Chess and Psychology: Why Chess is like a fruit fly.

By David Kramaley / On / In Chess science

Chess and Psychology: Why chess is like a fruit fly.
Approximate reading time: 2 min 47 sec

Let’s discuss chess and psychology. When I talk about Chessable’s vision, I have been comparing chess to a fruit fly. At Chessable we want to improve not only chess learning but education and learning in general. Despite not being able to take credit for this awesome comparison, I do embrace it. Let me elaborate.

Simon and Chase coined chess being akin to a fruit fly. They are both world renowned cognitive scientists. In 1973 they first suggested chess could be a “model organism” for cognitive psychology. A kind of “Drosophila”, they said. Drosophila Melanogaster or the vinegar fly are other names for the fruit fly. Simon and Chase chose the fruit fly because this little insect packs a punch. It has had an enormous impact on research and science.

The fruit fly has been studied for over 100 years and appears in thousands of scientific articles. The fruit fly has directly contributed to the work of five Nobel prize winners. But why is the fruit fly so popular? Well, it’s easy to catch, easy to breed and has a fast life cycle, making experiments easier! Thanks to the fruit fly, we have improved our understanding of human biology, human development and more.

So while no one can dispute the fruit fly’s claim to fame, what about chess? Why did Simon and Chase compare our beloved game to the all-star fruit fly? The reason is quite similar to why the fruit fly is famous. Simon and Chase pointed out that the game of chess makes experiments in cognitive psychology easier.

Chess makes things easier for many reasons. First, experiments with chess are easier because chess is a well-defined game. In a nutshell, this means that the rules are clearly understood, and the game has to end at some point. Of course, the game is also free, and almost anyone can learn to play it. Another reason is that progress in chess can be very easily measured. This is possible thanks to the outstanding work on the ELO scale. Thanks, Elo! In this manner, chess provides clear feedback. In other words, in chess, we can tell a Grandmaster from a Master with ease. We can also tell a beginner from an intermediate player at a glance. Compare this to another game: For two players of similar skill, how could we tell which is the better poker player?

Such advantages of chess facilitate experiments and research. Therefore, Simon and Chase thought chess would help advance the science of psychology. Of course, since then, their claim has been embraced as chess is used widely, beyond cognitive psychology. Chess has allowed for research in Neuroscience, in Educational Psychology, as well as other fields. In the future, chess will continue to play a significant role in advancing science. Here at Chessable we want to be a part of this.

At Chessable we want to help our users learn chess and achieve expertise. The development of expertise is a complicated subject that scientists often struggle to agree on. Chess provides us with the best “model organism” to improve our understanding of this complicated topic. What makes an expert? What leads to someone achieving expertise and someone else failing? Did you know some people take up to 50,000 hours to achieve expertise while others only take 2,000 hours? What separates these kinds of people?

All of these are extremely interesting questions that many scientists are trying to answer. By working with our “model organism,” we strive to come up with innovative solutions to pressing questions. How can we help everyone become an expert with the most efficiency at whatever they choose to do? Mathematics, physics, poker, bridge, medicine, you name it! Answering these kinds of questions in chess, may one day, like the fruit fly, have an impact far beyond our amazing game.

About David Kramaley

David is Chessable's CEO and Chief Scientist. He finished his dissertation on expertise and expert performance as part of a MSc in Psychology of Education (BPS) at the University of Bristol, and also holds a PGCert in Applied Psychology from the University of Liverpool. David's chess rating is around 1,850 FIDE.