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 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:
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.
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.
I just wanted to add a note announcing that I have been invited to speak at the 4th London Chess Conference, covering the didactics of chess.
I will be running a workshop about “Cognitive insights into chess improvement”, talking about my unique and insightful Master’s dissertation that was awarded Distinction by Bristol University.
I’ll also be presenting Chessable as an online learning system, and lastly participating as part of a panel taking a critical look at some of the latest research published about chess and academic achievement.
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 a month ago I came across some interesting news. Playing chess does not make your kids smarter, the headlines read. I didn’t make much of them. I knew immediately that these recent scientific findings must be getting blown out of all proportion. I was hoping my inaction would let this quietly fade away and retreat to the small corner of the library where it belongs. I was simply too busy to deal with silly news.
However, while on a short break hiking in the Lake District, a history academic staying in my hostel room brought the news up. He was trying to prove how pointless one of my favourite hobbies is. We had a heated discussion, and I explained to him the limitations of the social sciences and statistics. During this conversation, I realised how far this erroneous and harmful message had spread. It’s all over the place. I had to read the report myself and put it in context.
When I began reading this 57-page report, I can’t say I was shocked with what I found, I expected it. Despite the many limitations clearly stated by the authors, journalists somehow arrived at a harmful and unjust one-line summary. Several more unstated limitations affect this study, yet the authors draw an ambitious conclusion. “We believe that this study has provided strong evidence that teaching primary school children how to play chess has little lasting impact upon their educational achievement.” No, with all due respect, this report, not even a published study, does not even do that. In fact, if you read the report carefully, the headline of this blog post is equally justified. Chess helps kids study less and score on tests just as well as non-playing peers who overstudy.
I’ve previously readily admitted that there is a lack of evidence that chess does make us smarter. It’s true. However, I have always defended the counter argument: the fact that there is no evidence or limited evidence for something does not mean we’ve “proven” it. It’s a significant limitation of modern science. Chess may very well make us smarter, but science does not yet have the tools to prove this. Why can’t we prove it today? Well, there is simply not enough interest or money that’s needed to generate the research required. Furthermore, scientists do not yet have adequate tools at their disposal to answer these kinds of complex real-world questions. For instance, these authors claimed they had a randomised controlled trial or RCT, the golden standard of medical research. However, on page 24 they state that “schools were not randomly selected into the trial.” Yet they continue to claim this is a “randomised” trial. Really?!
Maybe 10 years down the line we will “know” more about chess and cognitive ability, maybe we won’t. We don’t know. But that doesn’t give journalists or biased scientists the right to tarnish the reputation of this beautiful game as is facilitated by this report. It also does not justify the conclusions drawn by the authors of this report. All the authors can claim is that their flawed and limited method found no improvement on test scores. These tests require four years of preparation, yet with 30 hours of chess they expected to see improvements. Now that would be magical, wouldn’t it?
There are plenty of concepts in the social sciences that are extremely hard to “prove”. We are not talking about physics or mathematics where proofs exist. What good is being “smart” anyway? What does it mean to be smart? Is getting an A in a test the definition of “smart”? These kinds of arguments can go on for a long time. Some people and academics resort to IQ as a measurement of smartness. However, did you know that the creator of the IQ test designed it specifically to identify pupils who needed help to perform better? He did not create it to measure “smartness”! He made it to educate. Alfred Binet designed the IQ test to facilitate learning.
I am all for embracing the Education Endowment Foundation’s mission. I do believe school programmes require solid evidence, as solid as science can provide. However, in the case of this report, they got it all wrong. Some excellent and very positive effects of chess were right in front of their eyes, they found them! Perhaps due to bias they were blind to them and chose the wrong conclusions. Chess helps kids study less and score on tests just as well as non-playing peers who overstudy. It really does. This conclusion is drawn from the same study by the EEF, have a read yourself and think about it. Here is my summary:
The kids in the chess group had to miss their regular classes to take chess lessons, sometimes from poor chess instructors, sometimes from good chess instructors. Some even missed their mathematics classes, while most missed humanities lessons. Despite having fewer hours of curricular instruction, these kids achieved, on average, the same scores for the Key Stage 2 examinations. They were no better but also no worse. Let us think about this carefully for a second. These kids had to study less and yet they performed just as well. Moreover, there were plenty of positive effects reported, from teachers’ increased positive expectations to pupils’ enjoyment of school. These kinds of effects have been well-documented in Educational Psychology literature, highlighting their importance for academic achievement. These achievements cannot be underestimated. Students studied less and were happier. They had less behavioural problems and scored just as well on the tests. To me, this is a huge conclusion with very positive implications for chess. Why did the authors state their conclusion so negatively? I would love to hear their thoughts.
Let’s not forget the studies from Denmark and Italy which found exactly the opposite. Chess does help with academic achievement. Again, those studies suffer from their limitations, as any social sciences study does. However, they help remind us that the question remains unclear and open. The possibility is there.
When questions and evidence are unclear, my philosophy is to resort to my personal judgment. Do I want my kids playing Pokemon Go or chess… hmm, hard one! Just kidding, I hope the answer is clear. I know what hobbies I will encourage my children to have. Chess will definitely be at the top of that list. Whether one day this will be “proven” by science remains unclear, but enough proof exists for me. This report, simply adds to that positive evidence in favour of chess.
At Chessable we use scientific insights with substantial evidence to design our learning tools. We further test them incrementally, each time on larger groups of people, to make sure they have the desired positive effects. We measure our success by the success of our users, and will continue to do so as we make our bid to be at the forefront of chess education and educational technology.
Today we have the pleasure to announce co-authored endorsed repertoires. From today on you can acquire GM Rafael Leitao’s Sicilian Najdorf, co-authored by GM Rafael Leitao and Chessable user logozar. While we have an explanation of what this entails available in the FAQ, I thought I would elaborate on the logic behind this new approach to chess opening repertoire publishing. Why not just have the Grandmaster publish the repertoire on their own? Certainly, this could be an attractive option but most Grandmasters already have their schedules full to the limit, not giving them enough time to provide a Chessable repertoire and its students, the attention they deserve. By partnering up with a more active Chessable user and offering an endorsed repertoire, our users get the following benefits:
Accurate scaffolding (Zone of Proximal Development) At Chessable we like to inform our decisions in science. The decision to allow for co-authored endorsed repertoires was no different. In educational psychology, there is a well-established principle known as “scaffolding” or “the zone of proximal development.” While originally applied to children’s development, it has been successfully applied in many other settings as well. In a nutshell, for appropriate learning to occur it is important that the learning content you use is suitable for your current skill level or understanding. Because of this, it may be the case that you get better results with explanations from a player rated USCF 1,800, closer to your own level than it would directly from a FIDE 2,500+ Grandmaster. Because we aim to suit all skill levels, co-authored endorsed repertoires were a no-brainer.
Grandmaster level players command high fees, and rightly so. Their time is a limited resource worth it’s value in gold. Opening repertoires shared by Grandmasters typically range in value from $20-$40. Sometimes educational content they create can even be sold for hundreds of dollars. By taking an endorsed repertoire approach, we offer a more affordable option; after all the repertoire can be yours today for a low fee of just $9.99.
Accurate content (GM Guaranteed!)
When endorsing a repertoire, we require the Grandmaster to review the lines to make sure they are an accurate reflection of what he or she recommends. This means that the variations you will be learning are GM approved and by studying them, you are learning indirectly from the best of the best.
More support This kind of repertoire is often brought to you by an active Chessable member who is also a big fan or dedicated student of the higher-level player. By having such a user involved in the repertoire, you can get answers to any questions that may arise much quicker.
At Chessable, we want to offer learning content to suit everybody’s needs. The more repertoires, the better. It is then up to you, the users, to decide what you like and what you don’t. You never know where the next gem of a work will surface from. By fully disclosing what a repertoire contains upfront, you can make an informed decision based on whether the repertoire interests you or not. Do make full use of our star rating facilities to let the repertoire owner and the community know what you think of their work.
Those are just a few of the reasons why we are indeed very happy to present GM Rafael Leitao’s Sicilian Najdorf opening repertoire. This repertoire is packed with 15,300 words of instruction from a club-level chess player. Do check it out; you may just find it is exactly what you needed. For today, that’s all from us and we hope to bring you even more great content in a near future.
When should I start learning opening theory? Do I even need to? These are questions that every chess player asks at some point. The internet is full of people asking this, but no one is sure of the answer. Fortunately, recently I was reading some cognitive psychology journals, and I came across a study that can help us clarify the matter once and for all. The answer is now, no matter what your level. Now! Read on to find out why.
Researchers from Oxford University and Brunel University set out to discover what made chess experts, well, experts. Often it is said that expert’s calculating skill differs the higher their chess skill is. This may be why every chess player at some point has been asked how many moves deep they ‘see.’ Research shows that this is surprisingly NOT the most important thing in chess. So what else can we gather from this study?
Reason #1: Calculating ability will only help you so much!
Once you reach a certain level of calculating ability it peaks. After this, improvements are very slight whether you are a chess master or not. There may be differences between one master and the next, but in general, the study suggests that based on experiments calculating ability is about equal for Class A and up to Master level. Compare this to playing an opening you are familiar with, every time you play it, you gather more experience, and this will help way beyond a rating of 1,800 (Class A). Once you get above master level things are different, but that’s above 2,400 in rating!
Reason #2: Getting a familiar opening saves you time
The researchers found that when master chess players had familiar opening positions, they were able to invest their time and energy calculating deeper instead of wider. Instead of looking at five different moves, you look at two, the two best ones because you know what goes on in this opening and pawn structure. With a good opening repertoire, this could mean finding the killer move you need, rather than losing half your time looking at all reasonable moves.
Reason #3: Playing openings you know increases your rating by a few hundred points
The researchers found that when chess masters played an unfamiliar opening (for instance, a Sicilian defense when the player is a French defense player), their skill was reduced by up to two standard deviations. In other words, their study showed that the chess master’s skill was reduced by a few hundred chess rating points! Potentially, this means a master would play like a club level player.
Reason #4: Do as chess masters do, even Grandmasters stick to openings they know
Aside from a few super-Grandmasters that seem to be able to mix it up and know it all, the researchers confirm that all other chess players, even at master level, play their opening repertoire and stick to it. In the research, an analysis of the Sicilian masters showed they stuck to their opening 81% of the time, playing the French only 6% of the time! The sooner you implement the study of openings, the sooner you will be able to start acquiring expert knowledge. Did you lose in that Spanish Game? Look up why or ask why, using our opening variation comments tool. You won’t make the same mistake next time.
Reason #5: Well, as White I have to face all these openings anyway, right? WRONG!
Pet lines also exist for white players, for instance, I play the Rossolimo Sicilian to black’s 1…c5. This means I never see the Sicilian Najdorf and avoid a ton of complications. Yes, the Najdorf might be objectively better, but until you reach Grandmaster level, those differences often don’t matter. What matters is that you get an opening you’ve got experience in and one that you are familiar with.
Reason #6: It’s one of the surest ways to improve your chess
Obtaining specialised knowledge of openings is something a chess player will have to do at some point in their career. Why not do it now? If you begin now, you begin accumulating those small nuggets of expertise in the openings early on. It all adds up.
Reason #7: Avoid opening blunders
We’ve all been there. Your opponent takes you out of the opening book. You know your stuff, so you think long and hard. You lose a lot of time on your clock but make an excellent logical developing move. As it turns out, shortly after, this move leads to a super sharp variation that your opponent is familiar with. With the time advantage, their dream position can’t get any better, but of course, the pressure mounts and you blunder. Game over.
Reason #8: There are opening repertoires for all levels.
You can find something that suits your play. For instance, the Able’s Repertoires are around just five moves deep, easy to remember, and they give you a stable place to start from. Take this a step further, if you are an intermediate player you can find repertoires seven moves deep. Advanced? You can find opening repertoires that are ten moves deep and more. There is no excuse, and once you master one opening, feel free to pick a new one and move on.
Chessable can help you learn chess openings in the most efficient way, and you can browse a lot of repertoires, free and paid online. However, you don’t even have to use our awesomely social website. As long as we’ve convinced you that you should put more work into your chess openings, then we are happy.
*The research study analysed to prepare this blog post is titled “Specialization Effect and Its Influence on Memory and Problem Solving in Expert Chess Players” published in Cognitive Science by Bilalic, McLeod and Gobet (2009).