What chess experts see/recognize/understand effortlessly on the board and chess novices don’t?

What makes the difference?

How can you get a novice on the fast road to developing a good chess vision?

Persian bronze gaming pieces (6th-7th c. AD)

It is all about perception. We discussed last time that perceiving spatial and especially functional relationships between objects in a visual environment is the key to understanding the meaning of a situation and how to react to it.

To better understand where the problem lies let’s take a look at how perception occurs. There are three steps involved in visual processing:

Sensation: we capture external visual information and convert it into head-speak, that is brain-friendly electrical language.

Routing: once translated, the information goes to the supervisor center (thalamus) which in turn sends it off to the brain’s increasingly complex higher regions for further processing.

Perception: at this final step of sophisticated processing in association cortices we begin to perceive what our senses have given us. These regions use both bottom-up and top-down processing. The two work together to help us recognize the world.

Reading a sentence

Here’s an example which beautifully illustrates bottom-up and top-down interaction.

After your eyes read the sentence and the thalamus has spattered various aspects of the sentence all over your skull, bottom-up processors go to work by greeting the sentence’s visual stimuli, its letters and words. An upside down arch becomes the letter “U”, combinations of straight lines and curves become, say, word “Uagadugu” (by the way, this is my favorite vacation spot – just kidding).

Now comes top-down processing where the previous detailed “report” is interpreted and analyzed to get the meaning out of it in order to respond to the original stimulus, or a change in the environment (remember S->R, stimulus->response mechanism?). This is done in light of pre-existing knowledge, or stored patterns (schemas), mental representations of what we know and expect about the world. Schemas can bias our perception toward one recognition or another by creating a perceptual set, that is a readiness to perceive stimuli in a certain way. These expectations operate automatically, whether we are aware of them or not.

Given that people have unique experiences, they bring different interpretations to their top-down analysis, so two people can see the same input and come away with vastly different perceptions. Think a chess expert and a novice.

Pieces are just placeholders for certain functions. Playing Chess, by Brett Dugan

Chess analogy

In chess, what is analogous to words? Chess pieces.

During the bottom-up stage we scan the board to see how all pieces are positioned in their battling space. In our mind’s eye we need to see each piece together with its aura, or lines of power emanating from it, as one inseparable entity. Thus we are becoming aware of how pieces are interacting, with both friendly and enemy ones, and of spatial relationships and connections between them.

But what gives words and pieces their meaning? Where does this meaning come from?

What is the difference between playing well and aimlessly moving the pieces (pushing wood)?

The top-down process kicks in by recognizing functional relationships, or roles pieces have in the current context. Some pieces are attacking enemy pieces and/or important squares on the board restricting them, others are supporting friendly pieces, or blocking attack on them coming from opposing troops. This brings the meaning into the picture. Previous experience helps evaluate the situation adding up new layers of meaning.

Our motivation and expectations also get in affecting the perception. For example, if this is the last round and you need to win, you are likely to be in aggressive mode where you tend to perceive more of attacking aspects of the position, neglecting potential dangers.

With a growing perception your understanding deepens too. However, understanding a word is not a mental state, event or process, but an ability to use it in certain ways for certain purposes, just as knowing how to play chess is knowing how to move the pieces in conformity with the rules of chess in pursuit of the goal of winning. In both cases mastering technique is necessary (and this is where mastering strategy and tactics, as its building blocks, get in).

Log Chess Set, by Peter Marigold

Good 20/20 or protracted and poor chess vision? Which one?

We see now how chess experts and novices have different interpretations of what they see on the board. Ability to recognize visual patterns and unconsciously follow (previously learned and stored) action patterns associated with them makes the difference.

Now is crystal clear why we need to start teaching with contacts and not with chess moves as the traditional teaching does. We need to develop good spatial and functional recognition skills if we want to strengthen bottom-up visual processing and create a good chess eye and strong board vision real quick, early in the learning process. As vision is the key to understanding and acting in the world, everything else follows on from it.

Teaching how to move pieces does very little to develop a good chess eye. It actually sends wrong messages to the brain what really important is in the game. As the brain willy-nilly starts creating habits (bad ones, of course) in order to be able to respond with automaticity later on (economy of time and energy!), an ineffective, and sometimes even dead-wrong perceptual set develops.

We are all going through the first period of our chess education mostly unaware of what’s going on on the board, not seeing attacks raging all around the place with our Queen maybe lost at move three (remember the game we saw before: 1.e4 d5 2.Bd3 Bg4 3.exd5 Bxd1).

But this period should be fairly short and end within roughly two months of the start of learning. Sadly, the players from the above game had been in chess for more than a year when they played it back then.

Definitely, they had been infected with that widespread chronic disease: poor chess vision, which sometimes turns to chess blindness.

Looking at that game again, something’s really rotten in our chess kingdom… the early teaching in fact.

Good news is that there is an effective cure available: contacts treatment!

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1) John Medina, “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School”

2) Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Understanding and Meaning”

3) Douglas Bernstein, “Essentials of Psychology “

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