Speed Chess Study Proves Practice Makes Perfect

So it would seem likely that performance would drop far below their ratings if pros were denied the time to do all that searching, but Burns found that was not the case. If they had only five percent of the normal time available for a match, the champs still performed at 81 percent of their rated skill level. That's why a grand master can play dozens of games simultaneously, and still beat the pawns off a bunch of top amateurs. He doesn't need all that time to search for the right answers, because most of his skill is directed by something called "pattern recognition."

Top players recognize patterns on the chess board instantly, because they've seen those same patterns so often before. And in most cases, their first hunch is the right decision. Bonds probably does the same thing when he sees the pitcher beginning his wind-up.

Human Skill

That's a very different mental function than searching through the memory, and it's why computer geeks had so much trouble coming up with a machine that could beat a grand master at chess.

"Pattern recognition is an extremely difficult problem for computers," Burns says. "Training chips to search is actually much easier from a computational point of view. A computer is fantastic at searching."

The problem gets a lot harder when the computer is asked to determine if one pattern is different from another. So today's chess computers may be as good as the top players in the world, Burns says, but they do it the wrong way. They do it by searching, not by pattern recognition, and that's a lot easier for a computer to do.

That doesn't mean searching is unimportant. Burns says even the top players in the world could lose if they had only five minutes to complete all their moves while their competitors had two hours. Searching all the possibilities gives a slight edge, but it's not what distinguishes the grandest of grand masters.

That's the ability to recognize various patterns almost instantaneously. And they learn that by doing it over and over again. Even in chess, Burns says, there are no shortcuts. Child prodigies may astonish us with extraordinary skills, but even that gift won't get them to the top.

"The way you get to be a grand master," Burns says, "is to practice a lot."

There's a neat expression for it in wood working. It's called "time on the tool."

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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