The Art of the Choke

I just finished Sian Beilock’s Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. Judging from her accolades on the cover the author is obviously an esteemed scientist. Too bad her book is essentially a wearisome literature review. It has almost no interpretation in it. Beilock does talk a little about chess, but is too devoted to a meaningless recapitulation of old studies. Here’s a breakdown of what she says.

An efficient working memory is a good indicator of overall chess aptitude. You can give a master a position from an actual game and he or she will easily be able to recreate it on a blank chess board. Novices often fumble at the same task. The reason for the disparity is the the NMs and FMs process the board in manageable chunks. For example: “The h-pawn has moved and the bishop is on f4. It’s got to be a London system.”

The titled player will remember the board’s specific features because he or she will be able to fit them into a scheme. The knight is normally on d2 in the London System, as above. The Master would most certainly see this as a “chunk” related to the overall position. If the knight went to the c3 square instead he would have registered that cluster of the board as a chunk with a weak d pawn (since the c pawn is still at home.)

So should you despair if you can’t keep disparate information in your head without losing it seconds later? Not necessarily. Masters fare little better than less-experienced players when trying to memorize made-up positions. Chess Masters are not always smarter than class players, but they do muster their resources admirably and efficiently. This is why they can immediately seize upon the important feature of a position. Much of what registers in our brain during a game of chess does not actually need to be there. This process of paring down is possible for any player to master.

When you plan, try to keep your memory from being overloaded. Break the board down into sectors and analyze each in turn. You’ll start putting your brain under less pressure and foster those conceptual ideas that separate the titled players from the everyone else.


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