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The Mind of the Masters

The Focus:

It's probably safe to say the general public has a mental image of chess grandmasters as incredibly intelligent, highly eccentric, and somewhat nerdy people with minds that are exceedingly one-track. As in all things, impressions are made by the few who stand out, not by the majority who blend in.

While it certainly isn't fair or accurate to group all grandmasters into the same mold, the evidence suggests that there might be shared characteristics at this level of competence. One of these characteristics is the grandmaster's ability to focus on the game while playing. Focus isn't peculiar to chess players; it's observable in others who lead their professions. The difference, however, is fairly clear: for the grandmaster, everything takes place in the mind.

The focus may come about as a result of intensive study, research, and practice, or, more rarely, it may reside as a genetically endowed gift. (Which is not to say the "gift" doesn't also require intense study and practice!)

Three great players obviously possessed an incredible natural ability to focus above and beyond most everyone else: Morphy, Capablanca, and Fischer. This trait gave them great flexibility at the board and the confidence to surpass the well-rehearsed positions of their opponents.

The game played between Bobby Fischer and Mikhail Botvinnik at the Varna Olympiad in 1962 clearly demonstrates this phenomenon. After much analysis and rigorous practice, Botvinnik had prepared a new line of attack 17 moves deep that would force his opponent into one of two catastrophic positions. Fischer commented after the game, "I could see by the glint in his eye that he had come well-armed . . ."

Botvinnik had studied his game over and over and was ready to spring his trap. He knew that there were only two options his opponent could take. Fischer found a third. Botvinnik said later, ". . . suddenly it was obvious that in my analysis I had missed what Fischer had found with the greatest of ease at the board." As a result Fischer gained the initiative and put Botvinnik into a defensive posture. (The game ended in a draw.)

The apparent ease at the board varies among great players. Some researchers consider it a kind of "clock speed," similar to the way a computer processor is measured by the number of calculations it can perform over a given time. The ability to quickly consider, reject, or accept massive numbers of options is a trademark of grandmaster play, and the more accurate, faster player will generally have the advantage in time and psychological effect.

Another aspect of focus is the simple act of concentrating on the game in spite of distractions. Benjamin Franklin was a chess enthusiast and wrote eloquently (though somewhat naively by today's standards) about game etiquette, "If your adversary is long in playing you ought not to hurry him or express any uneasiness at his delay. You should not sing, nor whistle, nor look at your watch . . . nor do anything that may disturb his attention . . ."

Schonberg comments about competitors at all levels, "They will mutter to themselves, sip liquid noisily, eat something with great smacks of the lip, blow smoke toward the opposite player, sneeze in his face, stare at him until he becomes uncomfortable, squirm constantly, belch, pick at the nose . . .' Ol' Ben would be sorely displeased.

Having the ability to focus doesn't mean a grandmaster isn't bothered by distractions. Sometimes it's just the opposite. Bobby Fischer (among many) was known to be quite picky about things that bothered him during a game; but his focus was so intense that once he returned to the competition he was totally absorbed.

The Memory:

An aspiring chess competitor doesn't need a photographic memory to make it to the grandmaster level; but it would certainly help. Competition at the highest levels requires an incredible game vocabulary that most "mortals" never accumulate. This vocabulary results from seeing the same positions over and over, thousands of times, until the positions and options are securely held within the player's long-term memory.

Research has shown that the great masters don't concentrate on the individual pieces. Instead, they scan the board recognizing familiar clusters (or superpieces) among the pieces. (This technique is similar to the method used by highly experienced pilots when scanning an aircraft's instrument panel. Thousands of hours of practice have taught the pilot what the gauges and needles should look like as a group. A quick scan is registered almost subconsciously and an individual indicator out of the norm attracts immediate attention.)

In his book, Total Chess, David Spanier refers to research published in Psychological Review: "His (the grandmaster's) advantage is that, due to experience, he has amassed an enormous vocabulary; a rough estimate is that he can recognize about 100,000 clusters of pieces." How's that for focus?

Along with the magnitude of their positional vocabulary, grandmasters ignore all but high-quality moves. According to Adriaan de Groot, professor of psychology and author of Thought and Choice in Chess, weak and strong players consider a similar number of moves when contemplating their options. "Masters explored the same number of moves as weaker players but the moves themselves were much stronger. Weaker players appeared to spend a great deal of time analyzing the consequences of bad moves." (Apparently one of Paul Morphy's great strengths was his ability to quickly discern the very best, most accurate move.)

Based on his research, de Groot surmised that professional chess players don't waste their time considering moves in great depth. (In other words, "If I move here, she moves there, then I move here," etc.) Instead, the subjects of his study pondered between a dozen to two dozen moves, but only to a depth of two or three subsequent moves. Their chief concern was with the quality, or accuracy, of the moves they considered. If they're only pondering strong moves, the need to contemplate great depth becomes less relevant.

That's not to say surprises don't happen. They do; and the anticipation of surprising new moves is one of the things preventing the game from getting stuck in a rut.

Grandmasters, therefore, have taken the time and energy to practice, study, and research -- going over and over, time and again, the best moves available to them at a given point in a game until the recall becomes second nature. Are there genetic predispositions that can enhance a player's efficiency at this task? Of course. Someone with analytical strengths, narrow focus, and a fluid memory has a great advantage over the average individual when it comes to mastering chess.

If pronounced enough to make a difference, these traits are usually manifested at an early age when the natural distractions of childhood keep most young people from earnest study and practice. (This is very similar to forms of attention prevalent among musical prodigies.)

Additionally, there is a generally accepted understanding that the capacity of attaining grandmaster status significantly diminishes with age -- particularly as the player gets beyond their mid-20s. This means that the child who naturally gravitates to the game at age 5 will have a tremendous head start and may have a realistic shot at becoming a grandmaster by age 20. From the time their brain was still forming important neural connections, their memory has been practicing the massive storage and retrieval exercises needed to play the game at the highest levels.

By comparison, someone who starts playing at age 25 is not likely, according to statistics, to become a grandmaster after 15, 20, or even 30 years of practice. That's not to say it can't happen; but it would be most unusual.

Blindfold Chess:

A somewhat more illustrative demonstration of memory power is blindfold chess. This doesn't mean the players actually wear blindfolds. Instead, one player is not allowed to see the board. The moves of the game must be maintained and updated mentally. Their opponent will usually sit in front of the board as in a traditional game. Moves are dictated verbally or in writing to and from the "blindfolded" player.

The ability to remember the constantly changing positions of 32 pieces on a 64-square board is difficult at best and an impressive show of memory; the talent to do this against more than one opponent is remarkable; and to win the games under these circumstances demonstrates a skill possessed by very few.

Philidor was one of the earliest and best-known blindfold players. He gave fairly regular exhibitions of blindfold chess, sometimes challenging (and defeating) three players at once! Many of his friends worried about his mental health and the strain this kind of chess would ultimately cause. Philidor wrote to his wife to dispel this nonsense: "I assure you this (blindfold) chess does not fatigue me as much as many people seem to believe. Therefore do not be worried about my health."

While waiting for Adolf Anderssen's arrival, Paul Morphy played against eight of the best players at the Café de la Régence. His secretary recounts: "Morphy stepped from the armchair in which he had been almost immovable for over ten consecutive hours, without having tasted a morsel of anything, even water, during the whole period; yet as fresh, apparently, as when he sat down." (The final score: Six wins, two draws for Morphy.)

These seem like impressive figures (and they are!) but they pale significantly when compared to more modern demonstrations of blindfold play against 20, 30, 40, or more opponents. Even though the idea of blindfold chess seems tremendously difficult, most grandmasters who dabble in exhibitions admit that it's mostly for show and not really much about chess.

The Eccentricities and Egos:

Morphy, Alekhine, Steinitz, Fischer. The list of eccentric chess masters could go on well beyond these four, and such bizarre behaviors no doubt continue in others. Chess seems to attract its share of interesting characters.

Morphy's strange behavior didn't begin until well after his competitive chess career ended. Steinitz and Alekhine displayed arrogant, pugnacious, and abysmally crude attitudes in many of their dealings with other people. Fischer's superego and reclusive demeanor (along with his incredible play) have won him status as a cult figure. (It must also be recognized that many superstars of chess are fine examples of polite comportment and manners. Morphy and Anderssen were known for their consideration and humility and Boris Spassky's reputation as a soft-spoken gentleman has been well documented.)

Chess, like most activities, requires narrowly focused concentration and a strong motivation in order to excel. The difference is that chess is entirely cerebral. It may be this characteristic of chess that allows people to become too focused on the game, while real life and real people fade into the background.

Of course the ego plays a big role for anyone attempting to be the "greatest human at whatever." On the one hand, if you don't believe in your own ability, you haven't a chance of success. On the other, egocentric people often lose chess partners faster than they gain them.

Naturally there are right and wrong ways of approaching the potential problem of an inflated ego. The right way adds a healthy dose of realism and humility; the wrong way denies both realism and humility and sees the goal of becoming a grandmaster as the end that will justify all means -- including egotistical or crude behavior.

Bobby Fischer's eccentricities were well known before he played Spassky in Iceland in 1972. His list of demands before he would play was staggering and almost comical, but he got the attention of the world like no chess player before him. Now many of his demands have carried through to the present day, making chess competitions better publicized, better attended, and more enjoyable for everyone involved.

Many consider chess a boring game. However, a second look into the background of the players -- the monumental preparation for grandmaster competition, and the intricacies of the game itself -- brings a new respect and interest. Egos? Of course. Eccentric behavior? By all means! Courtesy and civility? Well, two out of three ain't bad.

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