What Your Body's Thinking About

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage
Mikhail TalThere’s a picture of Mikhail Tal that has always seemed to me the ultimate chess player’s pose: Tal's looking at the board, chin on his thumb, his other arm folded under his fist, utter determination in his eyes. But what was Tal actually thinking at the time the picture was taken?

When I was just starting out as a chess player, I noticed my opponents often shifted in their chairs as they sat thinking behind the board. I sometimes imagined I could read their thoughts as they bended over the board or leaned backwards with their hands behind their head. Now he’s thinking about e4-e5, no doubt about it. Ah, now he sees the trick I’ve planned after that … oh wait he played it anyway! I never figured out a system to make it work. But new research suggests there may yet be a thing or two to be discovered.

I suppose many chess players find the notion that the way you sit behind the board can reveal clues as to what you’re thinking of, decidedly silly. Behaviour behind the board looks completely random and decided by circumstantial factors. But when you think about it, it’s not so stupid at all. After all, we’re primates communicating not only through words, but with gestures as well. It may be an urban legend that 93% of human communication is body language and only 7% is speech-related, but the fact is that body language is vastly important in communication, and gesticulating predated language by millions of years in human evolution, as can still be seen clearly with monkeys and apes.

According to many popular science books, body language is even the best way to learn about human psychology: there are several well-known body-signals such as crossing one’s arms across the chest (putting a barrier between the speaker and listener), making eye contact (seeking positive confirmation or showing interest) or averting one’s eyes (a sign of, among other things, disbelieve, shame or fear).

This week, The New York Times featured an article about how the body takes abstract thoughts literally in surprising ways:
Researchers at the University of Aberdeen found that when people were asked to engage in a bit of mental time travel, and to recall past events or imagine future ones, participants’ bodies subliminally acted out the metaphors embedded in how we commonly conceptualized the flow of time. As they thought about years gone by, participants leaned slightly backward, while in fantasizing about the future, they listed to the fore.
In the studies described in the article, people found heavy books more important than lighter ones, and they could improve their mathematical skills by making specific gestures and rotating their hands:
Among students who have difficulty with equations like 4 + 5 + 3 = __ + 3, for example, performance improves markedly if they are taught the right gestures: grouping together the unique left-side numbers with a two-fingered V, and then pointing the index finger at the blank space on the right. To learn how to rotate an object mentally, first try a pantomime. ‘If you encourage kinds to do the rotation movement with their hands, that helps them subsequently do it in their heads’, says Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago.
What about chess? After all, mathematics, music and chess are linked in special ways - Glenn Gould showed us how music can move the body in unconscious ways - so, while not exactly arithmetics, I suppose calculating variations in chess is still somewhat similar to calculating sums. This opens up all sorts of fascinating possibilities.

Anish Giri

Anish Giri in his game against David Howell at the 2010 Corus Chess Tournament in Wijk aan Zee

Do you see your opponent moving his fingers in a specific way? Perhaps he’s calculating a long forced line! See him moving his head or moving his hands underneath the table? He may be thinking about some long term positional stuff like gaining space or how to improve his piece coordination! On an even more abstract level, an opponent leaning forward means he’s thinking about his next move while an opponent leaning backwards indicates he’s evaluating your last move.

Tal’s body language in the picture is less easy to read. At first, the pointed thumb would suggest calculating stuff, but then the thumb is not moving whereas we know Tal was constantly calculating sacrifices in his head! In other words, his pose was a way of confusing his opponents - and I suddenly understand how he could become world champion! Perhaps the secret all strong chess players share is not that they know chess better than the rest of us, but that they can, in a manner of speaking, read our thoughts and anticipate on it?

Wouldn’t that be a huge consolation to us patzers? It’s not our fault – our bodies give us away! In the same fashion, some people use popular psychology to excuse their behaviour – hey, I’m from Mars and you’re from Venus, so we really shouldn’t even try to understand each other. Well, we chess players know better, of course. Still, next time you’re playing a game, think about how you and your opponent are sitting behind the board for a minute.

Do you see any relation with the position on the board or the stuff you’re thinking about? Then perhaps it’s time to become a little more self-conscious. Stop thinking about the position, put your thumb under your chin, look straight in your opponent's eyes and brilliant sacrifices will enter your head before you know it.
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