Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Physiological and Psychological Studies Applied to Chess

Fit for Combat:  Maximum Strength AKA Old Man Strength

In his book Extreme Fear, Jeff Wise discusses the effect of the brain’s reaction to stimuli on strength and athletic performance.

Wise cites the research by Vladimir Zatsiorsky on three different types of strength--Absolute, Maximal and Competitive Maximum.

Absolute Strength is the total mechanical strength of a person, the force a person should be able to apply.
According to Zatsiorsky’s research humans can rarely apply all that force.  A novice weight lifter can apply 65%, an experience athlete can apply 80%.  This lesser number is called Maximal Strength.
But, in competitive situations Maximal Strength can be increased by as much as 12%--hence the term Competitive Maximum.

If the pressure of competition is too much, the arousal goes to far along the curve and performance decreases.  But if a person is at or near the top of the curve, they can approach the force of Absolute Strength.

In an earlier ACIS of Caissa post I wrote:
Have you ever been kibbitzing a game and seen good moves that the players (sometimes much higher-rated than you) missed? Have you ever played a move in a (non-blitz) game and instantly seen, as soon as you took your hand off the piece, that it was a blunder? Have you ever seen a Grandmaster blunder? (if not, see my "Homer Nods" series). I'll wager a bundle you answered "Yes, yes and yes."

Have you ever asked yourself how these things are possible?


I also see a connection here with GM Belyavsky, who in his book Uncompromising Chess states that he could only analyze a position at maximum strength during tournament games.  While some people seem to analyze quite well at home, I too have always felt that personally I don't really hit my peak except under competitive conditions.  When there is JUST RIGHT AROUSAL, anyway.



If something feels notably easy to decipher, whether it’s a piece of text or the shape of an object or the particulars of a person’s face, there’s a good chance it’s because we’ve previously done the work of processing it, and that it’s something we’ve encountered before. Cognitive fluency signals familiarity - some psychologists argue that the eerie experience of déjà vu is simply when we’re fooled by the unexpected ease of taking in a piece of sensory information, and interpret that as a memory of having been there or seen it before.

An instinctive preference for the familiar made sense in the prehistoric environment in which our brains developed, psychologists hypothesize. Unfamiliar things - whether they were large woolly animals, plants we were thinking of eating, or fellow human beings - needed to be carefully evaluated to determine whether they were friend or foe. Familiar objects were those we’d already passed judgment on, so it made sense not to waste time and energy scrutinizing them.

This absolutely applies to chess positions and the choices we make about positions to aim for. I think most players like to get a "familiar" advantage in an opening they recognize rather than a somewhat bigger advantage in a strange setting.  Going back a bit to my first post about whether amateur players care much about today's grandmaster games and tournaments, it occurred to me that perhaps the reason I didn't like this position as given by IM Mark Ginsburg (...)

(Black to move)

(...) is because it seems so random, outside of my usual experience, so messy and dangerous.

All that old Botvinnik advice about studying openings not to memorize (oh, no), but to become familiar with "typical middlegames" makes sense in light of this perspective, no?  But it could also benefit your chess strength by "breaking out" and deliberately playing into the unfamiliar, the messy, even the dangerous from time to time.


Rocky said...

Not that I can add much to the conversation, but for what it's worth, this post rings true to me.

Amen to the arousal (pressure) factor ... personally speaking, I'd like to find that sweet spot of just enough pressure to perform optimally. Finding it is the million dollar quest.

With regard to amateur players following GM games ... amen. I don't follow GM games b/c I'm pretty confident that I have no idea what's going on and can't figure out why they're making those moves - too deep - it'd require too much time to delve into it when I'd rather be playing or solving tactics at a level nearer to earth.

Aziridine said...

This ties in to the earlier discussion about whether ordinary players bother to follow top-level games. I was just thinking, if we can't even get average chess players interested in GM games, what hope is there of making top-level chess more accessible to the public in general? No wonder chess is a fringe activity (in North America anyway).

peter hoh said...

I am an ordinary chess player, at best. Unfamiliar, messy, and dangerous is the way I always play, unless I'm facing a much better player. In that case, the game gets familiar real quickly.

I could imagine being interested in following a grandmaster game, with the right commentary. Tom Boswell, sports writer for the Washington Post, made baseball much more interesting for me, opening some of what goes on inside the game.

I haven't found a chess writer who has done the same for me.

Chess Teacher Lessons said...

I think that looking at and analyzing GM games by amateur players helps to improve their chess skills, but you sometimes have to see a lot of games before you recognize the patterns.

chesstiger said...

I too find it hard to analyse my own games afterwards since i miss the competion feeling that i have during the game. The focus is different and i have problems with that. So i guess i can only perform with maximum strenght when in a competitive setting.

I dont follow GM games because i am either at work when the game is played or am to tired to really understand what is going on in such game. I dont read books with analysed GM games due to time restrictions.

Maybe i should just pick one GM (who is close to my style and/or opening) and leaf thru one of his books about best games. Maybe that could help a bit.

The Mascot said...

All I saw was "TOO MUCH AROUSAL" and having flashbacks to that New Year's party.

Polly said...

Excellent post. In the book Deep Survival the author talks about the different hormones released by the brain when someone is confronted with dangerous situations. It's similar to what you're addressing here. I know for me the too much arousal sensation messes with my concentration. It can easily distract me from what is happening on the board.

Sometimes a commenter on my blog might ask me "How could you not see the (fill in the blank)?" My response has generally been "It's easy to see the obvious when not under the gun of time pressure, nerves, external stimuli, etc."

I spent a lot of time looking at my games from the Liberty Bell Open, but I also took time to analyze the things that were going on in my head while I was playing. Much of it was a negative mind set.

This past weekend I tried to be more aware of the negative thoughts, and work my way around them. I didn't always play the most inspired chess or find the best moves, but in the last round I did what I needed to do.