Watching a chess match may seem about as exciting as watching paint dry, but new research shows that a champion's brain works at lightning fast speed, making decisions in seconds that would elude a lesser player with hours to ponder each move.
And that's not just because they are especially gifted at the game. Grand masters reach that level of skill because of the hurdle that keeps most of us mediocre. They practice, practice and practice some more.
And what works for chess probably works in many fields where highly developed skills are essential.
In baseball, a major league slugger couldn't possibly figure out what the pitcher is sending his way in the brief time it takes for the ball to travel from the pitcher's mound to the batter's box, according to various studies. So Barry Bonds knows what he's going to do long before he begins to swing the bat. Subtle clues tell him what to expect, and all those years spent trying to perfect his art make it possible for him to connect far more often than would be possible without all that practice.
So what's the answer to that old debate? Are experts made, or are they born? Psychologist Bruce Burns of Michigan State University in East Lansing thinks it's most likely a little of each. Burns studies how humans acquire skills, and how we deploy those skills under different circumstances. To help him find out, he turned to an old passion. Chess.
Testing the Masters
Burns had competed in chess tournaments in his native Australia, but stopped short of reaching the level of master. He says he gave up because he didn't have the time to develop his skills to the level he needed.
"I played quite a lot, but I really should have practiced more," he says.
For his research, Burns turned to something called "blitz chess." It's like any other chess game, but with one huge exception. The game only lasts 10 minutes, so each player has only five minutes to make all his moves. That boils down to an average of about seven seconds per move in a typical game of 40 moves. That includes the time it takes to ponder the board, move the piece, and punch the time clock. Obviously, that doesn't leave enough time for a player to sort through all his memory banks and come up with likely scenarios for the next 100 moves, as top players sometimes do. Instead, they have to play almost instinctively.
Burns, whose research will appear in the July issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society, studied the records from "blitz" chess tournaments in Holland, the United States, and Australia. He would have preferred to stage the tournaments himself, but top chess players are not known for their easy-going, cooperative spirit. So Burns did the best he could with what he had to work with.
Professional chess players have specific ratings, based on their past performances, which are similar to ratings in various sports. Burns wanted to know if top players lived up to their ratings in blitz chess, where they didn't have much time to consider each move.
"There's an advantage to having more time," he says. "You can search [your memory] more, you can consider the possibilities more. If you look even five moves ahead, you have to consider lots and lots of possibilities. What if I do this, and he does that?"