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Chess Masters Use Brains Differently From Mates

Long-term memory 'chunking' gives solid advantage

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 7, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- What separates renowned chess grand masters like Garry Kasparov from the player whose skills are held in check?

A new study suggests that geniuses like Kasparov use a different part of their brains to consider board configurations during the game.

The study, reported in the Aug. 9 issue of Nature, suggests that chess grand masters may rely on a system of "chunked" long-term memory and a sophisticated memory structure to maneuver their pieces out of tricky strategic situations and to checkmate their opponents.

Thomas Elbert, a professor of clinical psychology and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Konstanz in Germany, led a study of 20 male chess players, each with more than 10 years of chess experience.

Ten scored above 2,200 on Elo's chess-skill rating scale, an established measure of chess expertise. The other 10 scored above 1,700, a score that technically made them amateurs, although their skills most likely would leave casual chess players in the dust.

Each man was hooked up to a magnetoencephalogram (MEG), which measures neural activity and provides a clear image of where the activity is taking place in the brain.

As each man played a game of chess with a computer, the MEG measured localized brain activity at five-second intervals after each computer move. The images showed bursts of activity as a player perceived the move, recognized the new configuration and began plotting strategy.

Grand masters showed more brain activity in their frontal and parietal cortices, while amateurs used the medial temporal lobe, the study found.

The researchers suspect that that grand masters organize their memory in "chunks" of information, allowing them to compare the board configuration to previous game experiences and pick out the key elements of the strategic situation. Since their memories are stored in chunks, their brains work less to recall the information, the researchers say.

The grand masters already have compared the configuration and planned their next move while amateur players still are forming new long-term memories, meaning the amateurs have to process more information, say the researchers.

Elbert says in the last two decades, the organization of the "chunk hierarchy" has been linked to chess expertise.

He says chess experts can hold roughly 100,000 such chunks, and true chess geniuses can hold these chunks and create a sophisticated structure of the memory units at the same time.

"If you present a game position to chess players, and you ask the subject to recall the pieces, then the recall increases with the skill of chess playing linearly, up to five-fold," Elbert says.

"Grand masters recall many more of the pieces," he says.

Fernand Gobet, a psychology teacher at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom and an international chess master (one level below grand master), says thanks to the memory chunks, "in relatively simple problems, the grand masters don't have to search more. They can basically recognize the solution right away."

"The amateurs are still learning a lot of information while the grand masters were able to devote their attention to finding better moves," he says.

However, Gobet says since the minds of grand masters work so differently from amateurs, they essentially are carrying out different tasks in this study, making the comparison less objective.

Elbert says it's not clear if children who become grand masters have different brain organization at birth. He says childhood chess prodigies may have a genetic predisposition for memory-chunking skills, and that constant practice and encouragement improves their memory structure.

Not surprisingly, only the grand masters in the study were able to either tie or win against the computer.

What To Do

The World Chess Federation Network (FIDE), sets these titles, based on skill levels, for chess players: Grand master (GM), International Master (IM), FIDE Master (FM), Woman Grandmaster (WGM), Woman International Master (WIM), Woman FIDE Master (WFM), Honorary Master (H-M) and FIDE Category Player.

Read about the chess match between Kasparov and Deep Blue, the chess-playing computer created by IBM, or visit the Brain Games Network.

Also, check the Whole Brain Atlas from Harvard Medical School.

SOURCES: Interviews with Thomas Elbert, Ph.D., professor of clinical psychology and behavioral neuroscience, Department of Psychology, University of Konstanz, Konstanz, Germany, and Fernand Gobet, Ph.D., reader in intelligent systems, Department of Psychology, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, U.K.; Aug. 9, 2001 Nature
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