Can experts play chess without thinking?


Yesterday the always interesting Vaughan Bell posted a study about unconscious expertise which I found fascinating. I recently stumbled upon the following study that seems to show a similar effect in chess players:

Expertise in a certain stimulus domain enhances perceptual capabilities. In the present article, the authors investigate whether expertise improves perceptual processing to an extent that allows complex visual stimuli to bias behavior unconsciously. Expert chess players judged whether a target chess configuration entailed a checking configuration. These displays were preceded by masked prime configurations that either represented a checking or a nonchecking configuration. Chess experts, but not novice chess players, revealed a subliminal response priming effect, that is, faster responding when prime and target displays were congruent (both checking or both nonchecking) rather than incongruent. Priming generalized to displays that were not used as targets, ruling out simple repetition priming effects. Thus, chess experts were able to judge unconsciously presented chess configurations as checking or nonchecking. A 2nd experiment demonstrated that experts’ priming does not occur for simpler but uncommon chess configurations. The authors conclude that long-term practice prompts the acquisition of visual memories of chess configurations with integrated form-location conjunctions. These perceptual chunks enable complex visual processing outside of conscious awareness.

Source: “Playing chess unconsciously” from J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn. 2009 Jan;35(1):292-8.

Here I addressed Malcolm Gladwell’s claim in “Outliers” that genius is all about hard work, with chess players as the example.

Gladwell also wrote the bestseller “Blink” which I highly recommend. If you like this blog, you’ll probably like that book.

Related posts:

Are women innately inferior to men at playing chess?

Does playing chess make you more rational?

Scary dreams? The solution might just be video games

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