What sort of mental skills/gifts are basic to becoming a good/great chess player?

Not sure whether this belongs here or in Games. I know next to nothing about chess. I know how the pieces move, and that’s about it.

I’m putting it in CS because a friend asked me the question after she binge-watched and became fascinated by The Queen’s Gambit. Actually, she asked me if I thought she could ever learn to play chess well. I said I didn’t really know, and I don’t, but this is what I was thinking: I worked closely with her for 20-ish years, and she was not one to read and follow directions. Very challenged in the techie department. Apt to just give up and walk away from something she couldn’t figure out. But in fact I really don’t know what it takes to take to chess.

In the TV show, the heroine was the daughter of a math whiz, implying that she had a mind that could grasp math problems and solutions easily. Is that one of the mental gifts that would help someone become good or even great at chess? Is it a game of math strategy?

I told my friend that I thought it was more likely that one needed a mind that could see the big picture. Almost like a choreographer or even a chef-- someone who can see where the moving pieces need to go, when, and what order to make everything end up where you want it to.

If someone is good at bridge, would that translate to chess? Are their other games where a facility would be applicable to chess?

Logic & Math skills tend to go together and so a lot of the better chess players are indeed excellent at math. But it is hardly a requirement.

The ability to see ahead, If I do this, my opponent is most likely to do this or that or maybe this is huge.

Good Chess players tend to be good Bridge Players, less the other way around in my limited experience.

Your analogy of being able to see the big picture is pretty good. I was a mediocre player and could see a few moves ahead. A Master should be able to see far more ahead.

On that note, my main strategy was very often to keep trading off pieces to get to an end game with only a few pieces on the board. I could see further ahead this way and it was a style that disrupted a lot of other mediocre players. Against a Jr. Master I lost though.

I found Queen’s Gambit excellent.

Thinking it over, this really belongs in the Game room. I’m going to gently nudge it over.

I read that it is heavily all about the ability to read and see ahead. Most people are intuitively able to foresee, say, the next 2-3 steps, but expert players can see well over a dozen or two dozen steps ahead, and do it far more quickly than a layman (since there is a game clock.)

High level chess is a game of pattern recognition. Basic chess is a matter of learning how pieces move, basic openings and advantageous pieces to have on the board at the end of the game. Just by playing, one will improve to a point.

Intermediate players study the openings and their common responses in more detail and are aware of the basic traps, common responses and more advanced patterns. Seeing a pattern in a given game may remind them of some previous classic games. They generally attack or defend with a specific strategy in mind.

Advanced players know almost all the openings and defences and know a great deal about the few they use most often. So, to answer your question: a mixture of patience, desire, study, high pattern recognition skills, access to good books or online tutoring and access to challenging competition.

I’m sure the very best players have nearly photographic memories, at least with regards to chess.

I am an intermediate player but have a few friends who are masters. I have beaten them in casual games, but not at all often. They invest a lot more time and effort than I do, but are naturally better too - I like casual, coffeehouse chess.

We need to summon @glee, he actually taught chess for decades IRC.

As usual, I can’t write just one paragraph when I could write seventeen, so I have a lot to say and I’m not apologizing for being wordy on a text-based venue.

I used to play chess competitively and I quit about a year after I left highschool. I was rated in the mid 1400s at the time, which I guess is “pretty good for a highschool kid,” but definitely not in the “dream about getting paid,” tier. Maybe if I kept at it, but I developed other interests that were more immediately rewarding. I was practicing my chess game in various forms on a twice-a-week schedule at the time, where I had a few hours set aside for just that purpose.

I think anybody could play chess well, for loose enough values of well, depending on how much effort they wanted to invest in it. By that I mean approaching it seriously, with regimented schedules and training and exercises, and expecting good outcomes in a period measured in a few years. Now, granted, this is “well” in the “against other people who are serious about chess” sense of “well”.

Even without that, getting in regular games and not being discouraged by losses is really good for one’s mental well-being, because without a doubt, it’s a good, strong logical mental workout. The trick there is finding folks who are better, but not too much better, and being able to learn from one’s mistakes.

I’m hesitant to say “mathematics” at least in the classical sense would be useful as a skillset, but an appreciation of logical, ordered thought is definitely useful, and since mathematics also requires logical, ordered thought, they do go hand-in-hand.

A bad player just makes moves without thought.
An okay player can come with short-term goals and make moves to achieve them.
A decent player may have mid-term goals and strive to achieve those and, recognizing their goals are no longer tenable, modify those plans as they go along.

Most importantly, the first skill that distinguishes a mediocre player from an average player is discerning what your opponent might be trying to do with their own moves. At a low-ish level, you can spot an immediate attack and fortifying your position and/or counter-attack, and at higher levels, you might figure out their overall order of attack and exploit it for your own gains.

I’m not very familiar with bridge at all, but from what I gather, part of it is trying to come up with a plan of attack and, at the same time, trying to discern what your partner and opponent’s plans of attacks are and how you might best meet your goals while foiling those of your opponents.

If I’m right, that same broad skill set is enormously critical in chess, with the key difference being there is no “unknown data” to hand. All the chess pieces are obvious, while all the other bridge cards involve some measure of educated guesswork.

Any number of “strategic” board games have useful analogues in chess, frankly. I’d argue for checkers, Connect-four, Othello. I will very much argue for curling (at extremely high levels of play) being in this category.

I’m a tournament player and have some nice victories against high Experts, and I’ve coached several kids.

To be honest, it’s a lot like Rubik’s cubes and memorization games. Who can be good at it? Anyone. Seriously, anyone can be good at it with enough practice and determination. There is no innate characteristic, no gene, no special gift…and certainly no pill… that makes one a good player. It takes years of hard work, serious study, concentration, and directed effort to master the game. But anyone who can put in all of that time and energy can- CAN- be good at it.

There’s really no such thing as “seeing ahead.” Any decent player can do that. The skill comes from judging whether something is good or bad, a mistake or a brilliant move. The players that can “see farthest” are actually the ones that can prune the move tree expertly because they can reject and refute candidate moves quickly and easily. They can see many moves ahead because unlike an amateur, they can tell that certain responses are necessary, required, to maintain the game, and that their opponent will also realize that and play it. You don’t become good because you can see ahead. You can see ahead because you’ve become good.

Makes perfect sense.

Me neither. :yum:

Excellent point.

I’m a retired chess teacher. My highest ELO rating was 2390, but I’ve spent a lot of time with Grandmasters (playing against them, analysing with them and watching / commentating on their games.)

I think the previous posters have made good points.

A top chess player certainly needs to visualise ahead. (I spent a lot of time staring at blank walls until I could ‘see’ a chess board and ‘move pieces on it’. :nerd_face:)
I seriously doubt that even Kasparov or Carlsen can see 12 moves ahead in a typical middle-game position! I would reckon 3-6 moves … but that means you have seen almost everything your opponent can try in that time.
In an ending, you can see further (my record is 15 moves for each side in a King and Pawn ending - (but most of those were forced i.e. only one choice of move.)

Pattern recognition certainly applies.
The benefits of this are numerous:

  • spotting weaknesses in both side’s position (especially around their King)
  • deciding on a strategy (e.g. advance in the centre / exchange into an endgame etc.)
  • seeing a tactic (fork / pin etc.)

You need patience for several reasons:

  • top players do a lot of studying (e.g. their openings / endgame techniques / opponent’s games)
  • to avoid premature attacks
  • to turn a slight advantage into a win (especially in an endgame)

Memory certainly matters. Note that this is not rote learning, but understanding the process. (You need to cope when your opponent does something unexpected…)

I would add that concentration is essential (a single international tournament game can last for hours.)

You also need to be honest with yourself. For example, if you had a very good position, but are now not playing well, you may want to switch your ambition to holding the draw rather than being too optimistic.

I think that logic, pattern recognition, concentration and honesty also apply in mathematics + computing, so some chess players are skilled in these areas too.

I hope that helps - do ask me more. :sunglasses:

P.S. I should add that when I reached 2390 (and won a national chess title), I had an amusing conversation with Grandmaster Nunn (a world-class player and decent chap.)
“Seriously, glee” he said “Nobody rated below 2400 understands chess.”
I was flabbergasted - but after analysing with him (and reading some high-level chess books), I had to agree. :fearful:
Yes, I can crush players rated 2000. But there is so much more to learn. Thankfully I never turned professional!

Terrible pattern recognition and lack of the ability to think ahead are why I can’t play chess. I can’t win at checkers, either.

@glee, thanks! Very informative.

Do you manifest excellent visualization skills in other areas, too, such as map reading, knowing how furniture is going to fit in a room, reading architectural plans, doing layouts of one sort or another?

At any point in chess playing does some combo of mental & muscle memory come into it? For example, in piano playing or guitar playing after a while there are some basic positions that the fingers just move to almost automatically while playing a piece. I don’t mean that chess playing is like learning a piece on the piano, but that some of the opening moves are well known by both players-- like a dance. And then as you get farther into the game you move into new territory and take if off auto-pilot. Is that anything like what happens? Hope you can decipher my question.

When the players get close to the end of the game, I’m fascinated when one of them says something like, “Mate in 15” and the game is over. That means that there is no way for the OP to salvage a win-- how can you foresee the inevitability of their defeat that far ahead? :astonished:

No one can see mate that far in advance, because the moves of the opponent are usually relevant.

In a tournament game, expert players will already likely have a very good understanding of the opening, most of the common and rarer variations, and the common defences and those variations. Possibly the first ten moves by each player follow well-worn paths, though this number could vary quite a bit.

It’s been years since I played bridge. A lot of it is knowing conventions IIRC, with perhaps only mild to moderate skill transfer to chess.

I’ll just throw in a few random comments, FWIW. The OP poses a really great question. Today we have fantastic chess programs that can now play at a grandmaster level. We (humankind) created these programs, and yet we still don’t know the answer to the question. The reason these programs are so good, in a nutshell, is that they are a massive body of heuristics – a huge mish-mash of things that have been found to work well, rather than any singular particular achievement or algorithm. It has certainly helped that very fast computers have much greater width and depth of look-ahead than was ever possible before, but that’s only part of the answer.

I myself am quite a poor chess player, even though I manage some other intellectual feats of some moderate scope. I have no idea why. I have the memory capacity, the processing capability, yet I just can’t grasp the “big picture” to play decent chess.

One thing that may be of interest to some is Wolfpup’s Great Computer Chess Competition that I posted some time ago. It’s probably far more interesting to me and perhaps similar old farts in the comp sci business than to others, but it’s a match between the first really good and very famous chess program from the 60s, and a chess program that I have on my humble Amazon Fire tablet. The latter is called Shredder, and is quite well rated as a PC program. Anyway, the bottom line is that Shredder, on the humble tablet, beat the pants off what was once regarded as a magnificent mainframe computer chess program and a shining example of artificial intelligence.

I have to add also that I really love Shredder, because ironically it’s the only modern computer chess program that I can actually beat. That’s because it has a mode where it assesses your playing skill and it can fall back to handicapping itself to playing at about your level, including making stupid mistakes. It even has the audacity to rate my skill, which currently stands at 1505 Elo for all games played, and 1556 for the last 10 games (hey, I was rusty, and am improving!). But both scores are pretty poor, about two notches up from “novice”. But yet at the same time, if you crank up its playing skill, this thing can beat renowned venerable chess programs like MacHack, which was known for its aggressive tactics and often quick wins.

Anyway, just some random thoughts. I’m fascinated by chess and forever bummed out about my poor skills at it.

Can’t speak for glee, but I can certainly read maps better than some folks I know (cuz, really, how often do you compare map reading skills with…anyone?). I haven’t a clue how I rank with the other skills.

But interestingly, it’s been said that chess players excel at geography. Capital cities, bordering countries, that sort of thing. Don’t know if there’s any truth to that, but it’s been claimed.

Most definitely. This is all the pattern recognition stuff glee and others mentioned. Not only are my openings memorized, but the notation is too. I could recite the moves without even thinking about what the words mean, just like you can sing a song you know while completely distracted, without really thinking about the words you’re saying.
Even certain endings are like that. K+P vs. K, for instance, or Philidor’s Mate for another. It’s almost automatic. I’d say that most of chess is mental “muscle memory.”

They only say that on TV. In a real game, someone just resigns because they know the chess has already been played and the only remaining moves are kid stuff. Literal kid stuff, like stuff we all learned at 6 or 7 years old. My 4-year-old can mate with queen and king, and that’s like 15 moves, so we adults don’t bother play that out. Why? We have better things to do in our lives, like…go over the game with each other. It’s not like in baseball where there’s always a chance to come back. Often there really is no chance, and we don’t need to spend 30 minutes at the board proving it.

These are some great, thought-provoking answers, y’all. Thanks!

@wolfpup there is an episode of Endeavour called Game that features a mid-1960s mainframe computer playing chess. It takes 40 minutes to make a move, but ultimately it defeats the Russian. The advances in only a (to me) few years is incredible.

@glee, what was/is your regular day job? Or was it teaching chess?

FWIW, I’m an excellent map reader and always know where the cardinal directions are. Have problems with right and left though.

Have you watched Queen’s Gambit? The protagonist in that series exhibited a very similar trait.

I am also an excellent map reader and always know my directions and like geography. But I’m not much better than mediocre at chess.

If you meet enough International- and Grand-Masters, you realize there isn’t a single personality trait that defines a good chessplayer. They may lead lives just as sloppy and bad decision prone as we peons.

I think the mental qualities that are needed to become a good player are: good memory, strong abstract thinking, and ability to focus on a single task for long periods of time.

It also helps to be highly competitive. You have to be willing to spend time in a high stress, mentally exhausting situation. If you aren’t, you may have the mind needed, but plateau as a player at a level where the stress and mental energy required are more tolerable.

I don’t have any special visualisation skills in other areas apart from chess.

I was fascinated by chess as a kid, taught myself out of a book and decided to try to be really good at it. Early on it was clear that being able to analyse ahead in my mind was vital, so I set about doing that.
(I’s probably relevant that I have Asperger’s Syndrome, so to find a logical pursuit that requires zero social skills was very satisfying.)

Certainly pattern recognition (a mental equivalent of muscle memory!) helps enormously in chess.
Swiftly spotting tactics or knowing that a particular ending is a forced win saves a lot of time and effort.
N.B. Top players don’t memorise openings - they do know what the standard moves are, but they also understand what is happening. So when an opponent deviates (either good or bad), they know how to react.

I don’t completely agree with Chessic_Sense that most of chess is pattern recognition. Yes, when your opponent moves, your ‘pattern recognition’ immediately starts suggesting good candidate moves. But those moves all have to be analysed - and that’s a lot of work.

Chessic_Sense is spot on that saying “mate in 15” is pure Hollywood. :frowning_face:
A player will resign when the end is nigh - but it’s up to them to do so.
You are not allowed to distract, worry or annoy your opponent at chess, so saying anything (apart from offering a draw) is verboten!

I remember the first time I played a Grandmaster. I was rather nervous so I announced “check”. :flushed:
After the game, his first words were “Never say check, especially to a Grandmaster. We know it is!!”

I haven’t seen ‘Queens Gambit’ yet - but look forward to it. I’ve read the book.

I did have an incredible day job. I taught chess, roleplaying and computer games at a private boarding school. :heart_eyes: :nerd_face: :sunglasses:
I was employed as a chess teacher, but boarding schools need to keep pupils occupied outside regular lesson hours.
So they asked me to run something as an afternoon activity (= computer games such as ‘Heroes of Might and Magic’) and weekends (= Dungeons and Dragons 1st Edition.)
What a wonderful life!