20 June 2012

Book completed - The Psychology of Chess

This week I finished reading The Psychology of Chess by IM W.R. Hartston and P.C. Wason (Facts On File Publications, 1984).  Both of the authors were practicing psychologists in England at the time it was written, with Hartston being one of the top English players during the 1960s and early 1970s, prior to the "English chess explosion" of Grandmasters; he received his International Master title in 1972 and played competitively until 1987.

The book tackles the phenomenon of chess from the point of view of academic psychologists, although the writing itself is certainly accessible and the authors do not neglect the practical elements of the aspects of the game under discussion.  I acquired and read the book in the hope of receiving further insight into the psychological dimension of chess performance.  Although the book has a broader reach than this, there were certainly a number of useful observations contained within it, both about performance and about we chessplayers as people.

One of the better expositions in the book comes early, in the introduction, and I believe is worth quoting in full:

It is unclear what motivating forces compel a person to become a chess player.  Certain answers are fairly obvious and need little research - the desire to excel, the tension of an unremitting intellectual struggle, the absorption in a task which precludes the worries of daily life, the allure of self-improvement which in most of us evades a ceiling, and the attraction of constructing a pattern which is often beautiful and always novel in one way or another.

While the above description of motivations for chess may be "obvious" as the authors put it, I have rarely seen it so well articulated.

A large portion of the book consists of "big think" type issues about the nature of chess, its role in society as an art vs. science vs. sport, talent vs. skill development, and other aspects of the game which may be as much philosophical as psychological.  Sometimes the authors raise timeless issues in a fascinating fashion, in other places I felt that they demonstrated their educational grounding in the 1950s-1960s and their 1980s "current" perspective too much.

For training and playing purposes, I would say that the following insights and observations, made by either the authors or found in the research literature they cited, were the most useful and relevant.
  • Despite the existence of prodigies, there are no cases of "instant" masters or grandmasters.  Master-level chess requires upwards of 10,000 hours of accumulated study/work and grandmasters typically spend at least 10 years of intense study before achieving the title (Fischer being no exception, having started at an early age).  Taken from the 1973 Simon and Chase study, this observation helps combat the myth that inherent talent defines your upper skill limit at an early stage in your chess career; instead, the amount of effortful study conducted is most important to advancement.
  • Decrease in winning performance as a chess master ages can be best ascribed to the growing perception by the player that avoiding a loss is more important than scoring a win.  The player, having already attained a high level of status, is more reluctant to lose their existing status than they are motivated to attempt to achieve a higher level of play.  This also helps explain the common phenomenon of World Champions having poorer tournament results and playing less dynamically after they win the title.  (I think a related phenomenon occurs below the master level, as career Class players often focus their attention on maintaining their rating at a certain level, rather than on seeking to improve their overall level of play.)
  • In order to win consistently and improve their performance, a chessplayer must be both strongly motivated to win and appropriately self-confident about their skills.  Overconfidence can lead to recklessness, but a loss of belief in your own abilities is even worse for your performance, as  expectations of losing can become self-fulfilling.
  • While pattern recognition on a large scale (upwards of 10,000 stored in long-term memory) is required for mastery, an essential point is that pattern recognition does not translate into stronger play simply by rote memorization.  Rather, it gives the chess player the ability to better identify and understand analagous positions and the types of moves/combinations that will lead to advantages or outright wins.  In other words, pattern recognition allows a player to much more rapidly - sometimes instantly - identify the best candidate moves in a particular position for subsequent calculation.
The book is rather slim, at less than 150 pages, so did not take overly long to complete.  While parts of it were more relevant or useful than others, reading it has led me to better frame and articulate some of my thinking on chess as a pastime, as well as reinforcing my understanding of what is necessary to advance along the path toward mastery.

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