Saturday, 19 January 2008

Chess thinking

On Thursday 17th January 2008 Bobby Fisher passed away. The American (and later Icelandic) chessplayer was one of the greatest players of the history of chess. Possibly, the Russian Gary Kasparov is the only one that can dispute this reputation.For those who are interested in Bobby Fischer’s life and chess career I recommend Chess Base ( Indeed is the website I use to follow chess news, download chess games and follow chess tournaments.

I am a chess player and I was a chess coach. Although I did not achieve the level I would have liked as a chess player (my highest level achieved was at the local master level [2280 Elo points for those who know the chess rating system]), chess helped me to organise my thinking processes. I did not apply this only to chess but also to a wide range of aspects of life that require thinking and decision making. This thinking organisation allowed me to be a better chess coach than chess player (some of my students obtained the International Grandmaster title).

On my career as a professional psychologist the organisation of thinking that chess gave me, afforded me the possibility to help many people to solve problems by teaching them how to organise their thinking process. Thinking organisation leads to consistency in the thinking process, to realisation of own mistakes, to clarity in the way of expressing thoughts and feelings, to understanding the views of others, etc. I put together techniques that make easier to organise our thinking process in a book: Organised Thinking: A psychotechnology to be happy, efficient and to collaborate with intelligence. (Unfortunately, the book has not been translated to English and is only available in Spanish. For the bilingual or for the very brave, you can order the book to Dunken Editorial).

Chess has also been a key aspect of my research into decision making, problem solving and expertise. I carried out numerous psychological studies with chess players (ranging from novices to international grandmasters) [you can read and download my scientific articles from my website]. In my research I studied perception, memory, problem solving (with and without time pressure), imagery, decision making, etc. In my studies I used different research methods such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), eye-movement recording, reaction time, questionnaires and standard behavioural experiments. The conclusions of my own research will be dealt in future posts.

I did my PhD at The University of Nottingham with Fernand Gobet. (Visit Prof. Gobet’s website at Brunel University West London to know about his research and to download dozens of his articles). Prof. Gobet co-authored a number of scientific articles with Economics Nobel Prize laureate, Herbert Simon (visit latest Herbert Simon’s website for the list of his publications).

From the 1990’s until Simon’s death, Gobet and Simon investigated memory and decision making in chess players. The choice of chess as a scientific tool was not causal. Chess is a complex game with a reliable rating that affords the possibility to assess objectively the level of expertise of the players. From the scientist point of view this is ideal, because it allows him/her to know with precision the level of expertise of the participants of his/her experiment.

The expertise approach is a key issue in Herbert’s Simon approach to the study of decision making. Not only the way people make choices should be studied empirically and not assumed like neo-classical economists do [see my previous post], but also it should be studied with an expertise approach. If expertise level is not taken into account the results we obtain my not reflect the true story.

For example, Tversky y Kahneman, [see Daniel Kahneman’s website here ] followed Simon’s criticism to the standard economical model of decision making. (Tversky and Kahneman’s research have been recognised by the economics community with the Nobel Prize to Kahneman in 2002 [Tversky had passed away, so he could not be awarded the prize]). However, they rarely followed the expertise approach which consists on comparing the decision making process of experts with that of novices. Therefore, their conclusions could be flawed. For example, the biases they found in the decision making processes of their participants may not have been found if experts had participated in their experiments.

In the next few posts I will write about Herbert Simon and his importance in economics, psychology, public administration, business administration, among other fields. Put it differently, Herbert Simon is one of the scholars that most contributed to the understanding of the thinking process. Therefore, he is one of the most important sources of Organised Thinking.


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