Facing Victory: Inside the Brain of a Chess Champion

April 19, 2015

 

Susan Polgar is considered a chess genius; at 21, she was the first woman in the world to become a Grandmaster. Her chess skills are so extraordinary that she can take on five competitors simultaneously—without looking at any of the chess boards. In other words, she is playing all five games in her mind.

 

On some level, this seems like it should be impossible. Playing chess relies on your working memory, that mental scratch pad that holds onto information momentarily as it passes by. And to put it bluntly, the working memory stinks. Most people's can only hold four to seven pieces of information before something gets dropped. Incidentally, this is why phone numbers have only seven digits. Even the brightest among us can get confounded by an eight number sequence.

 

If you've ever forgotten where you put your keys because you were running through a quick grocery list, you understand how it feels when information gets crossed off that metaphorical scratch pad.

 

So how does Susan Polgar do it?

 

The answer is a handy bit of neural hijacking.

 

In the back of your skull sits a part of your brain called the fusiform gyrus. Until fairly recently, scientists believed that chunk of grey matter was meant almost exclusively for facial recognition. It's where your brain stores specific faces—up to 10,000 of them—in your long-term memory.

 

The fusiform gyrus is incredible at what it does. When you sit across from your Uncle Donald at Thanksgiving, it's the fusiform gyrus that takes a read on his face, compares the image to your massive internal database of faces, and retrieves the correct identity for him. Start to finish, the process takes less than a split second. You don't even notice it's happened.

 

People who experience an injury in this region, whether through an accident or a stroke, can wind up with what's known as face blindness. Each time you see someone you know, it's like you're meeting them for the first time. You can see they have eyes and a nose and a mouth, but it means nothing to you. Until you hear their voice, they're a stranger.

 

So what does this all have to do with chess genius Susan Polgar?

 

It turns out the fusiform gyrus doesn't just register faces, it registers patterns. Faces are one kind of pattern. Pieces on a chess board are another. A chess master doesn't need to separately memorize the position of each chess piece. Instead, whether or not they realize they're doing it, they train themselves to recognize an arrangement of pieces as a single unit.

 

This is what Polgar did. Through extensive practice and repetition, she used her fusiform gyrus to build an incredible memory bank of chess configurations.

 

Most of us never take advantage of that capability. This is why scientists initially believed the fusiform gyrus to be concerned with only faces. Still, in your head right now, you carry the machinery you need to program Grandmaster chess skills of your own—assuming you're willing to put in the work.

 

If not, well, it's always nice to see Uncle Donald at Thanksgiving.

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