Intelligence and how to improve at chess

Everyone who likes chess, wants to play better, but even today it is not quite clear what is the best way to approach chess training. Chess players all over the world start fast with improvement, but eventually settle into a plateau of long gruesome and slow progress.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if there was a way to use all our knowledge of cognitive science to leverage chess training such that progress came in a more rewarding and rapid fashion?

Of course it would, and that’s the goal of this project:

Fast Chess Improvement

This will be a series of posts that will ultimately lead into a full chess training system that (hopefully) provides optimum results.

In order to come up with an optimal training system we must first understand what chess skill is all about. So let’s backtrack a little bit and go to the origins of the matter: Intelligence and learning.

Low level cognitive skills

Back in 1995, when I was deeply interested in the subject of intelligence metrics, I developed a piece of software for the measurement of intelligence.

What set this software apart from known methods was that it used a fundamental chronometric approach instead of trying to measure high level skills. Standard intelligence tests ask the subject to perform high level cognitive tasks, like arithmetic, language comprehension, pattern matching and projection, etc. Low level skills like reflexes, simple decision making, short-term memory, and others had only been measured with very rudimentary tools.

Enter the mind storm

My software, named MindStorm, would put the subject through a series of tests that involved very simple tasks like responding to a stimulus on the screen, or memorizing a random dot pattern. The subject was pushed to solve more and more difficult versions of the same task, which would still remained cognitively simple, and would determine what was the highest level of correct responses achieved by the subject, and how fast those responses were. It turns out that there is a correlation between performance in those simple tasks and the general intelligence factor g, and by using this correlation one can estimate intelligence level after putting a subject through the series of chronometric tests in MindStorm.

Short-term memory and focus

After some time of experimentation with many subjects it was clear that the most highly g-correlated tasks were short-term memory and attention span. All other tasks, like simple reflexes, cognitive reflexes, long term memory, integration, etc. had lower correlation scores.

Since then I had been pondering a lot about short-term memory, attention span and their role in human intelligence. Well, actually I had been pondering about them for a longer time, but now I had some experimental evidence and not just speculation.

Abstraction Levels

Back when I was a youngster, a very bright friend of mine, a fellow by the name Armando de la Torre Mothelet, in one of our many discussions about the make-up of human intelligence, brought up the subject of abstraction. Today, I believe that the most important component of intelligence is the capacity to handle several levels of abstraction. The more levels you can handle, the smarter you are. And this capacity has a lot to do with both short-term memory and attention span. The longer you can focus the more levels you can handle. The more you can store in short-term memory, the more levels you can handle.

Improving memory capacity: Chunking

While there is probably an innate limitation to our individual short-term memory capacity, it is well known that this capacity can be artifically enhanced by the use of chunking. Chunking is a mechanism through which we group together individual pieces of information to form a larger block or chunk of information. Once chunked, many pieces of data become one and instead of occupying many short-term memory compartments, they take up only one.

For example, if I want to remember the number:


it would take 17 memory slots and that’s probably beyond the normal human capacity (6-10). But If I group the string of digits differently:

33, 90210, 567, 256, 1080

Now I can use chunking to remember 5 chunks of information easily. In this highly manufactured example, I would have to remember:

  • 33: repeated digits
  • 90210: beverly hills
  • 567: consecutive digits
  • 256: RAM
  • 1080: HD resolution

So with that use of chunking it is possible to store large amounts of data in short-term memory. Chunking is the link between long-term and short-term memory as far as intelligence performance is concerned. So in a way learned skill can make us perform smarter, even if our innate intellectual ability remains unchanged. And that is exactly what we want to achieve with chess training.

Chunking and chess

In the next post I will introduce the link between chunking and chess, as found by psychological studies, and continue our exploration of the constituents chess skill.

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