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Monday, December 10, 2012

The Science of Chess: Moving to the (heart) beat

Recently a team of researchers published an article (PDF format) in which they monitored the heart rate of Chess players during a game (Aptly titled The tell-tale heart: heart rate fluctuations index objective and subjective events during a game of chess. Published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2012, Vol 6, No 273). 

The same authors of that study have summarized their work for chessbase news in a report also aptly titled: "Psychology: The Heart of Chess". Naturally, I was interested, as I have posted before about the intersection of science of chess and I check PubMed occasionally for such work (although I must have missed this particular study).

Picture reposted (with modifications) from Chessbase. I do not own the rights to the above picture (or for that matter, any of the pictures used in this post).

The article is interesting and thought provoking. There have been many studies that examined some psychological or mental aspect of the game, but there are much fewer (to my knowledge) that studied the physiological manifestations of a chess player's mind. As the article reminds us, Chess is fertile ground for studying all of these phenomenon. 

What did you think of the article? Select 'Read More' to see my full opinion. Please share your thoughts in the comment box below!

Let's Get Critical

Hopefully, this work will inspire others to expand this study, which to me seems somewhat limited. My biggest disappointment came when I discovered the sample size was only about 2 dozen games, played by an even smaller number of players. How, I wonder, can the authors generalize about the effect a blunder, or a particular type of position, has on a chess player when such a small number of games are studied? As the article itself points out, the game of Chess is incredibly rich. Therefore, I would suspect a equally rich set of data (or at least more than 25 games), in order to be able to control for some other aspects of a position.

Figure 2C from the aforementioned article

For example, the difference in heart rate between regular and blundering moves (Figures 2C & 2D) is based off of a limited number of positions. It seems interesting that when a Player is about to move, their heart rate appears to drop right before the move is played. The exception to this is the blunder. Does the player therefore subconsciously know they are about to blunder? This seems far fetched; more likely, the blunder comes on moves in which the Player is under pressure or comes after considerable deliberation. Perhaps this manifests as a move that is played without conviction (The player is somewhat unsure the decision is correct; this doesn't always result in a blunder, but in this would argue all blunders result from hesitant decisions).

A larger set of positions, and perhaps better classification of a blunder (a complete oversight, a difficult move in a difficult position, etc) would allow the underlying cause for the apparent premonition to be found. 

Figure 1A from the aforementioned article

I also had a difficult time understanding Figure 1A; why is the Player consistently playing slower than what is presumably well matched opposition? Are the opponents possibly of a different strength? Or do the players chosen not normally play online, and thus may be more deliberative and more accustomed to the pace of a slow tournament game? If the answers to these questions are contained within the article, then I must apologize for my error in overlooking them.

Another question the chess player might ask of this work is if will serve them in anyway the next time they sit down at the board. The answer is likely no, unless they are skilled at reading physical cues from their opponent (or are constantly monitoring their opponent's pulse). On the other hand, even in an online game (in which the opponent's physical state is immaterial and unknown), the knowledge gained from this research might make a chess player more conscious of the interplay between their own thoughts and their physical state. Perhaps this will prompt some pawn-pushers to practice steadying their heart rate, to allow them to remain calm and objective in tense situations (read: less blunders). 

The post-game questionnaire at the end of the article (which is written in both English and Spanish, if I am not mistaken) may be useful for any chess player to fill out as part of a post-mortem. Such post-game record keeping is probably a good idea for any player, and I have heard it recommended as a effective way to improve several aspects of one's game. At the least, the questionnaire found in the appendix should serve as inspiration for a more customized one you, dear reader, can create.

Overall, I enjoyed the article, despite what might be a limited utility. It was a quick read, and easy to scan without getting bogged down in jargon. At the very least, heart rate is a physiological parameter that is easy for anybody to grasp (even a molecular biologist like myself). Apparently, heart rate itself can grasp the situation on the chess board, at least in broad terms.

If you haven't already, I suggest you read the original article. After you do, I'd love to hear what you thought about it. Please leave your comment below!

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