Why perceived reality is not actual reality? - On Einstellung effect

Why perceived reality is not actual reality? - On Einstellung effect

Mar 12, 2016, 2:53 AM |

I was at the chess club the other night when I heard some noise outside. I took a peek through the window and noticed a fat orange street cat staring at me from the walls of a broken building outside. I found it picturesque though it was too late. I managed to take a couple of photos in the dark before I retired to my bed. But just then, I wanted to take another look at the photos I took that night.

I scrolled through the photos, and found something weird as I zoomed into it.

[Dare to zoom into the dark room ?]

A bunch of broken asbestos sheets, coconut shells, and shrubs gave me the impression of a face in the dark when I was zoomed into my photo. It scared me, but after a moment, I realized that my eyes could be lying.

I quickly felt how people made up weird shapes out of stars and clouds; and how it was also the case with Chess. My chess consciousness then came to the rescue. I pondered about how our brains fail us with chess patterns sometimes.

I hardly slept that night. I looked up for chess games with such erroneous judgment based on perceptual mistakes. And then to my surprise, I felt that I was not alone. Many players, include the elite ones have faced such situations.

Here are a couple of examples and the lessons that can be learnt from them.

Black to play

[Carlsen Vs Topalov, Linares, 2007]

The above position was taken from the game two super Grandmasters, Magnus Carlsen and Veselin Topalov at the Linares super tournament in 2007. White just made his last move – Qg6, threatening to play Qh7 or Qf7, thereby ripping Black’s position apart. The attack would be lethal, but it’s not really the end of the game. Black could have defended his position by playing Qd5+ followed by e6, which would have ended the game in a draw, as Carlsen later pointed out. However, it was not a lucky day for Topalov. He resigned in this position.

Many of the games have been hard fought, with at least one big surprise: the resignation of Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria, No. 1 in the world, to Carlsen in Round 5 in a position that could have been a draw. Topalov overlooked a simple resource that Carlsen was kind enough, or perhaps cruel enough, to point out immediately afterward. In the final position, Topalov should have played 64 … Qd5, when 65 f3 e5 66 Qh7 Kf8 67 Qh8 Qg8 68 Nh7 Kf7 69 Ng5 Kf8 is a draw because of perpetual check.

~ The New York Times 

(The game is at chessgames.com/perl/chessgame?gid=1451947.)

Chess has a name for such mistakes. It’s called miscalculation, or sometimes misevaluation. In this particular position above, Topalov missed this particular idea to defend his King.

Not long ago, in the Politiken Cup, 2015, there was another similar case of premature resignation by top players. In the below position between Grandmaster Tiger Hillarp Persson and Grandmaster Markus Ragger, White (Persson) just resigned in response to black’s 44. … f4

White to play [Draw]

Tiger Hillarp Persson vs Markus Ragger, Politiken Cup (2015)

[The solution? I’ll leave that for you to work it out! Post a comment when you do.]


As soon as the game ended, people from around the globe analyzed the position, and reached the conclusion that the game should have been a draw!

How come strong Grandmasters are able to miss such simple-looking ideas? My theory is that it happened because of the involvement of a hidden criminal here — The Einstellung effect.

Know your enemy: The E~Effect.

“Einstellung” in German means setting. In Chess, it means that your mind is fixated on a pattern that has previously worked in a given position. But in positions where a different solution might be required, our brains delude our decision making, and skews our thought-process in the direction of the old pattern, making it impossible to find the required novel solution.

The E~effect is well known in tactical patterns. A player might sacrifice a piece on h7 thinking that it would win, only to find a defense he had totally missed. This is a widely known example of the Einstellung effect. But in the situations above, it seems that even ideas can prevent better ideas, not just patterns.

In the first game, with Topalov’s King in danger, the most common defense that works in most situations is to try to create the possibility of reaching a draw by giving repetitive checks.

In the position, after Qd5 + (The only check possible), white plays f3 blocking the check, which is met with another Queen check on d2. But this can’t be a draw, since White’s King can hide in h3 safely. Any more analysis will not produce a defense, but being caught up in one defensive idea would create an illusion preventing the mind from observing better plans. This is E~Effect in hiding even in complex defensive ideas.

This is also the case in the second position. In most situations, a draw in the King and Pawn Endgame is achieved through clever maneuvers to obtain an opposition, so that the opponent cannot make progress. But in this particular position, White has to invent another defensive solution. A pawn sacrifice in the right time to transform the position into a drawn game. But running in circles to find out a possible opposition in any other way will not work.

A good idea to overcome this fixation is to look for candidate ideas, and then candidate moves for each idea, and then gradually scraping the ones that won’t work. When this way of thinking becomes a mental habit when calculating, it becomes easy to see the full picture, than be fooled by a single idea.

Lasker was right in saying this:

“When you see a good move – wait – and look for a better one!”

This doesn’t only happen in Chess. It happens everywhere in our day to day decisions. Some special cases are: experienced doctors diagnosing a disease incorrectly because of previous patterns clouding the facts in the new case, and Lawyers misjudging their case because of the same obscurity.

Human mind is fallible. It has its own fault. But we can overcome this if we learn to look at things with a fresh perspective. I spend 10 days at a meditation centre learning this. They said “Observe reality as it really is, not as you like it to be.” and you could add: “Or, because you neighbor said so. ”

Observe the facts properly and attentively. Look at them the way they are, before you come to a conclusion. Make wise decisions. If you can’t look for a better move, sit on your hands until you find one!

This blog was first published on DayandKnight.co, an early stage chess hardware startup based in San Francisco working to bridge the gap between traditional games and technology.