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. 


  • 6 years ago


    Thanks for a informative article it is quite a revelation with regard to chess learning skills.

    I have improved my chess skills through playing against computers but I still have a long way to go to achieve even higher grade

    Thanks once again for a useful article,most appreciated.

  • 6 years ago


    Very interesting. Will try to teach my daughter (is almost 7 now). Cheers!
  • 6 years ago


    like this.....!!!Laughing

  • 6 years ago


    Great article.

  • 6 years ago


    Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice, on the other hand, makes perfect. The trick is finding out what you need to learn because by definition you don't know it yet.

  • 6 years ago

    FM The_Evil_Ducklings

    I wonder what the author feels about the countless players who have studied and played in excess of 20 years and yet never show improvement once they reach a certain level (rating wise). I know many of these players and I cannot understand this phenomena. I see them play 100's of tourney games each year, studying informants etc... yet the rating never leaves a narrow range. Don't they learn something from each one of these tournament games or gain experience in their opening repertoire? They somehow 'peak" at some rating of maybe 1900 and no matter how many hours of work they put in, the result is always the same. The "hour’s formula" does not seem to apply to many players who can't reach the master level.

  • 6 years ago


    I think Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule may not apply to chess as today's GMs are becoming GMs in less time with the help of databases and strong chess engines.  The hours are now more compressed as kids start earlier and work harder with chess databases and programs that play GM strength.  It would be interesting to compare when famous GMs started playing chess, the numbers of tournaments they played, how they trained, and when they were awarded the GM title.  I think we need more GMs to tell us how they made it to GM and the number of hours they put in the game.  I would also be interested in how late can someone start to learn chess and still make it to GM.  I don't think a single adult has ever started playing chess for the first time past 18 years old and made GM (perhaps not even IM) in the modern times of 1950 and beyond, when FIDE started awarding GM titles.  I think it is 100% kids or early teenagers who started chess, then became an IM or GM.  If you don't have the talent, no matter how many hours you put in, you are not going to make it to any title, or peak and never get any better.  Just don't know what the formula is, but, like a language, learn chess early and you can master it without an accent.   Anand learned chess at 6 and became a GM at 18.  Carlsen learned chess at age 8 and became a GM at age 13 years and 4 months.  Wonder how many hours of chess each put in to get there.

  • 6 years ago


    Thanks for putting so much effort into this Mr. Wall. I think its very interesting. Are you familiar with the works of Malcom Gladwell? His book outliers talks about the 10000 hour fact I think you're research here directly contradicts the statement that it takes 10000 hours for someone to be a gm.

  • 6 years ago


    Tooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo long!

    And boooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooaring also!!!SealedLaughingSmileInnocentUndecidedSealed

  • 6 years ago



  • 6 years ago


    I have a BA in psych and I've been playing chess since I was seven.  This article is very interesting and well written.  I'm also a professional freelance writer.  The author is very knowledgeable and professional.  I wish I could write as well and I appreciate the example of an article written by such an expert.

  • 6 years ago


    Interesting, cheers.

  • 6 years ago


    Very interesting info! Thank youSmile Does this mean I'm gonna pay less attention to chess when I get to university? Surprised Nice article

  • 6 years ago


    nietztsuki: "It's nice to know that we don't get beat because we're stupid.  :)"

    I agree with you!

    By the way look at this game:

  • 6 years ago


    chunka, chunka, pow!

  • 6 years ago


    it's make me sense....thanks

    i need to keep serious of tactics,,,,

    becoz i wanna to be GM one day

  • 6 years ago


    I suspect the gap between childhood and adult learning and success is not one that is going to be fixed easily by upgrading materials.  It's likely about developing the type of brain that can solve chess problems efficiently, not just in terms of "how to think" but in terms of having the right brain structure to solve chess problems.

  • 6 years ago


    Thanks so much for that great article, billwall! It helped convince me of something I long have suspected: that learning to play chess at age eight and pursuing it for years, aided me in becoming a trial lawyer! The qualities you mention, such as curiosity, intuitiveness, the development of broad cultural interests (fiction writing and musical performance in my case), unconventional thinking, and orderliness, are exactly those which a competent trial lawyer needs to succeed in combat. Trials and chess matches seem to me closely related on those features, and it's small wonder that I love them both. Again, thanks.

  • 6 years ago


    This'll have to be revisited in 25 years now with more "efficient" training material available to nearly everyone, most notably databases, engines, accessible mass tactics/endgames problems, and additional chess software.  Most of those who are GM's that he studied probably didn't have this kind of material, hence coaching may have been an important part of training.  Essentially, if you start earlier, you are more likely to be better.  But now one may reach their "theoretical" peak even starting later because of the efficiency of training material available today.

    Now that anyone can have 100,000 tactics/endgames/middlegame problems, opening training software, millions of games in a database, and a chess engine that could crush a super-GM, this may change the demographics of masters that he mentions.  

    In particular, it may narrow the gap between adults and children in terms of learning the material.  I doubt a child would have the attention span to study chess several hours a day without being forced, whereas a motivated determined adult could do it, and it is now easier with these mass training materials available (with less reliance on "trial and error" of playing and scattered examples in books).  At the very least, those adults who have gone through such materials would be at a stronger level when they seek a coach and therefore may reap more benefits in the course of a decade of "serious study" because when they start receiving coaching they will have assimilated a greater amount of "chunks" in far less time than a generation earlier secondary to the mass of training material that is readily accessible compared to 15-20 years ago. 

  • 6 years ago


    Very interesting, thx!

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