A Must Read!!! ---- Part 2

Conscious memory

Regarding the extent of the relationship between opening work and general chess ability, we begin our discussion by quoting Rowson from p.83-84 (italics ours):
“You may think you are learning opening moves, but while you are consciously memorizing variations, you are also subconsciously learning new structures, feeling new squares, picking up new patterns and ideas and most of these things probably makes you stronger in a more general sense.”

There are several quite confusing and problematic issues (see italics) in this quote and to start out; there is no such thing as conscious memorizing, due to the fact that memory and cerebral activity are (subconsciously) independent of consciousness and possible acts of volition. This is the reason why people are hard pressed to explain why they forget something; their consciousness being “denied access” to the processes that makes one forget. Strictly speaking, it is not the “I” that forget but subconscious processes referred to by the pronoun me. Forgetting “on purpose” more resembles repressing or suppressing than forgetting in the strict sense. With regard to memory; nobody forgets things “on purpose”, though many of us probably are familiar with sins of omission. This means neither remembering nor forgetting are controlled by the will, or any other intentional/volitional activity, but that sins of omission are made possible because impulses already subconsciously triggered are thereupon aborted before running to action. When speaking in mentalistic terms, it is of paramount importance to distinguish the different concepts to avoid unfortunate implications later on. What might be meant by “conscious memorizing”, is that one is (intentionally, like “desire”, or “urge”, not necessarily involving some kind of volition,) set on remembering what is read, that one entertains a wish to remember what is studied, however, memory works differently and independently of these kind of mental acts. Purporting that memory is conscious, has some rather serious implications, which Rowson seems to be unaware of. Consciousness is often confused with will, as are desires and urges as well. Contrary to urges and desires, acts of volition are often associated with an agent, who, out of nowhere, is able to act on purpose or intention, implying that if there is something we should remember (opening theory, our loved ones‟ birthdays etc.) there would be no reasons, not to.
World class chess players are said to have a strong memory but there seems to be no reason to assume that they are more “conscious”, in the sense of being stronger willed to remember, than lesser blessed wood-pushers. Differently put, chess players, irrespective of strength, have the same “level” or “amount” of consciousness, which again, is different from “presence of mind”. A certain Fischer, for example, was renowned for his memory, writing down all of his 22 blitz games at Herceg-Novi in 1970 after playing, and this has nothing to do with him “wanting” to remember, for natural reasons, the games “stuck” in his memory.
There are, of course, different memory “tricks”, which in their turn, paradoxically enough, also must be remembered, like making up a story or a line of associations, of the things one are to remember, like shopping lists or names, but when it comes to remembering chess theory, main lines, subvariations, all their ramifications, different structures etc. these are simply too ineffective to work properly.
Memory and the ability to remember are subconscious and take place regardless of our knowing, i.e. consciousness. If memory were conscious, there would be no reason as to why we would have problems remembering our analyses, preparations, openings or the whole  series of Informators, Yearbooks, magazines as well, since “conscious memory” plays on the analogy of a computer, consisting of different partitions with files which our RAM, i.e. conscious (short term) memory, would easily enough access, which is not the case. If memory were conscious, chess playing and acquisition of chess skills would partly be reduced to a mechanic exercise, where the only thing to do was at will to load the memory with chess “stuff” which we thereafter would access “downloading” the relevant files. Also, memory tends to fade with age, which would not be a problem if memory were based on acts of volition, since we at our own will, could reproduce any chess material whatsoever.
However, we know just too well that repeated studies is necessary to remember games, variations, lines, fragments, themes, bits and piece etc. Very rarely do things immediately stick to memory no matter how strongly we want to remember it all the very first time. So, our first conclusion is that memory works subconsciously.

Acquisition of Chess Skills

Moving forward, regarding development of chess ability, Rowson (p.84) goes on to explain Karjakin’s and Magnus Carlsen’s acquisition of chess skill more by their exposure to games, positions, structures etc. than innate talent or ability, which, incidentally, also is in accord with the pedagogic spirit of the times, underestimating the significance of inborn talent.
Karjakin and Magnus’ talent (i.e. their brains’ ability to absorb and assimilate what it is exposed to) plays a far greater role than Rowson seems to admit. Without the ability to absorb or assimilate what one is exposed to, it does not matter how much or how many times one is exposed to different games, structures etc. Rowson’s point of view reduces chess learning to a rather mechanical exercise and also implies that far more players far more easily would become far stronger than is actually the case, simply by being exposed to chess material. If Rowson is correct, we would be hard pressed to explain how younger players come to be stronger than older ones with far more experience and having had the time to assimilate and absorb infinitely more chess than young prodigies. True, work can do much, but without talent one will forever sing the song of mediocrity. What characterizes talent is a certain ability or capacity to much better exploit, apply and take advantage of a smaller amount of material than lesser gifted players might. Talent is extremely effective use of presented material, and this is why both Karjakin and Magnus are as strong as they are at such a tender  age. What characterizes talent, prodigies and whiz kids, is the ability to absorb and assimilate material amazingly fast upon which the brain generalizes and then produces one brilliant move after another, which is impossible to explain if exposure to chess was the main component. Differently put: full conscious transparency with unlimited access to information would seem to render talent superfluous and unnecessary. Rowson is right when quoted as saying “probably” since nobody knows or has not even the remotest idea about how the brain generalizes or processes the absorbed material for the simple reason that consciousness is “denied access” to these inner processes.

Who is Doing the Playing?

Research (Kornhuber, Deecke et.al) showed that thinking, generally and more specifically, is independent of consciousness and acts of volition (not be confused with wishes, urges and desires) and that most of the information passing through our central nervous system is subconscious but we might be able to direct our attention or awareness. The thinking processes, the material and the preparation themselves are all subconscious, i.e. outside our conscious control, with the implication that we cannot think “what we want”, and having access only to the results of these processes (Julian Jaynes &William James). The brain silently works in the background feeding our consciousness with different suggestions, some good, others bad, some brilliant, others just horrible, which is the task of consciousness to keep or to discard. Our brain per se has no notion of quality, consciousness does, which means that chess playing (and human activities in general) is left in the hands of the fine-tuned interplay between conscious and subconscious processes; knowing what to keep and what to dispatch among all the suggestions, whims and ideas the brain comes up with. If this were not the case, we could conjure up brilliances in all walks of life, thinking brilliant thoughts solving all our problems, on and off the board, simply by acts of volition.
Most of the time when playing, consciousness is not involved at all. If chess playing were conscious, as a logical implication, with all information readily accessible through the eyes that sees the board and the memorizing of chess material and since we would clearly know when we were about to make a bad move or blunder, we would never make mistakes since no-one on purpose, intentionally or wilfully, blunders. Why would they? Simply by acts of volition, we could decide to play the best moves as we would have full overview of what is going on since consciousness is transparent, and the position on the board is there for everyone to see. However, this is not the case as consciousness never triggers moves, the brain does. So, when does consciousness arrive, we hear you ask, since you obviously are aware that you are playing a game of chess. Well, consciousness, humming away in the background, might be said to function as a “blunder-check”, to use Fritz lingua, quite lightly monitoring our play before making a move, making sure that no pieces are left hanging or put en prise.
Of paramount importance is to recognise the corollary of thinking being subconscious as this seems to undermine the notion and understanding not only of who is doing the playing but also how this playing is explained.
Traditionally, chess games are explained and moves attempted justified in the analyses after the game where the players try to give reasons or motifs for their choice of moves and this is usually the order of the day; moves first played – and then explained.
In the light of our new knowledge, doesn’t this strike you as rather peculiar? Strictly speaking, we would think it should be the other way around; first we explain why certain moves are to be played and then the brain triggers the requested moves, right? If we could have an ongoing discussion with ourselves during a game (silently!), explaining what moves to play and which to avoid, we would never make bad, neither dubious moves nor even blunders, why would we? If we could give perfectly viable and reasonable explanations for every move we make, why would our brain then not produce or come up with moves best fitting the explanation? The Russian proverb; “We are all satisfied with our reason, but not with our position”, captures this apparent paradox nicely. Still, our experience is that we quite often make weak moves and even blunder from time to time.
A problem with our current everyday understanding is that consciousness does not create its own content and therefore needs a source to feed it something it can relate to. The brain is this source and consciousness might then conjure or concoct explanations to moves after being triggered, while logically speaking, the explanation for moves should come first, making chess the rational game it is perceived to be. The brain does actually not need to be able to articulate why certain moves are to be preferred or triggered, the sheer ability to produce moves based on experience and knowledge suffices. In blitz and rapid games, where consciousness is almost absent, these kind of games are merely perception and intuition, this is even more apparent since there is no time during play to ponder possible explanations before a move is to be triggered.

Who is blundering?

A “blunder” might be perceived as some sort of spontaneously ill-conceived move- suggestions, impulses to moves which would be detrimental to one’s position if not aborted before running to action. However, we are not talking about strategically weak moves on a general level, like misplacing a piece, which might occur due to lack of general chess ability and understanding. What we are talking about, are moves seemingly, literally, occurring out of nowhere, so to speak, moves there apparently are no sensible reasons to play. The key question is; if consciousness does not do the playing, then, who does the blundering? Someone or something must be responsible for players blundering, and who or what part of us might that be?
As mentioned earlier, a light consciousness monitors while playing, whereas full consciousness announces itself the moment a chess player blunders, which his/her body language just too well illustrates. Note the order; we never encounter players saying in advance that “in ten moves I will blunder my Rook on c5”. On the other hand, how often do we not hear about the ones that actually did blunder their Rook on c5 and THEN became aware of it? We have seen them, haven’t we? The howlers? Even super-GMs commit them. All of us commit or make blunders, but some seem more prone or liable than others. (No names being mentioned to protect the innocent) So, what are blunders and how to explain them, since nobody blunders on purpose? We have seen them, haven’t we? The amateurs and professionals alike in the aftermath of a game, trying to explain their blunder, shaking their heads in disbelief, scratching their brows, sighing while desperately trying to come up with a rational explanation.
This time, only briefly can we touch upon the “whys” and the “hows” of blunders but as a general pointer, we might say that blunders occur due to lack of interplay between brain and consciousness and seem to have only three possible explanations:
1) Taking in only parts of the position due to lack of adequate vision, focussing only on certain parts of the board.
2) We take in the whole position but something happens while processing the material resulting in apparently spontaneous and inexplicable blunders.
3) Even when seeing the whole board, our brain does not take it all in.
The first explanation might be the most clear-cut, implying that inadequate focus is lack of information and thus absence of interplay between the brain and a conscious mind able to abort the impulse before running to blunder, i.e. action. Your brain has not informed you that Rc5 is or will be hanging, you don’t see it and thus blunder. Had you been informed, you would have seen it, and perhaps be able to stop or abort the impulse before blundering.
Mistakes in this department might be caused both due to fatigue but also due to lack of general chess ability and experience. Differently put: this kind of mistakes might also strike quite strong GMs as well, but still to a lesser degree than amateurs and having more to do with GMs being humans than GMs. GMs might fall victim to this kind of blunders due to fatigue rather than lack of proficiency, while amateurs might suffer from it both because of fatigue and lack of chess skills.
Regarding the second explanation, blunders are something we try to avoid, so if blunders have anything to do with what we take in, why would the brain process the material in such a way that it leads to blunders?
This seems to happen only if there is a problem with the “wiring”, so to speak, which is conceivable if not too frequent. An analogy might be when people say one thing and the listener hears something completely different or making highly unlikely or unreasonable interpretations of what is being said. This way of misinterpreting or misprocessing information, has nothing to do with our consciousness; we are in no position to wilfully “choose” to misinterpret or misprocess the information as the information is already misinterpreted by the “wiring” and then informs the consciousness. Consciousness does not create its own content, and its sources are either external (sense impressions) or internal (imagination). Purposefully or intentionally misinterpreting information might make for a brilliant Monty Python sketch but seems too ineffective and tiresome a way of communicating with and relating to other people, not to mention playing chess where the goal is to mate your opponent. Why would you want to cock things up for yourself?
The plot thickens when arriving at the third explanation, valid for both amateurs and professionals, raising a timely question: how it is possible to blunder when seeing the whole board with our own two eyes, right? Wrong! This reason for blundering is closely connected to our point about the order in which chess is played and explained and research shows that only a fraction of all information passing through our eyes is perceived by consciousness implying that we might see the whole board and still not perceive it. This means that there might be chunks of information your brain does not take in or misses even when your eyes physically are seeing the board. How else to explain blunders when seeing the board knowing perfectly well where the pieces can and cannot go? Amateurs and professionals literally perceive different boards even if they see the same one and a pertinent question is why? The answer is simply that the minds of professionals are trained to perceive more information when they look at positions than amateurs’ minds are. This is so since perception has nothing to do with possible acts of volition. We might direct our attention towards what we want to see, even though wanting is not conscious either, but we are in no position to control what our brain perceives as the brain works independently of what we think it should perceive, think etc. Unforced or unmotivated errors might be described as some kind of “bug” in the “system”, if not a collapse in some quantum mechanic wavelength function, at least it seems that some kind of sudden, spontaneous cerebral short circuit has taken place, and this just happens because chess playing is done subconsciously and humans are still fallible. The more exercised the brain, the more of the position it can take in, and the more is perceived, the smaller is the chance for triggering impulses leading to blunders.
Blunders happen simply because impulses prove stronger than our ability to abort them and might be said to arise due to lack of interplay between brain and consciousness. Precisely because of the interface of consciousness chess players can be held only partially responsible for their moves, although to what extent is an open question even though there is a widespread misconception of chess being a game without “luck”. In this respect, chess might be said to be a game of metaphysical luck, since chess players, not being responsible for their wiring, neither can know what their brains might come up with on the next move nor if they will be able to stop themselves when about to commit a blunder or a bad move.
As long as there are factors outside our control, depending on whether they turn out to our advantage or not and as long as these factors cannot definitely be established as lack of chess ability, chess is partially a game of luck. If one blunders because of too narrow a vision, then this faculty needs to be exercised and if blundering does not depend on what is taken in, it is far more difficult to explain but still possible drastically to reduce the blunder rate.
Towards the end of the article we will discuss a foolproof method for fighting impulsiveness and blunder tendencies.

Pattern recognition or How is chess played?

Chess players, chess authors and chess psychologists attempt to explain chess playing by the concept of “pattern recognition” which at first may sound plausible. However, closer examination reveals serious conceptual problems needing to be dealt with.
We begin by addressing what might be called “functional” issues, i.e. problems linked to constructively applying the concept of “pattern recognition‟ to explain development of chess skills and chess playing. Secondly, we will have a closer look at more pure conceptual problems inherent in the notion of pattern recognition. Hopefully, we will also discover that the functional problems are closely linked to the conceptual problems (If the concept is unclear, how can it be applied?).

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