Inside the Minds of Great Chess Players

What goes on in the brains of master chess players? Is there a neurological secret to their success? Cognitive scientists at the Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC) at Bielefeld University in Germany have been investigating this question for the past year and have just released their preliminary findings.

Their research project, called “Ceege” (Chess Expertise from Eye Gaze and Emotion), involves recording players’ eye movements and facial expressions as they play the game. Their discoveries help explain why Norwegian grandmaster Magnus Carlsen once again earned the title of world chess champion at this year’s tournament.

“We are investigating individual game tactics, chess players’ behavior towards one another, and their body language,” says Dr. Kai Essig. “With the findings from this project, we will be able to predict in the future how strong an individual chess player is, and how high the chances are that a player wins a match. It appears that we will even be able to recognize a series of optimal moves that will increase the player’s probability of winning.”

The researchers, who worked in groups to focus on specific behaviors, used a variety of techniques to gather as much information on players and their activity as possible. Eye tracking glasses, for example, allow researchers to measure players’ gaze positions, while video cameras record their facial expressions and body language.

“There are numerous theories on how the brain controls attention and solves problems in both everyday situations and game situations,” says lead researcher Professor Dr. Thomas Schack, a sports scientist and cognitive psychologist who heads the CITEC research group “Neurocognition and Action — Biomechanics.”

“The game of chess is an ideal object of research for testing these theories because chess players have to be extremely attentive and make decisions in quick succession as to how they will proceed.”

Schack’s research group is working on Ceege with Inria Grenoble Rhones-Aples, a research institute in France.

Professor Dr. James Crowley and his team from the Institute Inria are focusing on chess players’ emotions, capturing for instance microexpressions — facial expressions that are only recognizable for a few miliseconds — as well as gestures, heart and respiratory rate, and perspiration.

More than 120 participants have so far played chess under observation in the study and pilot study. Of these, a third were chess experts, and the other two-thirds novices.

“The current study and the pilot study already show that chess experts show significant differences in their eye movements,” says Essig. “Chess experts concentrate for most of the time on the main chess pieces that can make or break the game in respective situations. The experts control their attention more efficiently than novices.”

According to Essig, amateurs jump quite frequently from one figure to the next with their gaze, and look at nearly all the pieces on the board, regardless of whether they play an important role in the particular game situation.

With the knowledge gleaned from their project, the researchers closely followed the chess world championship in November.

“Early in the tournament, it was already apparent that Magnus Carlsen would win. He had shown more initiative in the first six matches. It was hardly possible for his opponent Sergej Karjakin to dominate the game,” says physicist Thomas Küchelmann, who worked on the project with Essig.

When observing from a distance, though, only limited conclusions can be drawn. Küchelmann explains that “in order to make concrete predictions, we would have actually had to measure Carlsen’s and Karjakin’s game with our test equipment.”

“It would have been interesting to measure, for instance, Carlsen’s emotional reaction to his missed end game opportunities, and his mistake in the eighth match, which he lost, along with Karjakin’s emotional reactions to running out of time in the tie break.”

Source: Bielefeld University