The Cognitive Psychology of Chess

  • billwall
  • | Jun 21, 2010

Dr. Fernand Gobet is a professor of Cognitive Psychology and an International Master.  He is a former Swiss Junior Champion and Swiss Champion, and was co-editor of the Swiss Chess Review from 1981 to 1989.  He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the memories of a chess player.  He has written many books and articles about chess and psychology.  He has been studying many aspects of chess psychology such as mental imagery, pattern recognition, and study and playing patterns of chess players.

 After studying hundreds of chess players, Gobet has found a strong correlation between the number of hours chess players have dedicated to chess (deliberate practice) and their current rating.  In one study of 104 players (101 males and 3 females), including 39 untitled players without any rating, 39 untitled players with ratings , 13 FIDE masters (FM), 10 International Masters (IM), and 3 GMs, he found that the unrated players reported and average of 8,303 hours of dedication to chess; the rated but untitled players reported 11,715 hours; the FMs reported 19,618 hours and the IMs reported 27,929  hours (no information on GMs).   It took an average of 11,000 hours to reach 2200.  One player needed around 3,000 hours to reach 2200, while another player spent more than 23,000 hours to achieve the same level. 

 The average master (rated 2257) had 7.0 years of serious practice.  The average expert (2174) had 1.03 years of serious practice.  The masters increased their rating an average of 7 Elo points per year of serious practice, whereas the experts only increased their rating an average of 1 Elo point per year of serious practice.  Experts increased their chess-playing skill level very little with time, whereas masters kept increasing theirs.

In Gobet’s survey, 83% of the players reported playing blitz, 80% had a coach at some point, 67% used databases (game databases, but not playing programs), 66% played against chess programs; 56% followed chess games without using a chessboard, 23% played blindfold games.  Stronger players were more likely to have a coach, use databases, and played blitz. 

Stronger players also tended to own more chess books (and read them) than weaker players.  As an individual activity, reading chess books was the most important predictor of chess skill.  For group activity, coaching and speed games were the most significant predictors of chess skill, but less a predictor with age.

Dr. Gobet also found that group practice (including tournament games) was a better predictor of high-level performance than individual practice.

It has been shown that non-professional players who started playing chess at a young age, show interest and commitment to chess until the late teens.  This is when the amount of time devoted to chess peaks (about age 18).  After this, players start work or attend university and/or get married, which reduces the time spent playing chess.  By the mid-30s, when family and work issues are more stable, non-professional chess players return to the game and play more frequently.

Gobet showed that there was a clear indication that the first three years of serious chess practice at early ages are much more advantageous than the first three years of serious practice at later ages.    Most masters became serious about chess between 10 and 12.  Most experts became serious about chess around 14.

One important role in chess skill is pattern recognition (vs. the ability to search through the problem space).  Through years of practice and study, masters have learnt several hundred thousands of perceptual chess patterns (called chunking).  When one of these patterns is recognized in a particular position, the master then has rapid access to information such as potential moves or move sequences, tactics, and strategies.  This explains automatic and intuitive discovery of good moves by a master, as well as extraordinary memory for game-like chess positions.

Search functions at a chess board, including the number of candidate moves visited and the depth of search, may not differ between masters and amateurs, according to De Groot (1946, 1978).  His findings were that Grandmasters do not search reliable deeper than amateurs.  However, other studies (Holding 1989) show that strong players really do search deeper than weaker players.  Holding argued that De Groot’s experiment wasn’t good enough to detect existing differences between Grandmasters and amateurs. 

In 1990, Saariluoma studied the search function of top players and suggested the International Masters and Grandmasters sometimes search less than master chess players.  In tactical positions, he found that masters with a 2200 Elo rating looked at 52 nodes and at the largest depth of 5.1 moves.  By comparison, the IM and GM searched, on average, 23 nodes with an average depth of 3.6 moves.

Data from speed chess and simultaneous chess, show that limitations in thinking time do not impair chess master performance.  Chess masters seem to be more highly selective of their moves and direct their attention rapidly to good moves.  Grandmasters do not look at a lot of continuations of the game before choosing a move.  It seems that chunking, recognition of known chess patterns, plays a key role in a master’s ability to play fast and accurate.

So do strong players rely more on analyzing various alternatives, or do they rely on recognizing familiar chess patterns in the situation?  Do chess players put most of their emphasis on their analytic skills or on building up a huge knowledge base in their heads?  Perhaps it is a combination of search skills and pattern recognition.

In 1986, Gobet tried to replicate De Groot’s 1946 experiment of Grandmaster vs. amateur examination of chess positions.  Gobet was able to test four IMs, eight masters, and a total of 48 Swiss chess players on a series of chess quizzes in which the goal was to find the best move for White, without moving the pieces, with thinking time limited to 30 minutes

Both pattern recognition and search models predict that strong players choose better moves, that they select  moves faster, and that they generate more nodes in one minute.  Gobet showed that the first prediction was met, but the second and third were supported only weakly.  Search models predict that strong players search more nodes and search deeper.  The first prediction was not met, but the second was in that the difference lies in the average depth of search, not in the maximal depth of search.  Finally, pattern recognition models predict that strong players mention fewer base moves, reinvestigate more often the same move, and jump less often between different moves.  All these predictions were met.

Gobet showed that another possible predictor of chess skill might be the starting age.  The average age at which players of each group started playing seriously was the following:  non-rated players – 18.6 years; rated players – 14.2 years; FMs – 11.6 years; IMs – 10.3 years; GMs (small sample) – 11.3 years.  Almost all the players with titles started playing seriously no later than age 12. 

Becoming a master requires training activities that go beyond the type of repetitive and feedback-informed activities typically emphasized in earlier days.  Chess theory and computer technology has changed the ways chess players prepare for their games.  Masters try to memorize opening variations with the aid of chess databases, they investigate opening positions to find novelties to surprise their opponents, and they play tournament or training games against other players, or on the Internet, or against strong chess computer programs.

Dr. Gobet has also looked into the personalities of chess players.  Studies have found that adult chess players are more introverted and intuitive than the general population.  However, it is the more energetic and extraverted children that are more likely to play chess.  These children are, in general, more likely to try out activities such as chess than their less extraverted peers.  Children players who were stronger in chess than their peers were more curious, had broader intellectual and cultural interests, and were more accomplished in school than children who were weaker chess players.

In addition, stronger players also tend to me more intuitive than weaker ones.  Chess players also scored higher than non-players on the measures of orderliness and unconventional thinking.

Another consideration in chess thinking is the effect of ageing among chess players.  Studies have shown that in memory tasks where positions are briefly presented, for the same skill level, younger players recalled chess positions better than older players.  In spite of producing worse performance than younger players of the same skill level in memory tasks, older players performed equally well in problem solving tasks where they had to chose the best move, and that they were also faster at choosing their move. 

In 1894, Alfred Binet carried out the first study on the mental abilities of chess masters.  In 1903, he was the first psychologist to develop an intelligence test.  He devised the Intelligence Quotent (IQ) tests, where the intelligence score was the quotient of mental age to physical age.

In 1927, three Russian psychologists (Djakow, Petrowski and Rudik) studied eight of the best grandmasters of the time.  The players included Emanuel Lasker, Richard Reti, Savielly Tartakower, Carlos Torre, Peter Romanovsky, Ernst Gurenfeld, and Rudolf Spielmann.  They did not find any differences with a control sample on general intelligence or visuo-spatial memory, with the exception of memory tasks where the material to be recalled was closely related to chess. 

After a century of investigation, not a single study with adult chess players has managed to establish a link between chess skill and intelligence.  Intellect had little predictive power among strong chess players. 


  • 4 years ago



    Interesting, but I've always wondered about psychology and preferences: What personality characteristics or other aptitudes parallelled, for example, a preference of Knight over Bishop or e4 over d4?

    Preference for either Knight or Bishop isn't necessarily based off psychological inclination--though, it certainly can be-- but more so a situational choice. A stronger chess player will choose the piece according to the position of the game. In chess you want to always have any advantage, whether that means trading off bishops, knights, or in more dramatic encounters a queen. Objectivity is vital to play at the best level. Of course you may like the idea of the piece more so than the other, but a preference for one during a game will limit your play.

    A cunning mind might prefer d4 and a knight, and a more aggressive a bishop and e4. So I've heard at least...

  • 4 years ago


    Interesting, but I've always wondered about psychology and preferences: What personality characteristics or other aptitudes parallelled, for example, a preference of Knight over Bishop or e4 over d4?

  • 4 years ago


    best move

  • 4 years ago


    Good article, so ,my late in life surge to the top is futile? learnt to play badly at 9, at 20 could put up a good fight against other non experienced players, now at 31 , Im finally hitting the books an absorbing as much knowledge an games my ADD mind can take, even within a month my game is improving ten-fold unfortunately i hear the prime age for success is 35 to 40 which means i have 4 years to really excell before its all down hill, my dream, of being the oldest player to recieve GM title seems fancyful, turns out i may have a psychological obsession with the game which years of self inflicted addictive qualities has made Chess the reason i breathe, Iv spent the last couple of years developing a variation which is esoterically inspired . In my many sleepness nights bordering insanity, It recently became apparent to me that the amount of over analysing which i'v developed as a by product to my variations if channelled towards actually studying Chess in all its history opening theory Classical an modern theory an just repetitive sequencing i may actually develop into a competitive player, if non of these ideas fully come to plan thats ok, iv channelled my obsessive analytical mind into a positive direction as opposed to far flung ideas which as much as i'd like to believe would tear a whole in the space time continuum will most likely put me away in a loony bin./ So Im humbled with my late development, at least now i have a concept of development an with this knowledge i can now create and build abrighter future. there's far worse hobbies regardless of its obsessive qualities, The art of conflict continues to evolve an soon concepts such as esoteric theory may emerge from the fluctuating creative psyche

  • 5 years ago


    Chess can also be related to psychology when in a tournament when the players are both staring at the chess board and at the same table (not online), it's all a matter of keeping a poker face. When I was inexperienced I would show my emotions when I blundered.

  • 5 years ago


    very intrestingSealed

  • 5 years ago


    Chess involves mental analysis; even examining chess,or anything else involves our analytical effort. Unravelling the world is what we do, and it can be very wearing.

    That is why we need sometimes to bathe ourselves in the non-analytical such as music which soothes the weary searching soul. For we are more than logical machines and we need inner peace and harmony to refuel our humanity.

  • 5 years ago


    Great article...

    As many of us wonder how good or bad chess is for you...

    most of us know it is addictive (your non chess playing spouses/parteners would confirm it).

    The article gives an insight to - "where we are and what to expect from our chess years to come"

    However I guess opinions stated may be biased as the writer himself is a chess player and  a non chess playing writer might compare it with a game of cards of sorts.

    Having said that... we love chess and nothing compares to it.

  • 5 years ago


    I believe many, but by no means all, of those who "peak" and see little progress past a certain point, no matter the amount of preparation and practice, are falling victim, primarily, to themselves.  They can not effectively deal with the stress which competition, even against a computer or a correspondence game, evokes inside them.  

    He (unfortunately, "he" is me) sees his blunders the second his sweaty hand has been removed from the piece.  His pulse increaes as the positions get more complicated. Teeth are clinched. The very light in the room is a distraction.  There's a voice in his pounding head; it keeps whispering ""  The analog clock mercilessly ticks on and on and on as the once-focused chess-player's attention now has directed itself helplessly toward his new opponent. He gazes at it's minute hand and notices it's fraction-of-a-millimeter advancement toward impending doom.  He is transfixed by it.  


    But Hey! It's a fun game! Laughing 

  • 5 years ago


    good stuff.Smile

  • 5 years ago


    well now i know how many hours i need to study.... :D

  • 5 years ago


    I started playing chess at the age of 6. But not seriously. Untill the age of 12 I played regularely with my classmates. But then there was a pause untill the 18. At this age around a year I played with a friend. Then... another pause untill the age of 23. I played with another friend in the university. And that´s it. Now I have a rating of around 1000 here at I have a good memory (I think).

    My point is: The starting age is not always the criteria.

  • 5 years ago


    i like it:-)
  • 5 years ago


    Very interesting article

  • 5 years ago


    I still wonder if the corelation between skill level and blitz  is one way or not. I mean do masters play blitz because they are good, vise versa, or  does it flow both ways?

  • 5 years ago

    NM dcremisi

    well just gonna throw this out there but some of this may be just luck like that most players who have played blitz are active chess players etc,

  • 6 years ago


    I just got my master's degree in psychology and wrote a paper on chess and IQ.  This paper was much better and i thorougly enjoyed it.  I wish there had been an "r" rating for the corelation of the statisitics used in the first paragraph.  there should be a number between -1 and 1 that explains how close the correlation was

  • 6 years ago


    LMAO u mean like SJCorrie that guy has played over 5000 correspondence chess games on and his rating has been in the 1200s for eternity i played him twice and won because he always played poor pawn moves which weakened his king side.

  • 6 years ago


    gr8 article

  • 6 years ago


    Thanks for an interesting article.

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