Two Biases (Finding Your Model, Part 1)

Don't try to copy other people's brains. Find how yours wants to work instead.

It’s a natural instinct of humankind to assume that the way our brain works is how everyone else’s brain works too. It takes an uncommon level of self-reflection and external observation to notice that isn’t the case.

The differences in how we think are becoming more understood in the modern era, but we’re very much still in the hangover phase.

Schools are affected by it. Researchers are affected by it. And Chess players are definitely affected by it.

Well-meaning teachers attempt to train a cognitive skill by telling the student to do a particular thing in their head or to think a particular way.

“This is how I do it, therefore this is the way to do it,” they reason.

The assumption is that the same way of thinking will work for everyone. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

I call this the top-down bias.

Those of us who considers ourselves lifelong learners operate under a different assumption. We look to the teachers, the ones with the skills, and we assume what they do is the “way to do it”. We try to copy them.

We figure the closer we can make our thoughts and actions to those of the masters, the better we’ll get.

I call this the bottom-up bias.

Most of the time, the biases serve us well. In most areas of Chess even, these biases serve us well.

The teacher teaches and the student learns and improves.

When it comes to opening theory, or endgame strategy, or many other parts of the game, we want to bring our thinking closer to that of the masters. That’s how we improve in those areas.

But there are some areas where these biases do far more harm than good.

Nowhere is this clearer to me than in the world of Chess conceptualization.

Here the two biases combine to produce devastating consequences for a large percentage of Chess players.

Many well-meaning Chess teachers assume the way they conceptualize must be the best/only way to conceptualize. It works for them, so it must be the way to do it. The top-down bias at work.

And we look up to them, ask them loads of questions, listen intently to their answers, and try to copy what they do. The bottom-up bias kicks in.

And when it doesn’t work for us, when we can’t “see the board in our mind” or “picture the position”, we assume we are the problem. We assume we’re stupid or that our brains are wrong for Chess, that we’ll never get better. We beat ourselves up.

“If I can’t do what the masters do, I’ll never improve!”

In most parts of Chess, copying the masters is a great way to go. But we can’t treat conceptualization like other parts of Chess. Because it’s fundamentally a different thing.

Chess conceptualization isn’t actually about Chess. It’s about cognition.

And because it’s about cognition, we need to work to what our brains naturally want to do. If we try and force our brains to conceptualize in a way that isn’t natural for us, we’ll burn huge amounts of effort for little to no return.

The biases run deep in discussions of conceptualization throughout Chess history, especially on the topic of blindfold Chess. There’s an idea that we need to see pictures in our head in order to do it- it’s even called “visualization” by most people.

Jacques Mieses demonstrated it well when he wrote in 1938:

“The most essential condition for blindfold chess is already present in every good chess player, namely his visual memory.” (emphasis mine)

These same assumptions about blindfold play have always applied to general Chess conceptualization as well.

Much of it can be traced back to the work of French psychologist, Alfred Binet. In his study of expert and master level blindfold Chess players in 1894, the last serious study of its kind, he concluded that the great blindfold players employ primarily an “abstract visual memory” of the position.

But even in his own data, there were discrepancies that Binet ignored.

Some of the strong players he surveyed reported a crisp, clear, non-abstract visual picture of the whole board at once. Others reported no visuals at all.

These responses were discounted in favor of the most common response, the abstract visual representation. In a few cases, most notably with Samuel Rosenthal, Binet even assumed the players in question were lying or exaggerating when they explained representations that conflicted with his conclusion.

Binet’s study is a powerful landmark, way ahead of its time, and worthy of deep respect, but with the benefit of another 130 years of psychology study under our belts, we can see some holes in it.

Alexander Alekhine noticed some of those holes himself when he wrote in a 1931 article:

“The work by Binet is well known. However, he wrote nearly 40 years ago and his conclusions reveal an insufficient knowledge of the subject.”

We know from some of Alekhine’s other writings that he used very few visuals in his own conceptualization model, instead relying mainly on his “logical memory”, his verbal understanding of the story of the position.

That’s quite different to Binet’s “abstract visual memory”. On this point alone, Alekhine may have suspected something was off.

In 1958, famous player-turned-psychologist Reuben Fine conceded that non-visual models were possible but remained skeptical as to their effectiveness. He wrote:

“Theoretically, it is possible to play blindfold chess without visualization, merely by remembering all the moves. This requires such a prodigious feat of memory that I have met only one person who has played several games simultaneously in that way.”

20 years before Fine wrote that, one of the greatest blindfold players we’ve ever seen, George Koltanowski, set a world record for playing 34 blindfold games at once without using any mental pictures at all. He relied instead on his memory of the moves in exactly the way Fine advises against.

Koltanowski claimed no more difficulty in remembering positions than did any other player who achieved similar feats. (No, the “one person” Fine mentions wasn’t Koltanowski.)

What Fine missed is simply that it would take a “prodigious feat of memory” for him to conceptualize that way. Just as Koltanowski would have had serious problems trying to keep track of things with pictures in his head, Fine could not do without them.

They simply did it in different ways. Both valid. Neither better than the other.

It’s not just the non-visual thinkers that were left out by Binet’s conclusions and the traditional idea of visualization. It’s also the hyper-visual thinkers.

In 1986, renowned American Grandmaster Andrew Soltis wrote that “nobody sees 64 squares and 32 pieces at the one time.” (emphasis mine)

This caught the attention of Chessmaster and journalist, Val Zemitis, who had been close friends with the recently deceased Grandmaster Fritz Samisch.

Zemitis wrote to Soltis, claiming that Samisch had seen the entire board in full detail in his head at once, and had used his hyper-visual model to play blindfold exhibitions of up to 16 games at once!

In my conversations with FIDE Master and Twitch streamer Lefong Hua, I discovered he also sees the whole board in full color and detail in his head at once.

There is nothing “abstract” about the visuals Samisch and Hua use in their heads. And they do/did just fine in their Chess.

There’s not just one way to do it. It all comes down to the preferred thinking styles of our unique brains.

Different strokes for different folks.

The conceptualization models of strong players, what they do in their heads, and what they recommend we should do in ours, should be nothing more than data-points for us.

They’re certainly not useless. They help us think about our own models, give us examples of what works for other people. They might even give us a new perspective or a tweak we hadn’t considered.

But we can’t start building our model by trying to copy someone else’s. That’s a road to frustration.

Our minds are all different. We all think in different ways. We need to find what works for us.

In this 5-part series (of which this is first part), I will help you find what works for you.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll help you take steps toward finding your own conceptualization model. A way to navigate your mental Chessboard that’s aligned with your brain. Visual, non-visual, whatever.

First, I’ll take you through the modern research into Visual and Verbal thinking and how it applies to our Chess conceptualization. Then we’ll explore the newer research that identifies two distinct kinds of visual thinkers (that’s my favorite bit- it’s fascinating!).

In the last two parts, we’ll go through a process I use with all my coaching clients to build on your brain’s natural strengths and start to develop your ideal conceptualization model.

There’s going to be a LOT in here. Strap in.

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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