Mad Libs Has the Right Idea (Mad Libs, Part 1)

What fill-in-the-blank stories teach us about Chess psychology.

Let me tell you a tale.

It was a heavy, cold November day. I woke up to the beautiful smell of owl roasting in the laundry downstairs. I deserted down the stairs it see if I could help swim the dinner. My mom said, “See if Steve needs a fresh bank.” So I carried a tray of glasses full of juice into the sliding room. When I got there, I couldn’t believe my toes! There were animals dashing on the cup!

It’s a weird tale, I admit.

My brother’s lovely partner, Sally, and I wrote it in about a minute using Mad Libs.

Mad Libs never made it to Australia. At least not when I was a kid.

I remember hearing about it in a TV show or something and Googling to find out what it was.

For those that don’t know, Mad Libs is a way to create stories using templates.

The template gives you 90% of the story. It’s standard. It’s predictable. It makes sense.

At different spots in that template, you have to fill in the blank using a prompt.

And how you answer those prompts changes the story.

But the person answering the prompts can’t see the template, so has no context for their answers.

The stories get wacky.

When I discovered Mad Libs in school, I spent a good few days running my friends through them.

I’ve always liked storytelling. Mad Libs’ novel approach appealed to me at the time.

I loved how small changes could create contrasting stories that still operated from the same basic frame.

It’s no surprise the series is still going strong after more than 60 years!

And, they’re surprisingly relevant for us now.

Mad Libs can teach us a lot about Chess.

Specifically, how our brains work when engaging with a position.

And what the purpose of studying openings is.

(Spoiler alert: it’s not memorizing 25-move sequences that’ll never actually occur.)

The insights it gives us are fascinating.

We’ll get into the really juicy bits of it next week in Part Two of this mini-series.

But today, let’s lay some necessary groundwork.

Psychological studies have shown that the human brain has a few key limits in cognition.

One such limit is that brains can only hold 7 pieces of information in our short-term memory at once.

That’s an average – some people get about 9, others about 5.

It’s an idea I’ve heard in my self-development reading over the years. But I never thought to apply it to Chess before.

If we try and push beyond that limit, we face overwhelm and fuzziness.

Therein lies a problem:

We can hold 7 things in our heads; there are 32 pieces on a Chessboard.

One of those numbers is bigger than the other.

So how can we hold entire boards in our head?

In 1973, two researchers by the names of Herbert Simon and William Chase proposed an answer.

They proposed that we use mental chunks to track this information.

Instead of remembering where every individual piece is, we remember chunks of pieces.

I’ll give you an example.

Take a second and picture a kingside castle for White in your head.

Got it?

I’ll bet that you don’t need to remember that there’s a King on g1, and pawns on f2, g2, and h2.

You just picture “kingside castle” and where it sits on the board.

You’re using 1 chunk instead of 4.

Each chunk we hold in our head can hold other information as well.

They can hold ideas, plans, concepts, tactics.

That picture in your head of a kingside castle doesn’t only hold piece locations.

You also recognize that the kingside castle chunk is vulnerable to back-rank mates.

That idea is an extra detail, built into the chunk.

The more we experience particular patterns, the more detail gets added to our chunks.

The cool part is that our brain starts making these chunks by itself when forced to.

It’s one of the reasons why visualization training with the Don’t Move Training System works as well as it does.

It forces our brains to start identifying chunks and adding detail to them. (I love it when the science backs up my crazy ideas!)

Simon and Chase theorized that Chess masters have memorized over 50,000 chunks in detail.

That’s a ridiculous number.

Don’t worry. We don’t need anywhere near that amount for our purposes.

We only need a tiny fraction of that number to see real results.

And we get to dictate to a large degree which chunks are going to matter to us. Which ones we need to learn.

That’s because there’s a problem with Simon and Chase’s theory. One that implies fantastic things for us.

And the answer lies with Mad Libs.

We’ll get to that next week, I promise.

For now, a little homework.

To take full advantage of this, you need to start noticing how your brain works.

As you’re playing, studying, or training your visualization this week, try to take notice of what chunks you’re building.

Use quiet moments in your day to picture Chess positions in your head. Which chunks make up that position for you?

Are there any chunks that you see often that you might want to add detail to?

The first step to optimizing your Chess brain is to notice what it’s already doing.

Take notes whenever you notice something.

Spend this week noticing how your mental board is holding Chess information.

It will help. A lot.

Then next week I’ll show you what you can do with it.

Until then.

About the author

Aiden Rayner writes about how to make the adult brain better at Chess. Using science-backed insights, he works to change the narratives around adult improvement, and help adults discover the power of their Chess brains.

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