a detrimental habit formation early in the learning process. Bad habits setting in, the understanding of the game, enjoyment of it, fast learning curve and future success are all likely to suffer. Probabilities of giving up the game completely? — very high.

Wassily Kandinsky, Orange Composition with Chessboard

Neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience findings

A research team led by Merim Bilalic at the University of Tuebingen of Germany used behavioral and neuroimaging techniques to uncover cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying skilled object recognition.

The main conclusion of the study is that expert chess players are faster than novices in identifying chess objects and their functional relations.

In particular, chess masters are superior over novices when they have to retrieve a piece function and how to relate it to another chess pieces (functions are roles pieces have when contacts between them and with squares on the board are established: attack, support, blocking, etc. — see Section B here).

Traditional vs Contacts method. The Verdict

Traditional method of teaching chess with “showing the moves first” develops an inappropriate perception which takes form of misinterpretation and distortion of chess reality. This leads to poor judgment and inadequate chess vision. The traditional approach is characterized by:

1) Isolated piece movements

2) Only R from the S->R behavioral model is left — meaning is amputated

3) Poor chess vision

4) Slow learning curve (remember the game of two second graders having practiced chess for more than a year given here? 1.e4 d5 2.Bd3 Bg4 3.exd5 Bxd1)

In contrast, Chess contacts method features:

1) Spatial and functional relationships between pieces

2) Meaning as a critical ingredient for developing any skill

3) Good chess vision/pattern recognition

4) Faster learning curve

* * *

The big question now is:

Why traditional method of “showing the moves first” is still pervasive despite the fact that all of the following talks against it and in favor of the contacts method:

  • Psychology and cognitive neuroscience (see the study above) and what they tell us about how we humans act and behave, how the brain works and how learning occurs,
  • Theory of emergent and complex systems,
  • Works by Wittgenstein, Saussure and the likes who used chess as a key metaphor to illustrate how meaning is produced — chess pieces are just placeholders for certain function that bring the meaning in,
  • Nimzovich (in the Shakhmatny listok article “How I became a Grandmaster”, in 1929) who as one of greatest theoreticians in chess knew a thing or two about chess
If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!