PSY 101 for CHESS

PSY 101 for CHESS

Jun 17, 2016, 8:03 AM |

To Begin - The attempt to better understand Chess, the human mind, and the world at large is attained incrementally by the evolution of various theories. Trying on and testing out a given perspective in chess or psychology can be enlightening. By conducting our own experiments, we can see for ourselves if the understanding of our own mind or the great game of chess is enhanced by a particular vantage point. Fortunately, for us humans, it is our personal experience that will tell us if a theory of mind or approach to understanding chess is rewarding. When we find a perspective that seems to agree with our idiosyncratic selves and proves of value in our laboratory testing at clubs, skittles and tournaments, it should be further explored, developed and perhaps evolved.

By example, in chess, a hypermodern approach opines that you need not occupy the center as paramount to winning the game. Instead, as Nimzowitsch maintained, indirect influence of the center can be more potent than occupation. With that perspective in mind, chess players can try on hypermodern approaches to chess with openings like the King's Indian Defense, King's Indian Attack, Alekhine, PIRC or Catalan. By doing so, we find out for ourselves if the theory resonates as true, fun, insightful, useful or even winning. Your own experience will be the judge, jury and executioner as to how well suited you are for a hypermodern approach.

In psychology, we learn that one approach to understanding the human condition posits that if we can manage to correct our erroneous thinking, we can feel better. Perhaps too simply put, to change how you feel, just change how you think.

To try on this "hypermodern" approach of the mind, start by simply paying attention to your own thoughts. In doing so, you can then "catch" yourself (or others who express themselves) in the making of mental distortions. Like going over a recorded game, find your errors, and adjust your moves or thoughts accordingly.

As thinking and feeling creatures, we can experiment with this approach to see if it has value to us personally. If it enhances your life in some small way, or allows you to feel slightly better at times, then great. If not, there are many more theories to put into play later. Like E4, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a place to start at any rate, but you don't have to stay there.

Below are a number of cognitive distortions to "catch" yourself making. Yes, its like dropping a pawn or a bishop. If you catch your self with an idea that needs some improvement first, you don't have to make the bad move and feel so bad for having lost a piece. The real test though is not over the board but in your daily living. Your job is to discover for yourself the relative utility of this one, narrow, but potentially helpful perspective from psychology.




Catastrophizing - This is when we think about the worst possible outcome and behave accordingly, as if the worst possible outcome were the inevitable outcome. Ie. "I won't play at the tournament because I'll just lose." or, "I won't play him in Blitz, he wins every time." Stay tuned for this type of thinking when you notice it in others, not just yourself, and certainly not just with chess.

Splitting - This typically can be "caught" when we verbally or mentally use words like "always", "never", or "every". Splitting is what we do with the vibrant world around us when we turn it into a black and white dichotomy. Ie. "He never arrives to his match on time." or "I always have the black pieces when it matters most." and even "Everyone on the Parsippany Russian team is a cheat."

To think and speak more accurately is the goal. Notice if you think that someone who might often arrive late is occasionally on time or even early. Perhaps notice if really only 1 out of 4 members on the Parsippany Russian  team cheated, but you are ready to condemn everyone, including the arbiters and USCF. Emotional arguments and prejudice often lead to this type of cognitive distortion. Ie. "You always move your bishops out before the knights.", "Every time I see you castle queen-side.", "You never under-promote your pawn when you play me!" :) etc. Unfortunately, even if you are 99% accurate with such statements, you aren't technically correct or quite speaking the truth, and you know it. Although, if you are simply catching other people with this type of minutia, I'll have to write a chess article on the willful harm of being pedantic and the toll it takes on the human condition.

Overgeneralization - Like it sounds, this is when we take a very small, singular data point and embed it with a grand conclusion. Ie. "I tried the Scandinavian defense and got butchered. It's junk." Or, "He seems like a nice enough person, but didn't shake my hand before the game started. I must be the only player he doesn't like, much less respect." Try to notice this type of thought while driving, and you conclude something about another driver from just one moment of their poor road performance.

Fortune-Telling - This is when we "know" what will happen, before it even happens. Ie. "I'll never be able to beat my next opponent, s/he is an IM." or, "I saw their rating, the game hasn't started but I might as well resign." The thing to think is that you actually don't know something until it happens, however likely. Some people experience the rain, while others just fear getting wet. The fortune telling can happen with a mental bias in favor yourself as well as against.Ie. "I'm a 1900 player, she is just a lowly ... and will get squashed like a bug." Not to steal anyone's thunder, but adjusted thinking around hubris might serve to even out the contrast between highs and lows in your life.

Filtering - This occurs when we focus on the negative aspects or elements of a situation or person to the exclusion of the positive. Ie. Your opponent is a pawn up. They have a strong pawn center. They have the bishop pair and a good eventual outpost for the knight. Therefore, you feel that they are winning and the game is lost. Filtering would be, because of your focus on the opponent's advantages, you neglected to notice you are up a tempo, or have better king safety or difficult to see double attack. The mind tends to buy into previously held beliefs even when there may be evidence to the contrary right before your eyes. In daily life, we may well focus on the negative aspects of another human being, despite some plus marks we neglect to recognize. Practice catching this kind of thinking while ruminating on a neighbor, family member, politician etc. It won't change them, but it may adjust your ruminations about them to some small degree.

Personalization - This is a case of taking the credit or blame for something you don't control. Easily noticed in sport fans where a victory or loss is internalized into a sense of self greatness or sense of dismal self defeat. Your own team's victory or loss in the Team Chess Championships is only somewhat in your ability to influence, so don't overly despair a team loss or over aggrandize a team win. Warning, this could take some fun out of things. As a practice, you can watch for this type of cognitive distortion when you take in mainstream news and feel responsible for some horrible event conducted by your co-humans. Continue to work your empathy, take some action if you can, but don't over personalize your responsibility with a sick feeling when it was something you have little to no control over. Drink coffee to change the things you can, and wine to accept the things you cannot.

To Conclude: Be on the lookout for cognitive distortions visiting thoughts near you. If you don't actually have many of these, congratulations. If you catch other people making these types of inaccuracies, you can be of assistance. If you prefer to dominate the board with a solidly occupied center, followed by expansion and a break through - then great. The theories are just there to help us get to the next level of understanding.


Thomas E. Clark

Thomas E. Clark Licensed Psychotherapist in NY and CA is the Chess Tutor in Albany NY at The Albany Academies. He is the chess instructor in Schenectady NY at the Brown Private school. Tom is the chess teacher in Latham NY at the Albany Chinese School. He also tutors chess in albany NY at the summer LEAP program for kids.