Chess Masters see more

The supreme issue of chess is so called board vision. We all agree that developing superb vision is a critical skill, something that differentiates experts from amateurs.

The important question is: are we failing to properly address development of vision (chess including) early in the teaching process?

“Our education in any domain is frightfully wasteful of time and values. In math and physics the results arrived are still worse than in chess. The bad state of education in chess is due entirely to our backwardness.” — Dr. Emanuel Lasker [1]

Vision and Visual Thinking (VT)

Why is vision so fundamental? Because the visual system is critical for survival in all species. Almost half of the brain is devoted to the visual processing. Over millions of years of evolution, the vision has become the key cognitive tool enabling us to visualize our thinking (as opposed to, say, verbalizing it – language is a rather late invention in evolution and much, much less efficient: “a picture is worth a thousand words,” as they say). [2]

The basis for visual thinking is pattern perception. VT consists of a series of acts of attention [3] tuning our pattern-finding circuits. From a survival standpoint, it was critical for our ancestors to focus on sudden changes in the environment as they most often signaled danger (in chess, the move your opponent has just made). That’s vision for perception.

When we interact with the world we are usually trying to solve some kind of cognitive problem. Most often, to see a pattern is to understand the solution to a problem. [4]

From understanding objects and their relationships in a spatial context comes meaning. At that point vision for action activates if we are to respond to the external stimulus. We need to make a purposeful move. Sometimes it is something saving our life. Other times it is making a winning move at the chessboard.

Smyslov thinking over the board

Given Smyslov was an opera singer, his visual thinking patterns might have looked and flown something like this (chess art by Sebastiano Paulesu 2012)

VT is a way to organize our thoughts and improve our ability to think and act successfully. A diagram, a map, a painting, or a position at the chess board are all examples of uses of visual language. Its structural units include line, shape, color, form, motion, pattern, direction, orientation, space and proportion. [5]

Visual language of board patterns, like written and spoken language develops over time. It is our visual vocabulary. The greater our vocabulary, the better we are off. [6]

To grasp these important things, we should not reason logically, but rather to look more attentively [3] at what lies before us [7].

“Don’t think, look!” urges Wittgenstein [8] in his Philosophical Investigations.

At the heart of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is what he calls “the understanding which consists in seeing connections”. Here “seeing” is meant not metaphorically, but literally. [9]

Petrosian at the chess board thinking

And Petrosian’s visual thinking patterns looked like this (chess art by Sebastiano Paulesu 2012)

The visual Contacts method

Which brings me to my favorite.

The question that is most fundamentally critical for teaching the absolute beginner in chess: is the way we teach, with “the moves first”, conducive for a fast learning curve? Is it really helping the beginner develop a rich visual vocabulary to see connections and understand what the craft of chess is all about? Perhaps this question is somehow linked to the backwardness Dr. Lasker mentioned? Something that Nimzovich expressed in his First Lesson? What he called “fundamentally false”?

I believe that chess visual thinking using the Contacts is a model allowing us to think about chess issues from a new and powerful perspective. The model that transforms the way students think and learn: visual elements in the form of lines, networks and patterns that pieces create on the board are constructed into meaningful shapes and structures to be stored in the long-term memory becoming the core of our chess weaponry.

“You don’t take enough notice of people’s faces,”[10] Wittgenstein once told a friend. “It is a fault you ought to correct.”

Change “people’s faces” to “board contacts” et voilà!

chess art Mind of Chess Player, by Carlo Bolmida

What goes through the chess player’s mind? What is he seeing here? “The Mind of Chess Player”, by Carlo Bolmida


1. Dr. Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941), the Chess World Champion with the longest term of 27 years, was a brilliant mind. In 1902 he received his PhD in Mathematics from Erlangen University. His philosophical articles include: Struggle, Understanding of the World, The Philosophy of the Unattainable and The Community of the Future.

Keep in mind that Dr. Lasker’s quote dated almost hundred years ago. Sadly, looks like little has changed since…

2. Here is another proof that the visual is superior over the verbal:

“De Groot and Gobet found that Masters often give high-level descriptions of a position, such as type of opening or main strategical plans, but almost never mention clusters of pieces sharing relations of defense, attack, and proximity. They do mention what De Groot and Gobet call “visual images,” where such perceptual properties as similarity or contrast of color, and geometrical shapes, dominate over semantic features.  De Groot and Gobet propose that chunks are missing from these verbal protocols, first, because units are so self-evident for Masters that they are not conscious of them, and second, because masters may not have verbal labels for many of these perceptual units.”

Expert Chess Memory: Revisiting the Chunking Hypothesis, Gobet and Simon, 1996, pp. 7-8

3. When we “pay attention” we are selectively attending to one source of information and blocking others. Attention basically has three jobs:

– it helps us screen out irrelevant stimuli and focus on relevant information,

– it helps us consider the most appropriate response,

– it chooses the information that will enter in, stay in our awareness. If you don’t pay attention to something, it can’t be stored in our memory.

From Psychology, Joni E. D. Johnston, Psy. D., Penguin Group, 2009, p. 92

4. Colin Ware, Visual thinking for design, Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2008

Munich-Schwabing with the Church of St. Ursula, by Kandinsky (1908)

5. Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) was an influential Russian painter and art theorist. He is credited with painting the first purely abstract works.

In his writings, he analyzed the geometrical elements which make up every painting—the point and the line. Abstract art has shown that the qualities of line and shape, proportion and colour convey meaning directly without the use of words or pictorial representation. In Point and Line to Plane, Kandinsky showed how drawn lines and marks can be expressive without any association with a representational image. Kandinsky Wassily, Point and Line to Plane: Contribution to the Analysis of the Pictorial Elements, 1947, trans. Howard Dearstyne and Hilla Rebay, Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

6.  Chase and Simon have found that the differences in ability of chess players at different skill levels to copy and to recall positions are attributable to the experts’ storage of thousands of chunks (patterned clusters of pieces) in long-term memory. Perception in chess.  Cognitive Psychology, 4, 55-81.

For “chunks” see again: Expert Chess Memory: Revisiting the Chunking Hypothesis, Gobet and Simon, 1996.

Chess masters are said to recognize some 50,000 to 100,000 different board patterns and “chunks” of information in their long-term memory. The Expert Mind, Philip E. Ross, Scientific American, August 2006

7. “The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.” –Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Some think that acquiring information makes us smarter. In fact, being able to penetrate into what you’ve already seen/thought of, extend it, go deeper to it and make connections with previously stored patterns in your moment in time, is the key. Introduction to Visual Thinking, Practice of Art, Lecture 1, Spring 2011, UC Berkeley

“Everything has been thought of before, but the problem is to think of it again.” –Goethe

8. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889—1951), was an Austrian-British philosopher. One of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, regarded by some as the most important since Immanuel Kant. He continues to influence current philosophical thought in topics as diverse as logic and language, perception and intention, ethics and religion, aesthetics and culture.

9. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s passion for looking, not thinking. New Statesman, Aug 15, 2012

10. An area of the brain devoted to the recognition of faces is activated in chess experts when they view the board. To recognize a face, we need to see more than the eyes, nose, and mouth. We must analyze the spatial relationships between all these elements. Similarly, an understanding of the spatial relationships between chess pieces is crucial for playing good chess. See Chess and the Brain, published by Susan R. Barry, Ph.D. in Eyes on the Brain, 2011

11. Expert visualization skills in other fields: What Messi Soccer Genius Can Teach Us about Board Visualization Skills in Chess

© iPlayooChess 2012
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