Why Chess Players Blunder

Why Chess Players Blunder

Feb 9, 2016, 12:00 AM |
52 | Scholastics

We have seen them, haven’t we? The howlers? Amateurs and professionals alike in the aftermath of a game, trying to explain their blunder, shaking their heads in disbelief, scratching their brows, sighing while trying to come up with a rational explanation.

Born out of recent findings from the field of consciousness and mind, the article seeks to explain that chess playing is based upon a fine interplay between a mind subconsciously triggering moves, and a well-disciplined consciousness knowing what to keep and what to discard.

Unlike other play-by-play-articles, this first part aspires to go behind the moves to unravel the conundrum underlying our blunders and the second proposes a method for fighting impulsiveness and blunder-tendencies.


Who is doing the thinking?

Playing chess is often linked to thinking and Descartes’ Cogito Ergo Sum, I think, therefore I am, has long since cast its spell on us regarding our beliefs in our mental life.

Concerning the nature of thinking, in the chapter “The Stream of Thought” (The Principles of Psychology, 1890), William James emphasized that consciousness always chooses; “it is always more interested in one part of its object than another, and welcomes and rejects, or chooses, all the while it thinks” (James quoted by Nørretranders, 1999, p. 176):.

The mind is at every stage a theatre of simultaneous possibilities. Consciousness consists in the comparison of these with each other, the selection of some, and the suppression of the rest by the reinforcing and inhibiting agency of attention. The highest and most elaborated mental products are filtered from the data chosen by the faculty next beneath, out of the mass offered by the faculty below that, which mass in turn was sifted from a still larger amount of yet simpler material, and so on.

The mind, in short, works on the data it receives very much as a sculptor works on his block of stone. In a sense the statue stood there from eternity. But there were a thousand different ones beside it, and the sculptor alone is to thank for having extricated this one from the rest.

Just so the world of each of us, how so ever different our several views of it may be, all lay embedded in the primordial chaos of sensations, which gave the mere matter to the thought of all of us indifferently. We may, if we like, by our reasonings unwind things back to that black and jointless continuity of space and moving clouds of swarming atoms which science calls the only real world.

But all the while the world we feel and live in will be that which our ancestors and we, by slowly cumulative strokes of choice, have extricated out of this, like sculptors, by simply removing portions of the given stuff. Other sculptors, other statues from the same stone! Other minds, other worlds from the same monotonous and inexpressive chaos!

My world is but one in a million alike embedded, alike real to those who may abstract them. How different must be the worlds in the consciousness of ant, cuttlefish, or crab!'


In 1901 and 1905, K. Marbe and H.J. Watt respectively, confirmed that thinking and judging, the supposed hallmarks of consciousness (Jaynes, 2000, p, 38) are not conscious at all; i.e. the (conscious) I is not the thinking substance Descartes (and later Kant) took it to be.

In other words, we do our thinking before we know what we are to think about (Jaynes, 2000, p. 39), we do not know what we are thinking before we’re thinking it and “[...] the actual process of thinking, so usually thought to be the very life of consciousness, is not conscious at all and that only its preparation, its materials, and its end result are consciously perceived” (Jaynes, 2000, p. 41).

The preparation, materials and end results being the only things consciously perceived does not imply they are conscious, because if they were, apparently, we could consciously select the best preparations and the best materials for the actual thought processes and control both the thought processes and the end result. In chess, the chessboard is your marble block; figuratively speaking, your mind carves out moves from and presents to your consciousness. Positions with several equal moves? Different sculptor, i.e. player, different move.

Since the end of the 1950s it has been known that from all the information flooding through our sense organs (1,121,000 bits), only a fraction (1-40 bits) makes up a conscious experience (Zimmerman, 1986) and in 1988 Hans H. Kornhuber, echoing James and Jaynes, states thinking as independent of consciousness and acts of volition and that most of the information passing through our central nervous system is subconscious, suggesting we cannot think “what we want,” but that we might be able to direct the focus of our attention (Nørretranders, 1999, p. 177). 

As it suggests we by acts of volition can focus or direct our attention towards what we should focus on or direct it towards, focussing our attention is less straightforward than what may be assumed, since there would be no reasons not to focus on or direct our attention towards what we should focus on or direct it towards. Concretely, this means that the quality of our thoughts, feelings and actions depends of the quality of the information flowing through our sense organs into the brain and the brain's capacity and capability to analyse and process the information before sent out as thoughts, feelings and actions.

However, the possibility of directing our attention might not be as straightforward as first thought: the phrase of having our attention or interest caught implies that something outside our consciousness does the catching, i.e. we do not decide what to be interested in, what to desire, urge or crave, nor as to what to direct our attention to. We can’t turn our head until we are made aware of that we can turn it. We do not have to turn our head, but to be able at all to turn it; an impulse making us aware of the possibility must subconsciously be triggered or presented to our consciousness.


Who is doing the playing? 

Until Benjamin Libet’s ground-breaking experiment (1985) showed that any apparent act of volition normally begins subconsciously with studies showing that the brain subconsciously prepare actions before consciousness is informed (Nørretranders, 1999, pp. 213-256), it was assumed was that we ourselves, consciously, decide when to move and what to move (pieces, arms, fingers, legs).

As Libet (1985) writes: "Processes associated with individual responsibility and fee will would 'operate' not to initiate a voluntary act but to select and control volitional outcomes" and "Some may view responsibility and free will as operative only when voluntary acts follow slower conscious deliberation of alternative choices of action [like chess playing, we might add]. But, as already noted above, any volitional choice does not become a voluntary action until the person moves" (Libet, 1985). 

Contemporary neuro scientists (Trevena & Miller, 2010) attempting to rebut or challenge Libet’s findings seem to miss that Libet never argued that the brain makes a decision, and thus renders free will an illusion, but that the brain makes a suggestion, a proposal, which is not a decision until the impulse is converted or transformed into action.

(Libet’s quote has a definite compatibilistic ring to it (claiming free will compatible with determinism) as for an action to be voluntary, since impulses are subconsciously initiated, we have to account for our contribution beyond not vetoing the impulse.)

As Nørretranders (1999, p. 243) puts it:

"Free will corresponds more to the way the surroundings mold the evolution of biological organisms through natural selection than consciousness corresponds to the design, the blueprint, most of us spontaneously picture when we imagine how we make conscious choices in life."

In other words, free will operates through selection, discarded information, rejected alternatives, not design (or intention) where the affinity with Darwin’s theory of evolution is not the only parallel in the history of ideas (Nørretranders, (1999, p. 243). In our context: our brain plays chess when triggering moves whereas we play chess when vetoing our brain’s suggestions. (Further implications of this concept of free will fall outside this article.)

In the wake of his experiment, Libet suggested that consciousness despite not being able to initiate actions could veto, abort or stop impulses from running to action where chess playing does not differ from any other kinds or types of actions. This implies that, contrary to popular and traditional beliefs, consciousness cannot trigger or initiate actions but can, if disciplined, “veto,” or abort, impulses leading to unwanted, awkward, unacceptable, unfortunate, embarrassing or immoral actions.

Actions starting subconsciously further suggest that the only thing we consciously can do “deliberately” or “on purpose” is to veto and thus reveals an inherent ambiguity in the phrase “on purpose” (“deliberately”). Since consciousness cannot trigger actions, we cannot inadvertently, unintentionally, un-purposefully or un-deliberately commit actions or play moves we “didn’t mean to.”

The brain does work in mysterious ways not needing any reason or justification for triggering this or that impulse and does it not see a purpose, it will not trigger the impulse and there no other way to act. In short: if consciousness triggered actions, slip-ups would never happen or occur. Thinking being subconscious, moves are triggered by the brain and consciousness working by the “veto,” chess playing (and human activities in general) is left in the hands of the fine-tuned interplay between conscious and subconscious processes (rather than a definite and isolated self, acting out from nowhere, so to speak); knowing what to keep and what to discard among all the suggestions, whims and ideas with which the mind comes up with.

Consciousness more or less functions as blunder check, lightly monitoring our play, making sure no pieces are left hanging or put en prise. Most of the time when playing, consciousness is not involved at all; Romanovsky writing that “A maneuvering game can also sometimes arise from the conscious efforts of one of the opponents” (Romanovsky, 2013, p. 201) may serve as an example as to how entrenched the belief in the role of consciousness when playing chess is.

Were we to choose our moves consciously, how do we explain or account for our blunders and mistakes? Were chess playing conscious, we would never make mistakes since nobody blunders (consciously) on purpose. Simply by acts of volition, we could decide to play the best moves as the chess board in front of us would yield access to full information; we would have the entire overview of what is going on since consciousness would be transparent, and the position on the board would be there for everyone to see.

Traditionally, chess games are explained and moves attempted justified in the analyses after the game and this is usually the order of the day; first play—then explanation. If chess playing were conscious, logically, it should be the other way around; first we explain why certain moves are to be played and then the brain triggers the requested moves, right?

If we could give perfectly viable and reasonable explanations for every move we make, why would our brain trigger a blunder or not produce or come up with moves best fitting the explanation thus making chess the rational game it is perceived to be?

The Russian proverb -- “We are all satisfied with our reason but not with our position” -- nicely captures this apparent paradox. In blitz and rapid games, where consciousness is almost absent, these kinds of games are merely perception and intuition, this being even more apparent since there is no time to ponder possible explanations before a move is to be triggered. 


Who is blundering?

Blunders might be perceived as some sort of spontaneously ill-conceived move-suggestions, i.e. impulses to moves which would be detrimental to one’s position if not aborted. However, we are not talking about strategically weak moves on a general level, like misplacing a piece due to lack of general chess ability and understanding but moves literally occurring out of nowhere, moves there apparently are no sensible reasons to play. The key question is; if consciousness does not do the playing, then, who does the blundering? Someone or something must be responsible for players blundering, and who or what part of us might that be?

As mentioned, a light consciousness monitors while playing, whereas full consciousness announces itself the moment a chess player blunders, which his/her body language just too well illustrates. Note the order; never do we come across players announcing their blunders in advance; we only hear about the ones that blundered first, and then became aware of it.

This time, only briefly can we touch upon the “whys” and “hows” of blunders but as a general pointer, we might say that blunders occur due to lack of interplay between brain and consciousness and seem to have only three possible explanations:  

 1) We take in only parts of the position due to inadequate vision, focussing only on certain parts of the board.

 2) We take in the whole position but something happens while processing the material resulting in apparently spontaneous and inexplicable blunders.

 3) Even when seeing the whole board, our brain does not take it all in.

The first explanation might be the most clear-cut, implying that inadequate focus results in lack of information and thus absence of interplay between the brain and mind resulting in being consciously unable to abort the impulse. Mistakes in this department might be caused both due to fatigue but also due to lack of general chess ability and experience. Differently put: GMs might fall victim to these kind of blunder due to fatigue rather than lack of proficiency, whereas amateurs might suffer from it both because of fatigue and lack of chess skills.

Regarding the second explanation, blunders are something we try to avoid, so if blunders have anything to do with what we take in, why would the brain process the material in such a way that it leads to blunders? This seems to happen only if there is a problem with the “wiring” so to speak, which is conceivable if not too frequent. Having consciousness purposefully misinterpret the information seems to lead to a conflict of interests since the goal of playing chess is to mate your opponent and why would you want to mess things up for yourself?

The plot thickens when arriving at the third explanation, valid for both amateurs and professionals, raising a timely dilemma: it would seem impossible to blunder when seeing the whole board with our own two eyes, right? Wrong! This reason for blundering is closely linked to our point about the order in which chess is played and explained and research shows that only a fraction of all information passing through our eyes is perceived by consciousness, implying that we might see the whole board and still not perceive it. This means there might be chunks of information our brain does not take in or misses even when our eyes physically are seeing the board.

Solving tactical puzzles or playing the guessing game where we try to guess a GM’s moves, may illustrate the difference between seeing and perceiving. The whole board is in front of us … we see (eyes directed towards) the position clearly… all information for solving it is right in front of us and still, many a time, we end up face-palming ourselves. How could we miss that? However, when the solution is presented to us, it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

The mere presence of a combination or tactical stroke suggests that chess playing is subconsicous, and that we are not in as much control of things as we purportedly believe we are, since if playing were conscious, we would not play in such a way as to allow our opponent the possibility for a (brilliant) tactical stroke, would we?

Despite purists considering tactics the sophism of chess, how fast you find tactical solutions tells you how quickly your brain processes the information, i.e. the position. Perception being subconscious, there is no point in beating ourselves (or others) up for not seeing this tactical shot or missing that beautiful combination.

Amateurs and professionals literally perceive different boards even when seeing the same one and the reason is that the professional mind is better trained to perceive more information than the amateur mind.This is so since perception is not based on acts of volition and the brain works independently of what we think it should perceive, think, understand, comprehend or interpret etc. Blunders happen because humans are fallible and ill-founded impulses prove stronger than our ability to abort them.

Our next installment presents a method for combatting blunders....and more.



Jaynes, J. (2000). The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston: Mariner Books.

Libet, B. (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8(4), 529-566. Doi: 10.1017/S0140525SX00044903

Nørretranders, T. (1999). The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size (J. Sydenham, Trans.). London: Penguin Books.

Romanovsky, P. (2013). Soviet Middlegame Technique. Glasgow: Quality Chess.

Trevena, J.  & Miller, J. (2010). Brain preparation before a voluntary action: Evidence against unconscious movement initiation. Consciousness and Cognition, 19(1), 447-456. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.concog.2009.08.006

Zimmermann, M. (1986). Neurophysiology of Sensory Systems. In R. F. Schmidt (Ed.), Fundamentals of Sensory Physiology (3d ed., pp. 68-116). Berlin: Springer Verlag,

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