The Psychology of Chess

By Charness, Neil | The Journal of Mind and Behavior, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

The Psychology of Chess


Charness, Neil, The Journal of Mind and Behavior


The Psychology of Chess. Fernand Gobet. London and New York: Routledge, 2019, 126 pages, $10.69 paperback.

This slim volume provides an informative and entertaining look at the psychology of chess from someone who is uniquely positioned to comment from the point of view of both a researcher and a high caliber player. Fernand Gobet has had a long, highly successful career as a researcher studying expertise in chess, among other topics. He also reached the International Master (IM) level as a chess player before apparently deciding that studying chess as an academic would be a better career path than trying to become a professional player. The research community is indeed grateful for that choice. Gobet has had the benefit of rubbing shoulders not only with some of the world's top chess players, but also with a Nobel-prize winning scientist, Herbert Simon, who was instrumental in initiating the modern experimental study of chess expertise with his colleague William Chase. Gobet has also collaborated with one of the early, towering giants of chess research, Adriaan de Groot, a Dutch psychologist whose doctoral dissertation written during World War II on Thought and Choice in Chess (1946/1978) helped uncover some of the primary phenomena about chess search processes and chess perception that are still being elaborated on by today's researchers. Gobet's insights into both research and practice have generated a very readable account of the psychological processes underlying expertise in chess.

The book is intended for a broad audience. Primary targets are early scholars, such as undergraduate students, who may be interested in seeing principles of cognitive psychology applied to understanding the underpinnings of chess expertise. An obvious next group is chess players looking to be better informed about potential ways to improve their own performance. Last, but not least, are the general readers who simply enjoy learning about research puzzles concerning expert performance, a field popularized by authors such as Malcolm Gladwell with his best-selling book Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), and others such as Ericsson and Pool with their book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (2016). Thus, the book is quite accessible, in line with the goals of the "Psychology of Everything" series.

The book should also be an excellent primer for researchers who want to delve into this specific area of chess expertise. As a former active researcher in the field, I was able to learn a few new things too, and the book is written in a very comprehensible style for those with no research background, no small accomplishment for a writer whose native language was not English. The attempt to address practical issues for those wanting to improve their own chess play will be appreciated by many players. Bottom line: sadly, there doesn't seem to be any quick road to mastery, as others such as K. Ander Ericsson have also argued. Even for those willing to entertain the notion of chess talent, a still poorly defined construct, it appears that significant amounts of hard work honing one's knowledge about the game are going to be necessary to move into the upper echelons. A virtue of this book is in pointing out the great individual differences in "deliberate practice" needed to reach various performance levels.

There is obviously a lot more research required to understand the mechanisms underlying such individual differences. Perhaps the book will inspire the next generation of researchers to track down those mechanisms, including understanding brain mechanisms now within the grasp of neuroscience approaches such as fMRI and EEG recording of brain processes. …

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