Chess Masters & Pattern Recognition

Chess masters’ brains work differently from the supercomputers specifically designed to beat them. Or, if you play the Asian game of weiqi, same thing. Pattern recognition is the defining product of experience for a human expert.

Knowledge and experience enable you to make better decisions faster. Given the complexity of the real world, we can never make the perfect decision but experience allows us to quickly assess a situation, determine the options available, then decide on a course of action.

Experience allows us to do these things faster and consider factors that have proven to be key in the past because we recognize the patterns at play. You don’t have to consider everything and step through all the logical consequences step by laborious step.

Chess masters play quickly and play well because with one look at the board, the recognize what the current situation is and what is coming. Their minds don’t see the pieces independently. Their minds see the board as a complete whole, and they pay attention to what is missing or what is there that should not be. It is by experience they are able recognize, at a glance, what is going on and what actions are worth considering.

Their experience allows them to quickly decide between those options, with experience telling them the odds of each course panning out as planned. It allows them to recognize within the next move or two whether everything is going as intended or if they need a change of plans. It is their experience that allows them to do this on multiple games at the same time.

Experience Enables Chunking

The experienced mind takes in an entire scene and makes sense of it through the process of chunking.

Let’s use vision as an analogy. When you look at a scene or an image, your eyes receive millions of inputs, from individual photons reflecting off the scene or image and hitting your sensory cells in the retina of your eye. Your eyes process this information. Oh, I see a line here or a line there. So instead of sending you millions of individual “data points”, it sends you something less – let’s say hundreds of thousands for the sake of argument. When this information gets to your brain, your brain recognizes certain combinations of lines as discrete, separate objects. There’s a circle there. Those lines make a square. Those lines angling away tell me there is depth to the object or image. All of that happens subconsciously and let’s say you’re left with thousands of individual elements to make sense of.

Then your brain holistically assesses what the eyes see and says, “I know what all those lines and objects mean. That’s a motorcycle coming down the road headed right for me.” Millions of individual inputs gets translated to that one salient point. All those photons entering your eyes and you automatically figure out what it all means.

What makes an “expert” isn’t so much being brighter or quicker than everyone else, but rather having more experience in an area. An expert knows what he is looking at and, because he has seen similar situations so many times before, he can quickly & effectively respond. – LTC David Grossman

That’s what experience has enabled you to do from what you see every day.

That’s what experience does for you with responding to urgent situations.

Experience enables you to look at a complicated scene and quickly assess what it all means.

Grooming Pattern Recognition Reduces Blind Spots

This summarizing or “chunking” of input into a single, holistic perception of what’s going on isn’t perfect. Our brains trade speed for absolute accuracy.

This is how optical illusions work. Optical illusions play off the way our brains sequentially and subconsciously summarize high volumes of low-level detail into a much smaller, ideally single, summary of what’s going on. Optical illusions use the cues that usually mean one thing – and accurately so – but use it to hide, show, or manipulate what you see so that what you see isn’t what’s really there. They fool you so you see what isn’t so.

That’s a danger that also exists when we assess an emergency situation. We take in all the information presented to us, and through the fast & automatic process of chunking, our brains come to particular conclusions. Those conclusions are usually correct. But sometimes things will throw us off, the conceptual equivalent of optical illusions, and our conclusions are drastically incorrect.

There are mental blind spots and mental tendencies that con artists and unscrupulous marketers take advantage of to sucker us into actions we might not otherwise take.

The same thing can happen in “natural” situations that have occurred on their own without malicious manipulation.

If every time you have seen a combination of elements – ABCDE, let’s say – it has always meant X then the next tie you see ABCDE you will conclude you’re looking at X. But what if that’s because you haven’t noticed and considered FGH and I? Then one day you see ABCDE and it means Y instead of X. They will throw you for a loop either until either someone points out and explains to you that all along you haven’t paid attention to FGHI and that’s what makes the difference… or you figure that out all by yourself.

Give Your People Experience!

I’ve talked before about how powerful it can be to incorporate surprises into the training and exercises you give your team. That’s how you get them to look not only at ABCDE but also at FGHI.

You expand the breadth from which their minds chunk and assess information so they can continue to decide quickly, but in doing so they will avoid nasty surprises because they’ve already chunked and incorporated the subtle warnings.

Let’s take driving, for example.

One of the main reasons new drivers can be dangerous is that they don’t have the experience to anticipate and avoid bad situations. Experienced drivers have seen many other drivers on the road behaving and misbehaving. They can make better assessments & decisions in the same short amount of time.

Experienced drivers, looking at the same information outside the windshield, chunk the information differently. They make different assessments, make different decisions and take different actions. That’s how experienced drivers avoid collisions and situations that might ensnare inexperienced drivers by surprise.

Taking this everyday example into the realm in which our teams work – where lives and businesses are on the line – experience is a key enabler of high performance. Yet, it’s not just repeating the same thing again and again that counts. Someone who has driven the only one short route every day for 20 years isn’t an experienced driver. You need to give your teams a breadth of experience, with surprises thrown in to expand their understanding of the underlying dynamics and expanding their skill.

Performing Smart Requires Training Smart

We don’t become chess masters by playing against the same opponent repeatedly. We become chess masters by playing against different opponents who plan, act, and react differently. Experience with a wide range of situations, combined with reflection and discipline, leads to the ability to make rapid, accurate assessments & decisions.

The best way for us to enable that in ourselves and our teams is through training that develops not just motor memory and greases the mental pathways, but also expands perception and builds the ability to chunk and incorporate a wider range of cues that are often subtle.

The typical training exercise that tests either the knowledge or the ability to follow set procedures and plans is only a starting point. That’s equivalent to driving from Point A to Point B on an empty road in good weather. That’s the beginner level of chess where you know the rules and some classic openings and gambits.

To truly excel, we have to train our teams methodically to perceive quickly and accurately. We have to train the ability to chunk information broadly & deeply, and to do it mostly subconsciously. That takes thought, effort, and dedication from leaders, trainers, and trainees.

If we want to go from Point A to Point B no matter what the roads are like, what other drivers are doing, what the driving conditions are like, we have to train for it.

If we want to perform like chess masters playing and winning multiple games in parallel, we have to train for it.

Performing smart requires training smart – especially when the stakes are more than just titles in the world of competitive chess.