Richard G. Petty, MD

More on Chess and the Mind

After my last article about some of the things that one can learn from chess, a blogger in Australia added “patience” to my list. And he is quite right. Except that I have, sad to say, never mastered the art of patience. It’s a character flaw. Maybe I would have had more success at the Royal Game if I had been just a bit more patient. I suppose a few extra IQ points might have helped too…

There is a nice article on Susan Polgar’s blog : Susan is the oldest of three remarkable Hungarian sisters who were trained to be geniuses from early childhood by their father László Polgár. She now lives in New York, and she is an International Chess Grandmaster who also happens to be fluent in seven languages. She is doing a great deal to promote the enormous benefits of chess, particularly in the United States. Clearly the sisters had “good genes,” but it is inspiring to see what can be done for youngsters if they are exposed to a highly enriched environment early in life. But there is something else to the Polgar story. Despite the stereotype that over-education might lead people to be unbalanced eggheads, all three have turned out to be remarkably normal and charming young women with children of their own. One sister – Judit – is the highest rated female chess player of all time, and the third sister – Sofia – is an International Master living in Israel.

The normalcy of the sisters is in stark contrast to the situation of many children that I have seen in Japan, who are already having extra tuition in Kindergarten. Scholastic failure is a recognized cause of suicide in Japan, and the Japanese actually have a word for death from overwork: Karoshi.

I wish Susan well in her efforts to promote chess, but I would also love her to share with the world how she and her sisters managed the balancing act of marrying extreme intellectual development with normal emotional and interpersonal relationships. That is in many ways even more remarkable than the sisters’ extraordinary accomplishments.

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Chess and the Mind

I have a confession to make: I have been a life long chess enthusiast, and I can’t start the day without visiting the best chess website on the internet. We are currently almost half way through the second major tournament of the year: the same one at which the incomparable Garry Kasparov announced his retirement last year.

Chess is not just a pastime. There is evidence that it is one of the ways in which we can improve the thinking abilities of young people and prevent the downward slide of our minds as we get older.

In the United Kingdom, studies have shown an astonishing correlation between the academic attainments of schools and the success of their chess teams. Year after year, the schools with the most successful teams send more of their students to top universities, compared with schools that do not play the game or have weak teams. During the Second World War many of the geniuses working at Bletchley Park who cracked the Enigma Code, were outstanding chess players.

For a long time now big business has been recruiting high-level chess players into particular positions that require their unusual skills. It tells you something when you see a major corporation placing advertisements for executives in chess magazines. Chess helps develop memory, concentration, visualization, decision-making, and sharpens our analytical and strategic thinking. It can even help make us more creative and more imaginative. Tournament players have to have a good degree of self-knowledge, and some grasp of psychology is a must. I have won more than one tournament game because of my ability to read the body language and intentions of an opponent. It is no surprise that a good many strong chess players are doing extremely well playing online poker. Chess really is a microcosm of life in general.

“Life is like a game of chess: we draw up a plan; this plan, however, is conditional on what – in chess, our opponent – in life, our fate – will choose to do.” –Arthur Schopenhauer (German Philosopher, 1788-1860)

The chess master Bruce Pandolfini was portrayed – and had a brief cameo – in the film Searching for Bobby Fischer. He has written a nice little book called Every Move Must Have a Purpose, about applying chess strategies in business and life, and next month will see the eagerly awaited publication of a similar book by the master himself, Garry Kasparov.

Here are some principles that I have learned from chess, and that I apply to health, life and business:

  • When confronted with any kind of a problem, try to break it down into small manageable chunks, and if you can’t, learn to use and to trust your intuition. (Have a look at my post on Unconscious Processing and Intuition)
  • Constantly ask questions: Why is this happening? Is there a pattern here? What does the other person intend? How can I fashion a response that fits and will move things in the direction that I want and is congruent with my overall plan of life? What are the rules here? Can I break the rules? This does not mean cheating, it means being sure that you are not applying rules mechanically, without checking to make sure that they apply in your particular situation.
  • Always work to a clear plan. Even if the plan is not correct, it will always be better than the efforts of someone who has no plan at all. It is fine to “go with the flow,” after you have won the game!
  • Be constantly on the lookout for opportunities and if there aren’t any, create them!
  • As in life, chess demands action. You will succeed at nothing by sitting and waiting for success to come to you.
  • A game of chess, like the game of life demands one move after another. The successful person is one who makes each move to the very best of their ability. As Willard J. Marriott said: “It’s the little things that make the big things possible. Only close attention to the fine details of any operation makes the operation first class.”
  • Have absolute integrity in everything that you do. Be honest with other people and be honest with yourself. If you say that you are going to do something, do it. If you commit to a plan, do not stop until it is complete.
  • Coordinate all of your resources. In chess, it is impossible to win unless all the pieces are coordinated. You can destroy everything that you’ve worked for by having a piece adrift on the far side of the board, with nothing to do.
  • If you have any weakness, make it your business to convert them into strengths.
  • Don’t exceed your own capacity by over-extending yourself.
  • Resilience is an extremely important attribute that we all need to develop: things do not always go according to plan, and when they do not, it is important to be able to bounce back quickly.
  • Learn not to be over-awed by challenges. Many people defeat themselves with faulty expectations. I once had a trainer who was an extremely fine player. In one tournament he was in with a chance of winning serious money, but in the last round he was drawn against a Russian grandmaster. I saw him before the game: shoulders hunched over, hyperventilating and a scowl on his face. Play began with a variation that my coach and I had analyzed five days earlier, and he had shown me what not to play. In the game against the Russian he played the very move that he had just told me was a critical mistake! He lost in just a few moves. Not because the Russian beat him, but because he beat himself.

“A mountain is composed of tiny grains of earth. The ocean is made up of tiny drops of water. Even so, life is but an endless series of little details, actions, speeches, and thoughts. And the consequences whether good or bad of even the least of them are far-reaching.” — Sri Swami Sivananda (Indian Physician and Spiritual Teacher, 1887-1963)

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Unconscious Processing and Intuition

There is a very interesting paper in this week’s Journal Science. It is from a group working at the University of Amsterdam, and their findings are likely to turn one branch of psychology upside down. Let me explain the importance of this work, and how you can start to apply it in your own life.

What the researchers did was to divide their subjects into two groups. In the first experiment the subjects had to decide on a favorite car. One group used a conscious, intellectual reasoning approach and the other group was distracted with puzzles to keep their conscious minds busy before making the decision. When there were only four things to factor into the choice, the intellectuals did better. But when they had to choose on the basis of 12 factors the people using conscious decision-making did much worse than the people who had to make an immediate decision based on unconscious thought processes. In the second experiment shoppers were asked about their satisfaction with items that they had bought. People who bought on the basis of conscious deliberation were much happier with their choices of simple items, while the “unconscious” shoppers preferred their choices of more complex items.

Why is this so important? Since the Enlightenment, science has emphasized the benefits of conscious deliberation in decision-making, and has tended to look down on the whole notion of unconscious thought. Yet this study adds to the growing body of evidence that not only can people think unconsciously, but that for complex decisions, unconscious thought is actually superior. Conscious thought is like a bright torchlight that can only illuminate a few things at a time, and that can lead to some aspects of a problem being given undue attention.

This report supports something that many of us have been teaching for some time. Too much conscious deliberation can actually be counter-productive. Effective thinking needs us to get all the information necessary to make a decision. Then, if we are dealing with a simple decision use conscious thought. But if the decision is complex, it is best left to unconscious thought; in effect to sleep upon it. The answer then tends to appear very suddenly.

There is a secret about the way in which a great deal of progress is made: Most of the major advances in physics have come not from logical progression, but from mystical revelation: Albert Einstein and the theory of relativity, Max Planck and quantum theory, Erwin Schrödinger and wave mechanics, the list is a long one. The great Welsh mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell once said of Einstein, that the problem in understanding him was not a difficulty with his logic, but with Einstein’s imagination. He was able to let his mind go to places that others could not, and it came back with answers that nobody else could have conceived of. There is evidence that while most chess players spend virtually all of their time trying to calculate, strong players rely on unconscious processes for most of the game, and only calculate for short periods when their unconscious mind tells them too. There is even evidence from brain imaging studies that average players activate all the cognitive areas of the frontal lobes while playing, with some temporal lobe activity as they try to remember their lessons. By contrast, a chess master uses many regions of his brain at once, and only occasionally activates parts of his frontal lobes when calculation is required.

What this means for us is that we must not be afraid to turn complex problems over to our unconscious minds. I have also spent a great deal of time training people to get used to using their intuition, for this is really one aspect of what we are talking about here. In my book Healing, Meaning and Purpose, I have several sections on developing your intuition.

When you start learning to turn problems over to your unconscious mind, one of the most difficult things is to know when to trust it. So here are some tips:

1. Once you have an answer, now is the time to use your conscious mind to see if the answer that you’ve come up with makes sense.

2. Learn to trust yourself. That may take a little time, but if you have a problem with trusting yourself, you have something tangible to work on.

3. Always be certain that you are prepared to hear whatever answers you receive.

4. Use your intuition to evaluate your intuitions: does the answer “feel” right?

5. Don’t force the process: conscious deliberation follows a linear time scale, unconscious thinking does not; so let insights come in their own time.

6. Always promise yourself that you will take action on any decisions that you make. Your brain and mind will not likely be very cooperative if you ignore the fruits of your unconscious thinking!

“There is no such thing as a logical method of having new ideas…. Every great discovery contains an irrational element of creative intuition.” –Sir Karl Popper (Austrian-born British Philosopher, 1902-1994)

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