BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: Sci/Tech
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Wednesday, 8 August, 2001, 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK
Chess brains take it easy
Chess pieces, BBC
Grandmasters can recall thousands of past moves
By BBC News Online's Ivan Noble

Chess experts and chess amateurs use different parts of their brain when they play, scientists in Germany say.

Keep studying the games of grandmasters

Thomas Elbert
University of Constance
Professor Thomas Elbert, Ognjen Amidzic and colleagues at the University of Constance, Germany, used a new magnetic imaging technique to study chess players' brains in action.

They found that highly skilled chess grandmasters made more use of expert memory, apparently calling up chunks of remembered games, while amateurs made more use of an area called the medial temporal lobe, trying to analyse moves they had not seen before.

"We were very surprised by the results," Professor Elbert told BBC News Online.

Human vs computer

"We didn't expect such dramatic differences between experts and amateurs and we got two independent people to go over our calculations again," he said.

A chess grandmaster studies and practises for at least 10 years

University of Constance researchers
The results stood and are presented in the journal Nature.

The team tested 20 amateur and grandmaster chess players pitted against a chess computer.

Only the grandmasters were able to beat or even draw with the machine.

Practice makes perfect

Magnetic analysis of the players' brain activity showed that the amateur players' brains were working hard at encoding and analysing new information, taking it in and considering scenarios they had not encountered before. The grandmasters' brains on the other hand fell back on their experience.

"A chess grandmaster studies and practices for at least 10 years to learn more than 100,000 patterns (memory chunks)," the researchers wrote in Nature.

"Consequently, grandmasters can 'recognize' the key elements in a problem situation much more rapidly than amateur players," they wrote.

Board recall

Expert chess players have such a good memory for game positions that even when they are shown a board only briefly, they can usually recall the positions of a quarter of the pieces.

Amateurs average only around 5% correct recall.

But if the experts are shown randomly arranged pieces instead of real games, their performance drops to match the amateurs, Professor Elbert explained. His advice to would-be grandmasters is to start early.

"They have to keep studying the games of grandmasters," he said. "It's a bit like learning a language as a child. They have to acquire plenty of chunks.

"But knowing many words doesn't mean one can speak a language. The key is the way the chunks are networked together, and we speculate that this might be an inborn thing," he said.

See also:

31 Jul 01 | Europe
Chess champion to battle computer
05 Jun 01 | Europe
Kasparov sought for chess degree
29 Dec 00 | South Asia
Grand homecoming for chess hero
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Sci/Tech stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Sci/Tech stories