By Philip E. Ross (Father of NM Laura Ross of Forest Hills, NY)
A man walks along the inside of a circle of chess tables, glancing at each for two or three seconds before making his move. On the outer rim, dozens of amateurs sit pondering their replies until he completes the circuit. The year is 1909, the man is José Raúl Capablanca of Cuba, and the result is a whitewash: 28 wins in as many games. The exhibition was part of a tour in which Capablanca won 168 games in a row.
How did he play so well, so quickly? And how far ahead could he calculate under such constraints? “I see only one move ahead,” Capablanca is said to have answered, “but it is always the correct one.”
He thus put in a nutshell what a century of psychological research has subsequently established: much of the chess master’s advantage over the novice derives from the first few seconds of thought. This rapid, knowledge-guided perception, sometimes called apperception, can be seen in experts in other fields as well. Just as a master can recall all the moves in a game he has played, so can an accomplished musician often reconstruct the score to a sonata heard just once. And just as the chess master often finds the best move in a flash, an expert physician can sometimes make an accurate diagnosis within moments of laying eyes on a patient.
But how do the experts in these various subjects acquire their extraordinary skills? How much can be credited to innate talent and how much to intensive training? Psychologists have sought answers in studies of chess masters. The collected results of a century of such research have led to new theories explaining how the mind organizes and retrieves information. What is more, this research may have important implications for educators. Perhaps the same techniques used by chess players to hone their skills could be applied in the classroom to teach reading, writing and arithmetic.
The Drosophila of Cognitive Science The history of human expertise begins with hunting, a skill that was crucial to the survival of our early ancestors. The mature hunter knows not only where the lion has been; he can also infer where it will go. Tracking skill increases, as repeated studies show, from childhood onward, rising in “a linear relationship, all the way out to the mid-30s, when it tops out,” says John Bock, an anthropologist at California State University, Fullerton. It takes less time to train a brain surgeon.
Without a demonstrably immense superiority in skill over the novice, there can be no true experts, only laypeople with imposing credentials. Such, alas, are all too common. Rigorous studies in the past two decades have shown that professional stock pickers invest no more successfully than amateurs, that noted connoisseurs distinguish wines hardly better than yokels, and that highly credentialed psychiatric therapists help patients no more than colleagues with less advanced degrees. And even when expertise undoubtedly exists–as in, say, teaching or business management–it is often hard to measure, let alone explain.
Skill at chess, however, can be measured, broken into components, subjected to laboratory experiments and readily observed in its natural environment, the tournament hall. It is for those reasons that chess has served as the greatest single test bed for theories of thinking–the “Drosophila of cognitive science,” as it has been called.
The measurement of chess skill has been taken further than similar attempts with any other game, sport or competitive activity. Statistical formulas weigh a player’s recent results over older ones and discount successes according to the strength of one’s opponents. The results are ratings that predict the outcomes of games with remarkable reliability. If player A outrates player B by 200 points, then A will on average beat B 75 percent of the time. This prediction holds true whether the players are top-ranked or merely ordinary. Garry Kasparov, the Russian grandmaster who has a rating of 2812, will win 75 percent of his games against the 100th-ranked grandmaster, Jan Timman of the Netherlands, who has a rating of 2616. Similarly, a U.S. tournament player rated 1200 (about the median) will win 75 percent of the time against someone rated 1000 (about the 40th percentile). Ratings allow psychologists to assess expertise by performance rather than reputation and to track changes in a given player’s skill over the course of his or her career.
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