Sunday, 18 November 2012

Can The Psychology Of Chess Improve Your Gambling?


I can't say I'm the greatest chess player.  In fact I imagine most school children with a passion for the game would find me an easy opponent. However, I find the psychology of chess quite informative because I can see a distinct relationship between it  and the psychology of gambling in that much of betting is about noticing familiar patterns.  Over the years, this factor has registered with me many times as each new two-year-old season in ways is fundamentally the same as the one
before except the names of the horses have changed. The Psychology of Chess Skill is written by J. Corey Butler, PhD, and quite an illuminating article.

It is surprising the similarities that may be found between these skill-based endeavours: this athletics of the mind. Are you a grandmaster gambler? Can you see aspects which relate to your gambling game play? If not, perhaps this article may help improve your chess! 


Like many Class B chess players, I’ve often wondered how to get better, and what strong players have that I haven’t got. The answers to these questions usually emphasize the need to study and practice the game, but unfortunately this advice is vague and often unhelpful. What exactly should I study, and how can I practice without repeating the same mistakes over and over? Formal instruction is good if you can afford it, but even the professionals do not always agree on the merits of studying different type of game play. In this article, I’d like to advocate a different approach. Why not study the way chess masters and grandmasters think, and then use this knowledge to guide our studies? What follows is a brief review of the research that has been done on chess and cognition, as well as some recommendations for improving play.

One hypothesis that has been around for many years is that people who become strong chess players have exceptional intelligence and/or memory. This belief is quite popular with highly rated chess players, but potentially discouraging to the general population. Fortunately, there is little solid evidence to support this viewpoint. In fact, most researchers have found minimal correlations between measures of IQ and official chess ratings. On the other hand, many grandmasters appear to have a phenomenal memory. They can recall games played years ago, move by move, and when shown an unfamiliar chess position for only a few seconds, they can reproduce it with very few mistakes on a new board and set. The catch, however, is that this feat is only possible when they are given positions taken from actual games. When the position is random, the master does only about as well as the amateur. General intelligence and memory by themselves do not appear to distinguish great chess players from ordinary ones.

Gambling: You do not need to be Einstein to be a successful gambler. The key to success is understanding your niche and what is possible within that area. Specialise in honing those skills.

Another hypothesis is that chess masters have amazing powers of visualization, and can think ahead many moves to see what the board will look like later in the game. In fact, chess players do not really “visualize” future positions in the sense of a detailed mental image, such having a picture of the board in one's head, but they are able to calculate long series of moves. Computer chess programs like Deep Blue and now Fritz owe their strength to an ever increasing ability to calculate and analyze future positions. Can we explain the skill of human grandmasters by their ability to calculate ahead? Probably to some extent, but it often surprises less skilled players how little chess masters actually calculate in many positions. In a quote variously attributed to Capablanca, Reti and other masters, the question was asked, “how many moves do you think ahead?” The surprising answer was “only one move, the right move.” In a classic study by de Groot at the University of Amsterdam, the findings showed that on average, masters calculated no deeper than weaker players, and often examined fewer variations. Nevertheless, they almost always selected superior moves.

Gambling: You don't need the memory of an elephant to win at gambling but understand which pieces of information are crucial to you in making that winning selection.

So how do we explain the considerable ability of chess masters? Their memory is excellent, but only for meaningful chess positions. They have the ability to do long calculations in their head (especially in the end game), but they usually don’t do this much more than ordinary players. The view of many psychologists (e.g. Chase & Simon) is that the greatest difference in chess skill between masters and amateurs is in the realm of pattern recognition. Just as anyone with a driver’s license can glance at a stop sign and effortlessly realize what it means, highly skilled chess players only need to take a brief look at a chess position to assess it accurately. They can instantly see positional themes like pawn chains, weak squares, and open lines, as well as tactical possibilities like Knight forks. Patterns of pieces such as weakened King positions and Rook batteries are recognized and evaluated as the player decides what the best move is.

Gambling: Use your past successes to identify winning patterns. The realisation of the importance of this factor is of paramount importance . Train yourself to use this winning format time after time until it becomes second nature. You will instantly recognise both strength and weakness and the opportunities both may bring.  

Grandmasters can play under rapid time controls, sometimes as fast as 60 seconds for an entire game, with only minimal deterioration in the quality of their play. A study by Herbert Simon at Carnegie Mellon University examined nine simultaneous exhibitions given by world champion Garry Kasparov during the late 1980s and early 1990s against teams composed of masters and grandmasters. A simultaneous exhibition provides a good test of the pattern recognition hypothesis, because although there is some time for calculation, it is really a “look and move” situation. During this time, Kasparov’s rating was about 2750, and his performance ratings in the exhibitions reached a median level of 2646. This indicates that even under severe time constraints, Kasparov was able to perform within about 100 points of his normal, tournament playing strength. This is good evidence that rapid pattern recognition was the key to his success.

Gambling: A disciplined approach will lead to consistency even when under pressure. This can best be achieved by appreciating familiar gambling patterns/analysis.

Lack of pattern recognition is why new players are often the victim of back rank mates, and other embarrassing losses. These defeats are embarrassing because the players know that the loss is obvious and don't need any explanation afterward. They simply fail to notice the danger when the King is sitting behind a wall of pawns while there are Rooks about. In contrast, an experienced player automatically sees the threat in this position and easily avoids it. Calculation is not necessary. The chess master has learned this and a multitude of other kinds of positions and can recognize them instantly. Stored themes and patterns may also be the basis of the chess master's superior calculation. Psychologists talk about the beneficial effects of "chunking" in working memory, and there is no doubt that familiar patterns of information are processed much more efficiently than unfamiliar ones.

Gambling: without appreciation of winning patterns will lead to persistent mistakes and 'embarrassing loses'. These are familiar mistakes and it is important to take time to understand why they happen. When you understand the foundation to these errors, you will avoid them. 'Familiar patterns of information are processed more efficiently than unfamiliar ones'.

Grandmasters have their own opinions on this issue, of course, and often at least allude to the basis of chess skill in their published books and articles. In Think Like a Grandmaster, Alexander Kotov advocates the calculation approach, and devotes a considerable portion of his book to a discussion of how to calculate by selecting and analyzing candidate moves. In contrast, Nimzovitch emphasized positional judgment and pattern recognition in his classic treatise, My System. In The Inner Game of Chess, Andrew Soltis at first appears to side with Kotov and not Nimzovitch. In the first chapter he claims that chess is "99% calculation" and that this is the "inner game" of chess. However, he goes on to suggest that the most common kind of calculation among grandmasters is to see about two moves into the future. Even an absolute beginner can calculate two moves ahead, so it's not really the calculation, per se. The advantage lies in how the player assesses the position and what move he or she selects.

Gambling: Whatever your approach to gambling your advantage comes from making the right decision for a given circumstance.

If not for the power of pattern recognition, humans would have no chance at all against the phenomenal number crunching ability of computers. Computers can almost always out-calculate humans in terms of the sheer number of moves to be analyzed, but they do not always outplay us. Most computers are serial processing machines that perform one task at a time at great speed and efficiency. The human brain, however, is considered to be a parallel processing, neural network that can take in a large array of information at once. From their earliest days, computers have been able to add and multiply numbers more quickly and more accurately than humans, but they are only now beginning to make progress toward recognizing faces and pictures, something we can do without effort. It has long been known that humans should try for positional games against computers, not highly tactical games where calculation is most critical. This is simply a matter of using our strengths, not our weaknesses.

Gambling: The use of parallel processing and understanding of familiar winning patterns/analysis is more effective that even the most advanced computer programs. To be a successful gambler is not related to a test of memory but how to recognise patterns and use your strengths. 

If rapid, accurate pattern recognition is the essential cognitive advantage that separates masters from patzers, can we use this knowledge to improve our skill at chess? My answer would be a qualified yes, though we need to realize that this "secret of success" does not lead to any quick or easy routes to master status. In fact, it tends to validate some of the traditional methods that chess teachers have been using for years. For example, if you want to develop a solid understanding of how pieces attack and defend, the study of basic mating patterns and endgames is hard to beat. For the beginner, openings and middle games can be overwhelming and lead to information overload. Breaking those complex positions into their basic components is much more likely to facilitate learning. A skilled reader can comprehend a sentence with a glance, but first a person has to learn the letters of the alphabet.

Gambling: We can all learn to improve as gamblers but be careful not to try and learn too much too quickly. Take small steps and appreciate what is behind your decision making. Learn what works and what doesn't and eradicate basic mistakes. 

Here’s a simple exercise that can help to improve the pattern recognition ability of beginning chess players. Place a single Knight on an empty chess board and try to visualize all the different squares that the Knight controls. Focus your attention on the squares and really stare at the board for a minute or two. Then place pawns on each square that is under attack and study the board again for another minute. Afterward, move the Knight to different squares and repeat the exercise. This is also a useful demonstration of the significance of the center. This exercise can be done with other pieces, and combinations of pieces and pawns, and can really help to train the eye to see the most basic patterns of movement and attack. The more times this is done, the better, but it’s a good idea to only spend a few minutes a day on this, and probably only one piece at a time. Extended practice and using different pieces could lead to interference, that bane of memory in psychological research.

Gambling: Evaluate your understanding and how you implement this to your gambling. Learn how to make the most of opportunities and avoid poor outcomes. Improvement can be gained from these exercises but once again do not push yourself too far. Small steps are the key to success. 

It's clear that chess patterns are stored in long-term memory as the result of countless hours playing and studying games, and there is simply no substitute for this quantity of experience. We can expect a typical learning curve here, with gradual progress over time, and an eventual plateau at some level of skill. Books of combinations could be very useful in moving upward on the curve. The hundreds of diagrams in these books provide essential repetition of key tactical and positional configurations from actual games. These books are highly recommended by chess coaches, and could be the most important training device for intermediate players to develop pattern recognition. I know that I was able to significantly improve my rating by studying a few positions every day over the course of a few months. After a while the various tactical patterns became burned into my brain and I began to see them spontaneously during my games.

Gambling: To be a successful you need to be focused and passionate about your goals - both improvement and honing that winning formula. Improvement takes time and cannot be rushed and you may stay at that level for some time. Learning from the insight of others is particularly important. Continue to use what has been effective in your winning ways and through repetition it will become second nature.