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[Series: Classic Learning Science] Expertise and Expert Performance in Chess

By McGraw-Hill Education 3 years agoNo Comments
Home  /  Series: Classic Learning Science  /  [Series: Classic Learning Science] Expertise and Expert Performance in Chess

How do we become experts in our field? With the number of researchers studying expertise and expert performance, it seems that is a question we all ask. Researchers study what makes an expert and how their performance is different from an amateur’s. A “founding father” in the study of expert performance is Adriaan de Groot.


Who is Adriaan de Groot?

Adriaan de Groot was born in 1914 outside of Amsterdam, and he passed away in 2006 at the age of 91. A Dutch psychologist, he taught at the University of Amsterdam from 1949 to 1979. De Groot is known for his three major works: creating a methodology for the study of psychology, creating aptitude tests that are still used in Dutch schools, and for his doctoral dissertation on thinking in chess.

His dissertation was originally published in 1946 and was translated into English as Thought and Choice in Chess in 1965. In it he explains his study of chess players and the discovery of their cognitive process. De Groot’s findings reveal “the structure and dynamics of the thought process.”


The Study

De Groot’s interest in chess players began because he was a chess player himself and accomplished enough to make the national team. He describes wanting to understand the difference between average players and grandmasters. Through his study, De Groot discovered the structure of the thought process as well as characteristics of expertise.

De Groot conducted his study of chess players from 1938 until 1943. He asked chess players of all levels to participate. His study included amateurs, masters, grandmasters, and world champions. De Groot showed each player a chess board set to a particular arrangement and asked the players to talk through their thinking and decision making as they took their turn in the game. He created multiple first moves and asked the players to tackle each one.


The Results

The study reveals a variety of results that have helped us to understand the cognitive process and have lead others to continue the studies to learn even more about expert performance.

The first result De Groot notes is masters select winning moves more often. This is perhaps the most obvious result.

The second result is both amateurs and experts go through the same process of thinking and reasoning. This is where De Groot focuses much of his attention because analyzing this process allows us to gain a deeper understanding of how expertise is gained and how our brains work.

The third result is the difference between amateurs and experts is speed. As they go through the thought process, experts see the real problem almost immediately and they are faster and more efficient as they examine the possible solutions.


The Structure of the Thought Process

The Phases of the Thought Process

Upon discovering that amateurs and experts go through the same thought process, Adriaan de Groot described the process in four steps:

  1. The Orientation Phase

In the orientation phase, the player examines the board to see where all the pieces are placed. In this phase, the chess player is evaluating the positions and determining the biggest problem. The biggest problem is where the pieces are weakest and will result in a loss. In this initial phase, the experts reveal themselves by evaluating the board very rapidly and determining the real problem almost immediately.

  1. The Exploration Phase

In the second phase, players begin exploring their options. De Groot describes this in terms of goal-setting. The chess player has two options for their move; they can move to protect a piece or move to attack the opponent’s piece. In this goal-setting phase, the player examines the pieces and determines whether offense or defense will be the best move at this point in the game.

  1. The Investigation Phase

The third phase is concrete investigation. The player has set a goal, so now he investigates the pieces and decides which can move. It is easy to see this stage in a novice, they have to think through each piece and how it moves. They investigate through thoughts like, “that pawn can move forward, but that knight has to move two squares vertically and one horizontally, so no, that doesn’t help me.”

The expert is able to move through the investigation much more rapidly. In the orientation phase, the expert already determined the main problem so they already know which pieces to focus on and their knowledge of chess allows them to rapidly investigate the possibilities for their move. The investigation phase ends with a decision for the player’s move.

  1. The Proof Phase

The proof phase tests the player’s decision. The chess player works with their move and analyzes the possible results. They work to determine what will their opponent do if they make that move, what options have they left open to the opponent, and how will that then impact their next moves. The player at this point is evaluating their decision and making sure it is best for the course of the game.

Why Does It Matter

Adriaan de Groot’s study of chess players defines the thought process that we all go through as we tackle a problem, whether it’s on a chess board or it’s a problem in some other area or discipline. When we understand the four-step process, we can choose to work through that process more deliberately in order to come to the best move for our turn.

Additionally, de Groot’s study teaches us about expert performance and expertise. His analysis shows that there is not a difference in how expert chess players approach their turn, but there is a difference in their speed. Their speed in moving through the four-step thought process is built through their knowledge and experience. They have gained competence through long years of training. They have seen the board in many different arrangements and know how they have approached that move in the past. Experts have also spent time studying what other chess players have done in certain matches or competitions, and can draw on that set of experience in addition to their own.

De Groot’s study led to a new approach to training chess players. As educators we want to ask how we can improve the training of our students so they can become experts in their discipline or field. One possible start is to help them work through the four steps of the thought process when they are faced with a problem. For the novices, the four steps will be a slow process, but as they gain experience they will also gain speed. A second possible step is to help them continue to level up by adding more experiences and more examples to their current knowledge base. For the chess players, that comes with studying other players and other matches. What does it look like for your students?

On our path to becoming experts and to helping our students become experts, how can we incorporate de Groot’s four-step thought process and his findings on expertise?

  Series: Classic Learning Science
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