Chess: Playing mind games

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THIS morning, at the City University in London, one of the stranger chess happenings of the year takes place - a half-day symposium entitled 'The Psychology of Chess'. The event forms part of the London conference of the British Psychological Society, nestling comfortably alongside items such as: 'Problem-solving style, vulnerability and life stress', 'Development of a multi- factorial measure' and 'Impaired cognitive functioning during dieting'.

The show begins with Dr Trevor Robbins talking on 'Working memory in chess'. He will be reporting on a series of experiments conducted in Cambridge, in which subjects have been required to remember and assess chess positions while being distracted by performing another low-level task - such as repeated utterance of the word 'the'. Seeing how such distractions impair chess ability, we learn which bits of the brain are used in chess processing.

He will be followed by Pertti Saariluoma, of Helsinki University, whose talk on 'Apperception and semantic search control in chess' will seek to explain how humans can perceive chess positions as a series of sub-problems, to restrict the amount of analysis needed.

David Norwood will then provide some light relief, explaining the differences between human and computer thought in chess, and pointing out that chess skills are totally useless in the real world.

'Chess and the Oedipus Complex' will come under the scrutiny of Simon Carey, who will point out that Paul Morphy was not as mad as Freud's followers liked to believe. Then I will round it all off with 'Chess and artificial stupidity', redefining chess as a language and praising human stupidity as a much underrated process worthy of further study, particularly in a chess context.

It will all, no doubt, be jolly and fascinating, but whether the session will throw any light on how chess players really think is another question. Psychologists have studied memory in chess, and eye movements and various aspects of motivation, but the infuriating thing about chess is that it is just too difficult to play perfectly. With up to 32 pieces scattered around 64 squares, there is far more information than the mind can cope with, so we use our greatest skills - concept formation and pattern recognition - to make some sense of it. There must, however, be some dissonance between our mental models of chess and the deep structure of the game itself. And that is probably why it is so easy to blunder.

If we understood chess and if we knew how our brains worked, we might be able to comprehend how we play chess and why some of us are good at it. We might even understand why computers do not defeat the best humans. But those are very big ifs.