Beating Magnus after a month of training: the neuroscience of why learning chess is so much harder than learning a language

By David Kramaley / On / In Chess improvement, Chess science, Learning chess

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By now, most of the chess world is familiar with the story of Max Deutsch, so I will keep it brief. Max is a 24-year-old chess amateur who wanted to beat World Champion Magnus Carlsen with a month’s worth of practice. No handicaps.

Max completed 11 other learning challenges, one each month. Perhaps the most impressive one was to learn Hebrew up to a conversational level in just a month. His success attracted large levels of attention, and his last challenge was upgraded from beating the top level of a chess app, to beating the man himself.

If one can learn a new language in a month, why is it that the game we love so much is so difficult to master? I spent over a year reading scientific journals about learning chess asking this very question. I also happen to speak five languages. I would love to share some valuable insights from cognitive neuroscience with you.

Learning chess and playing it well, is an infinitely more complex challenge than learning a new language.Click To Tweet

Learning a Language
Learning a new language is no easy feat. It requires hard work, motivation and daily practice. It is so tough that neuroscientists have shown that if you do not hear the sounds of some languages during your baby years, you may never acquire them up to a native’s standard. Could this be why many countries of the world remain primarily monolingual?

If you do however make the effort, learning a new language has pronounced effects on your brain. Neuroimaging has shown growth in the brain areas of the hippocampus and superior temporal gyrus. Your brain changes as you learn a new language. Like a muscle, it gets bigger and better.

Once you have acquired a new language, you will have to use it. When you speak it, you will use the left inferior frontal gyrus (Broca’s area) for the motor act of speech. You might also tap into the hippocampus for vocabulary. Your superior temporal gyrus will mediate these functions and help you form sentences rich with meaning.

Learning a Language vs. Learning Chess
Okay, so learning a language is no easy feat, but doable. So why is chess so much harder? The answer is simpler than you might think. While speaking a new language taps into a few skills, chess requires a much wider variety of skills to come together in perfect sync. Like the difference between the sound of an instrument, and that of an orchestra. Chess needs the orchestra. Let’s look at some of the skills that you will need on your path to mastery:

Parts of your brain grow as you learn new skills. How does one’s brain change while learning chess? Let’s find out.

Learning Chess: Visualisation & Calculation
When we calculate a few moves ahead, we need to visualise chess positions. The visual cortex part of your brain is hard at work. Your mind’s eye recreates what your eyes would otherwise do for you. Have you tried playing a game of blindfold chess? It is tough, but it is a required skill. Most masters can do this.

The better you are at visualising, the easier it will be to do everything else. This is because the cognitive load caused by calculation will not be as high, freeing up valuable brain resources for other tasks such as evaluating positions, strategising, etc. This is why famous chess psychologist De Groot noted that strong players no longer see the pieces on the board, but rather the lines of force and pressure that the pieces are exerting on the squares.

Learning Chess: Decision Making
Once you have calculated a few lines, it is time to make a decision. Will you play a prophylactic move or an aggressive move? Will you open the position up and go for the tactical line or play the solid positional line? So many options, so little time! Neuroscientists stipulate that areas like the anterior cingulate cortex, amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, among others, have important roles during decision making. Not much overlap with the brain areas required for visualisation, right? This is a skill in its own right.

Learning Chess: Impulse Control
Grandmaster Alexander Kotov noted that one of the fundamental differences between amateurs and masters is their discipline in thought processes. Do you always look at all you candidate moves? Do you always perform a blunder check? Do you always maintain a disciplined thinking process? Chances are that you do not. This is because this is an entirely separate skill set relying on different parts of your brain.

It is well known by neuroscientists that development of the brain area responsible for impulse control is not normally completed until at least the mid-20s. This is why they have the metaphor, “teenagers are all gas and no brakes”. Their prefrontal cortex is simply not developed enough, and in chess like in life, they might impulsively go for an action (or a variation) without completing their calculations. Of course, it is not only about teenagers, and once fully developed, there may yet be training to do to ensure we are all operating at the best of our abilities.

Learning Chess: Pattern Recognition
Pattern recognition is everywhere in chess, from tactical motifs and common combinations to typical plans and strategies. The more you play, the more your brain builds up its pattern recognition system. A fascinating finding from neuroscience is that your brain starts using the fusiform face area (FFA) to store chess positions! This is the part of the brain usually responsible for human face recognition. How can you tell your mom from a stranger? The FFA is hard at work. In expert chess players, this area doubles as a face recognition system for chess positions. Yet another skill to train up.

The fusiform face brain area helps you tell friend from foe. In chess players, it treats chess positions as faces!Click To Tweet

Conclusion

I hope that in this short(ish) article I have shown how learning chess and playing it well, is an infinitely more complex challenge than learning a new language. It is why some stipulate it may take up to 10 years of practice to attain master status. It is not by chance that many of us have fallen in love with this beautiful game, as what could be sweeter than to master one of the hardest human activities known to us? A game so infinite in possibilities that it is said there are more different chess positions than atoms in the universe.

In my work for Chessable, I am working hard to continue to develop tools that may help us tone down the training required to the tune of a few years instead of 10. This is why we are bringing print chess books to interactive life. Other than our work, technology has generally been improving learning for us anyway. This is perhaps why modern-day grandmasters are getting younger and younger.

I believe this trend of faster learning will definitely continue. It is also 100% possible to pick up the basics of chess and get playing within a few hours. It is also within the realms of achievable to increase your ELO by a very respectable level with a month of practice. However, beating the World Champion? I don’t think so. Unless we get the technology from The Matrix, it is unlikely this will happen in our lifetimes, if ever.

For those of us who practice chess daily though, and with technology constantly improving, the day of your Master status may be closer than you think. Good luck and I wish you success on your journey for improvement.

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.
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